Below you’ll find a fantastic essay written by my high school daughter for her Honors English class. She has a thing for superheroes, so we’re just calling her Spiderkid. Yes, she got an A on the essay! (Sorry, mom bragging moment there. Ok, I’m not really sorry.)
Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic long narrative poem written in the Middle Ages satirizes in order to comment on the issues of his day — which Spiderkid rightly points out haven’t changed as much as we might like. You don’t have to have read The Canterbury Tales in order to follow this short essay — enjoy!
The Canterbury Tales Essay
From time to time, everybody is hypocritical- especially people in a position of power; leaders can manipulate in order to get what they want. This has occurred at least since the Middle Ages, which we know because of the poem The Canterbury Tales. After holding many jobs, both religious and political, including serving as page, Geoffrey Chaucer exposed the hypocrisy and corruption common to people in powerful positions by satirizing their behaviors in his poem, The Canterbury Tales. Three characters that I believe are Chaucer’s best examples of hypocrisy and corruption are the Prioress, the Monk, and the Pardoner.
As the supervisor of a convent, the Prioress is supposed to be an ideal example of Jesus Christ living in the world; yet instead she becomes an ideal example of the corruption in the Church at the time. As a nun, she took vows of poverty and chastity: to not be of the world, but in it, living for Christ. The Prioress ignores these vows, especially of poverty. She loves food, “and never from her lips [lets] a morsel fall” (128). In this manner, she not only fails to live in poverty, but she also commits the sin of gluttony and selfishness. She “had some little dogs, too, that she fed on roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread” (146-7). Breaking the vows of poverty, she owns dogs, and then even goes on to feed them fine food, when there were many common people that were starving and could not even get a little bite to eat. But even this is not the worst part. The Prioress goes against everything that a nun is supposed to be by becoming of the world. Instead of spending her time praying and doing other things for God, she took the name of Madam Eglantine, “and fair spoke her French, and fluently,” (124). She uses a title that no nun would use: madam. She learns to speak French, which was both the language of the court at the time and the language that all the proper ladies conversed in. She attempts to be worldly while still being a nun, and sets a poor example, not only for the other nuns in the convent that she supervises, but also for the commoners around her. She shows disregard for Church rules and proves that she faces no negative consequences for breaking these rules by her continued behavior. She pretends that she is not doing anything wrong and is behaving as all nuns are supposed to behave. Instead of being an ideal example of the living Christ in the world, she acts of the world. The Prioress is a symbol of the corruption of religious figures throughout the Church.
Another character that illustrates very clearly the hypocrisy and corruption of the Church in the Middle Ages is the Monk. The Monk is another case of someone who broke Church rules and never got punished for it, showing how corrupt the Church truly was. Like the Prioress, the Monk also took vows of poverty and chastity, where he could own nothing and was to pray, serving Christ in the world. The Monk then goes against all of this, in some very extreme ways. Monks in the Middle Ages would wear very simple clothing and sometimes rags, as a sign of how devoted they were to God and how humble they were. This lack of fancy clothing also evidenced they were living in poverty. However, Chaucer’s Monk wore clothes, “with fur of grey, the finest in the land” (194). He also “[has] of good wrought gold a curious pin” (196). This clothing is obviously not rags nor clothes that show poverty and humbleness. The Monk continues further along this path than the Prioress ever gets; he disobeys the rules set for the monks, while acknowledging that he does not care for these rules. Chaucer writes, the Monk “cared not for that text a clean-plucked hen which holds that hunters are not holy men” (177-8). Even though the Monk knows that he is not allowed to hunt, he does it anyway, not caring about the rule or taking time to understand why the rule exists. He does not bother to follow the rules, in fact, he cannot believe that he should have to do what is said in the rules: “Or yet go labour with his hands and swink and sweat, as Austin bids? How should the rules be served?” (185-6). The Monk’s actions, conjoined with the Prioress’, show how bad the corruption in the Church got at that time. Religious people were breaking their vows and showing disrespect for the given rules and expectations. Not only were rules being broken, but there was also nothing being done to stop those who are breaking the rules and keep their poor example from spreading to others in the monasteries and convents.
Finally, the Pardoner, one of the most disgusting and vile characters in The Canterbury Tales, shows hypocrisy and corruption in the Church in an even more destructive way than the Prioress and the Monk. While they broke rules and vows pertaining to only their behavior as religious figures, the Pardoner takes it a step further by lying to and cheating the common people. He claimed to others to “[have] a piece of the very sail that good Saint Peter had” (696-7). Not only did he know this to be completely untrue, but when he also “came upon some simple parson, then this paragon in that one day more money stood to gain than the poor dupe in two months could attain” (702-704). He cheats the innocent believers out of a very large amount of the money they have worked hard to obtain so that they can support their families! But this is not the end of the Pardoner’s grievous behavior, “for or well he knew that when that song was sung, then might he preach, and all with polished tongue. To win some silver, as he right well could; therefore he sang so merrily and so loud.” (711-4). He preaches to these people, with the same message, time and time again, just because he knows that “his wallet laid before him in his lap, stuffed full of pardons brought from Rome all hot.” (686-7). He makes the congregation feel guilty for their sins, not so they will repent and be reconciled to God, but so they will pay him for absolutions to pardon themselves and pave their way to Heaven. Indeed, the Pardoner is a truly evil character; cheating the innocent and true believers for his own selfish benefit. The Pardoner is a superior example of the corruption and hypocrisy in the Church at the time. He beguiles the innocent of his parish, and then continues by preaching about greed while not taking a look at his own self and addressing his own selfishness and greediness.
The Prioress, Monk, and Pardoner provide many examples of the corruption and hypocrisy that Chaucer saw during his lifetime. Bravely, he brilliantly wrote about what he saw, using satire to convey his message, even though he risked exile or being put to death. He revealed the corruption of religious figures in the Church, who openly defied rules and expectations without consequence in his Monk and Prioress. Chaucer displayed the corruption of the Church in the Pardoner, his purported religious artifacts and the absolutions he sold. All three display a level of corruption and hypocrisy that is less seen in today’s society, but is not impossible to imagine. However, Geoffrey Chaucer has showed us that, where corruption and hypocrisy exist, it only takes a writer with a brave heart and a clever pen to expose to the world what is happening.
where corruption and hypocrisy exist, it only takes a writer with a brave heart and a clever pen to expose to the world what is happening
I agree with her conclusion — and it’s a call to action for all writers, isn’t it? What do you think?