Chaucer lived at a time when almost every town had at least one religious house. This man was described as being a ‘Monk’ and not a ‘Friar’. There is a difference. Monks, in the main, belonged to religious orders which were founded as monasteries. A monk was what most people think of today. He would have been a member of a monastery where there were strict rules – saying prayers throughout the day and the night at regular intervals, often fasting, sometimes belonging to an Order that banned speaking to other monks and being occupied with tending the crops, building additions to the monastery or spending the time copying out the Bible to make another copy.
Friars, on the other hand, derived their English name from the French ‘frere’ – meaning ‘brother’. Friaries had been established in the 11th and 12th centuries, mainly in France, as a rebellion against monastic life where the members were shut off from society. It was well-known that many monks, attached to orders that encouraged austerity and fasting, were actually not living by the rules at all. The money that came into monasteries was being spent on enriching the monastery and providing fine food for the inmates. Friars were founded to have few possessions and to travel the land, preaching the Gospel and helping the sick and the needy. However, although founded later, there was little difference between the monks and the friars by the 14th and 15th centuries as the temptation to enjoy more worldly pleasures enticed both organisations.
Chaucer knew all this. It was common knowledge. Chaucer makes it quite clear in the following description that, although the Monk was a jolly and likeable man, he was not following the rules of austerity that his religious order had been set up to promote.
A Monk there was, one of the finest sort
Who rode the country; hunting was his sport.
A manly man, to be an Abbot able;
Many a dainty horse he had in stable.
His bridle, when he rode, a man might hear
Jingling in a whistling wind as clear,
Aye, and as loud as does the chapel bell
Where my lord Monk was Prior of the cell.
The Rule of good St. Benet or St. Maur
As old and strict he tended to ignore;
He let go by the things of yesterday
And took the modern world’s more spacious way.
He did not rate that text at a plucked hen
Which says that hunters are not holy men
And that a monk uncloistered is a mere
Fish out of water, flapping on the pier,
That is to say a monk out of his cloister.
That was a text he held not worth an oyster;
And I agreed and said his views were sound;
Was he to study till his head went round
Poring over books in cloisters? Must he toil
As Austin bade and till the very soil?
Was he to leave the world upon the shelf?
Let Austin have his labour to himself.
Notice how Chaucer is in no doubt about the lifestyle of the Monk. How did he find the time for hunting when the rules of his monastery would have forbidden such pleasures? Most monks would have known how to ride a horse but Chaucer notices that he had many ‘dainty horses in his stable’ and that the riding gear on the horse was the very best.
Here was a Monk who was not really interested in studying the ‘Good Book’ or even following the rules of the monastic order that he had joined. If he was following the rule of ‘Austin’ – a shortened version of ‘St Augustine’ – then he also found other things to do with his time.
This Monk was therefore a good man to horse;
Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds, to course.
Hunting a hare or riding at a fence
Was all his fun, he spared for no expense.
I saw his sleeves were garnished at the hand
With fine grey fur, the finest in the land,
And on his hood, to fasten it at his chin
He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin;
Into a lover’s knot it seemed to pass.
Chaucer notes that this Monk wore fine clothes, even wearing fine fur. Not only did he have a fine horse to ride but he also went hunting with greyhounds. Here was a Monk living in style.
His head was bald and shone like looking-glass;
So did his face, as if it had been greased.
He was a fat and personable priest;
His prominent eyeballs never seemed to settle.
They glittered like the flames beneath a kettle;
Supple his boots, his horse in fine condition.
He was a prelate fit for exhibition,
He was not pale like a tormented soul.
He liked a fat swan best, and roasted whole.
His palfrey was as brown as is a berry.
The group of 29 who set off from the Tabard had no less than seven people who were connected in some way or other to the Church – the Prioress, another Nun with her, three priests, the Monk, and the Parson. If Chaucer’s group was typical of society at large, then seven people out of 29 points to almost a quarter of the population being employed by the Church or members of a religious order. Surprisingly, that statistic is not far from the actual figure for those times, which is probably many more than most people today would have thought.
Chaucer sees that the Monk ‘was a prelate fit for exhibition’ – clearly in the best of health, even eating swan, which was normally only reserved for the nobility. Chaucer also seems to like the Monk – even though he was under no illusions that the Monk lived a comfortable life which was funded by each monastery receiving a large income from those who thought they were giving the money for the benefit of the poor. Perhaps nothing quite turns out the way it was intended – even today.