illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What's Chaucer's opinion of the clergy?

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In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer pays great attention to the clergy. Already in the Prologue, six clerics are described in detail. These are the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Parson. The other two, the second Nun and the Priest, are only mentioned here, but later they tell their own tales. Chaucer’s clergy are not just a list of characters, for the most part disagreeable, but they are also personalities interacting with one another.

For example, the Summoner and the Pardoner might be in a homosexual relationship, while the Pardoner and the Friar dislike each other. It is the characters’ interaction that allows the reader to see the church and its ills from the inside. It is possible too that by considering the church and its representatives in such a peculiar way, Chaucer is trying to make sense of the causes of its degradation.

Chaucer expresses a personal attitude to each of his characters. Sometimes, it is explicitly negative, as is the Friar’s case. Some characters are depicted with hidden irony. Sometimes it is difficult to understand the author’s attitude towards his characters. The most vivid example of this ambivalence is the Prioress. There is no consensus among the scholars as to Chaucer’s attitude towards this character and as to how he treats her anti-Semitic tale. The only character described without a hint of irony and with true respect is the Parson:

This noble ensample to his sheep he gaf
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.
Out of the gospel he the wordes caught,
And this figure he added yet thereto,
That if gold ruste, what should iron do?
For if a priest be foul, on whom we trust,
No wonder is a lewed man to rust...
A better priest I trow that nowhere none is.
He waited after no pomp nor reverence,
Nor maked him a spiced conscience
But Christe's lore, and his apostles' twelve,
He taught, and first he follow'd it himselve. (1, Prologue)

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales are partially satirical, and he pokes fun at or critiques just about every facet of medieval society. The clergy are no exception. Generally, Chaucer seems to think that the clergy are, at best, misguided or, at worst, outright corrupt.

Let us look at a few examples. There is one exception to the above statement and that is the Parson. Of all the clergy presented in the Prologue, he is the only upstanding, good person doing his job as it is intended to be done. His dedication to his parish is described in detail, and Chaucer really has nothing negative to say about him. 

All of the other clergy are critiqued in some way by Chaucer. The first member of the clergy to be introduced in the General Prologue is the Prioress, a high-ranking nun. The Prioress is accustomed to the finer things in life, which is odd considering that the clergy are supposed to take a vow of poverty and live humbly. The Prioress also wears a piece of jewelry engraved with a Latin saying that translates to "Love conquers all." Chaucer implies that it is not her love for Jesus that she is referring to with this phrase. Again, this is strange considering that the clergy take a vow of chastity and are not supposed to be involved in romantic relationships. However, Chaucer seems to enjoy talking with the Prioress, as she is pleasant company. Chaucer's critique of the Prioress is gentler than his depictions of some other clergy. 

The Monk is somewhat similar to the Prioress, but he is viewed more harshly by Chaucer. He enjoys socializing and hunting, and he is a member of the upper class. However, he believes monks should not have to be cooped up inside all day, even though that is what he signed up for when he became a monk. Again, he is not doing the job as it is meant to be done. 

At the other end of the spectrum would be the Friar, the Pardoner, and the Summoner. These men are all completely corrupt. The Friar uses his position as a clergyman to his own advantage and has become quite wealthy. The Pardoner openly tells the other pilgrims that he preaches against greed to his parishioners so that they will give him their money. The Summoner can be easily bribed by those he is supposed to take to the Church court. All of these men take advantage of their subjects for their own gain, making them awful people and, even worse, corrupt clergy members. 

While there are many clergy characters and all are described somewhat differently, it is clear that Chaucer did not have a blind reverence toward the clergy and instead saw that those who worked for the Church did not always do so for the best motives. 

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