In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is seemingly very critical of most of the pilgrims who are associated with the Catholic Church. One can very clearly see this criticism through Chaucer’s characterization of these pilgrims.
To begin with, Chaucer characterizes the Nun Prioress as a woman who is more concerned with appearances than spiritual matters or charity as “her greatest pleasure was in etiquette.” Likewise, the Monk is portrayed as being interested in hunting for sport and eating game. This portrayal is underscored by the fact that monks were not supposed to leave their cloister and took vows of poverty. Characterized in an even more unflattering light, the Friar, according to the narrator, is a womanizer who had to hastily perform and finance many of the marriages he performed presumably due to his improper relationship with the would-be brides. The Summoner is described as having a hideous physical description which correlates to his practice of pardoning adulterers and fornicators only after they had paid him a bribe. Finally, the Pardoner is characterized as the greatest of religious villains as he not only preys upon common people but also upon lower-ranking members of the clergy. In short, he is characterized as a con man of the worst kind.
However, Chaucer does not portray every religious character in the narrative in a negative light. The Priest, who is the lowest-ranking of the religious characters in the Prologue, is portrayed in a very positive light. The narrator calls the Priest “a good man” who “would truly preach the word of Jesus Christ.” The narrator also likens the Priest to a shepherd. This comparison is important as Christ is often compared to a shepherd in the Bible. The Priest does not shirk his responsibilities to his parishioners nor does he pass judgment on the people of his parish. In short, the narrator seems to admire this member of the clergy due to the fact that he takes care of people and does not take advantage of them.
After studying Chaucer’s characterizations of the religious figures in his work, one can argue that Chaucer viewed the upper echelons of the Church as being more susceptible to corruption than the lower-level, hard-working members of the organization.
Note: All quotes taken from David Wright’s translation of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer, Oxford World’s Classics Edition, Oxford University Press, 1985.