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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS (continued)

The Friar

The Friar, Brother Hubert, is among Chaucerís portraits of the corrupt clergy. The Friar is a gay, merry, wanton man. He is a seeker of pleasure. He is a limiter; i.e. he is licensed to solicit alms within certain assigned limits. He is a grand imposing man and the only member in all the four orders of the Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and Augustinians, who was so well-versed in the language of dalliance and flattery. In contrast to the Monks, Friars had the liberty to preach outside the monastery walls and they followed the ideal of active as opposed to contemplative service. The prime objective of the Friars however was to attack evil and sinners by preaching among the people. However this mendicant life soon degenerated into a pleasurable way of life. Friars transformed begging into an extremely profitable business proposition. Moreover Friars who were supposed to guard people against evil themselves committed venal sins like seducing village girls and married women by their sweet talk and gifts. Chaucerís lecherous Friar too has arranged marriages of many young girls whom he had seduced. He is thoroughly familiar with the tricks of the trade and his hood is always stuffed with trinkets cherished by gullible women. Chaucer ironically commends the Friar as a strong pillar of the church.

The Friar is very familiar with the rich and powerful men of his town. He claims to have more power to hear a confession than a parson does and his absolution is pleasant since he easily grants pardon whenever he is certain of a good offering. He argues that many hard-hearted men could not weep even if they are truly repentant for their sins. In such cases charity to friars is equivalent to tears and prayers. The Friar has a merry voice and could sing well to the accompaniment of a rote (a stringed instrument). He always won the best prize in ballad singing competitions. His musical ability helps in his seduction of women. He has a lily-white neck although he has an athletic constitution. This corrupt Friar is well acquainted with all the innkeepers and barmaids but avoids the poor beggars and lepers like the plague. Chaucer sarcastically comments that it is neither fitting nor profitable for the Friar to associate himself with such poor people. Chaucer then commends the Friar for his humility, virtuousness, and courtesy. He is indeed the best beggar of his order and has the ability to extract money from even the poorest of the poor. For even if a poor widow did not have a shoe / sou (French coin), the Friarís recitation of "In principio" was so pleasant that he would extort a farthing from her before he left. The proceeds of his begging were far greater than the rent that he paid to the church. Moreover the Friar was actively involved in settling secular matters on love-days. Love days were days appointed for out of court settlement of disputes under the arbitration of the clergy. Gradually the practice degenerated and the church forbade the clergy to arbitrate except in case of the poor. Chaucerís comment that the Friar actively participated on love days is an indirect criticism since the readers know that the Friar does not associate with the poor. The Friar is not like an ascetic wearing threadbare clothes. Rather he is wearing a well pressed double worsted coat. Hubert lisps in order to make his speech sound sweet. His eyes twinkle in his head like stars in a frosty night. Chaucerís ironic portrait of the merry, sweet, pleasant and worthy Friar is an excellent satire against the corrupt clergy.


The Merchant

The Merchant with his forked beard is a representative of the rising middle classes. He is well dressed with fashionable motley colored clothes, stylish Flemish beaver hat and expensive boots. He gives his opinion on English trade policies in a pompous manner and always bases it on what would be favorable to his own trade. He manages his financial affairs so cleverly that nobody knows that he is actually in debt. He never loses any money in his bargains and is extremely knowledgeable about the business of borrowing and lending money. Chaucer says that the Merchant is a worthy man but declines knowing his name.

The Clerk

The Oxford clerk is among Chaucerís idealized portraits. The Clerk is a serious student who had long ago devoted himself to the study of logic. Perhaps he is studying for a Masterís degree. He is very thin, hollow and pale and his horse is as thin as a rake. He does not have any benefice and is extremely poor which is evident from his threadbare short upper coat. He prefers to single - mindedly pursue his insatiable quest for knowledge and learning rather than mindlessly run after wealth and riches. He would rather have twenty books of Aristotelian philosophy at his bedside than fine clothes, fiddle or a gay harp. Although he is a philosopher he has little gold in his coffer. He is a man of few words and does not speak more than necessary. But whatever he does say tends to increase moral virtue in the listeners. The scholarly Clerk religiously prays for the welfare of his friends and benefactors. Chaucer seriously appreciates the Clerkís solemnity and openly praises him. There are no ironic overtones in the Clerkís portrait apart from the pun on his being a philosopher and yet being poor. In the Middle Ages, a philosopher also implied an alchemist who claimed to transform base metals into silver and gold. Chaucerís Clerk does not have gold in his coffer. He is a serious student of logic and philosophy and has willingly forfeited worldly pleasures for intellectual enrichment.

The Sergeant at Law

The Sergeant at Law is an expert lawyer and a man of considerable importance. He has often functioned as a judge at the assizes. He has often been at the Ďparvysí; i.e., porch of St. Paulís church where lawyers often met for consultations. He was highly renowned for his knowledge and knew all the statutes by heart. He commanded high fees for negotiating the purchase of land and could draft his legal documents so well that nobody can find any fault with them. Therefore he has attained mastery in his profession. The Sergeant at Law is also very discreet and cautious in his speech. He was a very busy man but he always pretended to be busier than he really was. Chaucer here ironically comments on the tendency of humans to pretend. The Sergeant at Law has misconceptions about his importance and holds a high opinion of himself.

The Franklin

The Franklin with his daisy white beard and sanguine complexion is an excellent portrait of a hedonist. He owns a big house in the countryside and pretends to be a noble landlord for which he is respected by the country folk. He is a true Epicurean who delights in the pleasures of life. He is a social climber and greatly values everything connected with nobility. He has often served as Member of Parliament for his county and is a man of authority. He is extremely fond of fine food, good wine and jovial company. In fact Chaucer states that it rained food and drink in his house. His hospitality is evident from the fact that his table is always laid with food. He has the best cellar in the county and changes his menus in accordance with the seasons. Chaucer completes his portrait with the comment that the Franklin is a worthy sub-vassal.

The Physician

The peerless Physician is the master of his profession. Chaucer says that the Physician is "a verray, parfit praktisour". He is trained in astronomy and would observe his patients carefully through the astrological hours and place the waxen figures of his patients when a beneficent planet was ascendant. He knew the cause of every disease - whether it was hot or cold or moist or dry - and also which humor was responsible for it. It was believed during the Middle Ages that physical diseases as well as mental temperaments were the result of the relationship of one humor with another. The term humor refers to the four fluids of the human body: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. An imbalance would result in the dominance of one humor and affect the health of the person accordingly. An excess of black bile for instance resulted in melancholy, brooding and gluttonous temperament. When the humors were in balance, an ideal temperament prevailed. However the Physician was in league with the apothecaries and each worked to increase the otherís profits. Although he was well read in all the medical texts, he devoted little time to read the Bible. He had made a lot of money during the plague and clung to it as if his very life depended on it. He is very conscious of his health and eats moderately. Chaucer suggests that the Physician was greedy by commenting on his fondness for gold. The Physician truly represents the fourteenth century doctor.



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