How does Chaucer use irony and satire in the characterization of the Monk and Friar in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales?

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shake99 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, written in the fourteenth century, is notable for several reasons, one of which is his satirical look at some aspects of English society in his time.

One of Chaucer's most important satirical targets is the Church. During his lifetime, England was a Catholic country, so it was under a certain degree of influence from the Pope. This relationship was not always an amiable one, however, and the English authorities sometimes clashed with the Pope's policies. Some of England's disenchantment with Catholicism sprang from the corrupt practices of some church officials.

A monk is supposed to take a vow of poverty and live simply, devoting his life to God and study. Chaucer's Monk is not like that:

A Monk there was, one of the finest sort

Who rode the country; hunting was his sport,

A manly man, to be an Abbott able;

many a dainty horse he had in his stable.

This monk owns horses, fine clothes, and hunting weapons. He is most certainly not leading a monk's ascetic lifestyle.

The Friar is even worse. A friar's job to is to serve the poor as a representative of the Church. Chaucer's Friar is a most unsavory character:

He knew the taverns well in every town

And every innkeeper and barmaid too

Better than lepers, beggars and that crew,

For in so eminent a man as he

It was not fitting with the dignity

Of his position, dealing with scum

of wretched lepers;

The descriptions of both the Monk and Friar are ironic in that they are surprising because these characters are behaving in the opposite manner than we would expect. Satire is the use of humor to examine a weakness or fault. In The Canterbury Tales, the satire comes with Chaucer's subtle humor; he presents the transgressions of the Friar and Monk as though they were perfectly acceptable and normal, something the Church would be expected to approve of. In reality, they are perverting the mission of the Church: to serve the needy with a pious love of God and humanity.

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The Canterbury Tales

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