Though in Chaucer’s age, religion had a control over the minds and soul of the people yet regrettably its influence was corrupt. The monasteries were promoting corruption, exploiting the innocent folk and earning many under the disguise of religion. Moralities and ethics were fading. The ecclesiastics had become notorious for their avarice, corruption and dishonesty. They had forgotten their sacred duties and had become degenerated.
High churchmen are absent in the General Prologue as they would set for Canterbury with their own retinue. Only less important figures are there. Despite Chaucer’s refusal to put the pilgrims according to their ‘degree’, we can follow a certain pattern. The Prioress and the Monk, as heads of subordinate houses, stand at the top. The Friar comes next followed by a wide gap, and then the Clerk, a university student in minor orders. The Parson then follows, who is rich in good Works-but humble in degree and finally the arch rascals, the Summoner and the Pardoner.
The Prioress’ mind seems to be divided between the demands of the religious and the attractions of the secular aspects of life. The motto on her brooch “Love conquers all” clearly indicates the confusion. The Monk hunts and enjoys delicious food, contrary to his vow of seclusion and abstinence. The Friar is typical of the order as found in Chaucer’s time. He makes money by misusing his authority.
Not all ecclesiastical characters are bad and dishonest. The Oxford Clerk is not materialistic and worldly-minded. Much of his study is devoted to the work of Aristotle. This clerk felt as glad to teach as he was to learn. He prayed for the souls of these who gave him money to help him with his studies.
Chaucer’s Parson is a study in sheer goodness. He was poor in a worldly sense but rich in holy thoughts and holy work. He never excommunicated anybody in order to force payments of the tithes due to him. On the contrary, he helped his poor parishioners with money from his collection ‘of tithes. He expected no Ceremonial receptions or any show of profound respect from people.
The Summoner is a nasty fellow. His appearance is repulsive. He loves garlic, red wine and onion. He is a hypocrite who allows people to carry on their sins and forgives them for a small donation to him. He knows the secret of young women and men and exploits them to his own interest.
The Pardoner is sillier and more corrupt than the cunning but stupid Summoner. He is physically an eunuch, an incomplete man. He keeps with him false relics which fool the ignorant country folk into giving him money which should go to ’the parish priest. He is a filling companion of the Summoner and they join in song. The Pardoner sings a love-ditty but it has been suggested by some scholars that he sings such a song because of his effeminate nature.
We can conclude that Chaucer has painted a true and realistic picture of the ecclesiastical characters of the 14th century. He satirizes the corrupt and worldly minded clergies. But he appreciates the good characters and tries to convince his readers so that they can still keep faith upon some of the ecclesiastic people.