Contradictions between Chaucer’s Characters and Medieval Reality

This past week, our Medieval Literature class finished reading “The Canterbury Tales,” by Geoffrey Chaucer. I personally thought it was an entertaining book to read, and found many of the stories quite amusing. The last few days, we talked about different aspects of the stories that could be related to other texts that we have read. I find it interesting (and surprising) how Chaucer described many of the characters, and how they were even allowed to participate in the voyage to Canterbury. Here, I will briefly give some information about several of the characters and then analyze and explain why some of their characteristics are surprising to me.

First, I will talk about the Monk. According the rules of St. Benedict, Monks were supposed to be extremely modest, and they weren’t even supposed to travel during the Middle Ages. They took a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and dedicated their lives to serving god, to live in a secure retreat, to escape from a violent world, and to lead a quiet and peaceful life. The monk should also eat the bare minimums, and should never eat very extravagant foods. The monk in Canterbury Tales, however, is very different from these criteria. First of all, the fact that this monk is even a part of the trip is surprising, for monks were not supposed to leave the monastery. Also, this monk is described to be wearing very fancy clothing such as animal fur and jewelry. He also is a hunter, and eats quite a bit. These characteristics contradict the typical monk during the Middle Ages, greatly.

The next character that I will talk about is the Prioress. A prioress is a type of Nun. However, in the book, the Prioress hardly acts as a nun. To start, she is described to sing through her nose and speaks incorrect French. This seems very unladylike to me. During her prologue, one line that confused me was when it said that she would weep if she saw a mouse caught in a trap, but then it described her feeding meat to her dogs which seems quite contradictory. This brings up another point, why did she have her dogs with her? If a nun was even allowed to travel to Canterbury, I’m fairly certain that she would not be allowed to bring dogs with her. The last characteristic about the Prioress that I want to bring up is her size and dress. She is described to be a very busty woman who is wearing very flashy clothing. Like the monk, this would be very strange for a nun. With the highly strict diets in the monasteries, I would not expect a nun to have a body like that; also the clothes of nuns were fairly simple so why is she wearing such fancy clothing? I almost feel as though the Prioress did some of the things that she did, just so she would seem more courtly and less holy.

This character is not as significant concerning the contradictions I’ve been observing, however I would bet that Chaucer had fun with writing about the cook. Cooks during the Middle Ages had the same job as cooks do today: obviously to make food for people. However, the description of the cook is honestly just disturbing. The description of the cook starts out positively. He is said to be able to cook in many ways and with many different foods, however after this, his character goes downhill fast. He is described to have a giant sore on his leg that is filled with white pus-like substance. Dr. Comber explained to the class that Chaucer implies that the cook uses this substance as his “secret ingredient” to make his food delicious. (This was right before I was going to eat lunch. Thanks Dr. Bolth!) As delightful as all of this is, the cook is definitely not one of my favorite characters in “The Canterbury Tales.”

The last character I want to mention is the Friar. I find him to be one of the oddest characters in the book. Friars were a type of monk, however, they were allowed to go out into the world to speak the “Word of God.” They were supposed to own nothing, and their income was based solely on the money they received from begging. They were to live the monastery lifestyle. However, the friar in the Canterbury tales hardly seems like a holy figure. The Friar seduces many women, is primarily concerned with money, and only likes to be around rich people. He excels at singing competitions and debate, and even the narrator mentions that this is not a proper occupation for a friar. Everything about this man annoys me and I absolutely think that he is not a “holy” man, as friars are described to be.

“The Canterbury Tales” contains many different aspects of various ideas to think about, and I chose to talk about some of the odd contradictions that I found. However, there is so much more to discuss and learn about in the book, and I am looking forward to doing so.

Work Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Jill Mann, ed. London, England: Penguin, 1951.

Anonymous. “Middle Ages.” Middle Ages. http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/, 16 July 2012. Web. 25 Sept. 2013.

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2 comments

  1. One thing that I am wandering is that did Chaucer mean for medieval society to pick up these contradictions, since they were based on the real occupation, would they know any better, or was he writing for the future.

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