Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a very strong critique of the medieval Catholic Church. The characters that are introduced in the “General Prologue” are seemingly very different and bring forth varying opinions and views on topics like the medieval Catholic Church. However, these characters all have to common goal to make the pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Due to the fact that their mutual interest is to make it to the Cathedral, this story is inherently “religious” from the beginning. The characters may be on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these people are part of the Catholic Church or are faithful to its laws and teachings. The Canterbury Tales exhibit both a positive and negative critique on the medieval Catholic Church.
Chaucer uses his works in The Canterbury Tales to “mock” the medieval Catholic Church in a satirical manner. These texts show a primarily negative critique of the medieval Catholic Church from Chaucer’s perspective. Though he sees flaws within the institution of the Catholic Church, he still shows respect for religion as a whole and for his fellow pilgrims that identify as part of the Catholic Church. While he is respectful in recognizing their faith and good deeds, he is also truthful about what he believes they’re doing “wrong” as Catholics. When he introduces the characters embarking on the pilgrimage with him, he makes it a point to mention the sins and shortcomings of the religious characters. The narrator points out that the Friar is a hypocrite and a bachelor who lives his life not in accordance with the duties that a Friar holds. Also, the narrator talks a lot about the Prioress and mentions what she is good at and the ways in which the glorifies God through her duties as a Nun. However, he mentions that the ornate rosary that she wears is more so a flashy piece of jewelry to be admired than it is a tribute to her faith.
The Wife of Bath Prologue and Tale can be seen as a primarily negative critique of the Ctholic Church. The main character in this story, Wife of Bath, doesn’t let the commands and laws brought forth by Catholicism and it’s followers determine how she will live her life. She has had a total of five husbands in her life and she uses her charm and sexual desirability to help control and manipulate her husbands. She has a very personal view on how God sees her and her actions and how she sees God. The Wife states “Ye herde I nevere tellen in myn age Upon this nombre diffinicioun. Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun, But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye, God bad us for to wexe and multiplye (24-29). This quote can be translated to mean that regardless of what men view as correct, the Wife knows that God commanded humans to multiply. This tale can be seen as a negative critique because the Wife goes against what is seen as “right” in the eyes of the Church and lives her life in a way that is pleasing to her. Chaucer uses the Wife to portray a strong-minded individual who is willing to go against social norms even if she is ridiculed and judged for her “out of line” decision making.
The Canterbury Tales can be seen as a positive critique in a few different ways. The narrator and the characters introduced in the “General Prologue” are all on their way to Canterbury Cathedral, which implies that they all share some sort of religious desire. Chaucer includes characters that shine a light on how the members of the Catholic Church should look. He could’ve used the entire text as an opportunity to mock the institution and its teachings. However, the fact that he included characters that hold religious duties in a serious manner allows for some positive critique. For example, the Parson is a character to appropriately embodies what a member of the Catholic Church should resemble. He is a good and faithful clergyman who preaches the importance of being loving, humble, and giving. The Parson is extremely poor and still gives whatever he can to those in need. The narrator doesn’t have judgement to cast on the Parson or really anything bad to say about him. This shows that the narrator recognizes that not all of the medieval Catholic Church is self-righteous, hypocritical, and fueled by malicious motives. The Parson’s part in this story is one example of how Chaucer uses The Canterbury Tales as a positive critique of the medieval Catholic Church.
In addition to the Parson, the Prioress is another example of a character to strive to live in accordance with the Catholic laws and teachings of the time. Though Chaucer mentions that she seemingly can afford her nice clothes and sparkling jewelry because she doesn’t donate to charity as much as she should, her role in this tale can still be seen as a positive critique of the medieval Catholic Church. Nobody is perfect or is able to be completely free of sin. Her downfalls that go against the commands of the Church can be seen as realistic human nature. While it is common for members of any church to appear “free of sin”, Chaucer recognized that it was not humanly possible for anyone to be free of sin. His portrayal of the Prioress is simply a realistic embodiment of what it is like to follow God. While he recognizes her failures, he still viewed the Nun as a tender, smiling, faithful.
In conclusion, The Canterbury Tales is more so a negative critique of the medieval Catholic Church than it is a positive one. While Chaucer does include characters, elements, and tales that reflect the good and noble aspects of the church, his implicit and explicit tone primarily reveal that he views the medieval Church in a negative light. He is sure to show respect for religion in areas where it is due, but it is clear that Chaucer used The Canterbury Tales as a way to oppose and slander the Catholic Church as a whole. His boldness in doing so was and will continue to be admired and hated by not only the literary community, but also the religious community for centuries to come. That is part of what makes Chaucer’s texts in The Canterbury Tales so timelessly relevant and frequently studied all over the world.
- Interlinear Translations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,