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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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

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Chaucer's descriptions of the Monk and Friar in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales are satirical and ironic because neither the Monk nor the Friar is the sort of ascetic man, caring nothing for women or money, that members of the church should be. The monk, ironically, is a hunter, even though monks should not hunt. Meanwhile, the friar is "a wantowne and a merye," or pleasure-loving and merry, again ironic behavior for a supposedly chaste friar.

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Irony occurs when events turn out the opposite of what is expected, while satire pokes fun at social problems.

Both the monk and the friar are supposed to live humble lives in service of others and in imitation of Christ. Ironically, they each do the opposite.

The monk is supposed be cloistered, which means to live in the monastery, apart from the world. Clearly, he is not doing that, since he is on the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Further, he leads a very comfortable life, more akin to what we might associate with the lord of the manor. His habit is trimmed with gray fur, a sign of wealth, and he is fat with a shining bald head and face, suggesting he is in robust, well-fed good health. We learn that:

Of priking and of hunting for the hare was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.

In other words, he spares no cost on his hunting for hares, which is his passion. He is also a womanizer, with a sweet, lisping voice he uses to woo the ladies, ironic since to become a monk he had to take vows of chastity—and also he should be inside his all-male monastery. The host points out that if had not been a monk, he would have "fathered dozens."

The friar is likewise a worldly rather than a religious man. The friar should be serving the poor, but, ironically, he is serving himself. We find that he is:

Ful wel biloved … with the worthy wommen of the town.

In other words, he is sleeping around. He has also benefitted financially from a scheme in which he has let out word that his penances for sin are easy. The rich people flock to him, but his easy penances come with a price tag that has made him quite financially comfortable.

Chaucer uses both these figures to satirize or poke fun at the corrupt state of the clergy and the church in his time period.

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Chaucer uses irony and satire throughout his Canterbury Tales in order to gently mock various elements of society. In the case of the monk and the friar, he is mocking the church.

In the case of the monk, we see an ironic figure here because, as Chaucer notes, there is many a "text" which suggests that monks and priors should remain in their cloisters and certainly should not indulge in outside pastimes like hunting. That is for "manly" men, and in truth, the monk should not be a "manly" man.

The irony in Chaucer's description of the monk lies in the fact that he does not behave as a monk should. He hunts where he should not. He also wears a pin "of gold ywroght," made of gold, showcasing his wealth even though a monk should not have money. The monk is therefore an ironic figure who is a satire of the Church: Chaucer is satirizing, or making fun of, the fact that the Church often did not follow its own teachings.

We can see a similar situation in the description of the friar, who is "wantowne and ... merye." Certainly it is ironic that a friar should be "wanton and merry," loving pleasure and indulging in "many a marriage" with women! A friar is supposed to have taken a vow of chastity, but Chaucer's satirical friar approaches life from quite the opposite direction. He does not care for chastity, or any of the other things to which friars might be expected to ascribe. On the contrary, he believes that life is all about living.

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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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