A Portrait of Immorality
Jim Knapp, Jr.
October 25, 1999
It is a sad commentary on the clergy that, in the Middle Ages, this class that was responsible for morality was often the class most marked by corruption. Few works of the times satirically highlight this phenomenon as well as The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucers "General Prologue" introduces us to a cast of clergy, or "Second Estate" folk, who range in nature from pious to corrupt. The Friar seems to be an excellent example of the corrupt nature of many low-level clergymen of the times- while his activities were not heretical or heinous, his behavior is certainly not in accord with the selfless moral teachings he is supposed to espouse. According to the Narrators account, he is a snob, corrupted by greed, and acts in very un-Christian ways. It is clear that he is a man of low moral standards.
When we are first introduced to the Friar, we are told that he possesses a level of social grace far above his station in life. We are told that in the four begging orders, there is no one as knowledgeable in fair language and sociability as he (lines 210-211, Norton), and that he is a very ceremonious fellow (line 209). This seems out of step with a man who is supposed to make a living by begging, a man who is supposed to go through life without a roof over his head. This level of breeding and affinity for ceremony has likely come from an aristocratic birth- often, the younger sons and daughters of nobles who could not be provided for simply entered the clergy. This contributed to a large body of clergy members who came to the church not because they felt a divine calling, but simply because that is what was expected of them (his fellow pilgrim, the Prioress, also seems to exhibit similar graces (lines 124-142), though she is of a stronger moral character). As this is what the text seems to indicate for the Friar, it seems to explain why morality might not have been his foremost concern. Furthermore, we are told that the Friar is well acquainted with the franklins and worthy women of his territory (lines 216-217), but he felt it beneath him to fraternize with other beggars, lepers, and the "poor trash" around him (lines 242-247). This is very out of place with his position when one considers that the original aim of the friars was to minister to the sick and the poor; his position on matters is as absurd as that of a gardener who hates plants. Clearly, he feels that many of his duties are beneath him and he chooses to associate with members of his own social class. By todays definition, the narrator paints the Friar as a snob.
Another common practice of corrupt clergy in the Middle Ages was that of selling religious "favors". Be it indulgences, pardons, or what have you, the monetary "sale" of "divine influence" was certainly corrupt, and our Friar has taken full advantage of it. We are told that he is licensed to hear confessions (lines 218-220), and that he gives easy penance if he knows that he is going to receive a good monetary donation (lines 223-224). The narrator tells us, tongue buried in cheek, that the Friar views himself capable of judging whether a penitent is fully contrite; if someone is "too grieved" to appear repentant emotionally, he can certainly prove it by allowing his coin-purse to make the confession for him (lines 228-232). Furthermore, he fraternizes not with the poor, but with the rich, and he goes wherever he can find a profit (lines 247-249). The Friar earns far more money from his begging than he is required to pay for the right to beg (line 258), which leads us to wonder where the rest of the money goes. Certainly, some of it could go his order, but it seems doubtful that a man of so dubious moral character turns over all of it. It seems more plausible that the money goes to innkeepers and barmaids (line 241), and perhaps some to purchase a fine robe for himself (line 264). Clearly a man who is supposed to have taken a vow of poverty, the corrupt Friar uses his position to satisfy his own greed.
Lastly, the question of the Friars general moral character arises. It has already been shown that the Friar exhibited great pride and avarice, but further evidence of a general un-Christian attitude arises. The Friars familiarity with taverns, innkeepers, and barmaids is well-noted (lines 240-241), and would seem to stem beyond doing his part to spread the word of the Lord here. Rather, Chaucer makes it fairly clear that he himself takes part in the debauchery; it is certainly not in accord with the Friars station to engage in such vices. Also, we are told that the Friar took part in money changing, from which he took a profit (line 253). This is hardly in accord with Christian teaching, considering that Christs Biblical destruction of the money-changers tables in the Temple would seem to send the opposite message (and since usury was still a crime at this time). But perhaps the most reprehensible of the Friars traits is mentioned during Chaucers description of his begging prowess: we are told how the poor, with barely enough money to survive, surrender to him what little they have (lines 255-257). Considering the Friar makes far more than he needs (line 258), these "donations" from the poor, in essence, amount to robbery. It is certainly not very Christian to line his own pockets with money from those who can barely afford bread. This Friars morals are much closer to vice than virtue; any doubts that he is a man of low morals are now completely swept away.
Chaucers "General Prologue" is remarkable in that it allows us to see not only what characters may claim to represent, but also how they really are inside. Chaucers depiction of the Friar, who should be a man of upstanding piety and virtue, makes it readily apparent that he is quite the opposite. The Friars elitist background and behavior, his begging-supported greed, and the vices that oppose true Christianity prove that he is a man of low moral standards. Certainly, Chaucer paints a masterful contrast of image vs. reality.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Sixth Edition, Volume 1.
M.H. Abrams, et al, Editor. W.W. Norton and Company. New York: 1993.