The Hoccleve Portrait of Chaucer
I wrote a section on John Gower in the book and deleted the one on Chaucer because I found Gower's uses of the parables of Jesus more intriguing and important (although Gower's works quickly moved into the shadows of Chaucer's, which is another reason to write about Gower: to shed some light on texts that are often overlooked in contrast to Chaucer's).
Chaucer, though, uses the parables in interesting ways as well, including the rich man and Lazarus parable. The Canterbury Tales uses the 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 retaliates to the friar’s narration of The Summoner’s Tale by relating, in a similar way, the story of a hypocritical friar’s attempt to extort money from a bedridden peasant. The prologue to the tale give’s use 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 seeWhere 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 driveFull 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 position for his own gain (the sin of simony) but also the Bible; he does not practice what he preaches, because 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. Thomas remonstrates that he had not seen the friar for over two weeks, and the friar responds that he has been working tirelessly praying for Thomas’s salvation. Thomas’s wife complains privately to Friar John about Thomas’s ill-humor and constant complaining (“He is as crabbed as an old pismire, Though he has everything he can desire”). Friar John says that he will speak to Thomas abut his anger, but he wheedles some additional food from her.” She then says that her child had died within the last two weeks, and the friar lies and says that in a vision he had seen the child being carried up into heaven. It is then that the friar hypocritically cites the Rich Man and Lazarus to stress his own life of poverty, abstinence (cf. how he had embraced her “within his two arms narrow, And kissed her sweetly, chirping like a sparrow With his two lips”), and fasting that allows his prayers to be accepted by Christ:
And may now, God be thanked for mercy shown,Observe their jubilee and walk alone.And I rose up and did my brothers seek,With many a tear down trickling on my cheek,And without noise or clashing of the bells;Te deum was our song and nothing else,Save that to Christ I said an orison,And thanked Him for the vision he had shownFor, sir and dame, trust me full well in all,Our orisons are more effectual,And more we see of Christ's own secret thingsThan folk of the laity, though they were kings.We live in poverty and abstinenceAnd laymen live in riches and expenseOf 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 foodSuffice us, though they be not over-good.The cleanness and the fasting of us friarsResult 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 acceptableThan yours, with all the feasts you make at table.
The friar then assures Thomas that he and the other friars are praying 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. The friar gives an extensive rebuke, and Thomas becomes angry:
This sick man, he went well-nigh mad for ire;He would have had that friar set afireFor the hypocrisy that he had shown."Such things as I possess and are my own,"Said he, "those may I give you and no other.
Thomas then declares that he will give the friar 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 findA 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 hereGroping about his hole and all his rear,Into his hand he let the friar a fart.There is no stallion drawing loaded cartThat might have let a fart of such a sound.
This tale illustrates Chaucer’s interesting dialectic between the sacred and the profane (e.g., note the word pun that is included in Chaucer’s Middle English vernacular as well: 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).
In addition, it gives valuable insights into 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.