VirtueGeneral Prologue: Human Dishonesty, Stupidity and VirtueIn the “General Prologue,” Chaucer presents an array of characters fromthe 1400’s in order to paint portraits of human dishonesty and stupidity as wellas virtue. Out of these twenty-nine character portraits three of them areespecially interesting because they deal with charity. Charity during the1400’s, was a virtue of both religious and human traits. One character, theParson, exemplifies Chaucer’s idea of charity, and two characters, Prioress, andFriar, to satirize the idea of charity and show that they are using charity foreither devious reasons or out of convention or habit.According to the definition from the Webster’s dictionary, charity meansgiving to the needy and helping the poor.
In Chaucer’s time, however, charitymeant much more. It included a love of G-d and doing the will of G-d as well asthe kind of person one is. Thus Charity had two parts, one human, the otherdivine.
Two parts that mixed in different portions depending on a person.Charity was a human virtue that the Church encouraged. People believed that ifone does something good, he will be rewarded by G-d. Many people did meaningful,charitable things out the goodness of their hearts, but others had done it forother reasons. Those reasons included making money from people’s suffering andgiving to charity because someone told them to do so, rather than from thegoodness of their hearts or to ease the suffering of others. Chaucer plays offboth of these parts of charity in his portraits to show how they can be combineddifferently in different people and to distinguish “true” charity from “false”charity.
Parson exemplifies Chaucer’s idea of true charity. Even though Parsondoes not have any money, he considers himself rich spiritually. Going aroundthe village, he teaches the poor and those who can’t go to church about what G-dis and how to be a religious person. He gives more than he receives.
In fact,he avoids preaching to the rich and well-to-do because he prefers going to thehumble and poor, who truly need his help and G-d. He doesn’t run to London toearn easy breadBy singing masses for the wealthy dead,Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.He stayed at home and watched over his foldSo that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry.
(p.16)Parson is seen as an ideal priest, and his actions describe the real meaning ofwhat charity is. He is “virtuous,” “Never contemptuous” toward sinners, “neverdisdainful,” and “discreet.”(p.17) Getting people to Heaven is his main goal,not their money or his own advancement.Friar, on the other hand, uses charity for devious purposes.
By gettinga license from the Pope, which lets him go around the country and hearconfessions, he uses this license to make money for himself. Also he runs anagency in which he fixes up young women with men for a fee. Unlike Parson, whogoes out of his way to help the poor, the Friar thinks thatnothing good can comeOf commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers,But only with the rich and victual-sellers. (p.
9)By visiting only rich people, Friar’s primary purpose is to make money and notto give forgiveness for the sins as he is supposed to do. He is using hisposition for his own purposes under the disguise of charity, which in his caseis being greedy and being guilty of committing one of the seven sins.Without knowing it, Prioress uses charity as a convention. Since herfather does not have enough for a dowry, he is forced to send Prioress to anunnery.
Prioress does not have much of a choice herself, since in the MiddleAges, women had little choice in their future, usually being married or becomingprostitutes. Because she grew up in a wealthy, not very religious family, shedoes not know the real meaning of being a nun and of what charity means beyondwhat the Church has told her. Because she is told that she has to follow acertain discipline, she complies with it without questioning the true meaning.
Instead of helping poor people, she helps animals by feeding them, simplybecause the Church said feed the needy.She had little dogs she would be feeding.With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (p.7)The way she eats “no morsel from her lips did she let fall”(p.6), the way shedresses, ” Her cloak had a graceful charmwhence hung a golden brooch ofbrightest sheen.
(p.7), suggests that she belongs to an upper class and not tothe order of nuns. Chaucer shows that she follows the denotative meaning ofcharity. She knows what charity means intellectually and religiously but hasnot experienced it spiritually. Ironically, around her neck she wears a broochthat declares “Love Conquers All,” (p.7) without having slightest indication ofwhat this statement truly means.By presenting us with these characters, Chaucer describes an overview ofwhat life was during the Middle Ages.