The minister in “The Canterbury Tales” was diligent in teaching—and in following—Christ’s “lore”
The picture of the Parson in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales is remarkably candid. Chaucer understood the pressures under which a parson must work. He respected the balance of human and godly attributes that must be found in the character of the minister, and he was sensitive to the parson’s relation with his fellow Christians.
Most people remember Chaucer as the author of Middle English prose and verse who wrote the passage beginning “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote …” that they had to memorize in English class. If they have read some of the Canterbury Tales in translation, they might also remember Chaucer as a racy and down-to-earth sort of man.
Some might think that a writer who lived from 1340 to 1400 could hardly be expected to say anything with much value for the modern Christian. And the man who gave us the earthy picture of the Wife of Bath or made no bones about adultery in the “Miller’s Tale” and the “Shipman’s Tale” would not seem to have much to tell us about the ministry in our times.
Such a judgment, however, is superficial. Chaucer’s understanding of human nature is not dated. Although he wrote realistically about human depravity (but without the self-conscious morbidity of many a modern writer), his perspective also included love and romance, philosophy and religion.
In their leisurely travel to Canterbury, the pilgrims are urged by the Host to tell stories to enliven the trip. As they share fables, tragedies, exhortations, and narratives of mischief, of knights and chivalry, and of cheating in love and trickery, some of the pilgrims typify their calling and station in life, while others stand out as real persons. In the fascinating interplay of bickering and discussion, insinuation and rebuttal that Chaucer gives, the setting of the tales comes alive.
Much of Chaucer’s genius lay in catching and communicating genuine feeling and thought and motive. He understood the give and take of personal relationships. He had a sharp insight into the balance of good and evil, wit and stubbornness, maturity and immaturity that may exist in a person. He was a storyteller and poet of superb ability who was excited and delighted by all sorts of people.
The Parson, although not so vivid and lively a character as others, such as the Wife of Bath, is nevertheless a likable, approachable man of integrity.
A good man was there of religion,
Who was a poor Parson of a town
But rich he was in holy thought and work.
He was a learned man also, a clerk,
Who Christ’s own gospel truly sought to preach;
Devoutly his parishioners would he teach.
Benign he was and wondrous diligent.…
At once Chaucer balances the spiritual riches of his Parson against his material poverty. Today, six hundred years later, the image of the “poor parson of a town” has lost a bit of its force. But the companion picture—of a man “rich … in holy thought and work”—has not. A pastor “who Christ’s own gospel” seeks to preach is indeed rich in thought and work. Chaucer’s Parson was also devoutly earnest in teaching and “wondrous diligent.”
He was right loath to curse [excommunicate] to get a tithe,
But rather would he give, in case of doubt,
To those poor parishioners about,
Part of his income, even of his substance.
He could in little things have sufficience.
Has the pastoral image changed? As cynical as Chaucer could be about his earthier characters, he was sensitive to the pastor’s reluctance to demand money. In that day a man could be excommunicated for failing to pay his tithe. It was not the parson’s duty to pronounce the excommunication, but he could exclude the offender from the sacraments and declare him “liable to the excommunication,” which would be pronounced by the bishop.
Scholarship indicates that Chaucer was probably echoing Wycliffe in his protests against the abuse of such practices. The ideal pastor was reluctant to use excommunication to extract offerings. Rather he would be inclined to be a Good Samaritan himself. No doubt Chaucer knew of cases in which the parson had confronted real need and responded with his own goods.
The summary line, “He could in little things have sufficience,” is expressed by one translator, “Enough with little, coloured all his moods.” Chaucer must have regarded it a fit motto.
What of the Parson’s parish practices? Surely he had nothing in common with the modern minister.
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness or mischief [sin], to visit
The farthest in his parish, small and great,
Going afoot, and in his hand a stave.
The modern pastor who averages twenty to fifty calls a week would be quite hampered (though perhaps hardier) if he had to visit on foot with stave in hand. Yet he can share the feeling of Chaucer’s parson that his parish is wide and that some houses are “far asunder.” Still the best ministers fail not “for rain or thunder” to visit the farthest in their parishes, great or small. And “in sickness or in sin” is still accurate and oddly inclusive.
What of the Parson’s preaching?
This fine example to his flock he gave,
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto—
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
The Parson—who “first wrought and afterwards taught”—thus serves as a good example of Matthew 5:19b, “He who does them [these commandments] and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
The Parson was a “learned man,” the introductory lines tell us, but his most effective sermon seemed to be his life itself. He did not exhort on one level and live on another, as did the Monk in the “Shipman’s Tale” and the Friar in the “Summoner’s Tale.”
When the Host presses him for a story, the Parson says he will not tell a fable or idle story but will speak of “moralitee and vertuous mateere”—which is exactly what he does. He gives a long philosophical treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins, much in the manner of solemn writers of his day.
That the Parson introduces his sermon as a “merry tale” has caused speculation as to whether Chaucer meant the introduction to apply to some other tale. Yet it may merely indicate the Parson’s or Chaucer’s sense of humor. Although the Host tells him to hasten or “the sonne woll adoun,” the meditation covers thirty pages in one version of the tales and seventy in another! Surely only a captive audience would listen to such a long discourse. The travelers were, in a sense, a captive audience. And perhaps parishioners of the fourteenth century were able to concentrate on serious matters longer, being unaccustomed to learning via television, radio, picture magazines, and twenty-minute sermons.
The next observation Chaucer makes is that the Parson does not do a lot of running around looking for a better job:
He never let his benefice for hire,
And left his sheep encumbered in the mire,
And ran to London unto Saint Paul’s
To seek himself a chantry there for souls,
Nor in some brotherhood did he withhold;
But dwelt at home, and kept so well his folk
That never wolf could make his plans miscarry;
He was a shepherd and not a mercenary.…
A “mercenary” was a priest who made a living by saying masses for a soul. This service was called a “chantry” or “chaunterie.” This life, Chaucer implies, was a softer one than that of being a parish shepherd who stayed home and tended the sheep. The line about the “brotherhood” refers to the practice of being engaged by a guild as a chaplain.
Chaucer describes how the fourteenth-century pastor treated other human beings:
And though he holy were and virtuous
He was to sinful man not contemptuous,
Nor of his speech arrogant or too divine [haughty],
But in his teaching discreet and benign.
To draw folk to heaven by fairness [the good life],
By good example, this was his busyness.
In the 1300s it was commendable, as it is today, not to be pharisaical. Neither pastor nor layman could establish communication with another of less virtuous character if he were “haughty.”
But if any person were obstinate,
Whatsoever he were, of high or low estate,
Him would he reprimand sharply for the occasion.
The Parson was no fence-sitter. If necessary he could utter pointed and courageous reproof.
The final accolade indicates why Chaucer respected a parson like this:
A better priest I trust there nowhere is.
He sought after no pomp or reverence
Nor made himself a spiced [overscrupulous] conscience,
But Christ’s own lore and his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.
“Spiced” meant “seasoned,” in the sense of overly refined. The Parson was not overly sophisticated or overly concerned with the letter of the law. He was most diligent in teaching Christ’s “lore”—that is, Christ’s instructions and doctrine, and that of the apostles.
That he taught Christianity was important, but that he followed Christ himself was better. To Chaucer this was the practical test of religion, and it is a test no more dated than Christ’s word in the Sermon on the Mount: “By their fruits ye shall know them.”
Note: The lines from the “Prologue” used in this essay are freely combined from these sources:
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by F. N. Robinson (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933); used by permission.
Canterbury Tales in Modern English, by J. U. Nicolson (© 1934 by Covici-Friede, Inc.); used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.
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