What characters does Chaucer use for satire directed toward the Catholic Church in The Canterbury Tales?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The most famous work in which Chaucer satirizes the Catholic Church is The Canterbury Tales. He has a number of characters in this great poem that lend to that satirization. The objective of this satire is to humorously point out the failings and folly (or worse) of the Church of his era. Remember that during Chaucer’s time, the Christian Church was only the Catholic Church as the Protestant Reformation didn’t occur until 1517 with the public notice of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. The nature of satire is that it is delivered through biting wit and humor, so Chaucer’s satirical characters are on the amusing, even comical, side, even though some of them are scoundrels.

Some of the most obvious characters who satirize the Church are the Friar, the Pardoner, The the Prioress, and Nun’s Priest. The Friar provides a satirical view of the Church because of his ability to practice a religious calling that specializes in hearing the confessions of wealthy people who pay generous donations:

instead of weeping and [of] prayers
Men may give silver to the poor freres.

The sincerity of the Church is satirized through the Pardoner who sells relics that forgive and remove a person’s sins--for a tidy price. The Prioress is the female representative satirizing the Church. She is elegant and tastefully adorned, with an inclination for romance. Her jewelry and other niceties satirize the Church’s religious ideal of sacrifice and devotion to spiritual over worldly pleasures. The Nun’s Priest satirizes the Church because of his position as chaplain to the Prioress. There is a suggestion that the Prioress’s romantic proclivities are directed at and reciprocated by her nun’s priest, though both have taken vows of chastity. This view may be supported by his tale in which Chanticleer is exceedingly fond of his many wives:

This gentle cock had in his governance
Seven hens, for to do all his pleasánce,

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

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