In the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer is always polite and respectful when pointing out the foibles and weaknesses of people. He is able to do this by using genial satire, which is essentially having a pleasant or friendly disposition while ridiculing human vices and follies.
Chaucer also finds characteristics in the pilgrims that he admires. This is evident in the peaceful way he describes their attributes. The Nun is one of the pilgrims whom Chaucer uses genial satire to describe. He defines her as a woman who is pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining to counterfeit a courtly kind of grace” (lines 136-137).
Instead of bluntly saying that she is of the lower class and trying unsuccessfully to impersonate a member of the upper class, Chaucer suggests it gently. Therefore, the reader must be attentive to pick up on it. He also pokes fun at the Nun’s impersonated French accent when he says that she spoke with a fine intoning through her nose, as was most seemly, and she spoke daintily in French, extremely, after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe; French in the Paris style she did not know.” (l. l.)
Chaucer finds the Nun’s speech amusing, but he carefully chooses his words so as not to be disrespectful. He also uses genial satire when illustrating the Nun’s size: She was indeed by no means undergrown” (l. 154). He puts the fact that she is fat in a polite way because he finds the Nun “very entertaining” (l. 135) and thus doesn’t speak ill of her, even though there is much to be said.
Instead, he uses genial satire to describe the Nun so that he may remain courteous and respectful. Chaucer finds the Monk less amusing and more repulsive than the Nun, but nonetheless, he describes him in a polite manner so that the reader must pay attention to fully realize the Monk’s faults. The main problem that Chaucer has with the Monk is that he shows very little religious devotion. The Monk frequently engages in activities opposite in nature to what is expected from a man of his position. 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. I agreed and said his views were sound. Was he to study until his head went round, poring over books in cloisters? (lines 175-183)
A monk is expected to show his religious devotion by following the text of the Bible as best he can, staying in his cloister, and studying constantly. However, this monk does not follow the text, as he hunts and is out of his cloister, and he has never been seen studying. Chaucer could have been very straightforward and critical of the monk’s poor choices, but instead, he uses genial satire to show the monk’s faults without disgracing himself. Chaucer even jokes at the end of the above quote when he agrees with the monk and says, Was he to study until his head went round?” Of course, he was; he is a monk. (line)
Chaucer uses genial satire in a slightly different way when describing the Oxford Cleric. Instead of forming a clear impression in the reader’s mind as to whether or not the Oxford Cleric is a good man, he simply tells it as it is, thus leaving the reader to determine it for themselves based on their own values. Chaucer describes the Oxford Cleric as a man whose horse was thinner than a rake. He was not too fat, but had a hollow look and a sober stare. The thread upon his overcoat was bare.
(Lines 291-294) This is a polite way of saying that the Oxford Cleric not only neglected his own health and personal appearance, but also the health of his horse. They were both extremely skinny and his clothes consisted of bare threads.
He neglected his and his horses’ health because he spent all his money, and some of his friends’ money, on books. Chaucer also pokes fun at this using genial satire: By his bed, he preferred having twenty books in red and black, of Aristotle’s philosophy, to having fine clothes, a fiddle, or a psaltery.”