Chaucer’s Criticism of the Catholic Church in The Canterbury Tales

Last Updated: 19 Apr 2023
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It is said that Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the greatest English writers of all times. With Chaucer's straight forward personality, it is not shocking that he would express his arguments or beliefs through his work. One main points he made apparent in his writing was corruption going on in the Catholic Church During Chaucer's time, indulgences were of great controversy and Chaucer, along with many other people, were against them. He took this time to voice his feelings about the situation and wrote one of his most famous works; The Canterbury Tales.

The Canterbury Tales is a series of tales, told by pilgrims on their journey to the shrine of Saint Becket. Many thought that Chaucer was simply telling a story, but little did people know he was criticizing the Catholic Church. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in order to preach a sermon against the Seven Deadly Sins due to its corruption in the Catholic Church. Within The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses the tales of certain characters to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins and corruption. The fabliau, as it took new form under Chaucer's compelling interest in characterization, brought him up against problems of mortality that were to become basic in the developed Canterbury Tales” (Owen 226). He uses tales such as The Knight's Tale, The Miller's Tale, The Pardoner's Tale, The Reeve's Tale, and The Parson's Tale which was a sermon itself. Notice he uses characters such as the pardoner and parson; members of the clergy to show that sinning was taking place in a holy place like the Catholic Church. Chaucer makes sure that he displays all the Seven Deadly Sins in his tales and some tales represent more than one of the sins.

The Seven Deadly Sins consist of Lust, Gluttony, Avarice, Sloth, Anger, Jealousy, and Pride. According to New Advent, Lust is the inordinate craving for, or indulgence of, the carnal pleasure which is experienced in the human organs of generation. Sloth is said to be the disinclination to labor or exertion. Gluttony means excessive indulgence. Avarice is the inordinate loves for riches. Anger is defined as the desire of vengeance. Jealousy is a sorrow which one entertains at another's well-being because of their view that one's own excellence is in consequence lessened.

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Lastly, Pride is the excessive love of one's own excellence (Delany). Everyone of these sins are used in the following tales. One of the first tales in The Canterbury Tales to symbolize the Seven Deadly Sins was The Knight's Tale. In The Knight's Tale, Duke Theseus of Athens, is on his way home from attacking Scythia. While he was there, he wins over a wife and what now is a sister-in-law; Emily. Along the way, Theseus runs into a group of crying women. They beg Theseus to take revenge on Creon, the King of Thebes, because he refuses to bury their husbands.

The oldest women stated “Their bodies were dragged out onto the plain into a heap, and there, as we have learnt, they neither may have burial nor be burnt, but he makes dogs devour them, in scorn” (28). Theseus decides to fight Creon, and beats him. After winning against Creon, he takes two of his men; Palamon and Arcite to be servants for his castle. The servants are thrown in the tower to work without ransom. Over time, they both fall in love with Emily after watching her through the tower window. One day Arcite is let go, but with the promise of never returning.

Arcite is envious of Palamon being able to see Emily everyday. On the other hand, Palamon was envious of Arcite being able to form an army to get Emily back. Arcite comes back in disguise and Palamon escapes, they run into one another and decide to fight over Emily. Arcite wins the battle, but with complications that caused death. Emily ends up marrying Palamon in the end, “That is called matrimony, also marriage, by counsel of the Duke and all his peerage. And thus with every bliss and melody Palamon was espoused to Emily” (86). The sins associated with this tale are Lust, Anger, Sloth and Jealousy.

Since the characters in the tale did wrong and committed these sins, they had consequences. When Arcite and Palamon both Lust over Emily, it makes tension among them and makes it harder on themselves because they have no way of showing her affection. When Creon refuses to bury the bodies of the husbands, that shows Sloth, because of this Creon and Duke Theseus fight. Jealousy shows when Arcite and Palamon envy one other for being able to see Emily, this leads to them being angry at each another which eventually leads to greater problems. Anger shows up when Arcite and Palamon fight over Emily, which ends up with Arcite dying.

This shows that with sinning, comes consequences. The next tale that Chaucer uses to preach is The Miller's Tale. The Miller's Tale is the tale of a carpenter, his young wife and two students. To make money, John rents rooms in his house to a boy named Nicholas. Nicholas soon has his eye set on Alison. Another boy in town, Absalon also has his eye on Alison. The trouble begins when John leaves home on a trip. While John is out, Nicholas and Alison have an affair. Not much longer after the affair, Alison goes to church where she is hit on by Absalon. She shows no affection towards him because she is in love with Nicholas.

Alison and Nicholas think of a plan to trick John so they can have more alone time. Nicholas convinces John that God is sending a flood. “Rain is to fall in torrents, such a scud it will be twice as bad as Noah's Flood. This world,' he said, 'in just about an hour, Shall all be drowned, it's such a hideous shower, and all mankind, with total loss of life” (97). He says that God told him they should hang three large buckets from the ceiling to sleep in and when the water got high, they would cut the ropes. John believes him and goes along with the plan.

John thinks his wife is in her bucket, but little does he know that she is with Nicholas. Later that night, Absalon comes to the window and asks Alison to give him a kiss Instead of her lips, she sticks her butt out the window. Angry, Absalon gets a hot brand to brand Alison, but Nicholas sticks his butt out. Absalon brands Nicolas and he yells out "Water. " John thinks the flood is here and cuts his rope. The whole town hears about the situation and makes fun of John. The two sins tied into this tale are Lust and Anger. Lust is shown when both Absalon and Nicholas lust over the young wife of John.

Since Nicholas lusted over her, it caused them to have an affair and Absalon lusting over made him go to the bedroom window which caused more problems. Anger sets in when Alison sticks her butt out of the window instead of her lips, when Absalon realizes, he turns angry and gets the hot brand and ends up branding Nicholas instead. This makes Nicholas yell out and than John cuts the ropes and makes a mockery out of himself by the town. Chaucer did not stop at just one or two tales, he decided to take it even further and use The Pardoner's Tale to help further his voice.

In the Pardoner's tale, he starts off by going on a rant about young Flemish people who spend their time drinking, gambling, and swearing. He than starts back to his story. Three rioters are drinking and talking about a friend who was killed earlier by a thing called Death, “Many and grisly were the oaths they swore, tearing Christ's blessed body to a shred; 'if we can only catch him, Death is Dead” (251). Outraged about their friend dying, the men go on a hunt to find and kill Death. On their way, they run into an old man who tells them that they can find Death underneath an oak tree. Pleased, the men rush to the tree to only find gold.

They plan to steal the gold, but wait until night. During the wait, they send one man to go get wine and bread. While he is gone, they plot to kill him in order to split the gold. The man who went to fetch the bread, and wine was also thinking similarly. He poisons the other two's wine and heads back to the tree, but to only get killed when he arrived. Excited about the gold, they drink the dead man's poisoned wine and they soon die. He goes to end his story, but forgets he had pardons and relics in his bag and asks for contribution. There are both Avarice and Gluttony take place in the Pardoner's Tale.

We see Avarice take place when they set their eyes on the gold, all men are eager to get all the gold and in the end, their greed kills them all. We also see Gluttony, it takes place when the pardoner starts off talking about the Flemish boys, we also see it when the men are drinking too much in the bar. Them drinking too much in the bar, lead to them making stupid plans to kill Death. In the end they end up dead because of greed and a little too much to drink. The Reeves Tale's is yet another tale used by Chaucer to preach. The Reeve's Tale is about a miller named Simpkin who likes to fight and enjoys wrestling.

Most people don't talk to him and he cheats his customers by robbing corn from them. He also "paddles" their flour cheap substances. When the manciple of a school gets sick, the miller takes the opportunity to cheat the school even more. Two students, Alan and John are sent to do it for the school so they will not be cheated. When they arrive at the mill, Alan and John tell Simpkin that they will watch the corn being ground so they are not cheated. Simpkin gets angry and he unties their horses. When they find out the horses are missing, they go looking for them, giving Simpkin time to steal flour from them.

He later has his wife bake a cake with it. Having wasted the whole day, Alan and John decide to stay the night at Simpkin's house Alan sneaks and has intercourse with Simpkin's daughter. John does the same with Simpkin's wife. He does this by moving the cradle to her bed to his so she will climb in with him. When Alan goes to bed he mistakes the cradle and goes into bed with Simpkin. Thinking he is John, Alan tells Simpkin that he had intercourse with the miller's daughter. Enraged, Simpkin rises out of bed and punches Alan in the nose. Alan and John beat Simpkin up, then run away picking up the cake made of their robbed flour on the way out.

In the Reeve's Tale, there are many sins. We see Avarice, Anger, and Pride. We see avarice when the miller robs all the corn and flour, which results in the boys sleeping with his daughter and wife. We see Anger when the boys find out about the miller robbing them and anger when the miller finds out about the boys sleeping with the women, which causes a fight. We also see pride when Alan brags about sleeping with the miller's daughter to which he thought was John, which caused the miller to throw the first punch. “Chaucer had in mind the other Tales, when he finally conducted the Parsons through his against the Vices they illustrate?

To me the conclusion seems unavoidable that this division of the Parson's sermon is but the culmination of the frequently recurring motifs of the Seven Deadly Sins” (Tupper 117). The Parson splits his sermon up into the three parts. He speaks of contrition, he talks of confession and he goes into depth about each of the seven deadly sins. Throughout the tale, the Parson recites several passages from the Bible. Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in order to preach a sermon against the Seven Deadly Sins due to its corruption in the Catholic Church.

It is obvious that he used tales such as the Knight's tale, the Miller's Tale, the Pardoner's tale, the Reeve's tale and especially the Parson's tale to get his point across. Even though The Canterbury Tales was never finished by Chaucer, it was a strong enough work to make people ask questions and think about the corruption going in the Catholic Church. Works Cited Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Penguin Classics, 1997. Delany, Joseph. ”Anger. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/01489a. htm;. Delany, Joseph. “Avarice. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/02148b. htm;. Delany, Joseph. ”Gluttony. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/02148a. htm;. Delany, Joseph. “ Jealousy. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/08326b. htm;. Delany, Joseph. “Lust. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. rg/cathen/09438a. htm;. Delany, Joseph. “Pride. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 12. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/12405a. htm;. Delany, Joseph. “Sloth. ” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 14. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 13 Mar. 2013 ;http://www. newadvant. org/cathen/14057c. htm;. Owen, Charles A. Jr. "Mortality as a Comic Motif in the Canterbury Tales. " National Council of Teachers of English. 16. 4 (1955): 226-232. Print. Tupper, Fredrick Jr. "Chaucer and The Seven Deadly Sins. "Modern Language Association America. XXIX. 1 (1914): 117. Print.

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Chaucer’s Criticism of the Catholic Church in The Canterbury Tales. (2017, Apr 12). Retrieved from

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