In Chaucer's "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales, are Chaucer's characters stereotypes?

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In "The General Prologue" to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, his characters are, in some instances, very stereotypical. Most specifically I would cite the members of the clergy. 

It is no secret that all institutions have some level of corruption, and the medieval church was no exception. While Chaucer points out the tendencies of most of the ecclesiastical participants on the pilgrimage to "sin," he is not "preachy," but is simply an observer—allowing the reader to judge the facts as they are presented (as Chaucer sees them).  

In that during this time there was no separation of Church and state, it is important to note that the Roman Catholic Church was in charge of religious and state affairs. Its representatives were the judge and jury: the highest law in the land. To sin was also to break the law. The strength of the Church was complete as it crossed all barriers—language and physical. Until Henry VIII decided to make himself the head of his own church and grant himself a divorce in the 15th Century, the Church's power was unchallenged. 

Chaucer does not try to persuade the reader that all members of the clergy have failed to serve the the Church by giving up worldly goods to serve those in need and win souls for the Church; of the five he describes, only one has done so. The others are cheats, liars and philanderers. Chaucer addresses the difference between the impression these people give with their true character.

The suggestion that outward appearances are reliable indicators of internal character was not considered radical or improper among contemporary audiences.

For example, the Pardoner is assigned to sell pardons from sin to the people. Instead he sells stolen pardons, the profits of which he can keep for himself. His greed is excessive. Chaucer provides...

...the reader with the perception of a man of extreme sexual and spiritual poverty, willingly admitting that he abuses his authority and sells fake relics. 

The Monk is not much better. He has in no way taken a vow of poverty. He owns a horse, hunts (not something the poor could afford to do), owns jewelry, and is fat: he eats well. His clothing is rich, and he spends a great deal of time pursuing forms of entertainment rather than religious service.

The Friar is all about making money, too. He listens to confession for money—the more one pays, the more forgiveness the Friar offers. They were...

...well shriven [if they were willing to] give silver for a poor Friar's care.

The Friar keeps little gifts for the young ladies in his purse, and there is a sense of immoral behavior on his part with these women. He has no time to see to the needs of the poor or infirm. He is friends with food vendors. In essence, he enjoys his station, afforded him by misusing his position with the Church.

The Nun is another who dresses well, has jewelry and keeps dogs, feeding them little tidbits of food.

With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (145)

She obviously comes from money, and has not given up the elegant life style she is accustomed to.

The only true servant of God, the one who does not seem stereotypical (especially in that there are several who do not do their jobs and he is the only one who does) is the Parson. Here is a man who has given up all he has in the world...

Who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it... (479)

Any gifts he is given for holidays, he gives to the poor. He is a true servant of the people for the Church.

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The Canterbury Tales

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