Chaucer’s Unpretentious Study of the Scholar’s Character

June 8, 2021 by Essay Writer

Early in Chaucer’s General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the narrator makes clear how his fellow pilgrims are to be introduced: “Me thinketh it accordant to reosoun / To telle you al the condicioun / Of eech of hem, so as it seemed me, / And whiche they were, and of what degree, / And eek in what array that they were inne” (37-41). In this proclamation, the narrator blurs the distinction between observations of the pilgrims’ superficial appearances and assessments of their personal character, a strategy of ambiguity that is used throughout the portraits. Exploration of this strategy is especially illuminating when it is applied to the narrator’s portrait of the Clerk, whose emaciated appearance appears to be emblematic of his sacrificial lifestyle of scholarship, but whose true character is shown to be not so noble. By marrying the physical and internal aspects of the Clerk, the narrator is able to convey a critique of the Clerk and of scholarship itself that is subtly disguised in what on the surface appears to be a compliment.

First, the narrator implies that the Clerk’s chosen lifestyle of poverty is not as honorable as it may outwardly seem. The narrator writes, “But al that he might of his freendes hente, / On bookes and on lerning he it spente, / And bisily gan for the soules praye / Of hem that yaf him wherewith to scoleye” (301-4). While sacrificing all of one’s money toward the pursuit of knowledge may at first seem like a perfectly honorable lifestyle, the reader will recall that it is not the Clerk alone who is affected by his decision. Throughout the General Prologue, characters are examined through their relationship with animal companions, and the Clerk’s behavior is shown to be insensitive because it results in the neglect of his own horse’s welfare: “As lene was his hors as is a rake,” the portrait began (289). Furthermore, the Clerk himself is described as suffering physically: “And he was nought right fat, I undertake, / But looked holwe, and therto sobrely” (290-1). Clearly, the scholarly life of the Clerk is not quite as honorable as it might at first appear to be.

The narrator also shows that the Clerk’s obsession with study has become even a barrier to the practice of scholarship itself. Halfway through the portrait, the narrator observes, “But al be that he was a philosopher / Yit hadde he but litel gold in cofre” (299-300). This statement is a bit surprising to the reader, particularly because at this point we already know that the Clerk is a student of philosophy, and we already know that he is poor. However, the statement is phrased so as to force the reader to understand that the Clerk’s lack of monetary savings is inconsistent with his enterprise as a philosopher. This inconsistency can be resolved by recognizing that the narrator is invoking the title of “philosopher” in referring to the Clerk’s supposed mastery of “logik” (288). Thus, the narrator is implying that the Clerk is so obsessed with his study of philosophy as to have lost the common sense to build up savings toward his own welfare. In fact, the narrator presents the Clerk’s scholarly life more as a barrier to future achievement than as a worthy aspiration. “Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy, / For he hadde geten him yit no benefice, / Ne was so worldly for to have office,” the narrator writes (292-4). In this statement, the narrator implies that the Clerk could aspire to some positive salaried position had he the requisite worldly experience, and that such a position would afford the Clerk a more presentable appearance. Upon closer examination, it seems that the Clerk’s obsession with study and the scholarly life hinders his own success as an individual.

Finally, the narrator shows that even the supposed idealism of the Clerk is illusory, in a characterization that at first seems absolutely positive. “For him was levere have at his beddes heed,” the narrator writes, “Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed, / Of Aristotle and his philosophye / Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie” (295-298). At first glance, this observation seems unarguably a compliment, as if the narrator was admiring the Clerk’s dedication to knowledge over material possessions. However, that conclusion does not appear so warranted when one examines the comparison more closely. Instead of stating that the Clerk prefers books over objects that exclusively represent extravagance or vanity, the narrator includes as examples musical instruments, significantly decreasing the degree of the compliment. Furthermore, the narrator puts emphasis on the physical appearance of the books, noting the large number and the color of the binding. These details make it seem as if the Clerk’s desire for books and knowledge was no more than substitution of one kind of material desire for another, and no more idealistic than an attraction to fine clothes or musical instruments.

By close examination of the relationship between physical appearances and internal character in the Clerk’s portrait, we can see that Chaucer’s narrator is not expressing straightforward approval of the scholarly life. Subtly, the narrator has presented real problems in the idea of pursuit of scholarship for its own sake, and those problems are shown to have manifested themselves in the character of the Clerk. The narrator even implies that the Clerk’s obsession with study has made it difficult for him even to follow the tenets of philosophy itself. Perhaps further close examination of Chaucer’s text could reveal similarities in the methods of critique used in each portrait, but that is a topic for another essay.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The General Prologue.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams, et al. 7th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000. 215-35.

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