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Chapter Eight of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


8. Corrupt Clerics

Christian clerics in Chaucer's time, like Christian clerics in all times, had a bold ideal to live up to: Christ himself. Clerics were supposed to be pure and poor, devoted to the needs of the people, self-sacrificing, chaste, abstemious, honest. They were to set an example to the people of how to behave. They were, in short, to be very much like Chaucer's idealized Parson, poor in worldly goods but rich in holy thought and work, self-sacrificing, choosing to serve poor people in a provincial parish rather than rich people in London, drawing men and women to heaven not merely by preaching at them but by quiet example. Like many clerics in all times, however, many clerics in Chaucer's time failed to live up to the bold ideal. It may be that in Chaucer's time clerics were no worse than they were at other times, but there was widespread criticism of those who strayed from the ideal. Writers often took it as part of their task to offer to the public their extreme annoyance with clerics who failed to adopt the ways of Christ. If we can judge accurately from the work of these writers--including, of course, Chaucer himself--the church in Chaucer's time was not successful in policing its own representatives.

John Gower (1330-1408) was a friend of Chaucer's and a fellow poet. His Confessio Amantis ("The Lover's Confession") bears some resemblance to the Canterbury Tales, for it is a collection of tales in Middle English loosely bound within a fictional narrative framework. Gower also wrote, in French, the Miroir de l'homme ("The Mirror of Man") and, in Latin, the Vox clamantis ("The Voice of One Crying"). In this last work, a poem of well over 10,000 lines, Gower presents a dream-vision of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and then offers many lines of social and religious criticism. Here is the ideal priest as described by Gower:

A priest's honor is great, and his power is even greater, if he remains pious and good, and far removed from vices. With their hands they perform rites of the highest sacrament, through which the flesh is made one with God by a word. And they can take away the sin for which our first parent fell, by the sacred purification of baptism. . . . They are the salt of the earth, by which we on earth are seasoned; without their savor man could scarcely be seasoned. . . . They are Jacob's ladder with its many steps, reaching to the heights of heaven; by them the pathway will lie revealed.

But, alas, not all priests are like this ideal one, and instead of helping us to reach heaven, corrupt priests lead us toward hell:

Oh what a shameful thing it is when a priest is like an ass, unversed in morals and lawlessly wild! Priests are like the stars of the sky in number, but scarcely two out of a thousand shine with light. They neither read the Scriptures nor understand them. . . . Noah sent forth a raven and it did not return. He sent forth a dove and it did return. Similarly, in the Church there are ravens and doves. The good ones are without gall, while the bad ones are full of gall.

Gower had little patience for self-indulgent monks. He could see that many men were drawn to the monastery not as a place of retreat from the temptations of the world, but as a place to enjoy the temptations of the world in sinful ease. He made it clear--as his contemporaries did--that he criticized not the office of monk or the concept of a monastery but those monks who strayed from the ideal:

A monastic order is good in itself, but we say that those who betray it are evil. There are certainly monks whom ownership of property has made a claim on, men whom no religious order can hold in check through moral precepts. For some men of property seek the leisure of an order so that they cannot suffer any hardships. They avoid being hungry and slake their thirst with wine. They get rid of all cold with their warm furred cloaks. Faintness of the belly does not come upon them in the hours of night, and their raucous voice does not sing the heights of heaven in chorus with a drinking cup. A man of this kind will devour no less than several courses at table, and empties a good many beakers in his drinking. . . . And while you are bringing him wine, he allures women to himself; wanton monasteries now furnish these two things together.

Monks had once been cloistered away from the world in simple monasteries, and those monks who renounced the world and lived a life of poverty and abstinence were full of virtue and honor. Too many monasteries, however, had become places of opulence, gluttony, avarice, and lechery:

When their order began, monks' homes were caves; now a grand marble palace sets them off. They used to have no steaming kitchen, and no cook served them delicacies roasted or baked by the fire. In former times no boiled food or dishes loaded with meat made monks fat. Bodily gluttony did not afflict their souls, nor were they inflamed by lust of the flesh to seek out debauchery on the sly. They who used to cover their bare bodies with the skins of animals now cover them more comfortably with wool. Herbs used to furnish their food, a spring their drink, and a base hair shirt their clothing, yet there was no grumbling in those days. There was no envy or splendor in a monastery then; he who was the greater served as did the lesser. There was no great quantity of silver or chain of gold that could corrupt their holy state then. Money did not touch their pockets, nor wine their palates, and no carnal flame burned in their loins.

That was in the Golden Age of monasteries. By Gower's time, the ideal had long since been replaced by the reality. If the monks who lived in monasteries were corrupt, those who insisted on wandering outside the monastery were even more so. We are reminded here, of course, both of the Monk on Chaucer's pilgrimage and of John, the lecherous monk in the Shipman's Tale. For Gower, as for many writers of the fourteenth century, the proper place for a monk was in his monastery:

The sea is the proper habitat of a live fish, and the monastery is the right home for a monk. Just as the sea will not keep dead fish, so the monastery casts out evildoing monks. A fish ought not to be out of the water, nor ought a monk to be away from his cloisters.

Gower has a few words to say about nuns, the female counterparts of the monks. Like monks, nuns were supposed ideally to live apart from the world in simple and spare nunneries. Many nuns, however, did not live simply and many did not keep strictly to the life of contemplation and abstinence they had sworn to follow. Chaucer's Prioress may--or, then again, may not--be captured in Gower's description. In any case, Gower, like most of the men of his times, considered women to be very much the "weaker" sex and considered nunneries to be less serious places than monasteries:

A monastic order is appropriate for men as long as they live virtuously, whereby they, apart from the world, may reach the kingdom of heaven. It is also appropriate for virtuous women to fulfill their vows of chastity to God under the veil. Just as a holy order binds monks, it also binds nuns, so that when women in the cloisters go astray, their unchastity does not militate against them equally with men. For a woman's foot cannot stand as steady as a man's can, nor can it make its steps firm. Neither learning nor understanding, neither constancy nor virtue such as men have flourishes in woman. But you often see women's morals change because of their frail nature, rather than by conscious choice. Quite frequently we perceive the very women whom their order thinks most sensible to be full of foolish behavior.

Even more than priests, monks, and nuns, friars usually came in for criticism. They were frequently described as grasping, hypocritical, lazy, deceptive, lustful, . . . and so on. The Friar on Chaucer's pilgrimage and the friar in the Summoner's Tale are both recognizable in Gower's description:

Oh how the words of the prophet Hosea are now verified! Thus did he speak the truth: "A certain tribe will arise on earth which will eat up the sin of my people and know much evil." We perceive that this prophecy has come about in our day, and we give credit for this to the friars. . . . Ants never make their course toward empty granaries, and a wandering friar will not come near when one's wealth is lost. With no thought of the blooms which it bore before, they disdain the thorn when the roses have fallen off. In this way do the friars scorn the favors of friendship from a man formerly rich, when he can give no more. Many are friars in name but few by rights. As some say, Falseness is their prophet. Their cloak's appearance is poor, but their money box is rich. They hide their shameful deeds under sanctimonious words. Poor without poverty and holy without Christ, thus does a man who is lacking in goodness stand out as eminently good. They call upon God with their lips, yet they venerate gold in their hearts, and on every side they seek to learn the way to it. The Devil has placed everything under their foot, but their pretended sanctity does not teach them how to hold on to anything. Thus does one who "scorns" the world grasp in turn at the things of this world, while his sheep's clothing conceals a hostile wolf.

John Gower was writing essays that told about the corrupt clerics of his time. Chaucer, on the other hand, was writing fiction that showed some of those same corrupt clerics in action. Most readers will find Chaucer's examples more vivid than Gower's explanations, but the point is that both writers kept sight of the ideal while decrying the real. The Church stood for something wonderful and saving; too many of its officials, however, stood for something terrible and destructive. Like many other writers of their times, both Chaucer and Gower hoped, by exposing vice in church officials, to return those officials to a closer approximation of the virtuous ideals they ought to have espoused.

  • Primary source: John Gower, Vox clamantis (translated by Eric W. Stockton in The Major Latin Works of John Gower (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962).

Chapter Eight of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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