There was a Friar among the pilgrims proceeding to Canterbury in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. He was a gay and merry fellow. He was licensed to beg within a certain specific area. But there was nobody in the four orders of beggars so expert in begging by using gallant phrases and elegant speech. He had arranged marriage of several young women at his own cost (probably after seducing them earlier). He was a noble pillar of his order and was quite popular and intimate with the rich land-owners of his region as well as the wealthy ladies there. The Friar had a special license from the Pope and as such had greater authority than an ordinary priest to hear confessions of graver sins. He heard confessions pleasantly and granted pardons to those who gave him costly gifts. He was rather lenient in pronouncing absolution as he believed that anyone who gave enough money to a poor order was certainly sincere and penitent. According to him, many people are so hard-hearted that though truly remorseful and penitent they cannot weep. Such people may, therefore, instead of prayers and shedding tears might get absolution by making paymeńts to the poor Friar.
This Friar’s hood was always filled with knives and pins to be presented to the beautiful women. This Friar could sing and play fiddle very well. He was a champion ballad-singer and could easily win all the prizes in any music- competition. Another distinction with this person was that he had a lily-white neck. But he was a very strong man and got all the prizes in fights. He knew all the innkeepers and bar-maids in every town better than the lepers and beggars because it was not proper that a man of his ability and quality should mix with the lowly and miserable lepers. He was aware that nothing good can come of dealings with such lowly people and it was, therefore, better to keep in touch with the rich merchants and others. His services were always polite where there was a possibility of profit. Nowhere one could find such a capable man. Chaucer describes him as the best beggar of his batch. Even if a widow were extremely poor he would recite holy words in such a pleasant voice that she would be practically forced to part with some money before he left. This Friar’s extra income was thus much higher than his regular salary. He could move about wantonly like a puppy on the days of arbitration when he would arbitrate and help in resolving disputes (for a small fee). On such occasions, he did not appear like a poor cloisterer in tattered clothes but would dress up as a person of importance or Pope with a double worsted cloak as round as a bell just out of its mold. To make his English appear charming he lisped a little in his speech in a playful manner. When he played on his harp or concluded a song his eyes sparkled brightly like the stars on a frosty night. The name of this worthy man was Hubert.
The representation of this Friar by Chaucer indicates the corruption that had taken root among the mendicant order of his time. The lifestyle of the Friar, his money-minded-ness, his association with the rich and wealthy men and women of his time and neglect of the poor and the suffering are all indications of the degeneration that had crept into the church and its clergy. The poet draws this character with such vividness and ironic touches that it seems, as if, the reader saw him before his eyes.
Maurice Hussey, a critic, however, feels that Chaucer was highly biased and unjustly critical against friars. His treatment of them does no justice to their excellence in the pulpit, their value to the society as teachers or the subtlety of their minds. But despite this view of Hussey, it is undeniable that Chaucer’s Friar is worldly, promiscuous and cunning quite in contrast to the expectations of its founder St. Francis who prescribed humility, service, love and frugal lifestyle to the order.
Though no specific model for this character could be identified by the scholars Chaucer must have had such a person wandering before him, enjoying all the pleasures of life and exploiting both the poor and the rich without even a bit of scruple.