The Church was a vast, overbearing force in the 14th Century. It had power over many facets of daily life. The Church’s power was held by a stronghold of tradition, and few were willing to question that. Chaucer speaks out against this authority in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. He was angry with the power the Church held, and how they misused it. He uses the Prioress, Monk and Friar to make a satire out of the autocracy of the Church. While Chaucer may be making an attack on these characters, he never attacks the institution of religion itself.Order now
The attitude of the Prologue is not anti-religious; it merely articulates the injustice the Church was imposing upon its people. The Prioress is a representation of greed and materialism. This contradicts the typical nun, showing Christian charity and selflessness. Her love of fine jewelry is illustrated in line 158 GP, “Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar. ” We also learn she dresses elegantly, has impeccable manners 127 and speaks French 124. When taken together, these traits show the reader how important the finer things in life are to the Prioress.
Her greed is again demonstrated in line 128: “She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle. ” The literal meaning could be taken as “she didn’t spill any food when she ate. ” The hidden meaning could be that she didn’t let any wealth escape her hands. Chaucer does not mention her devotion to God, or her compassion for other humans. What he doesn’t say is just as important as what he does say. When Chaucer doesn’t mention her caring personality, he is trying to show that the members of the Church were cold and unfeeling.
This is one example of how we know Chaucer was angry with the Church’s representatives. The Prioress is an absurd person to represent the church. She lacks the wholesome qualities of a nun, and is engrossed in dressing well and acting courtly. Chaucer has used her to demonstrate that representatives of the church were often insincere and self-centered. The Monk is quite similar, but is less concerned with what other people think. His vice is that he lacks work ethic and solemnity. His description seems closer to a rich playboy than a celibate man of God.
The good-looking 165 Monk was a hunter: “An outridere who loved venerye” 166. This does not fit the profile of a quiet monk. Where we expect to read about a monk who spends long hours copying manuscripts by candle light, we hear about his fine horses in the stable 168, fur on his sleeves 193, and a gold pin that fastens his hood 196. The Monk is also unconcerned with tradition, as seen in line 175: “This ilke Monk leet olde thinges pace. ” He doesn’t want to follow the rules because they are too strict 174.
Nor does he want to study because that might make him crazy 184. The Monk’s careless attitude is a good example of Chaucer’s concern with how indifferent religious figures in reality were. Chaucer contrasts him with other monks, calling them ‘pale as tormented ghosts,’ 205. This monk is described as bright-eyed and healthy 200. The narrator is applauding the Monk for recreating all day long, instead of working diligently. Chaucer is being sarcastic here, and it shows that he is trying to poke fun at the Monk, not at the Christian religion.
The Friar is better at pretending to do his duties than the Monk, but still falls short of being untainted. In the first few lines about the Friar, we learn he is pleasure-seeking, merry, and knows how to flirt 208-211. Similar to the Prioress and Monk, Chaucer does not speak about the Friar’s solemn quest for God. His connections with the wealthy 216 tell us he may have been using his position to benefit himself, instead of the church. If Chaucer saw this happening in reality, he could have been hinting towards it in this literature.
Furthermore, the Friar was licensed to hear confessions 220, and was selling forgiveness to those he could get a good donation out of. He did not care deeply for the suffering, as lines 240-242 tell us: “He knew the taverns wel in every town, And every hostiler and tappestere, Bet than a lazar or a beggestere. ” The Friar is a fraudulent character that uses his title for personal gain, while neglecting the needy. In the example of the Friar, Chaucer is attacking the organization of the Church, without demeaning the Christian religion. We know this because the attack is on the Friar and the Friar alone.
If Chaucer was trying to attack the Christian religion, he would have mentioned how feeble he thought Christian people were, such as those that were going to the Friar to give confessions. Instead, we only find dislike in the Friar’s actions when we read his description. Chaucer’s attitude towards Medieval Christianity is that the people administering Christianity did not deserve to. He condemns the acts of the Church without being anti-religious. Religion was not the problem; it was the people deemed as experts on religion that were corrupt and unworthy.
The Prioress was greedy, the Monk was a playboy and the Friar was a flirt. He uses satire to bring this unfairness to the attention of the common citizen. The domineering Church had a monopoly on religious information because the Bible had not yet been translated into English for mass distribution. Chaucer has used these characters to bring attention to his concern, so that readers everywhere could weigh the issue for themselves. Literature has often been used as a means of critiquing institutions, and this is no exception.