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Irony and humor, and indeed ironic humor, often appear side-by-side in “The General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Examples include the following:
- The claim that the prioress never let a morsel of meat fall from her lips – which on the one hand suggests her obsessive attention to good manners while on the other hand suggesting that she is gluttonous (128).
- The reference to the prioress’s “conscience” (142), followed ironically by her somewhat comic concern for mice caught in traps (rather than for poor, sick, or otherwise needy people).
- The delicate (but humorous) observation that the prioress was not “undergrowe” (i.e., undergrown) – a polite way of stating that she is fat (and thus, symbolically, attached to the world and the flesh).
- The comic depiction of the monk, who has so many bells attached to his horse that when he rides his bridle can he heard jingling
. . . in a whistling wind as clere
And eek [i.e., also] as loude as dooth the chapel belle . . . (171-72).
Such phrasing comically demonstrates how the monk uses bells to try to call attention to himself, even as it ironically reminds us that the purposes of church bells are to call attention to worship of God.
- The comic reference to the monk as “a lord full fat and in good point” (200), which ironically makes him sound like an animal and which also ironically associates him with the sin of gluttony and with attachment to the world and the flesh.
- The description of the cook as having a “mormal” (388)on his shin – a kind of pussy ulcer often associated with venereal disease. Immediately after noting this fact, Chaucer ironically (and with black humor) notes that the cook’s specialty was white sauce (!).
- The description of the Wife of Bath becoming comically (but also ironically) angry at church (453) if anyone happened to get before her in the line to present her offering (not exactly the best Christian behavior).
- The description of the Wife wearing fine scarlet leggings to church, not to mention head-covers weighing ten pounds (455-59), as if church were a fashion show or an occasion for displaying wealth.
- The reference to the Wife’s expertise in “the olde daunce” (i.e., the tricks of the sexual trade, which one of my students once memorably described as “the horizontal mamba”; 478).
- The comic description of the miller as someone who could break down doors by ramming them with his head (552-53), which is funny in itself but which also implies that he is not the brightest pilgrim in the group.
- The description of the miller's face, which comically makes him resemble an animal but which also, for that reason, ironically suggests that his behavior will not live up to the highest human ideals (554-58).
- The description of the summoner's love of garlic, onions, and leeks, which humorously suggests that in addtion to his other problems he stinks, but which also ironically alludes to the Biblical book of Numbers, 11:5:
We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free [of] cost: the cucumbers come into our mind, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic.
In other words, Chaucer subtly and ironically compares the summoner to the Hebrews who complained to Moses, suggesting the continual bondage of both to the flesh and the world.
Chaucer's humor is almost always ironic in the sense that it is meant to show how far some of the pilgrims have strayed from Christian truth.
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