Chaucer's Monk is introduced in The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. The ideal Monk is poor, chaste and obedient, but Chaucer’s interest in people for their very humanity. Despite this idealist portrait of a man of God, he is a self confessed man of the
world, attaching to creature comforts such as the pleasures of good food, expensive clothes, and proposing the outmoded nature of Monastic edicts. The way in which the jingling of his fine bridle drowns out the bells of the chapel amply reflects how materialistic influences on his life far outweigh his devotion to the Lord.
Physically, the Monk is described by Chaucer as a ‘manly man’ and a man of the outdoors. As an outrider, the Monk would have spent his time riding from outpost to outpost, to check that affairs were being properly conducted, however he has clearly become corrupted by that which he sought to eradicate. He is portrayed as a clearly corruptible character, in contrast to his pious stereotype. Chaucer likes the Monk precisely because of this wayward streak. If he were to adhere strictly to his guidelines laid out for him, I doubt that Chaucer would find him as appealing a character.
Aware that the Monk’s proposal ‘What sholde he studie and make himselven wood, ...swink to him reserved!’(184-88) makes a mockery of his religious vocation, Chaucer is repeating the appeal to reason in a rather sardonic fashion. In effect, the Monk is asking for a life indistinguishable from that of the Franklin, a wealthy landowner, with no religious duties or restrictions on his pursuit of self-gratification. Although the Monk does not realise how ridiculous he is being, it is so obvious to Chaucer that it does not seem to merit any comment at all. The Monk defends his worldly stance by saying ‘how shal the world be served?’ implying that the level of Godliness desired of him is simply impractical, and were he to follow it, nothing administrative would get done, for purely pragmatic reasons.
The impression is shaped in the following ways. More subtle shades are added to the overall impression of the Monk by Chaucer’s use of irony to subtly point things out whilst maintaining an entirely innocent tone. He appears to mention the ‘love-knotte’ purely incidentally, but it is so drastically in contrast with the discipline the outrider is meant to follow that Chaucer can only be carping at him, as at the Prioress’ love token. This casts doubt over the chastity that he is sworn to observe. Excepting the Parson, all the pilgrims fall under this suspicion.
Contextually rich and heavily embroidered with social references, Chaucer sets his General Prologue thoroughly in context, and skilfully manipulates it as a background against which characters can be compared and judged with a the degree of equality with which the society of the time would afford them. A social commentary such as this requires strong links to the society stereotypes that Chaucer is satirising. As time has progressed, not only is this a witty and astute social documentary, but very much an historical record too: describing in detail the lifestyle, eating habits and social makeup of a typical pilgrimage, with caricatures drawn broadly across the society of the time: ecclesiastical figures mingle with knights, with vulgar menial labourers. Truly, Chaucer combines elements taken from moral and material extremes and sets them in a time frame that defines each character in a pan-dimensional fusion that leaves the reader with their appetite whetted for the forthcoming tales.