Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Professor Chauncey Wood


This dissertation provides a close analysis of the use of sententiae and narrative exempla in five of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, those of the Nun's Priest, the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, the Summoner, and the Parson. The handling of these illustrative materials is examined within the framework of traditional and late medieval on theory and practice. Major commentators such as St. Paul, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great, Alain de Lille, and Wycliffe had much to say over the centuries concerning the character of the Christian preacher or "rethor" and the nature of pulpit oratory generally. Chaucer, it is argued, was keenly aware of preachers and their sermons. He knew of both not only in the abstract from the theorists but in a very real sense from immediate experience. Without doubt, preaching was the most important and pervasive form of institutionalized oral expression of the fourteenth century.

This study shows how Chaucer deliberately evokes the atmosphere of a medieval preaching situation in the five tales named above, doing so especially through the manner in which sententiae and narrative exempla are presented. It is concluded that he thus sheds light on the characters of those who are preaching and that he thereby gives a particularly sharp focus to the satire that is operating in these tales. It is further concluded that the role of The Parson's Prologue and Tale in the moral scheme of The Canterbury Tales becomes paramount when viewed in the light of the good priest's attitude toward and handling of illustrative sententiae, and narratives.

Chaucer's indebtedness to the artes praedicandi and to homiletic materials of various kinds has not hitherto escaped the attention of scholars. Neither has his use of sententiae and narrative exempla. No previous study, however, had made an in-depth analysis of such illustrative materials within the context of traditional and contemporary conceptions of the Christian preacher and the sermon. The purpose of this dissertation is to fill this gap in the scholarship. The value in such an undertaking is two-fold. First of all, it should help to give the reader a renewed appreciation of Chaucer's achievement as a literary artist: by closely scrutinizing the poet's treatment of two major commonplaces of pulpit rhetoric one is able to understand more fully how he went about the business of his craft. Secondly, the moral thrust of The Canterbury Tales is more forcefully felt when special attention is paid to the use of sermons illustrations by such outspoken pilgrims as the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, and the Parson. The latter serves as a moral touchstone on the road to Canterbury, a fact that has received increasing scholarly attention in the last few years. None of these studies, however, has recognized sufficiently the dynamic homiletic qualities of the Parson's presentation, especially his lucid and logical treatment of Biblical sententiae. This study shows how, in both the content and method of his discourse, the Parson provides the orthodox answer to the false preaching of those who have preceded him.

Files over 3MB may be slow to open. For best results, right-click and select "save as..."