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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Prioress

Chaucer has painted an utterly charming and elegant portrait of the Prioress. She is named Eglentyne or Sweetbriar. She has a broad forehead, perfect nose, blue-gray eyes, and thin red lips. Her smile is simple and coy. Her appearance conforms to the contemporary ideal of a beauty. She only swears by ‘St. Loy’ which is to say that she hardly swears at all. She sings the divine service very well with a pleasant nasal intonation and can speak French elegantly. She is obviously a lady who has not forgotten her past of extravagance and fine living. She strives to imitate courtly manners which is evident in her precise table manners where she even takes care not to wet her fingers too deeply in sauce. Her tender heart runs over with pity at the sight of dead or bleeding mice caught in a trap. She is fond of animals and feeds her three dogs with roasted meat and expensive fine bread. Chaucer criticizes the Prioress by praising her very faults. The Prioress’s kindness to her pet dogs is seen as a weakness. Her charity should extend towards needy people rather than animals. Moreover in the medieval world animals were not thought to possess souls and were as such outside the scheme of salvation. As a nun she cannot strictly follow the rules of simplicity and poverty. This is seen in her love of jewelry as she possesses a red-coral rosary and an elegant gold brooch with the vague motto ‘Amor vincit Omnia’ i.e. love conquers all. Keeping her ecclesiastical background in mind the inscription should rather have been ‘Amor Dei’, i.e. concerned with divine love instead of worldly profane love. She is elegantly dressed in a cloak and her wimple is neatly pleated. Thus Chaucer combines strokes of irony with unconcealed appreciation in his presentation of the gentle, demure, aristocratic and worldly Prioress.


The Monk

Chaucer presents a corrupt Monk who loves the good life and finds more pleasure in hunting than studying in the cloister. The Monk’s weakness for good food and expensive clothing and his love for hunting violate the monastic vows of poverty and simplicity. He is riding a sleek berry brown horse on his way to Canterbury. The bells attached to his horse’s bridle tinkle pleasantly with the wind. Chaucer ironically pronounces that the Monk is perfectly suitable for the office of abbot. The Monk, Daun Piers, is an outrider; i.e. he takes care of the monastery’s estates. He spends more time outside his cloister than he should. He does not care at all about the rules laid down by St. Benedict and bears no guilt about the fact that he rides out instead of devoting himself to his monastic duties. Chaucer ironically agrees with the Monk’s point of view and innocently asks why should the Monk make himself mad by pouring over a book in a cloister. The Monk’s pleasure in hunting is a fitting object of satire. In the Middle Ages Monks who took delight in hunting were severely condemned by the reformers. In fact hunting itself was considered an immoral activity. Chaucer’s Monk is a perfect hunter and one who takes extreme interest and pleasure in tracking and hunting wild rabbits. He thus keeps fine horses and well bred hunting hounds in his stable. The Monk is a worshipper of materialism. The sleeves of his coat are trimmed with the finest gray fur in the land. His hood is fastened under his chin with an exquisite gold love knot. His boots are supple and expensive. His bald - head and face shine radiantly as if anointed with oil. His large eyes roll in his head and gleam like a furnace under a cauldron. He is healthy and well fed and loves to eat a plump roasted swan. Chaucer ironically concludes that the Monk is certainly a "fair prelat". Chaucer’s subtle ironic portraiture of the ‘manly’ Monk and repeated approbation of the Monk’s abilities only arouses the reader’s derision.

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