The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions (23rd May)

Next Meeting: 23rd May 2018 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

By Rebecca Newby

Picture1.pngDetail of a miniature of Lydgate and pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, at the beginning of the prologue to the Siege of Thebes. Attributed to Gerard Horenbout. c. 1516-1523. British Library MS Royal 18 D II f. 148.

Introduction: ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’

When all this fressh feleship were com to Caunterbury, | As ye have herd tofore, with tales glad and mery, | Som of sotill centence, of vertu and of lore, | And som of other myrthes for hem that hold no store | Of wisdom, ne of holynes, ne of chivalry, | Nether of vertuouse matere, but to foly | Leyd wit and lustes all, to such japes | As Hurlewaynes meyné in every hegg that capes | Thurh unstabill mynde, right as the leves grene | Stonden ageyn the weder, right so by hem I mene (The Canterbury Interlude, ll. 1-10).


Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 at his residence near Westminster Abbey without providing his fictional pilgrims with an opportunity to reach the end goal of their journey: the city of Canterbury and the relics of St. Thomas à Becket in its cathedral. On the contrary, at the time of Chaucer’s death, the Canterbury Tales as we know it today would have been little more than a pile of rough and working drafts, fair-copies and loose leaves.[1] It most likely fell to the poet’s son Thomas Chaucer, alongside remnants of his father’s literary circle and professional scribes, to arrange the fragments of the Tales into the relatively coherent manuscripts of the fifteenth century. Many gaps in the material remained, however; not least the promised account of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury Cathedral and the return journey to Southwark.

Thomas Chaucer’s cohort of scribes and compilers were apparently hopeful that other bits of the Canterbury Tales would turn up, and left room in their manuscripts for the ends of ‘The Cook’s Tale’ and ‘The Squire’s Tale’, tales left unfinished by Chaucer. Though admirable, their optimism made little difference: no other tales or parts of tales materialised and no more of the frame narrative appeared (nothing written by Chaucer, anyway). Their optimistic pagination is useful, however, in that it tells us there was a general dissatisfaction with the incomplete state of the Canterbury Tales. The medieval ‘editors’ of the Tales were not content to allow the pilgrims to, like the ‘Hurlewaynes meyné’, the Maisnie Hellequin of old French popular superstition, wander the world on horseback debating for eternity.[2]

The Four Types of Additions and Continuations

The work of the fifteenth-century continuators suggests that this sentiment was not limited to the early ‘editors’ of Chaucer’s tales. Within a few decades, several poets had contributed their own additions to the Canterbury Tales. The modern editor of the Continuations and Additions John M. Bowers classifies the literary efforts to expand Chaucer’s work as follows: (1) The pilgrimage narrative was supplemented to allow the pilgrims to reach Canterbury, then begin their return trip toward Southwark, in John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes and in the anonymous Canterbury Interlude and Merchant’s Tale of Beryn. (2) The gaps in the intermediate frame-narrative were bridged with ‘spurious’ links for tales lacking authentic prologues. (3) Tales left incomplete (i.e. those which trail off in the middle of things) were provided with conclusions. (4) And a pilgrim who never told a tale, the Plowman, was given a chance to make his contribution. Perhaps the most memorable of these are the Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, in which Lydgate imagines himself as Chaucer the pilgrim’s replacement in the Canterbury company, and the Canterbury Interlude, which tells of the Pardoner’s misadventures with a barmaid named Kit.

Historical Context

Though business was business, the unfinished state of the Canterbury Tales was more than simply an aesthetic and commercial inconvenience. As Bowers indicates, the desire to deliver a volume that at least had the appearance of completeness may also have been driven by various political motives. The Lancastrian dynasty was not secure following the deposition of Richard II and his suspicious death in 1400, and diplomat Thomas Chaucer was one of the major players in this precarious establishment, particularly under Henry V, the first English monarch since 1066 to hold court in English rather than French. The production and circulation of Chaucer’s poetry coincided with the push to promote the English language as part of a growing nationalism during the more tumultuous days of the Hundred Years War (1337-1453).

It also had a role to play in the domestic trouble the Lancastrian regime was having with the Lollards, the followers of John Wyclif (d. 1384), who were using homely English (rather than elitist Latin) in their quest to reform Western Christianity. For the Lollards, the production of a courtly text in English, the main subject of which was a pilgrimage, by Thomas Chaucer and the Lancastrians would have been a proverbial spanner in the works. The continuations and additions to the Tales can thus be read as a commentary on contemporary social anxieties and the larger dynastic imperatives at work in the early fifteenth century, which saw Geoffrey Chaucer posthumously inaugurated as the father of the English language.


John Lydgate’s Prologue to the Siege of Thebes (c. 1420), BL Arundel 119, fols. 1a-4a

John Lydgate was born in c. 1370; he became a monk in 1385, and was then ordained as a priest in 1397, when Chaucer would have been in the later stages of writing the Canterbury Tales. Lydgate probably also encountered Thomas Chaucer around this time. According to Bowers, an allusion to the Treaty of Troyes at the end of Lydgate’s poem and its general address to Henry V indicates that it was finished after May 1420 and before August 1422. Both Lydgate’s clerical background and his reverence for Chaucer are evident in the work.

In the prologue, Lydgate represents himself as falling in with the pilgrims at their inn in Canterbury, when he comes to the town to perform his vow to St. Thomas for recovery from an illness. He is received in the hall of the inn by the host and invited to join the company of pilgrims in their return journey to London. At sunrise on the following morning they all start off, and before they have ridden a bow-shot from Canterbury the host turns to Lydgate and asks him to tell some merry tale: he obliges with an adaptation of the Roman de Thèbes (c. 1175). The prologue to the Siege begins with a pastiche of the opening of Chaucer’s General Prologue, complete with references to the zodiac, April showers and blossoming plants.

Evidently Lydgate enjoys this idea of composing an additional Canterbury Tale, and thus, as it were, taking up and continuing the unfinished work of his admired master. And as a clergyman, he is also looking to reclaim the monastic authority and integrity lost in Chaucer’s portrayal of the Monk. For most of the twentieth century, scholars dismissed Lydgate’s prologue as a cheap imitation of Chaucer’s verse. More recently, however, Lydgate’s prologue has been reassessed as ‘an intelligent commentary’ on ‘The Knight’s Tale’, which uses a calculated poetic strategy to ‘encompass all the preliminary material in a single, loosely constructed past-time unit before commencing the new narrative action’.[3] It is included here because it attempts to extend and complete the frame narrative of Chaucer’s Tales.

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn (c. 1420), Northumberland MS 455, fols. 180a-235a

The Canterbury Interlude or The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn tells of the pilgrims’ arrival at Canterbury and their visit to the shrine of St. Thomas, the story of Pardoner and Kit the Tapster, and the company’s departure for the homeward journey back to London. All of this precedes the interpolated, non-Chaucerian Tale of Beryn, the second tale told by the Merchant, which appears in one fifteenth-century manuscript of The Canterbury Tales (the Northumberland manuscript). Beryn was inserted so that it would precede ‘Melibee’, as well as the tales told by the Monk, the Nun’s Priest, the Manciple and the Parson. As Bowers observes, the anonymous Beryn poet thus expands the overall arrangement of the Tales to fulfill the design of the return trip promised in the General Prologue.

The poet revives Chaucer’s pilgrims with considerable charm, propelling them into various comically inappropriate escapades around Canterbury. It is Chaucer’s Pardoner who falls most foul of the poet’s laughing continuation of the pilgrims’ misadventures, however. He is cast in the starring role of fabliau-type quest to swindle and bed the barmaid, which leaves him, despite his perceived superiority, beaten, sexually humiliated and shivering all night in a dog’s kennel – much to his shame and embarrassment. And yet the poet’s caustic portrayal of the Pardoner’s misfortune perhaps distracts from some of the more pressing questions left unaddressed by his continuation: an update on which of the pilgrim’s tales had the ‘best sentence and moost solace’ thus far, for instance. Unfortunately, the manuscript itself is missing leaves at the end, and so the pilgrims never reached their journey’s end, their final destination back at the Tabard Inn. Indeed, because of this material circumstance, we do not even know whether the Beryn poet wrote a return to Southwark into his expansion of the frame narrative.

The Canterbury Interlude may well have been composed later than the tale it precedes. It has been dated plausibly to the year 1420 by Bowers and Peter Brown, both of whom align it with the Canterbury jubilee of that same year, celebrated every half-century since the martyrdom of St. Thomas in 1170.[4] This event was a significant and lucrative ‘tourist’ event as well as ‘a prime occasion to reassert the validity of pilgrimage rituals against the Lollards’. As both scholars argue, it is therefore tempting to believe that the 1420 jubilee provided this continuator, as well as John of Lydgate, with the religious occasion to attempt to complete Chaucer’s literary pilgrimage to Canterbury.


Questions for discussion

  • How do Lydgate and the Beryn poet adapt and/or invert some of the themes and characters in Chaucer’s text? e.g. Lydgate’s self-portrait vs. Chaucer’s Monk
  • What do you think were the motivations for continuing/adapting the Canterbury frame? Did they just want to finish it?
  • How well do the continuations resolve some of lingering questions/dangling threads left unanswered by Chaucer’s unfinished frame narrative?
  • What do you think about the treatment of the Pardoner? Is there a narrative/poetic justice at play here?
  • How do you see the relationships between the different Canterbury pilgrims shifting? As well as their relationship with the Host? What are the implications of this?
  • Do you think the arrival at Canterbury and the visit to the cathedral were the only things required to end the text? If not, what else?
  • Do these texts go any way to providing a more satisfactory ending to the Canterbury Tales?

Useful Links



[1] John M. Bowers, ‘General Introduction’, The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions, TEAMS (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992), p. 1.

[2] Ricardus de Maidstone, ‘Notes’, Alliterative poem on the deposition of Richard II, ed. Thomas Wright (London: John Bowyer Nichol & Son, 1838), p. 53.

[3] James Simpson, ‘“Dysemol daies and fatal houres”: Lydgate’s Destruction of Thebes and Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale’, in Helen Cooper and Sally Mapstone, eds., The Long Fifteenth Century: Essays for Douglas Gray (Oxford, 1997), p. 25; Phillipa Hardman, “Lydgate’s Uneasy Syntax’, in Larry Scanlon and James Simpson, eds., John Lydgate: Poetry, Culture, and Lancastrian England (Notre Dame, 2006), p. 25.

[4] Peter Brown, ‘Journey’s End: The Prologue to The Tale of Beryn’, Chaucer and Fifteenth-Century Poetry, ed. Julia Boffey and Janet Cowen (London: King’s College London Medieval Studies, no. 5, 1991), pp. 143-74.


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