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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does Chaucer's satire in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales evaluate the pilgrims?

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Satire in Chaucer's General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales comes across through the narrator's descriptions of the pilgrims, such as when he describes the Friar, who is supposedly a beggar, as "the finest beggar of his house."

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At the time that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, between 1387 and 1400, there were three "estates," roughly equivalent to social classes, which had been firmly established in England during the Middle Ages.

The First Estate is the clergy and those who assisted the clergy in teaching and religious activities; the Second Estate is the nobility and aristocrats; and the Third Estate is the peasants or commoners. In terms of feudalism, the Second Estate (nobility and aristocrats) were those who lived in the castles and defended the castles, the Third Estate (peasants and commoners) were those who worked for those who lived in the castles, and the First Estate (clergy) were those who taught and religiously ministered to those in the Second and Third Estates.

What is sometimes referred to as the "Fourth Estate" is the more rural, outlying commoners and anyone who didn't fit neatly into any other category. (In modern times, the "fourth estate" is the independent, "free" press and other media, which stand outside the other three estates.)

In the later Middles Ages, when Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, the three estates were beginning to fragment. For example, there was an emerging class of intellectuals and clerks (like Chaucer himself) in the clergy who studied literature and writing but who didn't perform or assist religious rites. A growing merchant class was also exerting influence throughout England and Europe.

Originally considered simply as an introduction to The Canterbury Tales, scholars now believe that the "General Prologue" stands on its own as an "estates satire," in which Chaucer satirizes each of the three estates through individuals who represent each estate.

The primary focus of Chaucer's satire throughout the "General Prologue" and the "Tales" is the First Estate, the clergy, represented by the Prioress, a Nun, three Priests, a Monk, and a Friar. He also satirizes upper level members of the Third Estate and the emerging intellectual merchant classes, including a merchant, a lawyer, a wealthy landowner, a haberdasher, a sheriff, and Chaucer himself.

Notably absent from the book are members of the guilds (who make an appearance at the end of the procession but about whom no stories are told) and the "high nobility" (kings, queens, other royalty, and members of the ruling aristocracy), although a few members of the "petite," or lower, nobility (the Knight, Squire, and Yeoman) are given their own "tales." Chaucer provides no explanation as to why representatives of these classes aren't included in his book.

Although his satire is generally well-placed, Chaucer is sometimes an "unreliable narrator," meaning that he's a narrator who the reader can trust regarding the truth of the facts in the narration, but who the reader can't necessarily trust regarding the narrator's often subjective interpretation of those facts. This unreliability is what accounts for much of the humor and satire in The Canterbury Tales.

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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.

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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.  

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