The Canterbury Tales Questions
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how else is greed used in the canterbury tales?
Source(s): Canterbury Tales
By the late fourteenth century, the Catholic Church, which governed England, Ireland, and the entire continent of Europe, had become extremely wealthy. The cathedrals that grew up around shrines to saints’ relics were incredibly expensive to build, and the amount of gold that went into decorating them and equipping them with candlesticks and reliquaries (boxes to hold relics that were more jewel-encrusted than kings’ crowns) surpassed the riches in the nobles’ coffers. In a century of disease, plague, famine, and scarce labor, the sight of a church ornamented with unused gold seemed unfair to some people, and the Church’s preaching against greed suddenly seemed hypocritical, considering its great displays of material wealth. Distaste for the excesses of the Church triggered stories and anecdotes about greedy, irreligious churchmen who accepted bribes, bribed others, and indulged themselves sensually and gastronomically, while ignoring the poor famished peasants begging at their doors.
The religious figures Chaucer represents in The Canterbury Tales all deviate in one way or another from what was traditionally expected of them. Generally, their conduct corresponds to common medieval stereotypes, but it is difficult to make any overall statement about Chaucer’s position because his narrator is so clearly biased toward some characters—the Monk, for example—and so clearly biased against others, such as the Pardoner. Additionally, the characters are not simply satirical versions of their roles; they are individuals and cannot simply be taken as typical of their professions.
The Monk, Prioress, and Friar were all members of the clerical estate. The Monk and the Prioress live in a monastery and a convent, respectively. Both are characterized as figures who seem to prefer the aristocratic to the devotional life. The Prioress’s bejeweled rosary seems more like a love token than something expressing her devotion to Christ, and her dainty mannerisms echo the advice given by Guillaume de Loris in the French romance Roman de la Rose, about how women could make themselves attractive to men. The Monk enjoys hunting, a pastime of the nobility, while he disdains study and confinement. The Friar was a member of an order of mendicants, who made their living by traveling around and begging, and accepting money to hear confession. Friars were often seen as threatening and had the reputation of being lecherous, as the Wife of Bath describes in the opening of her tale. The Summoner and the Friar are at each other’s throats so frequently in The Canterbury Tales because they were in fierce competition in Chaucer’s time—summoners, too, extorted money from people.
Overall, the narrator seems to harbor much more hostility for the ecclesiastical officials (the Summoner and the Pardoner) than he does for the clerics. For example, the Monk and the Pardoner possess several traits in common, but the narrator presents them in very different ways. The narrator remembers the shiny baldness of the Monk’s head, which suggests that the Monk may have ridden without a hood, but the narrator uses the fact that the Pardoner rides without a hood as proof of his shallow character. The Monk and the Pardoner both give their own opinions of themselves to the narrator—the narrator affirms the Monk’s words by repeating them, and his own response, but the narrator mocks the Pardoner for his opinion of himself.
The Pardoner’s Tale is an example, a type of story often used by preachers to emphasize a moral point to their audience. The Pardoner has told us in his Prologue that his main theme—“Greed is the root of all evil”—never changes. We can assume that the Pardoner is well practiced in the art of telling this specific tale, and he even inserts some of his sermon into it. The Pardoner’s point is quite obvious—his tale shows the disastrous effects of greed. The hypocrisy he has described in his Prologue becomes evident in his tale, as all the vices he lists in his diatribe at the beginning—gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing—are faults that he himself has either displayed to the other pilgrims or proudly claimed to possess. Ridiculously, when he has finished his condemnation of swearing, he begins the tale swearing his own oath: “Now, for the love of Crist, that for us dyde . . . now wol I telle forth my tale” (658–660). Such an overtly hypocritical act is perfectly consistent with the character that the Pardoner has presented to us, and an example of Chaucer’s typically wry comedy.
As if on automatic pilot, the Pardoner completes his tale just as he would when preaching in the villages, by displaying his false relics and asking for contributions. His act is intriguing, for he makes no acknowledgment of his hypocrisy. Only a few lines before, in his Prologue, he exposed to the entire company the fraudulence of his whole operation. It is inconceivable that he would now expect to get contributions from his fellow travelers—so why does he ask for them? Perhaps, like a professional actor, the Pardoner enjoys the challenge of telling his tale so convincingly that he tricks his audience into belief, even after he has explained to them his corrupt nature. Or perhaps he takes delight in showing the audience how his routine works, as an actor might enjoy showing people backstage. In any case, the Pardoner’s attempt to sell pardons to the pilgrims is a source of rancor for the Host, because, in trying to swindle the other pilgrims, the Pardoner has violated the Host’s notion of fellowship on which the storytelling pilgrimage is based.
"Greed and Corruption in The Canterbury Tales"
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