“Of his appearance I have said enough”: so Chaucer concludes one of his pictorial caricatures of the pilgrims on the road in the Prologue of Canterbury Tales. These are playful, quick, and satirical descriptions of the “faithful” on the way. Appearances are key in Chaucer. There is something in each of his little introductions that lets us know the soul of each character.
The one I find fascinating is the trope of the hypocritical clergyman. I don’t find it fascinating because I enjoy such stereotypes. Talk about an overused character! As soon as it comes on screen, I’m bored. A scene shows someone with a collar or a pulpit, and I know what is about to happen. “Surprise Surprise! Rev. X is really a money-hungry, lecherous alcoholic. I didn’t see that coming.” The hypocritical Christian ranks up there in overused stereotypes with terrorist Muslim, angry feminist, ignorant hillbilly, lovelorn thirty-something, boring accountant, and corrupt politician. If you are writing something with one of these characters, you better be very, very good, or I will close the book or turn off the film.
Seriously, I’ve had enough of these worn-out tropes.
Maybe, but I suspect that Chaucer is winking at us both in his satire of the characters and in his own presentation. I think he goes a certain distance with a stereotype—an “appearance”—but then pulls back a little from it. Here are some great examples from a few pages of poking fun at the pilgrim monks:
A Monk there was, one of the finest sort
170 Who rode the country; hunting was his sport.
A manly man, to be an Abbott able;
Many a dainty horse he had in stable.
His bridle, when he rode, a man might hear
Jingling in a whistling wind as clear,
175 Aye, and as loud as does the chapel bell
Where my lord Monk was Prior of the cell…
195 Hunting a hare or riding at a fence
Was all his fun, he spared for no expense.
I saw his sleeves were garnished at the hand
With fine gray fur, the finest in the land,
And on his hood, to fasten it at his chin
200 He had a wrought-gold, cunningly fashioned pin;
Into a lover’s knot it seemed to pass.
His head was bald and shone like looking-glass;
So did his face, as if it had been greased.
He was a fat and personable priest;
And so it goes, lavishing in the riches, the good speech, and the womanizing of the monk. Yet the Parson is not given a negative picture. He is poor in worldly goods and rich in thought, working as a clerk to pay his own way as he gave the church offering away to the poor.
505 Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.
This noble example to his sheep he gave
That first he wrought, and afterward he taught;
And it was from the Gospel he had caught
Those words, and he would add this figure too,
510 That if gold rust, what then will iron do?
For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a common man should rust;
And shame it is to see—let priests take stock—
A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock.
515 The true example that a priest should give
Is one of cleanness, how the sheep should live.
He did not set his benefice to hire
And leave his sheep encumbered in the mire
Or run to London to earn easy bread
520 By singing masses for the wealthy dead,
Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.
He stayed at home and watched over his fold
So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry.
He was a shepherd and no mercenary.
525 Holy and virtuous he was, but then
Never contemptuous of sinful men,
Never disdainful, never too proud or fine,
But was discreet in teaching and benign.
His business was to show a fair behavior
530 And draw men thus to Heaven and their Savior,
“A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock” is a pretty startling use of Jesus’ “white-washed tombs” critique of the religious leaders of his day. That hook, though, tugs us back to those earlier use of tropes of the hypocritical leader. “Hypocrites” form a key component in Matthew and Mark especially, and they all hearken back to Isaiah chapter 1. In these opening chapters, the God of the cosmos sues the leaders of Israel for keeping proper form in worship while cheating their neighbours and oppressing widows and orphans. The universe is jury, the Lord both prosecutor and judge in the old style, and the religious experts stand on trial for the future of their nation. Chaucer is drawing from very deep wells.
Chaucer’s bias seems pretty clear: he favours the lowly, authentic humility, and is especially troubled by the brotherhood of monks who claim to walk in St. Francis’ way but invest themselves in all manner of abusive sensuality. Chaucer tugs at the mask-straps to show there are two faces beneath. Here is a marvellous example of that inversive tendency:
591 Now isn’t it a marvel of God’s grace
That an illiterate fellow can outpace
The wisdom of a heap of learned men?
So, to critique myself, can the stereotypes above not serve the same purpose? Can tropes like the hypocritical Christian not help turn things upside down?
I believe they can. But there needs to be two things, I think:
First, you need the ring of authenticity. The self-critical spirit of Chaucer helps, but also the fact that he casts not all religious people as hypocritical, but only some. He has a larger category, and tackles that (in this case, power and humility). Hollywood, in particular, struggles to find its authentic voice—mostly because it doesn’t understand Christians. I think for popular media, Christians are either Jesus Camp cult leaders or Mel Gibson-esque extremists. Hollywood doesn’t always do its best in capturing a well-balanced moment.
Do the priests in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons ring true to you? You will rarely see me defending Dan Brown, but I think in the book they do. I like the flailing foibles of the forbidden love tale Keeping the Faith—starring Ben Stiller, Edward Norton, and Jenna Elfman. It is a good attempt to show that what looks like hypocrisy grows out of the personal struggles of a priest (Norton). I just don’t think the characters knew that much about what it means to serve as a religious leader, and the brilliant Ed Norton film, Primal Fear, carries on the priest abuser stereotype with nothing new to add. I liked the Noah film, but struggled to understand Noah’s frustration. I don’t think the filmmaker’s ever tried to imagine what a message from God would be like.
Hollywood is a mixed bag on authenticity.
Second, you need the sublimity of good art—the clever wit or gentle hand or subtle subterfuge or gorgeous description. I think this is the difference between the film Saved and The Simpsons. The Simpsons consistently satirizes everything, but do it so very well. Saved is a blunt instrument in moralistic hands, whacking away at things the producers hate so that all art is lost. Voltaire lacks all subtlety, but the cleverness and hilarity allows us into the parody of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
Sometimes it is hard to categorize. Primal Fear is good art despite the tired trope; Signs is bad art with a fresh new character (played by the fumbling Mel Gibson). And when a film is entirely satire, like Glory! Glory!, Dogma, or Saved, the categories can get muddled and the overweening satire can over take the elegance of storytelling and character development.
It could be that the hypocritical clergyman trope has run its course. This blog shows some great religious characters on screen. And there are other tropes in Chaucer too, like the Merchant with “forking beard,” or the Oxford student with a “hollow look, a sober stare, the thread upon his overcoat was bare.” Chaucer also turns some of those tropes around, moving from the stereotypical to the individual. For example, the Oxford cleric is not just hollow and able to misread any Scripture, but “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.” So the whole discussion is probably more complex than I lay it out here.
And that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? To talk about tired tropes is to speak generally. We can judge each trope use as critically good or bad, but when we ask the question, “is it time to move on?”, we are trying to capture a moment in cultural history and retell it in short form. In that sense, we are in danger of falling to a stereotype as well—in this case, the stereotype of a cultural critic sitting at his keyboard and complaining about “art these days.”
Still, I do think it is time to move on.
The point of this generation of film-watchers and readers is this: we want authenticity. The problem with bad clergy in the world today is that so many of them struggle authentically with sin and mental illness and bad habits. So they cause their damage while their hearts break. So many politicians who are lost in the lie are people who began well but are caught in a failed system. Tell me the story of the angry feminist or the Islamist terrorist, fine. But tell me a story. Don’t give me a verbal cartoon. Show me the universal human need to “be” in the world, to reconcile tensions, to fight with and against failures, and to strike at a target that is just out of reach.
Those are fresh stories to me. And I think that’s what Chaucer was doing. He satirized, but he also moved past the trope into characters—perhaps becoming a genius of history in doing so. We have a few psychologized characters in the literature of the past—St. Peter when he betrays Christ, St. Augustine as he takes up the book, Launcelot as he falls to Arthur’s side. But Chaucer is notable because he saw the fresh story and he told it.
I would encourage anyone who is new to Chaucer to dive into the General Prologue. I am using the translation of Nevill Coghill–one of the Inklings, and a friend of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. There are other good modern translations. Find one that works, and you’d be surprised how accessible it really is!