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In 1381, John Wycliffe led a group of people disenchanted with the Catholic Church called the Lollards in an early Protestant movement. In this movement, he attacked the sale of indulgences, pilgrimages, the excessive class hierarchy in the Church, and the low moral and intellectual standards of ordained priests. Although his movement in essence failed, it gave way to future movements by figures such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and even Henry VIII. It also influenced literature such as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales themselves are an account of pilgrimage filled with the profane corruption that Wycliffe and others opposed. Through The Canterbury Tales, and in particular the General Prologue, Chaucer uses both the physical and personal traits of the characters, and especially their deficiencies, to support Wycliffe’s ideas regarding the corruption of the Catholic Church and to encourage future Protestant efforts.
One of Chaucer’s and the Protestants’ biggest contentions with the Catholic Church was the sale of pardons and indulgences. The pardons excused people from sins on earth and the indulgences paid off some of the time they would have been required to spend post-mortem in purgatory. The Pardoner, the obvious reference to the corrupt and sacrilegious notion of selling redemption, is made into a disgusting character in addition to his sordid occupation. He is described as having hair “yelow as wex (677)” that droops onto his shoulders in stringy clumps. His face is shaven and smooth, and he is likened to “a gelding or a mare (693),” a subtle allusion to his effeminacy. His rather repulsive exterior is an accurate representation of the immorality that lies beneath his surface. The Pardoner would stoop to anything to make money. He sang loudly “to winne silver, as ful wel coude (715)” and sold counterfeit religious relics to innocent people. These depravities further Chaucer’s slander of the Pardoner himself and pardons in general. Portraying him as a very successful pardoner contrasts with his scummy appearance, and the two depict the treachery that blasphemy can affect on one’s life – an obvious refute to the benefits of pardons.
Another purveyor of pardons, though not as overtly, is the Friar. In his representation of the Friar, Chaucer states that he would quickly give penance to his flock by insinuating that they would earn themselves favor in the next life if they showed charity to “poor freres (232)” in this life. Through his insinuation and its accompanying guarantee of a degree of exoneration, the friar manages to wheedle money out of unsuspecting Catholics. His theory was “Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce. For unto a povre ordre for to yive, Is signe that a man is wel yshryve (224-226).” In this case, he chose financial gain over the sacred duties he was sworn to as a member of the Church. Through this choice, Chaucer pokes fun at members of the clergy for their use of their position to further their own economic gain. Furthering that statement, the friar, although he technically was forced to beg for his daily bread, is dressed in attire of high quality, belying his status. “For ther he was nat lyk a cloistered, With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler, But he was lyk a maister or a pope. Of double worstede was his semycope, That rounded as a belle out of the presse (261-265).” The Friar, while a religious figure, obviously does not take the Biblical doctrines to heart.
Though the Summoner is not a member of the clergy as is the Friar, he also exploited religious principles to suit his own needs. He terrorized random people he encountered with a summons to the ecclesiastical Church, and “of cursyng oghte ech gilty man him drede, For curs wol slee right as assoillyng savith (662-3).” He wielded this power as a sword, although few blows could be returned, as is evidenced by the “bokeleer he maad hym of a cake (670).” Chaucer uses the Summoner as a type of allegory for the fear that Catholics felt at the hands of the clergy and lay people and as another reference to the corruptness associated with the Church. He is a strong contrast to early Renaissance ideas about the value of human life. In fact, he used his concubine in trade for merely a “quart of win (651),” quite obviously viewing people, and especially lower class people, as a commodity. In this, the Summoner mirrors the Catholic Church as a whole in its use of people as goods to be dealt with in whichever way was most suitable. But his corrupt use of the power vested in him in the Catholic Church is not the end of the Summoner’s flaws. He is described as red and pimply with boils enveloping his entire face, boils so deeply entrenched in his face that no ointment can rid him of them. He has black, scabby brows resting on narrow, lecherous eyes and a scraggly beard, hairless in places. His breath reeks of garlic, onion and leeks and his pores seep out alcohol. His rather repulsive appearance, and especially his skin problems, show that as a result of the corruption of his occupation, he is seemingly rotting from the inside. This display and his refusal to speak anything but Latin when he is drunk seems to be an allegory for the ridiculousness of the Church practices and their eventually destructive end.
Chaucer portrays most of the religious figures in this tale as having the underlying and consuming drive for financial success. In contrast to the statutes of the order of monks, our Monk owns property and prides himself on the finer things. One would imagine that the monks of the time were devoted to helping and educating those around them and working as hard as they could to attain the further goals of the Catholic Church as a whole. In contrast, the Monk disdains menial labor and prefers hunting and acquiring wealth to doing anything to benefit society. He shows the extravagance present in even the meanest branch of the Church. He is said to be a monk, but his dress of fine gray fur and puffy sleeves, his body and his property all tell him to be a lord. “He was a lord ful fat and in good point (200).” His abundance of horseflesh is nothing but the best and he uses a bridle that “men myghte … here, Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere, And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle (169-171).” By making the bridle metal and of high quality, Chaucer is again likening him to a lord, and the reference to its sounding like “the chapel belle” shows that the Monk’s loyalties revolve more around his horses than his Church. He represents the excess and personal gain present in the branches of the Catholic Church.
As the Monk is likened to a lord, the Prioress tries to be seen as a lady. Her manners are beyond reproach, though almost meticulous to a fault; they reveal the effort behind them. She “peyned hire to countrefete cheere, Of court (139-140).” She sings beautifully, emulating one of the qualities that would have been well looked upon by higher classes. She is educated in French, as would be most ladies, but her education is from “the scole of stratford atte bowe, For frenssh of parys was to hire unknowe (125-126).” Through these attempts to “better” herself, Chaucer is commenting on the clergy’s quest for greater stature rather than greater faith or piety. However, despite these attempts, the Prioress fails in two ways. The first is something that no measure of training could change and that is her “fair ferhee: it was almost a spanne brood (154-155).” The broad and low forehead is an unmistakable sign of a lower class. The other is her true ruthlessness. Although she pretends to be affronted by even the merest spilling of blood by even the most paltry animal, she feeds flesh to her dogs. No amount of schooling can completely erase baser human instincts. Her base instincts are Chaucer’s way of deflating the infallibility of the Catholic clergy and bringing them down to a human level.
Though there are other characters in the General Prologue that address the corrupting influence of the Catholic Church and the support of Wycliffe’s ideas, there are more significant inferences to be taken from the affirmative position of characters. It is of note that the characters involved in the Catholic system are the ones corrupted while men of faith that have remained outside the system remain pure.
Although technically a man of God, the Parson is a man of the people. In contrast to the Friar’s position on absolution, the Parson pardons people of their sins because he feels strongly that their souls deserve it. He chooses his faith over money. “He sette nat his benefice to hyre, And leet his sheep encombred in the myre (509-510).” He is as well if not better educated than the other characters in the Tale, but he uses that power for good. He is poor, but he would rather give of his own money, than excommunicate one who would not tithe. He chooses to set a good example, rather than criticize people for the poor behavior just like his own. He thought, “if gold ruste, what shal iren do? For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, No wonder is a lewed man to ruste; And shame it is, if a prest take keep, A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep. Wel oghte a preest ensample for to yive, By his clennesse, how that his sheep sholde lyve (502-508).” The piety of the Parson, a non-ordained priest, shows the purity that lies in religion outside the confines of the crooked Catholic institution. He is Chaucer’s ideal in a Protestant world; holy, yet not holier-than-thou, giving, responsible and moral. Through the Parson, Chaucer encourages readers to seek to better their souls, not their pocketbooks.
The other moral fringe character is the Clerk. The Clerk was denied a bid from a parish and secular employment (293-294). The implied reason for that is that the Church is not interested in moral men. He was poor, which seems to be a Chaucerian statement of purity, and the little money that he did obtain he spent on books and learning instead of showy property. He voluntarily prayed and sought to better himself, not through the Church, but through his own mind. The Clerk is an antithesis to the pompous and ignorant clergy members. Through the Clerk, Chaucer is illustrating that one can reach higher intellectual and moral levels through introversion and thought.
Through all these characters, Chaucer shows the do’s and do not’s of religious life. He criticizes the current institution of the Catholic Church and provides better examples of what moral purity is. Echoing many of the ideas of Wycliffe and his followers, Chaucer calls for reform in the commerciality of religion. In his description of the Webbe et al, he says “goon to vigilies all bifore, And have a mantel realities ybore (379-380).” Through this line he is censuring the practice of going to mass for the purpose of showing off one’s wealth or success as opposed to for the glory of serving God. Chaucer advocates the simplifying of religion, reverting to simple clergy, with individual education of the Bible.
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