Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, written in the late fourteenth century, follows the story of over thirty characters on a pilgrimage who tell tales for game. Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece is reminiscent of the era as to when Medieval society had begun to collapse due to changing classes and rising conflicts between groups. The story documents twenty-two complete tales and two fragmented stories ranging from noblemen, divorced women, and even alchemists. Specifically, “The Pardoner’s Tale” exists as a satirical piece meant to critique the flaws of a certain occupation, fashioning a tale about three Flemish boys who hunt “Death” but are ultimately killed themselves due to selfish desires. On the contrary, the Summoner tells of a friar who fools his clients into giving him money “for the church”, ultimately being fooled himself. In these cases, the legitimacy of clergy members is called into question. How common are simonous activities in religious institutions? Themes regarding monetary greed in day to day life and especially within church are repeated multiple times throughout the Tales, especially by these short works.
Medieval Europe saw remarkable religious tensions and scandals unfold during the fifteenth century. The church had begun to lose its prestige and trust from the Commoners as rampant corruption became more prominent (Spielvogel). The use of the church in order to elevate one’s financial status was a common practice, detested by most of the population and especially a man such as Geoffrey Chaucer. The Summoner and the Pardoner, representatives of the clergy estate, act as a commentary and moral lesson for his original audience during this troubling time. Since the beginning of the book, the Summoner and the Pardoner are connected in the General Prologue, even as possible lovers in later lines. “With him [Summoner] there rode a gentle Pardoner of Rouncival, his friend and his companion… (Chaucer)” Further showcasing the tale’s connections and similarities, their payback comes in some form of genital embarrassment. The Host’s outrage at the Pardoner’s comments causes him to fire back rather obscene words. “‘...I would I had your balls in my hand instead of relics or things holy. Let them be cut off! (Chaucer).’” On the other hand, the Friar in “The Summoner’s Tale” is given a fart and challenged to split it evenly among the friars.
Our stories even begin in an eerily similar string of events: a religious man preaches to his clients about the dangers of greed alongside other cardinal sins. Ultimately, it ends with their enragement and a satisfying, humorous twist: their monetary scheme is unsuccessful. Chaucer’s use of verbal irony and clergist hypocrisies become the centerpiece of the two tales. Both the Summoner and the Pardoner are guilty of the lustful, greedy, and sinful lifestyles they preach against. As the Pardoner finishes his sermon about the dangers of swearing, he uses God’s name in vain multiple times. They support their greedy tendencies under the guise of the church, yet another common stereotype and extreme irony prevalent during this time. The Pardoner even admits to his wrongdoings and how money is the only reason he’s part of the church. “For my intent is not but to profit, and not at for correction of sin: I care never, when they be buried, if their souls go a-blackberrying (Chaucer)!” Due to their avarice, the men are humiliated, also demonstrating how greed negatively affects one’s life.
In a time plagued with turmoil and near societal collapse, Chaucer turned to writing in order to express his sentiments. Despite being written over 400 years ago, The Canterbury Tales remains as a classic in English literature. It’s one of the most comprehensive estate satires to come out of the Medieval Period. Interestingly, but not coincidentally, the Pardoner’s and the Summoner’s story share irrefutable parallels in plot, theme, irony, and humor. Chaucer’s opinions on corruption and greed in the church are presented to the reader through these two simple stories. In particular, our author highlights on the consequences of being selfish with money and the church’s own demise to avarice multiple times throughout the Tales. Though unfinished and directed mostly at the church, Geoffrey Chaucer’s most well-known work continues to teach all of us the most fundamental human idea: Radix Malorum est Cupiditas - Greed is the root of all evil.
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