Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Chaucer's Treatment of Ecclesiastical Characters in 'The Prologue'


Though in Chaucer’s age, religion had a control over the minds and soul of the people, yet regrettably, its influence was corrupt. The monasteries were promoting corruption, exploiting the innocent folk and were earning money under the disguise of religion. Moralities and ethics were fading. The ecclesiastics had become notorious for their avarice, corruption and dishonesty. They had forgotten their sacred duties and had become degenerated.

In ‘The Prologue’, Chaucer has drawn some portraits of the clergies of the 14th century England, free from any personal prejudice. These are not exaggerated sketches and they realistically refer to the corruption, and religious and moral degradation that had crept into the ecclesiastical order of the day.

His ironic portraits reveal that Chaucer had some idea of a code of conduct for clergies to follow but he is impartial and realistic and paints both the sides of picture. Through the portraits of pleasure-loving Monk, the wanton Friar, the corrupt Pardoner, he exposes the humour of the typical Church dignitaries.

He also gives the portrait of a good Parson. Chaucer admires him because the persons like him were becoming rare in his age.

A brief description of the ecclesiastical characters of ‘The Prologue’ throws much light on Chaucer’s attitude towards religion.

1.   The Prioress

The Prioress is the first ecclesiastical figure in ‘The Prologue’. She smiles amiably and sings in her nasal tone. Chaucer says ironically that she is aware of the manners of the society and knows how to carry morsel to her mouth. He says:

Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.

She wears fashionable dress with a golden broach, engraved with the words: “Amor Vincit Omnia” i.e. “Love conquers everything”.

She truly signifies high-class religious-minded ladies of the 14th century. She is not an ideal Nun and typifies the traits of the contemporary prioress.

2.   The Monk

The Monk is a pleasure-loving fellow. An outridere, that lovede venerie, He is fat like a lord, for he leads a relaxed life and passes his time in eating, drinking and merry-making. He is entirely misfit to his profession. He is fond of fine dresses. He wears fur-lined sleeves, gold pins and love-knot.

A love knot in the gretter end there was

He does not like to study the strict rules and discipline of the cloister. He likes hunting and has fine horses and hounds in his stable.

3.   The Friar

The Friar is a wanton, greedy and corrupt fellow who neglects his duties and does not bother about religion. He is fond of singing, merry-making, drinking and visiting inns and public places. He builds relations with the rich Franklin and worthy women. He is a rogue, seducer of women and scoundrel. He encourages sins by setting an easy solution of apology, misuses his authority and exploits others in terms of their sin. He was also very expert in the art of begging.

For thogh a wydwe hadde noght a sho,
So plesaunt was his In principio
Yet wolde he have a ferthyng, er he wente;

4.   The Summoner

The Summoner is a nasty figure. Children are afraid of him.

Of his visage children were aferd.

He loves garlic, red wine and onion. He is a hypocrite who allows people to carry on their sins and forgives them for a small donation to him. He knows the secret of young women and men and exploits them to his own interest.

The yonge girles of the diocise,
And knew hir conseil, and was al hir reed.

5.   The Pardoner

The Pardoner is a thorough cheat. His bag is full of relics which he sells to housewives and earns a lot.

He hadde a croys of latoun, ful of stones,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.

He deceives the simple folk. He sings merrily, sweetly and attracts the people in this way. Chaucer has a poor opinion of him and ironically calls him “a noble ecclesiastical”.

6.   The Parson

In contrast to these corrupt religious characters, Chaucer gives a pleasant picture of the poor Parson, a shepherd, who protects his flock from the wolf.

A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre persoun of a toun;

He preaches sincerely, correctly and tries to practice what he preaches. He leads a simple, virtuous life of devotion and service.

A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys;

7.   The Clerk

The Clerk is not an ecclesiastical character but he is studying at church. The Clerk is one of the idealized characters. He is well-versed in logic.

A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.

He does not run after showiness and worldly grandeur. He is a miser and poor. He is quick and meaningful in his talk. He is glad to learn and glad to teach. He is the picture of the poet’s learning.

We can conclude that Chaucer has given a very true and realistic picture of the ecclesiastical characters of his age. He satirizes the corrupt and worldly minded clergies and on the other hand he appreciates the good characters and presents a model picture of him.

Chaucer's Satire and Irony


Satire Reveals Chaucer's Outlook

Chaucer was a man of catholic (tolerant) spirit, so his natural bent of mind was towards humour, not towards satire. If humour is genial and sympathetic, satire is pungent and bitter.

Chaucer's satire is mainly directed against religious corruption. The satirical tone is always present in the characters of the Monk, the Friar, the Prioress, the Pardoner, and the Summoner.

Chaucer's contemporary William Langland was a vehement satirist against the church as an institution. But Chaucer's primary aim is to provide entertainment to his readers and not to correct the corruption of his age.
A satirist has always the intention of teaching or ridiculing but Chaucer, though always ready to criticize, has no such aims. As he takes things tolerantly, therefore his criticism is both good-humoured and kind-hearted.

Some Expressions Containing Satire

·   The Monk disregarded the Biblical rules that hunters are not holy men.
·   The Friar was the best beggar in his jurisdiction.
·   The Summoner's face frightened the children.

Chaucer's Irony

Most of Chaucer's characters are not what they ought to be.
Firstly the whole conception of the Prioress is based on irony. The description of her physical beauty and dress suggested that she is the heroine of some romance, though she is a religious figure. The irony is highlighted by the conflict between appearance and reality.

Secondly, the Monk, who had deserted his ecclesiastical duties, has been ironically presented as a lover of horse-riding and hare-hunting.

Thirdly, Chaucer's irony is crystal clear when he remarks that the Lawyer was the busiest man in England. Chaucer's remarks about the Doctor of Physic are equally ironical.

The use of the world “Worthy” for the most unworthy characters brings a tickling irony except for the “Worthy” Knight.

Chaucer ridiculed folly and hypocrisy but he was never fierce or bitter in his attitude. Chaucer's preference lay not in the use of satire but in the handling of the delicate weapon of irony.

Chaucer's Humour


Masefield calls Chaucer, ‘A great Renaissance gentleman mocking at the Middle Ages’.

Chaucer may be regarded as the first great English humorist. His distaste for all extravagance and follies helped him to become a great comic poet.

Chaucer's Many Sided Humour

We know that humour can be used in a broad as well as in a limited sense. In a narrow sense, it means a gentle mirth. In the broader sense, it stands for boisterous humour (fun), intellectual humour (wit), and bitter humour (satire). Chaucer's work reflects all these different types of humour.

Humanity In Chaucer's Humour

As a humorist, Chaucer is a great humanist, because he loves mankind in spite of its foibles. Even while he gently unmasks the roguery of the rogues, he feels grateful to them as they give pleasure. There is no malice, spite or animosity in his inborn attitude of benevolence and tolerance.

Chaucer Laughs At His Own Self

The height of tolerance comes when the writer makes fun of himself also. That is exactly what Chaucer does. In the Prologue, he refers to himself As A Simple Unlettered Man:

‘My Wit Is Short As You May Well Understand.’

Humour for the sake of humour - that is the underlying attitude of Chaucer.

Some Humorous Expressions

·         The Prioress wept when anybody wounded her dog or mouse.
·         The Monk had as swift hounds as the flying birds.
·         Harry Bailly, the Host, is a lamb before his shrewish wife and a lion before the pilgrims.

Chaucer's Satirical Tone Is In Fact Sympathetic

Chaucer's satirical tone is noted here and there when he depicts some characters in the Prologue and the Tales. He has employed pure irony against two culprits, the Pardoner and the Summoner. Chaucer's aim is primarily to entertain us by his art of narration. For that he never tends to be a satirist, a moralist or a preacher because he does not wish to instruct and preach.

He observes his age sympathetically, humorously and liberally.

He makes us appreciate a character even when laughing at it. Moreover, Chaucer makes fun more of the individual than of the institution. The genial sympathy in his humour has saved Chaucer from bitterness and bias.


Chaucer was gifted with the power of ridiculing the follies and hypocrisies of his day but never like Swift. His object is to paint life as he sees it and like Henry Fielding to hold up to nature a mirror which reflects and does not distort the image. True humour enables us to love while we 'laugh with' others, and do not 'laugh at' others. Most of Chaucer's humour is perfectly innocent fun.

Chaucer's Contribution in English Language and Versification


Father of verse! who in immortal song
First taught the Muse to speak English tongue.

          When it is said that Chaucer is the father of English poetry and even the father of English literature, we broadly mean that his contribution to the evolution of English poetry or literature is much more significant than that of his contemporaries and predecessors.

          He has been acclaimed as the first realist, first humorist, the first narrative artist, the first great character painter, and the first great metrical artist in English literature. Further he has been credited not only the fatherhood of English poetry but he has also been hailed as the father of English drama before the drama was born, and the father of English novel before the novel was born.

          And what is more, his importance is not due to precedence alone, but due to excellence.

Contribution To Language

            If the Emperor Augustus found Rome a city of brick, he left it a city of marble. Similarly, Chaucer, as Lowell says, found his English a dialect and left it a language.

          Before Chaucer English language was divided into a number of dialects. The four of them vastly more prominent than the others were:

(1)  The Southern (2) The Midland (3) The Northern (4) The Kentish

          Chaucer employed in his work the East Midland dialect.

          Not only was Chaucer’s selection of one dialect out of four a happy one, but so was his selection of one of the three languages which were reigning supreme in England at that time—Latin, French, and English. In fact Latin and French were more fashionable than the poor vernacular English.

Contribution To Versification

            ‘With him is born our real poetry’, says Mathew Arnold.
The important features of the old measure which Chaucer disowned were:

1.    Irregularity in the number of syllables in each line
2.    The use of alliteration as the chief ornamental device
3.    The absence of end-rimes
4.    Frequent repetition to express vehemence and intensity of emotion

          Chaucer substituted the regular lines with end-rime. His lines were of the same number of syllables and there were absence of alliteration and frequent repetition.

          Not only this, Chaucer seems to be the first Englishman who realized and brought out the latent music of his language. Observes a critic

            ‘To read Chaucer’s verse is like listening to a clear stream, in a meadow full of sunshine, rippling over its bed of pebbles.’

The Content Of Poetry

            Not only did he give English poetry a new dress, but a new body and a new soul. His major contribution to the content of poetry is in his strict adherence to realism. His Canterbury Tales embodies a new effort in the history of literature, as it strictly deals with real men, manners, and life, which, before Chaucer, was lacking in poetry. He realized, to adopt Pope’s famous couplet,

                        Know then thyself: presume not dreams to scan
                        The proper study of mankind is man.

His Geniality, Tolerance, Humour And Freshness

            Chaucer’s tone as a poet is wonderfully instinct with geniality, tolerance, humour and freshness which are absent from that of his contemporaries and predecessors who are too dreamy or too serious to be interesting. In spite of his awareness of the corruption and unrest in the society of his age, Chaucer is never upset or upsetting. No one can read him without feeling that it is good to be alive in this world however imperfect may it be in numerous respects. Chaucer is a chronic optimist.

          He leaves didacticism to Langland and he, himself, peacefully coexists with all human imperfections. It does not mean that he is not sarcastic or satirical, but his sarcasm and satire are always seasoned with lively humour.

          And in the end to quote David Daiches, ‘With Chaucer the English language and English literature grew at a bound to full maturity. No other Middle English writer has his skill, his range, his complexity, his large humane outlook. His followers lack both his technical brilliance and his breadth of vision, leaving him the one undisputed master in Medieval English Literature'.

Geoffrey Chaucer: A Representative of His Age


Well does Compton Rickett observe:

'Chaucer symbolizes, as no other writer does, the Middle Ages. He stands in much the same relation to the life of his time as Pope does to the earlier phases to the Eighteenth century; and Tennyson to the Victorian era; and his place in English literature is even more important than theirs...'

The social groups of thirty pilgrims cover the entire range of fourteenth century English society, leaving only royalty on one hand, and the lowest on the other.

Medieval Chivalry

Chaucer's knight is a true representative of the spirit of the medieval chivalry which was a blend of love, religion, and bravery. He has been a champion of not fewer than fifteen battles in the defense of Christianity. Being the embodiment of chivalric ideals, Chaucer's knight observes utmost courtesy. He was not only worthy in politeness but also wise in decisiveness.

We must, however, point out that the spirit of true chivalry was breathing its last in the age of Chaucer. The Knight, in fact, is a representative of an order which was losing its ground. The true representative of the new order is his young son. The Squire, who has as much a taste for revelry as for chivalry. He is a lover and a lusty bachelor.

So hoote he lovede that by nyghtertale
He slept namoore than dooth a nyghtyngale

Trade, Commerce And Art

The Merchant is a typical representative of his class. The countrymen and merchants have always made the two most common objects of humour and satire. But Chaucer lets the Merchant go without much of satire, perhaps in recognition of the importance that his class had gained in his age.


The knowledge of Astronomy rather Astrology was a must for a physician as all the physical ailments were supposed to be the consequences of the peculiar configuration of the stars and planets. That is why the Doctor of Physic, too, was grounded in Astronomy. Chaucer has a sly dig at the Doctor in his reference to his gold-loving nature.

The Church

The Church had become a hotbed of profligacy, corruption and rank materialism. The Monk is a fat, sprouting fellow averse to study and penance. The Friar is a jolly beggar who employs his tongue to carve out his living. The Prioress bothers more about modish etiquettes than austerity. The Pardoner is a despicable parasite in trading in letters of pardon with the sinners who could ensure a seat in heaven by paying hard cash. The summoner is likewise a depraved fellow.

The only exception is the poor Parson apparently a follower of Wycliffe who revolted against the corruption of the Church.

The New Learning

The Clerk of Oxford represents the new intellectual culture. He is an austere scholar who prefers twenty books of Aristotle's philosophy to gay clothes and musical instruments. And

Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede
Noght a word spak he moore than was neede

Thus, The Prologue is a comprehensive representation of the fourteenth century society which consisted of three main classes-that of the knights representing medieval chivalry, that of the clergy representing the Church, and that of the workers. These three classes constituted the main social structure and we can reconstruct the life of the fourteenth century through it. 

Geoffrey Chaucer: A Medieval as well as Modern



The Medieval Atmosphere

It was customary in medieval England to travel with arms. The yeoman bears a gay dagger while the Miller carries a sword and a buckler by his side. Even the Reeve has with his a rusty blade.

Common people's love of music is almost proverbial in that age. The Miller entertains his companions by playing the bagpipe. The Squire plays on a flute while the Friar sings to the accompaniment of a harp. The Pardoner sings---My dear love! Come here to me.
Chaucer's Monk relishes a fat swan and the Summoner is fond of strong wine.
All these things are typically observed in the Medieval Ages.

The Typical Medieval Figures

         As a colourist, Chaucer describes contemporary dresses and manners.
He throws on canvas men who belong to typical professions of the Medieval Ages. For instance, there are the Yeoman, the Merchant, the Shipman, the Doctor, the Man of Law, the Miller, and the Manciple etc. The Knight and the Squire belong to the age of chivalry and romance. True of a typical medieval monk, Chaucer's Monk, when he is cloisterless is not a fish that is waterless. The Summoner is a typical medieval officer who earns a handsome amount of money by underhand means.

The Spirit Of Transition

        Chaucer has captured the spirit of transition in the portraits of the Knight and the Squire. The knight represents the age of chivalry; the Squire points out to the emergence of a new kind of aristocracy. Chaucer has rightly been called the Evening star of the Medieval day and the Morning star of the Renaissance. He represents both the old and the new. His poetry appeals to us even today.


Interest In Man's Affairs

        The very first thing which makes Chaucer a modern poet is not other-worldly but hither-worldly. He records the concrete facts of life and this world. "The modern outlook is characterized, as Compton Rickett observed, by an impatient and progressive spirit which is alien to the medieval mind."

Modern Outlook

       In the words of Cazamian, "Chaucer has a philosophy of universal tolerance and mellow wisdom". In the Canterbury Tales he has recorded the vice and corruption of society with a spirit of tolerance and understanding. In this way Chaucer inspires English poetry with an essentially modern outlook towards life, marked by catholicity.

First Great Humorist

        One of the qualities that gives to Chaucer' character their amazing life and realism is his humour. He may be regarded as the first great humorist. Humour can be used in a broad as well as in a limited sense. In a narrow sense, it means a gentle mirth. In the broader sense, it stands for boisterous humour (fun), intellectual humour (wit), and bitter humour (satire). Chaucer's work reflects all these different types of humour.


      Chaucer imparts realism to English poetry. There is a very little of realism in Medieval narrative before Chaucer. Like Pope and Tennyson, he gives us a panoramic view of his society and is rightly called the social chronicler of his age.

Compton Rickett says,

'Like Shakespeare, he makes it his business in The Canterbury Tales, to paint life as he sees it, and leaves other to draw a moral.'

Perennial Appeal Of His Poetry

        The Canterbury Tales have perennial freshness and appeal. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims may be recognized in any age. They died in 14th century but their counterparts are still living in the modern world. It is this power of exhibiting the universal in the particular which has made Chaucer not only a poet of the Middle Ages but of all times.

Must-Prepare Topics for Classical Poetry


The Prologue To The Canterbury Tales By G. Chaucer (1340-1400)

1.    Representation Of 14th Century In England
2.    Humour
3.    Satire And Irony
4.    Chaucer’s Treatment Of Ecclesiastical Characters
5.    Chaucer’s Contribution In English Language And Versification
6.    Chaucer: A Medieval As Well As Modern

Faerie Queene (1590) By Edmund Spenser (1552-1599)

1.    As An Allegory
2.    Plan And Purpose Of The Poem
3.    Elements Of Renaissance And Reformation
4.    As An Epic Or Romance
5.    Edmund Spenser As A Poet

Love And Divine Poems By John Donne (1572-1631)

1.    As A Metaphysical Poet
2.    Wit In Donne’s Poetry
3.    Conceits In Donne’s Poetry
4.  A Critical Evaluation Of The Sun Rising, Good Morrow, Twicknam Garden.
5.    John Donne As A Love Poet

Paradise Lost (1667) By John Milton (1608-1674)

1.    Epic Similes
2.    Milton’s Grand Style
3.    Blank Verse
4.    Description Of Hell
5.    Who Is The Hero? / A Character Sketch Of Satan
6.    Satan’s Speeches
7.    An Assessment Of Milton As A Poet

Absalom And Achitophel (1681) By John Dryden (1631-1700)

1.    Political Satire/ Political Allegory

The Rape Of The Lock (1712) By Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

1.    A Character Sketch Of Belinda
2.    As A Representative Poem / Social Satire
3.    Supernatural Machinery
4.    As A Mock-Epic Poem
5.    Alexander Pope As A Poet
6.    Augustan Age In English Literature