Of The Canterbury Tales Essay, Research Paper
Bitter ScornDuring the later half of the fourteenth century, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church were forced to contend with the public s increasing dissatisfaction with the church. This discontent was rooted in the corruption that the common person of Europe was beginning to see. Among the few authors able to show the hypocrisy and dishonesty within the church to the public was Geoffrey Chaucer. In the Prologue of Chaucer s collection of sardonic poems, The Canterbury Tales, he pokes fun at this hypocrisy and corruption that was found in many clergy members of the fourteenth century. By exposing this hypocrisy and corruption, Chaucer derides the clergy the people of Europe had come to resent. In particular, Chaucer satirizes the faults of the Prioress, the Pardoner, and the Friar that appear in the Prologue. Chaucer s Prioress receives much scorn in the Prologue. During the period in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a Prioress was intended to be the head of a convent. These convents were meant to be a place where women could live a simple life dedicated to God. Another reason the convents existed was to provide a place for women to remain free from worldly possessions. Worldly possessions could distract women from their ultimate goal, salvation. Chaucer s Prioress stands in stark contrast to the intended qualities of a true Prioress. Chaucer demonstrates the real focus of his Prioress: vanity and materialism. Instead of dressing plainly as nuns were supposed to, this Prioress wears a coral trinket on her arm / . . . a set of beads. . . / [and] and a golden brooch of brightest sheen (162-65). The set of beads, which was in fact a rosary, becomes a fashionable item instead of a religious article. The brooch of the Prioress possesses the brightest sheen because the Prioress polishes it frequently and makes sure that all people can easily see the brooch. The Prioress holds the equally key flaw of false pride. Throughout the Prioress description Chaucer hints that she tries to act like a noblewoman, though she descends from common peasants. The Prioress also [speaks] daintily in French extremely / after the school of Strattford-atte-Bowe (128-29). The Prioress uses her French only to impress people; she never uses it to communicate. Indeed she cannot even converse in French as Chaucer later narrates: French in the Paris style she did not know (130). Chaucer also mentions that the Prioress speaks with a nasal intonation, implying that she uses affectations to make her seem nobler. Furthermore the Prioress has another fault; she directs her care and attention toward her dogs rather than to people. Chaucer tells of how she wept if one [of her dogs] were dead, / Or someone took a stick and made it smart (152-153). Interestingly, Chaucer makes no mention of the Prioress ever caring for a person. Not only does she devote her attention to the dogs, she devotes money by feeding her dogs with roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread (150-52). This valuable food could have been much better used to feed the many people starving in the cities and countryside. Lastly, the Prioress has committed adultery, as shown by the crowned A she wears on her chest (165). The Prioress wears the motto Amor omnia vincit, love conquers all, as an excuse for her transgressions, instead of doing penance for her sin. Besides the Prioress, Chaucer mocks the swindling, corrupt Pardoner. The Pardoner embodies the group of reprehensible clergy members that took advantage of the uneducated commoners and their belief in the church. The Pardoner takes advantage of the commoners by claiming useless artifacts such as a rubble of pigs bones or a pillowcase / which he asserted to be Our Lady s veil are holy relics (720, 715). He then commits the deadly sin of avarice by greedily charging more money for the relic than the desperate peasant can afford. The money gathered by his relic sales goes directly into the Pardoner s wallet. Chaucer also states that the Pardoner knows how to convince people to buy his garbage for high prices very well: In one short day, in money down he drew / More than the parson in a month or two (723-24). The fact the Pardoner tricks people so skillfully implies that he has been performing this chicanery for a very long time. That means that the Pardoner has heartlessly made monkeys of the priest and congregation and robbed them of their money for many years (726). The Pardoner possesses no characteristics befitting of a godly man. Chaucer states, [to] win silver from the crowd, / That s why he sung so merrily and loud (733-4). Not only does the Pardoner belong to the Church for the money, but he also practices homosexuality, something highly discouraged by the Church.
The Friar represents the most corrupt clergy-member derided by Chaucer. The Friar commits nearly all of the seven deadly sins. The most egregious offense the Friar has committed is adultery. Chaucer insinuates this offense at the beginning of the Friar s description by saying he gives his young women each what he can afford (216). The Friar seduces these women by giving them pocket knives (238) and using his gallant phrase and well-turned speech (215). Friars are supposed to live on the donations they receive and give the rest to the Church. The Friar embezzles money from the Church, however, and uses it for his own very unholy purposes. The Friar embezzles the money by saying he received much less money in donation than he actually did receive. As Chaucer explains, his income came / To more than he laid out (263). The Friar additionally supplies himself with cash by granting pleasant absolution, for a gift (226). In other words, the Friar lets people off with very little spiritual penance as long as they pay him in silver. Because the Friar hears confession only to receive money, he listens only anywhere a profit might accrue (253) and completely ignores the poor people who wish to confess. The Friar also has the fault of focusing on alcohol instead of his religious duties, such as helping the poor or the diseased: [The Friar] [knows] the taverns well . . . Better than lepers, beggars, and that crew (246). The Friar possesses little time for religious duties. This arises from the fact that he spends the majority of it using his religious influence to extort money, committing adultery, or getting drunk. The portrayals of the clergy in The Canterbury Tales represent the growing displeasure felt toward the clergy. This vexation primarily arose from the ecclesiasts tendency to not practice what they preach. By writing his satirical frame tale, Chaucer humorously scorns those that the Europeans resented. Chaucer reveals the hypocrisy and corruption of the clergy members, and in doing so disdains them. Chaucer uses the Prioress to criticize the vanity of the clergy; and the Pardoner and Friar to illustrate dislike was caused by the materialism practiced by the clergy. By expressing an entire continents view, Chaucer sent a powerful message to the Church and clergy the people knew what they were doing and did not like it. Though expressed in a humorous manner, the truths exposed in the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales are no less true, nor is the resentment of these truths any less bitter.