Canterbury Tales - Downfall of the Church in Chaucer’s General Prologue

Canterbury Tales - Downfall of the Church in Chaucer’s General Prologue

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Canterbury Tales - Downfall of the Church in Chaucer’s General Prologue

Light-hearted yet bitingly satirical, Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to his Canterbury Tales is a commentary on the corruptions of the Church at the time. Chaucer, being of noble estate, retains his witticism in his narrator. The narrator devotes many a line to the vivid portrayals of the Prioress and the Frere. Through the actions of these two members of the clergy, it is seen that the lust for material goods, the need for flaunting one’s estate, and the development of hypocrisy all contribute to the shaking of the Church’s foundations.

Enfolded in the coils of luxury, the Prioress and the Frere can hardly recall their missions as part of the clergy. Is not gluttony evil in the eyes of the Church? Although not allowing any “morsel from hir lippes falle” (Chaucer, l. 128) can be viewed as a sign of “wasting not” in the Prioress, Chaucer’s narrator’s detailed and realistic descriptions of the Prioress’s table manners impress upon one that food and drink is the quintessence of this woman’s faith in the Church. The Frere, too, delights in merry living. Not only does he know the taverns in every town, he also knows “every hostiler and tappestere,/Bet than a lazar or a beggestere” (ll. 240-242). The Frere spends most of his time playing the rote and singing ballads (ll. 236-237); he also showers “faire wives” with gifts such as “knives” and “pinnes” (ll. 233-234). How is it then that the Frere needs to beg? He is the “beste beggere in his hous” (l. 252), and he can coax a “widwe [who] hadde nought a sho” (l. 255) to give him money. Is this not ridiculous when, during love-dayes, the Frere can - like a butterfly breaking out of its cocoon - shed his begging clothes and wear ceremonial gowns as rich and as fine as a maister’s or a pope’s? Contrary to the Church’s belief in not hoarding material goods, the Prioress delights in dressing fashionably in a neat cloak, with coral around her arms, and a gold brooch about her neck (ll. 157-162). As feasting and dressing shrewdly seem to occupy the bulk of these religious’ time, it must be that the Church is now based on hedonism instead of faith and humility!

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Appearance and estate takes on high flight in “The General Prologue”, and the Church’s tenant in humility crumbles to the ground. The prim and proper Prioress, in her bid to imitate the nobility, is affected in her mannerisms. Chaucer pounces on this. He deliberately paints the Prioress’s caricature slowly, relishing in all the silly things she does to appear sophisticated. Chaucer’s narrator uses tongue-in-cheek irony to exaggerate how the Prioress speaks French elegantly, but that “Frenssh of Paris [is] to her unknowe” (l. 126). The narrator also praises the Prioress’s singing, only to add in the next line that she sings through her nose (ll. 122-123)! It is indeed interesting to see the Prioress being more concerned with her superficial display of knowledge and talent than with her duties as a follower of God. Moreover, the Prioress seems to believe that to be dignified equates with “digne of reverence” (l. 141) and that to be overly emotional over injured dogs and mice means she is “so charitable and so pitous” (l. 143). It is true that being kind to animals is expected of Christians; howbeit, the narrator does not mention the helping of humankind, even though the Church exacts heavy taxes on the common folk. In fact, the Frere thinks so highly of his own estate that he despises “to have with sike lazars aquaintaunce” (l. 245). He prides himself on knowing frankelains from all over the country. Is it not ironic that the Frere does not aid those whom he is supposed to help? Furthermore, the Frere is proud to be “the beste beggere in his hous” (l. 252), as though begging is a competition! Like the Prioress who excels at singing hymns, the Frere excels at regurgitating his In principio (l. 256). The narrator further emphasizes the dissipation of traditional religious values by ironically relating how the Frere’s In principio is so moving that he can persuade a poor widow to part with her last penny while his own “purchas was wel better than his rent” (ll. 255-258). Instead of aiding all people inclusively, the Church is now seen as taking advantage of its condescended followers.

“What hypocrites these religious are!” Chaucer’s words seem to shout. It is less than exemplary for nuns to swear, yet the narrator – through the use of punctuation – tells us with glee that the Prioress’s “gretteste ooth was but by sainte Loy!” (l. 120). While the traditional values of the Church does not support secular love, the Prioress – who, of all people, should epitomize the values of Christian love – boldly wears a gold brooch that displays the words, Amor vincit omnia (l. 162). Perhaps certain representatives of the Church wish to incorporate the more popular secular culture into their lives? After all, the Frere is a gossiper who delights in making friends with powerful frankelains. He even weds many “yonge women at his owene cost” (ll. 210-216)! To be sure, the Frere is a popular clergyman, for he is “an esy man to yive penaunce” as long as he is given “a good pitaunce” (ll. 223-224). What happened to the tradition of Christ, who freely aided and forgave all those who wished to be forgiven? It is a bleak picture and the narrator relates every detail matter-of-factly, adding credential to his satire.

Succinctly and humorously, Chaucer’s narrator paints the religious lives of the Prioress and of the Frere. These two religious turn the values of the Church upside down by the actions that they consider appropriate. It is no surprise that the collapse of the Church is embodied in the clergymen’s want of earthly goods, their desire to be above the common people in terms of estate, and their deficiencies at being role models for the Church.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The General Prologue.” The Canterbury Tales. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. 7th ed. 2 vols. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2000. 1: 215-235.
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