It is a sad commentary on the clergy that, in the Middle Ages, this class that was responsible for morality was often the class most marked by corruption. Few works of the times satirically highlight this phenomenon as well as The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer’s "General Prologue" introduces us to a cast of clergy, or "Second Estate" folk, who range in nature from pious to corrupt. The Friar seems to be an excellent example of the corrupt nature of many low-level clergymen of the times- while his activities were not heretical or heinous, his behavior is certainly not in accord with the selfless moral teachings he is supposed to espouse. According to the Narrator’s account, he is a snob, corrupted by greed, and acts in very un-Christian ways. It is clear that he is a man of low moral standards.
When we are first introduced to the Friar, we are told that he possesses a level of social grace far above his station in life. We are told that in the four begging orders, there is no one as knowledgeable in fair language and sociability as he (lines 210-211, Norton), and that he is a very ceremonious fellow (line 209). This seems out of step with a man who is supposed to make a living by begging, a man who is supposed to go through life without a roof over his head. This level of breeding and affinity for ceremony has likely come from an aristocratic birth- often, the younger sons and daughters of nobles who could not be provided for simply entered the clergy. This contributed to a large body of clergy members who came to the church not because they felt a divine calling, but simply because that is what was expected of them (his fellow pilgrim, the Prioress, als...
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...th money from those who can barely afford bread. This Friar’s morals are much closer to vice than virtue; any doubts that he is a man of low morals are now completely swept away.
Chaucer’s "General Prologue" is remarkable in that it allows us to see not only what characters may claim to represent, but also how they really are inside. Chaucer’s depiction of the Friar, who should be a man of upstanding piety and virtue, makes it readily apparent that he is quite the opposite. The Friar’s elitist background and behavior, his begging-supported greed, and the vices that oppose true Christianity prove that he is a man of low moral standards. Certainly, Chaucer paints a masterful contrast of image vs. reality.
The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Sixth Edition, Volume 1.
M.H. Abrams, et al, Editor. W.W. Norton and Company. New York: 1993.
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