Geoffrey Chaucer's famous work "The Canterbury Tales" covers a vast range of subject matter, from marriage and feminism to the function of evil in the Creator's plan. Chaucer's harshest words, however, are in criticism of the immorality of the clergy of the contemporary Roman Catholic Church. Chaucer wrote many tales relating to this matter, primarily in two manners. In some tales, he exposed what were seen as corrupt acts and practices within the Catholic Church. In other, less numerous tales, he would use characters and the tales they tell to illustrate attributes the church should possess, or how the church would function in an ideal world.
Chaucer did this in several ways. He would get a point across in the tale itself, as in The Friar's Tale, or The Pardoner's Tale; a tale would have a clear theme and moral relating to what Chaucer was trying to say. He would also make statements about the clergy through the characters who tell those same tales, both by what they say and do, and how they are introduced in the General Prologue, or in some cases the Prologue to that character's specific tale. In some cases, he even had characters interacting with each other - characters who did not necessarily like each other.
The Pardoner and The Summoner
Any examination of Chaucer's views on the clergy must begin with a look at The Pardoner and The Summoner. These characters are two of the most corrupt pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. They are introduced together in the General Prologue; they are singing a popular song together, the Summoner providing the bass line while the Pardoner sings the refrain. Chaucer is showing them as two sides of the same "counterfeit coin." (Ames, 57) Where the dark Summoner is "hot and lecherous as a sparrow," the blonde Pardoner is "a gelding," who Chaucer notes is riding side-saddle like a woman. While the Summoner harms the body by falsely cursing the innocent to extort money out of them, the Pardoner falsely pardons the guilty, injuring the soul. (Ames, 57)
The Pardoner introduces himself in his prologue. He has no guilt whatsoever; he freely admits to his corruption without the slightest pretense of decency, not even bothering to pay lip service to his religion, which he supposedly serves. Even the moral tale he preaches to the pilgrims is usually preached for monetary gain.
The curse of avarice and cupidity
Is all my sermon, for it frees the pelf.
Out come the pence, especially for myself
For my exclusive purpose is to win
And not at all to castigate their sin.
Once dead what matter how their souls may fare?
They can go blackberrying for all I care!
But let me briefly make my purpose plain;
I preach for nothing but for greed of gain
And thus I preach against the very vice
I make my living out of - avarice.
And yet however guilty of that sin
Myself with others I have power to win
Them from it, I can bring them to repent;
But that is not my principal intent.
Covetousness is both the root and stuff
Of all I preach. That ought to be enough.
As if that were not enough, the Pardoner also brags about committing fraud; he has many false relics and trinkets, which he claims are real, or have magical powers. For instance, he has a sheep's bone which he tells people can be dipped in a well in order to make that well's water an effective snake bite antidote for livestock - for a price, naturally.
One also finds the following in The Pardoner's delineation in the General Prologue:
As to his trade, from Berwick down to Ware
There was no pardoner of equal grace,
For in his trunk he had a pillow-case
Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil.
He said he had a gobbet of the sail
Saint Peter had the time when he made bold
To walk the waves, till Jesu Christ took hold.
He had a cross of metal set with stones
And, in a glass, a rubble of pigs' bones
And with these relics, any time he found
Some poor up-country parson to astound,
In one short day, in money down, he drew
More than the parson in a month or two
Worse than the false relics, however, are the false pardons themselves. The relics are of the saints, which pales in comparison with the pardons, which are of Christ himself. Through crucifixion, Christ bought true pardon for all humanity, which he loved. The Pardoner sells false pardons to people he hates; people he laughs at, deceives, defrauds. (Ames, 59)
Therefore, the question arises: why did Chaucer put a wonderfully told, beautiful story into the mouth of a vulgar liar and thief? Chaucer normally shows exquisite delicacy in fitting the different Canterbury Tales to the respective characters who tell them. (Wagenknecht, 119) This is true here as well; the Pardoner exhibits all of the traits he condemns in his tale. He fails to realize that the moral of that same tale is applicable to his life as well.
Ostensibly, the Pardoner simply tells his tale to give his fellow pilgrims a sample of his usual routine. However, he is quickly swept into the same enthusiastic mood he normally displays from the pulpit. By the conclusion of the tale, his zealousness has reached a zenith:
O cursed sin! O blackguardly excess!
O treacherous homicide! O wickedness!
O gluttony that lusted on and diced!
O blasphemy that took the name of Christ
With habit-hardened oaths that pride began!
Nor does he stop there; forgetful of where he is, he continues on to his usual exhortations with which he normally concludes his pious tirades:
Dearly beloved, God forgive your sin
And keep you from the vice of avarice!
My holy pardon frees you all of this,
Provided that you make the right approaches,
That is with sterling, rings or silver brooches.
He continues in this fashion a bit further, until he suddenly remembers that he is traveling with a group of pilgrims to whom he has already confessed that all his piousness is mere plumage. He pulls himself up with an explanatory "That, sirs, is how I preach." (Wagenknecht, 122) It could be supposed that he was simply swept up in his professional enthusiasm for a minute or two, but he immediately continues with:
And Jesu Christ, soul's healer, aye, the leech
Of every soul, grant pardon and relieve you
Of sin, for that is best, I won't deceive you.
These lines are glaringly out of place with everything that is known about the pardoner; everything he has said and done up until this point. What causes this sudden change? It seems that the story he has just told has moved him, due to the unusual circumstances under which he has been preaching it; the incongruity between his preaching and the profligate invitation to come up and be pardoned through the efficacy of his false relics has appeared to him. (Wagenknecht, 122) He felt almost guilty about abusing such a story for his personal gain and feels the need to affirm his better nature, which is otherwise long dead. Chaucer seems to say that even though the Pardoner's corruption reached the point of no return long ago, sometimes he still sees the truth, the word of God, behind what he preaches, and that the degree of beauty therein gives even the Pardoner pause, even what approaches feelings of guilt.
But the Pardoner is incorrigibly himself; this mood quickly passes, and the Pardoner invites the host to kiss the relics, and that the pilgrims make offerings to receive pardons. The Host, unaware of the emotional states and transitions through which the Pardoner has been going, responds to his offer with an outburst of hostility; he insults the pardoner to the point where he becomes so livid he cannot speak. Had he had his composure with him, the well-spoken pardoner would have had plenty of words to vent his wrath upon the Host. The Knight breaks up the quarrel, which neither man wants to continue, and the pilgrims continue as before.
The Pardoner's Prologue and the end of his tale, which is also an exemplary instance of the aforementioned interaction of characters in the Canterbury Tales, is a fascinating psychological study of a completely corrupt clergy member. (Whittock, 193) One sees him in a moment of moral and emotional convulsion which would not have normally occurred. One has the opportunity to see a rare, fascinating thing occur: the Pardoner is moved by a tale which he has preached thousands of times to swindle people out of money, and ever so slightly feels, even if just for a second, the truth of the word of God, in which he probably once believed in strongly before becoming corrupted by monetary temptations. In effect, Chaucer says that even in a man like the Pardoner, there is a wonderful crooked beauty, for even the Pardoner is part of the glory of Creation. (Whittock, 194)
The Friar and The Summoner
The Pardoner's tale is finished and the company moves on. Soon the focus settles on the Friar and the Summoner. These two characters dislike each other; or at least each one has a disdain for the other's vocation. Back in Chaucer's time they were fierce competition; each extorted money from people. The Friar tells a tale about a corrupt summoner, and the Summoner in turn tells a tale about a friar who, as far as the Summoner is concerned, gets what he has coming to him.
The Summoner, like the Pardoner, is quicker to anger than the Friar; he is absolutely furious when the Friar concludes his tale, calling him "filthy," and telling another, smaller tale at the end of his prologue, simply in an attempt to get a rise out of the Friar.
The Summoner can be considered the Pardoner's counterpart in a variety of ways, but the same can be said of the Friar; the Friar and the Summoner each accuse the other of things of which they themselves are guilty. Both tales illustrate how the people of England suffer under the exploitation of the clergy, and how the gospel is distorted by the self-serving behavior of its corrupt members. (Whittock, 131)
The Friar tells a tale about a particular Summoner, who he describes as being the slyest fellow in all of England. He made his profit by exploiting peasants who didn't know any better; he would threaten them with excommunication for crimes they did not commit until they bribed him for his silence. This behavior is even more aggressive than that of the Pardoner; the Pardoner certainly falsified relics, but the Summoner's actions border on strong-arm robbery. He has a network of spies who inform him as to who has lain with prostitutes, so that he can falsify a warrant for purposes of blackmail and extortion.
The Summoner in this tale encounters a demonic fiend who has taken the form of a Yeoman. The devil is very straightforward and does not hesitate to answer the Summoner's numerous questions. The Summoner, anxious to show off his skill at manipulation to the devil, confronts an innocent widow and presents her with a falsified warrant. The figure of a feeble, innocent old woman is a superb satiric device used to emphasize the ruthlessness of the Summoner, especially when contrasted with the manner in which the Summoner quickly becomes openly hostile and outright savage. The Summoner's pretense of serving the church becomes ridiculous when he demands the old woman's cooking pan in place of the twelve pence bribe he originally demanded. This also shows that the Summoner has become completely engrossed with worldly gain, as opposed to acting as a mediator between the secular and spiritual realms; the cooking pan is a purely physical item. (Kramp, 10)
After trying to be civil with the summoner, the old woman begins to get angry and decides to stand up for herself. She proceeds to curse the Summoner out of frustration.
I never cuckolded my poor old man!
And as for you and your frying-pan
The hairiest, blackest devil out of Hell
Carry you off and take the pan as well!
Seeing her kneel and curse, the devil spoke:
Now, Mother Mabel, is this all a joke,
Or do you really mean the things you say?
"The Devil," she said,"can carry him away
With pan and all unless he will repent!"
The Summoner here is given a surprising chance to repent and save himself from eternal damnation, but the Summoner replies "there is no repentance due / for anything I ever had of you." With that, the Summoner's soul belongs to the demon. The tale closes with the demon's ominous line, "You'll know more about our mystery / than any doctor of divinity."
In the end, the moral would be that nobody falls victim to the devil except by his own free will, as the demon is completely honest about his position in hell and not once does he attempt to trick the Summoner into his final fate. (Kramp, 6) Chaucer is also ultimately stating that the divine Will manifests itself even behind the venal intentions of corrupt men; the fiend's evil intentions lead to good ends, and the Friar spreads the teachings of Christianity whenever he tells this tale, even though its purpose is to slander. (Whittock, 136)
Despite the obvious slant the Friar is probably putting on the story (he does, after all, have a vested interest in condemning summoners), one can see Chaucer speaking his opinions on the clergy through the Friar. His statement is obvious, as these are the most corrupt actions of a clergy member to be found in the entirety of the Canterbury Tales. The Friar's Summoner has many properties that mimic that of the "real" Summoner, particularly a reckless level of greed and an utter lack of morals. Whatever Christian ideal was once connected behind this job apparently no longer seems viable to Chaucer, or any of his contemporaries. (Whittock, 55)
The Summoner has become rather angry because of the Friar's tale, and in turn slanders Friars in his tale. He could have taken the opportunity to refute what the Friar said about his vocation, but instead chose to take the low road. It seems as though he can't merely make fun of friars towards the end of his tale; he also needs to do so immediately, as if to get it out of his system so that he can concentrate on telling his tale. Towards the end of his prologue, he takes a tale that was popular with friars at the time and tells a blasphemous parody of it.
An angel led [the friar] up and down to ferret
Among the torments - various kinds of fire -
And yet he never saw a single friar
Though he saw plenty of other kinds of folk
In pain enough. At last this friar spoke:
"Sir, are the friars in such a state of grace,"
He said, "none ever come into this place?"
"Why, yes," the angel answered, "many a million!"
And led him down to Lucifer's pavilion.
"Satan," the angel said, "has got a tail
As broad or broader than a barge's sail.
Hold up thy tail, thou Satan!" then said he,
"Show forth thine arse and let the friar see
The nest ordained for friars in this place!"
Ere the tail rose a furlong into space
From underneath it there began to drive,
Much as if bees were swarming from a hive,
Some twenty thousand friars in a rout
And swarmed all over Hell and round about,
And then came back as fast as they could run
And crept into his arse again, each one.
While modern readers find this story amusing, it would be taken as a perverted affront by friars of the time. (Benson, 5) It could be reasonably assumed that that was the Summoner's only major reason for telling it. It does nothing to refute what the Friar has said, even though the Summoner stated that as his intent: "Since you have heard this filthy friar lie / Let me refute him. I've a tale to tell!"
Obviously he doesn't stop there; he gets right into his tale, in which a Friar comes to a house where he was "better refreshed than anywhere in town." The householder, Thomas, was sick, but that doesn't stop the Friar, who claims that he has been praying for Thomas. He goes to speak with Thomas' wife. The conversation seen is the best illustration of the Friar's evil. (Whittock, 140) The wife mentions her dead child, who just died two weeks ago, and the Friar immediately and without hesitation begins to exploit her grief, using various manipulation techniques which he most likely practices often:
"Before I leave you, sir, you ought to know,"
She said, "my baby died two weeks ago,
Just after you left town on visitation."
"I know. I saw his death by revelation,"
Replied the friar, "in our dormitory.
I saw the little fellow borne to glory,
I dare say it was less than half an hour
After his death indeed. To God the power!
Our sexton and our infirmarian,
They saw it too, both friars, boy and man,
I rose at once, in fact the entire place
Rose, and the tears were trickling down my face;
There was no noise, no clattering bells were rung,
But a Te Deum - nothing else - was sung,
Save that I made an act of adoration
To Christ, to thank Him for His revelation.
For I assure you both, believe me well,
Our orisons are more effectual
And we see more of Christ's most secret things
Than common people do, or even kings.
With that, the Friar begins a lengthy lecture, starting with how all friars live lives of poverty, and eventually comes to the Friar asking for money. When Thomas says that he has given much to "various kinds of friar" over the years to no avail, the Friar's tactics become more aggressive. He begins to accuse Thomas of giving too little to friars, and that it is because of this that he is ill.
Thomas does not take kindly to this idea. Irritated, he tells the Friar that he will give him something only if he swears to divide it equally among all the members of his convent. The Friar agrees and Thomas tells him that the treasure is stored by his backside for safekeeping. The Friar reaches down and Thomas lets a fart into his hand.
The Friar is too angry to speak, and goes to the manor's lord to complain. The lord, however, instead of becoming angry, is engrossed by the intellectual dilemma of dividing an indivisible thing. The Friar is still bound by his promise to share Thomas' fart with the rest of the convent. The Lord's Squire devises a solution to the problem, and Thomas' vengeful plan to make the convent of friars engage in a humiliating and frankly disgusting activity succeeds.
The Summoner apparently does not have the most sophisticated wit, but behind all the rather scatological humor lies an interesting social moral. What is being said here by Chaucer is that sooner or later, the laity will tire of being exploited by corrupt, immoral clergy members, and the tide will eventually turn, not merely against friars (as the Summoner would like to believe), but against all corruption in the clergy - an assumption which proved true approximately two centuries later, when Martin Luther led the reformation.
The Parson and The Clerk
Chaucer believed that he could change the institution by changing the people within it; he condemns the bad, but reminds his audience of the good. (Ames, 61) This is why Chaucer also wrote about the "ideal" clergy. These were delineations of characters who were not corrupt; they had morals and followed the word of God. They represented a church which would exist if the corrupt practices and members of the existing one were removed.
The Parson is one of the best examples of this. His honor is great, and he is far removed from vices. (Miller, 216) When he is introduced in the General Prologue, Chaucer affords him nothing but praise:
A holy-minded man of good renown
There was, and poor, the Parson came to town,
Yet he was rich in holy thought and work.
He also was a learned man, a clerk,
Who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it
Devoutly to parishioners, and teach it.
Benign and wonderfully diligent,
And patient when adversity was sent
(For so he proved in much adversity)
He hated cursing to extort a fee,
Nay rather he preferred beyond a doubt
Giving to poor parishioners round about
Both from church offerings and his property;
He could in little find sufficiency.
Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder,
Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder,
In sickness or in grief, to pay a call
On the remotest, whether great or small.
Chaucer is saying that nowhere could a better priest be found; he has given us a gold standard by which to judge all the rest. (Ames, 32) The Parson is essentially the diametric opposite of the Pardoner; he gives money to the poor as opposed to extorting it from them, he places his congregation above himself and visits them regardless of the weather. He first practices what he preaches, for "if gold rust, what then will iron do?" Clearly this is Chaucer's ideal clergy member.
When asked to tell a tale, the Parson refuses to tell a fable, and instead insists on giving a sermon on Penitence. The Parson's Tale teaches the rigors of self-examination, the hard road to salvation and to the kingdom of Heaven. (Whittock, 281) This tale is obviously rather becoming to the Parson, whose piousness Chaucer described at length with much admiration.
The clerk is a similar example. Introduced in the General Prologue shortly before the Parson, Chaucer's emphasis is on the Clerk's life of poverty and his love of books and literature.
He was not too fat, I undertake,
But had a hollow look, a sober stare;
The thread upon his overcoat was bare.
He had found no preferment in the church
And he was too unworldly to make search
For secular employment. By his bed
He preferred having twenty books in red
And black, of Aristotle's philosophy,
Than costly clothes, fiddle or psaltery.
Whatever money from his friends he took
He spent on learning or another book
And prayed for them most earnestly, returning
Thanks to them thus for paying for his learning.
A tone of moral virtue filled his speech
And gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.
The reference to him being "not too fat" could mean that either he was unable to afford much food, or that he engaged in religious fasting, or both. This man places his only emphasis on learning and teaching; his utter lack of worldliness is a strong contrast to the obsession with money that characters like the Pardoner exhibit. This is another virtuous character devoid of corruption; Chaucer's ideal, which he likely wanted to see more of in his time.
Chaucer and the Catholic Church
Contrary to popular belief, it was not suicidal to criticize the clergy or church in the middle ages. There are several reasons that this belief persists - not the least of which is Chaucer's Retractions.
The Retractions, which appear at the end of the Canterbury Tales, appear to be Chaucer repenting for any blasphemy he might have spoken or written in any of his works. This is often written off as medieval superstition; that Chaucer must have fallen into the hands of priests who scared him with hell fire and handed him paper and pen on his death bed. (Ames, 15)
This is a rather unlikely story. Chaucer did not regret criticizing the clergy, nor did he fear going to hell for doing so. Chaucer called many of his works "worldly vanities," which is a relatively mild term suggestive of venal, rather than mortal sin. (Ames, 18) This "sin" likely refers to depictions of, for instance, sexual immorality in The Wife of Bath's Tale, or The Miller's Tale. (Benson2, 9) It is even believed by some that the Retractions are not Chaucer's own work; that they were added by some scribe to Chaucer's own incomplete copy of the tales. (Benson2, 3)
There are other reasons, however, for the belief that Chaucer was ahead of his time; alone in his stand against corruption in the church. His occasional subtlety, for example, in describing characters; he uses backhanded compliments, or implies things from a character's description, such as describing the Pardoner as "riding in the latest mode," with hair yellow as flax, singing a love song. These are the first things Chaucer describes about the Pardoner; he is apparently hinting that the Pardoner is gay. This was considered sinful and perverted in the middle ages, so Chaucer, by making a member of the clergy gay (this certain type of clergy member specifically) is making a symbolic statement; he feels that the Summoner, and by extension, all the corrupt members of his vocation, have perverted Christianity and the word of God.
Chaucer did not necessarily utilize subtlety like this for the sake of hiding his true intent from the Church; in fact, he is often rather blunt. In the general Prologue, he says of the Summoner, "children were afraid when he appeared." This issue can be seen as a matter of poetic wording. It is more poetic, and more humorous, to depict the Pardoner riding side saddle while singing a love song, and describe his appearance, than to simply come right out and say that he is probably gay. Similarly, it is more humorous to note that children are afraid of the Summoner than it would be to be politically correct about his appearance. Chaucer correctly assumed that, because he was creating a work of art, it would generally be best to go with the most artistic way of saying something, whether or not it was subtle.
Chaucer was not trying to operate beneath the radar of the contemporary clergy, nor was he an outcast. Chaucer's writings reflect what everyone of his time was saying on all matter of subjects; the Church and the laity, the Jews and the pagans, sex and marriage, the position of women, even good and bad luck. (Ames, 7) The freedom with which everybody criticized the clergy and argued theology, as surprising as this freedom seems to twentieth-century readers of Chaucer, was an old medieval custom; all manner of people condemned the worldliness of the clergy and the selling of pardons, even other members of the Church, such as bishops and clerks. (Ames, 8) Chaucer was friendly with his peers, because they too shared his outlook on the basic issues; it was not uncommon in his time.
One can not always be certain what Chaucer's own opinion was; one can be reasonably sure that he was against the selling of pardons and so forth, but the people of his time disagreed on exactly how to accomplish reform (Ames, 8), and this is where Chaucer's opinion cannot be known with absolute precision. His presentation on debate and opinions of his time is just that: a presentation. He was not necessarily a detached observer in the overall debate of his time, but it appears that he did not want his personal opinion to taint the survey of the overall debate. This degree of integrity explains why Chaucer finds the good even in the bad in many of his tales and characters, and what helps him transform common knowledge into art. (Ames, 4) In retrospect, today's readers are lucky that he had such integrity, for the Canterbury Tales are now a preserved "snapshot" of medieval debate and opinion; a petrified sample of 14th century life, reminiscent of the Grecian Urn of which Keats would later write. The only shame is that Chaucer's ambitious project was never completed, yet what he did complete is certainly enough for us to know what all aspects of life were like in his time, one of the most interesting being - of course - religion and the church.
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