Geoffrey Chaucer was one of the greatest representatives of medieval literature, who impacted the development of English literature significantly. The Canterbury Tales series of books was written between 1387 and 1400. In these works, Chaucer describes the life of England through the stories told by the characters while using irony and criticism, which are completely unusual for the literature of that century. The tales bring out the negative side of the church and the discrepancy between the original concept and reality. The church of the 14th century is a destructive element of society, which does not follow the original purpose but rather utilizes its position for its own advantage.
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Church Criticism in Canterbury Tales
Chaucer lived in an age of significant influence of the Catholic church on people. In his tales, he described how the church system was built emphasizing the compulsion to blind obedience. In the books, Chaucer criticizes the actions of people, including the church representatives, which, in his opinion, are not consistent with church morality. The author revealed the picture of corruption in the church through characters, thereby giving specific examples of actions, which resonated with many readers. The importance of these works is recognized by the whole world, since they reveal several topics at once, one of which is the church and religion. The criticism of the church is connected with the life experience of the author and his views on England in the 14th century, which he expresses in his stories.
The Church as Sacred Space
Initially, the church was conceived as a place of strength and hope for people. Believers had faith in support, understanding and sometimes forgiveness from God and priests (Varnam, 2018). At the same time, the concept of faith in God is based on the lack of scientific evidence and blind belief, which creates the basis for using faith for selfish purposes. Moreover, this allows the priests to violate the commandments of the Bible without consequences. In his tales, the author gives examples of people’s blind faith using the critique of the use of the church and the faith of that time by providing examples of how social reformers use religion for personal purposes, and church officials themselves violate existing moral principles. The church in the works of Chaucer has lost its value, and many associates have become representatives of what, on the contrary, they urged to refuse.
Religion and Forced Adoption
After the Black Death, the population begins to question the concept of the church due to the sheer number of deaths. It was believed that church officials forced people to attend church and make donations, sometimes under false pretexts. Building churches, as well as acquiring and storing related attributes, such as the relics of saints, required huge investments, which were collected from the members (Malone, 2019). The call to accept faith, coercion to donate, and other operational elements of the church’s work have been described in the books as elements of a corrupting society, where real values are replaced by imaginary ones. Additionally, the representatives of the system do not follow their own statutes.
Church officials were not allowed to work, and the friars took a vow of poverty, thus, they could only rely on donations. Therefore, some of them began to sell false bonds or relics of saints, wander or use invented reasons to attract donations. Some of the pilgrims’ stories also satirically depict the corruption of the Catholic сhurch (Gillespie, 2018). The life of a hypocritical and selfish mendicant brother persuading a sick person to donate more to the church was portrayed in a negative light, while the life of an exemplary priest, a true and pious pastor of the church, was described in a positive light (Gillespie, 2018). The reformers, remaining within the boundaries of religion, were attacking the papacy and the Catholic hierarchy, sought to deprive the church of feudal possessions and free it from the functions of a fundraiser (Barbeau, 2016). They accused the churches of acting out of personal and pope interest, not national, religious, or altruistic. The author also makes it clear that the critical religious thought of heretics could become a negative weapon in the ranks of the rebels.
The Author’s Point of View
The author’s description of the church is the exact presentation of the situation in England in the 14th century, about which not many spoke on the global level. Chaucer supports the point of view of the negative influence of the church due to the misuse of influence, mainly for the purpose of enrichment or other selfish motives (Barbeau, 2016). He criticizes the participants in the events, while giving an example of the ideal behavior of the pastor in contrast. Due to the fact that the author notices what is happening in the country, he urges others to also pay attention to this dynamics. At the same time, Chaucer does not speak about the essence of religion or does not call to accept the opposite position of the atheist, he only speaks about the corruption of the existing system, which requires changes.
All the characters of the tales are considered by the author in detail, but he mainly criticizes the officials of the church because of their actions in disagreement with the faith (Gillespie, 2018). This is based on the fact that one of the characters drinks, others use the position for selfish purposes, trying to get profit. Therefore, the author emphasizes how critical the discrepancies are between the planned concept of the church and reality, where donations are taken for personal purposes while other reasons are named. At the moment when the church official tries to rob the poor old woman, the devil takes him to hell, which again demonstrates the author’s position and suggests the punishment (Varnam, 2018). Chaucer takes a clear position on the problems of the church of his age and addresses them in his tales.
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Summing up, a conclusion about the important contribution of the author to the literature of that century can be drawn, precisely because of his critical point of view, the ability to confirm it with the relevant examples and convey it to many people through his works. The author described the actions and stories of the characters that are in stark contrast to the ideal representation of a church official. Canterbury Tales became a significant work for presenting the church in literature not only from a positive perspective. Chaucer does not call for abandoning religion, but draws attention to the actions of the church. The church, which was conceived as a place of faith, began to be used for something completely different. Corruption and personal gain flourished, while real values, the morality of the Bible and the original purpose of the church to lead people to faith and God were lost.
Barbeau, A. (2016). Christian empire and national crusade: The rhetoric of Anglican clergy in the First World War. Anglican and Episcopal History, 85(1), 24-62. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43973280
Gillespie, A. (2018). Are The Canterbury Tales a book? Exemplaria, 30(1), 66-83. https://doi.org/10.1080/10412573.2018.1436282
Malone, C. (2019). Twelfth-century sculptural finds at Canterbury Cathedral and the cult of Thomas Becket. Routledge.
Varnam, L. (2018). The church as sacred space in Middle English literature and culture. Manchester University Press.