At the end of the descriptions of all the characters in the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales, the text reads:

Now have I told you soothly in a clause

(The word soothly means truly; "in a clause" means the passage was short. Interestingly, in many of the modern English translations, this line is rendered as "Now have I told you quickly, in a clause," which isn't quite right; just another example of why you shouldn't trust these modern translations. If you're interested in why translations render the passage this way, I asked a question about it.)

I interpreted this as a joke, because by modern standards, the descriptions were not quick. But at the time, would it have been interpreted as a joke?


I don't think it's an outright joke. I'd certainly say it's mildly ironized, but a long introduction is still a 'clause' compared to a much longer body. The phrase is worthy of a 'heh' rather than a 'hahaha', you could say.

The way I take the phrase "soothly in a clause" is as a prefatory assertion of truth value. The 'clause' or prologue itself is akin to, say, the Argument at the front of Shakespeare's "The Rape of Lucrece"; it is, literally, the first clause of the document. It is sort of setting up a contract between the speaker and reader, saying "What I have told you so far is true and you can reliably take it as the basis of what is to come in the stor(y/ies)."

This is pretty well substantiated by sources cited in the answer by Rand al'Thor to the question you linked above, where he quotes H.S. Toshack writing that "'Soothly' (truly, accurately) fits the context better: in the next few lines Chaucer justifies that claim by laying out the framework within which he has offered his information. We have also seen Chaucer the Pilgrim, previously, taking great care to distinguish between what he has recorded as fact and what is just a judgement on his part."

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