Canterbury Tales: Chaucers View Of The Church

In discussing Chaucer’s collection of stories called The
Canterbury Tales, an interesting picture or illustration of the
Medieval Christian Church is presented. However, while people
demanded more voice in the affairs of government, the church
became corrupt — this corruption also led to a more crooked
society. 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 and
political context of the day. In history then, there is a two way
process where the church has an influence on the rest of society
and of course, society influences the church. This is naturally
because it is the people from a society who make up the
church….and those same people became the personalities that
created these tales of a pilgrimmage to Canterbury.

The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England was to take place in
a relatively short period of time, but this was not because of the
success of the Augustinian effort. Indeed, the early years of this
mission had an ambivalence which shows in the number of people
who hedged their bets by practicing both Christian and Pagan
rites at the same time, and in the number of people who promptly
apostatized when a Christian king died. There is certainly no
evidence for a large-scale conversion of the common people to
Christianity at this time. Augustine was not the most diplomatic of
men, and managed to antagonize many people of power and
influence in Britain, not least among them the native British
churchmen, who had never been particularly eager to save the
souls of the Anglo-Saxons who had brought such bitter times to
their people. In their isolation, the British Church had maintained
older ways of celebrated the major festivals of Christianity, and
Augustine’s effort to compel them to conform to modern Roman
usage only angered them. When Augustine died (some time
between 604 and 609 AD), then, Christianity had only a
precarious hold on Anglo-Saxon England, a hold which was
limited largely to a few in the aristocracy. Christianity was to
become firmly established only as a result of Irish efforts, who
from centers in Scotland and Northumbria made the common
people Christian, and established on a firm basis the English
Church. At all levels of society, belief in a god or gods was not a
matter of choice, 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.

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First, there were the routine church services, held daily and
attended at least once a week, and the special festivals of
Christmas, Easter, baptisms, marriages, etc.. In that respect the
medieval Church was no different to the modern one. Second,
there were the tithes that the Church collected, usually once a
year. Tithes were used to feed the parish priest, maintain the
fabric of the church, and to help the poor. Third, the Church
fulfilled the functions of a ‘civil service’ and an education system.

Schools did not exist (and were unnecessary to a largely peasant
society), but the Church and the government needed men who
could read and write in English and Latin. The Church trained its
own men, and these went 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
one priest to act as a secretary.

The power of the Church is often over-emphasized. Certainly, the
later medieval Church was rich and powerful, and that power was
often misused – especially in Europe. Bishops and archbishops
were appointed without any training or clerical background,
church offices changed hands for cash, and so on. The authority
of the early medieval Church in England was no different to that
of any other landowner. So, the question that haunted medieval
man was that of his own salvation. The existence of God was
never questioned and the heart-cry of medieval society was a
desire to know God and achieve intimacy with the divine. Leading
a life pleasing to God was the uppermost concern, and the wide
diversity of medieval piety is simply because people answered the
question, ‘How can I best lead a holy life?’ in so many different
ways. Beginning with The Pardoner’s Tale, the theme of
salvation is truly paramount. Chaucer, being one of the most
important medieval authors, uses this prologue and tale to make a
statement about buying salvation. The character of the pardoner is
one of the most despicable pilgrims, seemingly along for the ride
to his next gig as the seller of relics. For myn entente is nat but
for to winne,/ And no thing for correccion of sinne, admits the
pardoner in his prologue. As a matter of fact, the pardoner is only
in 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 vine
And have a joly wenche in every town.

In his tale, the Pardoner slips into his role as the holiest of holies
and speaks of the dire consequences of gluttony, gambling, and
lechery. He cites Attila the Hun with, Looke Attila, the grete
conquerour,/ Deide in his sleep with shame and dishonour,/
Bleeding at his nose in dronkenesse. The personification of the
deadly sins, along with his story of the three greedy men that
eventually perish at the hands of their sin is a distinct medieval
device. The comic twist that Chaucer adds to the device, though,
is that the Pardoner in himself is as the personification of sin, as is
evident 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
precious 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 becomes
evident in the epilogue of the tale. After offering the host the first
pardon (For he is most envoluped in sinne and, supposedly, the
equivalent of Chaucer), the host berates the pardoner, saying, I
wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hond,/ In stede of relikes or of
saintuarye./ Lat cutte him of. By this, the idea of the pardoner as
the most important man on the pilgrimage is brought to fruition
and Chaucer makes the main point of this tale: Salvation is not for
sale. Another example of the medieval obsession with

However, some did not accept this and questioned the church —
It was what they wanted other than a holy life with a
Old-Testament God; That style of thinking evenually lead to a
more gentle, mother-figure as a goddess — The Cult of the
Virgin. The eminent question then becomes, Why would people
change from a long-lasting, Old-Testament God to a mother-like
goddess ? The answer is simply because they thought their new
found Goddess would never be as harsh on people as the often
criticized male like aspect of God. In both current Catholicism
and that of the medieval period, Mary is worshipped with more
fervor than even God or Jesus. Church after church was (and still
is) erected in her name. Her likeness graced statues and stained
glass with as much frequency as Jesus’ bloody head. The worship
of Mary is fervent, institutionalized, and approved of by the
Christian church. Is she not a goddess? Mary simply took the
place of the female aspects of the spirit that were once
worshipped as Roman or Anglo-Saxon goddesses.

The medieval period, stretching approximately from the late
seventh century to the early sixteenth, was bound together under
one constant–Roman Catholic Christianity. But beneath this
curtain of Christianity many legends were being formed and
passed down, as old pagan traditions became assimilated into a
newly Christian society. The two religious forms were becoming
intertwined. They seemed at this time to be tolerant of each other,
not entirely distinct. A peoples habits and thought processes are
not easily changed, and being that the Anglo-Saxons of Britain
were not Christians until the mid-600’s, a period of transition can
be expected . At least, a fascination with their pagan ancestors
existed, at most, the practice of the old ways. Examples of a
fascination with magic, worshipping more than one god-like
figure, and a continuing love for worshipping goddesses, exist in
many texts written in this period. Yet, this does not mean that
every village had a sorceress in their midst, but literature usually
reflects the society within which it emerges. At the time of The
Canterbury Tales, many of a people who were Christians
officially, politically, and in most cases at heart, saw that there
were elements of paganism and sorcery which is tolerated and
respected. The society in which Chaucer writes these stories is
Christian as well, politically and spiritually–could it be that they
tolerated and respected paganism and magic? Perhaps the
separation of the two is not necessary and was not complete at
this point in time.

Not only was magic a pagan tradition that persisted throughout
the Middle Ages..another tradition, changing at the time, reflected
the transition from worshipping the unseen forces in the world as
many gods, to one, omnipotent God. Although the people were
Christians, they took the separation of spiritual powers far
beyond the creation the Trinity. The specific powers or emphasis
given to each saint carries on even into today’s Catholic tradition.

The medieval period may have had some of this (although many
of the saints were not even born yet…) but in their literature, many
immortal and powerful creatures are found. This form of
Paganism existed in Britain of the Middle ages, full of spiritual
beings, full of magic, alive with heavenly power existing on Earth.

It has been the nature of the Christian men in power through the
ages to, for fear, deny their people the knowledge of the
un-Christian richness in their ancestry, and so the traditions that
were not masked as Christian are lost to students of Christian
history and literature. But it seems this period had not seen such
extensive discrimination. The two ways of the world were not
quite so separate then, and matters of the occult were not yet
labeled as evil. This again implies that perhaps the two forms of
religious thought do not have to be completely separate. There
are strong similarities for them to coincide and complement each
other, and for an entire people trying to make the Christian
transition, maybe this complementing was necessary. However,
the age of forceful patriarchy and witch-burning would not come
about for several hundred years.

Each new way of leading a holy life was thought to be
progressively more acceptable to God by its proponents than the
ones that had gone before. Such ‘new ways’ were normally
inspired by a desire to break away from the corruption and
worldliness which was percieved in the older or more established
forms of Godly living. These new ways often became corrupt
themselves and over time breakaways from them were hailed as a
newer and more perfect way of following God. This
roller-coaster ride of corruption and reform is basically the story
of popular medieval religion as man battled 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 in the world and to
seek God free from many ‘ worldly ‘ distractions, monks began to
assemble as communities of Christians . These communities,
although they had little organization, were regarded as possessing
the best Christian life by having a solitary, ascetic, celibate
existence where the ‘ world ‘ had been totally renounced and had
been entirely replaced with heavenly contemplation. These ‘ new ‘
martyrs were usually just called monks: theirs was a life of daily
martyrdom as they constantly died to self and lived totally for
God. The monks paid particular veneration to the physical
remains of the martyrs (relics) and were therefore connected to
the martyrs who they replaced. The rise of ascetic monasticism
and relic worship however was quite controversial — Both the
worship of relics and ascetic monasticism however became
mainstays of this Medieval religion, and the idea that monks were
a new form of martyr persisted over 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 in
Chaucer’s work — He is someone who combined godliness and
worldliness into a profitable and comfortable living. He was the
outrider or the person in charge of the outlying property….which
lead him to enjoy hunting, fine foods, and owning several horses.

Monks renounced all their worldly belongings and by taking vows
of poverty, chastity and obedience, joined a community of
monks. Their lives were spent in communal worship, devotional
reading, prayer and manual labour all under the authority of the
abbot of the monastic house. Particular monks often had
particular jobs- the cellarer or the infirmarer for example, and
these like every aspect of monastic life were laid down in the
‘Rule’. Monks were nearly always of noble extraction (one had to
have wealth in order to give it up) but could also be given to the
monastery as children (called oblates) to be brought up as monks.

Hindsight has blurred our vision of the Medieval monk and the
result is that the modern Christian mindset has condemned him for
his selfish escapism from the world and for his apparent neglect of
those who needed Christ outside of the cloister. The Medieval
mindset was very different. The monastery was an integral part of
the local community — it probably owned most of the farming
land in the area- and the fortunes of the people in any area were
bound up with the spirituality of its monastic house. The monks
were on the front line of the spiritual battle-it was they who did
battle in prayer for their community, who warded off devils and
demons and who prayed tirelessly for the salvation of the souls of
those in their community. Rather than being the cowards of
Christianity unable to take the strain of living a Christian life in the
real world, the monks were like spiritual stormtroopers
interceeding for an area against its supernatural enemies in mudh
the same way as a local lord in his castle protected an area
against its physical enemies. The people gave gifts to both lord
and abbot in return for a service.

The Pardoner also represents the tradition of faith — in respect to
the church of his time. The Pardoner is representative of the
seamy side of the corrupt church and a broken or twisted (if you
will) faith. The faith of a bureaucracy, which is what the church
had become. The Pardoner was a church official who had the
authority to forgive those who had sinned by selling pardons and
indulgences to them. Although, the Pardoner was a church
official, he was clearly in the church business for economic
reasons. The Pardoner, a devious and somewhat dubious
individual had one goal: Get the most money for pardons by
almost any means of coercion necessary. A twisted and ironic
mind, has basically defined himself through his work for a similarly
corrupt church. In contrast, the Plowman has nothing but a
seemingly uncomplicated and untwisted faith. The Plowman has
the faith of a poor farmer, uncomplicated by the bureaucracy of
the church. The Pardoner is probably on this journey because he
is being required to go by the church or he sees some sort of
economic gain from this voyage, most likely from selling
forgiveness to the other pilgrims. The Plowman on the other hand
is probably on this voyage because of his sincerity and faith in its

While this was the story of religion at ‘grass-roots’ level, at the
organisational and hierarchical level, the church developed along a
different line. It became more organized, more bureaucratic, more
legal, more centralized and basically more powerful on a
European scale. This process was spearheaded by the papacy
and reached its pinnacle under Pope Innocent III in the early 13th
Century. He embodied what became known as the ‘papal
monarchy’ – a situation where the popes literally were kings in
their own world. The relative importance of spiritual and secular
power in the world was a constant question in the middle ages
with both secular emperors and kings, and the popes asserting
their claims to rule by divine authority with God’s commands for
God’s people proceeding out of their mouths. The power of the
church is hard to exaggerate: its economic and political influence
was huge, as its wealth, movements like the crusades, and even
the number of churches that exist from this period truly show its
greatness. By the early 10th century, a strange malaise seems to
have entered the English church. There are comments from this
time of a decline in learning among churchmen and an increase in
a love for things of this earthly world. Even more of these lax
standards had begun a decline in the power structure of the
church which included a decrease in acceptable behavior amongst
churchmen and a growing use of 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, led to much diversity and the
shaping of Medieval religion into a land of contrasts. One can also
see how man’s feelings of extreme sinfulness and desire for God
are quite evident in these tales. Still, we are told that history
repeats itself because nobody listens to it, but more realistically
history repeats itself because man is essentially the same from one
generation to the next. He has the same aspirations, fears and
flaws; yet the way that these are expressed differs from age to
age. This is why each period of history is different. The fact that
man is the same yet different is what makes the study of the
people who formed the medieval church directly applicable to
Christians’ lives and experiences today.

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