Church in the Prologue to the Canterbury tales
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Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales in the 14th Century. At the time the church had a very high status, and was very powerful. People went on long pilgrimages to visit holy places.
The Canterbury tales is about a group of pilgrims who each told stories on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. Many of the pilgrims were a part of the church. There was a prioress, a monk, a friar, a parson, a nun, three priests, a pardoner, and a summoner. In the prologue Chaucer shows his opinions of the church when he writes about these religious characters.
The first religious character, the Prioress, is an important nun, who also brought with her another nun and three priests. Nuns should have no possessions, live simple lives, should eat simple food, and look after the poor, sick and needy. Chaucer describes a lady, known as Madame Eglentyne, who he describes as vain, and who eats very good food.
”Ful semely after hir mete she raughte.” (Attractively she reached for meat to eat).
When he talks about her morals. He talks of her very strong feelings for her pet dog.
“But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,” (But sore she’d weep if one of them were dead,)
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte” (Or if men hit it with a rod to hard)
Chaucer doesn’t comment on how the prioress feels about the poor. You get the impression that they don’t mean anything to her.
She has jewelry, expensive personal items which nuns should not own.
“Of smal coral aboute hire arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene
And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,”
Another example of her extravigance is that she feeds her dog much better food than the average person can afford to eat. A nun should be leading a simple life. The prioress herself shouldn’t indulge in eating such good food herself.
“Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.”
Chaucer does not directly criticise the prioress but emphasizes the high standard of living that she has. Chaucer allows the reader to make up their own mind about whether she is a good example of a nun.
The next important religious character introduced by Chaucer is the monk who is critisised more than the nun. He is portrayed as a rich man who owns many horses.
“Ful many a deyntee hors hadde he in stable,
And whan he rood, men myghte his brydel heere”
He did not obey the rules of the monastery that he thought were old and too strict.
“The reule of seint maure or of seint beneit, (The rule of Maurus or Saint Benedict)
By cause that it was old and somdel streit (By reason it was old and somewhat strict)
This ilke monk leet olde thynges pace (This said monk let such old things slowly pace)
And heeld after the newe world the space.”(And followed new-world manners in their place)
He didn’t spend any time working, or studying in the cloisters.
“What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood, (What? Should he study as a madman would
Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure, (Upon a book in cloister cell? Or yet
Or swynken with his handes, and laboure” (Go labour with his hands and sweat,
His passion was hunting and he did nothing else.
“Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare”
Chaucer hints that he was possibly a womaniser
“A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was”
He, like the prioress, over indulged in expensive food.
“A fat swan loved he best of any roost.” (.A fat swan loved he best of any roast.)
Chaucer starts off by describing the friar as an amiable person who is fun to know.
“Ful wel biloved and famulier was he (Well liked by all and intimate was he
With frankeleyns over al in his contree, (With franklins everywhere in his country,)
And eek with worthy wommen of the toun” (And with the worthy women of the town)
But it soon emerges that the friar is mostly concerned about his own profit.
“Men moote yeve silver to the povre freres.” (Men should give silver to poor friars all bare)
Here Chaucer emphasises the friar’s refusal to have anything to do with those of whom he should be most concerned.
“To have with sike lazars aqueyntaunce. (To have sick lepers for acquaintances.)
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce,” (There is no honest advantageousness)
The friar is the first character to be directly critisised by Chaucer. He is a ghastly rogue who abused his position and uses the church for his own profit.
The parson is the next religious person to be described. He was very different from the others. He was a poor country parson who was holy in thought and deed.
“A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre persoun of a toun,
But riche he was of hooly thoght and werk”
He visited his parishioners on foot, and gave his money to the poor and needy.
“But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute, (But rather would he give, in case of doubt,)
Unto his povre parisshens aboute (Unto those poor parishioners about,)
Of his offryng and eek of his substaunce.”( Part of his income, even of his goods)
He was very careful to set a good example to his parishioners.
“And shame it is, if a prest take keep, (And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,)
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep” (A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep)
The parson was a saintly man setting a good example for all to follow especially the prioress the monk and the friar.
The pardoner was not a priest but instead makes his living from religion selling pardons for sins. The pardons where notes which he claimed to have got from Rome.
“His walet lay biforn hym in his lappe, (His wallet lay before him in his lap,)
Bretful of pardoun, comen from rome al hoot” (Stuffed full of pardons brought from Rome all hot.)
He also sold religious relics which were obviously fakes. Some of his relics were the bones of animals which he would pretend were the bones of saints.
“He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl (He said he had a piece of the very sail)
That seint peter hadde, whan that he wente (That good Saint Peter had, what time he went)
Upon the see, til jhesu crist hym hente. (Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.)
He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones, (He had a latten cross set full of stones,)
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.( And in a bottle had he some pig’s bones.)
But with thise relikes, whan that he fond (But with these relics, when he came upon)
A povre person dwellynge upon lond, (Some simple parson, then this paragon)
Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye (In that one day more money stood to gain)
Than that the person gat in monthes tweye” (Than the poor dupe in two months could attain)
The pardoner also made money from the sale of indulgences. These were notes from the pope forgiving a persons sins. This was a profession which Chaucer and many others at the time did not like. Chaucer seems to hate what the pardoner stands for and writes about him in a very critical way.
In conclusion Chaucer’s view of the church was that he approved of what was good in it, and what it was supposed to be. However, he thought most of it was corrupt and he was very critical of that. All of those he criticised where guilty of the sin of betraying their own faith. The minor abuse of power by the prioress and the monk was noted with irony and humor rather than outright criticism. He reserved his direct abuse for the friar and the pardoner who abused their position and betrayed other Christians for there own gain. However, he praises the parson for setting a Christian example in leading a simple and charitable life.
Of all the many religious characters Chaucer writes about there is only one, the simple parson, who he thinks is leading a good Christian life. In this way Chaucer is very critical of the Church and he obviously believes that very few of the nuns, monks, priests, friars, clergymen and church employees are leading a similar good Christian life.