Prologue To The Canterbury Tales Essay, Research Paper
In the Prologue to the Caterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer is almost always polite and respectful when he points out the foibles and weaknesses of people. He is able to do this by using genial satire, which is basically having a pleasant or friendly disposition while ridiculing human vices and follies. Chaucer also finds characteristics in the pilgrims that he admires. This is evident in the peaceful way he describes their attributes.
The Nun is one of the pilgrims in which Chaucer uses genial satire to describe. He defines her as a woman who is, “Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining/ To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace” ( l.l. 136-137). Instead of bluntly saying she is of the lower class and trying unsuccessfully to impersonate a member of the upper class Chaucer suggests it gentle, therefore the reader must be attentive to pick up on it. He also pokes fun at the Nun’s impersonated French accent when he says that she spoke:
with a fine
Intoning through her nose, as was most seemly,
And she spoke daintily in French, extremely,
After the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe;
French in the Paris style she did not know. (l.l. 120-124)
Chaucer finds the Nun’s speech amusing but he carefully chooses his words so as not to be disrespectful. Chaucer also uses genial satire when illustrating the Nun’s size; “She was indeed by no means undergrown” (l. 154). He puts the fact that she is fat in a polite way because he finds the Nun “very entertaining” (l. 135) and thus doesn’t speak ill of her even though there is much ill to be said. Instead he uses genial satire to describe the Nun so that he may remain courteous and respectful.
Chaucer finds the Monk less amusing and more repulsive than the Nun but none the less he describes him in a polite manner so that the reader must pay attention in order to fully realize the Monks faults. The main problem that Chaucer has with the Monk is that he shows very little religious devotion. The Monk frequently engages in activities opposite in nature to that which is expected from a man of his position:
He did not rate that text at a plucked hen
Which says that hunter are not holy men
And that a monk uncloistered is a mere
Fish out of water, flapping on the pier,
That is to say a monk out of his cloister.
That was a text he held not worth an oyster;
And I agreed and said his views were sound;
Was he to study till his head went round
Poring over books in cloisters? (l.l. 175-183)
A monk is expected to show his religious devotion by following the text of the bible as best he can, stay in his cloister and study constantly. This monk however does not follow the text as he hunts, is out of his cloister and has never been seen studying. Chaucer could be have been very straight forward and critical of the Monks poor choices but instead he uses genial satire to show the Monks faults without disgracing himself. Chaucer even jokes at the end of the above quote when he agrees with the Monk and says, “Was he to study till his head went round”, of course he was he is a monk (l. 182).
Chaucer uses genial satire in a slightly different way when describing the Oxford Cleric. Instead of forming a clear impression in the readers mind as too whether or not the Oxford Cleric is a good man he simply tells it as it is thus leaving the reader to determine it for themselves based on their own values. Chaucer describes the Oxford Cleric as a man who’s:
horse was thinner than a rake,
And he was not too fat, I undertake,
But had a hollow look, a sober stare;
The thread upon his overcoat was bare. (l.l. 291-294).
This is a polite way of saying that the Oxford Cleric not only neglected his own health and personal appearance but also the health of his horse as they were both extremely skinny and his clothes consisted of bare threads. He neglected his and his horse’s heath because he spent all his money and some of his friends money on books, which Chaucer also pokes fun at using genial satire:
By his bed
He preferred having twenty books in red
And black, of Aristotle’s philosophy,
To having fine clothes, fiddle or psaltery.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
He had not found the stone for making gold.
What ever money from his friends he took
He spent on learning or another book
And prayed for them most earnestly, returning
Thanks to them thus for pay for his learning. (l.l. 297-306)
Like a lot of modern day students the Oxford Cleric is broke, for he spends all his money on learning and books. When he receives money from his friends he has no intention of paying them back, instead he prays for them in return. Some may find these particular qualities to be bad ones. That is why Chaucer is very genial when describing the Oxford Cleric, he wants the reader to form their own impression of him.
Chaucer finds the Knight’s characteristics admirable. He describes his as a “most distinguished man” who “follow[s] chivalry” (l.l. 43, 45). Which was looked upon highly in Chaucer’s day. Chaucer portrays the Knight as a man of “truth, honor, generos[ity] and courtesy/ [who] had done nobly in his sovereign’s war/ And ridden into battle, no man more”(l.l. 46-58). A man with these qualities is ideal and to be good in battle is even better. The reader knows the Knight is good in battle because every numerous time that he has ridden in, he has also had to have ridden out, which displays his battle talents. When speaking about the Knight Chaucer is very blunt, he says the Knight “was sovereign in all eyes” and “a true [and] perfect gentle-knight”(l.l. 63, 68). To be able to make the generalization that ‘all’ people find the Knight to be sovereign and that he is ‘perfect’ signifies that Chaucer can find nothing disgraceful to say about the Knight. The Knight displays qualities that Chaucer considers to be very close to perfect and therefore all Chaucer’s words portraying the Knight show respect and admiration.
The Parson is also a man that Chaucer admires. This is due to the fact that the Parson is everything a good priest should be. Chaucer describes the Parson’s exceptional religious devotion in the following quote:
He much disliked extorting tithe or fee,
Nay rather he preferred beyond a doubt
Giving to poor parishioners round about
From his own goods and Easter offerings.
He found sufficiency in little things.
Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder,
Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder,
In sickness or in grief, to pay a call
On the remotest, whether great or small,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.
This noble example to his sheep he gave,
First following the word before he taught it. (l.l. 484-495)
Chaucer points out that the Parson does not like extorting the church tax (tithe) and that he would rather give to poor parishioners, even if from his own pocket, to illustrate that he is a good man who is not a member of the church for personal profit. Instead the Parson is a member of the church to bring men to God despite the weather, his health, or the great distance separating them. When the Parson speaks of his sheep he is referring to the people who have yet to establish a stable relationship with God and by saying that he “first follow[ed] the word before he taught it”, it shows his sincerity (l. 495). Chaucer bluntly portrays the Parson as what an ideal priest should be:
Holy and virtuous he was, but then
Never contemptuous of sinful men,
Never disdainful, never too proud or fine,
But was discreet in teaching and benign. (l.l. 511-514)
It is significant that the Parson has these qualities because it shows that unlike the Monk he demonstrates religious devotion. The Parson demonstrates his religious devotion by following the text of the bible and in being true and genuine to God’s word by not passing judgment on others, all of which Chaucer finds admirable.
Chaucer gives the Plowman characteristics that he finds admirable. This comes as no surprise to the reader as he is the brother of the Parson, who Chaucer holds in great respect. Chaucer does not take any time in getting straight to the point when describing the Plowman. He bluntly says that the Plowman is “an honest worker, good and true,/ Living in peace and perfect charity” (l.l. 528-529). By describing the Plowman this way it demonstrate that Chaucer looks highly upon those who work hard and are charitable. The fact that Chaucer chooses to use the word ‘perfect’ signifies that the Plowman is charitable beyond what is expected. The Plowman also portrays religious devotion, which Chaucer admires:
as the gospel bade him, so did he,
Loving God best with all his heart and mind
And then his neighbor as himself, repined
At no misfortune, slacked for no content,
For steadily about his work his went
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . and he would help the poor
For love of Christ and never take a penny
If he could help it. (l.l. 530-538)
By following the gospel, loving God, loving his neighbor, working hard, and helping other’s without pay it proves that he is a wonderfully religious and pleasant man. The reader can tell that Chaucer finds these qualities admirable because while describing the Plowman he is very straight forward so as to leave no doubt that he Plowman is an incredible person.
Chaucer uses genial satire in order to describe the characters to their full extent without being disrespectful or rude. He pokes fun of the Nun, the Monk and the Oxford Cleric simply because they contain qualities that deserve to be pointed out to the reader. The fact that he points them out using genial satire illustrates his self restraint and lets only the attentive reader pick up on the somewhat hidden characteristics. When Chaucer finds likable qualities in his characters he points them out bluntly so that even the un-retentive reader wakes up and notices them. Chaucer portrays the characters in the Canterbury Tales in a fashion that gives the reader insight into the Medieval time period in which the character lived and also insight into what kind of person Chaucer was.