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The Canterbury Tales


General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law

Summary General Prologue: The Knight through the Man of Law

The narrator focuses on the Prioress’s table manners in minute detail, openly admiring her courtly manners. He seems mesmerized by her mouth, as he mentions her smiling, her singing, her French speaking, her eating, and her drinking. As if to apologize for dwelling so long on what he seems to see as her erotic manner, he moves to a consideration of her “conscience,” but his decision to illustrate her great compassion by focusing on the way she treats her pets and reacts to a mouse is probably tongue-in-cheek. The Prioress emerges as a very realistically portrayed human being, but she seems somewhat lacking as a religious figure.

The narrator’s admiring description of the Monk is more conspicuously satirical than that of the Prioress. The narrator zeroes in on the Monk with a vivid image: his bridle jingles as loud and clear as a chapel bell. This image is pointedly ironic, since the chapel is where the Monk should be but isn’t. To a greater degree than the Squire or the Prioress, the Monk has departed from his prescribed role as defined by the founders of his order. He lives like a lord rather than a cleric. Hunting is an extremely expensive form of leisure, the pursuit of the upper classes. The narrator takes pains to point out that the Monk is aware of the rules of his order but scorns them.

Like the Monk, the Friar does not perform his function as it was originally conceived. Saint Francis, the prototype for begging friars, ministered specifically to beggars and lepers, the very people the Friar disdains. Moreover, the Friar doesn’t just neglect his spiritual duties; he actually abuses them for his own profit. The description of his activities implies that he gives easy penance in order to get extra money, so that he can live well. Like the Monk, the Friar is ready with arguments justifying his reinterpretation of his role: beggars and lepers cannot help the Church, and giving money is a sure sign of penitence. The narrator strongly hints that the Friar is lecherous as well as greedy. The statement that he made many marriages at his own cost suggests that he found husbands for young women he had made pregnant. His white neck is a conventional sign of lecherousness.

The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law

The Merchant, the Clerk, and the Man of Law represent three professional types. Though the narrator valiantly keeps up the pretense of praising everybody, the Merchant evidently taxes his ability to do so. The Merchant is in debt, apparently a regular occurrence, and his supposed cleverness at hiding his indebtedness is undermined by the fact that even the naïve narrator knows about it. Though the narrator would like to praise him, the Merchant hasn’t even told the company his name.

Sandwiched between two characters who are clearly devoted to money, the threadbare Clerk appears strikingly oblivious to worldly concerns. However, the ultimate purpose of his study is unclear. The Man of Law contrasts sharply with the Clerk in that he has used his studies for monetary gain.