Attacking Corruption in the Church
Near the end of The Canterbury Tales' General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Parson, a priest of an independent parish, as a model that "wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive, / By his clennesse, how that his sheep shold live" (General Prologue 505-506).
The Parson, who, like the other pilgrims, is on his way to Canterbury, feels obliged to live in accordance with Christian teachings. His tale is not a story but rather a discourse on the nature of sin that challenges those who do not feel obligated to lead virtuous lives. The narrator imparts little direct judgment on the four corrupt clergymen but allows the reader to build his or her own opinions.
Simultaneously, Chaucer builds his religious argument throughout the poem and allows the readers to come to their conclusions about the state of the Church. In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the poet presents the clerical pilgrims' vices in contrast to the Christian virtues expressed by the pious Parson to reveal the corruption of the church establishment.
As described by the narrator, the clergy's activities contradict the actions and values of an ideal member of the Church. Chaucer describes three principal aspects of church corruption embodied by the clerical pilgrims: the embrace of secular society, the rejection of spiritual betterment, and the embodiment of sin.
The Prioress Disrespects the Nun's Vow
The first clerical pilgrim the narrator describes is the Prioress, a nun in charge of a convent. However, Chaucer's description seems more appropriate for a noble lady than a nun since he connects her to the nobility through her name and physical appearance. Upon joining a convent, nuns often change their names to a saintly name to reflect the religious change in their lives; however, the Prioress keeps her noble name, Madame Eglantine, which implies her being wild or insubordinate.
She wears her habit in a way that emphasizes her physical beauty, and she carries a set of rosary beads, "gauded al with grene" that has a golden brooch on the end (159). Chaucer's description indicates that the Prioress does not respect a nun's vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Her knowledge of formal French instead of the Parisian vernacular and her precise manners reveal her involvement in the affairs of high society rather than the affair of a priory.
The Friar Does Not Serve His Community
Furthermore, Chaucer emphasizes the Church's attachment to society through the Friar, who is "wantowne" and knows so much "of daliaunce and fair langage" (208, 211). Much like nuns, a friar should be concerned with service to the poor and helping those outside of society. Yet, this avaricious Friar concerns himself with the affairs of taverns and inns, places of society where he can become acquainted with those who have money and power. The Friar does no service for his community and perhaps has never worked a day in service as "his nekke whit was as the flour-de-lys," (238).
Chaucer's emphasis decries the Church's growing connection with seats of power and wealth rather than focusing on the people of faith or the poor. Though the Church's embrace of society is counter to its purpose, Chaucer sees it as a consequence of the widespread nature of sin within the Church.
Chaucer proceeds to attack the clergy's theological lacking and outright immorality through the Monk and the Pardoner.
The Monk Rejects Monastic Life
The Monk rejects the rules of monastic life as dictated by St. Augustine and St. Benedict because he believes that they are "old and somdel streit," and in their place, he values temporal pleasures like hunting and horseback riding (174). He "is likned til a fissh that is waterlees," and he embodies the Church's straying from religious origins and doctrines to temporal pleasures (180).
The Pardoner Lives Only for Profit
Then the narrator introduces the most morally decadent and unabashedly corrupt of the clerical pilgrims, the Pardoner. While the narrator passes judgment in his description, he lets the Pardoner's corruption reveal itself in the Pardoner's own words. At the beginning of his tale, the Pardoner states his motto of "Radix Malorum est Cupitditas ['the root of evil is greed']," which closely follows the moral lesson of his exempla, though hypocritically, the Pardoner states that his "intention is only to make a profit" (The Pardoner's Tale 334,403).
The Pardoner represents the hypocrisy of the Church when it preaches against the very sin it practices. Chaucer connects the Pardoner and the Pope through papal bulls, which give the Pardoner his authority to sell indulgences. In making this connection, he cements the idea that corruption extends to the highest levels of the Church establishment.
The corruption is not endemic to just the clergy on this pilgrimage but is embedded in the Church as a whole, especially during the pontificate of Boniface IX, who was pope when Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. To reconcile the corruption, Chaucer realizes that change must come within the Church, but cannot be a part of the corrupt establishment.
The Parson Is Chaucer's Model for an Ideal Clergy
While the Parson is a member of the Church, he is detached from the establishment, which over time has degraded and allowed vice to take root; thus, he is Chaucer's model for what a reformed Church clergy should resemble. The Parson's Tale acts as a counter to the rest of the tales as it systematically outlines and decries the sins that were alluded to or appeared in the prior tales.
Chief among these sins are those the Parson describes as detrimental to the Church as a whole: avarice and lechery. Chaucer uses the Parson's description to highlight these sins as the ones at the heart of church corruption. Avarice and lechery destroy the Church since avarice attacks the very foundation, its people, while lechery breaks God's sacred law.
Avarice and Lechery Are at the Heart of Church Corruption
Avarice corrupts the hearts and minds of church officials, who then crave power, engage in simony, and perverse their office for monetary gain; "for by this sin God loses completely the church and the soul that he bought with his precious blood, by them that give churches to them that be not worthy" (The Parson's Tale 790). Lechery breaks the sacred ties "knitting together of Christ and of holy church," which weakens the Church and allows other sins to spread (845).
For these reasons, Chaucer argues that the Church establishment, made up of the likes of the Friar, Monk, Prioress, and Pardoner, must be rejected and replaced with a Church made up of those who value the faith and seek to better it and its followers. He argues it is through penitence, true faith in God, and good works provoked through pure intent that one can reach salvation and that the Church on earth can be cleansed.
Chaucer Entertains While Critiquing
While existing to entertain and amuse, The Canterbury Tales acts as Chaucer's literary critique of the Catholic Church. Through irony, Chaucer contrasts the reader's expectations of the clergy with the reality he presents through the narrator's descriptions. Through this contrast, Chaucer presents the need for penitence through the virtuous Parson. He simultaneously entertains the reader while revealing both the widespread corruption of the Church and the solution.
Dante and Chaucer Were of One Mind
Dante Algiehri undertook a similar task in his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy, which Chaucer possibly read. Dante took more radical measures to reveal the corruption within the Church by placing corrupt popes on various levels of his Inferno. While Chaucer is less direct in his message, it is nevertheless present and carries subtle Dantean undertones. The Church's corruption did not stop because of either of these works: Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales exposes it in the English vernacular and leaves it to his reader to judge.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt and M. H. Abrams, 8th ed., Norton, 2019, pp. 195-297
© 2022 Lucas Delille