Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Unlike many medieval writers whose backgrounds were religious, Chaucer was a man of the world: a courtier, diplomat, and customs official. Yet his greatest work, The Canterbury Tales, containing many worldly elements, is a literary version of a major Christian endeavor, the pilgrimage to a holy place. A pilgrimage could of course attract worldly people, and such types are certainly found among Chaucer’s pilgrims, but all medieval people recognized it as a holy exercise. Three of the tales are plainly religious: the Prioress’s concerns a miracle of the Virgin Mary, the Second Nun’s is a biography of Saint Cecilia (a form that in Chaucer’s time was commonly called a “legend”), and the Parson’s is a sermon, or perhaps more properly a theological tract. The prominence given to the last of these works in itself supports Chaucer’s insistence on the reigning importance of Christian doctrine.
In a number of respects, the medieval Christian perspective permeates other tales. Several are influenced by the De consolatione philosophiae (523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century) of Boethius, who lived in the early sixth century, wrote Christian theological tracts, and was honored at least in Italy as Saint Severinus. The Boethian concept most attractive to Chaucer, gentilesse, is not precisely a Christian term but signifies virtuous nobility. Because “The Franklin’s Tale,” the most positive of...
(The entire section is 547 words.)
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When The Canterbury Tales were written Christianity was the dominant social force throughout western Europe, including England. Its influence stretched across the social spectrum from nobles to poor beggars. In 1388, while Chaucer was working on the tales, a change occurred in the way that Christianity was perceived and practiced when John Wycliffe, an English reformer, released a version of the Bible translated into English. For the first time, people from the lower classes, who had not been educated in Latin, could read the Bible themselves instead of having its word interpreted to them by members of the clergy.
The influence of Christianity can be seen in The Canterbury Tales by the variety of social types presented. Fourteenth century Christian society had room for different ways of incorporating faith into lifestyle. The Knight, for instance, espouses romantic love and brotherliness, and the Franklin tells a tale that ends with mercy and forgiveness for all. The Prioress, on the other hand, tells a story that propagates hatred toward non-Christians, making them out to be evil and relishing their punishment. The Wife of Bath proves to be very familiar with Biblical Scripture, finding her own sexuality to be acceptable, if not ideal, by Biblical standards. The Pardoner is the most cynical Christian, condemning the very behaviors that he indulges in and trying to sell salvation by way of the counterfeit...
(The entire section is 1097 words.)