The Tale of Melibee
There was once a young man named Melibee, mighty and rich, who had with his wife Prudence, a daughter called Sophie. One day he took a walk into the fields, leaving his wife and daughter inside his house, with the doors shut fast. Three of his old enemies saw it, and, setting ladders to the wall of his house, entered, beating his wife, and giving his daughter mortal wounds in five places: "in hir feet, in hire handes, in hir erys, in hir nose, and in hir mouth" (972).
When Melibee returned and saw what had happened, he was like a madman, tearing his clothes, weeping and crying. Prudence, his wife, stopped his tears, and gave him some useful advice from various authorities. Prudence eventually advised him to call a group of people to come to him, to explain to them what had happened, and listen to their counsel.
As per his wife’s instructions, Melibee took counsel from "the grete congregacioun of folk", and the advice falls into two camps. The surgeons, physicians, lawyers, and the old urge caution, and a considered reaction, but his neighbors and "yonge folk" urge war.
Melibee wants to wage war, and Prudence urges haste - there follows an argument about who should prevail, and Prudence, eventually, triumphs. She tells Melibee that he should choose his counselors carefully, and to set their advice against their – apparent and hidden - motives. Prudence then, at length, goes through all of the advice that Melibee has been given and shows him that open war is not a good option, for a variety of moral, ethical, and practical reasons.
Prudence interprets the attack on Sophie as the damage done to her because of man's vulnerability to the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. Her remedy: negotiate peace and leave all to God's grace and forgiveness.
The three enemies who have performed the deed are found and brought before Prudence, who suggests forgiving them; Melibee again argues for a fine, which she again argues him out of. Melibee forgives them, and, delighted with himself, praises at length his own generosity.
Don’t worry if you’ve never read Melibee in full - a very famous academic (who I shall leave nameless) studying at one of the world’s most renowned universities once admitted to me that she’d never made it right through either. Melibee, first and foremost, seems to be a punishment for cutting Chaucer off mid-flight with Sir Thopas; before beginning it, he promises a “litel thyng in prose”, asks that he is not interrupted, and then delivers a hugely lengthy tale of almost unsurpassed dullness. If one saw in Thopas running from the giant the figure of Chaucer trying to escape the Host’s demand, Melibee seems to represent him coming back with the armor.
Some critics have also argued that an omission Chaucer deliberately makes from its source, Renaud de Louens' Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence [after 1336] (itself a translation of Albertanus of Brescia, Liber consolationis et consilii) ) points to Melibee as a separate composition intended for the recently-crowned Richard II. Among Melibee’s many pieces of advice, Chaucer omits, significantly for a child-king, “Woe to the land that has a child as king”. Is this, perhaps a manual for a king?
Melibee is also rather self-consciously a construction; a patchwork of proverbs, sayings and wise words, some of which have already appeared in the tales, and none of which are likely to be entirely original. Part of the reason for its length is that its characters constantly cite authority after authority to justify their opinion – and this academic arguing inflates the thin plot of the tale into page after page of citation and quotation. So keen is everyone to get their favorite authority into the argument that we never even find out what happens to mortally-wounded Sophie.
Melibee is, like Thopas (improvised from its situation), a text made up of text – and it proves (particularly if the Parson’s tale, the only other tale in prose, was a late addition to the Canterbury project) Chaucer’s mastery of genre, if nothing else. Prose tracts, full of academic discussion rather than dramatic, narrative progression, are not without of his ability.
Within the tale itself, Prudence is another example of the patient and long-suffering wife who demonstrates her virtue through stoicism, and, like Constance, her name is an obvious signifier of one of her prominent qualities (Sophie, the daughter, has a name meaning “wisdom”). Her role in the story is not as an active agent, she is a passive influence on the other characters; and she is a good example to consider in examining the issue of “female counsel”, raised hitherto but particularly in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. Melibee suggests, above all, that women are worthy counselors and interpreters, and, although the tale celebrates Prudence, its title is apt - it points to Melibee himself, a man able to learn from his wife, whose name means “sweet learning” or “sweet knowledge”.