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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE FRIAR

The Friar is "wanton and merry," but this pleasant-sounding description is dripping with sarcasm. By the 14th century, friars, who were supposed to give up all worldly things and live only by begging for food and alms, were almost totally corrupt. They were known for flattering the rich and deceiving the poor, and especially for seducing women in outright disregard for their vow of celibacy.

Chaucer's Friar, Hubert, is a "limitour," one who is licensed to beg in a certain area. If the Monk's portrait contains veiled sexual innuendoes, Hubert's are blatant. He is "ful solempne" (very impressive) because he knows so much about "daliaunce" (small talk or flirtation). He's married off women "at his owene cost"- implying that he seduced them first. He's "well beloved and familiar" with "worthy women" of his area. We can imagine what that means. He's allowed to hear confessions and give easy penances if he knows he'll get well paid. Chaucer comments here on the hypocrisy of society, too, in saying sarcastically that people can give money to "poor friars" to atone for their sins instead of "weeping and praying."

It gets worse. Hubert keeps trinkets to give pretty wives (like the present- day picture of a traveling salesman). He knows all the bars and is more familiar with barmaids and innkeepers than the lepers or beggars he's supposed to be soliciting for. (Ideally, after buying necessities, friars were supposed to donate to the poor and sick any leftover money from begging.) Sharpening the irony, Chaucer says it's not right for someone of Hubert's profession ("facultee") to be acquainted with lepers, since after all there's no money there. But when it comes to the rich and the food sellers, suddenly he's "curteis" and humble. So much for Christian charity. His "In principio" (Bible recitation) is so pleasant that he can always get a farthing (or "fair thing," another sexual reference); he gets more money from his illegal takings ("purchas") than his legal "rente." He wears clothes better suited to a pope than to the "poor scholar" he's supposed to be, and he meddles in "love-days," which were assigned for settling civil disputes out of court. Friars were allowed to represent the poor, otherwise they were under strict orders not to interfere. Hubert even lisps to make his English sound more appealing, presumably to women. Is he "worthy"- as Chaucer calls him (line 270)- in the same way the Knight is worthy, or is Chaucer's last line of description the final underlining irony?

Obviously, Hubert is everything that a friar shouldn't be-corrupt, rich, greedy, and lecherous-and the tale he later tells reinforces this. He tells of a corrupt summoner (an officer who orders people to appear in court) whose behavior involves trickery, lies, and violence-strikingly similar to the Friar's own nature. The summoner gets dragged off by the Devil. Are we to believe that the Friar is headed the same way?

THE MERCHANT

The Merchant's description is short but telling. You might recognize him: the wealthy businessman who puts up an impressive, expensive front but who is hiding the fact that he is in debt. With the Merchant, Chaucer begins reports of three men who live by "reson," even though the Merchant and Sergeant of Law's "resons" deal more with money than truth, as the Clerk does.


The Merchant wears a Flemish hat, a "motley" (variously colored) coat, and well-fastened boots. That he's an individual is clear even from so few lines: his hat is distinctive for his time and class, his remarks are solemn, and his "governaunce" (manner) dignified. But he is typical in scathing ways. He always talks about increasing his profits, a sin not only of greed but of pride, and worse, he deals in "chevyssaunce," moneylending for interest, which was illegal. He's concerned with protecting the ocean trade routes between Holland and England. You would be, too, if you staked your fortune as he does on the English wool you exported to the Continent.

He also ignores the law against "eschaunge" (exchange). It was illegal for private citizens to buy and sell foreign currency (in this case, French gold coins)- out of fear of inflation, much like now-but unscrupulous merchants did it anyway. No wonder Chaucer said he didn't know the Merchant's name! If he based him on a real person, it probably wouldn't be a smart idea to poke public fun at a powerful man to whom many people owe money. We learn more about the Merchant in the Prologue to his tale. He's been married only two months, his tale therefore deals with the idea of a well- balanced marriage.

THE CLERK

But if the Merchant's picture is somewhat tainted, we get a sense of great affection for the Clerk, a man after Chaucer's own heart who spends his money on books. He looks thin and studious, the way the Monk and Friar ought to look but don't. Even his horse is lean "as a rake." He is studying for the priesthood, but doesn't yet have a living (benefice) from it, and is too pious to take secular "office." He's a philosopher who borrows money for books.

NOTE:

"Philosopher" also meant "alchemist," one who tries to make gold from lead. Some readers see parallels between this Clerk and the lecherous clerk Nicholas in the Miller's Tale, who also keeps books by his bed, whose interests are alchemy and lust. Decide for yourself whether the analogy is fair.

Some see a greediness in the Clerk's book buying because they are fine volumes with "blak and rede" bindings. (At least he remembers to pray for those he borrows from!) Unlike some of the other pilgrims, he never speaks "more than was nede," but when he does he speaks well, with "moral virtu." Before he tells his tale later, in fact, the Host teases him for being so quiet. His tale about the worthy Griselde, deals with the virtues of patience and "a stiff upper lip" in the face of disappointment.

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