‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer is a classic work of literature that shows the corruption and greed of the church and others in positions of control. In this lesson, we’ll discuss how Chaucer explores these themes with his characters.
The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century. Although interpretations of Chaucer’s intention for his work differ, two themes are present in many of the Tales: corruption of the institution of the Catholic Church, which was an immense influence on the people of England and Ireland during those days, and greed, which he points to both as a cause of this corruption as well as a corrupting force among society in general.
In the series of tales, we hear from many characters that are revealed to be more than they seem. One of the layman storytellers who stands out for her greed is the Wife of Bath.
During her prologue, the Wife of Bath reveals that she has been married five times. She candidly discusses her greed and how she uses her body and mind to manipulate the men she is with into giving her all of the gold and riches she desires. She has had no problem teasing her husbands or withholding sex until they buy her all the clothes and other goods she wants.
The Wife of Bath is not above using guilt as a tool either. While she herself might not necessarily be entirely faithful, she doesn’t hesitate to accuse her husbands of infidelities to make them feel bad. If one questioned her on her absence one night, she would turn the tables on him, insisting that because she is so in love with him she was out making sure he wasn’t cheating on her. Presumably, this would then make him feel loved and sorry that he even suspected her, and then he would give her money, or go out and buy her something.
Another storyteller that is greedy and smart is the Reeve. He is essentially a manager of lands for a lord. He is good at his job–in fact, he manages the lands so well that he has found ways to pilfer money from the lord without his knowledge. He then uses this money to make sure he is well kept. He also even uses it to give loans to the same lord, in exchange for favors down the road.
Chaucer’s portrayal of greed doesn’t end there though. It actually shows its ugly face even more in the Church figures, pointing to the even larger issue of corruption in the Church. The Monk, the Friar, the Prioress, and the Pardoner are all Church figures who are more symbols of wealth than humility. The Monk who is pledged to a life of poverty has made a fortune by providing forgiveness for money, as well as settling disputes for coin. The Pardoner is also known for this and confesses to these sins quite easily. The Pardoner also sells false relics for money (and he tries to sell them to the other pilgrims).
Even the Friar and the Prioress are not without fault; both wear clothing much too rich for their positions, indicating that they have made money somehow from them. The Friar is also more in love with his horses and hunting than he is in managing and caring for the monastery to which he is pledged. He spends very little time there.
All of this focus on greed clearly shows that one of Chaucer’s main concerns was the corruption of the Church. In Chaucer’s time, the Church had control over a lot of the day-to-day existence of most people. The poor were required to work church lands for free one to two days a week, which meant they couldn’t work their own. Many pardoners, friars, and monks asked for money in exchange for forgiveness, which meant the poor went without. The people meant to feed and clothe those in poverty ignored their roles and instead focused on making money for themselves. Through his Tales, Chaucer shines a light on this corruption and the dark motivating forces behind it that can be found in ordinary people.
The Canterbury Tales may be a fictional tale of a pilgrimage to Canterbury, but it also discusses the corruption of the institution of the Catholic Church that was prevalent during the 14th century. He also uses the book to show greed in its many forms, whether seen in the agents of the Church or in a woman who knows it is the only way to get ahead. Many of the pilgrims resort to manipulation to get what they want, which shows the dark side of the people, as well as the Church.