What does someone from the 20th century have in common with someone from 14th century medieval England? Reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales shows some surprising parallels. Concerns about understanding the surrounding society and whether institutions are serving the people or themselves are themes in modern life and in Chaucer. Chaucer created a character to provide a lens to readers for examining all these different types of people within medieval society. The people that he describes fall into different categories and one category that he focuses on in particular is that of the clergy.
His description of these members of the church indicate a critique of that institution in medieval society. It becomes clear that the church contains many people who don’t deserve the role while some individuals who would contribute to the church are unwelcomed or denied. Chaucer uses greed, earthly goods, and lust in The Canterbury Tales to represent the contrast between those qualified in the church to those not qualified, further illustrating how the church is corrupt.
For two particular characters, the Nun and the Monk, Chaucer highlights earthly goods as a way of showing how these figures demonstrate corruption. In the general prologue, Chaucer says :And she had little dogs she would be feeding/With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread(150-151). From the preceding statement, it is commonly acknowledged that instead of caring for the poor, she cares for the well being of animals by feeding them high quality foods.
As well, Chaucer says, She used to weep if she but saw a mouse/Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding (153). In addition to the previous quote, Chaucer uses irony to further emphasize the Nun’s priority of animals over the church and society. It is widely recognized that a member of the clergy should prioritize praying, studying and reading rather than the help of animals. She misappropriates resources to animals rather than the poor likewise the monk misappropriates the resources of his position to pursue his own entertainment instead of pursuing spiritual knowledge and understanding. The monk wants to be a part of the clergy for the title and the social class as evident through his choice to hunt rather than work, study and pray.
Chaucer says, He did not rate that text at a plucked hen/Which says that hunters are not holy men (181-182). Furthermore, the Monk’s hobby is not allowed according to the monasteries rules. He is opposed to following these rules for hunting is something he loves to do, unlike showing devotion to his monastery.
Chaucer’s critique of corruption in the church is complex and nuanced and he approaches the theme from multiple directions. He highlights the lustful behaviors exhibited by the Friar and Nick in the cast of clergy to provide a correlation between lust and corruption in the church. Chaucer’s attitude towards the Friar is shown in the beginning of his description, saying a wanton one and merry, a delightful-sounding detail stuffed with irony and mockery (212). The Friar, who is expected to be virtuous and devoted to religious obligations, is shown to be the exact opposite. A friar should lead a life of humility and poverty but he contradicts this by wooing or flirting with women, an action not appropriate for a clergy member.
Chaucer says, He kept his tippet stuffed with pins for curls/And pocket-knives, to give to pretty girls (237-238). From the following quote, the audience witnesses that the Friar, who is supposed to live in poverty, spends his money on gifts to give to pretty girls. For a friar, a clergy member who vows to celibacy, this isn’t appropriate and furthermore shows the lust in many characters who corrupt the church. Nick is later introduced in The Millers Tale as a Lad known as Nicholas the Gallant/And making love in secret was his talent (91-92). Evidently, Nick’s talent is directing unlawful love affairs, which manages to get Alisoun into bed with him. For obvious reasons, this sort of activity is disappointing, especially to the wife of John, who is allowing Nick to rent a room in his house. Chaucer’s depiction of the following characters, the Friar and Nick, prove the lust noticeable is unacceptable and a reason why the church is corrupted.
Finally, greed is shown through the Pardoner to emphasize a lack of morality and the rotten cast of clergy members prevalent in medieval times. The Pardoner says, For my exclusive purpose is to win/And not at all to castigate their sin (77-78). This previous statement further explores the greed of a dishonest clergymen, implying that he cares of nothing but personal gain. Despite the Pardoner’s job of excusing the sinful, he is ironically concerned with just himself.
Greed led him to deceive the sinned, tempting them to buy fake relics and a cost for him to travel. Later in the Pardoner’s Tales, he says, What! Do you think, as long as I can preach/and get their silver for the things I teach/that I will live in poverty, by choice? ( 113-115). Basically, the Pardoner states that if the money keeps coming from his preachings, he will continue to deliver. This further displays the mighty greed that has fully encompassed him, which created a selfish and unsympathetic character. The one thing that drives the Pardoner is money, and he doesn’t consider the social class when misleading. Chaucer emphasizes the Pardoner’s greed to bring awareness to the Church’s power and the clergymen who control this power, displaying that immature and selfish people hold too much power.
On the other hand, Chaucer accentuates The Oxford Cleric, who more than any of the previous characters mentioned deserves a role in the Church. Chaucer says, Whatever money from his friends he took He spent on learning or another book (309-310). Furthermore, The Oxford Cleric represents a classic clergymen who obviously deserves a preferment in the church. Instead of hunting and feeding animals, he deliberately chooses to read, pray and study for the sake of his desire to associate with the clergy. Chaucer further adds on to his statement by saying, His only care was study, and indeed/He never spoke a word more than was need (313-314).
From the following comment, it additionally proves that someone with these attributes should be accepted in to the church. Ironically, The Oxford Cleric found no preferment in the church, which is the critique Chaucer is trying to make considering all of the other mentioned characters (301). Basically, by observing The Oxford Cleric, it is apparent that someone who actually spends time studying, praying and reading doesn’t get accepted into the church whereas the Nun and the Monk, who prioritize earthly goods and personal needs, deserve a spot in church. Chaucer uses the Oxford Cleric to criticize the church, implying that they make the wrong decisions regarding who is qualified and unqualified.
Concluding, the Church in Medieval England was a powerful institution which, in return, created many concerns, asking society if the Church failed and abused people. Chaucer shed light to a new idea, that this powerful institution was run by many unintelligent people who cared for the well being and state of themselves, unlike that of society. He created a genius way of incorporating a critique of the church, displaying many characters who lacked morals. The use of greed, lust, and earthly goods furthermore represented a corrupt state of the church, showing that the unqualified are commonly accepted into the church whereas the qualified are unwelcomed.
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