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Chaucer And The Catholic Church Essay

1023 words - 5 pages

By the late 14th century, the Catholic Church was the main influential power in Europe. As the clergy’s influence increased, the continent’s wealth began to decline. Amidst a century of poverty, plague, and unemployment, criticism of the church arose. The people deemed the clergy hypocritical for preaching against greed, but yet keeping all of the wealth to themselves. Cathedrals were built as shrines, embellished in gold and rich jewels; meanwhile the people of Europe were slowly dying from scarcity of essential resources. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales represents his critiques, both conspicuous as well as obscure, of the corrupt Catholic Church during the medieval period. Pilgrims such as the Prioress, Monk and Friar all exemplify different degrees of hypocrisy in Chaucer’s assessment of the church, revealing the abundance of religious corruption amid that era.
Chaucer portrays his first and minimal degree of hypocrisy in the Prioress. A traditional prioress was a nun who ranked below an abbess. They were head of a house of a certain order of nuns, and lived under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They either dedicate their lives to service of others, or become an ascetic and live in prayer at a monastery. Chaucer’s Prioress acts as a foil to the conventional prioress. Her priorities are far from those of a devout religious woman as she strives to impersonate courtly manners although she is not part of the royal court. She “spoke daintily in French...French in the Paris style she did not know." (l 122,124), took great care in achieving impeccable table manners, and demonstrated a “courtly kind of grace” (l 137). She is also described as terribly sensitive and “all sentiment and a tender heart” (l 148): "She was so charitably solicitous / She used to weep if she but saw a mouse / Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding" (l 141-143). Her charity towards animals is intended as a stroke of irony, as creatures were considered soulless in medieval times, implying that her generosity should be extended towards needy people. The Prioress’ physical description is quite lengthy, with a large forehead (implies her self-imposed high-class), a coy smile, various expensive trinkets, "by no means undergrown"(l 154) (implies her wealth), and an elegant nose. It appears she is more concerned with her perceived wealth and social class than she is with living under the vows of devotion and simplicity. The most powerful stroke of irony exists in the Prioress’ tale. After a lengthy description in the prologue illustrating her as a delicate, worldly, high-class woman, she proceeds to tell an explicitly violent tale employing anti-Semitic values. Chaucer criticizes the Prioress by honouring her very faults.
The insincerity demonstrated by Chaucer’s Monk is one step up from the Prioress. Monks normally live a life absent of all pleasures in the pursuit of living a minimalistic spiritual lifestyle. They either dedicate their lives to serving others, or...

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