Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ecclesiastical Characters in the Prologue

Of the thirty-one pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales, twelve were attached to religion in some way or other, and the manner in which Chaucer depicis them gives us some idea of the slack condition of many Church officials at the time and the poor opinion which the average man of education had of them. The writings of Prof. G.M. Trevelyan and Prof. G.G. Coulton give a cumulative picture of the failings of the Church which the contemporary writings of Wycliffe, Langland, and Chaucer had made clear.

The bishops of the day were mainly shrewd men of business, quite respectable and hard working, all of them English, owing their position to the joint efforts of King and Pope, but their energies were often devoted to public affairs rather than to the interests of their dioceses. This was no new thing, but Wycliffe spoke and wrote fiercely against the Caesarean clergy. The Clerical law Courts were frequently not fair and just, their officials using their power to inflict severe penalties for refusal of tithe. Chaucer's Archdeacon :
For smale tithes and for smal offringe
He made the peple pitously to singe.
The state of morality, as evidenced, inter alia, by Chaucer's tales, was bad in all classes. Rich and poor alike were immoral, and had to submit to conviction, but the former paid, sometimes regularly, while the latter submitted to penance.
Absentee clergy and the practice of giving the great tithes to an abbot or lay rector, while the vicar had inadequate pay, were of common occurence. Many persons abandoned their ignorant or half-savage peasantry to flock to London or elsewhere as chantry priest.
The ecclesiastical courts were perhaps as powerful as ever, but they were losing their reputation, and often becoming places of extortion. Chaucer comments on the Archdeacon that he was more anxious to extort money from the people than to help them to a godly life.
Many officials of the Church tended to regard sin, not as a wickedness to be cured, but as an opportunity of filling the Church's coffers.
It is interesting to note the reaction of Langland, Wycliffe, and Chaucer to the problem of penance. Langland believed in it when it was supported by genuine penitence; Wycliffe disliked intensely the Church's claim to grant pardon and absolution; while Chaucer simply "recorded what he saw, or what the man in the street saw. So he gibbetted the summoner, who hangs in the sight of all to this day." But the Church courts were no worse than the lay courts, and Wycliffe and Langland and denounced all lawyers as instruments of oppression to the poor. The clergy were also punishers of moral offences and they used these as a means of money-making. Friars especially earned money for their orders by the granting of absolution. Langland and Wycliffe, as well as Chaucer, derided the practices of summoners, pardoners, and friar confessors, who were persecuting blackmailers protected by the law courts.
Dean Milman, in his History of Latin Christianity writes of the remarkable outburst of the English language, and of a serious dissatisfaction with the economic and religious systems, that are manifest during the latter half of the fourteenth century. He writes that 'throughout its institutions, language, sentiment, Teutonism is now holding its first initiatory struggle with Latin Christianity In Chaucer is heard a voice from the Court, from the castle from the City, from universal England...His is a voice of freedom, of more or less covert hostility to the hierarchial system, though more playful and with a poet's genial appreciation of all which was true, healthful and beautiful in the old faith.
The friars at the beginning of the thirteenth century had started a real Church revival, and few men, if any have ever followed the example and teaching of Christ more faithfully than St. Francis of Assisi. But a century and a half had brought a sad change, and from all sides one finds a condemnation so universal as to demand belief. A contemporary poem condemns the greed of the friars:
Guile they know and many a gap;
Full some can with a pound of sape
Get a kirtle and a cape
And somewhat else thereto.
which exactly bears out what Chaucer says of his Friar:
His typet was ay farsed full of knyves
And pynnes, for to yeven yonge wyves.
Another criticism of the friars was made by John Wycliffe in his Fifty Heresies and Errors of Friars (1384).
Chaucer's Hubert the Friar is a man of unscruplous dealings for personal profit in the name of religion. He grants easy absolution from sin in exchange for 'a nice sum' or by sequeezing a farthing out of a destitute widow. And yet this Friar is not an unlikable fellow. He has an almost infectious gift of merriment and musical talents of an admirable kind.
Chaucer tells us that his Friar was well beloved and familiar with franklyns and worthy women, with rich folk and sellers of vitaille and avoided the poor and the sick, "it is not honeste, it may not avaunce."
There was no very great harm in Chaucer's Monk, except, that he was entirely unsuited to his vocation and made no bones about it. He preferred hunting, horses and greyhounds, fur-lined sleeves, gold pins, and love-knots to chapel services, study and strict rules of the cloister. He was fat and flourishing, well-mannered, a man of the world, and well suited to be made an Abbot, with his taste for roast swan. In this portrait, Chaucer's complex irony points out in two directions at once. It satrises the Monk and the growth of monasteries which made such a Monk not only possible but also essential. Yet Chaucer also admires the vitality in the man, the fact that he was a 'manly man' and he began to find extenuating circumstances when he recorded the cavalier tone of the Monk who said: Let Austin have his swink to him reserved. It is significant that the aristocratic sport of hunting to which he is addicted, was forbidden to all monks. He might only fish in preparation for the days of abstinence when meat was forbidden. It is therefore suitable that Chaucer uses a fishing-image to describe the Monk:
Ne that a monk, when he is recchelees,
Is likned til a fissh that is waterless.
A critic observes that the Monk is not the worst offender among the erring clerics of the Canterbury pilgrimage, for at least his laxness and worldly interests do no direct harm to other people, although of course they don't do any good either to his order or to his monastery.
The Pardoner was a thorough-going cheat who played on the credulity of the common people. He had a wallet full of pardons hot from Rome, and his bag of relics earned him more money in a parish in a day than local parson in a month or longer. Chaucer has a poor opinion of the relics, by which he made his living. On the whole he is the most notorious person, a predator and a hanger-on of the Church who is a noble ecclesiast only in the pulpit where his preaching makes him so materially successful. The congregation listens to him spell-bound and when his discourse is at an end, the listeners become so bemused by his eloquence that they give him all their silver.
An equally bad companion of the Pardoner was the Summoner. He was a most unattractive figure, with his red, spotted face which no quicksilver or brimstone, borax, white lead, oil of tartar, or ointment could cure. He loved garlic, onions, leeks, and red wine. His narrow eyes and black eyebrows and close-cropped beard, and his blustering, bullying manner made him the terror of all children—his greatest condemnation. He earned a reputation for learning by means of a few Latin tags, which he spoke best when he was drunk. He frightened simpletons and quiet men, blackmailed young folk in the diocese, and, in return for a quart of wine, would tolerate the keeping of a mistress by a good fellow for twelve months. If he was all typical of his class, no wonder that the Church was unpopular.
The Pardoner and the Summoner, an unattractive pair, afflicted with spiritual sterility, were highly despicable as individuals, but institutionally they had the power of summoning and in many cases of absolving or pardoning lay folk. On a small scale they seem to set out the summoning of all mankind to judgement on the Last Day. This is what the Church was doing even when the individual members of the institution abandoned all interest in the spiritual obligations of their calling. Both men are shown to us as sick men, hysterical and a little mad, and this we should interpret in both the spiritual and physical senses. And yet these members of the itinerant clergy were often popular because they brought some freshness into village life; one sermon could be repeated in a dozen scattered churches and mis-demeanours of which they were told would be forgotten by the time they paid their next visit.
Significantly the Summoner and the Pardoner are the last two of the pilgrims to be described in the Prologue, excepting the poet himself and the Host, and being birds of a feather they ride together. Both held offices which lent themselves to whole-sale, abuse, the one by accepting bribes from people whom he was meant to summon to appear in an ecclesiastical court, the other by allowing people to do penance and thus obtain pardon from their sins by paying him money, as well as by selling them any old rubbish claimed to be genuine sacred relics of the saints or apostles. Chaucer does not have to give many details of the frauds practised by them because his con­temporaries knew them only too well.
As a pleasant contrast to the profiteering clerics, the Friar, Monk. Pardoner, and Summoner—four seemingly typical men of various aspects of Church life—we have Chaucer's delightful picture of the faithful clergy.
The foremost among the really noble eccelsiasts was the Poor Parson, a shepherd who protected his flock from the wolf and was not a hireling. He taught and practised the gospel, was sympathetic to the simple, severe with the stubborn, endeavouring to draw men to goodness by fairness and good example. He was self-effacing, dutiful and altruistic. He needed the tithes, the tax of one-tenth upon the produce of the faithful in the parish, but was not prepared to submit the defaulters to the extreme penalties if, perhaps through poverty, they were amiss. However, with stubborn and obstinae sinners, he was impatient : "Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys " But even this was really a virtue in disguise. Everything he did was 'to drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse'.
It is obvious that in his character of the Parson Chaucer created a figure that deserves the reader's fullest sympathy. He is a man of material poverty but his spiritual wealth is great. He is indeed a Christian like figure, endowed with numerous virtues. He is devout, diligent, patient, noble, clean, holy and discreet and his chief delight is in teaching 'Cristes loore and his apostles twelve'.
The Parson was one of the twin pillars of society, the other being the secular Plowman who laboriously tilled the earth and helped his neighbour. But not all in the flock were so good. From the instruction books of the period we reach the conclusion that many labourers were unaware of the words of the main prayers, of the meaning of the commandments or even of the dictates of the moral law. It is of topical interest to note that, while the parson was lenient in the matter of tithe, the Plowman always paid his regularly. When he had completed the strenuous labours on his lord's demesne and on his own allotment, he was then ready to thresh or dig for ditch for any other poor man, without hire—for Christ's sake. As a sign of his poverty we are told that he rode, in a tabard, and on a mare—a sign of, great humility.
The Plowman of Chaucer is perhaps in rights and duties, a typical peasant. We may hope that his sterling qualities do not make him in any way unique in medieval life. What his rights amounted to must have varied from district to district, and we must not assume that all Abbots were as stern as the Abbot of Burton, who told his serfs that they owned "nothing of their own save their bullies".
The Plowman's portrait, parallel to the Parson's is in something of an appeal for good honest toil and the contentment to be derived from it:
A trewe synkere and a good was he,
Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.
The Oxford Clerk was another good man of sacred life. He had devoted himself to the serious study of logic and preferred to have at his 'baddes heed' twenty volumes of Aristotle to any "gay sautrie" or rich clothing. His outer coat was threadbare, for he was extremely poor—even his horse was as " is a rake". Whatever he received from his benefactors (whom he fittingly repaid by heartfelt prayers for their souls), he spent on books and learning. He never displayed unseemly levity in behaviour ; he did not speak one word more than necessary, and when he did speak, he was brief, to the point and always noble in his meanings.
It has been remarked that Chaucer's final line of description for his scholar—"And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche" —epitomises the Clerk for us today” and perhaps provides us with a brief summing-up of what all good teaching has meant in the past and will mean in years to come. Chaucer himself must have had the privilege of coming in contact with such a teacher as the Clerk of Oxford, for the poet's learning reflects instruction that was both sound and enthusiastic.
The first of the clerical pilgrims to whom the Prologue introduces us is the Prioress. This good lady is sometimes condemned outright as worldly, ambitious, and insensitive to the sufferings of others. But as it has been pointed out in the chapter on women characters, Madam Eglentine (so has she been called) was a fine virtuous woman, who had concern for small animals in an age when cruelty was all too common. She was a conscientious nun who was also a lady, plainly over-anxious to do the right thing and for this she was prepared to err on the right side rather than offend against good manners or be false to her tender heart.
A very notable point in the portrayal of Chaucer's ecclesiastical characters is that the good ones are dull and drab; they are not so alive and interesting as the bad ones. This indicates that Chaucer was much more at home among real people who had their share of faults and failings which he enjoyed describing with all the artistic means at his command. Even in general life we notice that wicked people have always made more of a splash and hit the headlines more dramatically than the good ones. People like the poor Parson and oxford clerk are idealised, unsubstantial figures whom we find without the warmth and vitality of the Friar and the Pardoner. Likewise, the Wife of Bath is a much more flesh and blood character than the Prioress.
To conclude, the profiteering clerics in the Prologue are easygoing worldings who lack spirit of sacrifice, respect for authority, acceptance of discipline, and at least a modicum of otherworldliness. The principal characteristics of Chaucer's monk, friar, pardoner and summoner are greedy self-seeking, contempt for authority, evasion of discipline self-imposed in the vows of their orders, and a thorough-going worldliness, which not only sought the good things of life, but sought them at the expense of the needy.
The Church in Chaucer's time was therefore an object of satire. This great organisation, with its wealth, its power, and its conservative traditions, might have been expected to offer a safeguard against social decay but it was itself a fruitful breeding-ground for the very things which were disorganising feudal society.
French says that no one would pretend that every fourteenth century churchman was so thoroughly depraved as Chaucer's Pardoner, or that the poet's other pictures of servants of the Church were entirely without exaggeration. If we make some allowance, however, for the licence which must be permitted every satirist, we can accept his portraits as a just representation of the corruption of the Church of Chirst in the fourteenth-century England. Every point which he makes is amply supported by evidence from other sources. Other writers of the age, both obscure and famous, have the same story to tell, the same departures from ancient ideals to lament. Official documents record the attempts made, from time to time, to curb the abuses which were bringing the Church into contempt and weakening the influence of religion upon men's lives. The high dignitaries of the Church itself have left us their testimony to the encroaching spirit of worldliness, which some of them resisted manfully,——while others made it the guiding force of their own careers. No age in the history of the Church has been without its greed and worldliness ; but there is abundant evidence that the late fourteenth century furnished a spectacle of general corruption, from top to bottom of the institution which has seldom been equalled.

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