Chaucer’s Parson isn’t the most likable pilgrim on the way to Canterbury but he stands out among the clerical throng. Amid lecherous friars, sybaritic monks, simonous pardoners and cosseted prioresses, the parson’s poverty, humility and modesty almost awakens suspicion. Just what is he after - this plain-speaking wet blanket whose ‘tale’ is a sermon on penitance? The worst that contemporary scholars can pin on the man is a charge of crypto-Lollardy. Surely there must be more?
While the modern world singles out Lechery and Sloth, the middle ages held that the most dangerous mortal sins were Pride and Avarice (Coveitise). Chaucer doesn’t like either and spends much of the Canterbury Tales revealing the excesses of a clergy who think too much of themselves and too little of others. In the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer runs through the mortal sins one by one, dissecting the meanings of each and suggesting remedies. As the root of many other vices, Avarice is singled out for closer attention. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chaucer’s Parson does not see avarice as identical to ‘coveitise’. The good Parson explains that avarice differs from covetousness in one essential way:
the difference bitwixe Avarice and Coveitise is this: Coveitise is for to coveite swiche thynges as thou hast nat; and Avarice is for to withholde and kepe swiche thynges as thou hast, withoute rightful nede
The Parson accounts the latter, avarice, as the worse sin.
Writing at about the same time as Chaucer, Robert Langland resists using the latin term ‘avarice’ much in Piers Plowman – 5 mentions to the 47 given to equally latinate ‘coveitise’ and 31 to variants of ‘unkyndenesse’. Langland frequently links the allegorical figure Coveitise with one representing Unkyndenesse and the individual word ‘coveitise’ with the phrase ‘unkynde desiryng’. While this is certainly a felicitous combination for a poet who relies on consonance (ram, ruff, rom), it would be wrong to see the linkage as purely poetic instrumentalism. To want what one has not got (and should not have) is, for Langland, unkindness and a sin against Love. Coveitise thus lies behind the first bite of the apple, the fateful kiss in the garden. Desire is the root of all evil and must be remedied by love of others. A more overtly radical poet than Chaucer, Langland insists that people should not only share their burdens:
Forthi love we as leve children shal, and ech man laughe of oother,
And of that ech man may forbere, amende there it neaeth,
And every man helpe oother — for hennes shul we alle:
Alter alterius onera portate.
but also their wealth:
And be we noght unkynde of oure catel, ne of oure konnyng neither,
For woot no man how neigh it is to ben ynome fro bothe.
Chaucer’s Parson also objects to coveitise – desiring – but avarice really gets his goat because it is linked to idolatry:
Man hath moore hope in his catel than
In jhesu crist, and dooth moore observance in
Kepynge of his tresor than he dooth to the
Service of jhesu crist and therfore seith
Seint paul ad ephesios, quinto, that an avaricious
Man is in the thraldom of ydolatrie.
Avarice is here a terrible sin, not because an individual has an obligation to help bear the burdens of others or because wanting more implies wanting more than others have, but because the avaricious man worships his treasure before God.
Thus is an avaricious
Man, that loveth his tresor biforn god, an
Ydolastre, / thurgh this cursed synne of avarice
Again, for the Parson, it is idolatry – the worshipping of money – that makes avarice a bad thing, not the desire for material goods or the failure to share per se. In Langland, coveitise represents a great ‘unkindness’ against ones fellow humans and against the love of God. For Chaucer’s Parson, however, avarice sets up many gods before the one true God and transforms men into idolators.
But if the roots of sinfulness are different, the cures for ‘coveitise’ and ‘avarice’ are fairly similar. Langland presents ‘kindness’ through the sharing of resources and Chaucer ‘misericorde’ – merciful feelings towards the less fortunate. The Parson preaches that
niw shul ye understonde that the releevynge
Of avarice is misericorde, and pitee largely
And if you cannot muster true pity, he suggests
another manere of remedie agayns
Avarice is resonable largesse;
We might suggest that ‘resonable largesse‘ strains the quality of mercy a bit, but the good Parson assures us that there exists ‘fool largesse‘ or extravagant giving that only serves to puff up the pride of the giver. Our Parson is rather strict on this point, claiming that the excessively generous will receive the curse of damnation on the day of judgement:
Given the strength of this formulation (damnation to the generous!), it comes as no surprise that the Parson never uses the word ‘unkyndenesse’ (it appears once in the Canterbury Tales). Our Parson may well be a faithful shepherd to his flock and a salutary corrective to the all-too-worldly friars, monks and nuns in his company, but he does not run over with the milk of human kindness. Most of us would prefer to be in Langland’s parish.