Twelve Chaucerian Limericks

for Paul Freeman

Some pilgrims went riding to Kent,
And here’s how the journey was spent:
As they traipsed through the dale
They each told a tale
Of sacred or worldly intent.

Some of the stories were clean,
And others absurd or obscene.
Whether gentle or lout,
Each pilgrim cranked out
Tales noble or pious or mean.

One hundred and twenty all told
Was the number of tales to unfold.
But Chaucer dropped dead
Like a sinker of lead
And twenty or so’s what we hold.

The Knight’s Tale, chivalric and pure,
Was about courtly love, and I’m sure
Folks listened politely
But in truth (and quite rightly)
Found it dreary and hard to endure.

The Miller respected no rule—
He was vulgar, obtuse, and uncool.
He showed no restraint
In his tale of young queynte
And a fart in the face of a fool.

The Clerk spoke of patient Griselda:
How nothing her spouse asked repelled her.
It was all just a test
And she proved herself best,
But I think any more would have felled her.

The Nun’s Priest described a proud chicken
Whose dream caused his terrors to thicken.
A fox came and grabbed him
But the smart bird out-blabbed him
And so he’s alive and still kickin’.

The Summoner solved an impasse:
How to equally share a fart’s gas.
For a friar had one
He was given in fun
When groping around some guy’s ass.

The Reeve’s Tale is sordid and lewd
And shouldn’t be read by a prude.
While a bully was sleeping
Two students went creeping
And his wife and his daughter were screwed.

The Wife of Bath married quite often
(Five spouses went off in a coffin).
Her tale touched on strife
Between husband and wife
And why female strength shouldn’t soften.

The Pardoner told of three men
Who went out to murder, but then
Their vile greed for pelf
Brought them to Death itself,
And now they’re in Lucifer’s pen.

As for the rest, I keep still—
Their complexities baffle my skill.
But read ‘em, I’m urgin’
(Whether harlot or virgin)
To get a medievalist thrill.



Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.

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19 Responses

  1. Damian Robin

    Thanks for the education, a bit of an elevation to who’ve not read them all but can see they’re a ball and gain much from this learned impregnation.

    Thank you, Dr J

  2. James A. Tweedie

    At least, if not more entertaining than the original!

    Now if only you can do the same with The Faerie Queene . . .

    Merry Christmas.

      • James A. Tweedie

        Father’s are never biased. They are almost always the first to know when their sons or daughters do something awesome!

        (But did he do it in limericks? lol)

        But no worries, pride in others doesn’t count as one of The Seven!

        Merry Christmas, James.

      • James Sale

        Ha ha ha! It would be epic to attempt to render it in limerick form, though I think it would defeat the high seriousness of Spenser’s verse! It’s in six volumes and the sixth one covers the virtue of Magnanimity. To give you a flavour, here is a favourite extract of mine from one Canto’s ending:

        Hyperion, his face a grimmer mask
        than any menpo forged in Eastern Isles,
        strained with effort to control
        his steeds confused, why they were backward leashed,
        the clouds conspired, and earth trembled,
        never had he broken Law,
        never disobeyed his one eternal Quest,
        but now, at virtue’s end, he broke his vow:
        the Sun was rising in the West.

        ‘the Sun was rising in the West ‘ – now that is epic! Merry Christmas to you too!

  3. Brian Yapko

    These are hilarious, each one better than the rest. The Miller’s Tale is my favorite — both the story and the limerick. When I was first introduced to The Canterbury Tales as an undergrad it was a revelation. I had always thought Medieval literature would be stuffy and uptight. It turned out to be fully fleshed, with as much ribaldry as chastity. One of my favorite lines in all literature: “Teehee” quod she.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Medieval literature is rollicking in its sensuality. My undergraduate students are amazed at how openly and freely sex is discussed (in mixed company!) in The Wife of Bath’s Tale. The French Roman de la Rose is essentially a long allegory about breaking a hymen, and the seduction scenes in Sir Gawain and The Green Knight are unforgettable.

  4. Jeff Eardley

    Mr Salemi, a highly enjoyable and rollicking read and a lovely diversion from all this Omicron depression. There are some great rhymes here which could only come from a New-Yorker. I love it, thank you.

  5. Paul Freeman

    Thank you very much for the dedication, Joseph. Chaucer was a large part of my life for a long while:

    The Squire’s Tale’ is considered unfinished because its telling was curtailed by the other Pilgrims. However, I get the feeling this was a fashion of the time (a sort of a never-ending shaggy dog tale), just like punning was fashionable in Shakespeare’s time.

    Anyhow, making it a Baker’s dozen of limericks:

    The Squire (a playful young pup)
    had a little too much of the cup.
    When he tried to regale
    with a rambling tale
    he was told, “That’s enough! Please shut up!”

  6. Peter Hartley

    Joe S – vastly funny, hilarious even. When I was at school we only studied the Prologue and the Nun’s Priest’s tale but of course we all read the Miller’s Tale and the Summoner’s tale with our English teacher’s approval for extra-curricular amusement. I remember thinking the method adopted as a means of sharing a fart couldn’t really work unless the spokes were hollow. Interesting that it is still not quite comme il faut to translate queynte into modern English.

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      I couldn’t use the modern c–t (a direct reflex of queynte) because I needed a solid rhyme with “restraint.” (The one place where slant-rhyme or off-rhyme is really intolerable is in limericks). But a poet in the latest issue of TRINACRIA does use the unbowdlerized modern term as a rhyme in one of his poems.

  7. Peter Hartley

    And Paul – that is a wonderful Limerick to round them all off with. Certainly in Chaucer’s day these pilgrims would have had no hesitation whatsoever in curtailing anybody’s tale if it bored them. Some of Shakespeare’s puns do seem a bit forced and excruciating today, and “country matters” in Hamlet caused a few raised eyebrows when I was at school. Christopher Marlowe’s best play, “Edward II,” is truly delightful to see especially, as I did, in “theatre in the round.”

  8. David Watt

    I was introduced to the Canterbury Tales in early High School and was surprised to find life and lust in medieval literature. Your limericks are a load of fun, and add their own vitality to each tale.
    My favorite rhyme set is chicken/thicken/kickin’ because the use of slang fits perfectly into the freewheeling limerick form.

  9. Sally Cook

    Funny how little people change, isn’t it? And yet, how ingenious we are at finding new ways of saying the same old things”Seems we are always making up new rules for saying them. Right at the moment, as we wade through the sludge of PC ware wading through the sludge of PC, things seem pretty hopeles, so far as the nesx few generations go.
    Take heart ! There is bound to be at least one Joe Salemi in each generation, mixing it up with impunity, and not wearing a mask;

    • C.B. Anderson

      You nailed that point, Sally. Salemi never wears a mask, and he always calls ’em as he sees ’em.

  10. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    I love these. If only all study guides on literature were in limerick form – the thread of each story would be unforgettable. Your Nun’s Priest’s Tale has taken me back to that noble cock called Chaunticleer… and given me a greater affection for him. Thank you!

    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Susan, thanks for your kind comment, which I did not see until today. When I was in college the professor would not teach The Nun’s Priest’s Tale because it had a line about how Chaunticleer “trod” his girlfriend-hen Pertelot several times. Middle English “trod” meant “screwed, or laid.” Crazy, was it not? What else would a barnyard rooster do with a hen?


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