Essay on Chaucer's Use of Satire in 'The Canterbury Tales'

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Satirizing Religious Figures in Canterbury Tales

In the general prologue of Canterbury Tales, the narrator introduces the reader to characters from different walks of life in the course of their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The narrator addresses key themes while describing each pilgrim: their appearance, their vocation, and small details or anecdotes pertaining to their personalities. While Chaucer unifies the group through their common goal of making their pilgrimage, he also addresses the individual pilgrims and their intentions in life throughout the journey. Most importantly, he utilizes the narrator's voice to create a satirical commentary on class relations during the Middle Ages. His descriptions of the pilgrims directly involved in the Church cleverly address the corruption and elitism that was prevalent amongst church officials during this time.

The first religious figure whom Chaucer characterizes is the Prioress, also known as Madame Eglentyne. The narrator begins by describing her disposition in a somewhat saccharine way and contrasts her seemingly coy demeanor with her less courtly tendencies such as singing with a perturbingly nasally voice or speaking French poorly in an attempt to conceal her noticeable English accent. The narrator reveals that the Prioress is most concerned with appearing courtly by illustrating her painstaking efforts to seem eloquent, modest, and well-versed, 'And full pleasant, and amiable of port / And penned hire to counterfeit chere / Of court, and to establish of manure,' (Chaucer, lines 138-140). The narrator enforces how she presents these scrupulous efforts to appear courtly through an anecdote about her demeanor while dining, 'At mete well y-taught was she with alle: / She leet no morsel from hir lippies fallen, / Ne Witte fir fingers in hir sauce depe. / Wel could she carie a morsel, and well keep / That no drope ne fille upon hire best (Chaucer, lines 127-131). Within the narration Chaucer uses descriptions of physicality to emphasize his satirical commentary:

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Hir mouth is full small, and thereto soft and reed.

But sickerly she hadde a fair forheed—

It was almost a spanned brood, I trow—

For hardily, she was nat undergrowth.

The full fetus was hir cloke, as I was war.

Of small coral about hire arm she bars

A pair of beds gauded al with grene;

And then hang a brochure of the gold full scene,

On which there was first written a crowned A,

And after, Amor Vincit Omnia. (Chaucer, lines 152-160)

An important detail within the description of the Prioress would be how she is dressed. The reason her garment is important is that it reveals to the reader her rather affluent socio-economic status and enforces that the Prioress seems to dismiss class issues. Her appearance contradicts the inherent principles and obligations within her vocation to appear modest and not indulge in material goods. The Prioress wearing a fancy rosary and a gold brooch truly reveal the hypocrisy within the Church's narrative of being charitable towards the poor and dressing modestly to represent their rejection of the temptation of material wealth.

Chaucer also uses the pilgrim's physicality to emphasize their satirical roles in the prologue. The Prioress is described as having fair skin, a small mouth, and a broad forehead which were the ideal standards of beauty in the Middle Ages. Chaucer chose to illustrate the Prioress this way because it serves as a metaphor supporting the theme that people may not present themselves authentically. Chaucer chose to mock Medieval literature that typically expresses how women with these attributes are pure and courtly by nature. His choice to contrast her appearance with her insecurity and her need to conceal her true self also brings light to the notion that people are not always who they appear to be especially with regard to those who have autonomy within the well-funded and corrupt Church. The narrator continues to address the Prioress's facade by mockingly calling her 'compassionate' for weeping over the harm or death of animals. It's interesting that not once has the narrator mentioned how she's demonstrated compassion towards other people. The Prioress is someone who tends to use her demonstrations of compassion to maintain moral control and as an alibi rather than being an authentic and genuinely pious woman who selflessly serves God.

Consecutively following the description of the Prioress, the narrator describes another religious figure, the Monk. Within the first lines of the Monk’s introduction, the narrator remarks on how he hunts for sport. Monks dedicate their lives to working and studying, living in seclusion, and most importantly refraining from possessing luxuries as a sign of selfless devotion. The narrator continues to enforce the Monk’s fondness for hunting and how to contradicts his duties as a monk by stating, “He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen, /That seith that hunters ben nat holy men, /Ne that a monk when he is reckless,” (Chaucer, lines 176-179). Hunting for the sport was primarily done by more affluent members of society which speaks to how this pastime overlaps with the strict Benedictine principles of his vocation. The narrator also reveals why he chooses to engage in this unusual pastime, “This like monk leet olde things pace, / And held after the newe world the space” (Chaucer, lines 175-176). The Monk is not only aware that this hobby violates the order’s code but openly expresses to let ‘old things pass’ and to ‘accept contemporary pleasures’. His philosophy shows the reader how the Monk knowingly takes advantage of his religious standing by keeping his title while actively neglecting his vows.

Like the other pilgrims, the narrator describes the garment the Monk is wearing on the pilgrimage, “ I seigh his sleves pufiled at the hond / With grys and that the fyneste of a lond; / And, for to festne under his hood under his chin, / He hadde of gold y-wroght a ful curious pin: / A love-knotte in the getter ende ther was” (Chaucer, lines 193-197). His cloak is described as having the cuffs lined with the finest grey fur as well as a fancy gold pin clasping his hood in place. Similar to the Prioress, the Monk is more concerned with indulging in luxury goods than abiding by the code he is sworn to as a monk. He is also described as being a larger man with bulging eyes and from this description, the reader can infer that he doesn’t eat modestly and indulges in luxury food as well. Hunting for sport, wearing ostentatious garments, and excessive and careless eating are far from befitting for a monk. Not only do these descriptions add insult to the character himself, but it also reveals his moral neglect towards those who are impoverished and look to figures like him for charity.

While both the Prioress and the Monk like to indulge in fine foods, garments, and activities, there is a distinction as to how they present themselves despite these similarities. The Prioress seems to conceal and hide behind a modest and elegant facade. She also is more deceitful in her intent because she is not outward about her hypocrisy and calculatingly tries to hide it. The Monk, on the other hand, is shameless enough to admit that he doesn’t abide by his code and presents himself more authentically. Both characters represent a larger issue with concern to hierarchy and class during the Middle Ages showing the reader that religious leaders abused their positions and corrupted an institution that had both moral and legal agency over society.

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Essay on Chaucer’s Use of Satire in ‘The Canterbury Tales’. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/essay-on-chaucers-use-of-satire-in-the-canterbury-tales/
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