Essay, Research Paper
SUBJECT: English 243TITLE: “The Canterbury Tales: A view of the Medieval Christian Church” In discussing Chaucer’s collection of stories called The CanterburyTales, an interesting pictureor illustration of the Medieval Christian Church is presented. However,while people demanded morevoice in the affairs of government, the church became corrupt — thiscorruption also led to a morecrooked society. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as just churchhistory; This is because thechurch can never be studied in isolation, simply because it has alwaysrelated to the social, economicand political context of the day. In history then, there is a two wayprocess where the church has aninfluence on the rest of society and of course, society influences thechurch. This is naturally becauseit is the people from a society who make up the church….and those samepeople became thepersonalities that created these tales of a pilgrimmage to Canterbury. The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England was to take place in arelatively short period of time,but this was not because of the success of the Augustinian effort. Indeed,the early years of thismission had an ambivalence which shows in the number of people who hedgedtheir bets bypracticing both Christian and Pagan rites at the same time, and in thenumber of people whopromptly apostatized when a Christian king died. There is certainly noevidence for a large-scaleconversion of the common people to Christianity at this time. Augustine wasnot the most diplomaticof men, and managed to antagonize many people of power and influence inBritain, not least amongthem the native British churchmen, who had never been particularly eager tosave the souls of theAnglo-Saxons who had brought such bitter times to their people. In theirisolation, the British Churchhad maintained older ways of celebrated the major festivals of Christianity,and Augustine’s effort tocompel them to conform to modern Roman usage only angered them. WhenAugustine died (sometime between 604 and 609 AD), then, Christianity had only a precarious holdon Anglo-SaxonEngland, a hold which was limited largely to a few in the aristocracy. Christianity was to becomefirmly established only as a result of Irish efforts, who from centers inScotland and Northumbriamade the common people Christian, and established on a firm basis theEnglish Church. At all levels of society, belief in a god or gods was not a matter ofchoice, it was a matter of fact. Atheism was an alien concept (and one dating from the eighteenth century). Living in the middle ages,one would come into contact with the Church in a number of ways. First, there were the routine church services, held daily and attendedat least once a week, and thespecial festivals of Christmas, Easter, baptisms, marriages, etc.. In thatrespect the medieval Churchwas no different to the modern one. Second, there were the tithes that theChurch collected, usuallyonce a year. Tithes were used to feed the parish priest, maintain the fabricof the church, and to helpthe poor. Third, the Church fulfilled the functions of a ‘civil service’ andan education system. Schoolsdid not exist (and were unnecessary to a largely peasant society), but theChurch and the governmentneeded men who could read and write in English and Latin. The Church trainedits own men, and thesewent to help in the government: writing letters, keeping accounts and so on. The words ‘cleric’ and’clerk’ have the same origin, and every nobleman would have at least onepriest to act as a secretary. The power of the Church is often over-emphasized. Certainly, the latermedieval Church was rich andpowerful, and that power was often misused – especially in Europe. Bishopsand archbishops wereappointed without any training or clerical background, church officeschanged hands for cash, and so on. The authority of the early medieval Church in England was no different tothat of any other landowner. So, the question that haunted medieval man was that of his own salvation. The existence of Godwas never questioned and the heart-cry of medieval society was a desire toknow God and achieveintimacy with the divine. Leading a life pleasing to God was the uppermostconcern, and the widediversity of medieval piety is simply because people answered the question,’How can I best lead a holylife?’ in so many different ways. Beginning with “The Pardoner’s Tale”, thetheme of salvation is trulyparamount. Chaucer, being one of the most important medieval authors, usesthis prologue and taleto make a statement about buying salvation. The character of the pardoner isone of the mostdespicable pilgrims, seemingly “along for the ride” to his next “gig” as theseller of relics. “For mynentente is nat but for to winne,/ And no thing for correccion of sinne,”admits the pardoner in hisprologue. As a matter of fact, the pardoner is only in it for the money, asevident from this passage: I wol none of the Apostles countrefete: I wold have moneye, wolle, cheese, and whete, Al were it yiven of the pooreste page, Or of the pooreste widwe in a village — Al sholde hir children sterve for famine. Nay, I drinke licour of the vine And have a joly wenche in every town. In his tale, the Pardoner slips into his role as the holiest of holies andspeaks of the direconsequences of gluttony, gambling, and lechery. He cites Attila the Hunwith, “Looke Attila, thegrete conquerour,/ Deide in his sleep with shame and dishonour,/ Bleeding athis nose indronkenesse”. The personification of the deadly sins, along with his storyof the three greedymen that eventually perish at the hands of their sin is a distinct medievaldevice. The comic twist thatChaucer adds to the device, though, is that the Pardoner in himself is asthe personification of sin, as isevident from the passages of his prologue. At the conclusion of his tale,the Pardoner asks, “Allas,mankinde, how may it bitide/ That to thy Creatour which that thee wroughte,/And with his preciousherte blood boughte,/ Thou art so fals and unkinde, allas?”. He then goes onto offer eachpilgrim a place…for a price, of course. The Pardoner’s place in Chaucer’s idea of redemption becomes evident inthe epilogue of the tale. After offering the host the first pardon (”For he is most envoluped insinne” and, supposedly, theequivalent of Chaucer), the host berates the pardoner, saying, “I wolde Ihadde thy coilons inmyn hond,/ In stede of relikes or of saintuarye./ Lat cutte him of”. Bythis, the idea of thepardoner as the most important man on the pilgrimage is brought to fruitionand Chaucer makes themain point of this tale: Salvation is not for sale. Another example of themedieval obsession withredemption. However, some did not accept this and questioned the church — It waswhat they wanted otherthan “a holy life with a Old-Testament God”; That style of thinkingevenually lead to a “more gentle,mother-figure” as a goddess — The Cult of the Virgin. The eminent questionthen becomes, “Whywould people change from a long-lasting, Old-Testament God to a mother-likegoddess ? The answeris simply because they thought their “new found Goddess” would never be asharsh on people as theoften criticized male like aspect of God. In both current Catholicism andthat of the medieval period,Mary is worshipped with more fervor than even God or Jesus. Church afterchurch was (and still is)erected in her name. Her likeness graced statues and stained glass with asmuch frequency as Jesus’bloody head. The worship of Mary is fervent, institutionalized, and approvedof by the Christian church. Is she not a goddess? Mary simply took the place of the female aspects ofthe spirit that were onceworshipped as Roman or Anglo-Saxon goddesses. The medieval period, stretching approximately from the late seventhcentury to the early sixteenth,was bound together under one constant–Roman Catholic Christianity. Butbeneath this “curtain ofChristianity” many legends were being formed and passed down, as old pagantraditions becameassimilated into a newly Christian society. The two religious forms werebecoming intertwined. Theyseemed at this time to be tolerant of each other, not entirely distinct. Apeoples habits and thoughtprocesses are not easily changed, and being that the Anglo-Saxons of Britainwere not Christians untilthe mid-600’s, a period of transition can be expected . At least, afascination with their pagan ancestorsexisted, at most, the practice of the old ways. Examples of a fascinationwith magic, worshipping morethan one god-like figure, and a continuing love for worshipping goddesses,exist in many texts written inthis period. Yet, this does not mean that every village had a sorceress intheir midst, but literature
usually reflects the society within which it emerges. At the time of TheCanterbury Tales, many of apeople who were Christians officially, politically, and in most cases atheart, saw that there were elementsof paganism and sorcery which is tolerated and respected. The society inwhich Chaucer writes thesestories is Christian as well, politically and spiritually–could it be thatthey tolerated and respectedpaganism and magic? Perhaps the separation of the two is not necessary andwas not complete at thispoint in time. Not only was magic a pagan tradition that persisted throughout theMiddle Ages..another tradition,changing at the time, reflected the transition from worshipping the unseenforces in the world as manygods, to one, omnipotent God. Although the people were Christians, they tookthe separation of spiritualpowers far beyond the creation the Trinity. The specific powers or emphasisgiven to each saintcarries on even into today’s Catholic tradition. The medieval period mayhave had some of this(although many of the saints were not even born yet…) but in theirliterature, many immortal andpowerful creatures are found. This form of Paganism existed in Britain ofthe Middle ages, full ofspiritual beings, full of magic, alive with heavenly power existing onEarth. It has been the nature of theChristian men in power through the ages to, for fear, deny their people theknowledge of the un-Christianrichness in their ancestry, and so the traditions that were not masked asChristian are lost to studentsof Christian history and literature. But it seems this period had not seensuch extensive discrimination. The two ways of the world were not quite so separate then, and matters ofthe occult were not yetlabeled as evil. This again implies that perhaps the two forms of religiousthought do not have to becompletely separate. There are strong similarities for them to coincide andcomplement eachother, and for an entire people trying to make the Christian transition,maybe this complementing wasnecessary. However, the age of forceful patriarchy and witch-burning wouldnot come about for severalhundred years. Each new way of leading a “holy life” was thought to be progressivelymore acceptable to Godby its proponents than the ones that had gone before. Such ‘new ways’ werenormally inspired by adesire to break away from the corruption and worldliness which was percievedin the older or moreestablished forms of Godly living. These new ways often became corruptthemselves and over timebreakaways from them were hailed as a newer and more perfect way offollowing God. Thisroller-coaster ride of corruption and reform is basically the story ofpopular medieval religion as manbattled to define and discover what it really meant to be a Christian. In an effort to escape persecution, but to also flee the evil, prevalent inthe world and to seek Godfree from many ‘ worldly ‘ distractions, monks began to assemble ascommunities of Christians . Thesecommunities, although they had little organization, were regarded aspossessing the best Christian lifeby having a solitary, ascetic, celibate existence where the ‘ world ‘ hadbeen totally renounced and hadbeen entirely replaced with heavenly contemplation. These ‘ new ‘ martyrswere usually just calledmonks: theirs was a life of daily martyrdom as they constantly died to selfand lived totally for God. The monks paid particular veneration to the physical remains of the martyrs(relics) and were thereforeconnected to the martyrs who they replaced. The rise of ascetic monasticismand relic worship howeverwas quite controversial — Both the worship of relics and asceticmonasticism however becamemainstays of this Medieval religion, and the idea that monks were a new formof martyr persistedover time. Both monks as well as martyrs were looked upon as holy men. In relating this solitary world to readers, there is also a monk inChaucer’s work — He is someonewho combined godliness and worldliness into a profitable and comfortableliving. He was theoutrider or the person in charge of the outlying property….which lead himto enjoy hunting, fine foods,and owning several horses. Monks renounced all their worldly belongings andby taking vows of poverty,chastity and obedience, joined a community of monks. Their lives were spentin communal worship,devotional reading, prayer and manual labour all under the authority of theabbot of the monastic house. Particular monks often had particular jobs- the cellarer or the infirmarerfor example, and these like every aspect of monastic life were laid down inthe ‘Rule’. Monks were nearly always of noble extraction (onehad to have wealth in order to give it up) but could also be given to themonastery as children (calledoblates) to be brought up as monks. Hindsight has blurred our vision of the Medieval monk and the result isthat the modern Christianmindset has condemned him for his selfish escapism from the world and forhis apparent neglect of thosewho needed Christ outside of the cloister. The Medieval mindset was verydifferent. The monastery wasan integral part of the local community — it probably owned most of thefarming land in the area- and thefortunes of the people in any area were bound up with the spirituality ofits monastic house. The monkswere on the front line of the spiritual battle-it was they who did battle inprayer for their community, whowarded off devils and demons and who prayed tirelessly for the salvation ofthe souls of those in theircommunity. Rather than being the cowards of Christianity unable to take thestrain of living a Christianlife in the real world, the monks were like spiritual stormtroopersinterceeding for an area against itssupernatural enemies in mudh the same way as a local lord in his castleprotected an area against itsphysical enemies. The people gave gifts to both lord and abbot in return fora service. The Pardoner also represents the tradition of faith — in respect tothe church of his time. The Pardoner isrepresentative of the seamy side of the corrupt church and a broken ortwisted (if you will) faith. Thefaith of a bureaucracy, which is what the church had become. The Pardonerwas a church official whohad the authority to forgive those who had sinned by selling pardons andindulgences to them. Although,the Pardoner was a church official, he was clearly in the “church” businessfor economic reasons. ThePardoner, a devious and somewhat dubious individual had one goal: Get themost money for pardons byalmost any means of coercion necessary. A twisted and ironic mind, hasbasically defined himself throughhis work for a similarly corrupt church. In contrast, the Plowman hasnothing but a seeminglyuncomplicated and untwisted faith. The Plowman has the faith of a poorfarmer, uncomplicated by thebureaucracy of the church. The Pardoner is probably on this journey becausehe is being required to goby the church or he sees some sort of economic gain from this voyage, mostlikely from sellingforgiveness to the other pilgrims. The Plowman on the other hand is probablyon this voyage because ofhis sincerity and faith in its purpose. While this was the story of religion at ‘grass-roots’ level, at theorganisational and hierarchical level,the church developed along a different line. It became more organized, morebureaucratic, more legal,more centralized and basically more powerful on a European scale. Thisprocess was spearheadedby the papacy and reached its pinnacle under Pope Innocent III in the early13th Century. He embodiedwhat became known as the ‘papal monarchy’ – a situation where the popesliterally were kings in theirown world. The relative importance of spiritual and secular power in theworld was a constant question inthe middle ages with both secular emperors and kings, and the popesasserting their claims to rule bydivine authority with God’s commands for God’s people proceeding out oftheir mouths. The power of thechurch is hard to exaggerate: its economic and political influence was huge,as its wealth, movementslike the crusades, and even the number of churches that exist from thisperiod truly show its greatness. By the early 10th century, a strange malaise seems to have entered theEnglish church. There arecomments from this time of a decline in learning among churchmen and anincrease in a love forthings of this earthly world. Even more of these lax standards had begun adecline in the power structureof the church which included a decrease in acceptable behavior amongstchurchmen and a growing useof church institutions by lay people as a means of evading taxes. Christianity affected all men in Europe at every level and in every way. Such distances however, ledto much diversity and the shaping of Medieval religion into a land ofcontrasts. One can also see how man’s feelings of extreme sinfulness and desire for God are quite evidentin these tales. Still, we are told that history repeats itself because nobody listens to it,but more realisticallyhistory repeats itself because man is essentially the same from onegeneration to the next. He hasthe same aspirations, fears and flaws; yet the way that these are expresseddiffers from age to age. This is why each period of history is different. The fact that man is thesame yet different is whatmakes the study of the people who formed the medieval church directlyapplicable to Christians’ lives and experiences today.