“How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye” (Luke 6:42)
The Christian faith has always placed emphasis on righteousness and truth, condemning hypocrisy as an arrogant and ignorant act. The Bible instructs us to correct our own faults before accusing others of possessing these same flaws, because often our imperfections are much grander. In failing to recognize our own fallibility, we sanctimoniously place ourselves on an equal pedestal with Christ himself and contradict the basis of our faith, for we can’t worship our equal. Despite their lofty positions within the Church, both the Pardoner and the Prioress of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales fail to see the planks in their own eyes, their greedy and malevolent natures negating their self-righteous facades of morality and decency. By superficially advocating selflessness and compassion and then proving themselves as lacking virtue through their contrary actions, both religious figures demonstrate their true sacrilegious insincerity and the insincerity of the Church. Chaucer utilizes the tales of the Pardoner and the Prioress to reflect their hypocritical natures; consequently, he exposes the corruption rampant in the Church in medieval times.
Chaucer juxtaposes the avarice in the Pardoner’s tale with the hypocritical greed of the Pardoner himself to reveal the Church’s acquisitive penchant during this time period. The Pardoner, in his tale, denounces gluttony as the root of all evil, piously equating the rapacious nature of the main characters with the “[devil’s] sacrifice… so damnable in blasphemy” (245). The Pardoner’s strict condemnation of the youngsters’ greedy actions, highlighted in the use of exaggerated diction, distances himself from their satanic sins, suggesting that the Pardoner represents typical Christian virtues upheld by a man of his position. Furthermore, the Pardoner expresses significant incredulity at the degree of the group’s selfish behavior, proclaiming in consternation, “How comes it that a mortal man… art so unnatural and false within?” (256). The tone of disbelief and disgust reflected in this language portrays the Pardoner as holier-than-thou, unable to fathom the level of immorality that the group abides by. Consequently, he takes on a meritorious air, an air that affirms himself as a man who understands the ethical boundaries between evil and rectitude. However, he blatantly crosses these boundaries in his day-to-day life, revealing himself to be quite at odds with the selflessness and poverty that he preaches. For example, the narrator establishes the Pardoner’s true two-faced personality in the Prologue, where he emphasizes the trickery deployed in the man’s lustful quest for money: “And by his flatteries and prevarication [he] made monkeys of the priest and the congregation” (22). Fooling his innocent associates into believing his honorable admonition of greed, the Pardoner slyly makes personal profit off of his churchly endeavors, hypocritically succumbing to the same greed he exhorts. His actions ignorant of the moral code he superficially upholds, the Pardoner and his avarice highlight the crooked motivations of the medieval Church, those that are based on monetary gain and not the salvation of believers. Furthermore, the Pardoner shamelessly breaches the moral guidance bestowed in his tale directly after its conclusion by asking the pilgrims to kiss his self-proclaimed spurious relics and to pay for their sins of selfishness. Urging the Host to “Come on, unbuckle your purse!” (257), the Pardoner reveals the greedy, manipulative intent behind his tale- to guilt his fellow itinerants into adding to his personal wealth. The aggressive and contradictory manner in which the he accosts the Host demonstrates how the medieval Church paradoxically prioritizes riches over virtue.
Similarly, the Prioress’ blatant anti-Semitic bigotry in her tale heavily contrasts her contrived piety and graciousness presented in the Prologue, classifying her as a duplicitous figure. The initial glimpse of the Prioress in the Prologue emphasizes her strained benevolence, a compassionate exterior that, although evident to the narrator, dupes Churchgoers into extolling her as a kindly and noble woman of God. Describing her outward altruism, the narrator points out the Prioress’ “sympathies and tender feelings,” elaborating that “she was so charitably solicitous,” (7) giving the impression that, to the untrained eye, she radiates vigilant grace in accordance with her position in the Church. Additionally, the mention of her sympathetic and charitable personality suggests that she seemingly identifies with or shows appreciation for all walks of life. The Prioress’ supposed amiability is further repeated by the detail that she wears a brooch engraved with the phrase “Amor vincit omnia,” (7) translating to ‘Love conquers all.’ The optimism encompassed by the powerful phrase, coupled with the fact that it manifests on her physical specimen, implies that the Prioress appears to find comfort in love and to live by a friendly and philanthropic creed, as all religious figures should. However, upon reading her prejudiced tale, in which a young Christian boy is senselessly martyred by Jews, her true discriminatory nature, one marked by enmity and vindictiveness, comes to the forefront, exposing her apparent kindhearted, Samaritan nature as deceitful. For example, she cruelly associates the Jewish people with the Devil, writing that they “are [Satan’s] waspish nest,” (172) this stark shift in disposition uncovering a deep resentment that contrasts her seemingly affectionate demeanor. Her ill-will characterizing her as a callous bigot, the Prioress reveals herself to be hypocritical in this discrediting of her labored goodness, which demonstrates the generally un-Christian anti-Semitism prevalent in the Church during this time period. Not only does she slander the Jews in her tale, but she also speaks of inflicting violence upon them, describing how they were to be “drawn apart by horses. Then hanged… from a cart” (175). This despicable condoning of murder stemming from her intolerant hatred for the Jews deviates massively from her endorsement of respect and amorousness shown in her brooch, further distinguishing the Church as irreverent and corrupt in its treatment of other religions. The Prioress’ hypocritically disregards her phony encouragement of mercy and tenderness, unmasking a narrow-minded and depraved Church.
In some respects, the Church corruption that Chaucer brings to light in these two tales parallels modern-day scandals within the Catholic Church. The recent child sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church has completely called into question the idea that all priests are honest, incorruptible bastions of the faith, demonstrating a selfish, lustful desire that permeates some of these holy men as it does the Pardoner and the Prioress; furthermore, iniquity in the present-day Church has also manifested in financial scandals within the Curia, the governing body of the Church, including attempts by Church officials to greedily control the highly secretive Vatican bank. Despite Chaucer’s efforts to expose hypocritical ignominy within the Church, these scandals prove that greed and selfishness will continue to exist as part of human nature, even within the places we least expect them to.