Chaucer, Geoffrey (1340?—1400)
Although in The Canterbury Tales (1387, unfinished) the Parson is designed to be a model for the truly religious to follow, Chaucer delights in relating how religion works in practice. His Pardoner, for example, uses religion for personal gain. Yes, the lascivious friar is “full of dalliaunce and fair language” for ”yonge wommen” and he depicts the essentially pagan Miller and Wife of Bath as colorful souls.
Do not blame me, Chaucer is saying, if the doctor I describe loved gold so much, if a pilgrim was more Epicurean than Christian, and if animal bones were sold as saints’ bones to gullible country parsons: I am just relating what happened.
What with the religious restraints placed upon everyone at that time, how better could Chaucer editorialize concerning what he found wrong in society. His understanding of how people actually speak is exemplified by his use of such words as erse (arse, ass), fart, quent (cunt), shitten, and piss, which apparently were not frowned upon inasmuch as he was simply a reporter of the language. Those who made their living from religion were placed on the defensive, and Chaucer became a revered iconoclast to his supporters.
In his Studies in Chaucer (1892), Lownsbury calls Chaucer an advanced freethinker. Commenting on lines 1809 to 1825 of “The Knight’s Tale,” he asks:
- Can modern agnosticism point to a denial more emphatic than that made in the fourteenth century of the belief that there exists for us any assurance of the life beyond the grave?
Lownsbury says Chaucer grew more opposed to the Church as time went on and was “hostile to it in such a way that implies an utter disbelief in certain of its tenets.” A retraction is appended to some editions of the Tales, but it is generally rejected as spurious, Joseph McCabe holds.
In 2009, Peter Ackroyd wrote The Canterbury Tales, A Retelling, of which Yale Professor Harold Bloom wrote,
- The two grandest of Chaucer’s characters are Alice, the Wife of Bath, exuberantly erotic vitalist, and the Pardoner, perhaps a eunuch, a charlatan selling spurious religious relics and indulgences for sin. Chaucer’s gusto in imagining them is answered by Ackroyd’s own relish for the positive drive of the Wife of Bath and the negative intensity of the Pardoner.
- Ackroyd is happiest and in his best form with Chaucer’s sublime ribaldry: the tales told by the Miller, the Reeve and the Summoner. Yet his own Catholic nostalgia lingers in a conviction that The Canterbury Tales “moves between piety and farce.” The farce is stronger than the faith in this secular masterpiece, which helped encourage Shakespeare to his own freedom from the sacred. Dante made Chaucer uncomfortable: I think the poet of the The Canterbury Tales would have rejoiced in Shakespeare.
(See an example of venial sin in Chaucer's work.)