The Canterbury Tales Questions and Answers
by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales book cover
Start Your Free Trial

In what ways does Chaucer use his stories and characters in The Canterbury Tales to offer a critique of the role that the church played in the middle ages? Based on this critique, how do you think this reflects Chaucer's opinions on the church?

Expert Answers info

Sarah Zometa eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2018

write572 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, Social Sciences, and History

Chaucer included many religious figures in The Canterbury Tales, including a friar, a nun, a priest, and a pardoner, among others.

It’s important to note before discussing the commentary about religion that these characters and their stories provide that these figures belonged to the Catholic system prior to the Protestant Reformation. This matters because the prevailing form of Christianity was Catholicism in the Middle Ages.

Many scholars suggest that, with the exception of the Parson, the religious figures in the text are portrayed in a mostly negative way. This begins in the prologue with the descriptions of the various participants in the story contest.

For instance, the summoner is described as leprous and lecherous, indicating both physical and spiritual decay. He is also exposed as a fraud who pretends to know Latin and leverages his position in the Church to make money or take advantage of women. Similarly, the pardoner is a man who sells indulgences, promising the devout salvation in exchange for money. The other religious figures in the text are not described with much favor either, indicating an overall negative attitude.

In addition, most of the tales featuring religious characters do not portray those individuals positively. Some examples of this include the Friar’s and Summoner’s tales, which include a greedy, manipulative version of each other as the protagonist of the story. The bawdy Miller’s Tale includes a parish clerk who kisses a married woman’s inappropriately before branding her lover’s with a hot iron. These examples show that Chaucer’s own pilgrims do not necessarily view religious people favorably, just like the author himself.

Overall, it appears as though Chaucer critiques various aspects of the Church—primarily its greed and manipulation of vulnerable believers.

check Approved by eNotes Editorial