Chaucerian Parrhesia: World-building and truth-telling in The Canterbury Tales and ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’


This essay examines the role of parrhesia (i.e., free, frank, or fearless speech) in three Canterbury TalesThe Second Nun’s Tale, The Tale of Melibee, and The Manciple’s Tale – in which Chaucer explores how the desire to play the parrhesiastes and anxieties about parrhesia’s dangerousness can serve as catalysts in the production of literary worlds. By way of conclusion, it argues that Chaucer’s short poem ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’ might archive a quasi-parrhesiastic utterance directed at the despotic King Richard II, and that a modern conception of Chaucer as a non-polemical ironist has prevented many critics from reading it as such.

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  1. 1.

    For a secondary discussion of Foucault on parrhesia, see Flynn (1988), 102–118.

  2. 2.

    Since Chaucer was not aware of the ancient Greek discourse on parrhesia out of which Foucault constructs his five qualifications, this essay will not devote much energy to analyzing which of his literary utterances fulfill all five. Instead, I use parrhesia rather loosely to mean something like ‘speaking truth to power.’

  3. 3.

    All citations of Chaucer refer to Chaucer (1987) and give abbreviated titles of individual works and line numbers.

  4. 4.

    For two excellent examples of the myriad critical readings of Chaucer’s endless self-textualization, see Patterson (1989) and Gust (2009).

  5. 5.

    For the Biblical account of the Canaanite woman, see Matthew 15:21–28 and Mark 7:24–30 (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 2001, 31 NT and 71 NT). For a critical account of Chaucer’s appropriation thereof in The Second Nun’s Prologue, see Dobbs (2013).

  6. 6.

    Admittedly, neither Cecilia nor Prudence speaks ‘truth’ in the sense of an objective representation of reality. Instead, they speak ‘truth’ in the sense of morally virtuous conviction. Their utterances qualify as parrhesia, I think, insofar as they both clearly believe in the validity of the policy advocate.


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This research was conducted by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Project Number CE110001011). The author would like to thank Eileen A. Joy for her sage advice getting this essay off the ground, as well as Leila K. Norako, Lara Farina, and the anonymous readers at postmedieval for their insightful comments during the editorial process.

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Megna, P. Chaucerian Parrhesia: World-building and truth-telling in The Canterbury Tales and ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’. Postmedieval 9, 30–43 (2018).

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