The Monk in The Canterbury Tales: Character Analysis, Satire & Criticism

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

The Monk in ''The Canterbury Tales'' defies expectations of the poor and dutiful Church officer. By depicting his monk as enjoying a lavish lifestyle, Chaucer provides a critique of the clergy in this period.

Social Background

Before any discussion of satire and critique, it is first necessary to provide some context in which we can understand Chaucer's Monk. The Canterbury Tales explores relationships between three different social classes: the clergy (of which the Monk is a member), the nobility (the wealthy class), and the peasantry (the poorest class). The Canterbury Tales includes critiques and satirical depictions of members of all three classes.

The Clergy

The clergy were expected to lead simple lives, devoted to God; the nobility were generally wealthy; and the peasantry were the poorest class. This background is relevant because Chaucer's Monk does not meet these expectations, and his character is part of Chaucer's attempt to satirize and critique the clergy, which he does in several other stories as well, and with several other characters.


Wealth and Ostentation

In 'The General Prologue', the narrator offers some clues as to what we are to make of The Monk's character with this description of his clothing: 'I saw his sleeves purfil'd at the hand (worked at the end) With gris (fur) and that the finest of the land. And for to fasten his hood under his chin, He had of gold y-wrought a curious pin; A love-knot in the greater end there was.' This description flies in the face of expectations of monks, who have taken a vow of poverty and therefore tend to wear very basic clothes. Chaucer's audience would therefore immediately recognize that the character of the Monk has been written in this way in order to provide social commentary: he is suggesting that some monks take advantage of their position to live quite comfortably, which is a stereotype of monks that his audience would have been familiar with.

The Monk's clothes are not the only hints as to his lifestyle: we are also told that he is a 'lord full fat' and that his horse is in 'great estate'. Again, the reader would expect a monk to be thin, having presumably not overeaten, and to have a fairly basic horse. By the end of 'The General Prologue', the reader has the impression of a monk who does not live according to the ideals of the clergy, and who has become corrupt.

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