Chaucer’s portrayal of the Monk in the General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales reveals what in modern terms may be called a critique of institutionalized religion. Namely, the synopsis of the Monk provided explicitly contrasts with presupposed visions of the archetype of the holy man. The Monk is, in other words, portrayed by Chaucher in terms of his love for the “profane” as opposed to the “sacred” or spiritual world.

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This is repeatedly emphasized in the general prologue, from a description of the Monk’s aversion to religious study or meditation, to Chaucer’s portrayal of the physiognomy of the Monk, who, instead of resembling a form of ascetic, instead is a robust, well-fed and ultimately materialistic individual. In this light, the literary devices Chaucer uses to describe the anti-spirituality of the monk is primarily dominated by his rich use of language and adjectives to describe the earthly possessions and pursuits that the Monk enjoys.

Chaucher immediately foreshadows the “profane” character of the Monk, by noting that he is a “manly man/Fully many a blooded horse had he in stable.” Chaucher thus establishes his account of the Monk by playing with the preconceptions of what a Monk should be in the mind of the reader and the Monk character in the Canterbury Tales. The description applied to the Monk is more suited to, for example, a royal figure, perhaps a knight. The emphasis on the Monk’s masculinity establishes the profane, embodied essence of the Monk’s character, one that is in direct contrast to the pursuit of the spiritual which should define the archetype of the Monk. The horses in his stable once again reiterates the importance the Monk gives the material as opposed to the spiritual life, in so far as such a stable is closer to the possessions of a great landowner or noble man than a humble servant of God.

The entire description of the Monk is devoted to developing the materialist and anti-spiritual character of the Monk, through a use of rich language that reflects the Monk’s own interest in material possessions, with a particular focus on the Monk’s love for hunting. Accordingly, Chaucer writes that the Monk did “not believe that hunters are not holy men; nor that a monk, when he is cloisterless, Is like unto a fish that’s waterless.” This reflects the basic world-view of the Monk: he finds no contradiction in living a life that is apparently materialistic with the spiritual obligations of the Monk.

This is reiterated in the Monk’s own physical appearance. The Monk does not resemble an ascetic, but instead a well-fed man in love with life, as opposed to being enthralled by his spiritual calling. Against the image of the ascetic, the Monk has no difficulty in partaking in luxury: “He was not pale as some poor wasted ghost/A fat swan loved he best of any roast.” The humorous contrast between ghost and roast establishes the Monk’s materialistic and somewhat shallow lifestyle, accordingly portraying a Monk whose dedication to the spiritual is subordinated to his dedication to the material.

Hence, Chaucer gives the reader the image of a holy man who is not altogether holy. This is established through the vivid descriptions of the Monk’s material possessions. Chaucer contrasts the reader’s preconceived notions of what a holy man should be – an ascetic, who rejects the material world – with a depiction of a materialist spiritual figure. With this depiction, one can sense a certain critique of religious titles and institutions in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.