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Literature/Canterbury Tales: Religious Criticism


I am currently reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I had some questions about the general prologue and am rather curious about Chaucer's treatment of the religious figures (The Monk, the prioress, the friar, the summoner, the pardoner, and the parson). As I understand Chaucer sees the monk, the prioress, and the friar as blatantly hypocritical; the summoner and the pardoner are corrupt, greedy ecclesiastical officials; and the parson is sincere and a true follower of G-d. So from this I think Chaucer has no problem with religious people, just corrupt, hypocritical religious people. Chaucer is "nice" in some of his descriptions, but usually in a super sarcastic kind of way. There is an obvious disconnect from their religious professions and their perceived personalities; they don't seem to match. As silly as this sounds, when I read the book I got the gist of it, but when I go to explain it, I seem to get all muddled up. The language is quite hard to understand so trying to it interpret it exactly is proving to be impossible. I also tried learning the historical context regarding the medieval church and I feel it just confused me more.
In what other ways could I go about analyzing Chaucer's criticism of the medieval church by examining his treatment of religious figures in the Prologue? I have to write 4 pages on this topic and I seem to be running out of things to say. I just need a little direction. Should I approach the question in a different way?
Thank you for any assistance you can give me.



Great question - and a common one!

You are correct.  Chaucer was a new-intellectual of his age, and was able to take the common man's experience and use it as a tool against what he saw as corruption and hypocrisy. What I mean by new-intellectual is that many of the educated minds of his age and earlier came from the church which ultimately dictated the cultural consumption of the people - of which mostly reflected by the morals, values, and goals of the church itself.

The characters in the prologue that work for the church, the law, and in business are mostly depicted as corrupt because in many ways they were. The church officials wore jewelry and had expensive clothing and possessions, took bribes to absolve sins, and had shady back-room dealings that in many ways was against what they preached. Meanwhile, people like the plowman was rank and but had the ultimately good heart.

Your main questions are, "what is a strategy of understanding the text," and "once I get it, what is there to actually write about that might take up four pages?"

First, I hope that you're under the impression that I like what you are planning on writing about - trust yourself, because you are totally on the right track and know what you are talking about!

Second, the easiest way to understand the prologue is to get some translations - there is nothing wrong with that, and in many cases the translations match up to the text line-by-line. The language is part of the beauty of the piece, not necessarily the content, so pay attention to the writing more than the content when writing about it... But getting a translation to help you through understanding it is totally fine in my opinion.  There are many to choose from - (, (, (, and others...

Third, I like your idea of talking about the historical context, but perhaps only a little bit. Believe it or not, four pages is not a lot!  So what if you organized it with the first page being your intro and contemporary context, and then the remaining being about each church character, and then the end putting them into context in the piece?  Or, you could even talk about the characters that Chaucer revers as a counterpoint - the plain, holy, and humble characters.  But that said, the historical context is important.  I would tell you to get it from an authoritative source, and I would love to link you to specific articles but I am not sure what databases your college/high school/public library has access to, so I will do my best with the web: (, (, (

Finally, perhaps it would make sense to discuss each character specifically, and discuss what their role was and how Chaucer's descriptions are outside of the boundaries of taste and morality in the contect of the time and place of the work.  Be specific!  Quote the piece and quote your sources!  In terms of databases, if you have access to them search "chaucer prologue" and you will likely find articles about the specific characters you are referencing. Then, as you write about them, quote what the scholars have to say about them as support for your observations.  For instance, on, I searched "pardoner chaucer prologue" and found hundreds of articles (, but I can only access some of them if I can get in through my school or public library's website (and use JSTOR or GALE POWERSEARCH, for instance).

The idea is that you need to come up with your own ideas, but bringing in other voices in the case of having historical and cultural context is okay since you don't have a lot of (specific) knowledge about that.  If you are using a textbook, there is usually a great deal of great information in there as well if you read the supplementary material.  Combine your ideas with support from the text and your research (and make sure you are citing your sources), and you have a solid paper (and way more information than you can fit in 4 pages!).

Let me know if I can help further and ask clarifying questions or submit a new one!



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