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13. THE MEDIEVAL CHURCH: ABUSE, HERESY, AND REFORM

Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.

THE MONK

A monk there was, one made for mastery,

An outrider, who loved his venery;

A manly man, to be an abbot able.

Full many a blooded horse had he in stable:

And when he rode men might his bridle hear

A-jingling in the whistling wind as clear,

Aye, and as loud as does the chapel bell

Where this brave monk was of the cell.

The rule of Maurus or Saint Benedict,

By reason it was old and somewhat strict,

This said monk let such old things slowly pace

And followed new-world manners in their place.

He cared not for that text a clean-plucked hen

Which holds that hunters are not holy men;

Nor that a monk, when he is cloisterless,

Is like unto a fish that’s waterless;

That is to say, a monk out of his cloister.

But this same text he held not worth an oyster;

And I said his opinion was right good.

What? Should he study as a madman would

Upon a book in cloister cell? Or yet

Go labour with his hands and swink and sweat,

As Austin bids? How shall the world be served?

Let Austin have his toil to him reserved.

Therefore he was a rider day and night;

Greyhounds he had, as swift as bird in flight.

Since riding and the hunting of the hare

Were all his love, for no cost would he spare.

I saw his sleeves were purfled at the hand

With fur of grey, the finest in the land;

Also, to fasten hood beneath his chin,

He had of good wrought gold a curious pin:

A love-knot in the larger end there was.

His head was bald and shone like any glass,

And smooth as one anointed was his face.

Fat was this lord, he stood in goodly case.

His bulging eyes he rolled about, and hot

They gleamed and red, like fire beneath a pot;

His boots were soft; his horse of great estate.

Now certainly he was a fine prelate:

He was not pale as some poor wasted ghost.

A fat swan loved he best of any roast.

His palfrey was as brown as is a berry.

THE FRIAR

A friar there was, a wanton and a merry,

A limiter, a very festive man.

In all the Orders Four is none that can

Equal his gossip and his fair language.

He had arranged full many a marriage

Of women young, and this at his own cost.

Unto his order he was a noble post.

Well liked by all and intimate was he

With franklins everywhere in his country,

And with the worthy women of the town:

For at confessing he’d more power in gown

(As he himself said) than it good curate,

For of his order he was licentiate.

He heard confession gently, it was said,

Gently absolved too, leaving naught of dread.

He was an easy man to give penance

When knowing he should gain a good pittance;

For to a begging friar, money given

Is sign that any man has been well shriven.

For if one gave (he dared to boast of this),

He took the man’s repentance not amiss.

For many a man there is so hard of heart

He cannot weep however pains may smart.

Therefore, instead of weeping and of prayer,

Men should give silver to poor friars all bare.

His tippet was stuck always full of knives

And pins, to give to young and pleasing wives.

And certainly he kept a merry note:

Well could he sing and play upon the rote.

At balladry he bore the prize away.

His throat was white as lily of the May;

Yet strong he was as ever champion.

In towns he knew the taverns, every one,

And every good host and each barmaid too-

Better than begging lepers, these he knew.

For unto no such solid man as he

Accorded it, as far as he could see,

To have sick lepers for acquaintances.

There is no honest advantageousness

In dealing with such poverty-stricken curs;

It’s with the rich and with big victuallers.

And so, wherever profit might arise,

Courteous he was and humble in men’s eyes.

There was no other man so virtuous.

He was the finest beggar of his house;

A certain district being farmed to him,

None of his brethren dared approach its rim;

For though a widow had no shoes to show,

So pleasant was his In principio,

He always got a farthing ere he went.

He lived by pickings, it is evident.

And he could romp as well as any whelp.

On love days could he be of mickle help.

For there he was not like a cloisterer,

With threadbare cope as is the poor scholar,

But he was like a lord or like a pope.

Of double worsted was his semi-cope,

That rounded like a bell, as you may guess.

He lisped a little, out of wantonness,

To make his English soft upon his tongue;

And in his harping, after he had sung,

His two eyes twinkled in his head as bright

As do the stars within the frosty night.

This worthy limiter was named Hubert.

THE PARSON

There was a good man of religion, too,

A country parson, poor, I warrant you;

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,

Patient in adverse times and well content,

As he was ofttimes proven; always blithe,

He was right loath to curse to get a tithe,

But rather would he give, in case of doubt,

Unto those poor parishioners about,

Part of his income, even of his goods.

Enough with little, coloured all his moods.

Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,

But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,

In sickness, or in sin, or any state,

To visit to the farthest, small and great,

Going afoot, and in his hand, a stave.

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?

And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,

A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep.

Well ought a priest example good to give,

By his own cleanness, how his flock should live.

He never let his benefice for hire,

Leaving his flock to flounder in the mire,

And ran to London, up to old Saint Paul’s

To get himself a chantry there for souls,

Nor in some brotherhood did he withhold;

But dwelt at home and kept so well the fold

That never wolf could make his plans miscarry;

He was a shepherd and not mercenary.

And holy though he was, and virtuous,

To sinners he was not impiteous,

Nor haughty in his speech, nor too divine,

But in all teaching prudent and benign.

To lead folk into Heaven but by stress

Of good example was his busyness.

But if some sinful one proved obstinate,

Be who it might, of high or low estate,

Him he reproved, and sharply, as I know.

There is nowhere a better priest, I trow.

He had no thirst for pomp or reverence,

Nor made himself a special, spiced conscience,

But Christ’s own lore, and His apostles’ twelve

He taught, but first he followed it himselve.

Source:

http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/source/CT-prolog-para.html

Taken from gopher://gopher.vt.edu:10010/02/63/38