The Reading Room

Character Description in the Prologue: Chaucer’s Challenge and Threat to England’s Religious

That Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales has suffered periods of censorship and banning since its first publication should be of little surprise to anyone who has read any of it. Banned in the latter half of the 19th century in America for its lewd and bawdy content, the text also underwent serious scruples and scribal revisions in the 14th and 15th centuries, partly for the same explicit language and sexual incidents, but also in large part for its unflattering portrayals of religious authority figures. 
Chaucer's honest depiction of the rampant corruption, hypocrisy, and abuses of power by church figures was met with little welcome by the Catholic Church, though the work never quite reached the grand heights of the Vatican’s official Banned Book List. Perhaps this can be attributed to its composition in a vulgar tongue and not Latin. Dante’s De Monarchia, a Latin treatise on monarchy, received attention for its anti-papal authority stance and was in fact placed on the Banned Book List whereas his Divine Comedy, as vulgar poetry, received significantly less backlash at the time and in the centuries following. But equally this might be because Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is not a wholesale condemnation of the Catholic Church and all its religious opinions, but rather a strongly worded and quite hilarious critique of an institution which he cares for and has not yet given up for lost.
His Prologue to the work, which introduces all the pilgrims and sets up the plot of the book—a contest to see who can tell the best story on their pilgrimage to and from Canterbury—reveals this comedic disposition quite readily. Our first religious, the Prioresse, cares far more about carrying herself with courtly manners—“peyned hire to countrefete cheere / Of court, and to been estatlich of manere, / And to ben holden digne of reverence” [she pained herself to counterfeit the customs of court, to be established in good manners, and be held worthy of reverence] (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 139-141)—than in her function as the spiritual head of a convent. To top it all off, she wears a “brooch of gold ful sheene, / On which ther was first write a crowned A, / and after Amor vincit omnia” (160-2). Where one might expect a crucifix, we find another standard of the court, a sentiment of Courtly Love. 
The Monk fares little better. A man of hunting, he rejects the old and timeless things. “By cause that it was old and somdel streit [somewhat strict] / This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace [pass], / and heeld after the newe world the space” (176). The Frere meanwhile “was an esy man to yeve [give] penaunce…in stede of wepynge and preyeres / Men moote yeve silver to the povre freres.” He put this money to good use too, for “he knew the tavernes wel in every toun” (223-233; 240).
Most wretched of the lot though are the Somonour and the Pardoner. The Summoner,is pimply, reeking of garlic and onion, “of [whose] visage children were aferd” (628), who “was a gentil harlot and a kynde; / A bettre felawe sholde men noght fynde. / He wolde suffre for a quart of wyn / A good felawe to have his concubyn / A twelf month, and excuse hym atte fulle” (647-651), who held under his sway “the yonge girles of the diocise, / And knew [their] conseil, and was all [their advisor]” (663-5); The Pardoner, with his thin, long, greasy hair and beardless face, (675-89) who “with feyned flaterye and japes, / made the person and the peple his apes,” selling false relics of pigs’ bones and pillow-cases (700-6); For these gross abusers of ecclesial power Chaucer withheld none of his scorn and mockery.
Our account of the religious so far leaves the audience in little question of Chaucer’s stance; some are worse than others, but all have failed in their calling and taken up false idols before God. Yet one final religious has yet to be dealt with. The Persoun of a Toun is Chaucer’s religious ideal. “Rich of holy thoght and werk” (479), the Parson “this noble ensample to his sheep he [gave], / that first he wroghte, and afterward he taughte…and this figure he added eek therto, / that if gold ruste, what shal iren do? / For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste, / No wonder is a lewed man to ruste” (496-502). Chaucer adds many words of praise besides, but these convey the essence, Chaucer’s response to his more “foul”  religious. Yes, they are human and therefore inevitably flawed, but the office they have taken upon themselves demands a higher accounting, a greater need to keep themselves pure, in order that they may be an example for others, the “gold” to the “iron” of the layfolk.
In an ironic parody of the Monk’s thought, Chaucer wrote in his description of the Monk: “And I seyde his opinion was good. / What sholde he studie and make hymselven wood [crazy], / Upon a book in cloystre alwey to poure, / Or swynken with his handes, and laboure, / as Austyn bit [bid]? How shal the world be served? Lat Austyn have his swynk to hym reserved!” (183-8).
How then shall the world be served if these religious were to try to be true gold? By the service which they ought to give freely and compassionately to their fellow men and women, by the service which the Parson does give, so that “in his techyng discreet and benygne, / to drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse, / by good ensample, this was his bisyness. But it were any persone obstinat, / What so he were, of heigh or lough estat, / Hym wolde he snybben sharply for the nonys [at the once]” (521-3). Where the Prioress, Monk, and Friar care only for the patronage and pastimes of those in “heigh estat” and the Pardoner and Summoner prey on those of “lough estat”, the Parson, unyielding to the powerful, attentive to the poor, treats all alike as a shepherd to his flock, blind to all external circumstance, caring only for the salvation of souls (514). It is for this reason that Chaucer declares “A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys [now is]” (524). This then is Chaucer’s critique, his challenge and his threat to the religious of his days. If they are to take upon themselves authority for the welfare of souls, then they must live up to that calling. Should they fail and abuse their power, however, Chaucer may not be able to damn them to hell, but he can ensure with mocking verse that their pimply, greasy haired, garlic-breath memory endures in infamy.