In the course of your answer:
* Look closely at the effects of language, descriptive detail and imagery in creating your impressions.
* Comment on what these portraits suggest about the Medieval church
The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales introduces us to the twenty-eight other pilgrims with whom Chaucer will be travelling to Canterbury. As a pilgrimage was a journey to a sight of Religious importance, it is understandable that among the travellers are figures from the ecclesiastic profession. However, the Medieval Church system was a lot larger than today, and was made up of nearly a quarter of society.
It was highly influential on everyday life, due the lack of scientific knowledge, and the value and belief system held at that time. The Medieval church can in some ways be viewed as a large-scale industry, and like any large corporation it was open to abuse and there was wide scale corruption, which is strongly hinted through Chaucer’s portrayal of the first three religious pilgrims.
The Prioress is the first of the ecclesiastic pilgrims and one of only two women on the pilgrimage, the other being the wife of Bath. She has a genteel and dignified manner compared to the other raucous pilgrims although Chaucer’s first impression is that she is “smiling and coy”, attributes which are certainly not fitting for a nun. Our initial impression is that the Prioress is a contrast to the stereotypical image of a nun. Her name is “Madame Eglantine” and instead of taking the name of a Saint her chosen namesake is a species of wild rose who is also a heroine of courtly romance novels.
Also her worst oath is by “St Eloy” who had a reputation for beauty and courtesy, which shows that she associates herself with these qualities. Chaucer therefore sees the nun as a charming impostor whose social ambitions lead her to an absurd confusion of purposes.
Chaucer seems to praise her for the “Frenssh she spak” however this accomplishment is more fitting for a courtly lady than a nun. The irony only becomes clear when Chaucer says “after the scole of Stratford atta Bowe.” A nunnery in Middlesex, which was famed for accepting the less esteemed orders of society, therefore while she is trying to pass herself off as a Lady of Court, she is demonstrating by this same device that this is far from the truth. In other words her mimicking of courtly mannerisms are completely inappropriate for her calling.
The fact that Chaucer notices her physical appearance, “she was nat undergrowe” suggests that she is behaving in a manner that is unsuitable for a nun. Her “wimpul pinched” demonstrates that the prioress is trying to make her plain habit fashionable or attractive instead of using it to cover her “fair forheed” as a sign of modesty. Chaucer shows us a woman whose real interests lie not with her religious vocation but with the fashionable world she know only through hearsay.
The Prioress in fact is violating an ecclesiastical edict by going on pilgrimage in the first place, her pet dogs too, are also forbidden. Her unveiled for head and open displays of attractiveness would most certainly be frowned upon. Her disregard for the rules of her order is matched by the monks unmasked contempt for the edicts of St Augustine “he yaf nat of that text a pulled hen.” This reveals a comic incongruity between expectation and reality and may represent a conscious criticism of the corrupt state of the church at this time
From the description of his physical appearance, the Friar, like the prioress does not seem to fit the image associated with ecclesiastical figures. “His nekke whit was as the flour-de Lys.” Which seems unusual because normally only people from the gentry class had fair skin, as they were able to stay indoors. Friars were licensed to beg within a specified area and therefore would be expected to be outside. So from Chaucer’s comment we can infer that the Friar is not doing what he is supposed to. Not only this but his clothes are made of the most expensive material, “of double worstede was his semicope”, and they are of a fashionable cut “that rounded of a belle out of the presse.” This information leads us to question whether the friar really is the beggar he makes out to be.
Chaucer ill-conceals the Friars promiscuity. At first it is revealed that he knows much of, “daliaunce and fair language” which is ambiguous as it could mean an elegant manner of speech or lovemaking, persuasive argument and empty promises. We are then told that “ful many a marriage of yonge womman at his owene cost” which suggests that the Friar finds husbands for poor girls and pays their dowry or wedding expenses. However this is only for his own personal gain as the Friar has seduced the young women and is marrying them off to avoid scandal. This sexual laxity is clearly not fulfilling the vow of chastity taken by all church figures and has far more serious consequences than the prioress revealing her fine forehead.
The more that we learn about the friar the more repulsive he appears. He neglects the needy for a more profitable association with the easy-living class of affluent merchants. “To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce, is nat honest it may nat avaunce”. Insinuating that if there is no profit in it for him, then he doesn’t want to know. He brushes this off lightly by saying that it isn’t fitting for his status. He goes on to say, “for to deelen with no swich porraille”- to associate with such poverty stricken wretches- the stinging contempt of this remark reveals a genuinely uncharitable and viscous nature.
Lastly Chaucer reveals the Friar’s corrupting misuse of confession-one of the greatest sacraments of the church. “For unto a povre ordre for to yive is signe that a man is wel yshrive” he turns confession into a painless business arrangement illicitly inviting the rich to buy absolution without the discomfort of doing penance, “therefore instede of wepinge and preyeres, men moot yeve silver to povre freres.” This cynical exploitation of his faith is unchristian and immoral. Yet the Friar stoops even lower by manipulating the poor and vulnerable, “for thogh a wiwe hadde noght a sho… yet wolde he have a ferhing er he wente.” This is more than immoral; the Friar is preying on innocent victims for money, when their need is far greater than his own.
While Chaucer treats the Prioress and the monk with an amused indulgence, recognising that they do not actually harm their religion though they regard its rules and principles so lightly and are both unsuited to their holy vocation, being more interested in worldly rather than spiritual matters. But the Friar seems to evoke a sense of outrage in Chaucer, which he voices through scathingly ironic remarks, “there nas no man nowher so vertuous.”