Food and Eating As Religious Metaphor: Focusing on Chaucer’s Religious Tales

이동춘 /Dongchoon Lee

2018, vol.28, no.1, pp. 27-52

Food and its consumption play a significant role in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that extends far beyond the concepts of sustenance and survival. Given the significant value of food because of the increasing scarcity that resulted from recurring famine in the late fourteenth century, Bailly’s suggestion of providing ‘a soper at oure aller cost’ for the best storyteller is quite realistic. Moreover, it has been noted that Chaucer’s food references are relevant to individual characters. Food and its consumption are used as an interpretive guideline for an individual’s health, personality, or morality. Considering Chaucer’s characters are on a religious pilgrimage, the concept of food and consumption readily lends itself to that of spiritual nourishment. If food consumption that occurs in Chaucer’s work is examined as a whole, a contrasting pattern emerges: a pattern of pure, balanced or even vegetarian ingestion surrounding the spiritually good individuals such as Griselda and the good widow of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale and the opposing pattern made by the heavy meat-eaters, such as the Summoner’s friar and the Monk. The Monk’s specific preference for swan and his appetite elaborated in his portrait reveals the physicality of gluttony which is a familiar object of anticlerical ridicule. The stories presented by the Monk are directly or indirectly related to the disastrous consequences of unlawful eating and drinking. Without grasping the significatio of his tales, the Monk ultimately tells the story of his own fall, which most likely results from the sin of gluttony. The Pardoner’s Tale involves ‘eating imagery’ on multiple levels. In particular, the connection of unlawful eating and drinking with spiritual death is more visually revealed in his tale. The Pardoner’s preaching focuses more closely on the vice of gluttony. Gluttony is the initial sin named, described, and proscribed in his tale, which the rioters in a tavern “eten and drynken over hir myght.” His prologue and tale expose gluttony as a ‘sin of the mouth’ that results from the immoderate intake of food and drink. And it ultimately leads to a ‘sin of the mouth,” such as licentiousness, swearing, and blaspheming. However, the Pardoner fails to understand that his own sin is not the avarice against which he specifically preaches. Though avarice indeed motivates him, more fundamentally he commits a sin of the mouth.