General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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In The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, what does Chaucer think of the Friar?

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In The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, one of several amazing things about this piece of literature is that Chaucer includes himself as one of the members of the pilgrimage. He is simply reporting what he sees and hears—at least on the surface. By reading more closely, Chaucer's intimations about the other members of the group illuminate their true character as seen through Chaucer's eye. In this way, we also discover the characteristics Chaucer admired, as well as those he frowned upon. The latter is the case with Hubert, the Friar. 

The Friar's description appears to start out positively enough:

A friar there was, a wanton and a merry,
A limiter, a very worthy man.
In all the Orders Four is none that can
Equal his friendliness and fair language. (1-4)

There are two definitions of wanton that would apply to the Friar. The archaic use of the word (appropriate to the Middle Ages) referred to someone who was playful. However, the other definition also applies to the Friar—"sexually lawless or unrestrained,"—as we find, as we read further.

The Friar is a limiter...

...a limiter being a friar who paid his convent a certain sum (a ferme) [a firm price] for the exclusive right of begging on its behalf within the limits of a fixed district, presumably spending the surplus, if any, as he pleased.

We might easily begin to sense Chaucer's opinion of the man in that by the time he was writing, these kinds of ecclesiastical servants were tremendously unpopular, their houses being torn down during riots. The Friar was a member of one of four orders of friars at Chaucer's time. The author's introduction might well give one the initial impression of a fun-loving servant of God, who was merry, friendly and well spoken. However, gradually the careful reader will discover that there is much more to the man.

He had arranged full many a marriage
Of young women, and this at his own cost. (5-6)

Many friars, who begged for a living, ultimately became as wealthy as monks. While the monks offered their lives in holy service in solitude, behind the walls of monasteries, churches, etc., friars were sent out into the world to minister to the people. Because the Friar pays for the marriages out of his own pocket, literary critics agree that these were women the Friar had seduced, for whom he then arranged and paid for marriages. Note that the text relates that there were "full many," meaning he did this quite often. We begin to see the Friar in a much different light.

The prologue goes on to note that those who were more seriously forgiven of their sins through confession to the Friar were those who were able to pay him, and pay him well, for it!

His tippet was stuck always full of knives
And pins, to give to young and pleasing wives. (23-24)

On his person the Friar kept a collection of little gifts (trinkets, baubles), which he used to seduce not only young women, but "pleasing wives" as well.

In towns he knew the taverns, every one,
And every host and gay barmaid also
Better than beggars and lepers did he know. (30-32)

The Friar was much more familiar with the bars (taverns) in his district (and those who worked there) than he was with the unfortunates he was supposed to serve, including the poverty-stricken and the diseased.

For though a widow had no shoes to show,
So pleasant was his In principio,
He always got a farthing ere he went. (45-47)

The Friar was so eloquent (so gifted in speech) that he could wheedle a penny from a poor widow that could not even afford to buy shoes—and this was the case wherever he traveled.

It is not difficult to image that Chaucer had very little time for the Friar and his ilk. In fact, he is equally censorious of the Pardoner and the Monk. He was, however, an admirer of the Parson, who was a man truly dedicated to God's work, while the others on the pilgrimage are a disgrace to the Church and poor examples of Christian servants and godly men.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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