Image of the Wheel of Fortune on a 19th-century Swiss Tarot card. According to the Monk, people's fates depend on whether Fortune is pleased with them or not.

"The Monk's Tale" (Middle English: "The Monkes Tale") forms part of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It is made up of seventeen short biographies in verse. Those whose life stories are told include figures from mythology, the Bible and ancient history as well as people who were contemporaries of Chaucer.

The Monk, who is the tale's supposed narrator, announces that he is going to talk on the subject of tragedy. All of the people about whom he speaks were once powerful or important. All of them suffered terrible falls from grace or died horrible deaths. The Monk explains to his audience that his intention is to show them that they cannot expect to live in happiness and comfort for their entire lives. He also intends to show his listeners that they cannot escape the fate which Fortune has selected for them. In "The Monk's Tale", Fortune is treated as a living being who has power over all people's lives. The Monk explains that he will not necessarily follow chronological order when telling his stories but will tell each tale as he remembers it.

Chaucer's primary sources for "The Monk's Tale" are On the Fortunes of Famous Men, a work written in Latin by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio, and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.


Monumento a Lucifer

Statue of the fallen angel Lucifer in Madrid, Spain.


As an angel, Lucifer was not subject to Fortune as people are. However, as punishment for his sin, Lucifer, once the most beautiful of all angels, was cast out of Heaven. He now abides in Hell as Satan and has no hope of recovering his former glory.


Adam was once master of everything on Earth, except for the one tree from which he was forbidden to eat. As punishment for eating from that tree, Adam was cast out of the Earthly paradise, was forced to work in order to live and was destined ultimately to die.


Samson destroys the temple. 1890 Bible illustration.

Samson[1] was the strongest man in the world. His accomplishments included killing a thousand of his enemies armed only with the jawbone of an ass and tearing a lion to pieces with his bare hands. The secret of his strength lay in his long hair which had never been cut.

After Samson revealed the secret of his strength to his wife Delilah, she betrayed him. She cut off his hair while he was sleeping. He was then taken prisoner by his enemies the Philistines who blinded him. Samson was put on display during a feast which the Philistines held in their temple. He shook two of the temple's pillars, causing the building to collapse and kill himself and everyone else inside it.

The Monk says that the story of Samson proves that men should not reveal their secrets to their wives.

Death of Hercules, Raoul Lefevre, Histoires de Troyes, 15 century

The death of Hercules as depicted in a 15th-century French manuscript.

Hercules slew more monsters than any man who ever lived. His fame quickly spread around the world. He also traveled all over the world and did not meet a stronger man than he was anywhere.

Whether knowingly or otherwise, Hercules' lover Dejanira gave him a shirt which was coated with poison. When Hercules put the shirt on, the flesh began to fall off his bones. Rather than slowly dying of poisoning, Hercules chose to build a funeral pyre and burn himself alive.


King Nebuchadnezzar[2] conquered Jerusalem and brought its treasures back to his center of power in Babylon. He had an enormous gold statue built and ordered everyone to worship it. Those who disobeyed were burned alive in a furnace.

God punished Nebuchadnezzar by making him go mad. He behaved like an animal and started to look like one too. He ate hay and stayed out in the rain with wild beasts. His hair began to look like feathers and his nails looked like a bird's claws.

After a few years, God restored Nebuchadnezzar's reason and he lived in righteousness for the rest of his life.

Rembrandt - Belshazzar's Feast - WGA19123

Belshazzar's Feast, 17th century oil painting by Rembrandt.

Belshazzar[3] was the son and heir of Nebuchadnezzar but failed to learn from his example.

During a feast, Belshazzar, his courtiers, wives and concubines drank wine and toasted their gods using chalices which had been taken from the Temple in Jerusalem. A disembodied hand then appeared and wrote "mane takel phares" on a wall. The Hebrew prophet Daniel was called upon to interpret what had happened. Daniel told Belshazzar that he would be punished for his blasphemy. He would soon die and leave no legacy to speak of because his kingdom would be divided between the Medes and the Persians.

Belshazzar was killed later the same evening and his kingdom was divided as Daniel said it would be.


Zenobia[4] the Queen of Palmyra was a wealthy and wise woman. The Monk chooses not say that she was the most beautiful woman in the world but says that she was not unattractive. From childhood, she enjoyed taking part in traditionally manly activities. She began hunting deer when she was still a girl and later hunted lions, leopards and bears too. Zenobia remained a virgin for many years but was eventually persuaded to marry a prince called Odeanthus. Initially, Odeanthus did not want to marry Zenobia either. However, the two soon came to love each other and had two sons.

La reina Zenobia ante el emperador Aureliano

Emperor Aurelian and his prisoner Queen Zenobia. Early 18th century oil painting by Giovanni Battista Tiesolo.

Odeanthus and Zenobia conquered many cities which had previously been colonies of Rome. After Odeanthus died, Zenobia retained control of those cities. Other lands also paid tribute to Zenobia to prevent her from invading them. The Roman emperor Claudius made no move against her.

When Aurelian became the new Emperor of Rome, he immediately declared war on Zenobia. The queen was defeated. She tried to escape but was captured and taken to Rome. Zenobia's two sons were forced to pull her golden chariot in Aurelian's victory parade. Zenobia walked at the head of the procession, wearing golden chains around her neck.

King Peter of Castile

King Peter of Castile[5] was chased out of his kingdom by his own brother. Following a siege, he was taken prisoner. He was led to a tent where his own brother killed him. His brother then took over the throne.

King Peter of Cyprus
Assassinat Pierre de Lusignan, roi de Chypre

The murder of King Peter of Cyprus as depicted in a 15th-century French manuscript.

King Peter of Cyprus[6] was famous for leading a Crusade which captured the Egyptian city of Alexandria. However, he was murdered in his sleep by some of his courtiers simply because they were jealous of him.

Bernabò Visconti

Bernabò Visconti,[7] the former Lord of Milan died in prison. He was imprisoned by his nephew who was also his daughter's husband. The Monk does not know the reason why the Lord's nephew had him imprisoned.

Ugolino of Pisa

Ruggieri the Bishop of Pisa told lies about Count Ugolino[8] which caused his people to rise up against him. He and his three small sons (the youngest of whom was aged three and the oldest of whom was aged five) were imprisoned in a tower. At first, Ugolino and his children were not given enough to eat or drink. It was later decided to stop giving them any food and kill them by starvation.

After Ugolino's youngest son starved to death, he bit both of his own arms in grief. Thinking that their father was biting himself because he was hungry, Ugolino's other children told him that he could eat them instead. Ugolino and his other children died soon afterwards.

The Monk tells his listeners that they can read a full account of the story in Dante's Divine Comedy.

John William Waterhouse - The Remorse of the Emperor Nero after the Murder of his Mother

Nero as depicted in a 19th-century oil painting by John William Waterhouse.

The Roman emperor Nero[9] was once the most powerful man in the world and lived in great luxury. He wore new clothes every day and wore each piece of clothing only once. He was also extremely wicked. He had sex with his own sister. He killed his own brother. He also killed his own mother simply because he wanted to see the inside of the womb where he had grown. He had Senators murdered just because he wanted to hear their screams and set fire to Rome simply for his own amusement.

For a while, Nero's old tutor Seneca stood up to him and told him that he was behaving in a manner unbecoming of an emperor. Eventually, Seneca realized that his life was in danger and chose to commit suicide.

Fortune eventually decided that she had favored the wicked Nero long enough. The Roman people rose up against him and stormed his palace. Nero ran into the garden. He asked two servants there to save him from the mob's wrath by killing him. The two servants refused and Nero had to kill himself.


Holofernes[10] was the foremost soldier of his age and became very proud and arrogant as a result. However, after he had been drinking, a woman called Judith crept into his tent while he was sleeping and killed him by cutting off his head.

Antiokhos IV

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Antiochus[11] was a proud king. He fancied that he could even possess the stars and that the tides would obey him. He had a particular hatred for the Jews and their God.

When Antiochus was preparing to attack Jerusalem, God punished him by giving him a painful wound in his intestines. Nevertheless, Antiochus continued with his invasion. God punished him again by making him fall out of his chariot and be run over by its wheels. Afterwards, Antiochus was unable to walk and had to be carried around in a chair.

Antiochus' flesh then became infested with worms. As a result, he began to smell very bad. Eventually, the people who carried him in his chair could not put up with the stink of his rotting flesh any longer and left him to die on top of a hill.

Alexander the Great
With an effort he looked at them as they passed

Early 20th century depiction of the death of Alexander the Great by Walter Crane.

The Monk says that the story of Alexander the Great is so well known that there is no need to retell it in detail. He notes that Alexander was King of Greece for twelve years, defeated Darius and thousands of other kings, princes, dukes and earls. He conquered some towns on the strength of his celebrity alone, the people of those towns asking him to come there and take possession of them. However, according to the Monk, Fortune suddenly turned against Alexander and he was poisoned by his own men.

Julius Caesar

According to the Monk, Julius Caesar rose from humble beginnings to become the Emperor of Rome[12] Through a mixture of military skill and diplomacy, he won all the lands of the west for Rome. After defeating his father-in-law Pompey he took control of the lands of the east too.

Brutus Cassius[13] grew envious of Caesar. He and other conspirators stabbed Caesar to death with daggers when he went to the Capitol.

The Monk notes that, even while he was dying, Caesar made sure to cover up his genitals with his robe.

Claude Vignon - Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (detail)

Croesus as depicted in a 17th-century oil painting by Claude Vignon.

King Croesus[14] was captured by his enemies and was sentenced to be burned alive. However, it rained very heavily, the fire was put out and Croesus escaped. The king failed to learn from the experience and went to war again.

Croesus became even more proud after he had a dream in which he was in the company of the gods. In his dream, Croesus was in a tree. Jupiter, the king of the gods, washed him and the sun god Phoebus dried him with a towel. However, when Croesus asked his daughter Phanes what the dream's meaning was, she told him it meant that he would be hanged. The tree represented the gallows. The washing by Jupiter and the drying by Phoebus meant that his dead body would stay out in the rain, snow and sun.

Phanes' prediction came true and Croesus was hanged.

The Monk says that he can tell many more such tragic stories. However, he is stopped after he finishes telling the story of Croesus. The Knight says that he cannot stand to hear more of those distressing tales and the Host agrees with him.


  1. The story of Samson is told in the Biblical Book of Judges. Chaucer spells his name as "Sampson" and Delilah's name as "Dalila".
  2. Nebuchadnezzar II (circa 605 BCE - 562 BCE) was a King of Assyria. He figures prominently in the Biblical Book of Daniel and is referred to in several other books of the Bible too. Chaucer calls him "Nabuchodonosor".
  3. Belshazzar lived in the 6th century BCE. He was the last King of Babylon. He features prominently in the Biblical Book of Daniel. Chaucer calls him "Balthasar".
  4. Zenobia (240 CE - circa 275 CE) was a Syrian queen who fought against the Roman Empire.
  5. Peter of Castile (1344 - 1369), also known as "Peter the Cruel" and "Peter the Just", became king of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon in 1350. Chaucer calls him "Pedro of Spain".
  6. Peter I of Cyprus, also known as Pierre de Lusignan, (1328 - 1369) became Count of Tripoli in 1346, King of Cyprus in 1357, King of Jerusalem (in name only) in 1358 and Latin King of Armenia in 1361 or 1368. Chaucer calls him "Petro of Cipre".
  7. Bernabò Visconti (1322 - 1385) was an Italian soldier and statesman. He became Lord of Milan in 1349. Chaucer calls him "Barnabo Viscount".
  8. Ugolino della Gherardesca (circa 1220 -1289) was an Italian nobleman, politician and naval commander. Chaucer calls him "Hugoline of Pise".
  9. Nero was Emperor of Rome from 54 CE to 68 CE. The Great Fire of Rome of 64 CE occurred during his reign. Nero has been accused of having started the fire in order to clear ground for the construction of a new palatial complex. Nero was driven from the throne following a rebellion. Believing that he was to be executed as an enemy of the people, Nero chose to commit suicide instead on June 9, 68 CE. Most accounts written by contemporaries of Nero portray him as a cruel tyrant, although the veracity of those accounts has been questioned by some modern historians.
  10. The story of Holofernes is told in the Biblical Book of Judith. The Book of Judith is included in the Old Testament of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Bibles. It is not included in Jewish or Protestant Bibles.
  11. Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a Greek who became a king of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BCE. In Jewish tradition, he is remembered as a terrible villain. He is called "the wicked" in Rabbinical literature.
  12. Either Chaucer or the Monk is mistaken. Julius Caesar was Consul and Dictator of the Roman Republic but was never Emperor of Rome.
  13. Again, either Chaucer or the Monk is mistaken. Julius Caesar was not killed by a man called Brutus Cassius. Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus were two of the conspirators involved in the plot to assassinate Caesar.
  14. Croesus (595 BCE - 547 BCE) became King of Lydia in 560 BCE.

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