In the "General Prologue," Chaucer presents an array of characters from the 1400's in order to paint portraits of human dishonesty and stupidity as well as virtue. Out of these twenty-nine character portraits three of them are especially interesting because they deal with charity. Charity during the 1400's, was a virtue of both religious and human traits. One character, the Parson, exemplifies Chaucer's idea of charity, and two characters, Prioress, and Friar, to satirize the idea of charity and show that they are using charity for either devious reasons or out of convention or habit.
According to the definition from the Webster's dictionary, charity means giving to the needy and helping the poor. In Chaucer's time, however, charity meant much more. It included a love of G-d and doing the will of G-d as well as the kind of person one is. Thus Charity had two parts, one human, the other divine. Two parts that mixed in different portions depending on a person. Charity was a human virtue that the Church encouraged. People believed that if one does something good, he will be rewarded by G-d. Many people did meaningful, charitable things out the goodness of their hearts, but others had done it for other reasons. Those reasons included making money from people's suffering and giving to charity because someone told them to do so, rather than from the goodness of their hearts or to ease the suffering of others. Chaucer plays off both of these parts of charity in his portraits to show how they can be combined differently in different people and to distinguish "true" charity from "false" charity.
Parson exemplifies Chaucer's idea of true charity. Even though Parson does not have any money, he considers himself rich spiritually. Going around the village, he teaches the poor and those who can't go to church about what G-d is and how to be a religious person. He gives more than he receives. In fact, he avoids preaching to the rich and well-to-do because he prefers going to the humble and poor, who truly need his help and G-d. He doesn't
run to London to earn easy bread
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. (p.16)
Parson is seen as an ideal priest, and his actions describe the real meaning of what charity is. He is "virtuous," "Never contemptuous" toward sinners, "never disdainful," and "discreet."(p.17) Getting people to Heaven is his main goal, not their money or his own advancement.
Friar, on the other hand, uses charity for devious purposes. By getting a license from the Pope, which lets him go around the country and hear confessions, he uses this license to make money for himself. Also he runs an agency in which he fixes up young women with men for a fee. Unlike Parson, who goes out of his way to help the poor, the Friar thinks that
nothing good can come
Of commerce with such slum-and-gutter dwellers,
But only with the rich and victual-sellers. (p.9)
By visiting only rich people, Friar's primary purpose is to make money and not to give forgiveness for the sins as he is supposed to do. He is using his position for his own purposes under the disguise of charity, which in his case is being greedy and being guilty of committing one of the seven sins.
Without knowing it, Prioress uses charity as a convention. Since her father does not have enough for a dowry, he is forced to send Prioress to a nunnery. Prioress does not have much of a choice herself, since in the Middle Ages, women had little choice in their future, usually being married or becoming prostitutes. Because she grew up in a wealthy, not very religious family, she does not know the real meaning of being a nun and of what charity means beyond what the Church has told her. Because she is told that she has to follow a certain discipline, she complies with it without questioning the true meaning. Instead of helping poor people, she helps animals by feeding them, simply because the Church said feed the needy.
She had little dogs she would be feeding.
With roasted flesh, or milk, or fine white bread. (p.7)
The way she eats "no morsel from her lips did she let fall"(p.6), the way she dresses, " Her cloak ... had a graceful charm...whence hung a golden brooch of brightest sheen....(p.7), suggests that she belongs to an upper class and not to the order of nuns. Chaucer shows that she follows the denotative meaning of charity. She knows what charity means intellectually and religiously but has not experienced it spiritually. Ironically, around her neck she wears a brooch that declares "Love Conquers All," (p.7) without having slightest indication of what this statement truly means.
By presenting us with these characters, Chaucer describes an overview of what life was during the Middle Ages.