General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers
by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does Chaucer describe the prioress and the monk?

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The Prioress and the Monk are both members of the First Estate, a level of society into which corruption found its way. With such wrongdoing, the clergy is easily the target of Geoffrey Chaucer's estate satire.

In the General Prologue, the Prioress is a worldly nun. She affects a background of nobility, but her "full and flowing French" is not Parisian French as it would be if she were from the nobility. Instead, this nun speaks as one from "Stratford on the Bow," the town that is next to the Benedictine convent. Nevertheless, the Prioress imitates the manners of ladies and is sensitive to the plight of animals. "How desperately she wept if one had died/ Or if some man had kicked it on the sly" (148-150). The Prioress, however, is materialistic and irreverent. Her cloak is "rich, resplendent"(147). Around her arm, she has strung "a pair of coral prayer beads" (158) that have hanging from them something that she should not own:

. . . a brooch of the brightest gold,
Inscribed with a crowned A and then a bold
Amor vincit omnia: Love Conquers All. (160-163)

The monk, too, is a worldly and handsome man, who is not cloistered in prayer as monks should be. Like the prioress, the materialistic monk also violates his vow of poverty. This heavy-set, well-dressed "lordly monk" resembles a prosperous lord much more than a man of the cloth. In defiance of his religious orders, this lordly monk lets "the strict and ancient Benedictine Rule/ Go sliding by" (174-175) because he loves to hunt and keep expensive horses. The narrator concurs with the monk that he should not cloister himself because "the world must be served" (187). 

Obviously a sportsman, the monk owns greyhounds "swift as birds in flight" that he uses to track and run down "a fleeing hare." He also loves good clothing. For instance, the sleeves of his cape are trimmed with "lovely gray fur, the finest in the land" (194). The clasp for the hood of this cape is of "purest gold" (196). 

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Both the Nun and the Monk are guilty of breaking their vows of poverty and obedience. Both own pets, which would have been considered a luxury.  The nun has pet dogs and the monk has greyhounds that he uses for hunting.  Keep in mind both of them should have a life dedicated to helping the poor, praying, and working in the abbey or monastary. Both are also dressed better than they should be and both are very well fed.

Chaucer portrays the nun as somewhat of a phony with her manners and her substandard French. He gives this long description of her table manners, but then goes on to say she only appears dignified. He also references her large forehead. During this time period, a broad forehead was thought to be a sign of good breeding and intelligence, but her forehead is huge! Chaucer is exaggerating this feature to poke fun at her belief that she is so dignified and proper.  He does say that she is "charitable and pious," but in the next line we find out this is only towards animals.

The monk is shirking his duties in the monastery to go out hunting.  He doesn't want to do the studying, as the books make his head spin, and he doesn't want to do the hard physical labor.  Instead he is out with his greyhounds hunting.  Like the nun, he is well-dressed with fur-trimmed robes and he is wearing a gold pin.

Neither of them are particularly bad people, but they do not take their vows seriously.


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