Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University


Anger with God and Man: The Social Contexts of Melibee's Anger

John L. Griffith

Among modern readers, the Tale of Melibee has more detractors than admirers, and some critics find it an uninspired reproduction of a moral treatise or a satire on such lengthy works.1 The multitude of contradictions does pose an obstacle to uncovering in the tale a clear ethical or political message about anger or any other topic. As Ruth Waterhouse and Gwen Griffiths’ close reading of the competing claims made by Prudence demonstrates, the text can seem at times to deconstruct itself and leave the reader to conclude that "as a moral lesson, the tale’s ‘sentens’/signification is finally indeterminable" (339). But as Judith Ferster argues, such contradictions follow rather than satirize the tradition of the Secretum Secretorum and the Furstenspeigel (or mirror for princes) genre (93). To Ferster’s argument that the contradictions are themselves the topic of Chaucer’s political commentary, I would add that the contradictions–the convoluted discourse itself–are also integral to the ethical component of the tale and, in particular, to Chaucer’s serious engagement with the problem of anger. I will attempt to make sense of Prudence’s statements about anger, as I think that Chaucer, like most medieval thinkers, sought a measure of guidance from the textual, epigrammatic, and proverbial sources favored by Prudence. But if the sum of her arguments is ultimately inconclusive, we should observe that the process of dialogue itself imposes a change upon the angry Melibee. What Prudence says is often less important than the effect her saying it has on Melibee’s sense of himself and his anger.

Of those readers like Judith Ferster and Lynn Staley who consider it a successful tale, in the sense of offering intelligible and useful advice, many observe its significance as political allegory and the relevance it would have had for the reign of Richard II.2 Although I would agree the tale can be read in the light of Ricardian politics, in the following discussion I bracket the political context (the specific tensions and angers that threatened to destabilize the Ricardian administration) of the Melibee, in order to focus on Melibee as an angry (rather than a political) being and on the more universal ethical applications of the tale.3

Prudence’s anger management

Bereft of his daughter, Melibee "lyk a mad man rentynge his clothes, gan to wepe and crie" (973).4 The line between grief and anger is an uncertain one, a mad state in which the dominant passion is difficult to discern; the image of the rent clothes is as common to the iconography of anger as to grief, as is the inarticulate cry. Medieval iconography of anger was heavily influenced by the image of Anger committing suicide in Prudentius’s Psychomachia. There are also numerous images of Anger as a woman pulling hair and rending clothes, of which Giotto’s fourteenth-century frieze at Padua is a compelling example.5 The Canterbury Tales seems to draw on both traditions: while Chaucer’s work largely views anger as self-destructive and foolish (the Prudentian image), it has sympathy for angry people torn (and tearing themselves and others) on the borderline between anger and grief.

Yet Melibee proves to be more than a stock figure of either grief or anger; or rather, while he exhibits all the familiar physical and verbal signs of anger, our understanding of him is complicated by the narrative in which he exists. He is more complex than the allegorical figures of anger one finds in Guillame de Guileville's Le Pelegrinage de la Vie Humaine, for example, because Chaucer’s tale explores the social context of Melibee’s anger, specifically the way in which an individual’s anger originates, operates, and resolves itself in relation to many other individuals and many other angers: "And by the manere of his speche it semed that in herte he baar a crueel ire, redy to doon vengeaunce upon his foes, and sodeynly desired that the werre shold begynne; / but natheless, yet axed he hire conseil upon this matiere" ("And by the manner of his speech it seemed that in his heart he bore a cruel anger, ready to exact vengeance upon his foes, and desired that the war should begin; / nonetheless, he asked them [his advisors] for their counsel upon the matter"; 1009-1010). Even in the initial heat of his anger, Melibee finds that it is not his own, and that it is subject to social convention. Then having received the council’s perfunctory consent, Melibee encounters the opposition of Prudence, who outlines all the other social implications of revenge that Melibee, as a private individual focused on his own desire for revenge, is reluctant to hear. This initial debate traces the lines of tension in society, observing the oppositions which create the potential for anger and for social disorder: youth and age; masculine and feminine; friend and foe.

In some ways it is the opposition of husband and wife which most taxes Melibee, more so even than the rivalry with his political enemies. Though Prudence relies heavily on scholastic and patristic material, her speeches amount to more than a sermon. The abstractions and proverbs are complicated by the narrative in which they are placed. While Prudence can be read as an allegorical figure–Prudence advising a prince on how to regain his lost wisdom, Sophia–she is also a character with a special narrative relation to Melibee. It is arguably her position as Melibee’s wife, a social relation she pointedly reminds him his anger must negotiate, which changes the course of their dialogue:

"A," quod Melibee, "now se I wel that ye loven nat my honour ne my worshipe." (1681)

Thanne bigan dame Prudence to maken semblant of wratthe and seyde: / "Certes, sire, sauf youre grace, I love youre honour and youre profit as I do myn ownene, and evere have doon; / ne ye, ne noon oother, seyn nevere the contrarie. . . . . Yet seye I nat that ye shul rather pursue to youre adversaries for pees than they shuln to yow. / For I knowe wel that ye been so hard-herted that ye wol do no thing for me." (1687-1695)

Whanne Melibee hadde herd dame Prudence maken semblant of wratthe, he seyde in this wise: / "Dame, I prey yow that ye be nat displesed of thynges that I seye, / for ye knowe wel that I am angry and wrooth, and that is no wonder; / and they that been wrothe witen nat wel what they don ne what they seyn. . . . And if ye repreve me of my folye, I am the moore holden to love yow and to preyse yow." (1697-1703)

"Ah, " said Melibee, "now I see clearly that you love neither my honor nor my good name. " (1681)

Then Lady Prudence began to appear angry and said, / "Certainly, sire, with all due respect, I love your honor and your success as I do my own, and always have done; / neither you, nor any other person, will ever say the contrary. . . . However, I will not say that you should offer peace to your adversaries before they offer it to you. / For I know well that you are so hard-hearted that you will not do anything because of what I say. " (1687-1695)

When Melibee had heard Lady Prudence's anger, he said: "I pray that you not be displeased by the things I say, / for you know well that I am angry and full of rage, and that is no wonder; / and people who are angry know neither what they do or say. . . . And if you reprove me for my foolishness, I have all the more cause to love you and to praise you. " (1697-1703)

The exchange works as allegory or as a dialogue between two anonymous characters, but it has too the character of a fabliau husband and wife argument. "Ye wol do no thing for me" is a line which has the general meaning of "nothing you do will be because of any argument I have made" [for/on account of me], but spoken by a wife to a husband, it carries an element of a personal rebuke: "you won’t do anything for me because I don’t matter and you do not love me."

Prudence guilts Melibee into adopting her position, and the guilt has both a rational and non-rational basis. Reason may indicate to Melibee the logical merits are on her side, but witnessing her anger makes him realize the effect his anger can have on those around him; regardless of the truth-value of her argument, he does not wish to make her angry, either because he loves her or, a trace of the fabliau husband in him, is afraid of her anger, and from that point on proves far more malleable, her anger having altered him in a significant way. Where appeals to the consequences for his people make only limited inroads on his position, the reminder that he is not an isolated individual but a husband, participating in the narrative of her life as well as his own, repositions his focus and broadens his perspective, his anger diffusing in the space of that broader perspective. He begins to see himself again as more than a man with a vendetta, but a man with social connections, public and intimate.

I observe the importance of the narrative context of Melibee–the effect of its being a story about a husband and wife–because it is a context that can be overlooked. Aside from the tales of the Parson and Monk, no other Canterbury tale seems less like a story. Like the Parson's tale, it seems more of a sermon or moral treatise, a "tretys lyte" (a "light treatise") as the pilgrim Chaucer calls it (963). Yet though his source is a thirteenth-century treatise by Albert of Brescia, we should take seriously the pilgrim's next remark, namely, that he has written a "murye tale" ("a pleasant tale"; 964). By placing the Melibee material within the framework of the other pilgrim tales, Chaucer radically changes the context in which such material is to be read. For Albert, a lawyer composing a treatise for his sons' moral education, and his audience, the material works largely as a collection of epigrammatic advice which the characters of Prudence and Melibee help to organize. By offering the material as a tale in a collection of tales, Chaucer, though still using the same structure, imagines the possibility of inverting the relationship: the epigrammatic advice is now the means to navigate the story of two characters, Prudence and Melibee. If the initial plot is one of the simplest on the pilgrimage–a prince’s daughter is slain by his enemies and he seeks vengeance–Chaucer’s Prudence manages to transform it into one of the most complicated tales. When the story is about to end with Melibee taking revenge on his enemies, having received the council’s permission, Prudence extends the tale by engaging Melibee in a long and complicated dialogue which produces an alternative ending.

In the remainder of my discussion of the tale, I analyze a number of the key points Prudence makes, but it can be argued that Melibee’s transformation is due in large part to Prudence’s manipulation of time and perspective, irrespective of the ethical and logical arguments she offers. That transformative moment when Melibee realizes he has angered her is quite strange and quite powerful, and cannot be attributed solely to the persuasiveness of her discourse. Melibee's anger is subdued by a combination of logical discourse and an emotional reminder of his human connections–his place in a larger society and hence the consequences of his actions and feelings upon others–with particular respect to the individual closest to him, his wife Prudence.

When we approach the tale as a tale of anger, we avoid measuring the "success" of the tale, as do many modern readings of the Melibee, strictly in terms of its generic inventiveness or logical coherence; whether or not the tale ultimately provides explicit, practicable advice about either individual or political anger, Prudence is "successful" in that the anger which grips Melibee at the beginning of their dialogue has been modified by its end. Prudence’s discourse of contradiction and multiple perspectives contributes directly to the management of Melibee’s anger: manipulating, modifying, redirecting. We will see that the change she orchestrates is not perfect, since Melibee does not achieve an ideal state of patience, and the ambiguous end of the tale hints at angers still within him. Yet however imperfect the outcome, the conversation of Prudence and Melibee allows Chaucer to explore the possibility of regulating anger through the manipulation of perspective which redirects anger from one object to another.

The tale finds its antidote for anger in the very dialogue concerning the social context of anger, for it is both what Prudence says and how she says it that effect a change in Melibee. With the complex discussion of anger’s consequences she engages his reason, and with the sheer length of the narrative she extends time and so stretches Melibee’s perspective on his situation. Language itself, the very immersion of Melibee in dialogue, proves to be one of Prudence’s surest weapons in restoring to Melibee what she believes is the proper perspective on the relation between his anger and his responsibility to the community. The "soporific effect upon an audience" reported by many readers engaging with the "truly tedious surface level" of the tale is, I think, the consequence of more than a clash of medieval and modern tastes for lengthy sermons (Waterhouse 338). That modern feeling of boredom in the reader has a parallel in Melibee, though he is a participant too interested in events to be bored. What may work as a soporific on the reader has, on Melibee, the effect of sapping his will over the span of the discourse; as Aristotle predicted, time quiets anger and new angers soften old ones.6

Prudence’s approach is, after a fashion, a Thomist one. Chaucer’s strategy in this treatise notably differs from Aquinas’, however, in an important respect. Chaucer seems to be operating on the assumption that reason and a merciful disposition are not, in themselves, always an effective remedy for anger. Prudence appeals to reason, but her argument is not strictly logical, and at some points contradictory. Where Aquinas applies reason to analyze systematically the elements of anger in order to expose its dangers to the light of the rational mind, Chaucer’s Prudence depends more on lengthening time and perspective, and confuses Melibee with contradictions for his intellect to focus on and with multiple targets, including herself, for his anger to engage.

Reading the tale as a treatise: making sense of Prudence’s claims about anger

Notwithstanding the importance of Prudence as an individual interacting with Melibee in a complex human narrative, the Melibee cannot be analyzed solely in narrative terms, at least not if we want to probe the utility of its claims about anger, vengeance, and patience. The bulk of the text does consist of moral and logical abstract propositions for or against the application of vengeance. In some ways, the sheer number of points weakens the text as an argument. Yet to a large extent the complexity of the dialogue reflects the complexity of the problem of anger; the material has not so much been poorly organized as the subject has severely challenged, if not defeated, organization. As a result, the Melibee can be read in a number of ways, depending on which propositions the reader focuses on. To impose a measure of order on Prudence's argument, I consider a few of her key points which place Melibee's anger in a social context. I am particularly interested in whether her moral arguments can be reconciled with her appeal to enlightened self-interest, and so serve as a model for anger management or an ethics of anger for the individual operating in a community he wishes to preserve.

At one point Prudence claims Melibee cannot seek vengeance because he is unworthy to judge; at another, she concedes he may have cause, but that strategic considerations might render his target unattainable, if his enemies prove stronger than he. She can thus appear the voice of diverse segments on the political and ethical spectrum, depending on which passages one chooses to emphasize: those which appeal to Melibee's sense of strategy or those which appeal to his sense of morality. But inconsistent as her arguments can seem, each of Prudence's tactics returns to a central problem which preoccupies Chaucer: is Melibee's obligation to himself or to those around him; does the trespass concern himself alone or the whole society?

The wise old counselor's caution to Melibee contains the clearest statement of the text's opposition to vengeance on social grounds. The problem with anger, he argues, is that few foresee the extended consequences of the war it generates: "Ther is ful many a man that crieth ‘Werre, werre!’ that woot ful litel what werre amounteth" ("There is many a man who cries, 'War, war!' who knows little about what war amounts to"; 1038). War is easily entered, but "certes what ende that shal therof bifalle, it is nat light to knowe" ("certainly, what the end result of war will be is not easy to know"; 1040), and the consequences for the society as a whole can prove extensive: "Whan that werre is ones bigonne, ther is ful many a child unborn of his mooder that shal sterve yong by cause of thilke werre, or elles lyve in sorwe and dye in wrecchednesse" ("When war is once begun, there is many a child yet unborn of his mother who will starve young because of that war, or else live in sorrow and die in wretchedness"; 1041). To her list of reasons why a man who seeks his own counsel should avoid anger, Prudence adds the warning that his angry words will infect others with anger: "and with his viciouse wordes he [the angry man] stireth oother folk to anger and to ire" (1128). The use of the word "stireth" here calls our attention to the nature of anger as a passion in an interesting way; the movement of anger affecting the soul of the individual in turn moves out into the community to stir up others, leaving us with an image of a passion moving through and altering the collective spirit of a community. Prudence is perhaps thinking both of friends Melibee will inspire to his cause and of his enemies, envisaging the endless cycle of violence which anger can perpetuate: "This wrong which that is doon to thee is engendred of the hate of thyne enemys, / and of the vengeance-takynge upon that wolde engendre another vengeance, and muchel sorwe and wastynge of richesses, as I seyde" ("This wrong which is done to you is born of your enemies' hate, and of the vengeance-taking that leads to further vengeance, and to much sorrow and wasting of wealth, as I said"; 1391-1392).

Here, as elsewhere, Prudence is notably less demonstrative than the wise old counselors, again appealing to strategic, in this case economic, considerations rather than to a consideration of the human and personal consequences of vengeance. Yet though she does not invoke images of motherless or suffering children, the implication of her argument is that the community's as well as Melibee's physical and economic well-being are at stake. For she reminds Melibee of his place in society, arguing that even if he had cause and power, he has no right to seek vengeance outside the context of the community's laws:

And if so be that thou be in doute wheither thou mayst parfourne a thing or noon, chese rather to suffer than bigynne. / And Piers Alphonce seith, ‘If thou hast might to doon a thing of which thou most repente, it is better "nay" than "ye."’ (1218)

If ye wol thanne take vengeance of youre enemys, ye shul retourne or have youre recours to the juge that hath the jurisdiccion upon hem. (1442)

And if you are in doubt as to whether you have the right to perform a thing or not, choose rather to wait than to act. / As Peter Alphonce says, ‘If you have the power to do something which you must later repent, it is better to say "no" than "yes. "’ (1218)

If you desire to take vengeance upon your enemies, you should turn over power to and seek recourse from the judge who has jurisdiction over them. (1442)

Although in most cases Prudence seems to value social stability over the individual's right to vengeance, we should observe that she does not ever resolve the central problem of how to distinguish between just and unjust anger, selfish and needful vengeance. At a number of points she acknowledges Melibee's counter-arguments in defense of vengeance and of war (1345-1347); prudence is in some sense a neutral power, in that it is necessary both to avoid unnecessary war and prosecute a necessary one. If she guides Melibee toward a peaceful resolution, it is not so much because she opposes war on principle, as because she finds his particular motives for revenge to be personal and selfish, lacking a social context. She attempts to reintegrate Melibee, whose anger causes him to act as an isolated individual, into the community.

For an ethical individual, then, operating in a community he wishes to preserve, there does seem a measure of sense in Prudence’s mixed appeal both to morality and to enlightened self-interest. She helps to avert a war, and the consequence of her intervention seems to have no substantial cost for others in Melibee’s community. Aquinas would probably approve as Prudence follows an essentially Thomist position in accord with medieval theories of just war.

Again, though, Chaucer’s text resists the rational closure of a Thomist reading. If Prudence offers effective anger management strategies for preservation of the community, she arguably fails to deal effectively with Melibee's sense of his rights as an individual, and his right to anger and to justice. In purely political or social-ethical terms, the issue of Melibee’s personal feelings is irrelevant; but the narrative shows that even in accepting the political ideal, some anger remains in Melibee the individual, precisely because it is an ideal and an abstraction that does not take into account the personal element of human anger. On this point we see the distinction between the Prudence character and Chaucer. Prudence does offer valuable advice, and there is no reason to assume her claims are being ironized, even if the tale were, as some critics suggest, a joke about lengthy moral treatises. But Chaucer is more informed than Prudence, and his handling of the end of the tale recognizes the limits, the imperfection, of her claims. The failure of Prudence to "conquer" anger is reflected in Melibee's troubled relation to God and in the ambiguous ending of that thread of the tale.

Melibee's anger with God

Melibee is not just isolated from his wife, the members of his community, or its law; he also cuts himself off from the divine principle behind that law. In directing Melibee’s attention to the social context in which his anger operates, Prudence exposes at the same time the private context of Melibee's anger, an anger which colors his relationship with God. Melibee betrays the depth of his anger when he continues to resist the logic of her arguments regarding anger and society, and Prudence senses that the power of his feeling stems from the fact that his rage extends beyond the men who violated his daughter:

"The fer cause is almighty God, that is cause of alle thynges. . . . Now, sire, if men wolde axe me why that God suffred men to do yow this vileynye, certes, I kan nat wel answere, as for no soothfastnesse. . . . The juggementz of oure Lord God almighty been ful depe; / there may no man comprehende ne serchen hem suffisantly." (1396-1407)

Thanne dame Prudence discovered al hir wyl to hym and seyde, / "I conseille yow," quod she, "aboven alle thynges, that ye make pees bitwene God and yow, / and beth reconciled unto hym and to his grace. / For, as I have seyd yow heer biforn, God hath suffred yow to have this tribulacioun and disese for your synnes." (1713-1716)

"The far cause is almighty God, who is the cause of all things. . . . Now, sire, if men should ask me why God allowed those men to commit this terrible crime against you, in truth I could not answer them. . . . The judgements of God are very mysterious; / no man may comprehend them fully." (1396-1407)

Then Lady Prudence revealed her will to him and said, / "I counsel you," she said, "above all things to make peace between God and you, and to be reconciled to Him and to His grace. / For, as I have told you before, God caused you to undergo this trial and this pain because of your sins." (1713-1716).

The violation itself, the fact of Sophia’s suffering, is the ultimate focus of Melibee’s anger, according to Prudence. The ultimate cause of that fact is God, because such violence and such suffering are the products of the universe of which He is the divine architect.

Of all the propositions in the Melibee, Prudence's argument about Sophia suffering for Melibee's sin may be the most difficult for the audience to accept. It seems one Melibee himself is uncomfortable with. Chaucer never has him openly acknowledges the validity of Prudence’s argument about Sophia’s pain being punishment for his own sin. At line 1426 Melibee changes the subject and, though he bows to Prudence's will at line 1725, he does not comment directly on whether he will indeed reconcile himself to God for having punished him through his daughter.

Melibee's ambivalence is further suggested by his initial interpretation of the advice Prudence offers in lines 1713-1720. After encouraging Melibee to make peace with God, Prudence then suggests that if Melibee does what she says, God will send Melibee's enemies into his power. "And if ye do as I sey yow, God wol sende youre adversaries unto yow / and maken hem fallen at youre feet, redy to do youre wyl and youre comandementz" (1718). Prudence finds support for this notion in the words of Solomon: "For Salomon seith, ‘Whan the condicioun of man is plesaunt and likynge to God, / he chaungeth the hertes of the mannes adversaries and constreyneth hem to biseken hym of pees and of grace. ’" ("For Solomon says, ‘When the state of a man is pleasing to God, / He changes the hearts of the man's adversaries and compels them to seek peace and grace from the man’"; 1719-1720). Notably, however, though Prudence says that God will send Melibee's enemies to seek peace and grace from him, Melibee focuses on the first part of what she says. He looks for his enemies to come under his will and commandment; when they do, he grants small measure of either peace or grace, choosing to strip them of their goods and to exile them: "I thynke and purpose me fully / to desherite hem of al that evere they han and for to putte hem in exil for evere" ("I intend / to disinherit them of all that they ever had and to send them into exile forever"; 1835). Thus despite Prudence’s arguments about far and near causes, and despite Melibee's acquiescence after her own display of anger, Melibee’s anger finds renewed release in designing a punishment for the transgressors.

At this point in the narrative, it is not clear that Melibee has reconciled himself to either his political enemies or to God. His choice of punishment is telling. God having delivered Melibee's enemies to him, Melibee exhibits not God-like mercy, but God-like justice: as God disinherited Adam and Eve from a future in paradise and exiled them from Eden, so Melibee impoverishes and sends into exile those who transgressed against him. Unlike the exile imposed by God upon human beings, the exile designed by Melibee is "for evere," indicative of just how angry Melibee still is at this point.

Although Melibee still does not articulate a response to what Prudence has said about his anger with God, the text keeps the issue of divine anger, and anger with the divine, in view for the audience by means of the narrative's specific mention of exile as Melibee's choice of punishment. Rather than exact an eye-for-an-eye vengeance upon his enemies by injuring their family members, Melibee imposes the punishment that has been imposed by God upon him and upon all human beings: exile in a harsh world, a world where inexplicably terrible things happen, such as the suffering of Melibee's child. That is, Melibee directs his vengeance against his political enemies (the near objects of his anger) for the attack upon his daughter (the near cause of his anger). But that vengeance is modeled after the more general punishment he suffers: exile and the human suffering attendant upon life in such a world, for which God is the source, the far cause of his anger. Melibee cannot punish God, but he can arrogate the punitive measures God has used against him and wield them against those whom he is able to punish. Since, as Prudence suggests, God delivers Melibee's enemies to him in order to receive mercy, Melibee's arrogation of divine punishment both perverts and subverts God's plan and His system of justice.

This is not to suggest that Melibee is in open rebellion against God. Such a rebellion on Melibee's part is largely an unconscious or sublimated act; he is not, after all, an openly hostile apostate like Chaucer's Pardoner. In the end, of course, as one might expect in a moral treatise of this kind, the situation resolves itself peacefully as Melibee forgoes his demand for exile and the lesson seems clear enough. A prudent approach towards the dilemma of revenge helps Melibee to avoid further and perhaps more serious political problems in the future. If a prince allows himself to be governed by his faculty of prudence, his impulses can be restrained and his outlook or his actions can be changed. Less clear, however, is whether the problem of revenge is ever resolved for Melibee in personal as opposed to political terms: Melibee the father, angry with God because of the suffering of his daughter. His continued resistance to Prudence and the narrative detail of the exile indicate that the text contains within itself a measure of ambivalence about the question of divine justice and of Melibee's relationship with God.

Even the ending, which seems to promise resolution, is not without such ambivalence. Though Prudence has the exile commuted and resolves the crisis without bloodshed, it is not certain that she eradicates Melibee’s anger entirely. In the end, Melibee thanks God for sending him a wife as valuable as Prudence (1873) and praises God for His endless mercy and willingness to forgive repentant sinners their trespasses (1881-1884). Yet while Melibee says to his enemies "I . . . foryeve you" (1881), he never speaks directly to God (other than thanking Him for Prudence) or expresses his feelings about God having allowed his daughter to suffer or having used her suffering to punish him. Of course, the fact that Melibee takes Prudence's advice to heart ("his herte gan enclyne to [her] wil" [1871]) and pardons his enemies, together with his acknowledgement of God's mercy, implies that Melibee has also followed Prudence's suggestion to make some measure of peace with God. But that peace may be an uneasy one. Submitting to God's will is not the same as accepting the justness of that will; and for Melibee, realizing that the goodness of God is reflected in His willingness to forgive sin, a realization that Melibee does articulate, is not necessarily the same as accepting the suffering of his daughter as the just and necessary consequence of his own trespasses.

One of Melibee's last remarks is that his enemies' show of contrition "constrains" him to show mercy, an ambivalent observation about the way his anger has been held in check: "I see and biholde youre grete humylitee and . . . it constreyneth me to doon yow grace and mercy" ("I see and behold your great humility and . . . it compels me to grant you grace and mercy"; 1878-1880). Melibee's use of the image of constraint here echoes Prudence's citation of Solomon at line 1720: "[God] chaungeth the hertes of the mannes adversaries and constreyneth hem to biseken hym of pees and of grace." In the proverb, such constraint is linked to a change in heart. While, as we noted above, the narrator informs us that Melibee experiences a similar change (1871), once again this is a feeling not articulated by Melibee himself: he again emphasizes only half of Prudence’s proverb, placing emphasis on the forces outside himself which compel a change, rather than on the change of heart itself. In practical terms, it is not necessary for Melibee's anger with God to be resolved entirely in order for the political situation to be resolved; it is only necessary that such anger be constrained in order to adopt Prudence's policy. If he never does conquer his anger completely, that may be Chaucer's point. We see Melibee's resistance and the way in which the anger is slowly dampened until a truce is reached; but there is no indication that he has reconciled himself entirely to God and divine justice, even if he exhibited a "constrained" mercy to his human enemies.

Melibee's reticence on the issue of making peace with God creates a meaningful silence in an otherwise voluble text that features long and wide-ranging conversation. Reconciling himself to God is the central task Prudence sets Melibee–it is what he must do "aboven alle thynges"–yet it is a subject that Melibee cannot voice for himself, before or after his conversation with Prudence. It is striking that Melibee needs a voice other than his own to express such feelings. Before Prudence discovers to him the "far cause" of his anger, Melibee never views the situation in theological terms, viewing the problem instead as one of vengeance against his political enemies. While Prudence elsewhere enlightens Melibee about the many things he does not know, about consequences he has not foreseen, about political realities he has not considered, in this case Prudence reveals to Melibee a truth about his private self, about his emotional state, about how he feels. Such knowledge is not just a truth he is unaware of, but likely not willing to admit or to be able to express for himself.

His inability to see his anger with God before Prudence points it out to him is mirrored by his failure to articulate it even after she has done so. Both of these silences underscore the scope of this particular truth: as difficult as it is to admit and give voice to, it is as difficult for Melibee to leave it behind him once Prudence gives voice to it. Her voicing of the problem does not itself constitute the solution to the problem: realizing he is angry with God does not in itself abate such anger in Melibee. This becomes apparent when we approach the text as a tale of anger rather than as a moral treatise. When we read the tale as an abstract moral treatise, we are inclined to accept Melibee's acquiescence to Prudence and his final pious speech as the sign that he has followed Prudence's advice and is not only no longer angry, but once again a faithful servant of God. However, when such a tract becomes a tale in the context of the other Canterbury tales, and we consider the implications of its being a tale, the story of a father grieving for his daughter, Melibee's reticence becomes a significant silence.

Chaucer chose not to change the source material and have Melibee respond to the issue of his anger with God. If we posit Chaucer's interest in narrative and in the nature of tale-telling, the decision not to rework the treatise material makes sense from an artist's point of view, especially that of an artist such as Chaucer who frequently combines genres in order to explore the relations and the limits of those genres. Questions which do not arise in a moral treatise but are invited when Melibee appears as a character in a narrative highlight the potential disconnect between the knowledge contained in treatises and the knowledge gleaned from tales, between moral abstractions and human behavior: can Melibee's anger with God be resolved by Prudence, and the application of prudent thought, as easily as his anger with his political enemies? It is a disconnect that raises questions about the value of narrative and about the application of moral and abstract thought to everyday human life, questions that Chaucer invites us to ask when he carefully frames the Melibee material with the Chaucer-pilgrim narrator's paradoxical offer to deliver what he claims to be at once a "treatise lyte" and "a murye tale."

The story of Melibee's anger with God, insofar as it is one of the narrative elements of the treatise, may be one of the overarching stories of the Canterbury project as a whole: a narrative where anger is never defeated, only subdued, only accepted because the alternative–continued rage with God–is so unpalatable. Holding on to such anger would be to live the life of the Pardoner. Prudence's advice, to make peace with God above all things, is one of the principles of the whole pilgrimage and of the tale-telling game, where making peace is a constant occupation, possible only after much struggle and personal hardship. Understanding the "far causes" of Melibee’s anger enables us to better appreciate the seriousness of the anger in Chaucer's other tales and other moments on the pilgrimage. Chaucer is sensitive to human frustration with life itself and to the clandestine ways that such anger with God, which cannot be expressed directly, manifests itself. His work does not explain the ways of God to men, as much as it ponders ways for men to live with God and with each other in light of the anger which comes from not ever discovering a complete or satisfying explanation.


1 See Elliott 173-174. Return.

2 See Staley for an insightful discussion of the political contexts. Also Ferster 105. Return.

3 In one sense, this is to argue that the Melibee tale holds a central position in the book of the tales, as Traugott Lawler argues that the tale works with the tales of the Knight and the Parson to establish the philosophical context of the whole work, namely Chaucer's interest in Boethius and in the qualities of mercy and patience (102-108). However, I suggest the value of viewing the tale as a tale of anger rather than a tale of patience is that a focus on anger keeps the tale from becoming too abstract and the claims for patience too insulated from criticism. Return.

4 All quotations for Chaucer's works are from The Riverside Chaucer. Return.

5 See the Princeton Database of Christian Art for records of Prudentian images in mosaics, illuminations, and sculptures throughout the early medieval period and into the fifteenth century. The database also references numerous images of Anger pulling hair and rending clothes, including an illustration of the vices in an eleventh-century manuscript and a twelfth-century sculpture on a church column in Strzelno, in addition to Giotto' s fresco in Padua ca. 1301-1308. Return.Return.

6 Aquinas, Summa v.21, p. 127, 131. Return.




Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologiae. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Elliott, Ralph W.V. Chaucer's English. London: Deutsch, 1974.

Ferster, Judith. Fictions of Advice: The Literature and Politics of Counsel in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1996.

Lawler, Traugott. The One and the Many in the Canterbury Tales. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1980.

Staley, Lynn. "Inverse Counsel: Contexts for the Melibee." Studies in Philology 87 (1990): 137-155.

Waterhouse, Ruth and Gwen Griffiths. " ‘Sweete Wordes’ of Non-Sense: The Deconstruction of the Moral Melibee." Chaucer Review 23: 338-361 and 24: 53-63.















Updated 12/08/03