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This is the second tale told by Chaucer himself as a character within the tales. It has long been regarded as a joke on the part of Chaucer that, after being interrupted by the host Harry Bailly, Chaucer launches into one of the longest and some would say most boring of all the tales.
The idea that Melibee is simply told by Chaucer to bore the listeners in revenge for having his first story, Sir Thopas, interrupted and compared to a turd ignores Harry's reaction to the tale. Harry seems to have enjoyed the story and says that he wishes his wife had heard it as she might learn something from Dame Prudence, one of its characters. It is Harry who originally complains about Sir Thopas for its lewedness meaning boorish or uneducated rather than rude. He then asks for a tale in prose, something with some doctryne, which is exactly what he received.
The tale is a translation of the Livre de Melibée et de Dame Prudence by Renaud de Louens and this may account for the slightly stilted language when compared to the other tales of Chaucer's own creation. Renaud's work is in turn a very loose translation of Liber consolationis et consilii by Albertanus of Brescia and this suggests the story was popular at this time. One final fact which argues against the tale being just a long-winded joke, is that the joke must wear thin very quickly and does not need to be dragged on for over a thousand lines. Many modern English editions of the Tales (such as the Penguin Classics edition translated by Nevill Coghill) omit it entirely, providing a brief plot summary and discussing the religious and philosophical intentions of the story briefly.
The story concerns Melibee who is away one day when three enemies break into his house, beat his wife Dame Prudence, and attack his daughter, leaving her for dead. The tale then proceeds as a long debate mainly between Melibee and his wife on what actions to take and how to seek redress from his enemies. His wife, as her name suggests, counsels prudence and chides him for his rash opinions. The discussion uses many proverbs and quotes from learned authorities and the Bible as each make their points. Dame Prudence is a woman discussing the role of the wife within marriage in a similar way to the Wife of Bath and the wife in The Shipman's Tale.