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Corruption in the Church and Society Reflected in The Canterbury Tales

Corruption in the Church and Society Reflected in The Canterbury Tales

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.

Comparing Clothing in Knight’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale

One of the striking differences between the Knyghts Tale and the Millers Tale (which is supposed to “quit(e)” the Knyghts Tale) is that of clothing (the former tale) and lack of clothing (in the latter). Upon an inspection of the General Prologue’s description of the Knyght, I found that clothing is a very signifcant part of the Knyght’s Tale. Chaucer’s decription of him may forshadow (or, since Chaucer wrote the tales after they were told, color his perceptions of the Knyght) the importance of clothing in the Knyght’s Tale. Special attention is paid to the Knyght’s coat of mail.

“He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.

But for to tellen you of his array,

His hors were goode, but he was nat gay.

Of fustian he wered a gypon

Al bismotered with his habergeon,

For he was late ycome from his viage,

And he wente for to doon his pilgrimage.” (lines I [A] 72-78).

The rust-stained mail is indicative that his armor was worn out, perhaps really useless, and only serves to weigh him down. The idea of an artifice such as armor or clothing that was designed to protect but later becomes a worn-out, useless, binding, and ultimately harmful object is echoed throughout the tale. Chaucer may have been satirizing the Romantic tale rather than glorifying it by copying it. Of Romances (more specifically, the Knyghts Tale), Finlayson wrote “A principal characteristic of romance is its formalism of language, gesture, and story–what might be considered its deliberate exclusion of naturalism.” (pg 130). Formal language is a form of dress, an ornamentation. The naturalism that lacks in the Knyghts Tale is certainly found in the Miller’s fabliaux with it’s frequent descriptions of nakedness. The nakedness in the Miller’s tale is almost a we…

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…her hand in marriage. Finally, Palamon takes her hand. And finally, flesh touches flesh.

The ending is fitting, for only by stripping away the artifices that bind, does anyone become happy. Perhaps the Knyght wishes to shed his armor, for it is a hindrance to him also with its rust that colors his clothes. The Miller, in the next tale, goes to the extreme of shedding clothing, which, as we later read, has its danger also.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed Mack, Maynard et al. W. W. Norton and Co. New York, NY. 1992.

Finlayson, John. “The Knyghts Tale: The Dialogue of Romance, Epic, and Philosophy”. The Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism. ed. Frank, Robert W., Pennsylvania State Press, University Park, PA. Vol. 27 no. 2. 1992. 126-149. Riverside Chaucer

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