When Melibee and his wife are away, three burglars break into their home and grievously injure their daughter, Sophia. Melibee decides to avenge himself, but his wife, Dame Prudence, talks him into getting advice and then convinces him that, of all the advice he has gotten, her own advice is the best.
The three burglars are found and brought before Dame Prudence, who suggests a peaceful settlement. Her husband, Melibee, decides to let them off with a fine, but Dame Prudence vetoes this. Melibee then forgives the burglars, rebukes them, and extols his own magnanimity. We never know what happens to Sophia.
The principal character in this tedious debate (which goes on for 1,885 lines) is Dame Prudence, the wife of Melibee. The principal subject is whether they should avenge a violent injury by further violence. To solve the dilemma — should they take revenge upon the burglars? — authorities abound: Job; Solomon; St. Paul; Jesus, the son of Sirach; St. Augustine; St. Jerome; St. Gregory; Pope Innocent; Ovid; Cato; Seneca; and Cicero, to name only the most famous. In addition, local doctors, lawyers, prudent old men, hotheaded youths, and others join in, each quoting many proverbs. What makes the tale so long is that, every time a character speaks, he backs his opinion with as many quotations as he can think of on the subject at hand. The tale is, in fact, a quotation collection with a slight plot.
Chaucer must certainly have realized that however serious this tale's purpose, the thing was almost comically long-winded — considerably longer than its French source (Le Livre de Melibee et de Dame Prudence). One authority on Chaucer describes the tale as a prime example of a literary vice of the Middle Ages — an essay abounding in dull, common-place clichés, forced allegory, and spiritless and interminable boring moralizing. Some scholars suggest this tale is a mischievous companion to Chaucer's Tale of Sir Topas.
Abygayl (Abigail) the wife of Nabal, from I Samuel; Nabal refused to help David, for which God smote him dead.
Assuerus (Ahasuerus) husband of the biblical Esther.
Bethulie (Bethulia) a city of the Israelites, besieged by Holofernes.
Cate (Caton, or Catoun) meaning Cato, a famous Roman writer and orator.
Jaspre a type of stoneware praised during Chaucer's time.
Judith a devout Jewish woman who saved her town from conquest by stealthily entering the camp of the besieging Assyrian army and cutting off the head of its commander, Hologernes.
Pamphilles (Pamphilus) the hero in a Latin dialogue about love called Pamphilus de Amore.
Tullius an early king of Rome; he is not well known but both Melibee and Dame Prudence quote him often.