Church Criticism in "The Canterbury Tales"

The Monk and the Prioress in the Light of Pre-Reformation

Hausarbeit, 2014

14 Seiten, Note: 1,7


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 The Prioress
2.1 The Prioress in the General Prologue
2.2 The Prioress's Tale

3 The Monk
3.1 The Monk in the General Prologue
3.2 The Monk'sTale

4 Conclusion


1 Introduction

Throughout medieval times religion and Church were important and dominant aspects of life. Almost every part of daily routine was influenced and controlled by religious elements and prescriptions. The Church tried hard to bind everyone to its system of a “single moral community” (Rhodes 2005: 81) and so the way how people thought and lived their lives was strongly dominated by religious beliefs, bonds and rules. Thus, it is not surprising that religion and Church play a significant role in Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ as well. This is firstly clear through the religious motivated pilgrimage to Canterbury which is the connecting element between the single tales. Secondly, the six ecclesiastical members of the pilgrimage, which Chaucer describes, show the omnipresence of churchly power. Furthermore there are religious elements and hints in almost every single story of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. So to speak, Chaucer’s collection of tales is saturated with religious and ecclesiastical elements, images and topics.

Although the Church was so important, powerful and present it was not free from criticism. Especially in Chaucer’s time the Church underwent a critical phase. During the centuries between antiquity and the Late Middle Ages the Church was becoming more and more powerful. At the time when Chaucer wrote his ‘Canterbury Tales’, the Church was an extremely wealthy and predominant organization that was highly embedded in politics. This connection between religion, politics, prosperity and the will to protect the won rights led inter alia to secularization and corruption and the Church diverged from its own moralities. Considering that, the ecclesiastical authorities had problems to fulfil their spiritual mission convincingly. Furthermore, the papal schism between 1378 and 1418 decreased the Church’s confidence basis because two popes (later three) claimed to be the highest Christian authority (Brown 2011: 35). All these conflicts led to controversies and debates about Church and religion since the late fourteenth century was a vivid period for parishioners in the medieval Europe to question the established Church and its authorities (Rhodes 2005: 81). This is clear from the writings and debates of John Wyclif, an English theologian who lived between 1330 and 1384 (LexMA s.v. “Wyclif”). He levelled harsh criticism at the Catholic Church and its representatives. First and foremost he criticised the clergy’s corruption and their opulent lifestyle that was in contrast to their vows of contentment. Thus, he and his followers, the ‘Lollards’, claimed a church without property and deplored the accumulation of money (Amtower & Vanhoutte 2009: 212, 215). Furthermore, he postulated the return to a simpler form of religion that is only based on the bible in vernacular and on no other texts (Brewer 1974: 23). With this return, he connected the abolition of the administrative hierarchy that had developed in church during the Late Middle Ages as well. However, the most discussed element of Wyclifs criticism was his position to the Eucharist since he rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, which says that bread and wine used during the Eucharist become the real body and blood of Jesus Christ (Amtower & Vanhoutte 2009: 13). Even though, Wyclif and his Lollards did not succeed, they are often regarded as precursors of the reformation that started with Martin Luther at the beginning of the 16th century.

Chaucer did not describe his relation to such pre-reformatory movements in detail but his criticism in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ overlaps with them in some points. The question that arises therefore is, whether Chaucer can be seen as a pre-reformatory author or not. To answer this question it would be necessary to analyze all religious aspects of the ‘Canterbury Tales’, which were an undeniably monumental endeavour. Due to the restricted space of that term paper the focus of this research will be laid on two central pilgrims and their tales: the monk and the prioress. Since both characters are described explicitly in the prologue and represent the ecclesiastical establishment they serve as a good example for Chaucer’s church criticism.

2 The Prioress

The Prioress is probably one of the most discussed characters of the ‘Canterbury Tales’ due to her story, which contains strong anti-Semitic motives. However, whether Chaucer was an anti-Semite or not shall not be discussed here any further[1]. This chapter is only about the question whether the description and tale of the prioress can be seen as a pre-reformatory criticism or not.

The profession of prioress was already at Chaucer’s times a very old one since it existed even back then for more than eight centuries (Hourigan 1996: 40). Originally, the prioress’ main activity was to pray, to read and to carry out manual labour in a monastic community which followed the rules of St. Benedict. Even though the women were not allowed to leave the monastery without cogent reasons, these Benedictine orders were so popular, that they could spread all over Europe and many women from upper class entered such nunneries either to increase their social status or for other reasons. Already in the late Early Middle Ages, these nunneries had compiled so much fortune and power, that they could exert big influence on social and political processes (Hourigan 1996: 41). In the Late Middle Ages the power of the nunneries had increased even more and so changes in the prioress’ field of activity went along. At Chaucer’s times a prioress managed all of the business matters of her nunnery. She had to watch about the other nuns, the staff and the finances. Furthermore she had to be a hostess for the neighbouring nobility, travellers and wives which were boarded there by their husbands. Accordingly, the profession of a prioress was very demanding and thus required responsible and qualified women to fulfil it. But some prioresses used their new expansion of authority and power to break with the rules. Many of them ventured forth pretending doing business for their monasteries and thereby neglected their duties, which led to criticism and reform movements (Hourigan 1996: 43). The prioress in the ‘Canterbury Tales’ is a good example of such a case.

2.1 The Prioress in the General Prologue

The description of the prioress called Madame Eglentyne in the General Prologue is useful for the purpose of this term paper because it is very detailed. She is described as a handsome woman since she has a well formed nose, eyes “greye as glas” (GP 152) , an elegant mouth with “softe and reed” lips (GP 153) and a very elegant dress. Furthermore she speaks French, seems to have good manners and is described as “charitable and [...] pitous” (GP 143), what adds a degree of gracefulness to her personality. At the first glance, she seems to be the proper choice for the profession of a prioress. But a closer reading leads to another point of view.

Chaucer describes the prioress basically in three different ways: in her appearance, in her behaviour and in her moral attitude. In the description of her appearance Chaucer puts a strong emphasize on elements which are not consistent with the medieval ideal conception of a poor and frugal church.

Ful fety was hir cloke, as I was war.

Of small coral aboute hire arm she bar A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene, And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene, [.] (GP 157-160)

Eglentyne’s penchant for expensive clothes and luxurious rosaries made of gold and coral reveals her materialistic interests, which are far away from spiritual ideals of a monastery life. This attitude is emphasised through the fact that her “gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy” (GP 120), a saint who worked as a goldsmith under King Chlothar II. in the Early Middle Ages (LexMA s.v. “Eglesius”). In the description of her behaviour Chaucer uses many lines 2 All quotations of "The CanterburyTales" are taken from: Benson, Larry Dean, ed.. "The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. to tell the reader about Madame Eglentyne’s ambitions to appear elegant. Besides speaking French she is intend to show good table manners (GP 124-141). Both things she probably would not necessarily need for her daily work at the monastery. So she definitely tries to imitate the courtly behaviour, which is more a secular than a spiritual desire. This can be seen as a criticism on the increasing secularization of the church in the Late Middle Ages. Furthermore, the focus on her table manners can be seen as criticism in a second way since Stephen Spector argues that “such table manners among women’s wiles to attract men.” (Spector 2007: 186) This, of course, displays a severe breach against the rules of living in a monastery. The third element of the prioress’s description is focused on her charity and her compassion, two attitudes which are basic to the Christian ideal of altruism. Eglentyne is described as compassionate in such a way, that she would cry if she saw a bleeding or dead mouse in a trap or if one of her beloved little dogs would die or get beaten with a stick (GP 143-149). At least for animal lovers and taken in isolation, this is not a bad attitude. But considered in a medieval context, this passage reveals harsh criticism of misdirected charity. There is no reference to Christian compassion towards human beings and so the prioress seems not to fulfil her duty for the parish.

In conclusion, the prioress described in the ‘General Prologue’ is totally improper to her profession. She is described as a materialistic and rich woman, which is more interested in profane things instead of fulfilling her religious role. The fact that she is far away from her monastery on a pilgrimage, a practice which was forbidden by bishops several times in history and condemned by the Lollards, emphasises this (Hourigan 1996: 41 and Amtower 2009: 216). All the more surprising is the sudden initiation of her alleged spirituality when she starts to tell her tale.

2.2 The Prioress's Tale

Madame Eglentyne’s tale fits to the category of ‘mariales’, which are simple and short stories about miracles done by Mary, the mother of Jesus (Patterson 2008: 68). It is about an innocent seven year old boy who learns the ‘Alma redemptoris’ by heart even though he does not understand it at all since it is in Latin. He sings it twice a day on his way to and from school passing the Jewish quarter of the city. One day, the Jews hire a murderer who cuts the boy’s throat and throws him into the town sewer. By the intervention of Mary, who puts a grain upon his tongue, the boy is still able to sing the ‘Alma redemptoris’. So the Christian community finds him, punishes the Jews and carries him to the main altar where the abbot removes the grain. The boy finally dies and is taken to heaven by Mary.


[1] see: Patterson, Lee. 2008. The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption: Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer's Prioress Tale. In Harold Bloom (ed.), Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury tales, 59-108. New York, NY: Bloom's Literary Criticism.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 14 Seiten


Church Criticism in "The Canterbury Tales"
The Monk and the Prioress in the Light of Pre-Reformation
Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
The Fabliau in English
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
465 KB
church, criticism, canterbury, tales, monk, prioress, light, pre-reformation
Arbeit zitieren
Sebastian Flock (Autor:in), 2014, Church Criticism in "The Canterbury Tales", München, GRIN Verlag,


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