In The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer has given a very true and realistic picture of the ecclesiastical characters of his age. He satirizes the corrupt and worldly minded clergies and on the other hand he appreciates the good characters and presents a model picture of him.
The power exerted by a religion is incomparable in its intensity. Though it is a theory yet it is more forcible than any other passion or creed. Its power shapes and affects the life of the people. Every religion aims at reformation and betterment. It affects the whole structure of the society. It promotes a healthy philosophy and moral code. Hence, the importance of religion is distinguished and renowned.
Though in Chaucer’s age, religion had a control over the minds and soul of the people, yet regrettably, its influence was corrupt. The monasteries were promoting corruption, exploiting the innocent folk and were earning money under the disguise of religion. Moralities and ethics were fading. The ecclesiastics had become notorious for their avarice, corruption and dishonesty. They had forgotten their sacred duties and had become degenerated.
In “The Prologue”, Chaucer has drawn some portraits of the clergies of the 14th century England, free from any personal prejudice. These are not exaggerated sketches and they realistically refer to the corruption, and religious and moral degradation that had crept into the ecclesiastical order of the day.
His ironic portraits reveal that Chaucer had some idea of a code of conduct for clergies to follow but he is impartial and realistic and paints both the sides of picture. Through the portraits of pleasure-loving Monk, the wanton Friar, the corrupt Pardoner, he exposes the humour of the typical Church dignitaries. He also gives the portrait of a good Parson. Chaucer admires him because the persons like him were becoming rare in his age.
A brief description of the ecclesiastical characters of “The Prologue” throws much light on Chaucer’s attitude towards religion.
[Prioress] 1. The Prioress is the first ecclesiastical figure in “The Prologue”. She smiles amiably and sings in her nasal tone. Chaucer says ironically that she is aware of the manners of the society and knows how to carry morsel to her mouth. He says:
Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe
That no drope ne fille upon hir brest.
She wears fashionable dress with a golden broach, engraved with the words:
“Amor Vincit Omnia” i.e. “Love conquers everything”.
She truly signifies high-class religious-minded ladies of the 14th century. She is not an ideal Nun and typifies the traits of the contemporary prioress.
[chaucer monk] 2. The Monk is a pleasure-loving fellow.
An outridere, that lovede venerie,
He is fat like a lord, for he leads a relaxed life and passes his time in eating, drinking and merry-making. He is entirely misfit to his profession. He is fond of fine dresses. He wears fur-lined sleeves, gold pins and love-knot.
A love knot in the gretter end there was
He does not like to study the strict rules and discipline of the cloister. He likes hunting and has fine horses and hounds in his stable.
[chaucer Friar] 3. The Friar is a wanton, greedy and corrupt fellow who neglects his duties and does not bother about religion. He is fond of singing, merry-making, drinking and visiting inns and public places. He builds relations with the rich Franklin and worthy women. He is a rogue, seducer of women and scoundrel. He encourages sins by setting an easy solution of apology, misuses his authority and exploits others in terms of their sin. He was also very expert in the art of begging.
For thogh a wydwe hadde noght a sho,
So plesaunt was his In principio
Yet wolde he have a ferthyng, er he wente;
4. The Summoner is a nasty figure. Children are afraid of him.
Of his visage children were aferd.
He loves garlic, red wine and onion. He is a hypocrite who allows people to carry on their sins and forgives them for a small donation to him. He knows the secret of young women and men and exploits them to his own interest.
The yonge girles of the diocise,
And knew hir conseil, and was al hir reed.
[chaucer Pardoner] 5. The Pardoner is a thorough cheat. His bag is full of relics which he sells to housewives and earns a lot.
He hadde a croys of latoun, ful of stones,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.
He deceives the simple folk. He sings merrily, sweetly and attracts the people in this way. Chaucer has a poor opinion of him and ironically calls him “a noble ecclesiastical”.
6. In contrast to these corrupt religious characters, Chaucer gives a pleasant picture of the poor Parson, a shepherd, who protects his flock from the wolf.
A good man was ther of religioun,
And was a povre persoun of a toun;
He preaches sincerely, correctly and tries to practice what he preaches. He leads a simple, virtuous life of devotion and service.
A bettre preest I trowe that nowher noon ys;
[chaucer Clerk] 7. The Clerk is not an ecclesiastical character but he is studying at church. The Clerk is one of the idealized characters. He is well-versed in logic.
A clerk ther was of Oxenford also,
That unto logyk hadde longe ygo.
He does not run after showiness and worldly grandeur. He is a miser and poor. He is quick and meaningful in his talk. He is glad to learn and glad to teach. He is the picture of the poet’s learning.
We can conclude that all the above mentioned details prove Chaucer’s realistic attitude towards religion. He knows that religion lies in the spirit rather than in the observance of form and ceremonies. Undoubtedly, his ecclesiastical character typifies the various degenerated aspects of the Church of the day.