Chaucer was in love with life and hence we find an immense zest for life in his The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.’ He is drawn to the people around him with great curiosity. This nature of the poet is at the core of his characterisation. It may be possible that he borrowed the plan of pilgrimage from others but his art and technique of characterisation is unique and entirely his own. Every character is drawn with a descriptive pen. Each line of the narrative tale reveals some facets of a character. Chaucer’s characters are like contemporary pictures. They appear before us. one after another, as if, in a procession in their full form. Thus we see the typical Knight of the medieval era in his doublet of fustian soiled as he has come for pilgrimage right after a voyage.
It needs all types of people to make a society. The Feudals, the Urbans, and the Ecclesiastical constituted important parts of the English society of the fourteenth century. Out of these the religions group had a very vital role in the society as the Church was still a dominant force in the affairs of man. Since Chaucer was a realist and his choice of a pilgrimage needed acceptance of a religious dimension of reality he decided to introduce several ecclesiastical characters in the group.
As we go through The Prologue it is observed that seven pilgrims have a direct relation to the church. These people have either taken religious vows or earn their livelihood from the church. They are very carefully chosen by the poet as the common people come in contact with them frequently in their day to day life. These seven members of the religious group are Prioress and the Monk who are quite highly placed in the rank. Then comes the Friar, the Clerk of Oxford and the Parson. Finally, he ends with the Summoner and the Pardoner.
The Prioress heads the list of this religious group. She conforms to the type of vocation in the fourteenth century. She has a romantic name Madame Eglantyne. The Prioress is simple, coy and affectionate. She has learned French. She has fine table manners and tries to imitate courtly manners all the time. All these points to the charming nature of the lady.
Yet Chaucer’s presentation of her is highly ironic. She seems to have failed to understand the true role of her vocation. Although she has taken the vow of poverty, chastity, charity, and conformity to her calling she is careful about costume, jewelry, and her personal beauty. The funniest side of her character is that although she was so full of pity for a trapped or dead mouse she kept small hounds and she fed them roasted flesh. Chaucer thus presents to us a lady who has failed to realize the meaning of true, charity, love and mercy and is full of feminine pretensions
The gentle discrepancy between the ideal and the real in the Prioress is further developed in the Monk. Our Monk is a worldly man; contemptuous of his religious vows. He has a passion for hunting and merry-making. He neither works nor studies. In fact, he does not believe in the old rules that a Monk should remain in the cloister. Even he never follow the rules prescribed by St. Maure and St. Benedict. He hates an austere life and prefers fashionable dresses. Chaucer thus portrays the character of the Monk who has accepted the security of the monastic life without realizing the need for corresponding duty to the society.
Chaucer’s Friar is a wanton and jolly fellow. He has secured the begging rights in a particular area. In all the four orders of beggars, none can excel him in begging as well as elegant speech. He is well-acquainted with all rich Franklins, rich women, and barmaids. He has arranged marriages for many young women but does not cultivate a relationship with lepers or the poor. In contrast to the founder of his order St. Francis he is fleshly and cunning. He recommends payment of money generously in lieu of weeping and prayer by a sinner. It seems Chaucer was somewhat disenchanted with this class of people and ignores the contributions made by them to society in various ways.
The Summoner and the Pardoner are two minor functionaries of the church who have not taken any vow but nevertheless operate in the name of the Church. The Summoner’s job is to deliver the summons to persons accused of various offenses to appear before an ecclesiastical court for trial and judgment. But the Summoner is cunning and corrupt. He advises people not to be afraid of Archdeacon’s curse provided they are prepared to pay some money. In his personal life, he keeps a mistress and he always takes a quart of wine. His wicked nature is also visible on his face as it is full of pimples and no amount of medicine will cure him of these.
Pardoner’is his friend and companion. This Pardoner sings love songs in a loud voice. This man for fashion does not put on his hood and he has glaring eyes resembling those of a hare. Although there is nothing wrong with that, Chaucer has singled out this man for selling relics, offering pardons for money and preaching unauthorisedly.
In contrast to the three important ecclesiastical characters and the two corrupt officials of the Church, Chaucer has presented two ideal characters in the Clerk of Oxford and the Parson. The Clerk of Oxford is an ideal scholar. He loves his books and studies more than any material object. He is, therefore, poor and wears a threadbare coat. Sometimes he gets financial help from his friends but whatever he receives from them is spent on books and learning and in turn, he repays them with heartfelt gratitude and prayers.
The poor Parson likewise is pious in thought and action. He is a scholar who preaches the Gospel of Christ devoutly to his parishioners. He is kind, diligent and balanced. Parson is not money-minded and never excommunicates his parishioners if they fail to pay their tithes. He is a contented man. His parish is large but despite that, he visits his people whenever needed without caring for any personal trouble. He regards himself as a shepherd and his parishioners whose protection and welfare is his only aim. Unlike other clergymen he does not go to St. Paul’s to offer private masses for the sake of money.
In his portrayal of the characters related to the church, Chaucer seems to be highlighting the decadence of the medieval church and the corruption that had crept in there. He is also showing us the pretensions of holiness and the true holiness among the church functionaries of his days. These characters ranging from the vain Prioress, arrogant Monk, money-minded, mischievous Friar to corrupt Summoner and depraved Pardoner to the sincere Scholar and the devout Parson bring before us a vivid picture of the medieval ecclesiastical class as truly and objectively as possible for a contemporary person.