In discussing Chaucer’s collection of stories called The Canterbury Tales, an interesting picture or illustration of the Medieval Christian Church is presented. At all levels of society, belief in a god or gods was not a matter of choice; it was a matter of fact. Atheism was an alien concept. Living in the middle ages, one would come into contact with the Church in a number of ways. First, there were the routine church services, held daily and attended at least once a week, and the special festivals of Christmas, Easter, baptisms, marriages, etc.
In that respect the medieval Church was no different to the modern one. Second, there were the tithes that the Church collected, usually once a year. Tithes were used to feed the parish priest, maintain the fabric of the church, and to help the poor. Third, the Church fulfilled the functions of a ‘civil service’ and an education system. Schools did not exist and were unnecessary to a largely peasant society, but the Church and the government needed men who could read and write in English and Latin.
The Church trained its own men, and these went to help in the government: writing letters, keeping accounts and so on. And every nobleman would have at least one priest to act as a secretary. The power of the Church is often over-emphasized. Certainly, the later medieval Church was rich and powerful, and that power was often misused – especially in Europe. 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 that time, there are two ways 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 pilgrimage to Canterbury.
During the time that The Canterbury Tales was written, England was going through a large political and social change. The long-held traditions of religious piety and the feudal system had been radically altered when an epidemic of the bubonic plague had reduced the population severely. Therefore, a society that controlled by the Christian Church began to fall apart, with many religious wars, and more importantly, the emergence of a middle class. The middle class is very important because they tend to question long-held beliefs of a single moral standard and the validity of religion in their lives.
The middle class gained a freedom to think more for themselves than they ever had before, and so different theories about what is right and wrong and best and worst come up, and are discussed, evaluated, and often argued vehemently in The Canterbury Tales. In the first place, Chaucer talks about the corruption of the church. He shows that many clergymen are corrupt, both by the stories that the pilgrims tell and the pilgrims themselves, for example the Summoner and Pardoner.
This is the true portraiture of the late fourteenth century, the Catholic Church, which governed England, Ireland, and the entire continent of Europe, had become extremely wealthy. The cathedrals that grew up around shrines were incredibly expensive to build, and the amount of gold that went into decorating them and equipping them surpassed the riches in the nobles’ coffers. In a century of disease, plague, famine, and scarce labor, the sight of a church’s countless gold seemed unfair to some people, and the Church’s preaching against greed suddenly seemed hypocritical, considering its great displays of material wealth.
Distasting the greedy, irreligious churchmen who accepted bribes, and indulged themselves sensually and gastronomically, while ignoring the poor peasants begging at their doors, the middle class began to against the concept of ‘Leading a life pleasing to God was the uppermost concern’ in so many different ways. Secondly, Chaucer discussed Crime and Punishment in his tales instead of obeying the theory of the church. In each story of The Canterbury Tales, a punishment, revenge, or retaliation always occurs.
However, the nature of what should be punished varies from character to character more than any other theme in the book. For instance, the Prioress considers cold-blooded murder of an innocent, or more generally, any attack on Christianity, a sin that must be punished. The Friar gives a litany of stories where great rulers were destroyed because of their greed, arrogance, or ignorance. In the Reeve’s Tale, the Character of the Miller tries to rob the two students of their grain, but they get the best of him by sleeping with his wife and teenaged daughter.
In many other stories, husband’s inattention is reason enough for them to be punished by their wives infidelity. All of this cover the concept of middle class as equality, freedom and fairness, opposing the idea of medieval church. To sum up, The Canterbury Tales is as full of life and as richly textured as a medieval tapestry. The Knight, the Miller, the Friar, the Squire, the Prioress, the Wife of Bath, and others who make up the cast of characters are real people, with human emotions and weaknesses. The tales they had told is exactly the life of their role and their time.