Christian Obligation and Religious Uncertainty in the Song of Roland and the Canterbury Tales

The Middle Ages were marked by religious turmoil in Europe. 2 new major world religious beliefs were pertaining to power: Islam and Christianity. The rapid success of Christianity led the Roman Catholic Church to become the dominant spiritual force in the majority of the western world, and similar to any effective institution, it ended up being increasingly corrupt (Swanson 409). As Lillian Bisson writes in Chaucer and the Late Middle Ages World,” [the] Middle ages church … was a collection of contending factions with typically contradictory agendas” (49 ). The church’s internal dispute resulted in public skepticism in spiritual authority (51-53). Broadening on Bisson’s observations, this paper will explain the development of spiritual doubt in Medieval Europe and note how it defines the literature of the period. Comparing 2 of the foremost texts of the Middle Ages– the anonymous impressive The Song of Roland and Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales– I argue that the latter work signs up a profound skepticism of spiritual authority that is not present in the previous. The various images the two texts present of the church, I recommend, distinguishes The Tune of Roland and the Canterbury tales as, respectively, early-Medieval and late-Medieval works.

3 developments added to the rise of Christian doubt in the Middle Ages: the persecution of heretics, the Black Plague, and The Fantastic Schism. As Bisson explains, the Catholic Church ended up being significantly effective as it ended up being inseparable from federal government. When the Roman Emperor Constantine transformed to Christianity, the church acquired impact rapidly and a brand-new doctrinal hierarchy began to establish in place of the previous common character of the church (52 ). People who did not accept Catholic doctrine were either dismissed as subhuman, or– if they lived in what became called Christendom– persecuted as apostates. Ultimately, the laypeople and especially the middle and lower classes developed a sense of suspect for the church. Members of the clergy who ended up being church leaders for cash and status rather than spiritual conviction consistently abused their power. The public noticed these abuses and so began the failure of the previously ultimate rely on religious authority.

The Black Plague, a disaster that eliminated countless numbers of people in Christendom, likewise contributed to public mistrust in the church because individuals understood their clergymen’s prayers were worthless versus the health problem. Faith in God’s power and God’s benevolence pertained to an all-time low as individuals helplessly enjoyed their enjoyed ones die. Many members of the clergy fled their positions in worry of the work required of them with the morbidly ill (50 ).

A third major issue with the church arised from what is referred to as the Great Schism. When two different males declared the right to the papacy, tremendous scandal and internal dispute threatened the future of the church (56 ). During the very same period, Oxford scholar John Wyclif began to slam the church publicly. Not only did he challenge basic beliefs and practices by rejecting the possibility of transubstantiation, however he also attempted to lessen the priests’ power. He translated the Bible to English for the first time in history, which made it far more available to the common individual (58 ), and he declared that any good Christian was a priest. This claim, along with the newly equated Bible and a growing lower class literacy rate, caused the decrease in a need for priests in order to worship. Suddenly, the typical individual might be religious without the intervention of the church. This shift in religious power is signed up in the literature of the time: while early Medieval works highlight the higher ranking of monks and nuns, later on works location more emphasis on the spiritual significance of poor preachers and even the laity.

With the church deteriorated by both internal conflict and reducing credibility among the general public, lots of Christians began to seriously reassess church worths and teaching. Accordingly, the literature of the period reflects profound bookings about the church, bookings that are not present in earlier texts. The anonymous French nationwide impressive, The Tune of Roland, written prior to Wyclif’s criticisms and before the Black Death wreaked its havoc on Christendom, is unambiguously helpful of church authority. Composed as a piece of propaganda for the necessity of Holy Wars, The Tune of Roland shows the intolerance of the church in the Middle Ages. Although The Song of Roland explains events that occured in 778, it was composed in 1095: the year the very first Crusade against the Muslims was released. In truth, however, the fight the text handles was not part of a holy war. In truth, it had absolutely nothing to do with Islam. The Basques, not the Muslims, had massacred the rear guard of the Frankish army. The author of The Tune of Roland uses substantial imaginative license to establish the story into a reductive allegory about the accomplishment of Christianity (good) over Islam (wicked). The writer “provides spiritual significance to secular acts, appropriating the project of 778 not just as holy war but as war between God and Satan” (Dominik, 2).

Within the allegorical structure of the text, Roland’s tale is also the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Roland is a Christ figure who passes away a martyr’s death; the parallels in between the 2 characters re-inforce the dogmatic nature of the text. Roland has Twelve Peers (Roland 1259), much like the Twelve Disciples of Christ. Ganelon, Roland’s failure, is figured as Judas. He betrays Roland by telling the Saracens (pagans and therefore enemies of Christianity) how they can assail and eliminate the knowledgeable warrior. Interestingly, Ganelon betrays Roland for reasons of pride instead of money. In his conversation with the pagans, Ganelon remarks: “If someone can cause the death of Roland,/ the Charles would lose the best arm of his body” (1266 ). The author draws a parallel between Roland and Jesus Christ, who in Christian mythology is frequently referred to as the “right hand” of God.

Roland’s death re-enforces the allegorical character of the impressive. Attempting to inform his supporters that his army has been assailed, Roland blows his horn so hard that he passes away of large effort. Almost right away, his soul is taken directly to Paradise by angels. Appropriately, the language utilized in the death scene recalls the Biblical episode of The Enthusiasm: “Roland the Count feels: his sight is gone;/ gets on his feet, makes use of his last strength,/ the color on his face lost now for great” (1301 ). Christian allegory is used to justify not just the church, but the specific Crusade the church was promoting at the time of the impressive’s composition. Insofar as Roland’s death is presented as noble, the scene advises readers of the Christian value of sacrifice: holy war is reasonable because its warriors must suffer as Jesus Christ suffered for the typical good of the people. The Tune of Roland is used to promote the idea of Holy War as a required sacrifice that raises the warrior to the status of Jesus Christ.

Composed someplace between 1386 and 1400, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a late-medieval text, and as such, marked by the major dispute surrounding the Catholic Church during this period. Lee Patterson, in his intro to Chaucer in the Norton Anthology of Western Literature, ignores the importance of religious doubt in Chaucer’s writing. “Unusually adequate”, he composes,” [most] of these events [within and surrounding the church] find just the barest reference in Chaucer’s poetry” (1697 ). As other critics have noted, nevertheless, Chaucer’s texts frequently deal extensively with religious beliefs on a subtextual level. Bisson keeps in mind that Chaucer had pals in typical with John Wyclif and thus extensive connections to the critics of the church (58 ). Likewise, Helen Phillips argues that much of Chaucer’s writing can be defined as “anticlerical fabliaux”, a common literary strategy of the late Middle Ages that satirized, and hence undermined, church authority (104 ). Phillips likewise keeps in mind the subversive gesture of Chaucer’s option to write in vernacular English, rather than Latin, the main language of Roman Catholicism and, as such, a marker of the elitism that defined the Medieval church. Aware of the growing literacy among the people of the lower classes, Chaucer’s use of vernacular English made his works– unlike the Bible– accessible to everybody throughout a wide class stata. His specific sympathy for individuals in the lower strata of the social hierarchy is signed up throughout his writing. As Phillips argues, Chaucer’s representation of peasants” […] is compassionate, unpatronising, and respectful”. He contrasts “their sound ethical judgement, sense of reasonable play and disgust with rogues [with] the conceited clerical predators” (106 ). Aligning himself with the critics of the church, whose suspicion was often directed at its most powerful members, Chaucer presented the upper members of the ecclesiastical hierarchy as despiteful and corrupt, and his couple of examples of excellent spiritual figures are of the lowest status (107 ).

Spiritual issues permeated numerous elements of Chaucer’s writings, even those texts dealing just indirectly with the church. In The Canterbury Tales, his most well-known work, Chaucer utilizes characterization and imagery to discreetly critique the corruption and tyranny of church authority. For instance, the Miller, a character apparently unassociated with the church, is amongst Chaucer’s many powerful lorries for voicing spiritual doubt. As the Miller prepares to inform his tale, he states, “I’ll inform a golden legend and a life,” which, as Nicholas Watson keeps in mind, is a typical phrase utilized to explain the stories told of saints’ lives in the time. Chaucer is “stripping [Christianity] of its pretensions,” by explaining the Miller’s vile tale of adultery with language of a holy text (52 ). The Miller thus reveals his tale as a satire of the seriousness with which people at the time approached faith, and the authority it had more than them.

The content of the Miller’s tale likewise has a subtext of religious doubt. The Miller informs the story of Alison, a young woman who is wed to a carpenter named John. Alison is having an affair with Nicholas, an Oxford trainee, and is likewise the item of the clerk Absolon’s unrequited love. The sexuality and unfamiliarity of the tale develops it as a profane story that is inherently at odds with Christian teaching, which legislates against sins of the flesh. However, the Miller’s tale has numerous religious referrals. Presenting Nicholas to the reader, the Miller sings “Angelus to the Virgin,” an ancient prayer that, when used to explain infidelity, becomes sacriligious( 1720 ). Likewise, after Nicholas and Alison decide to trick John in order that they can become fans, Chaucer writes:

Now in her Christian duty, one saint’s day,

To the parish church this excellent partner made her way,

And as she went her forehead cast a glow

As intense as noon, for she had washed it so

It glowed when she completed with her work.

( 1722 )

Chaucer uses juxtaposition here to sacriligious result. The images of tidiness and purity “bright”, “glow”, “sparkled”), along with the fact that Alison goes to church “in her Christian responsibility”, develop the character as a hypocrite. Alison is incriminated by her zeal for the church, and vice versa. If this is a lady who supports her “Christian responsibility”, Chaucer suggests, then Christianity leaves a lot to be wanted.

The trickery that Alison and Nicholas produce in order to avoid her other half from discovering their adultery also takes a blatant jab at Christianity. The enthusiasts use the story of Noah and the Great Flood from the Bible to push John into thinking another flood is coming. The exchange of Biblical scripture for sexual gain recommends that Chaucer felt the church was typically utilized as a means to an end (generally sexual or financial) rather than as a path to spiritual fulfullment. Similarly, in a later episode, Absolon attempts to woo Alison from outdoors her bed room window by utilizing images and language from the Biblical “Tune of Tunes”. What is interesting about the “Song of Songs” is that while it is a love tune in the Bible, it is analyzed by clergy as a representation of the pure love in between God and human beings. Here, nevertheless, Absolon uses it to try to charm a wife, an act that reverses the official purpose of the text. The many perversions of Scriptural bible work together in the Miller’s Tale to form a sort of comedic analysis of the hypocrisy of the authority and actions of the Medieval Christian church.

While there are lots of spiritual figures depicted in a negative light in The Canterbury Tales, the most deplorable is the Pardoner. A pardoner’s task was to sell papal indulgences, pre-written slips of paper which offered forgiveness to a sinner in exchange for an act of retribution and a donation of cash to the church. The pardoner became a crucial figure within the church in the 13th century, when the full teaching of purgatory was developed (Phillips 105). This doctrine defined purgatory as a place of short-term punishment for sinners who were not entirely absolved at death, however who had actually not committed sins bad enough to be banished to hell for all eternity. Extravagances could be bought either for a living individual or for a departed liked one, to reduce the quantity of time invested in purgatory. Naturally, these extravagances ended up being a big source of corruption in the church. Some pardoners falsified the documents in order to earn additional money for themselves, and laity did not hesitate to delight in sin due to the fact that they might just acquire forgiveness. Even within this corrupt profession, Chaucer’s Pardoner is particularly despicable. In the very first paragraph of his Beginning, he announces that his preaching is always based on the phrase, “Radix malorum est cupiditas,” or “Avarice is the root of all evil” (1757 ). He then instantly begins to explain how he utilizes religion for his own material gain by selling false relics and forged indulgences. Directly opposing his own sermon, the Pardoner reinforces the subtext of religious doubt that runs throughout The Canterbury Tales. His hypocrisy is more compounded by the material of his tale, which exists as a moral lesson and involves three guys who die because of their own greed. In the General Prologue, the description of the Pardoner suggests what Phillips calls his “spiritual barrenness” (149 ). He is referred to as having long blonde hair, no facial hair, and a high-pitched voice, qualities that suggest he is effeminate. He is likewise referred to as being very fashionable, likewise a feminine quality. Accordingly, the storyteller observes: “I think he was a gelding or a mare,” (1715 ). The implication is that the Pardoner is either a eunich or a homosexual, both figures who would have represented total fruitlessness and barrenness during the Middle Ages. His own physical infertility suggests his even greater spiritual infertility (Phillips 149).

In contrast to the Pardoner, the Parson in The Canterbury tales is represented affectionately. The Parson is of the most affordable class of clergy, and his favorable characterization recommends Chaucer’s religious criticism was directed at the upper strata of the church. He is described in the General Beginning as “an excellent man of the priests’ occupation,/ A poor town Parson of true consecration,/ However he was rich in holy thought and work” (1710 ). A guy who genuinely looks after his congregation, the Parson hates to discipline someone who has actually not had the ability to pay tithes. Accordingly his tale is structured less as a story than as a preaching. The parson’s tale suggests that his piety is sincere: undoubtedly, a pious religious figure would not lose time informing light-hearted stories when he might rather be spreading the word of God. Unlike the Pardoner, the lower class Parson really follows his own preaching.

As a contrast of two Middle ages works shows, the intense dispute surrounding the Catholic church in the latter half of the period differentiates early Medieval literature from later works. In the Song of Roland, which was made up before the major issues of dissent, illness, and corruption resulted in public doubt in spiritual authority, the church is illustrated as the supreme excellent triumphing over the supreme evil, which is figured by Islam. The author does not appear to question whether Holy War was genuinely holy. In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, however, the author voices major apprehension about the church’s impact and motives. Chaucer, himself a male of faith, does not attack Christianity as a belief system, but rather as an organized faith. He schedules his harshest criticism for the corruption and hypocrisy of the clergymen in the upper strata of the church hierarchy. As The Tune of Roland shows the success of Christianity’s rise to power in the early Middle Ages, so The Canterbury tales registers the beginning of the church’s internal fragmentation and reducing credibility amongst the public.

Functions Mentioned

Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Middle Ages World. New York City: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Theodore Morrison. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Heather James et al. New York City: Norton, 2005. 1696-1759.

Dominik, Mark. “Holy War in The Tune of Roland: The’ Mythification’ of History”. Stanford Undergrad Research Study Journal 2 (2003 ). 2-8.

Patterson, Lee. “Geoffrey Chaucer”. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Heather James et al. New York City: Norton, 2005. 1696-1701.

Phillips, Helen. An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales. New York: Palgrave 2000.

“The Tune of Roland”. Trans. Frederick Goldin. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. New York City: Norton, 2005. 1247-1316.

Watson, Nicholas. “Christian Ideologies”. A Companion to Chaucer. Ed. Peter Brown. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002. 75-90.