Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer comments on moral corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. He criticizes many high-ranking members of the Church and describes a lack of morality in medieval society; yet in the “Retraction,” Chaucer recants much of his work and pledges to be true to Christianity. Seemingly opposite views exist within the “Retraction” and The Canterbury Tales. However, this contradiction does not weaken Chaucer’s social commentary. Rather, the “Retraction” emphasizes Chaucer’s criticism of the Church and society in The Canterbury Tales by reinforcing the risk inherent in doing so.

In The Canterbury Tales Chaucer portrays the Roman Catholic Church as an institution in which corruption runs rampant. Chaucer attacks almost all of the pilgrims who are officials of the Church. For example, in “The General Prologue,” the Prioress is “so charitable and so pitous” that she feeds her lapdogs “With rosted flessh, or milk and wastelbreed” (143, 147). However, considering the impoverished condition of many people during the Middle Ages, would it not be more charitable for the Prioress to give meat, milk and bread to the poor, instead of to her dogs? Furthermore, the Friar breaks the Franciscan vows of poverty, chastity and service. Instead of helping lepers and beggars, the Friar “knew [knows] the tavernes wel in every town, / And every hostiler and tappestere” (GP 241-2). The Friar is also wealthy from the profits of bribed confessions; he dresses not like a poor Franciscan should, but “lik a maister or a pope” (GP 263). The Pardoner also admits and even boasts about his own hypocritical morals. He explains that the relics he sells are fake, along with the absolutions he gi...

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... the presence of corruption within the Church; the personal interests of the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, and even the Sergeant at Law reflect the effects of the Church in society.

The stark contrast between the devout tone of the “Retraction” and the critical tone of The Canterbury Tales highlight Chaucer’s commentary on the corruption of the Church. The “Retraction” reminds the reader of the severe consequences of opposing the Church during the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s profession of faith, which appears so out of context in comparison to many aspects of The Canterbury Tales, actually reinforces the theme of corruption within the Roman Catholic Church and within society. Separately, the “Retraction” and The Canterbury Tales give contrasting views of medieval life; together, they create a unified account of individual immorality caused by corruption of the Church.
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