Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer comments on moral corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. He criticizes many high-ranking members of the Church and describes a lack of morality in medieval society; yet in the “Retraction,” Chaucer recants much of his work and pledges to be true to Christianity. Seemingly opposite views exist within the “Retraction” and The Canterbury Tales. However, this contradiction does not weaken Chaucer’s social commentary. Rather, the “Retraction” emphasizes Chaucer’s criticism of the Church and society in The Canterbury Tales by reinforcing the risk inherent in doing so.
In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer portrays the Roman Catholic Church as an institution in which corruption runs rampant. Chaucer attacks almost all of the pilgrims who are officials of the Church. For example, in “The General Prologue,” the Prioress is “so charitable and so pitous” that she feeds her lapdogs “With rosted flessh, or milk and wastelbreed” (143, 147). However, considering the impoverished condition of many people during the Middle Ages, would it not be more charitable for the Prioress to give meat, milk and bread to the poor, instead of to her dogs? Furthermore, the Friar breaks the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and service. Instead of helping lepers and beggars, the Friar “knew [knows] the tavernes wel in every town, / And every hostiler and tappestere” (GP 241-2). The Friar is also wealthy from the profits of bribed confessions; he dresses not like a poor Franciscan should, but “lik a maister or a pope” (GP 263). The Pardoner also admits and even boasts about his own hypocritical morals. He explains that the relics he sells are fake, along with the absolutions he gives: “For myn entente is nat but for to winne, / And no thing for correccion of sinne” (PardT 115-6). Chaucer clearly indicates that many leaders of the Church act only for their own good, rather than for spiritual reasons.
In his description of other pilgrims, Chaucer points out how the lack of morality within the Church is echoed by the rest of society. Several pilgrims have non-religious reasons for going on the pilgrimage. The Wife of Bath, for instance, is looking for her sixth husband, hoping that “Som Cristen man shal wed me [her] anoon” (WBT 54). Many of the characters have little or no regard for others, but instead are focused only on their own desires. The Franklin is so gluttonous that “It snewed [snows] in his hous of mete and drinke, / Of alle daintees that men coude thinke” (GP 347-8). Chaucer even suggests that the Sergeant at Law, a prominent figure in society, “seemed bisier than he was” (GP 324). The corruption of the Church has, according to Chaucer, affected the way individuals act. If the Church is immoral it is not surprising that much of society...