Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Tale of Sir Thopas": Elements of Parody and Satire

Seminar Paper, 2010
16 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Medieval Romance

3 Parodied Aspects of Content
3.1 Sir Thopas the Anti-Hero
3.2 Sir Thopas and His “Almost-Battle”
3.3 Love in Sir Thopas and Romances

4 Parodied Formal Aspects
4.1 Rhyming
4.2 Mechanical Style in Descriptions
4.3 Introductions by the Minstrel
4. 4 Structure and a Fitting End

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

With The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer created one of the greatest works of Medieval English literature. Written at the end of the 14th century, the Tales deal with a group of people who set out on a pilgrimage. Part of that group is the literary representation of Chaucer himself, the pilgrim Chaucer. After the solemn and slightly disturbing “The Prioress’s Tale”, the party is somewhat cast down, and therefore the host ushers Chaucer the pilgrim to “telle us a tale of myrthe, and that anon” (l. 706)[1] . What then follows is one of the funniest, but also absurd moments in the whole Canterbury Tales. Chaucer tells the tale of Sir Thopas, a story that lampoons the genre of romance, which was very popular in his time. This paper is devoted to giving an insight into how Chaucer managed to create the funniest work in The Canterbury Tales and, by showing how it not was, drawing a wonderful picture of one of the most popular literary genres of his time. By conversing nearly all traditions and standards of that genre into the very opposite, paired with Chaucer’s unique style of humour and writing, he has created one of the finest parodies (or burlesque) to be found in Medieval English literature. However, to understand a parody requires the audience to be familiar with the genre or tradition that is being parodied in order to be understood in its full extent. The necessity for this is proven by the fact that until around 1774 Sir Thopas was regarded as a serious representative for his genre. Thomas Warton was among the first to suggest that Sir Thopas was in fact a parody that mocked nearly all aspects of traditional romances (Dane).[2] In order to understand the full range of the aspects of romances that Chaucer changed or parodied, it is first necessary to gain an impression about a typical romance of that time. Then, since the main hero plays a crucial role and is almost always in the centre of the story, one has to have a closer look at the main character, Sir Thopas. However, Chaucer did not only make fun of the hero himself but also of the actions he undertakes and, linked to that, the understanding of love that romances usually conveyed. Apart from the content, Chaucer aimed his parody also at formal aspects of romances, including the mechanical style, their sometimes terrible rimes, and even the uncreativeness of the minstrels. Though the whole story is a single mess, Chaucer was able to bring it to a skilful and fitting “end”.

2 The Medieval Romance

Romance originated in France and was a very popular literary genre that was originally narrated in verse, but later also in prose. By the 14th century, the flourishing of the genre was over in France and Germany. It was at this time, however, that the old material was taken up again and changed in order to suit the different taste in England. Still, these works were not mere imitations but rather own developments and adaptions (Mehl 2).[3] A typical romance would tell a story about a knight that goes on one or several quests. Standard elements would be for one thing the damsel in distress, who often causes the quest as she needs to be rescued, and also introduces the element of love. Besides many others, usual components would be magic (e.g. wizards or magical items), an arch enemy or monster as well as stock scenes and battles. Many romances based on historical events which were often altered in order to make them more “fashionable”. There were basically three themes a romance would deal with: “The Matter of Rome” (centred around the life of Alexander the Great), “The Matter of France” (Charlemagne and Roland, his paladin), and “The Matter of Great Britain“ (King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail), though some rather popular romances cannot be counted amongst these cycles, e.g. King Horn or Haveloc the Dane. Romances would normally be presented by minstrels who sang or spoke the story for their courteous audience. However, exactly because romances were so popular, Chaucer was able to parody that genre in the first place, as it is not worth the effort of making fun of something when only a few people realise the joke. Since many people were familiar with the standard structure and elements of romances, Chaucer could lampoon their tradition and be sure that people knew exactly what he was aiming at.

3 Parodied Aspects of Content

3.1 Sir Thopas the Anti-Hero

The first parody element of the poem can already be found in the name of its hero. At Chaucer’s time, a topaz was considered a lucky charm for chastity. And indeed, Sir Thopas “was chast and no lechour” (l. 745). However, this emerald was normally used by young women to help them keeping chaste, not by men or even knights (Woodburn). In addition, Thopas was, at that time, a name usually used for girls and, therefore, naming a knight “Thopas” would be like calling him “Elizabeth” or “Isabel”. Regardless which option was Chaucer’s intention (or maybe even both), the name of the hero already indicates who will play the main role: a rather feminine “knight” who is contradicting nearly all expectations concerning a proper hero for a romance. However, Sir Thopas’ name has another meaning: in the middle ages, the topaz was known to reflect images like a hollow mirror, i.e. upside down. By naming Sir Thopas as he did, Chaucer very subtly hints his audience that his hero is going to be the opposite of what they are used to and therefore expect him to be.

There is a whole series of things that depict Sir Thopas as being perfect example for what a typical hero of a romance was not like. The short description of Thopas’ lineage adds further disturbing details: first, the contradiction of “fer contree” and and “Flandres”, a country which no fourteenth-century Londoner could have regarded as either remote or romantic”, and, second, the discordant name of the town of “Poperyng” (Burrow). There again is a reference to Thopas’ femininity, as “Popernyng” is a town famous for the quality of its clothes and pears. (Keith). In the Middle Ages, the production of clothes was regarded a work exclusively for women, and the shape of the pear is rather feminine (companion)[4] . On top of all that, Thopas is the “lord of that contree”, which is underlining his femininity even more. The impression of having quite unmanly a hero as main figure becomes a certainty when considering the description of Thopas’ appearance. In the middle ages, it was a widely held belief that one could derive a person’s character traits from their bodily aspects. As to Sir Thopas, he was “fair and gent” with “sides smale”. Metham’s Physiognomy explains the significance of this: “The sydys, quan thei be sclender and pleyn, thei sygnyfye ferffulnes” (Metham)[5] . Many other aspects contribute to Thopas’s lady-like look: “His lippes [are] rede as rose”, “his rode (a term meaning complexion and applied almost exclusively to women) lyk scarlet in grayn”, his face “ payndemayn”, and, finally, his “seemly nose” (Keith). All these aspects resemble the image of the perfect courteous lady. What adds to his unknightly demeanour is his style of clothing, which makes him unsuited for even the simplest knight errands. His hair and beard have grown so long that they “to his girdle raughte adoun” (l. 731). In addition, he wears shoes from Cordovan, brown hoses from Bruges, and a silk robe – all very costly items, but totally unfit for setting out on adventure. At first sight, Thopas may still have some qualities that make him fit for being a knight as “he was a good archer” and “of wrastlyng was ther noon his peer” (l. 739). However, here again he disappoints his audience. Archering was not a knightly sport but rather that of a yeoman, which was more or less the name for a better farmer. Wrestling as well was a sport of the low classes, as can be seen in The Canterbury Tales: the Miller is best at this profession and being put in one line with that dubious character is surely not a compliment for a knight. Taking all these things together, it is clear that Chaucer intended Sir Thopas to be the perfect anti-hero, and an audience familiar with the tradition of romance surely recognised that intention at once. By giving Thopas all the attributes that contradict a classical romantic hero, Chaucer turns him into a personified joke about the somewhat unrealistic and deified image of these heroes


[1] In the following, citations that refer to the text of Sir Thopas itself are abbreviated thus (l. for line). All other sources are fully indicated. For the text of Sir Thopas see: Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas.” The Riverside Chaucer: Based on the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson et al. Oxford: OUP, 1988. 212-217. Print.

[2] For a elaborate discussion about how the view on some of Chaucer’s works (including Sir Thopas) changed in time see: Dane, Joseph A. “Genre and Authority: The Eighteenth-Century Creation of Chaucerian Burlesque.“The Huntington Library Quarterly 48 (1985): 345-362. Jstor. Web. <>

[3] For a more detailed description about the origin of Middle English romances see: Mehl, Dieter. The Middle English Romances of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries . London : Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968. Print.

[4] Karl Wentersdorf suggested that the pears of Popering have a phallus-like shape and thus are a symbol for the male lover. This would contradict the argument of the pears being a symbol for Thopas’ femininity, redirecting the joke more into the direction of Thopas’ presumed chastity. For more details see: Wentersdorf, Karl. “Imagery, Structure and Theme in Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.” Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: a Casebook. Ed. Lee Patterson. Oxford: OUP, 2007. 115-136. Print.

[5] For more details on the concept of physiognomy in the Middle Ages see: Metham, John. The Works of John Metham. Ed. Hardin Craig. Charleston: Bibliobazaar, 2009. 118-145. Print.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Tale of Sir Thopas": Elements of Parody and Satire
University of Tubingen  (English Department)
Underground Literature in Medieval England
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Chaucer, Thopas, Medieval, Canterbury, Tales
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Gregor Schönfelder (Author), 2010, Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Tale of Sir Thopas": Elements of Parody and Satire, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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