The Description of “The Clerk” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales

An analysis of the character of the Clerk.

We are told in the very first sentence about the Clerk that he is from ‘Oxenforde’ and is a student of “logik.”  I believe that the phrase “unto logik hadde longe ygo” has multiple meanings in the context of the Clerk’s description.  One interpretation that could be derived from this reading is that the Clerk had literally been “ygo,” or gone, to the study of science and logic for a time; that he had literally been lost to the rest of the world in his pursuit of knowledge. The other interpretation I perceived was that the Clerk had simply studied for a lengthy period of time.  This interpretation is supported by the source text as it suggests ‘studied’ as an alternate definition for “ygo.”

The next sentence in the portrait has much more physical descriptions, suggesting that both the Clerk and his horse look emaciated.  This comment on his size could be hinting early in the portrait to the Clerk’s poverty and/or negligence of self-preservation in his all-consuming quest for knowledge.  The word “holwe” in the sentence, which the book defines as emaciated, could also be taken literally as ‘hollow’ and when combined with it’s clarification, “and therto sobrely,” one might perceive a very serious, lifeless character in the Clerk.

The reader is then informed that the Clerk is wearing a rather thin and tattered cloak, another significant implication of his poor financial situation.  The Narrator goes on to explain that the state of the Clerk’s cloak is due to his lack of financial support from the church. At the time, there was very little demand for education outside of the church, which held the vast monopoly on educated men.  Therefore, for whatever reason the Clerk is not employed by the church, it is unlikely that he will find employment elsewhere. 

The next sentence in the portrait is very telling of the Clerk’s priorities; that he would rather have “Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed, Of Aristotle and his philosophye” at the head of his bed “Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrye.” I noticed several interesting points in this sentence.  The clearest implication made here is that the Clerk has little concern for material possessions and concerns himself entirely with his studies.  It is interesting that the Clerk not only would rather have books, but volumes which were ‘clad in blak or reed,’ which might imply a certain quality of binding; that he not only wants books but well assembled books.  It is also interesting that Chaucer evokes the image of the head of the Clerk’s bed.  Such a locale is pregnant with the idea of what might comfort a man in the night.  Chaucer might be suggesting that other men are easily comforted by expensive possessions, but that the Clerk is just as easily comforted by his philosophy texts.  

The next sentence directly states that the Clerk is poor, driving the point home.  However, the Narrator suggests that even the money that the Clerk is able to procure from friends, is quickly spent on his studies rather than any means of survival.  This point just further demonstrates that the Clerk has only a faint concern for his own survival, and that his real, constant desire is only for greater knowledge.  The sentence following this states also that the Clerk is most careful and deliberate in his studies.  In this way, Chaucer might be representing humankind’s insatiable, dedicated pursuit of knowledge in the Clerk.  

The last sentence, I believe, is the most significant in the portrait of the Clerk.  Though the reader has been told that he is a vivacious student, it is in the last sentence that the Narrator insists that the Clerk is also very respectable amongst society.  The Clerk speaks only when it is necessary and always formally, politely, and full of moral virtue.  Also, the narrator writes that the Clerk would gladly learn and teach.  This is important because one sees in this sentence that the Clerk, despite his vastly superior education, is still polite, respectful and willing to learn from anyone with new knowledge and teach anyone who would like to know of his studies.  In this sense, the Clerk starts to represent the idea of education as something eternal and alive.

The Clerk is important to the General Prologue as a whole because he is one of the rare ‘worthy’ characters that Chaucer has written.  Just as the knight loved chivalry and practiced it with love his entire life, so has the Clerk lived out his love affair with knowledge.  The fact that the Clerk holds himself in the same moral estate and mental capacity as his audience when he speaks is an extremely noble character trait which establishes him as a character of great spiritual or metaphysical worth rather than a material worth. 

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