The Stereotype of the Hypocritical Clergyman: Chaucer and Modern Film

chaucer initial text“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.

monk chaucerYet I was delighted when I came to Chaucer’s hypocritical clergymen. Is this my own storytelling-reading hypocrisy?

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;

chaucer paintingAnd 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,

chaucer monk canterbury tales“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:

priest angels and demons ewan mcgregorFirst, 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.

reverend lovejoy simpsonsSecond, 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.

edward-norton-primal-fearIt 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.”

the_canterbury_tales_by_eljiasan-d4mmjo pilgrims

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!

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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35 Responses to The Stereotype of the Hypocritical Clergyman: Chaucer and Modern Film

  1. robstroud says:

    “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.”

    Sad, but true. Many of us in the ministry (I was ordained in 1981 and have served in civilian and military congregations) are more aware of clerical flaws than any lay critics will ever be. All ministers are imperfect, being fallen human beings. Too many, though, are simply reprobates. (A single ordained hedonist would constitute “too many,” of course.)

    Fortunately these imposters are vastly outnumbered by the sincere majority of ministers. Those who more closely resemble Chaucer’s Parson. We (I humbly count myself among them) are extremely conscious of our own shortcomings. However, we possess a genuine and abiding love for those entrusted to our care. Something that a so-called “shepherd” in the mold of Chaucer’s Monk would find utterly alien to his nature.


    • I am one of the struggling ones, so perhaps that’s why I get tired of the trope.
      I was ordained with my wife in 1997 and have endeavoured since 2001 to try to do it without pay. In my experience, the vast majority are honest. Sometimes incompetent, but rarely corrupt.


  2. What a delight it was to read this posting this morning. I think, in part at least, it was keeping company with Chaucer for a little while. As I began to read about the corrupt monk I immediately started thinking about the good parson and after a few moments there he was! What has struck me increasingly in recent years is that although the English are no longer largely a church going people there remains a strong cultural memory of both the good parson and the corrupt one and people seem to have an innate sense of the difference between them. I live just a mile or two from a Worcestershire parish where around 1800 the local farmers hired a ne’er do well from Worcester to murder their parson! His main zeal seemed to be in the collecting of tithes. I am so glad that those days are over. Yet from the good parson in Chaucer to George Herbert abandoning courtly life in order to become a simple country parson and on into the present day people seem to know the real thing when they find it and to like it as well. It is an old tradition in England that folk like their parsons to be believers even if they find that difficult (if I remember rightly Lewis had strong stuff to say about that to the English clergy) and they also want them to to be kind and good. I loved those lines:
    Holy and virtuous he was, but then
    Never contemptuous of sinful men,
    Never disdainful, never too proud or fine,
    And the line about the “shitten shepherd” really must be used in all the education of the clergy. Tyndale would have liked it, I think, and he probably knew it. It rings true to the English of his own translation of the New Testament.


    • As you say it Stephen, I realize that you are right: there are both clergy characters in the English story. It is the new world that tilts these scales.
      That’s why, despite your post-church world, you have these great English comedies about clergy. However, beside those shows, do you have an honest, limited, authentic Christian character? At least we have Marge Simpson!
      (by “we” I don’t mean Canada; we have almost nothing!)
      “The Worcester Plot.” What a fun book/plot that would be, provided the murder failed in a hilarious way, or the film begins with the murder and it all falls apart.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Mary Ellen says:

    Have you seen the indie movie “Lars and the Real Girl”? One of the sweetest depictions of Christians I have seen to date in an otherwise secular movie.


    • You are so right. I love that movie and have used it in teaching settings before. Brilliant tag.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve never seen (or even heard of) this, but it somehow made me think of a film I love, Paul Cox’s Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999).


        • I don’t know it… the name “Damien” is evocative of something though.


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Do see it sometime, if you can! (Derek Jacobi’s unattractive Father Leonor Fouesnel is well done, though I have not read enough to know how accurate or inaccurate; Peter O’Toole and David Wenham are very good – among many other good performances and impressiv characters.)


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  5. Robert Brown says:

    I would recommend that people at least try to read Chaucer’s own words. Most of the audience for this blog would have the language skills. Get a copy with a glossary for those words that haven’t survived to modern English, and thanne go on thyn owene pilgrimage, Chaucer’s faire tonge for to seke.


    • I’m quite amateurish in middle English, but I find when I read it aloud, it am more successful. What about, as a bridging exercise, listening to the audio of Chaucer’s text while reading a paper/digital copy?


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A very good suggestion, I’d say! What audio would you recommend? Someone reviewing the LibriVox version recommends the one by Jess B Bessinger Jr., and I see it is available online (and sounds good to me):
        A good text to follow along with might be the transcription of Larry Benson’s edition with modern interlinear “pony”, here:

        An interesting work to compare with Chaucer in its mixture of various, and variously, admirable, sympathetic, and appalling clergy and laity is Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series of novels. I loved the 1982 BBC adaptation of The Warden and Barchester Towers together as The Barchester Chronicles before I ever read a word of Trollope and have enjoyed the LibriVox collaborative audio versions of various of them, which include some fine English and American readers.

        I also lately enjoyed the LibriVox reading of Sabine Baring-Gould’s little satirical pseudepigraphal work, Only a Ghost! by Irenaeus the Deacon (1870).

        Fascinating is R.H. Benson’s mediaeval historical novel, The History of Richard Raynal, Solitary (1912), scanned at Internet Archive.

        Among later Twentieth-century authors, I do like (though I do not always admire) Barbara Pym’s various wryly-observed flawed but sympathetic clergy, while Elizabeth Goudge often seems to specialize in admirable flawed clergy (A Scent of Water springs to mind).


        • I just posted on Friday my reading of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead”–a brilliant and compassionate image of a pastor. That Hitchcock film of the Priest was pretty awesome too.
          I have not yet read Trollope! I intend to, but there is so much ahead in line!
          And I don’t know a Chaucer audio. I was hoping this little question would draw suggestions (as you have done!).


          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Marilynne Robinson has fallen pretty squarely in my not-keeping-up years, but this sounds (and other works mentioned in the comments of that post or found via her Wikipedia article sound) inviting! (I’ve been meaning to rewatch the Hitchcock for ages. Speaking of films, I shied away from Dean Spanley (2008) when I had a chance to get a good buy on the dvd, not knowing what to expect and being apprehensive, and have been kind of kicking myself since for pusillanimity – have you seen it?)

            Do consider trying the LibriVox Barset versions to nibble away at while doing the washing up, or waiting in traffic or whatever – I’ve gotten a reasonable sense of the whole series that way much sooner than I would have, had I tried simply to fit in reading them all.


      • Robert Brown says:

        I don’t have any audios to recommend, but you’re right about reading aloud being an aid to comprehension. Middle English is more regular than modern, so once one knows the rules, one can become quite fluent.


  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Were you also thinking of Chaucer in the context of Who Goes Home? I suddenly did – the variety of pilgrims with distinct histories, and the variety of non-pilgrims (not consciously, deliberately, pilgrims, anyway), some of whom benefit radically from their encounters with saints.


    • I wasn’t sure there was any connection, David. It was an accident that I read Chaucer’s preface as I was reading GD. We even have the Narrator as both pilgrim and narrator in Chaucer–as we do in Great Divorce. Perhaps those who know more could school me?
      On the Sarah Smith Anthem, I read this in Lewis’ letters today (Jan 31, 1946 to Sr. Penelope). He was talking about Holst’s Planets, which he had just heard all of for the 1st time since he was a teenager. He’s talking about the Jupiter cycle:
      “The folk tune on which he bases [the Jupiter Cycle] is not regal enough for my conception.”
      So, that’s how I feel about the Sarah Smith Anthem!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        A good comparison (and from the same period)!

        Two things reprinted in Image and Imagination, both a lot later, have struck me as possibly interesting to compare in thinking about the style and diction of both hymn and work as a whole: on styles and problems of translation in his review of Fitgerald’s Odyssey (1962), and on those matters in the context of (possible) “high comedy” and “low farce” in Dante’s Divine Comedy and Sayers’ translation in his review of her (posthumous) collection, The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement (1963).

        As to “the Narrator as both pilgrim and narrator” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (and compare his House of Fame, too) and The Great Divorce, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, I was struck on lately rereading Lewis’s account of Boethius and his Consolation of Philosophy in The Discarded Image by his reference to “Boethius the author here ruthlessly exposing Boethius the natural man” (p. 80).


  7. jubilare says:

    “Seriously, I’ve had enough of these worn-out tropes.” You and me both, brother!

    Well-said throughout. This: “he casts not all religious people as hypocritical, but only some,” is one of the first things that came to my mind when first you began exploring why Chaucer’s characters don’t strike you as negatively as thoughtlessly-used tropes. And they you said it! 🙂 I find that when I see a character conforming to a stereotype, and I see at least one other character in the same work that defies the trope, I am more sympathetic. It seems to indicate some thought, some recognition of the complexity of humanity, was put into the work. Though, unless one is writing something that requires flat characters as an artistic motif, it is better to avoid stereotypes completely in favor of real characters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jubilare, do you think we both have this increased sympathy to the use of tropes–and I share yours precisely–because we suspect the author of a lack of self-awareness? I think that’s it for me. If all the lesbians are fat or all the poor people are crude or all the frat boys are bohunks, I assume the author cannot see the world beyond these channels, these stereotypes. Do you ever feel like that?

      Liked by 1 person

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