Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The General Prologue’ ctd.

The next in line is the Friar. The difference between the friars and the monks was that the monks were the members of old orders, established in the early Middle Ages like the Benedictines or the Cistercians. They supported themselves by owning land and running farms with all the kinds of medieval agricultural industry. The monasteries gradually amassed great riches and in the 13th century this produced a backlash. Several new orders were formed who rejected the possession of any worldly goods except the barest minimum (most famously the Franciscans). The ideal was to support themselves day-to-day by begging and receiving charitable donations. The ideal soon deteriorated, as it usually happens with ideals and there are a lot of negative portrayals of friars in medieval English literature. The Friar is described, similarly to other clerical figures, with a dose of irony. He is renowned as a very lenient confessor, especially if the confessees (?) give good donations, because he measures their contrition by the size of their donations. He actually makes a comfortable income not only for his convent, but also for himself, and he pays a percentage of his income to the convent to make sure that other brothers don’t beg in his district. He is also a kind of ladies’ man, has a pleasing singing voice, and his hood is apparently full of pins and knives he gives as gifts to housewives [surely it was not very comfortable for him?]

The Merchant is a kind of stereotypical shrewd businessman, well-dressed and well-to-do, never in debt, speaking judiciously and worried about his trade routes. The Clerk, is in other words, a student of Oxford. Since in the Middle Ages all universities were ecclesiastical institutions, all students were treated priests in the making, although they were not obliged to take holy orders after their graduation. The Clerk has only one thing in common with contemporary students – not much money. He has no profitable benefice and one can see it just by looking at him and his horse – both are very thin. The Clerk is not interested in worldly goods anyway – whatever money he has, he spends on books, among them Aristotle. He spends all his time in studying and praying for his benefactors, and never says an irreverent word. He is an ideal scholar and in a line quoted by every English professor, “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teache”.


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