General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Discuss Chaucer's satirical approach in the "General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales.

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The overall tone of "The General Prologue" is gently satirical, with Chaucer poking fun at the representatives of each stratum of medieval society. As part of his satirical strategy, Chaucer makes ample use of irony . To this end, he employs the use of two narrators—Chaucer the naive pilgrim...

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taken in by surface appearances, and Chaucer the slightly cynical author slyly showing us what's really going on underneath.

The main focus of Chaucer's satire is on the medieval Church and its representatives. The Church was notorious at that time for its worldliness and corruption. But Chaucer adopts a subtle approach in laying bare the Church's manifest contradictions and hypocrisies. We can see this in his depiction of the Prioress. Chaucer the naive pilgrim is most impressed by her expensive collection of sparkling jewelry. Yet Chaucer the satirical poet ever so gently insinuates that perhaps such an ostentatious display of personal wealth is inappropriate for someone holding a position of authority within a convent.

The exact same approach can be seen in relation to Chaucer's portrayal of the monk. Chaucer the pilgrim seems to find him a jolly good fellow, just the kind of humorous companion you'd want alongside you on a long, potentially tedious pilgrimage. But once again, what Chaucer the pilgrim finds so delightful becomes an object of mockery in the hands of his creator, Chaucer the poet. His description of the monk as "A manly man, to been an abbot able" hints at the worldliness of the Church. To get on in this organization, you don't need to be some kind of self-denying ascetic; you can be a man like any other, with all the associated faults and foibles.

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The portraits that Chaucer offers of the various pilgrims reveal his gift as a satirist, as he reveals details that poke gentle fun at the various characters in the group. Perhaps his most obvious method of satire is the way he develops the characters of some of the pilgrims as being hypocrites, or not what they claim to be. For example, note how he introduces the Friar:

In all of the four Orders there was none

So versed in small talk and in flattery:

And many was the marriage in a hurry

He'd had to improvise and even pay for.

He waas a noble pillar of his Order...

There is a clear hypocrisy in the way that the Friar is "a noble pillar of his Order" whilst also a renowned lecherous individual who has had to pay off women he has slept with so they could marry. This example of Chaucer's satire is typical of the way that he pokes fun at the characters he presents, particularly those who pretend to be something they are obviously not. Although this is quite an obvious example, there are other examples such as the Prioress who has her own pet dogs, when church law at the time strictly forbade nuns from having dogs. In his description, Chaucer pokes satirical fun at a number of his characters, and this is something that continues as the tale competition begins.

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