The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

The Monk

He is the second ecclesiastic to be introduced but he is just as secular in habits and outlook as the Prioress – possibly more so in that he is overtly disobedient, rich and probably a lover. (The vows of obedience, poverty and chastity are flouted.) He is described a “a fair for the maistry” [extremely fine] but the next few lines indicate that this is not to be taken in its apparent sense: he is admirable in many ways but not as a monk. His function is as an “outrydere”, which means that he had to look after the estates of the monastery and this may give his some excuse for his irreligious pastimes – we note the rest of the line which states that he loves “venerye” [hunting] and the derivation of the word recalls Venus.

The phrase “to been an abbot able” is openly ironic as it suggests that the Church is in a parlous state if such a worldly man were to become an abbot. With some of these ecclesiastics, Chaucer is criticising the contemporary Church for its indulgence towards low standards as much as or more so than the individual who leads the luxurious life. This one has good horses which indicates wealth and gives his personality, by metonymy, a certain grandeur much as ownership of expensive cars would today. Bells on the bridle were an affectation and vanity although the pleasant sound, emphasised by onomatopoeia: “Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd” makes the portrait attractive: Chaucer often softens his disparaging moral judgements by painting an appealing physical picture.

He is clearly competent as he is the Prior of the religious house of St. Maur and St Benet/Benedict, important figures in the laying down of monastic rules but these are too strict, old-fashioned and tight-laced for this Monk. He will therefore “leet olde thinges pace [go]” and regards himself belonging to a different generation, the “newe world” with its modern ways. Despising texts as if they had not more value than “a pulled hen” [a valueless hen without its feathers] is a serious fault as a learned man was supposed to respect authorities expressing themselves and the simile is homely and derogatory as this particular one has forbidden his favourite sport of hunting. Neither will he allow that a monk with careless or casual habits is like a fish out of water: we notice that the rhyme of “cloystre/oystre is accentuated and carries the tone of a sarcastic and vehement speaking voice.

This is that of the Monk himself disputing as, at the next line, Chaucer, the naif observer, falsely claims to agree with him and we note the deceptively simple diction: “And I seyde his opinion was good”, suggesting that we read between the lines here. The two voices now mingle as Chaucer the pilgrim repeats the Monk’s opinions whilst Chaucer the narrator writes with an ironic eye on both. The Monk dislikes study and feels it would drive him “wood [mad]” to pore over books in the cloister and he also refuses to do manual work: at this point there are almost inverted commas round direct speech: “Let Austin have his swynke to him reserved” [let St. Augustine keep his work to himself]. The rhythm is strong and firmly dismissive and he is being openly disobedient to a revered saint. “Therfore” tells us that he has deceived himself into thinking that he has rational claims to his indulgent lifestyle as a “prekasour [a hard rider]” with fast greyhounds for tracking and hunting the hare which was his only desire, so strong it is obsessional. He has no religious inclinations or interests whatsoever.

His physical appearance is now described, starting with Chaucer’s “I seigh” [I saw] which gives an immediacy to the details of sleeves trimmed with grey fur, the finest available. Under his chin he has a skilfully-made gold pin with a love-knot, an obvious further defiance. His bald head shines like glass as does his face as if it had been anointed (the religious overtone here reminds us how secular the Monk really is.) The summary : “He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt” [stout and in good condition] would be appealing in an ordinary man although his prominent rolling eyes are less so, set as they are in a head that steams like a furnace under a cauldron. Another telling detail is his supple, good quality footwear and horse in fine health but the line telling us that he is a “fair prelat” is deeply sarcastic as none of these attributes are religious. It is difficult to assess whose voice tells us that: “He was not pale, as a forpyned goost” [one wasted by torment] as it could be the Monk’s joking about his own rotund, colourful appearance or Chaucer’s comparison with a true saintly figure. We remember the Monk’s pragmatism when he asks what good study or work can do to the world. With apparent casual juxtaposition Chaucer then adds his food preference with a telling rhyme, “goost/roost”: this Monk will never forgo a plump roast swan in order to attain saintly ideals through suffering.The portrait ends with a casually added detail about his horse as if the attempt to sum him up is too hard but the color contrasts with “pale”. Chaucer’s eye roves over him seemingly haphazardly, mentioning what strikes home but never forgetting the descent into worldliness of his character and thus never becoming irrelevant.

The Monk is rich, ample and expansive, indulging himself in pleasures of hobby and table; despite his flaws he is the best of the male eccesiastics, apart from the iconic Parson, as he does not cheat others directly. All his belongings are of good quality and he is on top form, a figure of the open air. He is the opposite of meanness, shyness and narrowness: he glows, steams, shines and jangles and it is odd that Chaucer gives him a tale so boring and moralistic that the others complain bitterly – unless the Monk is trying to contradict the impression he knows he makes in order to win a dinner. As a man, he is appealing but he is the opposite of a good monk.

The Friar

The Friar is introduced in a slightly different manner since his imperfections and secularity are made more explicit in the first line; he is a “wantown [gay or even with modern meaning, wanton]”: the rhyme of this line carries over from the last line of the Monk and so we may expect a similar character, although he has a meaner nature in that he cheats people directly and knowingly. His particular designation is a “limit our”, a begging friar who was licensed to beg within a certain limited area. He is “solempne [grand, important]” and knows more than anyone else in the four orders [Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustines] about how to talk familiarly and probably flirtatiously. He has paid for marriages of many young women, almost certainly, however, his previous mistresses and so this is not an act of generosity. To his order he is a valuable support, “post”, and makes sure he is popular with affluent landholders and well-positioned women everywhere he goes.

Claiming to have more power of confession than a curate because he is a “licentiate [a friar licensed by his monastery as a trustworthy mature man]” and he can give absolution in more cases, although Chaucer may be in error connecting the two features here. All these habits and dealings give him the opportunity to be looked after and line his pockets. The apparent praise that he hears confessions pleasantly and gives absolution agreeably is, in fact, a stinging criticism as the process was supposed to be solemn and, if necessary, severe to ensure true repentance. What this Friar makes sure of is a steady return of customers. The penances he imposes are light when he knows he will be given food and so the portions of nourishment are a kind of bribe, which he welcomes. With irony and a pointed critical eye, Chaucer tells us in the voice of the Friar that it is a sign of a good confession and forgiveness if the sinner gives money to a poor order. We can almost hear the man saying this to his clients and his hypocritical language becomes confused in its use of pronouns in the next lines as if he is struggling to justify himself:

For, if he yaf [if the man gave], he [the Friar] dorste make avaunt [dared to make an assertion]He [the Friar] knew that a man [the sinner] was repentant.This is a clever trick but such devices were probably common at the time.

The hypocrisy and deceit increase as sinners are even excused the signs of repentance in the form of tears if they give silver to the “povre” friars, who are clearly growing richer daily by their machinations. There may be a vow of poverty but our Friar focuses on gaining money. His tolerance of the lack of sorrow from the sinner and apparent understanding that some men cannot weep “although hym soore smerte” [although he/they felt it strongly and painfully] is a disguise for greed and the lines are full of verbal irony as the meaning is the opposite of what is being said. Repentance was supposed to be a condition of forgiveness and these men do not repent either inwardly or outwardly: they are unashamedly buying absolution and he is giving it without shame. Chaucer the narrator (who creates all of it) has a different voice here from Chaucer the pilgrim who appears to believe the lies and also from the Friar who invents or uses the deceptions: the result of the clash of different registers is irony. The use of “men” in “Men mote” is impersonal and means “one must or people may/must” and so women are included in the demand for money. The word “povre” becomes incresingly sarcastic by repetition and Chaucer’s venom is directed at the Church as an institution for allowing or promoting these connivances as much as he is critical of this individual Friar who is probably doing no more than many others.

His “tippet [a covering for the neck and shoulders, in his case rather like a hood]” is stuffed, “farsed”, full of gifts for women and so it is clear that he cares nothing for the vow of chastity either. Now Chaucer moves on to his accomplishments but, as these follow the severe criticism, they are less appealing. No-one can outdo him in ballads, singing or playing a small harp and we have two rather contradictory details: his neck is white, a sign, along with a lisp, of lasciviousness in medieval physiognomy and yet he is very strong. Such apparently opposing attributes add reality to the portrait as we might think that, if he were a creation, the details would be more consistent. In his travels, he makes sure he knows all the inn-keepers and barmaids better than the people he should be helping such as lepers or beggar women and, at this point, we hear his voice breaking through as he explains and excuses himself, saying that it does not befit such a worthy professional man as he is to consort with sick folk.

The voice of the speaking Friar becomes even more direct at “It is not honest, it may not avaunce” [does not look well, does not bring profit] to have dealings with the poor: he is unashamedly self-seeking as he promotes his relationships with the rich and the sellers of food and drink. In fact, he will become friendly with anyone anywhere from whom he might derive profit. After this the compliments of being “curteys … and lowly of servyse” seem despicable as they are superficial manners to gain goods and the line saying there is no-one anywhere so “virtuous” (note that negatives can be piled up in Chaucerian English without cancelling each other out) is instantly undermined when we realise in the next line that it means he is the best beggar. Juxtaposition is one of Chaucer’s main devices to produce verbal irony and indicate that words do not mean what they say.

To be the best beggar means cheating even the poor face-to-face and he will extract a farthing from a barefoot widow: “His purchas was well better than his rente” [his perks/tips were better than his income – a proverbial expression used, perhaps, to indicate that many friars did this – and friars did not have an income] and he relies on his smooth pronouncement of “In principio” (the opening words of St John’s Gospel, “In the beginning”) for his ill-gotten gains. He could romp or play the wanton as if he were a puppy and he uses “love-dayes [legal days for settling claims]” for his advantage, which was allowed for a period, as he is not like a truly poor cloister-bound monk with a threadbare cape or a poor scholar, but a man of the world, with a master’s degree, which was expensive but impressive.

His short cloak, by contrast, is of the best double fabric and falls into a round shape like a bell from the press: the lisp, assumed out of affectation, “wantowness”, is, like the white neck, a sign of lust but he adopts it to make his speech sweet and profitable to draw in the listeners and influence them to give. Yet the portrait ends with an attractive simile and picture of his playing the harp and, when that was over, his eyes twinkling: “As doon the sterres in the frosty night”. Finally we learn his name (in a line with a tacked-on feel) and, as few of the characters are named, this perhaps suggests that some of his more appealing talents were his alone and that there are individualised elements.

It is a mixed portrait with severe criticism, heavy irony and yet some appealing details, perhaps because the man himself is charming. He is worse morally than the Monk but better than the Pardoner. He has talents and graces, lisps and sings and yet is as strong as a champion. We object when he craftily cheats the poor and uses his position to defraud them and yet the conclusion revises our view as he has physical appeal. Judgement of a literary figure is not always simply moral. He does well for himself and uses religion for his own ends but it is the fault of the contemporary Church that this is allowed. Chaucer skillfully uses the Friar’s voice as well as his own two modes (narrator and pilgrim) to bring him to life and speak for himself but, once again, he could not have known all this about him before setting forth on the journey.