The Canterbury Tales: exposing the corruption of the church? Many of the stories and characters on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales involve the Catholic Church, an omnipresent institution in the Middle Ages. The author himself was very aware of the Catholic Liturgy as shown in different passages from this book. “It has been pointed out for many years in various ways by scholars that Chaucer was a Catholic, and as such, of course, posessed some knowledge of the beliefs, practices, and customs of the Church” (Rosenfeld 357). These Tales are intended to an audience who is, as Chaucer himself, outraged by the corruption of the Church, as Rosenfeld points out: “His awareness of the abuses inside the Church is obvious in some of the characters of the Canterbury Tales, notably in the scornful and unsavory portrait of the Pardoner”. On the other hand Chaucer was a devout Catholic. A renowned scholar, John Tatlock, has suggested that “Toward the church he was critical, though not unusually so, and he was probably not unsympathetic to the concrete criticism directed at her by other vigorous and earnest souls of his day. We have no reason to doubt that he went to mass at least on Sundays and holy days, and to confession and communion at least once a year” (Tatlock 268). Different clergymen are characterized in The Canterbury Tales, and not all of them are shown as corrupt. In the Prologue, Chaucer describes the Parson (who unlike the Friar is not a member of a religious order) as a pious and dedicated clergyman: “He was a poor country parson / But rich he was in holy thought and work. /
He was a learned man also, a clerk, / Who Christ’s own gospel truly sought to preach; / Devoutly his parishioners would he teach. / Gracious he was and wondrously diligent, / Patient in adversity and well content” (Chaucer v. 480-486). This description of the Parson seems to coincide with the ideal of a priest in the eyes of Chaucer. The Church was a dominant institution in Medieval England, and along with that power came corruption. It would seem that Chaucer’s criticism is towards certain members of the Church and not the Catholic Church itself. The portrait of the Parson as a man of God contrasts with the other eight clergymen described in the Tales. All eight are corrupt or have deviated from God’s ways. The Prioress is most concerned about letting everyone know that she speaks French, and has ridiculously perfect manners at the table, far from fulfilling her religious vows of piety and frugality: “At mete wel y-taught was she with alle/ She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle/ Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe/ Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe/ That no drope ne fille upon hire brest” (Chaucer v. 127 – 131). The Monk loves hunting “An outridere, that lovede venerie / A manly man, to been an abbot able” (Chaucer v. 167-168), has rich clothes and a gold pin “He hadde of gold ywroght a curious pyn” (Chaucer v. 196) and he is also guilty of gluttony “A fat swan loved he best of any roost” (Chaucer v. 206).
The Friar is supposed to be from a religious order, and thus should have stricter vows than any other priest. Instead, he likes to spend his times in taverns “he knew the tavernes wel in every town,/ and every hostiler and tappestere/ bet than a lazar or a beggestere” (Chaucer v. 240-242) He likes to be around rich people for he can make more money off them, absolving their sins through confession for the right price: “He was an esy man to yeve penaunce/ Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce” (Chaucer v. 223-224). In 3
addition the Friar he keeps knives and pins he offers to “faire wives” (Chaucer v.234) indicating he is a womanizer. The Pardoner is described by the Narrator as having a smooth skin and no beard, either an eunuch or a homosexual… “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare” (Chaucer v. 693). He seems to be only interested in money. And he is so cynical he will confess it to his audience, and afterwards try to pull one of his tricks and sell them his fake relics. The Summoner is portrayed as an ugly man “That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face, / For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe./ As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,/ With scalled browes blake, and piled berd/ Of his visage children were aferd” (had a red-cherubic face, pimpled and bearded, he was lecherous as a sparrow, and children were afraid of him) (Chaucer v. 625-630) . This official would, for a quart of wine allow a man to live with his concubine for a full year: “He wolde suffre, for a quart of wyn,/ A good felawe to have his concubyn/ A twelf-monthe, and excuse hym atte fulle;” (Chaucer v. 651-653) All of these members of the Church
represent in different degrees the state of the Church in Medieval England. Rich cathedrals, gold ornaments contrasted with the misery in which most people lived back then. Chaucer’s Parson seem to be placed as an example of what a priest should be, and in a way express his faith in the values of the Church.
His critical views are by no means radical but mainstream with what most people thought in those times. It is not a coincidence that Reform was just around the corner. In that perspective, Chaucer’s criticism is not institutional but to the individuals that conform the clergy. “It is unthinkable that one with his close court connections should hold very radical beliefs” (Kuhl 324). His famous Retraction, and his methodical adherence to Liturgy show that Chaucer was a fervent Catholic and never intended the Tales to be used against the Church. The Tales reflect the state of corruption of the Church at the time but Chaucer points his finger to the weaknesses of the human soul