Framed story: Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" belong to the category "Framed Story" and also - possibly - to the category "Framed story with Game structure", though this is far from sure, as the Tales were never completed.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury.
If we trust the General Prologue, Chaucer intended that each pilgrim should tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

30 persons meet at the journey and each has to tell "4 stories". Looking through the surviving stories, then it seems, that Chaucer diverged from the concept. The "Knight's Tale" really has "4 stories", but actually it's only one proceeding story in 4 chapters. The "Man of Law's Tale" has only 3 parts and it's also only one story. Others seems to have only one presentation or chapter.
But the concept had 30 persons (inclusive the author) and an additional person, the "host" as Nr. 31, which has a deciding role, cause he suggests the "game" of story-telling. This form with 30 stories appeared also in the Sindibad story, but in an Eastern version and there's not a guarantee, that Chaucer knew this form (the European forms had only 15 stories).
Chaucer's first literary work "The book of the Duchess" (c. 1368) ...
... refers to the chess game:
part of the description of Wikipedia: "The poet asks the knight the nature of his grief. The knight replies that he had played a game of chess with Fortuna and lost his queen and was checkmated. The poet takes the message literally and begs the black knight not to become upset over a game of chess.

The knight begins the story of his life, reporting that for his entire life he had served Love, but that he had waited to set his heart on a woman for many years until he met one lady who surpassed all others. The knight speaks of her surpassing beauty and temperament and reveals that her name was “good, fair White.” The poet, still not understanding the metaphorical chess game, asks the black knight to finish the story and explain what was lost. The knight tells the story of his fumbling declaration of love and the long time it took for the love to be reciprocated and that they were in perfect harmony for many years. Still the narrator does not understand, and asks the whereabouts of White. The knight finally blurts out that White is dead."

Around the same time (c. 1370) an anonymous French poet wrote the oem "Echecs amoureux" (Chess of Lovers), a work, which later (c. 1398) became a rather voluminous prosaic work by Evrart de Conty, who used 16 Greek-Roman gods and 32 figures in the style of the "Roman de la rose" of Jean de Meung as allegories in a game between the author and a damsel ... the author loses. I haven't seen the original poem and don't know about its content (it's difficult to get any information about it), but it might well be, that it already contained Conty's basic idea.
Conty's work and his "16 gods" as chess figures might well have been the idea or Flippo Maria Visconti, who ordered the production of the Michelino deck between 1418-1425 and placed 16 gods as trumps in it: The oldest Tarot cards. Conty's text also belongs to the category "Frame stories based on game structure".

Chaucer's meta-idea for the Canterbury Tales might have been very similar:
30 figures and 30 stories for all the usual 32 chess figures without king. One of the not considered kings is naturally the figure 31, the "host", who decides in the text to accompany the 30 travelers and to play the governor of their story-telling tournament during their journey to Canterbury ... and back again to the point, where the journey started and the host naturally lived as the innkeeper. The other king (figure 32) is naturally presented by "Canterbury", the other pole of the journey.

Chaucer's choice of his rather "worldly" figures mirrors the idea of Jacob of Cessolis (wrote c. 1300) to change the usual 8 pawns to 8 professions. Cessolis' text should have been in ca. 1390 already well known.

Chaucer's idea with the "32 chess figures" is easy to see and to understand, but it get difficulties, when following it in the details of the surviving text.

This relates to the text of the introduction (called "General Prologue"), when all travelers are introduced and the meta-story is developed (compare :
001-042: Introduction
(group of 3)
043-078: The Knight
079-100: The Squire
101-117: The Yeoman
(group of 5)
118-162: The Prioress
163-164: The Second Nun and Three Priests
165-207: The Monk
208-271: The Friar
272-286: The Merchant
287-310: The Clerk
(group of 2)
311-332: The Sergeant of the Law
333-362: The Franklin
(group of 6)
363-380: The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Arras-maker, Dyer and Weaver
381-389: The Cook
390-412: The Shipman
413-446: The Physician
447-478: The Wife of Bath
(group of 2)
479-530: The Parson
531-543: The Plowman
544-568: The Miller
569-588: The Manciple
589-624: The Reeve
(group of 2)
625-670: The Summoner
671-716: The Pardoner
(additional person = the author)
717-785: The proposal of the Host
786-811: The rules of the game
812-823: The agreement
824-860: Drawing of lots
I observed, that there's some trouble with the above list and the text, which caused it. The text states, that the author met 29 persons and that he joined them ... but in the same part of the text 30 persons are listed with explaining passages (as above given and in the following list is repeated).
General Prologue, Line 20-25
In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrymage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At nyght was come into that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty [= 29] in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrimes were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.

In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay
Ready to go on pilgrimage and start
To Canterbury, full devout at heart,
There came at nightfall to that hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company
Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all
That toward Canterbury town would ride.
The disturbing list with numbers:
(group of 3)
1 The Knight
2 The Squire
3 The Yeoman
(group of 5)
4 The Prioress
5-8 The Second Nun and Three Priests
9 The Monk
10 The Friar
11 The Merchant
12 The Clerk
(group of 2)
13 The Sergeant of the Law
14 The Franklin
(group of 6)
15-19 The Haberdasher, Carpenter, Arras-maker, Dyer and Weaver
20 The Cook
21 The Shipman
22 The Physician
23 The Wife of Bath
(group of 2)
24 The Parson
25 The Plowman
26 The Miller
27 The Manciple
28 The Reeve
(group of 2)
29 The Summoner
30 The Pardoner
So there's a "funny" contradiction, and it is simply unknown, what's wrong. Various possibilities might be suggested:

1. The author made this consciously.
2. The author made it, but not consciously.
3. The error occurred in the long later process.

After I noted the error, I found, that I was not the first: ... bury_Tales
In the General Prologue, Chaucer has already checked in, when he says that 29 more arrived in a company. He then names 30 more. With Chaucer and the Host, 32 set out. They are joined by the Canon's Yeoman to make a group of 33 at the end, a suitable number of some religious significance (years of Christ's life, e.g.)

Note that 29 is also of some significance, since St. Thomas a Becket's feast day is Dec. 29.

Why the error? Probably since Chaucer the Narrator is always making quick judgments, which the reader has to take with a grain of salt. This is Chaucer the Poet's ironic way of first indicating this to us.

For more details, see Caroline Eckhardt's "The Number of Chaucer's Pilgrims: A Review and Reappraisal" in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol 5 (1975), pp. 1-18.

Read more: ... z1Vq5fSiyN
Well ... the 29th of December was the day, at which Thomas Beckett was murdered. From his youth is recorded ... :
Thomas Becket, a London merchant’s son, was a complex person – in his youth he was a normal ebullient young man, stormy and proud, selfish and arrogant, vain, and anxious to please, but in later life, became one of the most pious and devout Archbishops of the 12th century.

Despite differences in their status Thomas’s greatest friend was Henry, who was later to become King Henry II of England. They hunted and played chess together, people said the two men ‘had but one heart and one mind’.

When at the age of 21 Henry became king, Becket became his Chancellor. Both furious workers, they laboured tirelessly to bring law and order to Henry’s realm. ... Becket.htm

Here's a basketball&chess tournament announced in 2007 ...

And from chess history:
Over the years a number of famous religious leaders have played chess, they include Thomas Becket (Archbishop of Canterbury), Charles Borromeo (Bishop of Milan), Pope Gregory VI, Pope Innocent III, Pope John Paul I, Pope John Paul II, Pope Leo
X, Pope Leo XIII, Cardinal Richelieu, and Billy Graham.

So there seems to be (at least) a stronger tradition, that Thomas Beckett played chess. So my suspicion, that the Canterbury Tales in their structure are build according "chess figure ideas" get a not expected momentum.

"29th of December" ... in our research it turned clear, that the time between Christmas and 6th of January had been a preferred time for gambling and gaming in the medieval and Renaissance world. In some statutes there were game prohibitions for the rest of the year, but they were allowed around the christmas time - for logical reasons. The days are dark and cold and there is usually not much opportunity to work at the outside. So .. "gaming and gambling" was just allowed at these days, but it couldn't disturb the general work too much.

Considering this above given interpretation for the 29. September, I would set back my earlier assumption ...
Somehow not precise enough: "...One of the not considered kings is naturally the figure 31, the "host", who decides in the text to accompany the 30 travelers and to play the governor of their story-telling tournament during their journey to Canterbury ... and back again to the point, where the journey started and the host naturally lived as the innkeeper. The other king (figure 32) is naturally presented by "Canterbury", the other pole of the journey."
There are 30 persons given on the list, then there is the author (Nr. 31, although it's stated, that he is Nr. 30) and there is the host as Nr. 32. And in Canterbury a 33rd person is added to the company, so changing the company from 32 members to 33, and that's then likely understood as the time "after the chess game of life" and "in the time, when Jesus has arrived", so meant as a religious transformation caused by the pilgrimage.

I get some believe in this interpretation, as my analyses about the chess figures (in the background of this thread) fit with this assumption. I try to tell this my background theory in short.

Theses to the order of the 32 figures (provisional)

1. The first chess team is described with the persons 1-14 at the list with two figures missing (the author Nr. 31 and the host Nr. 32).

2. The figures 15-30 are 16 figures and are with that a complete half chess set.

3. Considering this from the social class perspective, than the group of 1-14 seems to present the "higher social class" and the group of 15-30 present the "lower social class".

4. The first group 1-14 is presented in two subgroups 1-8 and 9-14 (to this group the both additional figures author and host are added). The group 1-8 presents the "Queen-side" (so 4 pawn and 4 officers) and "9-14 + author + host" present the king's side. The king itself is understood as either the "host" or the "author" and the kin's pawn should be presented also by either the "host" or the "author".

5. The second group 15-30 is also presented in two subgroups 15-22 and 23-30. The subgroup 15-22 presents the 8 pawns, and the subgroup 23-30 the 8 officers.

Well, that's not "totally sure", but plausible.

How I arrived at this conclusion:

1. Between the 30 figures there are only 3 women (the Prioress, the Nun, the Wife of Bath). A usual chess set has only two female figures, the both Queens. The nun accompanies the Prioress, so it's rather impossible, that she would be the second Queen. So the Prioress is one Queen and the other is the Wife of Bath.

2. The nun naturally should be then the "Queen's pawn" and for the Wife of Bath (Nr. 23) one can see, that she is accompanied by the Physician (Nr. 22). The physician appears already in the Cessolis chess interpretation (very likely known to Chaucer) as the "Queen's pawn".

3. In the researches to the Chess Tarot already some observations had been done, that the Queen's pawn had a very special function (opening the chess game). For the Cary-Yale Tarocchi - for instance - it is assumed, that the pawn row was presented by 7 virtues and the card Love queen's pawn), similar in the associations to Charles VI Tarot. These "suspicions" were confirmed, when the chess versions "short assize" were detected ...



... about which is stated:
"The short assize" (French court assize = "short sitting") is Harold James Ruthven Murray's name for a chess variant that was played in medieval Europe. It was somewhat like sittuyin but developed independently, probably to get the armies into contact sooner. It was current in England and Paris in the second half of the 12th century, and perhaps at other times and/or places.
As a curiosity we have two figures at one position in the opening (Queen + pawn)
In Conty's "Echecs amoureux" (1398) still a similar position is used:


4. The Prioress (Nr. 4) is presented after 3 martial figures (1-3: Knight, Squire, Yeoman), who according the text "travel together". The Yeoman (according text) fights with a bow (the chess bishop had been occasionally presented as bow shooter), the squire, who is the son of the knight, has favor for the cavalry ("He'd ridden sometime with the cavalry, In Flanders, in Artois, and Picardy", so he's similar to the knight in chess, presented with horse) and the knight himself seems to present the rook (which in old chess definitely had been the strongest figure).
The nun (Nr. 5) is grouped together with 3 not named "Priests" (6-8) - these have no individuality, as it is common for pawns in chess (but different in the Cessolis interpretation). In Chaucer's chess interpretation of the Canterbury Tales all other 29 figures find some individuality, the 3 priests are the only exception. It seems, that Chaucer wishes to remember the "pawn as in old times (before Cessolis) with this quality.

So the first 8 figures mirror relatively clearly the situation of a quarter of the chess-figures at the board, not too difficult to decipher.

6. Following now the wisdom, that the Prioress and the Wife of Bath MUST BE the Queens and the Physician must be the Queen's pawn, then it's easily deciphered, that the Wife of Bath (No 23) is followed by 7 others (No 24-30) and the Physician (No 22) is preceded by 7 others (No 15-21). In this situation helps the block of 6 persons, which (according text) travel together: Haberdasher, Carpenter, Arras-maker, Dyer and Weaver, which employ a 6th person, the Cook, for their needs (15-20). This big 6-persons-group naturally MUST BE pawns, as they can't be sorted elsewhere. It's confusing, that the group starts at Nr. 15 (and not at Nr. 17) and Chaucer had installed his "29 travelers riddle" to add to the confusion, but finally it's clear, that there are pawns from 15 - 22, and that the 6-men-group is completed with 21 The Shipman and 22 The Physician.

Chaucer transfers and changes the professions of the earlier Cessolis interpretation, but keeps in this row to the Physician as Queen's pawn, uses his Cook as Innkeeper (Cessolis-figure) and likely understands the shipman as the funny messenger or player from Cessolis. From the 5 professions the Arras-maker, Dyer and Weaver seem to be connected professions and in context to a "shipman" I feel there's something of the story of Ulysses and Penelope. But the evidence is thin, as there are no stories of Haberdasher & Co and only the Cook gets a short passage, which Chaucer never finished:
Decription: The Cook reflects on the Reeve's tale and the Host asks the Cook to tell the next tale. The story introduces an apprentice nicknamed Perkin Reveller. Perkin is a thief, a drunk and a rioter. Chaucer has never finished the Cook's tale.
Perkin Reveller is, beside other nasty occupations, a dice-player (see the short unfinished Cook Tale. This naturally fits with the Cessolis iconography, which knows the messenger as Dice Player with 3 dice in his hands.


The 5-persons-arrangement would make possibly more sense, if "Carpenter" would be - as Penelope - Carpet-Producer or had something to do with carpets. Possibly a reading error?


... :-) ... so far I think, that's enough to explain my own statement at the begin of the article ...
Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" belong to the category "Framed Story" and also - possibly - to the category "Framed story with Game structure", though this is far from sure, as the Tales were never completed.

The related game is Chess ... in this case.

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