VirtueGeneral Prologue: Human Dishonesty, Stupidity and Virtue
In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer presents an array of characters from
the 1400’s in order to paint portraits of human dishonesty and stupidity as well
as virtue. Out of these twenty-nine character portraits three of them are
especially interesting because they deal with charity. Charity during the
1400’s, was a virtue of both religious and human traits. One character, the
Parson, exemplifies Chaucer’s idea of charity, and two characters, Prioress, and
Friar, to satirize the idea of charity and show that they are using charity for
either devious reasons or out of convention or habit.
According to the definition from the Webster’s dictionary, charity means
giving to the needy and helping the poor. In Chaucer’s time, however, charity
meant much more. It included a love of G-d and doing the will of G-d as well as
the kind of person one is. Thus Charity had two parts, one human, the other
divine. Two parts that mixed in different portions depending on a person.
Charity was a human virtue that the Church encouraged. People believed that if
one does something good, he will be rewarded by G-d. Many people did meaningful,
charitable things out the goodness of their hearts, but others had done it for
other reasons. Those reasons included making money from people’s suffering and
giving to charity because someone told them to do so, rather than from the
goodness of their hearts or to ease the suffering of others. Chaucer plays off
both of these parts of charity in his portraits to show how they can be combined
differently in different people and to distinguish “true” charity from “false”
Parson exemplifies Chaucer’s idea of true charity. Even though Parson
does not have any money, he considers himself rich spiritually. Going around
the village, he teaches the poor and those who can’t go to church about what G-d
is and how to be a religious person. He gives more than he receives. In fact,
he avoids preaching to the rich and well-to-do because he prefers going to the
humble and poor, who truly need his help and G-d. He doesn’t run to London to
earn easy bread
By singing masses for the wealthy dead,
Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.
He stayed at home and watched over his fold
So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry. (p.16)
Parson is seen as an ideal priest, and his actions describe the real meaning of
what charity is. He is “virtuous,” “Never contemptuous” toward sinners, “never
disdainful,” and “discreet.”(p.17) Getting people to Heaven is his main goal,
not their money or his own advancement.
Friar, on the other hand, uses charity for devious purposes. By getting
a license from the Pope, which lets him go around the country and hear
confessions, he uses this license to make money for himself. Also he runs an
agency in which he fixes up young women with men for a fee. Unlike Parson, who
goes out of his way to help the poor, the Friar thinks that
nothing good can come
Of commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual-sellers. (p.9)
By visiting only rich people, Friar’s primary purpose is to make money and not
to give forgiveness for the sins as he is supposed to do. He is using his
position for his own purposes under the disguise of charity, which in his case
is being greedy and being guilty of committing one of the seven sins.
Without knowing it, Prioress uses charity as a convention. Since her
father does not have enough for a dowry, he is forced to send Prioress to a
nunnery. Prioress does not have much of a choice herself, since in the Middle
Ages, women had little choice in their future, usually being married or becoming
prostitutes. Because she grew up in a wealthy, not very religious family, she
does not know the real meaning of being a nun and of what charity means beyond
what the Church has told her. Because she is told that she has to follow a
certain discipline, she complies with it without questioning the true meaning.
Instead of helping poor people, she helps animals by feeding them, simply
because the Church said feed the needy.
She had little dogs she would be feeding.
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (p.7)
The way she eats “no morsel from her lips did she let fall”(p.6), the way she
dresses, ” Her cloak had a graceful charmwhence hung a golden brooch of
brightest sheen.(p.7), suggests that she belongs to an upper class and not to
the order of nuns. Chaucer shows that she follows the denotative meaning of
charity. She knows what charity means intellectually and religiously but has
not experienced it spiritually. Ironically, around her neck she wears a brooch
that declares “Love Conquers All,” (p.7) without having slightest indication of
what this statement truly means.
By presenting us with these characters, Chaucer describes an overview of
what life was during the Middle Ages.