The General Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales introduces a colorful set of characters in the late 14th century medieval society. It is springtime and many like to go to pilgrimages as mentioned on line 12, “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” where “palmers for to seeken straunge strondes/ to feme halwes, kowthe in sondry londes” (13-14). As mentioned in our textbook:
Chaucer did not need to make a pilgrimage himself to meet the types of people that his fictitious pilgrimage includes, because most of them had long inhibited literature as well as life…one meets all these types throughout medieval literature, but particularly in a genre called estates satire, which sets out to expose and pillory typical examples of corruption at all levels of society (242-243).
Each description of Chaucer’s characters “give something more than mere verisimilitude to the description…they are all clues not only to their social rank but to their moral and spiritual condition and, through the accumulation of detail, to the condition of late-medieval society, of which, collectively, they are representative” (243). The three “estate” categories of medieval society: nobility, church, and everybody else, “werπe layered into complex, interrelated, and unstable social strata among which birth, wealth, profession, and personal ability all played a part in determining one’s status in a world that was rapidly changing economically, politically, and socially” (238). Although many of the characters in Canterbury Tales are morally corrupted, Chaucer’s descriptions of the Parson’s character are of a reverent nature.
Unlike many of the characters, the Parson is an idealized figure in Canterbury Tales and lacks any ironical undertones. The parson is a good man of religion, “…a poore Person of a town,/ But riche he was of holy thought and werk” (480-481) According to an online essay by an ex-teacher Barbara Daniels, the Parson “exemplifies all that a Christian and cleric should be and therefore provides a strong contrast with the other worldly and cheating ecclesiastics whose behavior rangers from venial to bad to worse” (Daniels). He was an educated clerk “That Cristes gospel trewely wolde preche;/ His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche” (483-484). He is benign, diligent, virtuous, conscientious, “And in adversitee ful pacient” (486). Unlike the other characters, Daniels points out how Chaucer avoided describing how the Parson looked but instead alluded to a biblical imagery of a Christ-like shepherd tending to his flock of sheep: “We know nothing of his personal appearance as this would be inappropriate as he has no vanities but we are left with an image of a Christ-like shepherd of his flock.”
Chaucer’s Parson is illustrated as a Christ-like figure. The Parson is a very generous man who “…rather wolde he yiven, out of doute,/ Undo his poore parisshens aboute/ Of his offring and eek of his substance:/ He coude in litel thing have suffisaunce” (489-492). He practiced what he preached “That first he wroughte, and afterward he taught” (499) and would never “leet his sheep encombred in the mire” (510). Like a Christ-like shepherd, the parson lived by example, “To drawen folk to hevene by fairnesse/ By good ensample—this was his bisinesse” (521-522). Even the stubborn sinners “But it were any persone obstinate,/ What so he were, of heigh or lowe estat,/ Him wolde he snibben (scold) sharply for the nones” (523-525). Furthermore, Chaucer asserts that the Christ-like Parson in lines 526-531 is humble and true: A bettrre preest I trowe ther nowher noon is.
He waited after no pompe and reverence,
Ne maked him a spiced conscience,
But Cristes lore and his Apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it himselve.
Chaucer’s deferential portrait of the Parson is unlike the many morally flawed characters in The Canterbery Tales. The monastic hypocrisy blatant in most of the other characters is devoid in the Parson. He is depicted as a Christ-like figure and is a true reflection of what an ecclesiastic should be like. Daniels concludes that the Parson is “conscientious, learned, hard-working and completely faithful in his duties. These fill up almost the whole of the picture as they are what matters to this Parson and, ultimately, to the true character of the Church, which Chaucer feels is in decline.”
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012. 238-264. Print. Daniels, Barbara. Classics of English Literature: essays by Barbara Daniels M.A., Ph.D. Barbara Daniels, n.d. Web. 2 Sept. 2013.