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The Parson in The Canterbury Tales: Geoffrey Chaucer


There was a good man of religion
Who was the poor Parson of a town.
But he was rich in holy thought and work,
And also was a learned man, a clerk
One who Christ’s Gospel faithfully would preach
And with devotion would his people teach.
He was benign, extremely diligent,
Patient in every bad predicament –
Adversity was often on him laid.
He did not like to curse for tithes unpaid,
But rather would have given, without doubt,
To poor folk in his parish round about,
Both from church offerings and his private store,
For little wealth gave him enough, and more.
His parish wide, with houses far asunder –
But he’d not fail in either rain or thunder,
In sickness or distress, to visit duly
The farthest in his parish, high or lowly,
Going on foot, and in his hand a stave.
This fine example to his sheep he gave
That first he acted, afterwards he taught
In words which from the Gospel he had caught.
And he would add to them this figure too –
That if gold rusts, then what will iron do?
For if the priest is bad – the one we trust –
Small wonder if a common man should rust.
It is a scandal – let priests ponder deep –
A corrupt shepherd keeping spotless sheep.
The right example for a priest to give
Is purity, the way the sheep should live.
He did not rent his benefice for hire
And leave his sheep to wallow in the mire
While he ran off to London, to Saint Paul’s,
To find himself a chantry there for souls.
Or in some Brotherhood to get enrolled.
He stayed at home and cared well for his fold,
So that no wolf should cause it to miscarry –
He was a shepherd, not a mercenary.
Holy and virtuous in every way,
But not despising those who went astray.
Not scornful nor superior in speech,
Discreet and gentle when he went to teach.
By kindness to lead people towards heaven,
His duty was a good example given.
But as for those who would be obstinate,
Whether they were of high or low estate,
His reprimand would be both sharp and free.
There could not be a better priest than he.
The lore of Christ and his Apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.

This picture of an idealised parson by Geoffrey Chaucer (complete with warning of possible traps for the unwary) comes from the delightful anthology ‘Godly and Righteous, Peevish and Pervers: Clergy and Religious in Literature and Letters’ by Raymond Chapman.

George Herbert is currently blamed for setting an impossible model for his successors to follow, but he did not invent the ideal of the village priest. For this you perhaps need to look to Bede, and then this extract from The Canterbury Tales.

3 comments on this post:

minidvr said...

That’s great. For all Ordinand’s and newly ordained to ponder 🙂

layanglicana said...

Rather what I thought :>)

30 June 2013 19:21
30 June 2013 18:10

[…] England types is Laura Sykes (@LayAnglicana), who has just blogged on her LayAnglicana blog about Chaucer's idealization of what a parson should be. That reminds me of the creative bloke who made a motto, "If you meet George Herbert on the […]

01 July 2013 16:42

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