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Horror and Violence in The Canterbury Tales

By Martin Laidlaw

Medieval literature is not short on depictions of gory violence, something viewed to be so appropriate and timely as we approach Halloween. Supernatural apparition, a beheading, and a towering figure who not only survives the loss of his head but carries it with him as he rides off can be seen in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The fourteenth-century work The Siege of Jerusalem is also extremely violent and describes the siege, suffering, and slaughter of the city’s inhabitants in unflinching terms. There is, however, a large amount of brutality, subjugation, and death within the most famous literary work of the Late Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Society has, generally, come to view Chaucer as the ‘Father of English literature’, a jovial character who may have had a taste for bawdy poetry but ultimately sought to present the faces and figures of his time. The existence of a family-orientated Canterbury Tales themed visitor attraction, too, undermines the notion that the collection of twenty-two tales told by twenty-four speakers is one which is peppered with brutality and violence. The work is, however, not afraid to depict gore, murder, gendered subjugation, and the living dead.

Chaucer’s descriptions of brutality occur within several stories of The Canterbury Tales, and his employment of murder and gore make him the perfect poet for discussion in regard to Halloween. ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, for example, foreshadows horror tropes of a group of sinning teenagers, ‘yonge folk, that haunteden folye,’ that unashamedly smirk at danger. The tale presents three riotous villains who pursue Death to slay him in response for the demise of their friend. When the figures fail to find their target, but discover instead a bushel of ‘floryns fyne of gold ycoyned rounde’, they abandon their plan to protect the wealth they have found.

In order to transfer the gold back to town, they resolve to wait until they can do so without raising suspicion. Deciding that one of them should bring back supplies to last the evening, the two who remain conspire to brutally murder their companion in order to increase their share of the loot:

Looke whan that he is set, that right anoon
Arys, as though thou woldest with hym pleye,
And I shal ryve hym thurgh the sydes tweye,
Whil that thou strogelest with hym as in game,
And with thy daggere looke thou do the same

On his return, the two murder him as planned, ‘right as they hadde cast his deeth bifoore’, stabbing him in the torso. Unbeknown to them, however, the wine he has brought back with him has been laced with poison ‘so strong and violent’. The tale ends with the painful death of the two murderers who decide to ‘sitte and drynke, and make us merie, and afterward we wol his body berie’.

The Monk of The Canterbury Tales tells not one extended narrative, but seventeen tales of people who have ‘yfallen out of heigh degree into myserie, and endeth wrecchedly’, and within these descriptions there is an array of bloody violence. Included in this catalogue of suffering is the poisoning of Alexander the Great, the stabbing ‘with many a wounde’ of Julius Caesar, the starving of Count Ugolino, the hanging of Croesus, and the beheading of Holofernes. The most brutal death described by the Monk is that of Heracles, the Greek mythological figure and son of Zeus, who is killed by the blood of Nessus, a centaur that he has previously slain. A shirt made of the hide of his victim is sent to him by his partner Deianira, but the clothing is ‘envenymed’ with this blood and causes the hero to suffer a most painful death. It ‘made his flessh al from hise bones falle’, and when he is unable to kill himself with poison Heracles rakes himself across hot coals in order to end his intolerable suffering.

The Canterbury Tales creates much of its horror and violence through the depiction of female subjugation and the author’s discussion on the role and treatment of women in his contemporary society. One character who decidedly challenges ideas of gendered oppression and the expected behaviours of women in medieval society and culture is the Wife of Bath. Even the formidable Wife experiences violence, and Chaucer’s description of her five husbands describes how ‘thre of hem were goode, and two were badde’. Those who treat her badly are shown to act violently towards her with the fourth beating her ‘on every bon’, and the fifth exerting a system of psychological torture in which he reads to her the actions of murderous women from his ‘Book of Wikked Wyves’.

When the Wife finally breaks and tears a page from the book, her husband hits her so hard, ‘smoot me ones on the lyst’, that she loses her hearing in one ear: ‘myn ere wax al deef’.

The subjugation of a female by their domineering husband is a subject which also features in ‘The Clerk’s Tale’ of Griselda, a story from the Italian oral tradition which features in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and was translated into Latin by Petrarch. The tale features a ‘yonge mayden […] of vertuous beautee’, Griselda, who is married to a Marquis. The predatory nature of the Marquis is presented in allusions to hunting that foreshadow his selecting of Griselda to be his bride:

Upon Grisilde, this povre creature,
Ful ofte sithe this markys caste his ye,
As he on huntyng rood

More unsettling, however, is his insistence that Griselda swears to obey him at all times, ‘in werk ne thoght I nyl yow disobeye’, though she suffer death rather than transgress this promise. This causes the Marquis to inflict cruel challenges upon Griselda in order to make her prove her dedication and loyalty to him. The trope of a young woman removed from her familial home and taken to the castle of a domineering and malevolent husband can be found in later literature which evokes themes of horror and violence. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s La Belle et la Bête (1740) may be seen to echo these themes, as does Angela Carter’s 1979 retelling of the Bluebeard tale The Bloody Chamber.

Angela Carter’s protagonist, and the manner in which they come to be married to an evil patriarchal figure, finds commonality with Chaucer’s Griselda. Both are seen to be treated as commodities or prey by their spouse, with Griselda stalked as if being hunted, and Carter’s protagonist watched, ‘with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh’. There are also similarities in the impoverished background that both characters leave to inhabit the castle with their twisted husbands. Griselda can be seen to have been ‘povreliche yfostred up’, whereas Carter’s protagonist is, ‘the poor widow’s child’, taken, ‘away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage’. Central to the oppression felt by both women is the danger to their lives that is present should they disobey their husbands. Carter’s narrator is threatened with execution for entering a room declared to be off limits to her, and the Marquis devises horrific challenges to test the obedience of Griselda.

The horrific nature of these challenges is stark, and her husband pretends that he has executed their two children to observe how loyal his wife truly is. He first sends a ‘crueel sergeant’ known to have ‘doon execucioun’ to fetch their daughter to be killed, and later repeats this challenge in regard to their son. The chilling nature of Griselda’s request that her son be placed ‘in erthe grave’ so that his corpse is not eaten by wild animals amplifies the terror of the Marquis’ cruel desire ‘to tempte his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe’. The revelation at the close of the poem that Griselda’s children were in fact not dead only serves to demonstrate the psychological torture inflicted on her during this period, and her declaration that ‘your woful mooder wende stedfastly that crueel houndes, or som foul vermyne hadde eten yow’ a disturbing and macarbe reflection of the Marquis’ true horror.

‘The Clerk’s Tale’ employs the image of violence against children that is unsettling when featured in literature and film. Instances of murdered children also recurs in The Canterbury Tales, with one disturbing example appearing in the Monk’s description on the death of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, a retelling of Dante’s account from Canto XXXIII of Inferno. Ugolino and his children are imprisoned for his treason and one day the meagre deliveries of food that have been keeping the prisoners alive fail to arrive and are stopped completely. This causes the children to ask their father, ‘whanne wol the gayler bryngen our potage’, declaring that they are ‘so hungry that I may nat slepe’.

As starvation begins to take hold of the young children, they troublingly tell their father that upon their deaths, he should ‘ete the flessh upon us two’, reflecting the horror of cannibalism that is present in Victorian retellings of Franklin’s Lost Expedition (1845), films such as Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and The Green Inferno (2013), and the literary and cinematic accounts of the crash of Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571, as seen in the 1993 film Alive. Violence against children also acts as the chief narrative device in Chaucer’s ‘Tale of Melibee’ in which the protagonist questions whether he should seek revenge for the wounding of his daughter. The depiction of the violent attack suffered by his child is truly horrific, and her assailants are seen to ‘setten laddres to the walles of his hous, and by wyndowes been entred’. Once inside, they beat his wife, Prudence, and mutilate his daughter with ‘fyve mortal woundes in fyve sondry places, this is to seyn, in hir feet, in hire handes, in hir erys, in hir nose, and in hire mouth’.

Violence against children within The Canterbury Tales is most brutally represented in the story told by the Prioress of a young boy who is assaulted and killed due to his vocal declarations of love to the Virgin Mary. The horror of this murder is compounded with the description of the child as being ‘so yong and tendre was of age’, as well as the recurring employment of the phrase ‘litel’ in reference to him: ‘This litel child, his litel book’. The injuries inflicted upon the child are also particularly gruesome and he is seen to have his throat cut, and his entrails removed before being thrown into a privy, or sewage pit. This scene takes on additional horror and drama when Chaucer describes how his mother, a poor widow, ‘awaiteth al that nyght’ for her son. The next morning she is seen to search for him ‘with face pale of drede and bisy thoght […] half out of hir mynde’. Upon finding her son with his ‘throte ykorven’, he is seen to continue singing the declarations to the Virgin that had brought him to the attention of his murderers. This depiction of an undead child solemnly repeating prayers creates a chilling image, and touches upon representations of reanimated bodies, or zombies, that are popular in contemporary cinema.

Chaucer’s zombified child reacts to the touch of Holy water, and speaks to the crowd eerily stating, ‘my throte is kut unto my nekke boon […] I sholde have dyed’. Zombie children have been found to be a source of terror in contemporary literature and cinema, with Stephen King’s 1983 novel Pet Sematary, and the opening scene to the 2004 film Dawn of the Dead, notable examples of this. The child of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ only finds peace when an Abbot provides the action that allows him to die, foreshadowing King’s haunting statement from Pet Sematary ‘sometimes dead is better’.

The Second Nun’s Tale of Saint Cecilia contains both the depiction of bloody violence against women, and the employment of a body which should have died by the wounds inflicted upon it, but miraculously endures. This is a common hagiographical convention, and the image of St. Denis and other cephalophores (a saint who is generally depicted carrying his or her own head) continuing to speak is as horrific an image as it is divine. The violence of ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’ includes the beheading of Tiburce and Valerian, who ‘with humble herte and sad devocioun […] losten bothe hir hevedes’, and the brutal death of Maximus who is converted to Christianity upon witnessing the executed figures ascend to heaven. The death of Maximus is particularly gruesome, as he is beaten and whipped with lead whips and scourges ‘til he the lyf gan lete’. This violence is exceeded only by the cruel treatment of St. Cecilia, who is killed for her unwavering dedication to her Christian faith. Cecilia is first placed in a bath of boiling water for a period of twenty-four hours, during which time she feels no heat, ‘it made hire nat a drope for to sweete,’ due to her piety. Her tormentor, Almachius, then orders that she be beheaded and Cecilia suffers three strokes of the axe but is still not killed. The Saint is then left ‘half deed, with hir nekke ycorven’ and for three days ‘lyved she in this torment’. Cecilia, like the child of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ continues to speak and preach for the duration of her wounded, near-dead, state, and the image of a half-beheaded woman who ‘nevere cessed hem the feith to teche’ creating a scene which is both imbued with divine meaning and which foreshadows the contemporary cinematic trope of the gruesome reanimated corpse.

One may not immediately consider The Canterbury Tales to be a text renowned for depictions of violence. Chaucer’s retelling of hagiographic tales and moral exemplum, however, employ gruesome and gory imagery within their narrative. The depictions of the violence and subjugation imparted upon women and children finds semblance with the literature and film of the horror genre of later centuries, particularly the similarities between Chaucer’s tortured Griselda and the threatened protagonist of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Although not strictly zombies, the wounded, near-dead figures of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’ and the ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’ present a horrific scene of blood-stained violence through the presentation of figures who should have succumbed to their wounds enduring in a terrifying and unlikely fashion. Through the employment of brutal, gruesome, imagery, and the use of tropes that have endured in literature and film, The Canterbury Tales may be seen to foreshadow conventions of horror that will feature prominently in our contemporary Halloween celebrations.

You can follow Martin Laidlaw on Twitter @MMLaidlaw

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

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