It is very common in literature for writers to express the occurrences of their time period; however, there are instances when certain texts withstand the test of time and become expanded to other generations. It is as if history is repeating itself in an endless cycle. This is true for Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales with how he illustrates the corruption of religion with the depiction of the Monk and the Priest. Although Chaucer is being satirical with the characterization of the Monk and the Priest, they still represent both religion of his time as well as modern time. What the comparison between Chaucer’s time versus modern day brings up, however, is the question of what is viewed as religious corruption versus simply not living by the religious code that they preach.
Chaucer chooses to amplify both of these character’s traits with the use of satire because it is the extremity of these two that makes them relatable across many time periods. The Monk and the Priest are fictitious characters, but they do simulate actual people none the less. The corruption of these religious figures can be broken down into three different categories in The Canterbury Tales: corruption of money, love and fortune.
Chaucer begins the tale of the two religious figures with the description of the Monk. Chaucer paints the Monk as a fine fellow who loves the leisure of hunting and collecting horses. Monks live by a strict code, but the Monk says questions “How shall the world be served” by him spending his time reading books and living by this strict code? (line 187). Hunting and the other leisure that the Monk enjoys participating in are usually reserved for those in higher classes. The Monk also had many horses and “men might his bridle hear jingle in a whistling wind as clear and eke as loud as does the chapel bell,” (lines 170-171). This is ironic because his horse’s bridle is jingling as loud as the chapel bell, basically enforcing the idea that he participates in all of these activities as much as the activities he should be a part of in his monastery. Instead of doing his duties as a monk, he chooses to undertake these expensive luxuries and disown the way of the monk.
Similar to the Monk, the Friar abandons his religious duties for his own personal benefits. As a friar, it is in his religion to take a vow of poverty and live life similar to a peasant. However, Chaucer describes the Friar as a master beggar who used his skill only for his personal gain. Friars are supposed to help the poor, but the Friar did not wish to communicate with the poor because they did not have anything to offer the church, which actually meant they did not have any money for him to pocket for himself. He chose to neglect his religious duties and hang out with the rich because they had money to give. The Friar would accept bribes and sell indulgences to people, which all of the money went into his pockets. He also
“had made full many a marriage of youngè women at his ownè cost,” which was not something a friar was not supposed to do if they lived by the religious code (line 212-213).
After understanding the context of these two characters, now the task is determining if and why they are corrupt figures and how they relate to modern times. In terms of the Monk, it is more the case of failing to abide by his respective religious code than it is of corruption. Although he uses his religion power to participate in these expensive activities, he is not breaking any laws or stealing or anything in relation to that. The Monk is the modern-day pastor who rides into his church on an expensive hover board instead of walking. To put it blankly, he is simply a bad monk who believes that he does not have to live by this strict code. In recent news, A Detroit pastor “shot and killed a man who was allegedly trying to attack him with a brick,” (Foxnews.com). Pastors usually preach nonviolence and the fact that nobody should take another person’s life. However, this pastor was carrying a weapon which is against his religious code. It does not necessarily make him a bad person or corrupt clergymen, but it does make him a bad pastor.
On the other hand, Chaucer portrays the Friar as both a bad and corrupt friar. Throughout some of European history, the selling of indulgences was viewed as corrupt because people should not have to buy their way in to heaven. It should not be as easy and paying off clergymen to go to heaven. This is one of the main reasons that led to many religious reformations. Not only is the Friar begging for his own personal earnings, he is denying his duties of the brotherhood because he is corrupt. This however brings up another question relating to corruption, which is that is exploiting loopholes in the religious system actually corruption?
This question can be best explained by looking at Stephen Furtick, a North Carolina pastor who has been under fire in recent years after building himself a $1.7 million mansion and claimed that it was a “gift from god,” (Kuruvilla). Furtick claims that all of the house was paid off by the money he received from selling books and doing speaking events; however, he was using some of the churches tax-free money to pay for advertisements for his books as well as TV time for sermons that included his books. This may not be considered corruption but it is abusing the system. Another example of this are modern-day friars. Friars are not supposed to be paid for their work, but some universities allow the collective group of friars to pool their money so they are not technically being paid, but also avoiding taxes at the same time. So instead of living like the average person, some friars can buy up-to-date cars and expensive watches. But again, that may not be viewed as a sign of corruption, but it is an abuse of the system nonetheless and certainly against the teachings of Saint Francis.
Religion became a tool of power and greed rather than a power for the people. Chaucer lays this idea out cleanly with the Friar, who “was an easy man to give penance,” (line 223). However, his penance was not confessing sins; instead, it was buying the indulgences. Relating this to modern times, one writer believes that “passing around the plate [in church is like a] Sunday morning stick-up,” (Blake). When pastors ask for offerings is basically as bad as the Friar selling indulgences. This same article explains how the pastor asked the members to give two offerings to the church as well as personal items which led to people offering things such as wedding rings and expensive shoes and watches. This, just like the Friar, is on the borderline of corruption. It is not required for people to give offerings, but it is the “unwritten law” to actually donate something. Knowing this, the pastor can easily exploit his audience because he is aware of the unwritten law and use it to his benefit. The same writer says that these offerings “violate New Testament teachings about how and why people should give.” Again, this goes back to both the Monk and the Friar not following the code in which they are supposed to live by.
With these two characters being swallowed into the vortex of modern times, the question of corruption becomes harder to justify on either side because of the complexity of each religious system. On one hand, the Monk is simply a bad monk who does not follow his teachings. The Friar, on the other hand, brings up the real debate on corruption. How people choose to define corruption itself will alter this argument and even change the way people view Chaucer’s characters. On one hand, people can argue that Chaucer is indeed illustrating these characters as corrupt. They could also argue that Chaucer is simply characterizing these two as smart for finding a way around the system for their own personal gain. Whether or not that is corruption, these two characters are gateways into the endless debate of religious corruption which spans throughout multiple generations.
Blake, John. “How Passing the Plate Becomes a ‘Sunday Morning Stickup'” CNN. Cable News Network, 14 June 2015. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/14/us/sunday-stickup/ >.
Foxnews.com. “Detroit Pastor Shoots, Kills Hammer-wielding Church Intruder.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 19 Oct. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2015. <http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/10/19/pastor-shoots-brick-wielding-man-in-detroit-cops-say/ >
Kuruvilla, Carol. “Pastor Calls Swanky $1.7 Million Mansion a ‘gift from God’.” NY Daily News. Mortimer Zuckerman, 30 Oct. 2013. Web. 18 Oct. 2015. <http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/north-carolina-pastor-1-7-million-home-gift-god-article-1.1501934 >