Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Concept of Charity in the General Prologue

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Concept of Charity in the General Prologue

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The Concept of Charity in the General Prologue

In the "General Prologue," Chaucer presents an array of characters from

the 1400's in order to paint portraits of human dishonesty and stupidity as well

as virtue.  Out of these twenty-nine character portraits three of them are

especially interesting because they deal with charity.  Charity during the

1400's, was a virtue of both religious and human traits.  One character, the

Parson, exemplifies Chaucer's idea of charity, and two characters, Prioress, and

Friar, to satirize the idea of charity and show that they are using charity for

either devious reasons or out of convention or habit.


      According to the definition from the Webster's dictionary, charity means

giving to the needy and helping the poor.  In Chaucer's time, however, charity

meant much more.  It included a love of G-d and doing the will of G-d as well as

the kind of person one is.  Thus Charity had two parts, one human, the other

divine.  Two parts that mixed in different portions depending on a person.

Charity was a human virtue that the Church encouraged.  People believed that if

one does something good, he will be rewarded by G-d.  Many people did meaningful,

charitable things out the goodness of their hearts, but others had done it for

other reasons.  Those reasons included making money from people's suffering and

giving to charity because someone told them to do so, rather than from the

goodness of their hearts or to ease the suffering of others.  Chaucer plays off

both of these parts of charity in his portraits to show how they can be combined

differently in different people and to distinguish "true" charity from "false"



      Parson exemplifies Chaucer's idea of true charity.  Even though Parson

does not have any money, he considers himself rich spiritually.  Going around

the village, he teaches the poor and those who can't go to church about what G-d

is and how to be a religious person.  He gives more than he receives.  In fact,

he avoids preaching to the rich and well-to-do because he prefers going to the

humble and poor, who truly need his help and G-d.  He doesn't run to London to

earn easy bread

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      By singing masses for the wealthy dead,

      Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.

      He stayed at home and watched over his fold

     So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry.  (p.16)


Parson is seen as an ideal priest, and his actions describe the real meaning of

what charity is.  He is "virtuous," "Never contemptuous" toward sinners, "never

disdainful," and "discreet."(p.17)  Getting people to Heaven is his main goal,

not their money or his own advancement.


      Friar, on the other hand, uses charity for devious purposes.  By getting

a license from the Pope, which lets him go around the country and hear

confessions, he uses this license to make money for himself.  Also he runs an

agency in which he fixes up young women with men for a fee.  Unlike Parson, who

goes out of his way to help the poor, the Friar thinks that


     nothing good can come

      Of commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers,

      But only with the rich and victual-sellers. (p.9)


By visiting only rich people, Friar's primary purpose is to make money and not

to give forgiveness for the sins as he is supposed to do.  He is using his

position for his own purposes under the disguise of charity, which in his case

is being greedy and being guilty of committing one of the seven sins.


      Without knowing it, Prioress uses charity as a convention.  Since her

father does not have enough for a dowry, he is forced to send Prioress to  a

nunnery.  Prioress does not have much of a choice herself, since in the Middle

Ages, women had little choice in their future, usually being married or becoming

prostitutes.  Because she grew up in a wealthy, not very religious family, she

does not know the real meaning of being a nun and of what charity means beyond

what the Church has told her.  Because she is told that she has to follow a

certain discipline, she complies with it without questioning the true meaning.

Instead of helping poor people, she helps animals by feeding them, simply

because the Church said feed the needy.


     She had little dogs she would be feeding.

      With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (p.7)


The way she eats "no morsel from her lips did she let fall"(p.6), the way she

dresses, " Her cloak ... had a graceful charm...whence hung a golden brooch of

brightest sheen....(p.7),  suggests that she belongs to an upper class and not to

the order of nuns.  Chaucer shows that she follows the denotative meaning of

charity.  She knows what charity means intellectually and religiously but has

not experienced it spiritually.  Ironically, around her neck she wears a brooch

that declares "Love Conquers All," (p.7) without having slightest indication of

what this statement truly means.


      By presenting us with these characters, Chaucer presents an overview of

charity during the Middle Ages. One character, the Parson, exemplifies Chaucer's idea of charity, and two

characters, Prioress, and Friar, to satirize the idea of charity and show that they are using charity for

either devious reasons or out of convention or habit.


Works Cited and Consulted

Hallissy, Margaret.  A Companion to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  London:  Greenwood Press, 1995.

Lambdin, Laura C. and Robert T. Lambdin, ed.  Chaucer's Pilgrims:  A Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.  London:  Greenwood Press, 1996.

Nardo, Don, ed.  Readings on the Canterbury Tales.  San Diego:  Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Serrailler, Ian.  Chaucer and his World.  New York:  Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1968.

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