General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Did Chaucer support or oppose the church in the 'General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales'?

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After we read "the General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, we might think that Geoffrey Chaucer does not have a favorable opinion of the church as an institution. He compares the friar Huberd to a "master of arts or a pope." This could suggest that the pope is "artful" or evasive and deceitful. Elsewhere, he tells of an ecclesiast who seems more concerned with the church's finances than the spiritual growth of its worshipers.

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After we read "the General Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales, we might think that Geoffrey Chaucer does not have a favorable opinion of the church as an institution. We should, though, keep in mind that this is a poem. It's not a pamphlet or an essay explicitly criticizing the church. Although, once again, if we think of how church figures are used in the "Prologue," it's hard to say that they come off in a complimentary light.

Let's look at how Chaucer describes the friar Huberd. Chaucer says he's like a "lyk a maister or a pope" or "a master of arts or a pope." We might want to think about why Chaucer pairs the pope with a "master of arts." Art has multiple meanings. The more common meaning is something creative or relatively high-minded. Paintings are called art, so are certain kinds of music and films. Yet art can also be cunning and deceptive. Think about the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist. We might wonder if Chaucer is trying to tell us that there's also something deceitful and evasive about the pope.

We might also want to spend some time on just the word "master." How might the pope be like a master? If the pope is the master, who are the serfs?

I'd also encourage you to review the part that addresses the pardoner. In this section, how does Chaucer link official church activities to monetary gain instead of spiritual growth?

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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.

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