The Canterbury Tales

“Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we”: Violent Suffering and Enjoyment of The Canterbury Tales College

Perhaps the greatest pleasure comes at the expense of others. Geoffrey Chaucer seems acutely aware of this, and has his Parson —the final tale-teller in The Canterbury Tales, though the Parson’s is not really a tale at all— include in his sermon on the seven deadly sins a denunciation of envy, the “worste synne that is” (X 487). Envy, according to the Parson, is manifested as “joye of oother mannes harm”, a definition which must give the reader pause: much of the enjoyment of reading The Canterbury Tales is derived from comical depictions of misery, particularly in the fabliau (and fabliau-incorporating) tales. Indeed, one of Chaucer’s most memorable scenes is the one in which the cuckolded carpenter lies unconscious and broken-armed after he has been outrageously duped and made the laughing stock of his town. The violent humour of this tale certainly accounts for its popularity among both readers and pilgrims, who “laughen at this nyce cas” (with the exception of the Reeve, at whose expense the tale is told —a fact which undoubtedly heightens our enjoyment; I 3855).

We might, therefore, be tempted to regard the Parson’s speech on envy as mere lighthearted imitation of a long-winded clergyman, out of touch with human nature and...

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