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The Canterbury Tales

Main Ideas

In The Canterbury Tales, do religious leaders help or hurt society?

Main Ideas In The Canterbury Tales, do religious leaders help or hurt society?

Religious leaders in The Canterbury Tales are primarily depicted as frauds who maintain secular interests at the expense of their religious duties. They spend the bulk of their time and attention on activities that have nothing to do with, and sometimes undermine, their religious obligations. The Summoner and Pardoner sing the ribald song “Come hither, love, to me” together, suggesting that they may not be taking their vows of chastity seriously. The Monk spends much of his time hunting, defying both the rules of his monastery, which he dismisses as “old and somewhat strict,” and scripture. Most religious characters are also wealthy, violating their vows of poverty. Chaucer notes in particular the well-fed Prioress and her elegant clothing, implying that she spends money meant for the poor on herself. He also notes the meat she feeds her dogs, making the implication that they eat better than her parishioners do. These religious leaders spend their money, time, and attention on worldly pursuits, ignoring the explicit purposes of their professions.

Chaucer also portrays religious leaders as parasitical, playing off the spiritual fears of their parishioners to cheat them both financially and spiritually. Many of the clerical pilgrims profit off of the people they are supposed to be serving. The Pardoner, for example, sells promises of forgiveness in the afterlife, turning the sacred idea of forgiveness into a capitalist endeavor. He also sells counterfeit relics—items believed to have belonged to saints that are desired for supposed healing or protective properties—essentially profiting from others’ illnesses and misfortunes by giving false hope. Likewise, the Friar, rather than listening to people’s confessions and offering forgiveness, suggests his parishioners “may give silver to the poor friars” to buy forgiveness; he exploits people instead of caring for them. He especially exploits female parishioners, saying that he is “very well beloved and familiar” among them and implying he uses his religious position to have sex with lots of women. The Prioress also falls into this category by telling a violent anti-Semitic tale designed to spark fear and religious fervor in her congregants. This fearmongering serves as a distraction from her misuse of her position by creating a societal scapegoat.

Despite the fraudulent actions of most religious leaders, Chaucer’s depiction of the honest and caring Parson suggests that his critique lies with the church hierarchy and not with religion or priesthood themselves. Whereas other religious characters ignore spiritual duties for material pleasures, the Parson puts his spiritual work first. He actively looks after his parishioners’ interests at the expense of his own. Rather than cheating his parishioners, he impoverishes himself to help people who are in need. He speaks out against wrongdoing regardless of whether the wrongdoer is rich or poor, jeopardizing his income in order to maintain his religious responsibilities. Furthermore, when given the chance to tell a story, the Parson preaches instead, demonstrating again his commitment to his faith and the spiritual wellbeing of those around him. Notably, the Parson holds a lower rank in the church than the other clerical pilgrims. In this way, the Parson acts not only as a critique of his peers but also of the church hierarchy. The wealth and bureaucracy of the church appears to breed hypocrisy, in contrast to this individual priest whose sincerity and good heart offers true comfort to others.