”The Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer is a story of many tales, yet a theme within the story is religion, corruption of faith, and the church. This lesson reviews the different ways Chaucer brought religion into his novel.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a story told about 29 pilgrims that meet at Tabard Inn as they are all on their way to visit the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket. The host of the Inn decides to go with them, and they tell tales along the way to entertain each other. Although the story was supposed to have four tales from each of the 30 characters, the manuscript appeared never to be finished, since there are only 22 full tales, and two fragments.

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The story is not written to preach to readers, however, the religion and faith in the book are obvious. First, the main story line is the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Secondly, Chaucer has seven characters out of the 24 that work with or work for a church or religion. Additionally, Chaucer ends his book with a religious-toned retraction.

Religious Corruption

Religious corruption is one of the largest themes in The Canterbury Tales. The main idea in the corruptible characters seems to be that they are all too preoccupied with something secular to spend too much time on faith.

  • The Friar is more focused on money and horses than taking care of his monastery. He also likes to seduce women, then found them husbands to keep from getting in trouble.
  • The Prioress is preoccupied trying to be the court lady, instead of trying to help her nunnery.
  • The Pardoner is proud of his ability to get coin for providing physical pardons for sins, and he even tries to sell his relics to the pilgrims on the way to see a shrine of a martyr.
  • The Monk who was supposed to pledge his life to poverty instead takes money for forgiveness, refuses to help the poor, and pays other beggars to leave certain areas alone so that he will get all the money.

Although most of the religious characters appear to show the corruption of the church and its people, there are two characters that Chaucer creates to show faith as he seems to believe it should be.

The Characters of Faith

The two characters we hear from that are not belittled for their lack of faith is the Nun’s Priest and the Parson. Now, the Nun’s Priest does not have almost any character development; all we hear about is his tale about Chanticleer, the rooster. However, we do get to hear about the Parson.

A parson is a preacher of a church that is not held to the standard or responsibilities of the larger church of Catholicism in England and Ireland during those days. So, the Parson ran a small church but did not have the large institution corruption that Chaucer infers throughout in the other characters. Instead, the Parson believes he is meant to take care of his people and that he has a responsibility to be a good example for the church. During the prologue, the Host talks about the Parson without teasing and has apparent respect for this figure, and respect for faith in the simpler forms. The Parson’s Tale was a sermon, showing that even in his frivolity he focused on faith and how to help people get to heaven.

This shows how Chaucer thought of different sides of faith. He seemed to have very little respect for the larger religious organization, but the small churches run by incorruptible men were honored. Additionally, he continues his religious tone when he writes his retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales. This is where Chaucer prays that he is forgiven for his story if it offends, and gives all the power to Jesus Christ for the good or bad of the novel.

Lesson Summary

The Canterbury Tales is the story of a company of men and women that make a journey and tell stories along the way to entertain each other. Within Chaucer’s novel, he seems to constantly touch on the theme of religious corruption with characters like the Friar and the Pardoner. However, he also shows his respect for faith in the simpler forms when he describes the Parson and his role in his church. Although the author seems to be dedicated to his faith, as we see in his retraction at the end of the novel, his condemnation for the commercialized faith sold to the people was evident.