The Canterbury Tales And The Virtues Of Pauvreté

(Note: This piece may be a bit heavy on the lit-major nerdishness for those who haven’t read Chaucer and/or who aren’t so good with Middle English. Then again – what’s your excuse for these oversights? We’re talking about your cultural heritage here.)

Namedropping Geoffrey Chaucer in my last piece put me in mind to rework something I wrote years ago about the Canterbury Tales, and how it illustrates the attitude that the medievals held when it came to the subject of poverty. Their concept of virtuous poverty seems worth bringing up in an age in which it becomes increasingly obvious that the West’s excessive wealth has been a primary factor in making our society degenerate, decadent, and soft – neither strong enough to survive nor very much deserving of survival. Our ancestors, who were far wiser than we in every area except the technological, had attitudes toward this topic that were very different from ours, and this is reflected in the stories they have left us. Among these attitudes, the one perhaps most prominently displayed in the Canterbury Tales is the belief that poverty is the seedbed of virtue. Poverty was defined, in this context, not as wretched, ragged, starvation-level poverty, but rather as possession of a sufficiency of the necessities of life, without excess or luxury. In our own era, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn clarified the differences between these two sorts of poverty when he remarked that:

“[T]he notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between ‘pauvreté’ and ‘misère’. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.”

A hardcore monastic order here or there aside, misère was really never seen as being conducive to virtue, as medieval moralists of Chaucer’s bent believed that it would simply cause the sort of desperation that would lead to crime. However, pauvreté (and this is what the reader should assume I mean by the term “poverty” going forward), which could even be achieved by members of the gentle classes by the exercise of self-denial, was believed to engender virtue by lessening attachments to worldly possessions and pleasures. Thus, while poverty did not necessarily always produce virtue, nor was it necessary to live in poverty in order to be virtuous, poverty did, according to this worldview, create conditions that predisposed people towards leading virtuous lives. It is in order to illustrate this point that Chaucer created characters, most notably among the warrior and priestly classes, whose stories directly tie poverty to virtue.

The most explicit example of virtue tied to a poverty caused by self-denial is that of the Knight. Though he is a nobleman, and thus a member of the upper classes, his possessions are described as being exceedingly modest. Chaucer describes the Knight’s goods thus:

“But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun”

The Knight’s horse and clothing are of the good and rugged quality that his position requires, but without a hint of opulence to them; he has not so much as a bauble that might be called a luxury. This self-enforced austerity befits a man who: “loved chivalrye/Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye”, but is conspicuously not described as loving money, ease, or comfort.

The Knight is not the only one whose poverty is voluntary. Included in the party are a number of churchmen who are bound by the three vows of monastic life: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But while there are some among them who live up to those vows (the Parson and the Clerk primary among them), there are others who plainly do not. The first among these is a nun, who Chaucer refers to as the Prioress. While Chaucer’s characterization of her is unquestionably of one who falls very short of his ideal for monastic life, it is also a portrait of a perfectly decent woman of perfectly good intentions who has been consigned to a life for which she is simply constitutionally unsuited (people became monks or nuns in those days for all sorts of reasons; some good, some bad). Her trespasses are the stuff not of wickedness, but of worldliness. Her violations of her vows of chastity, for example, are not ones that involve the narrow definition of that term which imply sexual misconduct, but the larger sense in which that word is (and was, by the medievals) understood – of an immodest attachment to worldly pleasures. These include an undue attachment to appearances, as illustrated in Chaucer’s long description of her impeccable table manners. In addition, a hint of violation both of the Prioress’s vows of chastity and of poverty is illustrated by her concern with the wellbeing of her dogs (which bring joy to her heart), while so many of her fellow men go needy. This suggests a misplaced charity, a selfishness and concern with that which provides her pleasure, and a self-indulgence which call into question both her understanding of and her commitment to her vows of chastity and poverty. Further evidence is provided by the description of her “broche of gold ful shene/On which ther was first write a crowned A/And after, ‘Amor vincit omnia’”. This sentiment could be read in two very different ways, and Chaucer leaves it unclear whether the love in question corresponds more closely to the concept of agapé, or to that of eros. Beyond the issue of chastity however, a gold brooch is most definitely a luxury, one that may border on unseemly when worn by a woman sworn to a life of poverty.

We move father down the scale of unsuitable churchmen when we meet the Friar. While the Prioress was a bit too concerned with her own personal pleasures, it is obvious that the Friar is a man who is entirely out for his own interests. He has found a cushy and lucrative sinecure, and will allow no concerns such as ecclesiastical vows, love of Christ, or concern for his fellow man interfere in his enjoyment of it. He spends his time with carefully-selected members of his community, for as we see: “Ful wel beloved and famulier was he/With frankeleyns (prosperous freeholders) over al in his contree”. And he is just as particular in his selection of those he does not spend time with:

“For unto swich a worthy man as he
Acorded nat, as by his facultee
To have with seke lazars aqueyntaunce:
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille”

In this, we see both infractions against his vows of poverty (for his preference for the company of the rich certainly had much to do with the amenities available while in their company), and his vows of chastity (in his attachment to the worldly pleasures those amenities represented). In addition, his policy of going easy on those who accompanied their confessions with “a good pitaunce”, smacks of disobedience of, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the church’s policies on penance. Indeed, it may be fairly said of him that, while he is not a man of malicious intent, his life is lived not one bit in accordance with the spirit of a dedicated clergyman.

Representing a complete contrast to this is the Parson, a poor preacher who is the embodiment of Christian virtue. We learn nearly immediately of his poverty, as he is described as: “a povre Persoun of a toun”. Chaucer describes him in terms that neatly describe his own ideal of poverty, telling us that the Parson “coude in litel thing han suffisaunce”. And though he could secure a more lucrative sinecure in London, it does not interest him. Instead, he “dwelte at hoom, and kepte wel his folde”. And well-kept they were, for as Chaucer relates: “A better preest I trowe that nowhere noon is”.

Accompanying the Parson is the Clerk, Chaucer’s ideal of scholarly virtue (In Chaucer’s time, a “Clerk” meant a full-time scholar. As all institutions of higher learning were, in those days, affiliated with the church, and there was no distinction drawn between secular and religious learning, Clerks were considered to be living a sort of religious lifestyle, although they did not take the vows by which nuns and monks were bound). He is a thin man on a thin horse, covered by a thin cloak that is “ful thredbar”. We learn that there is a reason for his privation, as: “Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre/But al that he mighte of his freendes hente/On bokes and lerninge he it spente”. As befits a true scholar, he eschews extravagance, loves knowledge above all else, and devotes every penny he can scrape together to the furtherance of learning.

It is fitting, then, that in the tale told by the poor and humble Clerk we meet the character that perhaps most explicitly embodies Chaucer’s philosophy on the power of poverty to engender virtue. As soon as the Clerk begins his tale of the fair Grisilde, we are told: “For povreliche y-fostred up was she/No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte y-ronne/She knew wel labour, but non ydel ese”. It is the hardship, labor, and poverty she has faced that has produced in her a countenance described as “rype and sad corage”, and it is this countenance that attracts the attention of the Marquis Walter. Once her marriage to him is complete, it also allows her to bear his cruelties. And bear them she does, for: “Disposed was, this humble creature/Th’adversitee of Fortune al t’endure”. Having never allowed herself to become attached to the worldly delights of wealth or status, Grisilde, when faced with the prospect of returning to poverty, stoically responds by paraphrasing Job: “Naked out of my fadres hous, quod she/I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn”. This is, by even the Clerk’s admission, positively superhuman fortitude in the face of more suffering than anyone should be expected to abide graciously. By repeatedly making a point of her humble upbringing, the poet transparently ties this fortitude to her poverty. Thus, when Walter reveals that all of his cruelties were mere tests designed to make sure that she was a worthy wife, and that from now on she could count on him to be a loving and generous (not to mention rich and noble) husband, she is shown to be a woman who, through a display of exceptional virtue, has earned exceptional privilege.

Though she is often presented as a near-opposite of Grisilde, and though it may seem bit incongruous for a character who herself seems to find little merit in the idea that poverty engenders virtue, the Wife of Bath’s Tale contains a philosophical digression on both the nature of virtuous poverty and on the topic of what truly makes a person noble. In her tale, a knight gets a well-deserved moral lecture from an old crone to whom he has found himself married. She reminds him that: “Heer may ye see wel how that genterye/Is nat annexed to possessioun”. She divorces true nobility from the idea of highborn status, declaring that “Thy gentillesse cometh fro God allone”. Having done this, she addresses poverty, reminding her husband (and thus, the reader) of examples of poverty tied to virtue in sources both religious and secular. She turns to the authority of the Gospels to attest that: “The hye God, on whom that we bileve/In wilful povert chees to live his lyf”. She follows this by an appeal to the learning of philosophers: “Glad povert is an honest thing, certeyn/This wol Senek and othere clerkes seyn”. And indeed she seems to sum up Chaucer’s position on poverty, previously illustrated in the General Prologue descriptions of the Parson and the Plowman, when she says: “But he that noght hath, ne coveyteth have/Is riche, although ye holde him but a knave”.

(In a fine parallel to the Clerk’s Tale, the Wife’s Tale ends happily, as once his old, ugly, and mysterious wife tests him and determines that he has learned his lesson, she obligingly uses magic to transform herself into a beautiful young woman.)

It can be seen, then, that Chaucer takes every opportunity to extol the virtues that he associates with poverty. The characters that are richest in the qualities most admired by the poet are consistently the poorest and humblest among them. Poverty is, in his judgment, an ideal breeding ground for moral virtue, health, wisdom, long life, and cleanliness of mind, body, and spirit. Though these beliefs go utterly against the grain of the Whig/Modernist worldview, we should ourselves be wise enough to reevaluate the wisdom of our ancestors; in it, there is a great deal of lost truth.

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