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"The Clerk" in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Updated on April 18, 2013

Chaucer's Clerk of Oxford

The Clerk in the General Prologue to Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales is given quite a vivid description; perhaps not quite as long a description as some of the others, but certainly the reader is given a thorough understanding of him. Looking closely at each individual character, the reader can also get an idea of Chaucer’s thoughts and opinions on each. Indeed, every character that is described in detail is a stereotype, for better or for worse, of the class they represent. The Clerk, of course, is no exception to this rule, though it is possible to make the assumption that Chaucer’s opinion of the Clerk is a good one as he does not unkindly criticize this character. The criticism is still apparent, however. In either case, whether critical or not, the Clerk is obviously a man of spiritual and intellectual importance in the Tales and like most of Chaucer’s characters, written to make a specific point.

The physical description of the Clerk is quite short. He is described as “holwe” (hollow; line 291) and “as lene was his hors as is a rake” (289).This metaphor describing the horse is also noteworthy. Horses were often either warhorses or work horses, and the parallel to a rake, a tool for use in the fields, is amusing since it is clear that this horse is not fit for such work. Further analysis, however, will begin at line 295 and continue to line 310. Taking the first four of these lines, we read: “For him was levere have at his beddes heed/Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,/Of Aristotle and his philosophye,/Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrye” (295-98). This small passage quickly conveys to the reader how the Clerk thinks. He places much more importance on learning than on appearance or music.

The first word I want to pick out is levere, defined by the text as “preference” (pg 250). While likely not important in and of itself, the word has a cognate in Latin and French which I found interesting. In French, the word is livrer, meaning “to deliver” and similarly in Latin is the adjective liber, or “freedom.” (Note that, ironically, the Latin noun liber is “book.”) Replacing with this possible meaning, the phrase could become ‘for him was freedom to have at his bed’s head.’ I believe that to Chaucer or the Clerk, the inclination to prefer books and philosophy to material wealth is, in a sense, a certain type of freedom or liberte. The phrase “at his bed’s head” can also have another suggestion: the description indicates the headboard, rather than the footboard. The head, being associated with higher learning and knowledge, would be the adequate place for the Clerk’s books in theory, as opposed to at the foot of the bed, which might imply the learning being unimportant, or “stepped upon” by being placed under the feet. In addition, Chaucer specifically names Aristotle and works of philosophy, rather than biblical and religious works.

Another interesting point here is the detail about the books, clothes, and “sautrye” or harp. Books were very expensive to make and copy; having twenty was likely a feat in and of itself, but also the fact that they were simply clad in black or red, rather than the gilded and bejeweled covers of many manuscripts of the time period, shows at once the Clerk’s dedication to simplicity, to knowledge, and how much money he tends to spend. From this passage, the last analysis is on the adjectives “riche” and “gay” which describe the clothes and the harp, respectively. Chaucer’s specific use of rich in contrast with gay seems to say that Chaucer, here as critic, might approve of the disregard for fine clothes, but disappointed by the same disregard for the harp. The Clerk does not spend on wantonness, but at the same time, he does not seek other worldly pleasures. The next lines read: “But al be that he was a philosophre,/Yit hadde he but litel gold in cofre;/But al that he mighte of his freendes hente,/On books and on lerning he it spente,” (lines 299-302).

This is perhaps the most critical part of the entire passage. It is almost as if Chaucer is making fun of the Clerk in these lines, as the translation states that philosophre can also mean alchemist. Gold is out of the Clerk’s reach, regardless of his profession. Chaucer criticizes that the Clerk does nothing with his knowledge, for it has yet to earn him a good living. Theologians and philosophers were often in high positions, yet here Chaucer indicates that the Clerk was not inclined to work or, for all his learning, unable to work. What he was able to get from friends, he simply spent on more books and more knowledge. Again Chaucer is critical of this. Chaucer condemns here the idea of too much knowledge, at least if the one learning is not putting his learning to good use. Lastly, the word order in line 302 is very reminiscent of French, which follows noun-direct object-verb order, rather than what is normal in English, showing remnants from the Anglo-Norman, despite the idea of “English identity” beginning well before Chaucer’s lifetime. In the following line, he again criticizes the Clerk: “And bisily gan for the soules praye/Of hem that yaf him wherewith to scoleye” (ln 303-04). As an Oxford student, he is technically a member of the clergy, yet the only souls he prays for are those who give him money; not for clothes or food, but again, for furthering his study.

From that group of lines, it is unclear Chaucer’s specific opinions on the ability of the Clerk, though he does write more detail in following lines, with less criticism: “Of studye took he most cure and most heede./Nought oo word spake he more than was neede,/And that was said in forme and reverence,/And short and quik, and ful of height sentence” (ln 305-308). This praise of the Clerk speaks greatly to the Clerk’s personality. First, I find the word “cure” interesting and I want to highlight its cognates as well. In Latin, the closest description to the word is curare, which is “to care for;” similarly, both French and modern English have the similar word curious or curieux, and though not synonyms for “care,” one might replace the phrase and read: “Of study he was most curious” so in either sense it seems there is a stress on the idea and word.

I want to point out the use of “forme,” or decorum, and reverence in line 307. Chaucer uses these words to describe the Clerk, but Chaucer’s narrative is also polite. Likewise, in both lines 306 and 308, the phrases meant to illustrate the Clerk can also describe how Chaucer writes about him: the description, although as long as a few other characters, is quite short and quick compared to many. “Naught a word spoke he more than was needed…and short and quick…” (306-308) seems to be a prelude to Chaucer’s ending note for the Clerk, which is also short and quick.

“Souning in moral vertu was his speech,/And gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche” (309-310). These two lines, more than any other single line, convey not only Chaucer’s judgment of the Clerk, but also the Clerk’s attitude as well. Chaucer specifically states, “sounding in moral virtue was his speech,” (309) but does not here specify that the Clerk believed himself to speak morally. It seems to me that the Clerk does not try to speak of more than he knows or that he believes himself better than others. He speaks plainly and with virtue, but does pretend. It is one of the most straightforward lines that Chaucer writes on this character. The second phrase, and last line of the description, is likewise just as direct. It is also the first mention in regards to the Clerk’s ability to relate what he knows: gladly learn and gladly teach, but he does not volunteer or force his learning on anyone. I think Chaucer’s comment here is meant to use the Clerk as an example for others to follow.

Chaucer uses each of his characters to make a point. I think his point for the Clerk is simple: seek knowledge, but not at the expense of other worldly needs, and teach, but do not compel others to listen or believe as you do. Chaucer is obviously critical of the Clerk in many ways, but still speaks of him with a sense of reverence that is missing in some of the other characters. Chaucer’s choice of words in this character show preference for simplicity even in wealth and that learning is a sense of freedom, and despite having that freedom, many people can still become trapped in their place, unable or unwilling to change.

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