Character Analysis Of “The Oxford Cleric” in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”
As we know The Oxford Cleric is one of the original travelers who joined the patrons at the Tabbard Inn, who were making a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral in The Canterbury Tales. Not much is given to his physical description; however, when the Host calls on the Clerk, much is detailed about the Clerk’s demeanor. These remarks help illustrate the analysis of the Clerk, especially the subtext of the moral in the tale he tells. The Clerk is a philosophy student from Oxford, who claims that he originally heard the tale from Petrarch. As a philosopher, the Clerk is a thinking man, which means he is pensive.
The clerk is one among Chaucer’s idealized portraits. The Clerk is an ecclesiastical student who apparently is a sincere and devout student. He loves learning and is respected by all the pilgrims. He is a serious student who had long ago devoted himself to the study of logic. Perhaps he is studying for a Master’s degree. He is very thin, hollow, and pale and his horse is as thin as a rake. He does not have any benefice and is extremely poor which is evident from his threadbare short upper coat.
He’s so serious about his studies that he even appears to be studying on pilgrimage – an antisocial behavior for which the Host calls him out later on. He prefers to single-mindedly pursue his insatiable quest for knowledge and learning rather than mindlessly run after wealth and riches. Having spent his money on books and learning rather than on fine clothes, he is threadbare and wan.
Possession of twenty books is not a bad library for a poor scholar in Chaucer’s days. The fact that during Chaucer’s time the University of Paris and other European universities only taught Aristotle has to be kept in mind while reading this. Aristotle reigned supreme among all the European Universities of the time.
There are no ironic overtones in the Clerk’s portrait apart from the pun on his being a philosopher and yet being poor. In the Middle Ages, a philosopher also implied an alchemist who claimed to transform base metals into silver and gold. Chaucer’s Clerk does not have gold in his coffer. He is a serious student of logic and philosophy and has willingly forfeited worldly pleasures for intellectual enrichment.
Chaucer in his prologue gives an account of the Clerks of his time. They are portrayed as monopolizing not just all the legal offices but all sorts of offices. Their education and deep knowledge enable them to occupy such posts and are much respected by countrymen. The clerks represented the educated section of the country.
Chaucer through his prologue describes the clerk as “never spoke a word more than was need”. He speaks little but what he does say is always virtuous. He is a man of few words and does not speak more than necessary. But whatever he does say tends to increase moral virtue in the listeners. The scholarly Clerk religiously prays for the welfare of his friends and benefactors. Chaucer seriously appreciates the Clerk’s solemnity and openly praises him.
The fact that he would “gladly learn and gladly teach” is an admirable quality in a philosopher. This attribute of being generous with his knowledge was most desirable for medieval scholars. His fortunes could take a turn for the better if he gets a benefice – a position as a priest that comes with a salary. The Clerk was not a benefice at the time of pilgrimage as being a benefice would take away his time from studies. During Chaucer’s age, students who were not given the job as a benefice should also be kept in mind while analyzing his character.
The story he narrates is attributed to Francis Petrarch, (1303-1374), an Italian poet and humanist. Petrarch was recognized all over Europe, and Chaucer admired his work.
The Clerk’s Tale is an indirect response to the tale of Wife of Bath who stated that women desire complete sovereignty over their husbands and lovers. The Clerk puts forth a diametrically opposite view and draws the sketch of a totally submissive woman.
The Clerk’s Tale is suited to his character as a serious student. His tale too has a scholarly theme and deals with the issue of genuine obedience and loyalty in a wife. His story upholds faith in goodness even in times of adversity. It is definitely a moral tale and the Clerk relates it with all seriousness and economy of words. It is also possible to interpret the Clerk’s tale as a comment on the exploitation of the governed class by the rulers.