Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Chaucer and the Parables (part 3)

The Friar

This post continues the story of The Summoner’s Tale from the previous one.

After kissing Thomas’s wife, the friar cites the Rich Man and Lazarus parable deceitfully to portray his life as one of poverty, abstinence, and fasting:

For, sir and dame, trust me full well in all,
Our orisons are more effectual,
And more we see of Christ’s own secret things
Than folk of the laity, though they were kings.
We live in poverty and abstinence
And laymen live in riches and expense
Of meat and drink, and in their gross delight.
This world’s desires we hold in great despite.
Dives and Lazarus lived differently,
And different recompense they had thereby.
Whoso would pray, he must fast and be clean,
Fatten his soul and keep his body lean.
We fare as says the apostle; clothes and food
Suffice us, though they be not over-good.
The cleanness and the fasting of us friars
Result in Christ's accepting all our prayers.

The friar compounds his lies by further comparing himself with Lazarus and contrasting himself with the rich man:

Therefore we mendicants, we simple friars,
Are sworn to poverty and continence,
To charity, meekness, and abstinence,
To persecution for our righteousness,
To weeping, pity, and to cleanliness.
And therefore may you see that all our prayers-
I speak of us, we mendicants, we friars-
Are to the High God far more acceptable
Than yours, with all the feasts you make at table.

The friar then assures Thomas that he and the other friars pray for him day and night and that Thomas’s monetary support will make a difference, but Thomas replies that he had already contributed much of his wealth to the friars to no avail. Friar John responds that has not given too much but too little and demands that Thomas should give more to support the twelve friars.

Thomas reacts angrily to the friar’s gross hypocrisy. He declares that he will give Friar John a gift into his hand on the condition that he divide it equally among the twelve friars. Friar John readily agrees, and the sick man then says:

"Lo, hear my oath! In me shall truth not lack."
"Now then, come put your hand right down my back,"
Replied this man, "and grope you well behind;
For underneath my buttocks shall you find
A thing that I have hid in privity."
"Ah," thought the friar, "this shall go with me!"
And down he thrust his hand right to the cleft,
In hope that he should find there some good gift.
And when the sick man felt the friar here
Groping about his hole and all his rear,
Into his hand he let the friar a fart.
There is no stallion drawing loaded cart
That might have let a fart of such a sound.

This tale illustrates Chaucer’s interesting dialectic between the sacred and the profane (e.g., Friar John moves from deliberating how to split a “farthing” among twelve friars; now he has to figure out how to split a “farting” twelve ways), and it involves aspects of his biblical interpretation as well. Some of Chaucer’s characters unknowingly misinterpret biblical passages (e.g., January, in The Merchant’s Tale), but others intentionally misapply biblical passages, both clerics (e.g., Friar John) and laity (e.g., the wife of Bath). In fact, Friar John famously informs Thomas that he prefers the “gloss” to the Bible itself:

I have today been to your church, at Mass,
And preached a sermon after my poor wit,
Not wholly from the text of holy writ,
For that is hard and baffling in the main;
And therefore all its meaning I'll explain.
Glosing's a glorious thing, and that's certain,
For letters kill, as scholars say with pain.

In reality, for the hypocritical friar, to gloss on such passages as the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus makes it easier for him to manipulate the text in order to satisfy his pursuit of earthly gain while pretending to speak of spiritual values. 

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