Geoffrey Chaucer's The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

By Harold Bloom | Go to book overview
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Commercial Language
and the Commercial Outlook
in the General Prologue

Patricia J. Eberle

One striking feature of the language of the General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the frequent mention of money. References to getting and spending appear repeatedly, not only where we might expect them, for example in the portrait of the worldly Merchant, but also where we might expect any mention of worldly values to be inappropriate, for example in the portraits of the Monk and the Friar, for whom the vow of poverty was at least as important as the vows of chastity and obedience. The portrait of the Monk, however, encludes detailed descriptions of the ways he spends his money, on such luxury items as expensive greyhounds, "for no cost wolde he spare" (1. 192), or on the exquisite grey fur trim on his sleeves, "the fyneste of a lond" (1. 194). If the Monk is remarkable for his virtuosity in spending money, the Friar is equally remarkable for his virtuosity in getting it: "He was the beste beggere in his hous" (1. 252). The Friar has a skill in finding and exploiting commercial opportunities which even the Merchant might envy. Avoiding the poor and cultivating the rich, he seeks out such company as franklins, worthy women, and "selleres of vitaille" (1. 248); this last detail marks the Friar as an astute observer of socioeconomic realities in fourteenth-century London, where the victualling guilds were becoming increasingly powerful, and where one grocer, Matthew Brembre, became mayor. In dealing with the rich and influential, moreover, the Friar adopts the traditional shopkeeper's servility—"curteis he was and lowely of servyse" (1. 250)—a posture he finds useful wherever "profit sholde arise" (1. 249). In adapting these commercial techniques to the business of begging, the Friar is evidently more successful

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From The Chaucer Review 18, no. 2 ( 1983). © 1983 by Pennsylvania State University.

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