How does satire in Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales work within a subtle frame of evaluation of the pilgrims.
Chaucer uses satire in the descriptions of the pilgrims in the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales to reveal corruption in the Church that was prevalent in society. Many members of the clergy used their positions for personal gain. This can be seen in his cast of characters. Of all the pilgrims associated with the Church, the Parson is the only one who is honorable.
One of the corrupt pilgrims is the Monk. The Monk disregards the rules that govern monasteries. The narrator is referencing this book of rules when he states: "But this same text he held not worth an oyster;/And I said his opinion was right good" (18-19). The narrator really doesn't agree with the Monk's opinion that the rules are outdated. He is using sarcasm to make his point that the Monk chooses not to follow the rules because they hamper his lifestyle of hunting, owning possessions, and eating fine foods.
Another member of the Church Chaucer satirizes is the Friar. The narrator states that "He was the finest beggar of his house" (42). This statement has double meaning. The Friar is a successful beggar because he makes such a good living begging from the wealthy people in his district. Instead of helping the poor, he uses this income for himself. In this way he is also a "fine" beggar because he does own expensive clothes that he wears on arbitration days. Friars were not allowed to mediate for profit, so this is another way he is a corrupt member of the Church. The Friar allows sinners to pay him for forgiveness when they are unable to show remorse for their sins.
Chaucer reveals a changing society in The Canterbury Tales. While he does focus more on members of the clergy, he also gives commentary on society through other characters like the Squire. Unlike the Knight, his father, the Squire is interested in battle because of the attention he receives from the ladies.
Chaucer uses his Prologue to skewer or satirize (poke fun at) the various pilgrims who will tell their tales on this journey. From the start, it is apparent that they are on this trip for reasons other than, as Chaucer, deadpan, puts it, "the hooly blissful martir for to seke" for very few of them meet even the most minimal standard of piety. Each of the pilgrims has exaggerated qualities that serve to poke fun at their weaknesses—and thus at the problems of the society they represent.
Chaucer, for example, uses exaggeration to satirize the Prioress's sentimentality and pretensions about being of a higher class: she eats and wipes her lips in an overly dainty way; speaks French, the language of the royal court and the upper classes, with an English accent; and is so tender that she cries when a mouse is caught in a trap. Her extreme "gentleness" is more a means of social climbing than genuine sensibility. To show that she is not as tender and delicate as she pretends, Chaucer has her tell a grisly anti-Semitic story in which a Jew cuts the throat of a Christian boy and throws him into a cesspool.
Chaucer likewise uses the Pardoner to satirize the hypocrisy of the Church's selling of indulgences for the forgiveness of sins, a practice in which giving a certain amount of money to the Church could wipe out sins—even sins you had not yet committed. The Pardoner always begins his "pitch" by telling worshipers that the love of money is the root of all evil—a pitch he utters in order to get the money he covets from them. In creating a Pardoner who is so openly and unashamedly corrupt, Chaucer pokes fun at a Church that (at least sometimes) pretends to be pious while raking in the cash.