Friday 28 June 2019

Ecclesiastical Characters in General Prologue to Canterbury Tales

Ecclesiastical Characters in General Prologue to Canterbury Tales
During Chaucer’s age, the religious condition of the society was deteriorated and presented a distorted image of the society and the religion because degeneration, corruption, Epicureanism, profligacy, dissipation and debauchery were very common and had become the prominent features of the church. Even some orders of Friar and some monasteries had become source of corruption.
The writers like Gower, Wycliff and Langland came forward and pointed out their moral indignation over this shocking state of their day. Unlike his contemporaries, Chaucer is not bitter cynic or sceptic. He simply laughs at the abuses of the church just as a father implicitly denounces the follies of his children.
In “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”, he has painted different religious characters which are the representatives of eight main groups of society. But except the Parson and the clerk no one is really devout and religious in his attitude towards religion. Now let’s discuss how Chaucer depicts these characters.
The Prioress is one of the ecclesiastical characters. Chaucer has presented the Prioress in an ironic way. She is called “Madam Eglantine” which was a popular name for the romantic heroines in Chaucer’s time. Her table manners clearly show that she is brought up in an environment far away from the monastic life.
“Hir over-lippe wiped she so clene
That in hir coppe ther was no ferthyng sene
Of Greece, when she drunken hadde hir draughte.”
The nuns were prohibited from keeping pet dogs but the Prioress depicted by Chaucer has pet dogs. She spends lavishly on the dogs. Love in her motto is “A more vincit omni” which means love conquers all. But for this lady of the world, it means not divine love but profane courtly love. We can say that she is a courtly lady wearing a nun’s mask.
Second ecclesiastical character is of the Monk. Like the Prioress, he does not follow the monastic rules. He is secular minded and has the opinion that he has been created to serve God not to serve men.
Apparently Chaucer favours him and says, “And I said, his opinion was good”, but in reality he wants to condemn his opinion. In Chaucer’s age, the monks were not allowed hunting but this Monk is fond of hunting and overlooks all objections raised against hunting.
“He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen,
That seith that hunters ben nat hooly men,
Ne that a monk, when he is recchelees,
Is linked til a fissh that is waterless.”
Of course, the Monk is not what he should be; rather he is what he should not be.
Third ecclesiastical character is of the Friar who is a rogue and a scoundrel. He entices women for sexual pleasure. He has no sympathy for the people of lower classes. On love-days, he acts as an arbitrator and yields his influence over the judges.
“In love-days ther koude he muchel help,
For there he was not lyk a cloysterer
With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler,
But he was lyk a maister or a pope.”
In short, the manners of the Friar make him an actual Friar of the 14th century England. The character sketch of the Friar has touches of only mild satire.
Fourth character is of the Summoner who is a minor official of the church. He like others is notorious for annoying and harassing the poor and the ignorant. For a quarter of wine, he allows a good fellow to keep a concubine for a year and completely excuses him. He looks a buffoon by wearing a garland and carrying a huge cake like a buckler.
“A garland hadde he set upon his heed
As great as it were for an ale-stake
A bokeleer hadde he maad hym of a cake.”
We can say that the Summoner has a repulsive and loathsome appearance. His visible bestiality hides the hideousness of his soul.
Fifth character is of the Pardoner who sings well his love-ditties in his girlish voice. He has nothing to do with the religion and preaches for money. He has no concern for the reformation of depraved souls who need absolution and redemption. He sells his pardons even to the wicked for a handful of silver.
“But with these relikes, when that he fond
A povre person dwellynge upon land,
Upon a day he gat hym moore moneye
Than that the person gat in monthes tweye.”
Chaucer ironically calls the Pardoner “A noble ecclesiastic.
Sixth character is of the Parson. He is a poor Parson with practical attitude. He never buys or sells any ecclesiastical benefice. He has never excommunicated those who cannot pay tithe. Rather, he gives his poor parishioners out of the offerings in the church and also of his own personal things.
“But rather wolde he yeven, out of doute
Unto his povre parisshens aboute
Of his offryng and eek of his substaunce.”
He is a true ecclesiastic figure and wins our hearts for his qualities.
Another religious and idealized character is of the Clerk. He is well-versed in logic. He is without any type of benefice from the church. He has a passion and that is to learn with pleasure and teach with pleasure.
“Sownynge in moral virtue was his speche
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.”
To sum up, we can say that in his approach towards the depiction of these ecclesiastical characters, Chaucer is neither an anti-catholic, nor a protestant who wants to exhibit his zeal for reformation. If he has painted the pictures of the ecclesiastical character showing them with their corruption, he has also brought before us the portraits of the poor Parson and the Clerk who possess true Christian virtues. It clearly shows that Chaucer’s attitude is of a tolerant. Unlike his contemporaries like Gower and Langland, he is in contrast to the cynicism and indignation shown in their writings. We fully agree with the remarks of Lowes who says: “Long before Balzac, Chaucer conceived and established the human comedy.”

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