The Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales contains a range of characters that represent various social classes they belong to. While the descriptions of these characters are often caricatures, they sometimes represent what may be called “the best of the worst” stereotypes within their social class or “estate”. In this estates satire, the description of these characters’ look, actions and interactions with other pilgrims either enhances the stereotype of the class or defies it. The character of Monk, constructed by Chaucer in a highly satirical and caricature manner is just an example of ‘the best of the worst’ in his field. This paper analyses this character and how he either typifies or defies his estate’s stereotype.
To imagine what were monks like at the end of the 14th century, let us explore the religious situation in the Middle Ages and the status of the clergy in the English society. The 14th century saw laypeople lose their initial respect and trust in monks and clergy. In the earlier days, people had been satisfied with monks ‘ intercessions and preaching. At that time, Franciscans and Dominicans had been the very popular. However, in Chaucer’s time, the begging clergy had already lost their old enthusiasm. Among them, there happened friars who were corrupt, theoretically incompetent, and greedy to have more clothing, money, or food from people rather than devoted to criticism of people’s sins (Muhlberger, “Religious Conflict in Fourteenth Century England”).
At the same time, the clergy did have important privileges in the society. The church had established herself as a wealthy body. One of the sources was indulgencies that had been sold throughout the 14th century. All this made many laymen critical of the church, monks and spiritual value of Catholicism. It was in the 14th century that Wyclif’s heretical ideas got widespread across England. They were Protestant ideas predominantly directed at limiting the power of rich and corrupt clergy by the secular force (Muhlberger, “Religious Conflict in Fourteenth Century England”).
It seems Chaucer’s Monk is just this representation of a corrupt and spiritually incompetent friar. The representative of clergy described in the Prologue is a well-off prince of church whose hobby is one of the most expensive activities. Rather than dedicating himself to serving the God and alienating from the world, the monk is preoccupied with hunting. The following extract from the Prologue helps to illustrate Chaucer’s irony of the worldly and non-spiritual Monk:
“A monk ther was, a fair for the maistrie,
An outridere, that lovede venerie”
(Chaucer 26 )
In the extract above the sarcasm is evident in the use of descriptive language. Namely, “a fair for the maistrie” means that the Monk was gallant and very attractive in appearance if to compare with other pilgrims. Next, an “outridere” means that the Monk probably served as hos Abbey’s supply officer or forerunner (Usserie 1). “Venerie” is the word (rooted in Venus) that is used to refer to hunting, but may be used to refer to the pursuit of sexual love.
In other places of the “General Prologue” some other characteristics of the Monk are provided. Chaucer’s use of “manly man”, for example, may be interpreted as a robust man. The use of ‘reechless’ implies that the Monk was headstrong, careless and rash, especially when riding a horse. Then, again, prikasour means a huntsman, the one who is a hard rider. The Monk loved prikying – in other words, tracking of a hare by footprints. The text also says that the Monk, a passionate hunter, keeps very good horses and greyhounds. He wears expensive jewelry and clothes, as well as demonstrates expensive, non-pious, habits. Indeed, the Monk “was a lord ful fat” and “a fat swan loved he of any roost” (from the available sources, one gets to know that roasted swan was one of the most expensive delicacies at the time of the middle ages).
Interestingly, Chaucer’s Monk openly finds the old rules of monasticism introduced by St Benedict and St Maurus as too old-fashioned and overly constrictive. Therefore, he allows himself to live in accordance with the new world manners and with lots of freedoms. Ignoring the fact that hunting contradicts the pious way of life, he is absorbed in it. He does not support St Augustine’s command that monks were supposed to work hard and to read a lot in cloisters. Instead, he violates all spiritually worthy rules of monastic life and evolves as a caricature of an English medieval monk.
It is hard to say whether Chaucer typifies or defies the stereotype of the monk during those days. On the one hand, traits inherent in Chaucer’s Monk, namely this character’s gluttony, love of good clothes and boots, hunting, expensive horses and dogs, were traditional features of higher clergy (e.g. abbots) in Medieval England. Abbots were appointed from the representatives of nobility and they hardly changed their lifestyle in the cloister. The Monk in “The General Prologue” is just that example of an abbot (perhaps) that seriously believes in the rightness of his “modern” way of life. While this portrait may be a typical portrait of someone who is in the middle position in clergy at the end of the 14th century, it is an atypical description of a monk (Oruch 280). From time immemorial, monks had been deemed the examples of asceticism. The Monk in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales clearly defies this stereotype.
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