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Geoffrey Chaucer’s attitudes toward “the Church” should not be confused with his attitudes toward Christianity. Chaucer seems to have respected and admired sincere Christians (and to have been one himself), even while he also recognized that many people in the church of his era were venal and corrupt.
In the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer presents a number of the pilgrims as devout, devoted Christians, and he presents such characters in highly attractive terms. The Knight is presented in this way, as are the Clerk, the Parson, and, quite memorably and concisely, the Plowman. Thus, the narrator says of the Plowman that
533 God loved he best with al his hoole herte
He loved God best with all his whole heart
534 At alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte,
At all times, whether it pleased or pained him,
535 And thanne his neighebor right as hymselve.
And then (he loved) his neighbor exactly as himself.
Yet the narrator also describes many pilgrims who hold official positions in the church but who fall far short of even minimal Christian ideals. Indeed, all the religious figures (except those already mentioned, such as the Clerk and Parson) fall into this category. Chaucer mocks such corrupt religious persons precisely because he knows the value of true religion. Ironically, the Clerk cannot find employment in the church, despite his great virtue, while figures such as the Monk seem to be thriving financially and otherwise because they hold official ecclesiastical positions.
At various points throughout “The General Prologue,” Chaucer associates corruption with Rome (the center of the Roman Catholic Church, the only Christian church allowed to exist in Chaucer’s time and place). And, in one memorable moment, Chaucer suggests that the corruption of the contemporary Catholic Church goes right to the top. Thus he says of the Friar,
259 he was nat lyk a cloysterer
he was not like a cloistered monk
260 With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler,
With a threadbare cope, like a poor scholar,
261 But he was lyk a maister or a pope.
But he was like a master of arts or a pope.
262 Of double worstede was his semycope,
Of wide (expensive) cloth was his short cloak,
263 That rounded as a belle out of the presse.
Which was round as a bell fresh from the clothespress.
The Pope is here associated with expensive, lavish clothing, and thus with superficiality and materialism. To say this, however, is not to say that Chaucer disdained the office of the Pope, only that he may have believed that that office had recently undergone the kind of corruption and decline that sincere Christians could only regret. Many Christians during this era – not only in England but throughout western Europe – would have agreed that the highest ideals of Christianity might be only imperfectly manifested in the contemporary church.
Chaucer, in the general prologue of his mangum opus, "The Canterbury Tales," criticizes the Church and insinuates that it is corrupt. Chaucer sketches two characters, the Monk and the Friar, who would traditionally be considered holy, and denegrates them. In line 221, Chaucer describes the Friar as a man who "knew the tavernes wel in every town, And every innkeeper and barmaid, Better than a leper or a female beggar.” This quotation demonizes the Friar and equates him with the morally bankrupt - i.e. the heavy drinkers in society who had lascivious encounters with many women around town. Chaucer is critical of the church and opposed to the hypocrisy he believes it exemplifies.
Alteration to the first post :: It's magnum opus. ;)
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