THE POOR PARSON
Professor Skeat remarks that “Chaucer, in his description of the parson, contrasts the piety and industry of the secular clergy with the wickedness and laziness of the religious orders or monks.” This goes a little beyond the record. Chaucer’s characters are individuals, and we cannot fairly say that because he drew a good parish priest (a ‘parson,’ it should be noted, was properly a ‘rector’), a good knight, and a good clerk he meant to hold up knights, parish priests, or clerks for our admiration as contrasted with other professions. In the Miller’s tale he draws a picture of a clerk who is a worthless fellow enough, and here in describing the Parson he con. ffasts him (1. 507 sqq.) with other members of his own order. A passage in Mr. G. M. Trevelyan’s England in the Age of Wycliffe illustrates very well the temptations by which ‘poor parsons’ in Chaucer’s time were beset, and to which too many of them succumbed. “The inadequate stipends of many parsons caused many of the less faithful to desert their ill-paid duties. ‘It has come to our ears,’ wrote Archbishop Sudbury (Wilkins iii. 120), ‘that rectors of our diocese scorn to keep due residence in their churches, and go to dwell in distant and perhaps unhonest places, without our license, and let their churches out to farm to persons less fitted. Lay persons with their wives and children sometimes dwell in their rectories, frequently keeping taverns and other foul and unhonest things in them.’ Although the Primate complained when this was done without his license, such licences to let out the rectory to farm were easily obtained from the Bishops (Ms. Calendar of Lambeth Register, Lambeth Library, passim). To regard the cure of souls as a source of income only, was then recognized and even authorised. Many parsons without leaving a vicar in charge, deserted their dull round of duties among an ignorant and half-savage peasantry, to live in the great cities or in the mansions of the nobility. Here it was not hard for them to get employment as chantry priests, to sing private masses; with the money earned for such easier tasks they eked out fhe pittance received for parish duties which they were neglecting.
As Langland wrote (Prol. B 83-86):
‘Parsones and parisch prestes pleyned hem to the bischop, That here parisshes were pore, sith the pestilence tyme, To have a lycence and a live at London to dwelle, And syngen there for symonye, for silver is swete.’ As the tithes and dues were partially or wholly alienated the parish priest was in great need of a good stipend from the patron of the living. But Bishops and Parliaments combined to keep these stipends down by ordinances and statutes comparable to the Statutes of Labourers. [In 1354 Archbishop Islip limited these fees to seven marks a year as a maximum. Eight years later Parliament (36 Edwar. III. i. cap. 8) set a limit of six marks. The Black Death had made priests scarce, and like the labourers they took advantage of the scarcity to try to improve their social position. How low that position was is illustrated by the chronicler’s remark that these limitations of their stipends forced many to steal (Wah. i. 297). One is glad to find that the Act was no more successful than the Acts for keeping down other wages, since a statute of Henry the Fifth’s reign complained that parsons refused to serve for less than ten, eleven, or even twelve marks. At this stage of the question Archbishop Chicheley supported them, declaring that no vicar ought to be allowed less than such a sum]” (England in the Age of Wycliffe, by G. M. Trevelyan, pp. 123 sq.). While the poor parsons were thus tempted to desert their flocks to gain an easier livelihood, we know from Bishops’ visitation enquiries, the attacks of satirists, and the complaints of Wyclif, that other parish priests were concerned chiefly to make themselves useful to the patron or agreeable to his lady, and that others again, where their benefices were rich ones, showed themselves as fond of hunting and as extravagant in dress as Chaucer’s Monk. We can thus draw no general conclusion as to the merits of the parish clergy of the fourteenth century from this portrait of one priest, beyond the fact that there were some saints to be found among them. The best pendant indeed to Chaucer’s picture is the story told by Caxton (in the Epilogue to his Aesop) of a worldly ecclesiastic who, finding that an old friend of his was rector of a fine church, asked him, a little jealously, how much the living was worth to him a year.
“‘Forsothe,’sayde the good symple man, ‘I wote neuer; for I make neuer accompte therof, how wel I haue had hit four or fyue yere.’ ‘And knowe ye not,’ said he, ‘what it is worth? It shold seme a good benefyce.’ ‘No, forsothe,’ sayd he, ‘but I wot wel what it shalle be worth to me.’ ‘Why,’ sayd he, ‘what shalle hit be worth?’ ‘Forsothe,’ sayd he, ‘if I doo my trewe dylygence in the cure of my parysshens, in prechyng and techynge; and doo my parte longynge to my cure, I shalle haue heuen therfore, and if theyre soules ben lost, or ony of them, by my defawte, I shall be punysshed therfore, and hereof am I sure.’
”‘This was a good answere of a good preest and an honest,’ comments Caxton, and we may be sure that Chaucer’s Parson would have approved it.”
It is rather surprising to a modern reader to find the Parson depicted in the Ellesmere Ms. as wearing a red gown, but in the fourteenth century this seems to have been the usual colour for a parish priest to wear.
480. He was also a lerned man, etc. Many priests, Wyclif says, got themselves ordained by bribery, and “afterward wolen not bisien hem to lerne, but bete stretis up an doun and synge and pleie as mynstralis and use vanytee and ydelnesse” so that “men scornenhem in seynge of here servyce and redynge of here pistil and gospe1.” Chaucer was not content that his ideal priest should be a good shepherd, he must be a good teacher as well.
486. Ful looth were hym to cursen for his tithes. Wyclif (Of Clerkes Possessionem, Cap. 25) speaks of men who “for foure penyworth good curse many thousand soules to helle.” A man who remained obdurate after being thus excommunicated could eventually be imprisoned.
489. Of his offryng and eek of his substaunce. The Easter offering (the traditional amount seems to have been two pence for each person) has always been for the benefit of the parson. Substaunce must denote the priest’s property, however derived.
494. muche and lite, almost the same as “of heigh or lowe estat” in 1. 522.
495. Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf. Because Chaucer’s priest thus traversed his parish he has been sometimes confounded with the ‘poor priests’ whom Wyclif sent preaching through the country. This is even more unreasonable than the accusation, brought against him in one of the Talks on the Road by the Shipman and Host, of being a Lollard (b 1172-1182) because he objected to swearing. All religious teachers who try to lead a spiritual life in a worldly age are likely to have many points in common. But there is no reason whatever to think that Chaucer sympathized with any of Wyclif’s specific doctrines. Sir John Seeley’s guess that the Poor Parson was intended for Wyclif himself is absolutely baseless. Wyclif’s followers had no love for pilgrimages, and it is thus the more unreasonable to make this pilgrim-parson a Wyclifite, merely because he was a good man.
498. Out of the gospel. Matt. v. 19: [“Qui autem fecerit et docuerit hie magnus vocabitur in regno caelorum.”]
500. if gold ruste what shal iren doo? [Prof. Kittredge (Modern Lang. Notes, xii. 113) has discovered a use of this ‘figure’ in Li Romans de CariU: “so ors enrunge, queus ert fers?” We cannot tell where Chaucer got it.fisem.]
507. sette nat his benefice to hyre. Cp. the quotation in preliminary note on the Parson. [It was not only bad parsons who did this. In the tract Of Servants and Lords Wyclif says that “a gostly curat or prest that lyveth a good lif in mekenesse and doynge almes to pore men” . . . more especially if he reprove lords “of here wicked lif and teche hem the beste weie to hevene” may be so persecuted “that he schal be fayn to sette his chirche to ferme” and go elsewhere. ]
509. unto Seint Poules. According to Dugdale there were thirtyfive chantries at S. Paul’s served by fifty-four priests. In 1391, soon after the Prologue was written, the Dean and Chapter prohibited any chantry at S. Paul’s being held except by their own minor canons (Cutts, Parish Priests and their People, p. 464 note).
510. To seken hym a chaunterie for soules. A chantry was a provision for a priest to sing mass daily and say other prayers for the repose of a sou1. The usual remuneration in the fourteenth century was £$ a year, and as the priest was left with nearly all his time to himself it was an easy way of getting a living. [Some testators, however, while providing for these masses to be sung for their own souls provided also for the education of poor children, the chantry-priest being required to act as school-master. The.sweeping away many of these chantry-schools was one of the crimes which attended the English Reformation. A good instance of a bequest for priestly services only is that of Robert Johnson, Alderman of York (Test. Ebor. iv. 121, quoted by Cutts): “I leave to the exhibition of an honest prest to synge at the alter of Our Lady daily by the space of vij yeres xxxvii. And I will that what prest that shall serve it every day, whan that he hath saide masse, shall stand afore my grave in his albe and ther to say the psalme of De Profundi;, with the collettes, and then cast holy water upon my grave.”]
511. Or with a bretherhed to been withholde: “or to be kept away from his parish in the service of a gild.” A few of the gilds (see supra, note oxi the ‘Five Gildsmen’) had chaplains of their own [e.g. the chief object of the Gild of S. George, the Martyr, founded in 1376, at Bishop’s Lynn, was “to fynden a Preste to syngen atte autere of Seint George in the chirche of Seinte Margere of Lenne, in the worship of God and the holy martir, and for alle the brethir and sistren that to the ffraternite longes” (Toulmin Smith, Early English Gilds, p. 74)]. The rest paid for masses to be said on the death of one of their members, the number of masses varying from ten to thirty or more. There was thus clerical work, both temporary and permanent, to be obtained from them.
514. He was a shepherde, and noght a mercenarie: Dr. Flügel shows that ‘chappelain mercenaire’ was a recognized title in French for priests who made their living solely by saying Mass; but the reference is surely not to this, but to John x. 12: “Mercenarius autem, et qui non est pastor, cujus non sunt oves propriae, videt lupum venientem, et dimittit oves, et fugit.”
517. daungerous ne digne: neither domineering nor disdainful.
523. for the nones, see note to 1. 545.
526. a spiced conscience: “Spiced here seems to signify, says Tyrwhitt, nice, scrupulous …. The origin of the phrase is French. The name of espices (spices) was given to the fees or dues which were payable (in advance) to judges. A ‘spiced’ judge, who would have a ‘spiced’ conscience, was scrupulous and exact, because he had been prepaid, and was inaccessible to any but large bribes” (Skeat’s note). Accepting Dr. Skeat’s history of the word we may question whether the sense should not be the reverse of that he assigns. On the low view of human nature which predominates in word-making a prepaid judge would not be ‘scrupulous and exact,’but disinclined to trouble himself. Cp. D 434-6: ”Ye sholde been al pacient and meke And han a sweete spiced conscience, Sith ye so preche of Jobes pacience”: where ‘spiced’ seems to mean easy-going. Dr. Liddell writes: ‘a spiced conscience was one that depended on formal distinctions, spiced being identical in meaning with N.E. specious.‘ This would account for the two apparently contradictory meanings the word seems to have, for it is as easy by artificial distinctions to turn wrong into right as right into wrong.
As Chaucer’s Ploughman paid tithes, both of the fruits of his tillage and of his cattle, he must have been his own master, not merely a ‘hind,’ or hired labourer, though not far removed from one. He may have been a small tenant farmer, or the lands he held may have been ‘Lammas lands,’i.e. the property of the village, but held as private property, from August to August, by successive cultivators. The latter supposition would fit very well with his lending a hand to a poor neighbour, as under the Lammas system such mutual help would be needed. As he tells no story, there is no picture of him in the Ellesmere manuscript.
529. was his brother. The relative (who) is here omitted, just as the pronoun (he) in introducing the Parson (1. 468). There was nothing unusual in Chaucer’s days in a priest, although ‘a lerned man, a clerk ‘having the smallest of small farmers as his brother.
539. His tithes payede he ful faire and wel. The smallest pig in a litter is still called ‘the parson’s pig’ as the one which a reluctant tithe-payer would offer his parson. In the Wakefield miracle-play of the “Death of Abel,” Cain is shown counting his corn-sheaves wrongly, so as to make fewer tenths among them, and refusing to include any of the specially good ones.
540. Bothe of his propre swynk and his catel: i.e. both of the fruits of the fields he ploughed and of the increase of his cattle.
541. In a tabard he rood upon a mere. Chaucer mounts his ploughman on a mare, as became his social position. No person pretending to belong to the ‘quality’ would have mounted a mare, except under circumstances of the direst necessity. [In a Latin poem on the execution of Archbishop Scrope (1405) allusion is made to the additional indignity of being led to the scene of punishment riding on a mare: “jumento vehitur hinc ad supplicium” (Dr. Karkeek).] Save that it is doubtful whether it had sleeves, the tabard was the fourteenth century equivalent for the smock-frock now dying out of use.
These notes are reproduced verbatim from Alfred W. Pollard, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: The Prologue, London: Macmillan, 1903. The book is in the public domain and available for viewing and download from Google Books. Although the book is old, the notes are enlightening and accurate. Nevertheless, users doing detailed research on aspects of the General Prologue should, if possible, also consult more recent notes in print publications such as The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed., Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
View more information: https://tigerweb.towson.edu/duncan/chaucer/notes-parson.html