In discussing Chaucer’s collection of stories called TheCanterbury Tales, an interesting picture or illustration of theMedieval Christian Church is presented. However, while peopledemanded more voice in the affairs of government, the churchbecame corrupt — this corruption also led to a more crookedsociety. Nevertheless, there is no such thing as just church history;This is because the church can never be studied in isolation,simply because it has always related to the social, economic andpolitical context of the day. In history then, there is a two wayprocess where the church has an influence on the rest of societyand of course, society influences the church. This is naturallybecause it is the people from a society who make up thechurch.
…and those same people became the personalities thatcreated these tales of a pilgrimmage to Canterbury.The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England was to take place ina relatively short period of time, but this was not because of thesuccess of the Augustinian effort. Indeed, the early years of thismission had an ambivalence which shows in the number of peoplewho hedged their bets by practicing both Christian and Paganrites at the same time, and in the number of people who promptlyapostatized when a Christian king died. There is certainly noevidence for a large-scale conversion of the common people toChristianity at this time.
Augustine was not the most diplomatic ofmen, and managed to antagonize many people of power andinfluence in Britain, not least among them the native Britishchurchmen, who had never been particularly eager to save thesouls of the Anglo-Saxons who had brought such bitter times totheir people. In their isolation, the British Church had maintainedolder ways of celebrated the major festivals of Christianity, andAugustine’s effort to compel them to conform to modern Romanusage only angered them. When Augustine died (some timebetween 604 and 609 AD), then, Christianity had only aprecarious hold on Anglo-Saxon England, a hold which waslimited largely to a few in the aristocracy.
Christianity was tobecome firmly established only as a result of Irish efforts, whofrom centers in Scotland and Northumbria made the commonpeople Christian, and established on a firm basis the EnglishChurch. At all levels of society, belief in a god or gods was not amatter of choice, it was a matter of fact. Atheism was an alienconcept (and one dating from the eighteenth century). Living inthe middle ages, one would come into contact with the Church ina number of ways.First, there were the routine church services, held daily andattended at least once a week, and the special festivals ofChristmas, Easter, baptisms, marriages, etc..
In that respect themedieval Church was no different to the modern one. Second,there were the tithes that the Church collected, usually once ayear. Tithes were used to feed the parish priest, maintain thefabric of the church, and to help the poor. Third, the Churchfulfilled the functions of a ‘civil service’ and an education system.Schools did not exist (and were unnecessary to a largely peasantsociety), but the Church and the government needed men whocould read and write in English and Latin.
The Church trained itsown men, and these went to help in the government: writingletters, keeping accounts and so on. The words ‘cleric’ and ‘clerk’have the same origin, and every nobleman would have at leastone priest to act as a secretary.The power of the Church is often over-emphasized. Certainly, thelater medieval Church was rich and powerful, and that power wasoften misused – especially in Europe. Bishops and archbishopswere appointed without any training or clerical background,church offices changed hands for cash, and so on. The authorityof the early medieval Church in England was no different to thatof any other landowner. So, the question that haunted medievalman was that of his own salvation.
The existence of God wasnever questioned and the heart-cry of medieval society was adesire to know God and achieve intimacy with the divine. Leadinga life pleasing to God was the uppermost concern, and the widediversity of medieval piety is simply because people answered thequestion, ‘How can I best lead a holy life?’ in so many differentways. Beginning with The Pardoner’s Tale, the theme ofsalvation is truly paramount. Chaucer, being one of the mostimportant medieval authors, uses this prologue and tale to make astatement about buying salvation. The character of the pardoner isone of the most despicable pilgrims, seemingly along for the rideto his next gig as the seller of relics. For myn entente is nat butfor to winne,/ And no thing for correccion of sinne, admits thepardoner in his prologue. As a matter of fact, the pardoner is onlyin it for the money, as evident 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 vineAnd have a joly wenche in every town.
In his tale, the Pardoner slips into his role as the holiest of holiesand speaks of the dire consequences of gluttony, gambling, andlechery. He cites Attila the Hun with, Looke Attila, the greteconquerour,/ Deide in his sleep with shame and dishonour,/Bleeding at his nose in dronkenesse. The personification of thedeadly sins, along with his story of the three greedy men thateventually perish at the hands of their sin is a distinct medievaldevice. The comic twist that Chaucer adds to the device, though,is that the Pardoner in himself is as the personification of sin, as isevident from the passages of his prologue. At the conclusion ofhis tale, the Pardoner asks, Allas, mankinde, how may it bitide/That to thy Creatour which that thee wroughte,/ And with hisprecious herte blood boughte,/ Thou art so fals and unkinde,allas?. He then goes on to offer each pilgrim a place..
.for a price,of course.The Pardoner’s place in Chaucer’s idea of redemption becomesevident in the epilogue of the tale. After offering the host the firstpardon (For he is most envoluped in sinne and, supposedly, theequivalent of Chaucer), the host berates the pardoner, saying, Iwolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hond,/ In stede of relikes or ofsaintuarye./ Lat cutte him of. By this, the idea of the pardoner asthe most important man on the pilgrimage is brought to fruitionand Chaucer makes the main point of this tale: Salvation is not forsale.
Another example of the medieval obsession withredemption.However, some did not accept this and questioned the church –It was what they wanted other than a holy life with aOld-Testament God; That style of thinking evenually lead to amore gentle, mother-figure as a goddess — The Cult of theVirgin. The eminent question then becomes, Why would peoplechange from a long-lasting, Old-Testament God to a mother-likegoddess ? The answer is simply because they thought their newfound Goddess would never be as harsh on people as the oftencriticized male like aspect of God. In both current Catholicismand that of the medieval period, Mary is worshipped with morefervor than even God or Jesus. Church after church was (and stillis) erected in her name. Her likeness graced statues and stainedglass with as much frequency as Jesus’ bloody head. The worshipof Mary is fervent, institutionalized, and approved of by theChristian church. Is she not a goddess? Mary simply took theplace of the female aspects of the spirit that were onceworshipped as Roman or Anglo-Saxon goddesses.
The medieval period, stretching approximately from the lateseventh century to the early sixteenth, was bound together underone constant–Roman Catholic Christianity. But beneath thiscurtain of Christianity many legends were being formed andpassed down, as old pagan traditions became assimilated into anewly Christian society. The two religious forms were becomingintertwined. They seemed at this time to be tolerant of each other,not entirely distinct. A peoples habits and thought processes arenot easily changed, and being that the Anglo-Saxons of Britainwere not Christians until the mid-600’s, a period of transition canbe expected . At least, a fascination with their pagan ancestorsexisted, at most, the practice of the old ways. Examples of afascination with magic, worshipping more than one god-likefigure, and a continuing love for worshipping goddesses, exist inmany texts written in this period.
Yet, this does not mean thatevery village had a sorceress in their midst, but literature usuallyreflects the society within which it emerges. At the time of TheCanterbury Tales, many of a people who were Christiansofficially, politically, and in most cases at heart, saw that therewere elements of paganism and sorcery which is tolerated andrespected. The society in which Chaucer writes these stories isChristian as well, politically and spiritually–could it be that theytolerated and respected paganism and magic? Perhaps theseparation of the two is not necessary and was not complete atthis point in time.Not only was magic a pagan tradition that persisted throughoutthe Middle Ages..another tradition, changing at the time, reflectedthe transition from worshipping the unseen forces in the world asmany gods, to one, omnipotent God. Although the people wereChristians, they took the separation of spiritual powers farbeyond the creation the Trinity. The specific powers or emphasisgiven to each saint carries on even into today’s Catholic tradition.
The medieval period may have had some of this (although manyof the saints were not even born yet…) but in their literature, manyimmortal and powerful creatures are found.
This form ofPaganism existed in Britain of the Middle ages, full of spiritualbeings, full of magic, alive with heavenly power existing on Earth.It has been the nature of the Christian men in power through theages to, for fear, deny their people the knowledge of theun-Christian richness in their ancestry, and so the traditions thatwere not masked as Christian are lost to students of Christianhistory and literature. But it seems this period had not seen suchextensive discrimination. The two ways of the world were notquite so separate then, and matters of the occult were not yetlabeled as evil. This again implies that perhaps the two forms ofreligious thought do not have to be completely separate. Thereare strong similarities for them to coincide and complement eachother, and for an entire people trying to make the Christiantransition, maybe this complementing was necessary.
However,the age of forceful patriarchy and witch-burning would not comeabout for several hundred years.Each new way of leading a holy life was thought to beprogressively more acceptable to God by its proponents than theones that had gone before. Such ‘new ways’ were normallyinspired by a desire to break away from the corruption andworldliness which was percieved in the older or more establishedforms of Godly living. These new ways often became corruptthemselves and over time breakaways from them were hailed as anewer and more perfect way of following God. Thisroller-coaster ride of corruption and reform is basically the storyof popular medieval religion as man battled to define and discoverwhat it really meant to be a Christian. In an effort to escapepersecution, but to also flee the evil, prevalent in the world and toseek God free from many ‘ worldly ‘ distractions, monks began toassemble as communities of Christians . These communities,although they had little organization, were regarded as possessingthe best Christian life by having a solitary, ascetic, celibateexistence where the ‘ world ‘ had been totally renounced and hadbeen entirely replaced with heavenly contemplation.
These ‘ new ‘martyrs were usually just called monks: theirs was a life of dailymartyrdom as they constantly died to self and lived totally forGod. The monks paid particular veneration to the physicalremains of the martyrs (relics) and were therefore connected tothe martyrs who they replaced. The rise of ascetic monasticismand relic worship however was quite controversial — Both theworship of relics and ascetic monasticism however becamemainstays of this Medieval religion, and the idea that monks werea new form of martyr persisted over time. Both monks as well asmartyrs were looked upon as holy men.In relating this solitary world to readers, there is also a monk inChaucer’s work — He is someone who combined godliness andworldliness into a profitable and comfortable living.
He was theoutrider or the person in charge of the outlying property….
whichlead him to enjoy hunting, fine foods, and owning several horses.Monks renounced all their worldly belongings and by taking vowsof poverty, chastity and obedience, joined a community ofmonks. Their lives were spent in communal worship, devotionalreading, prayer and manual labour all under the authority of theabbot of the monastic house. Particular monks often hadparticular jobs- the cellarer or the infirmarer for example, andthese like every aspect of monastic life were laid down in the’Rule’. Monks were nearly always of noble extraction (one had tohave wealth in order to give it up) but could also be given to themonastery as children (called oblates) to be brought up as monks.Hindsight has blurred our vision of the Medieval monk and theresult is that the modern Christian mindset has condemned him forhis selfish escapism from the world and for his apparent neglect ofthose who needed Christ outside of the cloister. The Medievalmindset was very different.
The monastery was an integral part ofthe local community — it probably owned most of the farmingland in the area- and the fortunes of the people in any area werebound up with the spirituality of its monastic house. The monkswere on the front line of the spiritual battle-it was they who didbattle in prayer for their community, who warded off devils anddemons and who prayed tirelessly for the salvation of the souls ofthose in their community. Rather than being the cowards ofChristianity unable to take the strain of living a Christian life in thereal world, the monks were like spiritual stormtroopersinterceeding for an area against its supernatural enemies in mudhthe same way as a local lord in his castle protected an areaagainst its physical enemies. The people gave gifts to both lordand abbot in return for a service.The Pardoner also represents the tradition of faith — in respect tothe church of his time. The Pardoner is representative of theseamy side of the corrupt church and a broken or twisted (if youwill) faith. The faith of a bureaucracy, which is what the churchhad become. The Pardoner was a church official who had theauthority to forgive those who had sinned by selling pardons andindulgences to them.
Although, the Pardoner was a churchofficial, he was clearly in the church business for economicreasons. The Pardoner, a devious and somewhat dubiousindividual had one goal: Get the most money for pardons byalmost any means of coercion necessary. A twisted and ironicmind, has basically defined himself through his work for a similarlycorrupt church. In contrast, the Plowman has nothing but aseemingly uncomplicated and untwisted faith.
The Plowman hasthe faith of a poor farmer, uncomplicated by the bureaucracy ofthe church. The Pardoner is probably on this journey because heis being required to go by the church or he sees some sort ofeconomic gain from this voyage, most likely from sellingforgiveness to the other pilgrims. The Plowman on the other handis probably on this voyage because of his sincerity and faith in itspurpose.While this was the story of religion at ‘grass-roots’ level, at theorganisational and hierarchical level, the church developed along adifferent line. It became more organized, more bureaucratic, morelegal, more centralized and basically more powerful on aEuropean scale. This process was spearheaded by the papacyand reached its pinnacle under Pope Innocent III in the early 13thCentury. He embodied what became known as the ‘papalmonarchy’ – a situation where the popes literally were kings intheir own world. The relative importance of spiritual and secularpower in the world was a constant question in the middle ageswith both secular emperors and kings, and the popes assertingtheir claims to rule by divine authority with God’s commands forGod’s people proceeding out of their mouths.
The power of thechurch is hard to exaggerate: its economic and political influencewas huge, as its wealth, movements like the crusades, and eventhe number of churches that exist from this period truly show itsgreatness. By the early 10th century, a strange malaise seems tohave entered the English church. There are comments from thistime of a decline in learning among churchmen and an increase ina love for things of this earthly world. Even more of these laxstandards had begun a decline in the power structure of thechurch which included a decrease in acceptable behavior amongstchurchmen and a growing use of church institutions by lay peopleas a means of evading taxes.Christianity affected all men in Europe at every level and in everyway. Such distances however, led to much diversity and theshaping of Medieval religion into a land of contrasts.
One can alsosee how man’s feelings of extreme sinfulness and desire for Godare quite evident in these tales. Still, we are told that historyrepeats itself because nobody listens to it, but more realisticallyhistory repeats itself because man is essentially the same from onegeneration to the next. He has the same aspirations, fears andflaws; yet the way that these are expressed differs from age toage. This is why each period of history is different.
The fact thatman is the same yet different is what makes the study of thepeople who formed the medieval church directly applicable toChristians’ lives and experiences today.Poetry Essays