The Canterbury Tales Project (see also Geoffrey Chaucer)
Back to the Merchant/The Clerk/The Sergeant of the Law
285: A clerk ther was of oxenford also,
286: That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
287: As leene was his hors as is a rake,
288: And he nas nat right fat, I undertake,
289: But looked holwe, and therto sobrely.
290: Ful thredbare was his overeste courtepy;
291: For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
292: Ne was so worldly for to have office.
293: For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
294: Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
295: Of aristotle and his philosophie,
296: Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
297: But al be that he was a philosophre,
298: Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
299: But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
300: On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
301: And bisily gan for the soules preye
302: Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
303: Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede,
304: Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
305: And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
306: And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
307: Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
308: And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.
The clerk is very obviously an intellectual and an academic, but is most probably older than the student for which he is sometimes taken. He may also be ordained. The final few lines of his portrait suggest a formal reading, perhaps from the pulpit, and this is added to by his prayers for his generous friends. Even his very title echoes the archaic 'cleric'. Hwoever, his primary function is that of academia.
The Clerk is one of the most unwordly of Chaucer's pilgrims. He is thin, poorly dressed, and relies on gifts from his friends to be able to afford the books of which he is so fond. However, he is still quite a likeable character, and one to which some of Chaucer's readers would have been (and to a certain extent still are) able to relate.
To be a scholar was an enormously expensive life. Chaucer himself admitted to owning about 30 books, an almost unheard of amount. Until the advent of the printing press, all books, being copied out by hand, were exorbitantly expensive. This is, in part, why the clerk is so fond of his books which sit at the head of his bed. However, he is also a genuine intellectual, learning for its own sake.
Although Chaucer seems to slightly disapprove of the Clerk's unworldly nature, he does not paint the clerk in a bad light. He is not corrupt or avaricious, and has no moral failings. He could just do with getting out a bit more.
Modern English Translation from www.fordham.edu:
A clerk from Oxford was with us also,
Who'd turned to getting knowledge, long ago.
As meagre was his horse as is a rake,
Nor he himself too fat, I'll undertake,
But he looked hollow and went soberly.
Right threadbare was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor was so worldly as to gain office.
For he would rather have at his bed's head
Some twenty books, all bound in black and red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher,
He had but little gold within his coffer;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he'd pray right busily for the souls
Of those who gave him wherewithal for schools.
Of study took he utmost care and heed.
Not one word spoke he more than was his need;
And that was said in fullest reverence
And short and quick and full of high good sense.
Pregnant of moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.