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Ten Reasons to Love Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: #8 and #9

  08/03/07 14:08, by , Categories: Literature

Over a year ago I linked to a story in the Guardian about a play adaptation of The Canterbury Tales that was barred from being performed in a monastery. This shouldn't really be surprising. In my periodic stroll through The Canterbury Tales I've revealed a number of very subversive and controversial elements in the tales, from dirty jokes to serious criticism of church authority. Heck, The Miller's Tale alone ought to be enough to get the book banned from most religious venues.

I suspect, though, that the monastery's objections run a little deeper than that. Of all of the targets of Chaucer's criticism and satire, the Catholic church takes the most hits. If you just read through the list of storytellers you'll find a very high representation of people affiliated with the church (it is a religious pilgrimage they're supposed to be on, after all). Of them all, there are maybe one or two pilgrims who can be considered genuinely devout and faithful. The rest are a bunch of hypocrites, crooks, and con artists. And when Chaucer begins attributing tales to them they get even worse. Today I would like to highlight just two such tales.

Reason #8: The Summoner's Tale

There's a great rivalry between the Summoner and the Friar, born of an apparently long-standing hatred. Like the Miller and the Reeve, these two religious men let their rivalry play out in the tales they tell, which makes things a lot of fun for the reader.

The Friar tells his tale first. It's an okay tale, but not really worth going into in detail here. Suffice it to say that the tale is filled with harsh criticisms of summoners, claiming they use their duty of calling sinners to appear in church as leverage to extort bribes. Chaucer's Summoner is incensed at the accusation, perhaps because it hits too close to the mark, and he fires back with his own satire of greedy friars.

While the Friar's Tale is a pretty serious and straightforward tale of a corrupt man receiving his comeuppance, the Summoner's Tale is a clever and extremely funny work of satire. He begins with a friar who travels from church to church, preaching and begging for payment. It's obvious what the man's motivation is, for as soon as he receives his payment he leaves a place to go on to the next. He would also write down the names of his benefactors, promising to pray for them, but after leaving he would plane the tablet, erasing the people's names.

In the tale the friar visits the home of a wealthy man who is sick in bed. The friar speaks with the wife first, telling her he had a vision of her recently deceased child ascending to heaven. Then he tells her the reason God reveals such things to him is because he has chosen a life of poverty (This and all other quotes come from Harvard's interlinear translations):

We live in poverty and in abstinence,
And secular folk in riches and expenditures
Of food and drink, and in their foul delight.
We hold this world's lust all in scorn.
Lazar and Dives lived diversely,
And diverse rewards had they thereby.
Whoever will pray, he must fast and be pure,
And fatten his soul, and make his body lean.
We fare as says the apostle; cloth and food
Suffice us, though they are not full good.
The purity and the fasting of us friars
Makes that Christ accepts our prayers.

He carries on this way for some time and his speech is just dripping with irony, considering how well he lives on people's donations. He even goes on to tell the sick man that he has not recovered because he does not give enough money to the friar. After a long and very personal sermon about the danger of anger and much more talk about the importance of giving money, this sick man has had enough. He tell the friar that he does have something to give him, but that he must swear to divide it evenly with all the other friars, which he agrees to do. Then comes the punchline:

"Now then, put in thy hand down by my back,"
Said this man, "and grope well behind.
Beneath my buttock where shalt thou find
A thing that I have hidden in private."

"Ah!" thought this friar, "That shall go with me!"
And down his hand he thrusts to the cleft
In hope to find there a gift.
And when this sick man felt this friar
About his anus grope there and here,
Amid his hand he let the friar a fart.

The tale could very well end here, with the man farting on the friar's hand, and I'm sure many people both today and in Chaucer's time would find it a satisfying tale (is there anything for timeless and universal than a fart joke?), but I think the brilliance of The Summoner's Tale is that it keeps going. The friar goes away very angry and swearing revenge. When he confesses the incident to another man in the church, though, he reveals a very interesting fact: he is angry not just because he was humiliated by this man, but because he has been trapped in a holy promise he cannot keep. He swore he would divide the gift equally among his fellow friars, but he doesn't know how he can divide a fart.

It seems that the friar is more than just a greedy swindler. He truly is a man of faith, albeit a very narrow and legalistic faith, and he takes his promise to share the gift very seriously, to the point that it makes him look like even more of a fool. There's some very funny dialogue as the friar and his confessor discuss the problem of dividing a fart, but the best bit comes at the end, when a young squire who has heard the men's problem offers a solution:

"My lord," said he, "when the weather is fair,
Without wind or disturbance of air,
Let a cartwheel be brought here into this hall;
But see that it has all its spokes --
Twelve spokes has a cartwheel commonly.
And bring me then twelve friars. Know you why?
For thirteen is a convent, as I believe.
Your confessor here, for his worthiness,
Shall complete the number of his convent.
Then shall they kneel down, all together,
And to every spoke's end, in this manner,
A friar shall very firmly lay his nose.
Your noble confessor -- may God him save! --
Shall hold his nose upright under the nave.
Then shall this churl, with belly stiff and taut
As any drum, hither be brought;
And set him right on the wheel of this cart,
Upon the nave, and make him let a fart.
And you shall see, on peril of my life (I swear),
By proof which is logical,
That equally the sound of it will go,
And also the stink, unto the spokes' ends,
Except that this worthy man, your confessor,
Because he is a man of greet honor,
Shall have the first fruit, as is reasonable.
The noble usage of friars yet is this,
The worthy men of them shall first be served;
And certainly he has it well deserved.
He has to-day taught us so much good
With preaching in the pulpit where he stood,
That I can affirm, I say for me,
He had the first smell of three farts;
And so would all his convent certainly (agree),
He bears him so faire and holily."

Now that's funny! I love the absurdity of the friars' very serious and shallow piety, which raises the joke above toilet humor to very clever satire. Chaucer can be a very witty guy when he wants to be. Sometimes, though, his satire takes a darker, subtler, and more serious tone, as in...

Reason #9: The Pardoner's Tale

To start with, the Pardoner is much different from the rest of the religious people in the company. As I mentioned above, these people (with just a couple of exceptions) are a bunch of hypocrites, swindlers, and thieves. But most of them, despite their shortcomings, are in some ways sincere about the things they teach and in the faith they profess. We saw that even though the friar shamelessly takes people's money to line his own fat pockets, takes his duties very seriously, to the point of distributing a fart evenly amongst his fellow friars. I'm not sure if this fact redeems his character or makes him even worse.

The Pardoner, though, seems to have no such illusions about the cause he serves. In his prologue he describes to the rest of the pilgrims his usual style of sermonizing. He says he always preaches the same message, that greed is the root of all evil. He tells how when his sermon is done he drags out a bunch of relics that he promises will heal the people's sufferings (for a fee). And then, in a moment of candid and brutal honesty:

My hands and my tongue go so quickly
That it is joy to see my business.
Of avarice and of such cursedness
Is all my preaching, to make them generous
To give their pennies, and namely unto me.
For my intention is only to make a profit,
And not at all for correction of sin.
I care not a bit, when they are buried,
Though their souls go picking blackberries!

This would seem to make him the very lowest kind of preacher, but at the same time it's oddly refreshing to hear a preacher who is so open about his hypocrisy. In fact, the Pardoner even considers himself better than other preachers because his intentions are better than theirs. The way he sees it, all these other religious people preach to flatter their audience, obtain glory or greater social standing, or simply out of hate. Compared to these, the Pardoner thinks merely preaching for money is a virtue. He even goes so far as to say that he is right to preach against his own personal vice (greed), for in the process he is able to truly help others turn away from their sin. But he is quick to emphasize that this is not why he does it. He's only in it for the money.

I would hardly hold this guy up as a model preacher, but I've got to at least respect the guy's honesty about himself. Plus, I think that he really is more likable than the other religious hypocrites, if only because he doesn't claim any kind of moral superiority. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's a fascinating paradox.

After revealing himself as an unabashed and amazingly self-aware hypocrite, the Pardoner begins his tale. The pilgrims have requested a moral tale from him, and he does not disappoint them. He begins with a traditional pulpit sermon condemning a wide range of sins: drinking, gambling, swearing falsely, etc. It all serves to fulfill the formula the Pardoner has already laid out in his prologue, but it also leads into the main tale about three sinners who are guilty of all the above offenses, but most of all the Pardoner's own favorite vice: greed.

These three men are drinking in a tavern one night when they see a dead man's body being carried out. The men decide to seek out and slay Death so that nobody else will have to die. On their way to find Death they come across a very old man (perhaps the legendary Wandering Jew) who claims he cannot die. The three men ask where they can find Death, and the old man rather cryptically says they will find him under a particular tree in a nearby grove.

The three men follow the directions, but instead of finding the Grim Reaper under the three they discover a great amount of gold. They are afraid to carry the gold home by daylight for fear of being seen and accused of thievery, so they resolve to wait until nightfall. In the meantime they agree that one man should go to town to get bread and wine while the other two guard the horde.

While the man is away, the remaining two realize that if they kill the third they will have more gold for themselves. So they plan to stab their friend as soon as he comes back with the food. While the third man is on his way to town, though, he gets the same idea and poisons the wine. The tale ends predictably: when the men gets back his friends stab him to death. Then they sit down to the bread and wine, and soon die themselves.

What fascinates me is that this is a very straightforward and moral tale, just like the pilgrims ask. If Chaucer had attributed it to one of the other characters it would be a fine tale, but perhaps not all that noteworthy. But he didn't attribute it to anyone else. He gave this tale to the Pardoner, and the nature of the storyteller changes it completely. The pilgrims know it's all a scam, and the Pardoner knows they know, because he told them as much himself. It's as if he's putting on an act not because he thinks he's fooling anybody, but because he wants them to appreciate his skill as a performer. And then, again reminding his audience of his true intentions, he closes his tale with this:

But, sirs, one word I forgot in my tale:
I have relics and pardons in my bag,
As fine as any man in England,
Which were given to me by the pope's hand.
If any of you will, of devotion,
Offer and have my absolution,
Come forth straightway, and kneel down here,
And meekly receive my pardon;
Or else take pardon as you travel,
All new and fresh at every mile's end,
Providing that you offer, again and again,
Gold coins or silver pennies, which are good and true.
It is an honor to every one that is here
That you may have a pardoner with sufficient power
To absolve you in the countryside as you ride,
For accidents that may happen.
Perhaps there may fall one or two
Down off his horse and break his neck in two.
Look what a safeguard is it to you all
That I happen to be in your fellowship,
Who can absolve you, both more and less (every one),
When the soul shall from the body pass.

To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.

Introduction and Reason #1: The Language

http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale

Reason #4: The Miller's Tale and Reason #5: The Reeve's Tale

Reason #6: The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Reason #7: The Wife of Bath's Tale

Reason #8: The Summoner's Tale and Reason #9: The Parson's Tale

Reason #10: Chaucer's Tales of Sir Topas and Melibee and Wrap-up

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1 comment

Comment from: Suren Jugdav [Visitor]  
Suren Jugdav

I have a degree in English here in South Africa and what concerns me is that The Canterbury tales was an integral part of my curriculum back in the 80’s.

I cant imagine that such an elevated text has such a preoccupation with flatulence and other banal material.

But humerous it is, maybe thats why my tutor preferred to recite from the Old English version!!

I suppose one must look further than the obvious comedy to decipher the message of Chaucer: that society as he knew it was a conglomerate of all types, good, bad and inbetween, which really hasnt changed much even now in 2007.

Very interesting and thought provoking
critique indeed.

09/19/07 @ 06:11

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