Critically discuss Chaucer's presentation of religious characters in the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales.
In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer follows the tradition of medieval estate satire to portray the characters. Following the tradition, Chaucer both relies on and exploits the medieval social and hierarchal stereotypes. In order to achieve the purpose of estates satire, Chaucer offers an ideal example of each estate and uncovers the malpractices and frauds that lead to moral and spiritual corruption through different character depictions. Chaucer’s three ideal pilgrims who complete the Three Estates Model in General Prologue are the “Knight”, the “Parson”, and the “Plowman”. The pervasive element of social satire in the portrayal of other characters—most prominent in his account of the ecclesiastical figures—suggests Chaucer's serious concern at the debasing of moral standards, and at the materialistic outlook which had taken hold of ecclesiastical order of the 14th century society.
High churchmen are absent in the General Prologue as they would set for Canterbury with their own retinue. Only less important figures are there. Despite Chaucer’s refusal to put the pilgrims according to their ‘degree’, we can follow a certain pattern. The Prioress and the Monk, as heads of subordinate houses, stand at the top. The Friar comes next followed by a wide gap, and then the Clerk, a university student in minor orders. The Parson then follows, who is rich in good Works-but humble in degree and finally the arch rascals, the Summoner and the Pardoner.
To begin with, Chaucer characterizes the Nun Prioress as a woman who is more concerned with appearances than spiritual matters or charity as “her greatest pleasure was in etiquette.” Likewise, the Monk is portrayed as being interested in hunting for sport and eating game. This portrayal is underscored by the fact that monks were not supposed to leave their cloister and took vows of poverty. Characterized in an even more unflattering light, the Friar, according to the narrator, is a womanizer who had to hastily perform and finance many of the marriages he performed presumably due to his improper relationship with the would-be brides. The Summoner is described as having a hideous physical description which correlates to his practice of pardoning adulterers and fornicators only after they had paid him a bribe. Finally, the Pardoner is characterized as the greatest of religious villains as he not only preys upon common people but also upon lower-ranking members of the clergy. In short, he is characterized as a con man of the worst kind.
Against the backdrop of such widespread corruption in the ecclesiastical order, the “Person” stands as a model clergy who represents the true spirit of Christianity. He serves God flawlessly by both teaching people the Christian gospel and being a good example for them to lead a proper religious life. Although he is poor in his private life, he is rich in “holy thought and work”. He believes in the importance of the clergy in shaping the social and individual traits of people, which illustrates his praiseworthy characteristics.
In conclusion, working within the tradition of medieval Estate Satire, Chaucer has both demonstrated the ideal and satirized the social vices resulting from its corruption. Through the characteristics and virtues of the “Person” he demonstrates the perfect integration of the people who belong to the clergy in the medieval English society. Also, by offering contrasting views to his positive traits in the portrayal of almost all of the other clerics, he criticises the vices and sins of the people belonging to the order of the church.