A manly man, to been an abbot able.
(= A generous/virile man, to have been such a good abbot.)
This is one of Chaucer’s trademark gigantically ambiguous lines. ‘Manly’ is the key word here.
Unlike wrestler Steven Regal’s ‘manly man’ gimmick, it does not mean wearing a hard hat everywhere and squeezing your own orange juice by hand:
In fact, it’s a word with a number of meanings floating about, so much so that I’ve translated it as two different words. Firstly, it means something like ‘personable’ or ‘friendly’— the Monk was good company. It also has an undercurrent of sexuality: he was ‘manly’ because he was virile.
Is being good company really the first thing we’d think about when it comes to being a good abbot? Being virile certainly isn’t.
And beyond this, even we can read the line as a general criticism of the monastic order— Chaucer the pilgrim, familiar with abbots, possibly thinks they were all this worldly, and that’s why he says he was a good one.
To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit "The Canterbury Tales (General Prologue)" by Geoffrey Chaucer and leave a comment on the lyrics box