how good are you with math and middle english?

How many tales does the “General Prologue” to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tell us are going to be told on the pilgrimage to and from Canterbury? The narrator provides the following information:

19: Bifil that in that seson on a day,
20: In southwerk at the tabard as I lay
21: Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
22: To caunterbury with ful devout corage,
23: At nyght was come into that hostelrye
24: Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye,
25: Of sondry folk…

The host proposes a contest for the pilgrims:

791: That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
792: In this viage shal telle tales tweye
793: To caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
794: And homward he shal tellen othere two,

Would anyone consider 116 to be the right answer?

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6 thoughts on “how good are you with math and middle english?

  1. Once upon a time, I heard some Chaucerians arguing about this point…and I forget their answer. Still, let me complicate your math by saying that Chaucer-pilgrim tells a tale (and he’s not one of the 29 he describes at the Tabard) and the Canon’s Yeoman rides up and tells a tale, so there are at least two more. Another question: does Harry Bailey intend to tell tales or is he simply the ringmaster who wants the pilgrims to buy his meals when they return to London??
    Your non-Chaucerian medievalist colleague–G1

  2. Medievalist in the house!
    My position is that since the narrator says he is “[r]edy to wenden on [his] pilgrymage” and then mentions “nyne and twenty” other pilgrims, we’ve got 30 pilgrims. So when the host proposes 4 tales from each, that makes a projected 120. Some of my students say 116.
    Fie, I say. Fie!

  3. A Medievalist Does Math:
    29 original pilgrims
    1 Chaucer-pilgrim
    1 Harry Bailey (to tell or not to tell at tale?)
    31 pilgrims begin the journey from the Tabard
    The number of tales is a different matter, as I suggested before. Is Chaucer-pilgrim to tell four tales? Quite possibly, since he joins them as they gather to leave. But is Harry Bailey?? So it’s either 30 x 4 or 31 x 4.
    +1 Canon’s Yeoman who joins them later–the question is, would the CY be bound by the same rules? Who can say?
    Fie! I think what this means is that the format was set so that there could a multitude of tales–but I doubt Chaucer ever had any intention of writing four for each pilgrim. The satire works better–in my view–in its incomplete state. It matches the political, ecclesiastical, and social disorder of the period. I think this is especially true since our man Geoffrey has pilgrims challenging each other, rebutting each other’s tales, “quyting” each other’s character. Plus there’s the whole thing about leading a group. Just because Harry Bailey set the rules of 4 tales per pilgrim, who ever heard of a group following orders? I think that’s part of Chaucer’s joke. Just my 2 pennies.

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