The Clerk's World

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To listen to the characters and read the medieval text (with modern translation) - requires Flash Player 6 , and either a set of headphones or speakers.

 

Introduction

This is the first of two pages. This page contains descriptions of each character, and a plot summary of the tales associated with each one (if they exist). If you click on the notepad symbol, you will hear Chaucer's description, as given in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales (in a modern translation) a transcript of the reading is also provided as well as the original medieval text for comparison.

The second page contains background information about the churl's world as well as a collection of associated images.


Characters:

The Monk - The Friar - The Summoner - The Pardoner - The Physician - The Clerk - The Canon's Yeoman - The Parson - The Nun's Priest



The Monk

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The monk is an 'outrider' - he visits his monastery's granges and outlying farmsteads on the abbot's behalf. He loves hunting, and has many horses. He rides a fine horse, with bells jangling on its bridle. His sleeves are lined with expensive squirrel fur, his boots are made of fine leather, and his hood is secured with a gold pin, which has a lover's knot at one end. He has a shiny bald head, and a red face, in which his big eyes seem to roll. He says he doesn't like old-fashioned, out-of-date things, such as his Order's old rules - the ones about doing manual labour, being poor, chaste and obedient ..etc... Geoffrey agrees with him - he says the monk is a 'manly man'.

The Monk's Tale

The Monk’s Tale is really a list of examples of men who have fallen from exalted positions of power. It is cut short by the Knight, who is tired of the Monk’s poem and troubled by his subject matter. As a leader of society himself, he does not want to hear tales of the ‘mighty’ falling. The Monk refuses to tell a happier tale, so the Host passes on.

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Tomb of Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester(The alliance of birth, wealth and the Church: Henry Beaufort, bishop of Winchester, on his tomb. Through his wife, Chaucer was Beaufort's maternal uncle; he was the son of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt.)

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The Friar

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Hubert the friar is licensed to beg, and is the best beggar in his House - he can wheedle money out of a poor widow. He is pleasure-loving and merry, good at small-talk and fair language. He is well-known for giving absolution and confession (as long as this includes a donation), and the tip of his hood is filled with trinkets to give to women. Lots of young women have benefited from his paying for their dowries (!), and he knows all the innkeepers in every town. However, he does not know any of the beggars - he wouldn't mix with those! His cloak is made of wide (and expensive) woollen cloth. He lisps, and his eyes twinkle when he sings.

The Friar's Tale

The Friar and the Summoner are continually quarrelling, and so they tell tales in order to get the upper hand over one another. The Friar’s Tale tells of a summoner who meets an attractive companion as he goes out one day to see whom he can ‘fleece’. The companion keeps telling the summoner that he is a devil, but the summoner is too ignorant and self-centred to notice. A carter swears at his horse to go to the devil, but the devil will not take him, as he does not really mean it. The summoner goes to get money and a brass pan from and old woman, who tells him to go to the devil. As she really does mean it, the devil takes the summoner and the pan to hell.

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'Books for the unlearned'. The ultimate warning to the illliterate about the consequences of sin, painted on the wall of St Helen's, Pickering. Here Christ is 'harrowing' hell, resuing the souls of the faithful who died before he was  born to save them.

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The Summoner

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The summoner's face is fiery red like a cherubim - he is pimply-faced, with swollen eyelids and diseased skin. His hair is falling out. He is hot-blooded and lecherous as a sparrow, and children are afraid of his face. No medicine in the world, nor any potion, can help his pustules and the swellings on his cheeks. He loves garlic, leeks and strong wine, and under its influence he will speak boldly as if he's gone mad. He can pour out Latin tags and sentences associated with his work, but he doesn't know what they mean, if anyone were to ask him - but he can call 'waiter' as well as any Pope. He is a gentle and a kind jester, no better anywhere. In return for a gift of lots of wine he'd lend anyone his concubine for a year - he was a great finch-plucker! If he finds a good companion, he'll teach him not to fear the archdeacon's curse (the judgement of his court), and many a man's soul is in his control - he holds the keys to freedom or imprisonment, and his curse is to be feared. He has the young girls of the diocese in his control (he knows all their secrets). He wears a garland on his head, like the ones you see outside alehouses, and has made a small shield out of a cake. He sings love-songs to the pardoner as they ride - just in front of the reeve - at the back of the procession.

The Summoner's Tale

The Summoner’s Tale concerns a corrupt, lazy friar, who goes to the house of a peasant, named Thomas, in order to get some alms. He discovers that Thomas is ill, and has been shriven by his priest. This is not as good as confession to a friar, says the friar, or giving alms to his convent, who are building a new church. Thomas invites the friar to feel underneath his backside in order to find something valuable which he keeps hidden there. When the friar gropes, Thomas farts into his hand. The friar goes to the local knight for redress, but the knight is more interested in the question of how to divide the fart into twelve parts, so that each member of the convent may have a share. His squire provides the answer – the convent shall stand at equal distances around a cartwheel, with Thomas in the middle. When Thomas farts, each will get an equal whiff, with the friar placed right underneath, so the he gets the ‘firstfruits’.

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Apes and monkeys were carnivalesque characters often present in medieval churches, and in the border illustrations of manuscripts.  They represent the demonic, wicked, but also 'fun' side of human nature.  In a more sinister guise, they represent devils, and sometimes the Devil himself.  This one, displaying his genitals to the worshippers, comes from Ripon cathedral.

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The Pardoner

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The pardoner comes from the priory of Roncesvalles, although he has been at the papal curia - he rides with the summoner, with whom he flirts shamelessly. His hair is long and yellow, with crisp curls, and hangs down over his shoulders. His hood is deliberately kept in his wallet, so as to reveal his hair - he likes to think this makes him young and fashionable. His eyes stare like a hare - he has a small, high voice like a goat, and is very clean-shaven. Geoffrey wonders whether he is a gelding or a mare. He wears a vernicle (an image of Christ's face) sewn onto his cap, and his wallet is full of pardons and indulgences. He is the very best of pardoners. He has a pillowcase he says is the Virgin's veil, a piece of sail from St Peter's fishing boat, a brass cross full of stones and some pigs' bones in a glass. Using these, he can wring more money from a poor man than he earns in two months. He can make monkeys of both priest and congregation. In church, he is a 'noble ecclesiaste'. He can sing and preach a tell a good story - all to win silver.

The Pardoner's Tale

The Pardoner tells a tale as a warning against avarice (which is his own particularly favourite sin). During a plague, three riotous young men swear that they will find and kill Death, who has been killing people in their neighbourhood. Going in search of him, they meet an old man who cannot die; he tells them that they will find Death nearby, under a tree. Under the tree they find a hoarde of holden florins. The youngest is sent to buy food and drink, so that they may wait until nightfall to carry the gold away. The other two plot to kill him. He buys poison, and infects the drinks of the other two. They kill him, and drink the poison; thus all of them find Death

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Medieval Pulpit, Castle Acre church

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The Physician

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There is no doctor like him in the world, in speaking of physick and of surgery, because he is learned in astrology, and can keep his patients for hours by means of his science. He is very good at calculating the position of the planets for his patients. He knows the cause of every illness - if it is hot, cold, moist or dry - he is a 'truly perfect practitioner'. His apothecaries are eager to send him drugs and ointments, as he is a good client and they can make a good profit. He knows all the great medical books. He cares about his diet, but he doesn't read the Bible much. His clothes are red and grey, lined with taffeta and silk. However, he doesn't give much away - he has kept all his earnings from the plague -- for gold is good medicine for the heart, so he loves gold particularly well.

The Physician's Tale

The Physician’s Tale is set in classical Rome. A senator named Virginius has a beautiful, innocent young daughter, called Virginia. The lecherous governor Apius bends the law in order to take Virginia from her father and debauch her. Her father prevents this by cutting off her head, which he takes to Apius. The people rise, and Apius gets his just deserts, and Virginius is honoured.

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Herb garden at Mt Grace Priory

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The Clerk

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The clerk has studied logic for a long time. He only speaks when he needs to, and when he does he talks about lofty matters. He has no benefice, and his clothing is threadbare, as he is not worldly enough to get a good job with a fat stipend. When he is given money he spends it on books, and prays for the souls of those who have given it to him. He is happy both to study and to teach.

The Clerk's Tale

The Clerk’s Tale is set in Northern Italy. A marquis named Walter is persuaded by his people to take a wife. He marries very poor but beautiful and faithful girl, Griselda, on the condition that she will always cheerfully obey him. He decides to test this, first by pretending to kill their daughter and their son, and then by sending her back to her father in extreme poverty, so that he may marry someone else. Griselda bears all this nobly and cheerfully, even when Walter asks her to come and prepare a welcome for his new wife. The new ‘wife’ is their daughter, now grown, accompanied by her brother, Griselda’s son. All are reconciled, and live happily.

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Not to be left behind: Queen's College, Cambridge, founded by Henry's wife, Margaret of Anjou

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The Canon's Yeoman

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The Canon joins the pilgrims later, as they near their destination. He has ridden hard, and both he and his horse are sweating. However, he soon rides away when he discovers that his yeoman is about to tell the truth about his alchemical sharp practice to the pilgrims.

The Canon's Yeoman's Tale

The Canon’s Yeoman tells of his master’s trickery, and of his practice of alchemy. His story tells how a canon deceives a worldly priest into giving him a large sum of money for the secret of how to make base metal into silver, a ‘miracle’ which he performs in front of him in the fire. This is all a trick, and the secret recipe never works. The story is most interesting for its account of alchemical practice and trickery, and the ingredients used.

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Chaucer's canon worked his alchemical 'science' in the fireplace; possibly one like this at Gainsborough. Medieval fireplaces were often very large, as cooking was also carried on there.

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The Parson

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The parson is poor in material terms, but wealthy in lowly thoughts and good works. He preaches well and teaches devoutly. He is patient in adversity, a quality about which he knows plenty! He gives rather than takes from his parishioners, and is happy with a little. Although his parish is widespread, he never stops visiting his flock on foot, with just a staff. He is a wonderful example to his parishioners. "You can't expect the people to be good is the priest is bad," he says. He hasn't dashed off to London to earn his living singing masses, but has stayed at home and done his job. He rebukes the obstinate, regardless of their social status. There is no better priest anywhere. Not only deos he teach the sayings of Christ and the apostles, he follows them himself.

The Parson's Tale

The Parson’s Tale is really a sermon on the need for penance. It forms the last of the Tales, as the pilgrims arrive in Canterbury.

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The ideology of the religious life: the evangelists from the central water feature in the cloister garth, Wenlock Priory

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The Nun's Priest

 

'Geoffrey'does not describe the Nun's Priest, except to say that he accompanied the Prioress and her nuns. The 'anonymity' of this character is important later, in relation to the tale he tells.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

When the Monk, having been interrupted by the Knight, refuses to tell a more cheerful tale, the Host turns to the Nun’s Priest, a mild-mannered man who is very willing to tell a happier story.

A poor widow and her daughters live a very frugal life on their farm. In the farmyard lives a resplendent cock, Chauntecleer, with his seven ‘hen-wives’. HIs chief wife is Pertelote, who has been with him since she was very young. One night Chauntecleer has a terrifying dream about a reddish beast with black-tipped ears, which grabs him, and carries him away for its meal. Pertelote tells him that this is pure fantasy, and that dreams have no power to foretell the future. Chauntecleer disagrees, and they argue. Pertelote tells him to go and take a laxative, but eventually he forgets his arguments and his dream in thoughts of physical pleasure (eating and sex).

Chauntecleer is out in the yard when the fox, who has been hiding in the cabbage patch, approaches him. He praises the singing abilities of Chauntecleer’s father, and flatters the cock into stretching out his neck to sing for him. The fox then seizes Chauntecleer, and runs off to eat him. The widow and her daughters call out the neighbours, who chase the fox with farm implements and dogs. Chauntecleer then tricks the fox into turning round to shout abuse at the chasing crowd. As the fox opens his mouth to call out, Chauntecleer flies up into a tree, and refuses to come down. The fox is chased away, and Chauntecleer is returned to the farmyard, and his hens.

The Nun’s Priest invites his audience to think about this story, to sift the wheat from the chaff, and to find its (serious) hidden meanings.

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The Fox, Reynard, was the epitomy of cunning and trickery, but in beast fables and comic tales he always comes out on top. Unlike French, there is no Reynard literature in English, but that the stories must have been very well known is attested by the many carvings in churches of the character. This is a misericord from Ripon Cathedral, showing the fox throwing a goose across his back, in order to beat a hasty retreat from the farmyard, as does the fox in The Nuns' Priest's Tale.

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The Aristocratic World
Aristocratic
The Churl's World
Churls
The Clerk's World
Clerks
The Townspeople's world
Townspersons
A Woman's World
Womans
Chaucer and his world
Chaucer's
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