IT IS 16 April 1387, and a group of pilgrims is gathered at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Their goal is the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. Among them is an English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer. He decides to lampoon his fellow travellers in verse, and his depiction of church figures is merciless.
The Prioress worships rank and etiquette, and her view of Christian poverty is to display a priceless coral rosary and a shining gold brooch, and to ape the manners of the court. The Monk eschews the cloisters, preferring the greyhound stables and racing. He wears a coat edged with the finest squirrel fur, and cares not a fig for prayer and study.
It gets worse. The begging Friar is licensed to hear confessions, provided that the money is right. He is a heavy drinker, and flattery and tavern wenches are his companions. He flees a mile if he sees a party of unfortunate lepers, and is crude in his manners.
The Summoner, hired to bring citizens before the ecclesiastical courts, is repulsive and slimy. He has a penchant for under-age girls, double-dealing, and wine. Also in the company is a Pardoner, who sells pardons guaranteed to keep the gullible out of hell. He has been known to hawk pigs’ bones, claiming that they were saintly relics. Not a holy band, you might say.
IN CHAUCER’s description of the Parson, however, all the cynicism and burlesque vanishes, and we are presented with a saintly, Christ-like figure who teaches his parishioners the gospel, and is diligent, patient, and prayerful.
He prefers to forgo his tithes rather than threaten debtors with excommunication. He lives frugally, and gives generously. He is a visiting vicar nonpareil: out in foul weather, there at the first hint of illness, always on foot, calling at the farthest bounds of his parish. Unlike his contemporaries, he is never absent from his benefice. Rather than castigate wrongdoers, he attempts to draw them into the light of God.
He models his whole being on the gospel, and Chaucer lauds him generously: “You’ll never find a better priest, I swear.”
When the host invites the Parson to regale the company with a rumbustious tale, he gets short shrift: “St Paul reproves those who sell romances, fables, and like trash. Why should my hand sow chaff when, if I wish, I can sow wheat?” The disappointed audience finds itself listening to a homily, instead of a bawdy tale such as the Miller’s. But they have the last word. “Hurry up, the sun’s about to set. Bring forth your harvest and don’t take all day. God grant that you make a good job of it. Say what you please, and we will gladly listen.”
THE outcome is surprising. Remove the medieval blood and thunder, hell and damnation, and you are left with a punchy sermon that touches on many contemporary themes, even if the language is a bit fruity at times. The Parson plunges into his address with a reassurance that “Our sweet Lord God of heaven” will let no man perish, but wills that “we come all to the knowledge of him, and to the blissful life that is perdurable [everlasting].”
With surprising modernity, he concedes that “many be the ways spiritual that lead folk to our Lord Jesus Christ.” But, for him, the traditional medieval route of penitence cannot be bettered. It has three aspects: contrition, or true sorrow; confession to God, or through a priest; and satisfaction, or putting matters to rights spiritually. He uses the vivid image of a tree: the roots represent true penitence; the trunk, confession; and the twigs and branches, penance. God is always loving and merciful, and hell is of our own making.
He takes the bull by the horns with the seven deadly sins, describing their nature and offering alternatives.
Pride is the arch demon from which all other shortcomings spring. First to be castigated is the flashy dresser, with his frippery costly fur and embroidery. It will all end up threadbare and filthy from the town’s festering alleyways, and the money could be put to better use by giving to the poor. There is a hint of Page 3 in his assault on those who wear scanty clothing, “revealing their privy parts and turning their buttocks ape-shaped”. Those who rush forward to kiss the pyx in which the Blessed Sacrament is contained are proud, as are those who sit fat and fair on costly horses, or who bask in the limelight of being first to be censed during mass.
Luxurious living, and the keeping of poorly paid servants, is pride, and smacks of today’s people-trafficking. Then comes a diatribe against those who use contraception, or procure abortion through the drinking of harmful herbs. The remedy for the heinous sin of pride is simple: the Christian pilgrim should take on the cloak of humility in his worship of God.
Anger comes next, and the Parson likens it to the blacksmith’s plunging a red-hot iron into water. It causes immense harm. “Anger troubles the planets and chases the Holy Spirit out of a man’s heart.” Love alone is the healing salve for envy: “Love is the medicine that casts the venom of envy out of the soul.”
Sloth manifests itself as lack of prayer, and a neglect of the sacraments. Backgammon and the holding of raffles are dismissed as an idle waste of time. Think again, church fund-raisers!
From avarice spring despicable tentacles of oppression — slavery, lying, and thieving. The gambler, the Parson says, is “like a horse choosing to drink dirty water rather than the water from a clear well”.
The glutton wallows in greed and insalubrity, and has a grasping temperament. Abstinence, tinged with temperance, is his only cure.
Lechery is the Parson’s bête noire. The lecherous man is like a dog running loose, coupling with everything that comes its way. Adultery, too, is a grave offence.
THE themes found in the Parson’s address, when freed from medieval overkill, could well be addressed to our own society. The same wrongdoing as poisoned the medieval air bedevils our world today. Both societies have been interwoven with a materialistic vision that inexorably pushes God into the background, finally to disappear in a bleak, atheistic world-perception.
Chaucer’s writing prefigures modern slavery, the gross misuse and worship of money, and a sexual revolution that has taken the beauty and glory out of sexuality, and darkened it with abuse and sex trafficking. Avarice and greed, warfare and fanaticism — all have a precursor in the Parson’s Tale.
His words ring down the ages as a blueprint for the clergy and laity, the Church and society. Perhaps we should ponder them in our praying.
Chaucer ends on a glorious rose-coloured note of optimism, which encourages us to set about building a divinely inspired world. “Ahead lies the bliss of heaven, where joy hath no contrariety of woe, and every soul is replenished with a sight of the perfect knowing of God.”
The Revd David Bryant is a retired priest, living in Yorkshire.