Christian Church



The Canterbury Tales: A View of the Medieval Christian
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
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
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. 


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