Dr. Coleman Fannin
Satirizing the Greed of the Holy Church
“The Canterbury Tales” was written during a time of religious unrest. Corruption and greed infiltrated the Church beyond the point of correction. Chaucer would have been well aware of these issues growing up as a diplomat in fourteenth century England. His familiarity of the systems and interactions between high-ranking officials in the court and the church make him a reputable source of criticism of the church and its affiliates. At a time when indulgences and monetary incentives were at a peak in Christian churches, Chaucer used his poetic prowess and political understanding to critique and ridicule how perturbed the Church had become over greed and money. In “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer satirizes how society has perverted religion and the roles of religious authority for monetary gain through his description of the appearances of the Prioress and Pardoner, and through careful construction of “The Prioress’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale.”
In Chaucer’s description of the Prioress, he goes to great lengths to exemplify how backwards and petty her life is. She dresses ornately with fine clothes and jewelry, despite holding a religious position that requires modesty because she lives off of money from the church. Her appearance is incredibly important to her so she makes sure that her manners are always polite and courteous. “She never let a crumb from her mouth fall; /She never soiled her fingers, dipping deep /Into the sauce; when lifting to her lips/ Some morsel, she was careful not to spill.” In this description, we can assume that the Prioress has been taught how to behave in front of the noblest of nobles as if she was surrounded by them at all times. A lady this practiced in the art of nobility surely does not have enough spare time to devote to God. Any spare time she had may have been invested in learning her fancy French, which “…she spoke… well and elegantly/ As she’d been taught and Stratford-and-Bow, /For French of Paris was to her unknown.” It is clear to the reader that the Prioress speaks French just for the culture boost. Her French is not even proper French, for she does not know the “French of Paris.” As long as others can see she knows French she is satisfied. The actual usefulness of the language is not important to her. The Prioress’s petty obsession with appearance obviously disturbs Chaucer, as he goes to great lengths to soil her image. When she is not busy maintaining her ditsy appearance, she is occupying her time with the pleasures bought using the Church’s money. The Prioress keeps little lap dogs to entertain her when she is not busy practicing her manners (yet another distraction from her important duties as a prioress). The Prioress even carries with her a set of vanity beads with an inscription that reads “Amor Vincit Omnia” or “Love Conquers All.” Normally, a prioress would be expected to carry with her a set of rosary beads, not vanity beads. If she was a prioress of proper office, it could be safely assumed that “Love Conquers All” refers to the Lord’s love. But since her character has been so perverted by her love of money and the lavish, the reader can only associate the saying with the courtly love so commonly associated with woman of her sort. But for someone so concerned by appearance, she does not seem so concerned with her weight. It is obvious her priory does not budget itself by cutting back on desserts. The Prioress is a large woman, “…and there’s not doubt she had a fine forehead/ Almost a span in breadth, I’d swear it was, /For certainly she was not undersized.” She is well eaten while other good nuns go and cater to the poor and hungry. In fact, she has enough to food to spare for her “…small hounds that she fed /With roasted flesh.” That is, if it is actually her feeding her dogs and she has not gotten her servant to get it for her, for she travels...
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