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The Canterbury Tales: the Gallery of the Deadly Sins

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) – “the father of English poetry”, was one of the first who began writing not in Latin but in the vernacular. Little is known about his education, but it may be inferred from his works that he could read in Latin, French and Italian.

Chaucer’s most celebrated work is “The Canterbury Tales” (Middle English: “Tales Of Caunterbury”) [1] written in Middle English. It’s an incomplete collection of 22 verse and two prose stories, united by the general frame: the stories are told by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. According to Chaucer’s original plan, each of the pilgrims was to tell four stories (two on the outward and two on the homeward way).

The Pilgrims are 14th century English society in miniature (represent all traditional medieval estates). For example, the division of the three estates; the characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being “those who pray” (the clergy), “those who fight” (the nobility), and “those who work” (the commoners and peasantry). [2 Bisson, p. 143] No tale can stand alone from the teller. The teller’s identity is reflected in the tale and cannot be divorced from its meaning. There is fascinating accord between the tellers and the tales attributed to them. For Chaucer, the tales appear more of a means of revealing a character than an end in themselves. Each of the stories presents a particular genre: for example, the Knight’s tale is a traditional verse romance, the Miller’s tale – a fabliau, the Parson’s tale – a sermon.

The theme of Deadly Sins is a common thread running through the collection, vice and virtue being the focus of most tales. Chaucer’s characters might differ in age, social standing, education, views, life experience, but they have one thing in common: they are all sinners. Retelling stories about virtue and vice, Chaucer’s character pays attention not only to the stories, but also to the storytellers: they are also sinners. Certainly, none of the pilgrims is an embodiment of any particular sin – after all the storytellers are people, not allegories. Another thing is that in each of them some certain sins tend to reveal themselves during the pilgrimage.

The sins that feature most prominently are pride, greed and gluttony, slightly to a less extent – lust. The pilgrims’ sins are first introduced to us in the General Prologue, and further enlarged on in individual prologues.
The Knight, as innocent as he might seem at first sight, a figure of esteem among the others, is presented as the brave warrior, who has passed through a staggering number of battles in different lands from Alexandria to Tramissene: “At many a noble arive hadde he be”, “And everemoore he hadde a sovereyn prys”. All his fights were victorious. But it’s too unbelievable to be true and that’s why all achievements of the Knight are under suspicion. The reader understands that his vanity forced him to put some gloss on his merits and victories to create an image of a perfect warrior as if he was a hero of a romance, like the one he tells the pilgrims. [3 Jones]

The Wife of Bath, boastful, proud and conceited, is also guilty of Pride. A feminist to the core, she declares the domination over her husbands, that women have always possessed and will possess the power over men. The Monk, who considers it beneath his dignity to sit in a monastery, being absorbed in studying books, prefers to go hunting instead.

Everyone who earns money is not grateful for small favors. Thirst to snatch more money drives the Friar, who “was an esy man to yeve penaunce/ Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce”; and the Merchant – “Wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle”, and the Miller, who could “stelen corn, and tollen thries”, and the Reeve – “Wel koude he kepe a gerner and a bynne, Ther was noon auditour koude on him wynne”. The covetous Man of Law and the avaricious Physician, greedy for knowledge Clerk of Oxford, who spends all borrowed money for books – all of them are greedy.

Quite a few pilgrims are gluttonous and do not make a secret of their love of binge and tasty food. Such is the Monk – “A fat swan loved he best of any roost” – not a cheap treat, and the Franklin – “A bettre envyned man was nowher noon”, and the Friar – “He knew the tavernes wel in every toun”. The Summoner, the Wife of Bath and the Shipman are also great fans to take wines.

Also one of the most undisguised sins among the pilgrims is lust. Since the very the General prologue it’s clear that the Friar, “a wantowne and a merye”, who “hadde maad ful many a mariage/ Of yonge wommen at his owene cost” – actually seduced them, “And wel biloved and famulier was he […] eek with worthy wommen of the toun”. The Summoner is also lecherous: “In daunger hadde he at his owene gise/ The yonge girles of the diocise, And knew hir conseil, and was al hir reed”. The most striking example of lust is, certainly, the Wife of Bath. She is proud of her experience in the old “dance of love” and she knows all the “remedies of love”. She outlived five husbands of hers, had many more lovers – “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, Withouten oother compaignye in youthe”, and was still ardent, being very satisfied with it – “I wol bistowe the flour of myn age/ In the actes and in fruyt of mariage”. Moreover, she ill-treats virginity: “For sothe I wol nat kepe me chaast in al”.

Anger is not alien to the pilgrims’ nature either. The animosity between the Miller and the Reeve, who, formerly a carpenter, feels slandered in the figure of the Miller’s silly carpenter. So he replies with a story that scorns the Miller. In a similar way, the Friar and the Summoner argue at the end of the Wife of Bath’s prologue. The Friar then tells a story that is offensive to the Summoner, and the latter retaliates with even a more offensive story about a friar. The Wife is also described as a very temperamental woman: “In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon/ That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she, That she was out of alle charitee”. Even though the Wife of Bath speaks of her own sins herself, she does not really seem to repent any. She is furious with her fifth husband Jenkin that she has to compete with books for his attention. Bearing a grudge against her husband, she manages to give him the dose of his own medicine and that makes her feel triumphant. The Host flares at the Pardoner’s attempt to cajole money out of his pockets to sell his relics, even though he has just admitted that they are fake. Thirst for revenge, desire to besiege the offender and roughness – these are the main features of anger in the storytellers.

Sloth is less noticeable, but it is unmistakably there. In this context sloth is opposed to diligence which isn’t found in the Monk, who leads a very carefree life for the monk [4 Tupper]: he hunts and has a good time instead of reading books in a monastery and studying Latin, reading the lives of the Saints. He can readily come up with an excuse in order not to study: “The reule of Seint Maure, or of Seint Beneit, Bycause that it was old and somdel streit – This ilke Monk leet olde thynges pace, And heeld after the newe world the space”.

However, among all the pilgrims one costs a mansion – The Pardoner, lean, vile at sight and vile inside. One understands that the Pardoner is the most wicked character of all the pilgrims. [5 Bloom, p. 46] From the General Prologue the reader learns about his less than manlike looks and behavior: his long yellowish hair, not covered by the hood; his hairless body; a bleating goat voice – all leave you to wonder if he is “a geldyng or a mare”. Also his strange tenderness to the Summoner, for whom he was longing, is the obvious sign of his homosexuality [6 Gardner, p. 302], thereby revealing sodomy in him – another side of lust. His greed has no limits: he is ready to give out even pig’s bones for the sacred relics if only to take away the beggar’s last penny, and with his flattering speeches he convinces the people to go to the expense, thereby earning in a day more, than a parson earns in two months.

The Pardoner belongs to the most disgraceful class of grabbers, but the words of his sermon are invariable: Radix malorum est cupiditas (“The love of money is the root of all evil”). But at the same time greed is his main sin. He calls people for diligence, teaches that avarice and debauchery are sinful, convinces that arrogance is the most terrifying vice but he never does as he preaches. However he is the only one among the pilgrims who frankly admits it. He openly says that he is one sinner in a million, but it is his way to live. [7 Reiss, pp.262-263] Diligence is foreign to him (“I wol nat do no labour with myne handes”), he is gluttonous and lustful (“I wol drynke licour of the vyne, And have a joly wenche in every toun”). However, in spite of the fact that the Pardoner is “a ful vicious man” himself, he tells the best story, thanks to his talent for sermon. In his story three robbers, libertines and drunkards, hit the road to look for the Death to revenge for their drinking companion, and find it in their own greed, which ruins all of them. This is the most instructive story of all in spite of the fact that it’s told by a hypocrite and a deceiver, a living vice. The Pardoner appears to encompass all of the Seven Deadly Sins. [8 Lester, p.51] But, nevertheless, the Pardoner could have told this parable thousands times already by the profession. [9 Kittredge]

Thus, we understand that the most sinful are, paradoxically, the representatives of clergy – those who are connected with the church more than others and ought to live justly. Even the Prioress, mild and gentle, behaves not like a nun: she is affected and graceful, excessively compassionate, she loves expensive jewelry, and thereby it makes the impression of a lady, not a nun. [10]

However, the Parson remains almost the only innocent pilgrim. The author doesn’t say anything reprehensible about him neither in the General prologue, nor in the Parson’s prologue. During the pilgrimage he keeps away from the fun, and no one hears his voice. He doesn’t entertain people, as it befits the priest, but strictly narrates about the Seven Deadly Sins. The story of the Parson isn’t tale but a long sermon, a treatise on virtuous living. [11] The Parson divides penitence into three parts; contrition of the heart, confession of the mouth, and satisfaction. The second part about confession is illustrated by referring to the Seven Deadly Sins and offering remedies against them – the virtues. The Parson emphasizes that pride is the worst of sins and the origin of all other Deadly Sins.

In this tale Chaucer again focuses on the main theme of “The Canterbury Tales” – vice and virtue. Describing the sinners and their sins, the author doesn’t deprive them of virtues: the Knight is a just tyrant and a crusader, exterminating heathens; the Shipman is a robber and a pirate, but he’s also a man of courage and an experienced sailor. The Wife of Bath is a master of weaving, the Clerk is a talented and educated person, and even hypocritical Pardoner could “maken oother folk to twynne/ From avarice, and soore to repente”.

How could one trust implicitly the description of all sinners if one of the characters tells about them? Chaucer’s most important contribution is the supervision method: Chaucer’s character is a pilgrim himself, he watches and presents his own vision of situations and people, after all, the main storyteller has also his own truth. He sees the pilgrims and gives the impression about them. The very human point of view [12 Arnold] consists in it: the author watches, observes and compares. “The Canterbury Tales” is more than a literary innovation – it’s a great achievement. People are no more matched with abstractions and allegories, but compared to other people.

Born in his rough and vigorous century, Chaucer never intended to write the history of the time. Nevertheless, historians study the epoch with “The Canterbury Tales”.

References
1. The ELF Edition of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. Available: http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury_tales.html

2. Bisson, L. (1998) Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

3. Jones, T. (1980) Chaucer’s Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

4. Tupper, Fr. (1916) Chaucer’s Sinners and Sins. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 15(1), University of Illinois, pp. 56-106.

5. Bloom, H. (1988) Geoffrey Chaucer’s the Pardoner’s Tale. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, p.46.

6. Gardner, J. (1977) The Poetry of Chaucer. Carbondale and Edwardsville, Ill.: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, p.302.

7. Reiss, E. (1964) The Final Irony of the Pardoner’s Tale, College English, 25, pp.262-263.

8. Lester, G. (1987) Macmillan master guides the Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, Houndmills: Macmillan Education Ltd., p. 51.

9. Kittredge, G. L. (1893) Chaucer’s Pardoner. Atlantic Monthly. Available: http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/pardt/kitt-par.html

10. “The Prioress of The Canterbury Tales”. 123HelpMe.com. 22 Feb 2014 Available: http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=15607

11. The Canterbury Tales. Explanatory Notes. (1988) Oxford Press Riverside Chaucer Third Edition, p. 956.

12. Arnold, M. (1880) The Study of Poetry. Available: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/essay/237816

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