…For out of the old fieldes, as men saithe,
Cometh al this new corne fro yere to yere;
And out of old bookes, in good faithe,
Cometh al this new science that men lere…
~Chaucer, The Parliament of Fowles (l. 22-25)
This past spring semester, I had the good fortune to teach a dazzling work of late medieval literature, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. It is a text that is fairly familiar but is usually confined to the walls of the classroom. That is unfortunate since art, especially the rich bounty of literature, is timeless and has always been a means for a conversation across the limitations of time and space, and The Canterbury Tales, it seems to me, is a literary masterpiece of the 14th century that resonates very much with our world today. It is, I would argue, a worthy vade mecum for our time as we wander into a new future and onto unspecified terrain.
Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales at a critical juncture in nation, ecclesial and social history not so different from our own. He wrote in the shadow of the monstrous Black Death that killed over a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century and that lingered, in one form or another, for generations. The consequences of that continental plague and also of the 100 Years War that was ravaging France and Great Britain at that same time, were dire and extensive. Centers of power, like the Church and European royal houses, collapsed under the weight of their own corruption and their ineffectiveness in managing the immense scale of physical and metaphysical chaos, and people began to lose trust in all forms of authority and in many of the ideals of the past. Sound familiar?
Chaucer decided to critique the turmoil of his time by writing a work that would be structured around the medieval motif of pilgrimage: he would then be able to reveal and to reflect on both private and public lives, as well as on internal states and external behaviors. Any reader of the Tales, then, will find themselves also on a journey of contemplation and renewed observation, walking with the pilgrim(s) and experiencing their encounters as well as their occasions of spiritual and moral inquiry. We—as a Church, as a people, as individuals—have similarly been on a kind of “walk” since the start of the pandemic and even before that time, long back into the years when crisis after crisis rocked the Church and her people, continuing even today. It is perhaps time again to take stock of ourselves and our individual as well as collective journeys, and consider how, moving forward, we can forge a more honest, just and compassionate world for future generations.
With each sequential tale, the reader of The Canterbury Tales enters into familiar spaces of ‘modern’ problems and vexing questions that are still prevalent today. The profiles of the pilgrims and the stories that they share are critical and (despite the broad satire) severe, yet they impart truths that we may wish to contemplate on our individual walks with Chaucer.
One truth from the Tales is that the Church (the human institution) of the 14th century had become woefully mired in a rampant materialism and moral negligence in its effort to sustain its power and to correspond its strength with that of its contemporary secular culture. The wretched pardoner, the vicious friar and the self-satisfied prioress, among the pilgrims, are all characters of moral lassitude whose tales only reveal their lack of self-awareness and moral accountability. Since they refuse to acknowledge such failings, Chaucer held before them a mirror in an effort to incite clerical reform.
Chaucer imputed the same to the political sector of society, the royal and aristocratic houses: there are several tales of imperious, calculating, cruel and intractable rulers whose moral failings and arrogant self-regard cause damage to their communities and to their own families. Chaucer’s pilgrims continuously aver that virtue and moral character cannot be inherited or even learned only from books: Virtue is to be practiced and lived. That is indeed a lesson still relevant today.
As a second truth, Chaucer depicted scholars, intellectuals and seekers of knowledge who too often become mired in their own egos, often at the expense of others, and so misuse their knowledge or misdirect their intellects for selfish or self-serving reasons, usually causing harm to others. The crude students in “The Reeve’s Tale” and the beguiled ‘scientist’ (alchemist) in “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” squander their wisdom and their education for licentious or avaricious goals. The educated have an ethical obligation to use their knowledge wisely and in service to the common good, so they must put aside their intellectual pride and personal vanity. It is a cautionary reminder for the academy and the Church.
Finally, the emerging bourgeoisie (in which class Chaucer counted himself), such as the shrewd merchant and the cunning franklin, engage with other individuals according to a kind of transactional sensibility that was novel in late medieval English society but increasingly apparent. Chaucer, holding a mirror to his own life, regarded such middle-class evaluation not simply appalling but actually toxic to human relationships and the common good. Several pilgrims narrate troubling stories of marriages, friendships, even family partnerships transformed by equations of self-interest and values of investment, excluding moral judgment as frivolous and deeming acquisition of material goods and social power as the necessary motivators of social interaction. Chaucer was as distressed as we also should be for our own increasingly ‘transactional’ audacity.
June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.