The Friar-- Humble Shepherd or Crafty Wolf?
Chaucer was known for his ironic descriptions of various sojourners in
the Canterbury Tales . The description given to the Friar in the
"General Prologue" does not stray from Chaucer’s trademark. The Friar
is described as a "limitour" [begs on the behalf of the poor], yet we see that he is a bachelor on a love
hunt, a crooked businessman and does complete his duties as a Friar.
The Friar knows many beautiful women, many affluent men, and rarely
associates with the class of people he should live among.
The Friar’s duties were
to live among the poor, to beg on their behalf and to give his
earnings to aid their struggle for livelihood. However,
Chaucer allows the reader to see the true character of the Friar.
He knows: “so muche of daliance and fair language..” (Norton 211).
This no doubt is a way to woo
women with sweet words and a crafty tongue. This strategy is also in
“somwhat he lipsed for his wantounesse to make his English sweete upon his
tongue... ” This was repeated in lines 215-217: “Ful wel biloved and
familer was he..... with the worthy wommen of the town-" A Friar’s
duties was not supposed to flirt with the women of the town but to beg for
poor. The Friar, using what money he has earned “his tipet
was ay farsed ful of knives and pinnes for to yiven faire wives..”
(233-234). This states that he buys gifts for women as well.
The Friar, as it turns out, is not begging for money to appease his
goal to feed the poor, but rather is wooing women to appease his
The Friar is not just a ladies' man under the guise of
a humanitarian, he is also a crooked businessman. He uses his
position in the church to get money. He spreads the word that he had the power
to forgive sins more than a priest in lines 218-219:
“For he hadde power of confessioun as saide himself, more
than a curat.” This gains him much profit from wealthy men as we see:
“he was an esy man to yive penaunce ther as he wiste to have a good pituance;”
(223-224). He even has the audacity not associate with the “lower”
class because “to have with sike lazars aquaintaunce: it is nat honeste, it
may nought avance..” (245-246). The profit he generates is
proven because he looked like “a belle out of the presse.” (265).
This point is reinforced in lines 257-258: “ yit wolde he have a
ferthing er he wente; his purchas was wel bettre than his rente..”
His purchases far exceeds his expected income from begging.
The Friar should have been very poor, perhaps worse off than the
people he helped, however this Friar was eating healthy and living
This hero of the poor, the Friar apparently is not doing his duties.
As Chaucer gives a description of the Friar we see how this can be surmised.
In lines 215-216 we see: “Ful wel biloved and familer
was he, With frankelains over al in his contree....” The Friar
knew all the well to do country men, when he should know the beggars of the
region better. Chaucer evens states in lines 240-242: “he knew the
tavernes wel in every towne and every hostiler and tappestre bet than
a lazar or a beggestere.” This man of God, knew the innkeepers and
barmaids better than the poor people of his designated region. This
implies he spends much time at bars and inns, rather than living with
and aiding the destitute. Another example of the Friar’s friends is
in line 248 where it states that he knows “...al with riche and
selleres of vitaile..” The Friar thought it “improper” to dwell
with the poor because of his position, which is the opposite duty
of his occupation.
This man of God,
hero of the poor and mediator between God and men, turns out to be as
fraudulent as his claims of giving penance. This Friar is more
consumed with winning the affections of barmaids than winning support
to build a shelter for the poor. The limitour is busy scheming to do
illegal business rather than to serve the poor. And because of
pride the Friar does not accomplish his vow of a life of poverty. His
character, dignity and nobility all lack sincerity. This Friar has
no burden on his soul to assist the poor, but only to further his
distasteful lifestyle. Rather than a shepherd among his flock,
the Friar lurks as a hungry wolf.
James Thannickal Copyright© 1998