CHAPTER VIII. CHAUCER, (CONTINUED.)—REFORMS IN RELIGION AND SOCIETY.
Historical Facts. Reform in Religion. The Clergy, Regular and Secular.
The Friar and the Sompnour. The Pardonere. The Poure Persone. John
Wiclif. The Translation of the Bible. The Ashes of Wiclif.
Leaving the pilgrims' cavalcade for a more philosophical consideration of the historical teachings of the subject, it may be clearly shown that the work of Chaucer informs us of a wholesome reform in religion, or, in the words of George Ellis, “he was not only respected as the father of English poetry, but revered as a champion of the Reformation.”
Let us recur briefly to the history. With William the Conqueror a great change had been introduced into England: under him and his immediate successors—his son William Rufus, his nephew Henry I., the usurper Stephen, and Henry II.,—the efforts of the “English kings of Norman race” were directed to the establishment of their power on a strong foundation; but they began, little by little, to see that the only foundation was that of the unconquerable English people; so that popular rights soon began to be considered, and the accession of Henry II., the first of the Plantagenets, was specially grateful to the English, because he was the first since the Conquest to represent the Saxon line, being the grandson of Henry I., and son of Matilda, niece of Edgar Atheling. In the mean time, as has been seen, the English language had been formed, the chief element of which was Saxon. This was a strong instrument of political rights, for community of language tended to an amalgamation of the Norman and Saxon peoples. With regard to the Church in England, the insulation from Rome had impaired the influence of the Papacy. The misdeeds and arrogance of the clergy had arrayed both people and monarch against their claims, as several of the satirical poems already mentioned have shown. As a privileged class, who used their immunities to do evil and corrupt the realm, the clergy became odious to the nobles, whose power they shared and sometimes impaired, and to the people, who could now read their faults and despise their comminations, and who were unwilling to pay hard-earned wages to support them in idleness and vice. It was not the doctrine, but the practice which they condemned. With the accession of the house of Plantagenet, the people were made to feel that the Norman monarchy was a curse, without alloy. Richard I. was a knight-errant and a crusader, who cared little for the realm; John was an adulterer, traitor, and coward, who roused the people's anger by first quarrelling with the Pope, and then basely giving him the kingdom to receive it again as a papal fief. The nation, headed by the warlike barons, had forced the great charter of popular rights from John, and had caused it to be confirmed and supplemented during the long reign of his son, the weak Henry III.
Edward I. was engaged in cruel wars, both in Wales and Scotland, which wasted the people's money without any corresponding advantage.
Edward II. was deposed and murdered by his queen and her paramour Mortimer; and, however great their crime, he was certainly unworthy and unable to control a fierce and turbulent people, already clamorous for their rights. These well-known facts are here stated to show the unsettled condition of things during the period when the English were being formed into a nation, the language established, and the earliest literary efforts made. Materials for a better organization were at hand in great abundance; only proper master-builders were needed. We have seen that everything now betokened the coming of a new era, in State, Church, and literature.
The monarch who came to the throne in 1327, one year before the birth of Chaucer, was worthy to be the usher of this new era to England: a man of might, of judgment, and of forecast; the first truly Englishmonarch in sympathy and purpose who had occupied the throne since the Conquest: liberal beyond all former precedent in religion, he sheltered Wiclif in his bold invectives, and paved the way for the later encroachments upon the papal supremacy. With the aid of his accomplished son, Edward the Black Prince, he rendered England illustrious by his foreign wars, and removed what remained of the animosity between Saxon and Norman.
REFORM IN RELIGION.—We are so accustomed to refer the Reformation to the time of Luther in Germany, as the grand religious turning-point in modern history, that we are apt to underrate, if not to forget, the religious movement in this most important era of English history. Chaucer and Wiclif wrote nearly half a century before John Huss was burned by Sigismond: it was a century after that that Luther burned the Pope's decretals at Wittenberg, and still later that Henry VIII. threw off the papal dominion in England. But great crises in a nation's history never arrive without premonition;—there are no moral earthquakes without premonitory throes, and sometimes these are more decisive and destructive than that which gives electric publicity. Such distinct signs appeared in the age of Chaucer, and the later history of the Church in England cannot be distinctly understood without a careful study of this period.
It is well known that Chaucer was an adherent of John of Gaunt; that he and his great protector—perhaps with no very pious intents—favored the doctrines of Wiclif; that in the politico-religious disturbances in 1382, incident to the minority of Richard II., he was obliged to flee the country. But if we wish to find the most striking religious history of the age, we must seek it in the portraitures of religious characters and events in his Canterbury Tales. In order to a proper intelligence of these, let us look for a moment at the ecclesiastical condition of England at that time. Connected with much in doctrine and ritual worthy to be retained, and, indeed, still retained in the articles and liturgy of the Anglican Church, there was much, the growth of ignorance and neglect, to be reformed. The Church of England had never had a real affinity with Rome. The gorgeous and sensual ceremonies which, in the indolent airs of the Mediterranean, were imposing and attractive, palled upon the taste of the more phlegmatic Englishmen. Institutions organized at Rome did not flourish in that higher latitude, and abuses were currently discussed even before any plan was considered for reforming them.
THE CLERGY.—The great monastic orders of St. Benedict, scattered throughout Europe, were, in the early and turbulent days, a most important aid and protection to Christianity. But by degrees, and as they were no longer needed, they had become corrupt, because they had become idle. The Cluniacs and Cistercians, branches of the Benedictines, are represented in Chaucer's poem by the monk and prioress, as types of bodies which needed reform.
The Grandmontines, a smaller branch, were widely known for their foppery: the young monks painted their cheeks, and washed and covered their beards at night. The cloisters became luxurious, and sheltered, and, what is worse, sanctioned lewdness and debauchery.
There was a great difference indeed between the regular clergy, or those belonging to orders and monasteries, and the secular clergy or parish priests, who were far better; and there was a jealous feud between them. There was a lamentable ignorance of the Scripture among the clergy, and gross darkness over the people. The paraphrases of Caedmon, the translations of Bede and Alfred, the rare manuscripts of the Latin Bible, were all that cast a faint ray upon this gloom. The people could not read Latin, even if they had books; and the Saxon versions were almost in a foreign language. Thus, distrusting their religious teachers, thoughtful men began to long for an English version of that Holy Book which contains all the words of eternal life. And thus, while the people were becoming more clamorous for instruction, and while Wiclif was meditating the great boon of a translated Bible, which, like a noonday sun, should irradiate the dark places and disclose the loathsome groups and filthy manifestations of cell and cloister, Chaucer was administering the wholesome medicine of satire and contempt. He displays the typical monk given up to every luxury, the costly black dress with fine fur edgings, the love-knot which fastens his hood, and his preference for pricking and hunting the hare, over poring into a stupid book in a cloister.
THE FRIAR AND THE SOMPNOUR.—His satire extends also to the friar, who has not even that semblance of virtue which is the tribute of the hypocrite to our holy faith. He is not even the demure rascal conceived by Thomson in his Castle of Indolence:
... the first amid the fry,
* * * * *
A little round, fat, oily man of God,
Who had a roguish twinkle in his eye,
When a tight maiden chanced to trippen by,
* * * * *
Which when observed, he shrunk into his mew,
And straight would recollect his piety anew.
But Chaucer's friar is a wanton and merry scoundrel, taking every license, kissing the wives and talking love-talk to the girls in his wanderings, as he begs for his Church and his order. His hood is stuffed with trinkets to give them; he is worthily known as the best beggar of his house; his eyes alight with wine, he strikes his little harp, trolls out funny songs and love-ditties. Anon, his frolic over, he preaches to the collected crowd violent denunciations of the parish priest, within the very limits of his parish. The very principles upon which these mendicant orders were established seem to be elements of evil. That they might be better than the monks, they had no cloisters and magnificent gardens, with little to do but enjoy them. Like our Lord, they were generally without a place to lay their heads; they had neither purse nor scrip. But instead of sanctifying, the itinerary was their great temptation and final ruin. Nothing can be conceived better calculated to harden the heart and to destroy the fierce sensibilities of our nature than to be a beggar and a wanderer. So that in our retrospective glance, we may pity while we condemn “the friar of orders gray.” With a delicate irony in Chaucer's picture, is combined somewhat of a liking for this “worthy limitour.”
In the same category of contempt for the existing ecclesiastical system, Chaucer places the sompnour, or summoner to the Church courts. Of his fire-red face, scattered beard, and the bilious knobs on his cheeks, “children were sore afraid.” The friar, in his tale, represents him as in league with the devil, who carries him away. He is a drinker of strong wines, a conniver at evil for bribes: for a good sum he would teach “a felon”
... not to have none awe
In swiche a case of the archdeacon's curse.
To him the Church system was nothing unless he could make profit of it.
THE PARDONERE.—Nor is his picture of the pardoner, or vender of indulgences, more flattering. He sells—to the great contempt of the poet—a piece of the Virgin's veil, a bit of the sail of St. Peter's boat, holy pigges' bones, and with these relics he made more money in each parish in one day than the parson himself in two months.
Thus taking advantage of his plot to ridicule these characters, and to make them satirize each other—as in the rival stories of the sompnour and friar—he turns with pleasure from these betrayers of religion, to show us that there was a leaven of pure piety and devotion left.
THE POOR PARSON.—With what eager interest does he portray the lovely character of the poor parson, the true shepherd of his little flock, in the midst of false friars and luxurious monks!—poor himself, but
Riche was he of holy thought and work,
* * * * *
That Cristes gospel truely wolde preche,
His parishers devoutly wolde teche.
* * * * *
Wide was his parish and houses fer asonder,
But he left nought for ne rain no thonder,
In sickness and in mischief to visite
The ferrest in his parish, moche and lite.
Upon his fete, and in his hand a staf,
This noble example to his shepe he yaf,
That first he wrought and afterward he taught.
Chaucer's description of the poor parson, which loses much by being curtailed, has proved to be a model for all poets who have drawn the likeness of an earnest pastor from that day to ours, among whom are Herbert, Cowper, Goldsmith, and Wordsworth; but no imitation has equalled this beautiful model. When urged by the host,
Tell us a fable anon, for cocke's bones,
he quotes St. Paul to Timothy as rebuking those who tell fables; and, disclaiming all power in poetry, preaches them such a stirring discourse upon penance, contrition, confession, and the seven deadly sins, with their remedies, as must have fallen like a thunderbolt upon this careless, motly crew; and has the additional value of giving us Chaucer's epitome of sound doctrine in that bigoted and ignorant age: and, eminently sound and holy as it is, it rebukes the lewdness of the other stories, and, in point of morality, neutralizes if it does not justify the lewd teachings of the work, or in other words, the immorality of the age. This is the parson's own view: his story is the last which is told, and he tells us, in the prologue to his sermon:
To knitte up all this feste, and make an ende;
And Jesu for his grace wit me sende
To showen you the way in this viage
Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrimage,
That hight Jerusalem celestial.
In an addendum to this discourse, which brings the Canterbury Tales to an abrupt close, and which, if genuine, as the best critics think it, was added some time after, Chaucer takes shame to himself for his lewd stories, repudiates all his “translations and enditinges of worldly vanitees,” and only finds pleasure in his translations of Boethius, his homilies and legends of the saints; and, with words of penitence, he hopes that he shall be saved “atte the laste day of dome.”
JOHN WICLIF.—The subject of this early reformation so clearly set forth in the stories of Chaucer, cannot be fully illustrated without a special notice of Chaucer's great contemporary and co-worker, John Wiclif.
What Chaucer hints, or places in the mouths of his characters, with apparently no very serious intent, Wiclif, himself a secular priest, proclaimed boldly and as of prime importance, first from his professor's chair at Oxford, and then from his forced retirement at Lutterworth, where he may well have been the model of Chaucer's poor parson.
Wiclif was born in 1324, four years before Chaucer. The same abuses which called forth the satires of Langland and Chaucer upon monk and friar, and which, if unchecked, promised universal corruption, aroused the martyr-zeal of Wiclif; and similar reproofs are to be found in his work entitled “Objections to Friars,” and in numerous treatises from his pen against many of the doctrines and practices of the Church.
Noted for his learning and boldness, he was sent by Edward III. one of an embassy to Bruges, to negotiate with the Pope's envoys concerning benefices held in England by foreigners. There he met John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. This prince, whose immediate descendants were to play so prominent a part in later history, was the fourth son of Edward III. By the death of the Black Prince, in 1376, and of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, in 1368, he became the oldest remaining child of the king, and the father of the man who usurped the throne of England and reigned as Henry IV. The influence of Lancaster was equal to his station, and he extended his protection to Wiclif. This, combined with the support of Lord Percy, the Marshal of England, saved the reformer from the stake when he was tried before the Bishop, of London on a charge of heresy, in 1377. He was again brought before a synod of the clergy at Lambeth, in 1378, but such was the favor of the populace in his behalf, and such, too, the weakness of the papal party, on account of a schism which had resulted in the election of two popes, that, although his opinions were declared heretical, he was not proceeded against.
After this, although almost sick to death, he rose from what his enemies had hoped would be his death-bed, to “again declare the evil deeds of the friars.” In 1381, he lectured openly at Oxford against the doctrine of transubstantiation; and for this, after a presentment by the Church—and a partial recantation, or explaining away—even the liberal king thought proper to command that he should retire from the university. Thus, during his latter years, he lived in retirement at his little parish of Lutterworth, escaping the dangers of the troublous time, and dying—struck with paralysis at his chancel—in 1384, sixteen years before Chaucer.
TRANSLATION OF THE BIBLE.—The labors of Wiclif which produced the most important results, were not his violent lectures as a reformer, but the translation of the Bible into English, the very language of the common people, greatly to the wrath of the hierarchy and its political upholders. This, too, is his chief glory: as a reformer he went too fast and too far; he struck fiercely at the root of authority, imperilling what was good, in his attack upon what was evil. In pulling up the tares he endangered the wheat, and from him, as a progenitor, came the Lollards, a fanatical, violent, and revolutionary sect.
But his English Bible, the parent of the later versions, cannot be too highly valued. For the first time, English readers could search the whole Scriptures, and judge for themselves of doctrine and authority: there they could learn how far the traditions and commandments of men had encrusted and corrupted the pure word of truth. Thus the greatest impulsion was given to a reformation in doctrine; and thus, too, the exclusiveness and arrogance of the clergy received the first of many sledge-hammer blows which were to result in their confusion and discomfiture.
“If,” says Froude, “the Black Prince had lived, or if Richard II. had inherited the temper of the Plantagenets, the ecclesiastical system would have been spared the misfortune of a longer reprieve.”
THE ASHES OF WICLIF.—The vengeance which Wiclif escaped during his life was wreaked upon his bones. In 1428, the Council of Constance ordered that if his bones could be distinguished from those of other, faithful people, they should “be taken out of the ground and thrown far off from Christian burial.” On this errand the Bishop of Lincoln came with his officials to Lutterworth, and, finding them, burned them, and threw the ashes into the little stream called the Swift. Fuller, in his Church History, adds: “Thus this brook has conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean; and thus the ashes of Wiclif are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed all the world over;” or, in the more carefully selected words of an English laureate of modern days,
... this deed accurst,
An emblem yields to friends and enemies,
How the bold teacher's doctrine, sanctified
By truth, shall spread, throughout the world dispersed.