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Chaucer’s Demons in Canterbury Tales

Updated on January 10, 2014

Chaucer's Christian Devil

Given that the setting for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a Christian pilgrimage, it is not surprising that several of the tales include some reference to the devil, demons, Hell, or the underworld, either directly or through some type of symbolism or inference. While there were accounts of demons and devils, as well as descriptions of the underworld, long before the Christian religions existed, the image of Satan, purgatory, and Hell’s eternal damnation were particular creations or adaptations for Christianity.

A discussion of literary sources for the devil, demons, or the underworld/Hell in such a heavily Christianized society as the medieval England of Chaucer’s time must of necessity include some discussion of sources obtained through and themselves influenced by the Christian religion, the most prominent being the Christian Bible. While the most prominent and literal example of Chaucer’s use of a demon persona in The Canterbury Tales is found in the Friar’s Tale, there are elements and suggestions in several other parts of the work, both within the tales and in description of the pilgrims telling the tales. Of this last, the most notable personification would be the Pardoner. Within the tales, the more obvious suggestions of demonic or otherworldly presence, temptations, and fear of the underworld are to be found in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, the Merchant’s Tale, and the Franklin’s Tale.

Again, of the various tales that include mentions of this sort, the Friar’s Tale contains the most direct and literal reference in that one of the main characters is in fact a demon, an agent of Hell sent forth to win new souls for his master in much the same way that the character of the Summoner within the tale is sent to win profits of a more material kind for his own master. In addition, while Chaucer chose the Christian pilgrimage setting to frame his tales, a fact that in and of itself demonstrates the omnipotence and overwhelming influence of the Christian religion in Chaucer’s day, it is interesting that the Friar, himself a member of the Christian clergy, chooses to use his tale to criticize the Summoner when he himself is guilty of the same type of material extortion. The reference in several of the other tales to some aspect of hell or the evils that may befall those who succumb to temptation is further indicative of the wealth of earlier literature, folklore, and doctrine, including biblical references, from which Chaucer chose to draw.

Sources for the Friar's Tale

In researching the central story of the Friar’s tale, it would seem that it can be traced back to early thirteenth-century versions, one in a Latin compilation of exempla by Cesarius of Heisterbach, a monk, and the other in German couplet verse by Der Stricker, an Austrian poet (Cooper, 168). However, the demon persona as depicted in the tale seems to be drawn from a combination of sources, to include biblical as well as mythological references. The tale itself serves to provide some of the more obvious references likely used by Chaucer in forming his demon persona.

Like many of Chaucer’s other tales, the Friar’s Tale has something of a Chinese box structure in that the tale being told actually comments on the teller, who in turn serves to portray Chaucer’s social commentary on the abuses that infected the Christian church of his day (Hallisy, 138). As the demon discusses the past accomplishments and limitations of fiends like himself and of his master, his references to Job (1491) and Samuel (1510) are indicative of Chaucer’s reliance on the bible to provide a framework for the depiction of the demons in his tales, both literal ones and those that are implied as being the driving force behind temptation. However, the fiend in the Friar’s Tale also makes mention of both Virgil and Dante as being authorities on Hell,

“For thou shalt by thyn owene experience/Conne in a chayer rede of this sentence/Bet than Virgyle, whyl he was on lyve,/or Dant also” (1517-1520),

possibly reflecting Chaucer’s choice to allow Dante’s work to somewhat influence his own writing.

Common Demonic Elements

In addition, depictions of the devil and demons in both English and Irish folktales offer striking similarities to Chaucer’s demons and indicate the prevailing views of his day with regard to these creatures, their influences and limitations. The view that demons are subordinate to God and are sometimes used as instruments to test the faith of his followers is firmly grounded in medieval Christian beliefs, as indicated by the folklore of the time. Tales such as “The Long Spoon” (Yeats, 247) illustrate also the prevailing belief that those who repent of their sins or do not sin knowingly in the first place cannot be taken by the devil or his agents, but rather, the devil is only entitled to those souls and those things that are offered with proper intent. Other British folktales, such as “The Black Rider” (Briggs, 152-153) and “The Devil at Little Dunkeld Manse” (Briggs 156-157), depict the devil as a hunter and a shape-changer, both of which fit the descriptions given of himself by the fiend in the Friar’s Tale:

“’For we,’ quod he, ‘wol us swich formes make as most able is our preyes for to take.’” (1471-1472).

The Pardoner Demonized

While the Friar’s Tale is the most literal of the collection in its discussion of the nature of demons and the consequences of allowing oneself to be tempted by the devil or his agents, Chaucer employs this device in several other tales and in his depiction of at least one of his pilgrim characters, namely the pardoner. In keeping with the idea of the Canterbury Tales as a whole being made up of a number of tales within tales, the Friar’s Tale of a corrupt summoner who will not repent even when his soul is on the line can be seen to foretell the self-described blackness of character of the pardoner. In his prologue, the pardoner identifies himself with traits generally reserved for the devil or his minions only, giving the pardoner the dubious distinction of being the only pilgrim in the group that is truly evil in the medieval sense of the word:

“Thus spitte I out my venim under hewe/Of holynesse, to semen holy and trewe.” (421-422).

Just as the demon at the center of the Friar’s Tale is drawn from biblical references and British or Irish folklore, so the character of the pardoner seems to be linked with the same qualities. He is understood to be evil because of the intentions behind his actions rather than because of the actions alone, just as the demon in the Friar’s Tale cannot win the soul of one who does not show true intent to commit evil, or of anyone who truly repents thereafter. In this context, it could be argued that Chaucer draws both the pardoner on the pilgrimage and the summoner within the Friar’s Tale from the same sources.

The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale

In the same way as the tale told by the Friar serves as a sort of prologue to introduce the character of the Pardoner later in the text, so the theme used by the Pardoner to further his own greedy ends can be seen to lead into the tale of the Canon’s Yeoman. This theme, namely that the love of money or gold is the root of all evil, becomes the frame of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, arguably the next strongest tale in terms of dealing with Chaucer’s ideas of demons and visions of Hell. While the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale does not contain a literal depiction of a demon or devil, the Yeoman demonizes the Canon himself during the course of telling his tale in two parts. In addition, the descriptions of the conjuring processes of alchemy and the setting in which it is being done in turn conjure images of Hell and the eternal damnation that awaits any who choose to worship gold rather than God.

Within the first part of his tale, the Yeoman describes the Canon as a fiend and a rascal, and his place of business as dark and hot, not unlike the deepest corners of Hell:

“Though that the feend noght in oure sighte him shewe,/I trowe he with us be, that ilke shrewe!/In helle, where he lord is and sire,/nis ther moore wo, ne moore rancour ne ire,” (916-919).

But even before the Yeoman has a chance to describe his master thus, Chaucer describes the Canon upon his meeting with the pilgrims as nearly interchangeable with the equipment he uses to perform his trade of alchemy:

“His forheed dropped as a stillatorye/Were ful of plantaine and of paritorye” (580-581).

The description not only suggests that the Canon has a symbolic association with the fire that is so essential to his performing his trade, but also that the Canon seems to somewhat emanate with the fires of Hell, a trait that the Yeoman seems to be in full agreement with as he tells his tale a little further in. The Yeoman makes it clear that the Canon within his tale is indeed the same Canon that he has been unfortunately been serving for the past seven years, during which time he himself has been drawn into the lure of material wealth as promised by the trade of alchemy. As such, he is confident in his condemnation of the Canon as a “feend” and a rascal.

Once again, it would seem that Chaucer draws from the same sources for his portrayal of demons, both literal and figurative, within The Canterbury Tales. While there were apparently no stories resembling either part of the Canon Yeoman’s Tale known to Chaucer (Cooper, 371), his sources for the specific parts of the tale that center on alchemy as the work of the devil and his agents are drawn once again from biblical references and British folklore that emphasizes the slyness and trickster characteristics of demons. The British folktale “Dando and his Dogs” (Briggs, 153-155) may have been of particular use in depicting demons as tricksters and scam-artists, much as the Canon is depicted in the tale told by his Yeoman.

Other Tales and Sources

While the Friar’s Tale and Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale are Chaucer’s two strongest examples of demons and demonic influence within this discussion, there are suggestions of such influences in several of the other tales, to include the Merchant’s Tale, the Franklin’s Tale, and possible even the Clerk’s tale. The Merchant’s Tale has the most obvious reference of these three to a figure associated with the Christian ideal of Hell and/or the devil in the figure of Pluto overseeing the adultery being perpetrated in the pear tree.

An obvious source for Chaucer’s information on Pluto being classed as a demon is Ovid’s The Metamorphosis, which describes Pluto’s placement over the dominion of the underworld in his dispute with his two brothers, Jupiter and Neptune (xxxviii), as well as the folktale of the pear tree. As the underworld is synonymous with the Christian Hell, the inference in the Merchant’s Tale is that Pluto is synonymous with the Christian Satan as depicted in the Christian Bible. As such, he is included in the tale to demonstrate once again the ability of the woman to dupe Man and lead to his eventual downfall, just as Eve tricked Adam following her temptation by the serpent Satan in the Garden of Eden, as depicted in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament.

While the tales and characters depicted thus far have included depictions of demonic figures in the form of either one of the pilgrims or of one of the characters in the tales being told, the Franklin’s Tale uses symbolism such as can be found in such Old English epic poems as Beowulf to describe the archetypal abyss as represented by the black rocks on the coast where Dorigen fears to walk. In the case of the Franklin’s Tale, the archetypal imagery is likely taken more from ancient texts such as Ovid’s description of the underworld or from the description of the wilds in Beowulf, rather than from any particular biblical reference. It is nonetheless effective in keeping with the overall theme of remaining true to the Christian beliefs that supposedly lead to the making of such a pilgrimage as is depicted in the Canterbury Tales.

Sources

Briggs, Katharine. British Folk Tales and Legends: A Sampler. New York: Routledge, 2002. Questia. 3 Nov. 2006

Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Canterbury Tales, , Trans. Jill Mann, London, Penguin Classics, 2005

Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Questia. 3 Nov. 2006 <http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=42444831>.

Hallisy, Margaret, A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1995

Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Trans. Frank Justus Miller, New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005. Print.

Yeats, W. B., ed. Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. New York: Modern Library, 1994. Questia. 3 Nov. 2006 <http://questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=99932019>.

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    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 3 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      This brings back memories. When I was in college I had to read Chaucer in Middle English - not something I would ever want to do again! Enjoyed your commentary here and voted up!

    • Dreolan profile image
      Author

      Joan Danford 4 years ago from Lithia, FL

      I hope they help anyone who needs the assistance. If I were to ever teach at university level, my first choice of curriculum would be to teach on Chaucer. Thank you for the compliments!

    • LongTimeMother profile image

      LongTimeMother 4 years ago from Australia

      Guess whose hubs are going to be a valuable resource for high school students? lol. Where were you when my older kids were studying Chaucer?

      Fortunately I've discovered your hubs before my youngest hits her Chaucer studies. Yay!!! Thanks, Dreolan.

      Voted up +.