Monday, June 8, 2015

Chaucer and the Parables (part 2)

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales uses parables in both positive and negative ways. The Summoner’s Tale, for example, includes the Rich Man and Lazarus parable in a morally dubious way. This story is told in response to the previous story, The Friar’s Tale, in which a friar relates a story against a summoner, a minor church official whose duties included notifying people who had to appear before a church (not civil) court. In The Friar’s Tale, the summoner is corrupt. He colludes with a bailiff—who is actually the devil in disguise—to extort money from people. At the end of the story, the devil takes the summoner to hell, after the summoner tries to extort a bribe from a poor widow.

The Summoner’s Tale then responds with the story of a hypocritical friar’s attempt to extort money from a bedridden peasant. The prologue to the tale gives the narrator’s opinion of such friars, including a humorous and ribald statement of where such friars make their home. When an angel commands Satan to hold up his tail:

“Hold up thy tail, thou Sathanas!” said he,
“Show forth thine arse and let the friar see
Where is the nest of friars in this place!”
And ere one might go half a furlong's space,
Just as the bees come swarming from a hive,
Out of the Devil's arse-hole there did drive
Full twenty thousand friars in a rout,
And through all Hell they swarmed and ran about.
And came again, as fast as they could run,
And in his arse they crept back, every one.

In the tale itself, the friar, named John, misuses not only his office and misinterprets the Bible for his own gain but also the Bible; he is more concerned about money than with saving souls. He preaches against those who waste and devour wealth while he goes from house to house begging for food and other goods—while he has elegant possessions—and pretends that he will pray for those who contribute. He comes to the house of a rich man named Thomas who was sick and bedridden. He lies to Thomas about praying for him, wheedles some additional food from Thomas’s wife, flirts shamelessly with her, and embraces her: “within his two arms narrow, And kissed her sweetly, chirping like a sparrow With his two lips.”

The next post will discuss the friar’s hypocritical use of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable.

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