‘Mordre wol out’: Murder and Justice in Chaucer

in Medieval and Early Modern Murder: Legal, Literary and Historical Contexts, ed. Larissa Tracy, 115–36 (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2018).

By Larissa Tracy

In modern parlance, the phrase ‘murder will out’ means that a secret will eventually be revealed, that murder cannot go undetected.[1] The roots of this idiom trace back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, part of his fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales (c. 1388–92),[2] in which the hysterical Chaunticleer, a well-known rooster of French fable, dreams of murder in his sleep, imagining it as a portent of his own death in the jaws of the ever-present, preying fox Reynard. But Chaunticleer and his (primary) wife Pertelote bicker like hens over its significance, and she dismisses his fear, telling him ‘“For Goddes love, as taak som laxatyf”’ (2943). In this particular tale, murder seems almost a side note to the greater concerns of the narrative: the pride of Chaunticleer and his willingness to listen to Pertelote that lands him in mortal danger, the very danger that he imagined from the beginning. Though embedded in humor and satire, this episode reveals a distinct desire for justice in the discovery and prosecution of murder, while, at the same time, cautioning against the application of judicial torture in the process of law.[3] When Chaucer composed this fable, England was embroiled in civil unrest which manifested in uprisings and rebellions like the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, as well as royal intrigue and dissent that led to the deposition of King Richard II in 1399 and his murder (through starvation) in 1400 — the same year of Chaucer’s death.[4] Murder, treason and violence were prominent features of the late-fourteenth century political and social landscape, often echoed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.[5] However, in this seemingly silly beast fable and other tales of murder, Chaucer draws a sharp distinction between illicit murder, mob violence and justice, thus suggesting that overstepping legal boundaries in the application of torture, even in the correct prosecution of murder, has a destabilizing effect and potentially leads to further violence and bloodshed.

Murder occurs in many of Chaucer’s tales: The Physician’s Tale describes the murder of Virginia by her father to save her from the sexual attentions of an unjust judge; The Prioress’s Tale centers around the murder of a young Christian clergeon and the subsequent torture and execution of the entire Jewish population of a Turkish ghetto; and The Man of Law’s Tale features massacre, murder, betrayal and finally restitution and redemption. There are murders recounted in the Monk’s Tale, some gruesome and tragic (like that of Hugelino of Pisa) and others of justly murdered murderers (like those of Nero and Holofernes). The Tale of Melibee opens with the assault on Melibee’s wife and the mortal wounding (via five wounds) of his daughter. The Pardoner’s Tale chastises the sins of blasphemy and greed that lead to murder.  But murder is one thing; torture is a bird of a different feather entirely. Chaucer generally makes torture an unpleasant thorn in the judicial side — legal in rare circumstances, but not advisable and certainly not laudable. The Man of Law’s Tale (hereafter MoLT), Prioress’s Tale (hereafter PT) and Nun’s Priest’s Tale (hereafter NPT) are tales of murder which also include singular references to interrogatory torture, a practice that ran contrary to English common law of the fourteenth century. Each fiction includes traces of historical fact that gauge and adjudicate the realities of English law and justice, including the prosecution of murder.

[1] ‘murder will out’. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/murder–will–out (accessed: 20 May 20 2016). Also see: John Ayto, The Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 236.

[2] Larry D. Benson, Introduction, The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. xxix. All quotations from the various texts of the Canterbury Tales are taken from this edition. Line numbers are given in parentheses.

[3] This essay is an expansion of some material in Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature: Negotiations of National Identity (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012), especially chapter 4, which deals extensively with the Prioress’s Tale. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale receive a much fuller treatment here, with a specific focus on murder, as well as torture, in fourteenth century English law. My deepest gratitude goes to Jeff Massey for his comments and suggestions on this chapter.

[4] In fact, Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor argue that Chaucer may have been caught up in the court politics of Richard II and they analyze the suspicious circumstances regarding Chaucer’s death around the time the king was murdered. Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003).

[5] John Scattergood, ‘Social and Political Issues in Chaucer: An Approach to Lak of Stedfastnesse’, Reading the Past: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Medieval Studies (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1996), pp. 192–214 at p. 192. See: Rory McTurk, Chaucer and the Norse and Celtic Worlds (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005). McTurk makes a compelling argument not only for Chaucer’s political activities but also that his work was shaped by his travels in Ireland during the course of his political career. See also: Frances McCormack, Chaucer and the Culture of Dissent: The Lollard Context and Subtext of the Parson’s Tale (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2007) and Alastair Minnis, Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).