I recently posted about various tales within The Canterbury Tales — tales dealing primarily with cuckolding and courtly love. That post, along with this post, are incomplete seeing as how I have not finished all the tales. This post will deal with the tales I have read that were told by the clergy: The Friar’s Tale, the Summoner’s Tale, and the Pardoner’s Tale. I have only scratched the surface with this particular category as I am leaving out important clergy members such as the Monk and the Nun. Nevertheless, we can certainly achieve the goal that is the title of this little proclamation.
As mentioned in my previous post, The Canterbury Tales were written at a time when Catholicism was the main form of Christianity and the only form in Europe. The Wycliffe Bible, one of the first English Bibles, would not have been popular until the 15th century, and Luther’s nailing of his ninety-five theses was not to take place for another hundred years plus. The layman was left with little avenue but to learn Latin or accept what his church leaders told him his Bible said. Indeed, man is evil, and it should be no surprise that evil men used this advantage for monetary gains. Chaucer, in my opinion, attacks this very thing with the classic literary technique of satire.
Before I go further, I must do some disclaiming. For I am not the protestant that throws a blanket over all Catholics damning them for being such. If it is true (and certainly it is) that we often make that narrow road too broad, the converse must also be true that we can (and sometimes do) make it too narrow. The beautiful thing of the road is that it is the width it is, and when we who are taking it arrive at the end of it, no longer will it matter so much whether we were Protestant or Catholic, Baptist or Methodist, Jew or Greek. If we choose to look back we may notice far more similarities than differences. Of course, no one will desire to look back for we will be viewing the magnificent light of the Sun that never ceases to give off light — a Sun so bright and awe-inspiring that each and every day begins with a new brightness, and we will graciously and finally be granted the ability to not only gaze into such a Light but embrace it as our own.
In any case, I being Reformed do find laughing at Catholics a rather easy thing to do. For unless the Apocrypha has some hidden truth in it that I am unaware of, I remain steadfast in my conviction that any Catholic cannot remain a Catholic after reading the Bible. That is unless they cannot read or they are very poor interpreters of what they do read in which case, we are no longer talking logically, and I can finally interpret Philippians 4:13 to apply to my current struggles I am having on Mario Kart.
The General Prologue
Chaucer’s Tales start with a description of each pilgrim, and it is necessary that we see just how he portrayed his clergymen. We begin with the Monk. The Monk is said to be “fair for the maistre” — a fine figure of a man. As Chaucer, or, I should say, our narrator, commonly does, he praises his pilgrims all the while pointing out their poor qualities. The Monk loves to hunt which is fitting as he is a stout individual. However, the problem arises that he is a monk, an occupation that is perhaps not fitting for him as the monastic laws prohibited hunting and leaving one’s cloister. This monk did both. In summation, the particular Monk going on this journey was the type of monk that like doing his own thing and “gaf nat of that text (the law) a pulled hen.”
The Nun is another interesting character who is made fun of for other reasons. This nun was known for singing through her nose, being a sloppy eater and a poor speaker of French. The Parson, on the other hand, escapes much scrutiny as he is praised for giving up his good for the poor of his parish. In contrast, our Friar is somewhat of a sleeze bag who sleeps around, collects money for penance and does not associate with the poor. His antagonist is the Summoner who is described as being so unattractive that he scares the children, and, alas, there is “Ne oynement that would clens and byte / that him might helpen of his whelkes white / ne of the knobbes sittying on his cheekes.” Perhaps he is not totally lost, however, as he loves onions, garlic and strong, red wine which leads to him speaking in Latin phrases. Our most wicked clergyman is the Pardoner. Though “of his craft fro Berwyk unto Ware / Ne was ther such another pardoner,” the narrator explains that he had many false artifacts that he would claim were important items that needed to be purchased for the absolution of sin. For example, he had many pig bones that he would flaunt as the bones of saints. As wicked as this is, Chaucer reminds us with thick sarcasm that though “he made the parson and the poeple his apes… he was in church a noble ecclesiaste.”
The Friar vs. The Summoner
Much like the Miller and the Reeve have their own war with their tales, the Friar and Summoner engage in the battle of narrative. It is somewhat confusing as the Friar tells a tale about a summoner and the Summoner tells a Tale concerning a friar (displaying in beauty, the story within a story convention). The Friar tells his tale first about a summoner who is on his way to do some summoning only to meet a handsome young man on the way who happens to be the Devil. The Devil tells this summoner plainly enough who he is, but the summoner is not paying attention and decides to engage in business with the Devil. They meet a man with a cart that is stuck in the mud who exclaims “the devyl have al, bothe cart and hors and hay!” The Devil does not take the cart, however, as he displays that this man does mean what he wishes for, and we read that he did not once his cart is out of the mud. They then meet an old woman, and the summoner goes to work explaining that unless she pays him a sum, he will take her to court. She explains her ailment — that she has “ben seek, and that ful many a day.” The summoner continues to badger her despite her explanation claiming she cheated on her husband, a claim she refutes saying, “unto the devel, rough and blak of hiewe, / Give I thy body and the panne also.” And we immediately know she meant it for the Devil himself takes the summoner to hell.
This little tale enrages our Summoner a bit as we leave the narrative of the tale and enter back into the narrative of the broader Tales. He refutes this story with one of his own about a friar who visits a sick husband. We find that this friar has not visited Thomas, the sick man, in some time and his wife asks him why as their child recently died. The friar makes up some story about seeing a vision of the child being brought to heaven before getting down to business. He explains that Thomas needs to confess any sin to him. When Thomas explains he has already confessed to his parish priest, the friar goes on a long-winded sermon about anger and asks for a donation stating that his sickness is directly caused by his sin. In classic Chaucer fashion, the friar meets the same fate as poor Absolon of the Miller’s Tale. Thomas explains he has a donation in his bed, and as the friar searches for it, he is met with a fart, which, like the friar’s sermon, is hot air. In his rage, he meets with a knight and finally gets an answer out of the squire who advises they get all of the friars together and have Thomas repeat his act so they can all receive their donation. It is clear that the knight and his squire are sarcastically answering the friar’s question of what he should do about the donation with a very literal answer.
Both of these stories accomplish their task. We cannot know what Chaucer was intending when he did pen these tales, but it may not be a far stretch to say that he was annoyed with the greed in the church. It was so far corrupted that he found no other end but to simply sit back and have a few laughs at the church’s expense. I conclude that the effect of the two stories must be judged by the genre they were written: satire. In my opinion, the Summoner’s tale clearly wins the argument. The Summoner is responding to an offense much like the Reeve responded to the Miller, however, unlike the Reeve, the Summoner’s Tale actually has an ending that satisfies. Clearly, Thomas had a reason to be upset with the friar, and his donation is obviously called for, but when both the knight and the squire take the friar to be nothing but a swindler who deserves what he got, the tale earns its comic pedigree. Like many other satirical writers, Chaucer gives the reader a good laugh and possible presents his own beliefs on the matter at hand.
The Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner’s theme when he preaches is radix omnium malorum est cupiditas — the love of money is the root of all evil. The irony is laid heavy on us in this tale as it concerns just that. In his prologue to the tale, the Pardoner explains in more depth than the General Prologue how he goes about tricking people into buying his fake relics. This is perhaps done to remind the audience of who the Pardoner is as the Tales would most commonly have been recited orally and not widely read by the commoners (who were perhaps the direct audience of the poem as it was written in English). We are then reminded of the nature of the Pardoner, and his story grows in its irony because of this. It is a tale of three young fools who happen to be drinking at an inn in the early morning and notice a funeral taking place. They question the cause of death and are told that Death (by means of strong drink) killed the man. In their noble stupor, the three take off to “defeat Death” and on their way meet an old man. After insulting the man, they are told by him that Death is waiting by a nearby tree. They do not directly find Death but instead a treasure. A problem arises: if they take the treasure now, they will be accused of theft, but if they leave it and come back someone else may steal it. It is concluded that they will wait until the evening. Meanwhile one of the three goes to fetch some food. While he is away the two others decide to ambush and kill him so they can have a bigger share of the money. At the same time, he decides to poison the other two, so he can have all of it. He is killed by the two on his return, but before they take off with the money they decide to have a drink which proves to be their end.
In my opinion, the Pardoner’s Tale is the best of the three. The tale itself is ironic in many ways and just so happens to be told by perhaps the greediest and most wicked of all the pilgrims. Though the tale itself does not lead one to laugh, the humor is certainly there because of the irony. In all of this, Avarice proves to be the antagonist of the narrative. The corrupt nature of the Catholic church at that time and throughout the 15th century is proof that mere churches, creeds, or sacraments do not change people. A man can be rooted so deep in his love for money that no institution or label can save him. The folly of the Catholic church at this time was just that. They had forgotten original grace and replaced it with frills and indulgences which did nothing but make one poorer. Today’s culture is no different. We do more, give more, study more etc. and we secretly believe that this creates a change. Truth tells us that it is the reverse. Less is more. Faith in something much higher will produce the fruit that many say is required eating to enter paradise. We have flipped the coin, and whether or not Chaucer believed that will probably never be known. He at least found some humor in it.