Satire in The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales


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Irony and humour as literary devices were notably absent in the Middle Ages. Life was so different and religious passions so stern that few seemed to have time or inclination to laugh. Piers the Plowman, a contemporary work by William Langland, may be a good example; it is all about moral earnestness and asceticism. Langland's inspiration flows from moral righteousness and a reformist zeal. Like an ideal satirist, Chaucer had no purpose to reform in The Canterbury Tales; he never wished to change people as well as their morals and manners. But he depicted them as were with a tongue-in-cheek humour, which is often a mask for merciless realism.
Characterisation turns out to be Chaucer's key device for satire, which often acquires a more generalised tone beyond individuality. His time came across major paradigm shifts in the ecclesiastical and secular history of England – due to the ravaging Black Death, the Great Schism, the Wycliffite or Lollard heresy, the Crusades, the Hundred Years' War, the growth of money economy, and an increasingly literate culture. The Great Revolt in 1381 created unique tensions. Up the ladder of society, the inferior answered back to the superior with sharp criticism and occasional blows. The clergy's inability and indifference to relieve people from epidemics seriously questioned its efficacy. At the same time, secular leaders proved to be morally superior to the ecclesiastical. Chaucer provoked and sustained the debate by adapting a radical, ironical perspective.
Usually expected to be a sombre nun, the Prioress here is depicted as the heroine of some medieval romance. The reference to Saint Loy or Eligius, the patron of long journeys as well as of goldsmithing, implies her sheer materialism. Her name Eglentyne, the white and red rose, also conveys a romantic charm. The terms used to describe her, the grey eyes and rosebud mouth, her exquisite manners, fondness of lapdogs that supports Bromyard's ironical account – all point to the same direction. The epigram on her beads – 'amor vincit omnia' or love conquers all – ambivalently suggests material love as much as its spiritual counterpart.
The Prioress seems to be innocent of her vices, but the Monk deliberately boasts his own. The hunting monk was a stock figure in satires. Chaucer ironically overturns roles by depicting him as a country gentleman, in sharp contrast to the virtuous Knight. He has a plump figure, and not mortified by monastic vigils. The food imagery is also quite satirical. He compares discipline to plebeian foods; cheap dishes like oysters and plucked hens are surely inferior to his favourite diet of roasted swan.
The steady decline in the ecclesiastical order continues with Friar Huberd. He explicitly sets money above God. Destitute widows are the object of his greed, not of his charity. He has nothing to do with the leper or the poor, readily serves the rich.
The characterisation of the arch-rascals, the Summoner and the Pardoner, are the best examples of Chaucer's rude irony under the mask of humour. Both physically and spiritually repugnant, the Summoner has the most hilarious appearance. His face is pimpled and discoloured, his eyelids are swollen; these were symptoms of lechery and leprosy. He will genially excuse anyone seeing that he is properly bribed, for example given a quart of wine.
The Pardoner's corruption is suggested through his appearance. His feeble goat-like voice, lack of beard, yellow locks and glaring eyes are slapstick indications to his sexual anomaly. Chaucer tells us that the Pardoner has come straight from the Court of Rome and that he bears a wallet 'bretful of pardoun, commen from Rome al hoot.' The question at once arises about the authenticity of the pardons. The Pardoner also carries with him as relics a pillowcase, which he claims to be a part of Our Lady's Veil, and a piece of cloth, presented as a part of the sail of St. Peter's boat. He also has a stone-covered cross of alloy as well as some pigs' bones that he will surely pass off on the public as saints' relics. He proudly declares his ability to make fool of the people and the parish parson, and that he earns in one day more than a parson earns in two months.
Secular characters have also been frequent subjects to satire. The poverty of pious and learned Clerk from Oxford is an ironical presentation of a universal truth; and we recall the poet's wife in Tagore's 'Puraskar'. The Sergeant-of-Law has manifold sources of income, perhaps mostly illegal, and shows himself more busy than he actually is. The Doctor has made a good fortune during the plague. The Shipman pretends to be a patriotic seafarer, though in reality he is a thief and a pirate. The apparent grandeur of the Merchant is not only satirical, but also tells us the reason behind his lumps of debts. Chaucer's wit and irony have outlasted time, for his satire is equally applicable even to the modern society.
Nevertheless, Chaucer the poet does not spare Chaucer the pilgrim to satirise. The simple, unsophisticated narrator of The Canterbury Tales is a sharp contrast to the most accomplished poet and the successful man of affairs that Chaucer actually was. One of the most learned person of his time, he apologises for his "short wit" and associated limitations. And by joking even at his own expense, he raises his satire to a colossal height and reveals and truly humorous bend of mind.


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