God and Greed in The Canterbury Tales

by THE ALL POWERFUL MODERATOR OF THIS BLOG on December 26, 2012

Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem The Canterbury Tales, presents a compilation of stories told by a variety of characters that are on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury. These tales explore a variety of themes, from romance to chivalry. In particular, Chaucer presents deeply nuanced and complex opinions on religion during the fourteenth century. The author acts as a cultural critic, calling out the Church’s corruption and excess. However, he concedes that when one throws away their worldly desires, they can become both religious and moral. Chaucer lets different characters embody various characteristics of the Church in order to show its contradictory nature, he also employs irony in order to emphasize the Church’s materialistic practices.

In the Prologue of the tales, Chaucer describes a number of characters who are clergy members, yet they reject their monastic vows. Monks are expected to live a life of asceticism, and devote their time to study. However, the Monk in The Canterbury Tales “[has] a very intricate pin made of gold” and sees no reason to “study and drive himself mad” (Chaucer, 11). Chaucer uses the irony of an exorbitant monk to accent the outrageousness of the monk’s characteristics. The Monk’s love of “hunting and riding” (Chaucer, 11) also seem uncharacteristic given his spiritual duties. Monks were bound by papal law to pursue study and enlightenment whilst depriving themselves of worldly pleasures. However, the Monk chooses to ignore this rule and pursue a passion that was often only practiced by the aristocratic and the wealthy. The Monk is not the only character who ignores their spiritual duties. The Friar, for instance, only associates “with the rich and the sellers of food” (Chaucer, 13), as opposed to the poor and the spiritually needy as he is supposed to. The sheer volume of characters who fail to carry out their monastic duties seem to indicate that Chaucer, by characterizing these characters as immoral and materialistic, is passing judgment on the practices of the Church. Chaucer uses characters such as the Monk and the Friar to give insight into a larger hypocrisy he perceives in English culture at the time: the practitioners of the Church are the first ones to have turned away from its doctrine.

Chaucer elaborates upon his critique of the Church’s materialism in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” During the time in which The Canterbury Tales was set, selling indulgences and relics was a common practice. Essentially, church-goers would pay pardoners to relieve them of their sins. The Pardoner goes as far as to openly admit he “preach[es] for no cause but covetousness.” (Chaucer, 343) Ironically, this is the very sin against which he preaches. Chaucer uses this apparent cognitive dissonance to portray the Church as hypocritical and materialistic. However, there is a duality to the Pardoner’s character. Although he preaches merely for profit, the Pardoner still turns his congregants away from the sin of greed. Regardless of how much avarice the Pardoner exhibits through his deception and manipulation, he still performs some good in the world. This characterization suggests that Chaucer respects the preaching itself and only holds the profit made off of it in contempt.

Chaucer finds other redeeming qualities to Church doctrine as well. For example, the Plowman is described as loving “God best with all his heart.” (Chaucer, 27) This stands in stark contrast with the likes of the Friar, who clearly loves money more than God. The Plowman goes on to say he would work “for every poor man, without pay, if it were in his power.” (Chaucer 27) This also creates contrast with the greedy clergy, because the Plowman chooses to be religious solely out of a sense of altruism, and not greed. The Parson is also portrayed as a moral, religious man who “practiced first and preached later” (Chaucer, 25). The passages that refer to these humble and truly empathetic men are devoid of the irony and contradiction that were plentiful when describing the greedy clergy, giving these passages a much less critical and more admiring tone.

In The Canterbury Tales the themes of greed and religion are often associated with one another. However, he never claims that one is the cause the other. Chaucer’s immoral characters should not be interpreted as critiques of Christian theology. His frequent references to “the blessed martyr” dispel the notion that he may take issue with Christian doctrine. Rather, Chaucer’s critique is aimed towards practices such as the selling of relics and indulgences. By contrasting characters such as the Pardoner, who preaches for money, and the Plowman, who helps people for free, Chaucer advocates for faith for the sake of moral behavior, free from the influence of money and wealth.

The fact that these tales are told while on a religious pilgrimage is significant. Chaucer states that the pilgrims go “to Canterbury, to seek the holy, blissful martyr.” (Chaucer, 3) The pilgrimage acts as the frame that connects all of the other smaller stories together. In the same way, it also brings characters from all different classes and backgrounds together. As the Host is introducing the story telling contest, he says “there is no consolation or mirth in riding along the way dumb as a stone.” (Chaucer, 37) Perhaps Chaucer is making a broader statement about the utility of religion: even if religion inspires greed in some and humility in others, in the end it connects people.

Geoffrey Chaucer, in his poem The Canterbury Tales displays two different attitudes towards religion. On one hand, he views it as a unifying force that instills empathy and humility in its most devout followers. However, he also sees the institution of religion as a means to manipulate and promote greed. He illustrates this duality through the use of characterization to make generalizations, as well as irony to highlight certain hypocrisies present in the Christian Church at the time. Throughout history, religion has remained in a morally ambiguous zone. It has been used for acts of horrific evil, and acts of genuine kindness. Ultimately, what defines religion’s moral worth is how one uses it.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Gage Thatcher November 15, 2013 at 8:43 am

Thank you for your outstanding work! I am currently taking notes on it, for a minor-project in high school! Thank you so much! :)

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