Chaucer uses The General Prologue to highlight the predicament and the shortcomings of the Church in England at his time: by the use of satire and irony he manages to effectively criticise the Church in the 14th century. I have chosen to use three of Chaucer’s portraits to illustrate the impression he gives of the Church. The first of these characters is the Monk; a man who one must remember has vowed to lead a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. It can immediately be seen that Chaucer is not partial to the Church and the clergy.
The first two lines set the scene for the portrait; Chaucer starts by telling the reader that the Monk outshines all other monks (‘a fair for the maistrie’ – line 165), this at first appears complimentary, though when one reads on one discovers that this monk outshines the other monks in his negligence of his duty to God. This “exceptional” monk is in fact a gluttonous, self-centred man, who would rather concentrate on hunting (‘venerie’ – line 166) and increasing his chances of a career promotion.
He also appears to contradict all of the aforesaid vows, for example his ‘venerie’ is not only hunting, an indulgent pursuit of a man certainly not living in poverty and obedience, but it is also an image of sexual pleasure. In saying this Chaucer is ironically saying that the fact that this exploiting monk thinks that he is worthy of a higher rank, a position as an ‘abbot’, it must therefore mean that abbots are equally dishonest and hence the church is utterly corrupt.
Chaucer continues with this imagery of the Monk’s supposed allegiance to the (scrupulous) Church being lacking. Chaucer tells us that this monk is the owner of a fine horse and when he is riding passers-by can hear the chapel bells and the bells on the horse’s ‘bridel’ equally loudly, yet the Monk is infatuated with his hunting and is oblivious to the ‘chapel belle’ which calls him to prayer. Chaucer proceeds to condemn the Monk for his disdainful negligence to his duty.
However the Monk attempts to defend himself, saying that the ‘reule of Seint Maure and Seint Beneit’ is outdated and overly austere. This monk instead believed in leaving the traditional Benedictine Rule behind and disregarding the bible (‘He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen’ – line 177). The Monk, who I trying to justify his actions is in fact hypocritical, saying that ‘a monk out of his cloistre’ is not like a ‘fissh that is waterlees’; the irony being that that is exactly what this neglectful monk resembles, he is directly contradicting the idea of monastic life.