It’s easy to revile or romanticize the medieval church as a monolith of religious attitudes. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, however, opens a view to the 1300s of extraordinary richness and color.

The son of a wealthy vintner, Chaucer (1343–1400) lived most of his life at court, serving as a soldier, judge, member of parliament, and ambassador. Chaucer also composed poems and courtly romances, and in later years, his earthy, realistic Canterbury Tales.

The Tales introduce us to roughly two dozen pilgrims making their way to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. To amuse themselves, they engage in a storytelling contest.

Chaucer portrays his pilgrims with a vividness and detail unmatched by any British writer before him (or any but Shakespeare and Dickens since), and religious themes color almost every page. Though a work of fiction, Canterbury Tales has helped historians peek into late-1300s English life. Here are sketches of four of Chaucer’s revealing characters.

The Wife of Bath

Genial rebel

Flamboyantly dressed, with a hat “broad as a shield,” the sunny, talkative Wife of Bath gallops through the Tales as one of literature’s most endearing religious rebels.

The Wife, Alisoun, was married first at age 12—and then four more times after that. She has outlived all five, speaks of them with rough affection, and waits to “welcome the sixth, whenever he appears.” In the meantime, the Wife carries on a vigorous crusade against the church’s attitudes toward marriage, sexuality, and women.

Having been criticized for her multiple marriages, Alisoun defends her right to marry as long as she can continue to outlive her husbands. Where does the Bible say we can marry only once? Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob were holy men, and none of them stopped at one wife. God himself tells us “to wax and multiply” (she adds, “That gentle text can I well understand”).

She is far from persuaded by the church’s ideal of virginity. Where, she asks, did God ever command that? How could he command virginity without condemning marriage? She knows Saint Paul counseled virginity, “but counseling is no commandment.” And, in a curiously unanswerable argument, she asks,

And certainly if seed were never sown,
How ever could virginity be grown?

In other words, if everyone stays a virgin, we’ll eventually run out of them! Virginity, in any case, is a counsel for those who would live perfectly. “And by your leave,” she demurs, “that am not I.”

The climax of Alisoun’s life comes in a brawl she has with her fifth and favorite husband, Jankyn, over his women-slandering tracts. These tracts, published by the church, collected horrible stories about women in an attempt to persuade young men to eschew marriage for the celibate priesthood. Jankyn, for his amusement, insisted on reading such tracts aloud to his wife. One evening, sick and tired of hearing it, Alisoun tears some pages from the book and punches Jankyn into the fireplace.

Jankyn in turn knocks Alisoun out and then feels so contrite he burns his book and offers up to her all “the mastery, the sovereignty” in their marriage. “After that day,” Alisoun concludes, “we never had debate.”

The authority of the church and the structure of the family are perhaps not such new issues, after all.

The Prioress

Sentimental savage

She looks every inch the heroine of medieval romance—her nose graceful, her eyes “gray as glass,” her mouth small, soft and red, her forehead fair and broad. As was expected of the nobility, she speaks excellent French—but, Chaucer slyly notes, only as it was taught in England, since the “French of Paris was to her unknown.” This is Chaucer’s Prioress, who clearly missed her calling as a medieval lady.

A prioress headed a women’s monastery and was presumably concerned first with religious matters. But in the Middle Ages, as perhaps in all ages, priests, monks, and nuns were sometimes interested more in this world than the next.

The Prioress, Chaucer notes, “took pains to imitate the behavior of the court and to be dignified of manner.” Raised in a noble family, Madame Eglentyne has learned impeccable table manners. She never spills a drop or a morsel. She reaches politely for the meat. She wipes her lips so clean that “in her cup there was not a farthing seen of grease, after she had drunk her draft.”

Sentimental to a degree, she weeps over a mouse caught in a trap and weeps again if someone takes a stick to her dogs. And the golden ornament on her rosary reads, AMOR VINCIT OMNIA (“Love Conquers All”).

The Prioress’s story reveals more sinister contradictions than these, however. Eglentyne begins her tale with a beautiful and moving invocation to the Madonna, the climax of which runs,

O mother-maid, maid-mother, chaste and free!
O bush unburnt, burning in Moses’ sight,
Thou that didst ravish down from deity
Upon thy humbleness the Spirit’s flight
That lit upon thy heart, and in whose might
The Word took flesh, help me to tell my story
In reverence of thee and of thy glory!

Her story, however, turns out to be deeply unsettling: A young Christian boy is murdered in the Jewish quarter of an Asian city. By a miracle of the Virgin Mary, the crime comes to light. The Christians promptly hang and disembowel the Jews, and the boy’s spirit floats off to join other young martyrs hymning the Lamb.

Chaucer described Madame Eglentyne as “coy and simple,” but her tale reflects a casual, almost off-hand savagery in medieval Christendom’s attitude toward Jews that would produce monstrous results for centuries to come. And this from a lady who weeps over wounded mice.

The Parson

Puritan ahead of his time

On Chaucer’s gallery of rogue clerics—his worldly Monk, lecherous Friar, bribe-extorting Summoner, huckster Pardoner, and vain Prioress—four deadly sins and one venial spring vigorously to life, and all take holy orders! Quietly setting these frauds in the worst possible light, meanwhile, is Chaucer’s model priest.

A “poor parson of a town,” he was “rich … of holy thought and work.” Unlike church careerists, the Parson never “left his sheep encumbered in the mire to run to London” after advancement but “dwelt at home and kept well his fold.”

Against a background of shameless hypocrisy, the Parson lives resolutely according to his beliefs. He feels it his sacred duty to set the best possible example for his parishioners: “For if gold rust, what should iron do?” He helps his poorest parishioners out of church funds and his own resources. In times of sickness or misfortune, he braves rain and thunder to visit the most distant of his flock, “upon his feet, and in his hand a staff”—the very image of his Master.

Gentle to sinners, never arrogant or haughty, he nonetheless sharply rebukes the obstinate, “whether of high or low estate.”

When asked to tell a story, the Parson refuses. Why, he asks, should he sew chaff when he can sew wheat? If they wish, however, he will “show them the way of that glorious, perfect pilgrimage to the celestial Jerusalem.”

The Parson’s tale is a traditional Catholic treatise on examining one’s conscience before confession. Written in plain prose, an elaborate structure, and a blizzard of biblical quotations, the treatise analyzes the Seven Deadly Sins, defining each and giving counsel how to fight them.

As we read on, both the treatise and the Parson begin to seem oddly familiar, and we gradually find ourselves not in the 1300s but the 1600s, where the Parson’s spiritual heirs, the Puritans, have turned England on its head, and some of them have even sailed across the ocean to a continent the saintly Parson could never have imagined was there.

The Pardoner

Indulgence hawker

Long, yellow hair falls on his shoulders as he rides bareheaded in “the latest style.” He has a voice high as a goat’s, eyes bulging as a hare’s, and a face that never grows a beard. As he rides along, he sings loud and merrily, “Come hither, love, to me!”

On his saddle, this grotesque figure carries a leather pouch “brimful of pardon, come all hot from Rome.” For this is the Pardoner, the hawker of indulgences, and the vehicle of Chaucer’s most violent attack on the corruptions of the medieval church.

The Pardoner seems hell-bent to scam every Christian in England. In his pack he carries a pillowcase, which he says is Mary’s veil. A shred of cloth is part of the very sail Saint Peter used before Jesus called him. With these and other “relics,” he boasts that, once he finds a little country town, he can make more money in a day than the local parson will in two months.

Furthermore, he loves explaining how he does it. First, he tells his listeners he is from Rome and shows them papal bulls certifying his indulgences. Then he displays other warrants signed by the bishop:

That none may be so bold, no priest nor clerk,
To interfere with Jesus’ holy work.

Then he hauls out his relics, especially a sheep’s bone that “was that of a holy Jew.” Dip the bone in a well, wash the tongue of your cattle with water from the well, and it miraculously cures all worm infestations and snake bites. Even more remarkably, the bone cures jealousy: Boil it in your husband’s soup, he tells the ladies, and he’ll trust you ever after,

Although he knows that, for a certainty,
You’ve bedded down a priest, or two, or three.

There will always be some skeptics, of course, but the Pardoner knows how to deal with them. He proclaims up front that some people’s sins are so heinous,

Such folk shall lack the power and the grace
To offer to my relics in this place.

Who would have the courage to defy an accusation like that?

Finally, the Pardoner launches into his sermon. His constant theme: The love of money is the root of evil!

Of avarice and of such cursedness
Is all my preaching, for it makes them free
To give of all they have—namely, to me.

The Pardoner and his ilk will, alas, have another century to ply their trade before Martin Luther attacks the corruptions Chaucer so brilliantly depicted.

Lance Wilcox is assistant professor of English at Elmhurst College in Illinois.