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SUBJECT: English 243

TITLE: “The 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


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.

Back to School Sucks

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