Canterbury Tales – A view of the Medieval Christian 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.
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 redemption.
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 purpose.
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.