Canterbury Dreamin’

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Something for the weekend.  The Canterbury Tales by the ever talented folks at History for Music Lovers to the tune of California Dreamin’ by the Mamas and the Papas.

Few secular works are more Catholic than Geoffrey Chaucer’s magnum opus.  He gives us the medieval world of faith in microcosm.

The Knight represents the honorable men who took up arms in defense of the cross and earned their privileges by their blood and sweat.

The Wife of Bath-Bawdy, earthy and not devoid of common sense.

The Pardoner-a representative of the corruption within the Church that was an insult to Christ.

The Miller-a male Wife of Bath who loves a drink and an off color tale.

The Prioress-a model nun and an example of the compassion and goodness that comes from living a Christian life.

The Monk-a friar tuck who cares little for the rule of his order and lives for hunting.

The Friar-another symbol of corruption in the Church who takes bribes.

The Host-large, loud and merry, perhaps a self-portrait of Chaucer.

The Parson-A fine exemplar of what a priest should be:  a man who not only preachers the Gospel but lives it.

The Squire-The Knight’s son.  Like most teenagers then and now he loves music, the opposite sex and a good time.

The Man of Law-He knows the statutes of England by heart and upholds justice.  (No doubt he would be blogging if he lived today!)

The Manciple-He is in charge of getting provisions for a college than a court.  It is implied that he is smarter than any lawyers he serves despite his lack of education.  (This would not surprise me at all.)

The Shipman-He has sailed throughout Europe and is considered something of a rogue by Chaucer, a common prejudice of landlubbers against sailors.

The Physician-A man of science, such little as their was in medicine in Chaucer’s day, he has scant love of religion but much love of gold.

The Franklin-A representative of the “middling” class of England, he loves good rich food.

The Reeve-A steward of a manor, he is very efficient and shrewd, but also a thief who steals from his master.

The Plowman-A representative of the yeoman stock of England, ever romanticized by almost all English writers.  He is the brother of the Parson, and also a good and honest man who pays his tithes faithfully.

The Guildsmen-The guilds of England dominated the economic life of the towns and cities of medieval England, so it is just that Chaucer presents his five guildsmen as a collective.

The Cook-The Cook works for the guildsmen and like most cooks prior to the twentieth century he is an anonymous figure in the tale, with Chaucer saying little about him.

The Second Nun-Chaucer says almost nothing about her except relating her tale of a saint.

The Nun’s Priest-The teller of the brilliant tale of Chanticleer is obviously a quick witted and eloquent priest.

Chaucer shows us humanity in all its frequently tumultuous diversity, but all unified by a common faith as shown by their pilgrimage to the tomb of  Saint Thomas a Becket.

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What we have lost that the Middle Ages had is a society dominated by a unifying faith that gave almost all the members within the society a common goal.    With all our freedoms, technological marvels and greater knowledge of science, that is a loss that what used to be called Christendom has never been able to fill.  We have tried to fill it with multitudes of new faiths, science, politics, hedonism, etc, all to no avail.  There is a God-sized hole in our culture that would have dismayed Chaucer and his contemporaries and have caused them, in spite of our infinitely better material lives, to pity us.

“I shall lament, and in the Tragic Mode,
The sufferings of those who once stood high,
Who fell from eminence, so that none could
Deliver them out of adversity.”

14 Responses to Canterbury Dreamin’

  • T. Shaw says:

    Greet them ever with grateful hearts.

    This calendar says today is “Armed Forces Day.” “Flag Day” is in June.

    From the movie, “The Sand Pebbles”, Captain Collins (Richard Crenna) addressing the crew:

    “At home in America, when today reaches them, it will be Flag Day. For us who wear the uniform, every day is Flag Day.

    “All Americans are morally bound to die for our flag if called upon to do so. Only we are legally bound. Only we live our lives in a day to day readiness for that sacrifice. We have sworn oaths — cut our ties.

    “It is said there will be no more wars. We must pretend to believe that. But when war comes, it is we who will take the first shock, and buy time with our lives. It is we who keep the Faith.

    “We serve the flag. The trade we all follow is the give and take of death. It is for that purpose that the people of America maintain us. Anyone of us who believes he has a job like any other, for which he draws a money age, is a thief of the food he eats, and a trespasser in the bunk in which he lies down to sleep.”

  • A good comment T. Shaw. It has absolutely zero to do with the subject of my post, but a good comment nevertheless. Perhaps you were projecting into the future your comment on one of my Memorial Day posts next weekend? :)

    All future comments to this post, please stay on topic.

  • Tom Connelly says:

    A wonderful post. I took a course on Chaucer as a freshman in college and have loved him ever since. My love of his poetry was all the greater because I learned to recite it in Middle English. How delightful!

  • Mico Razon says:

    Be careful about wishing for “a society dominated by a unifying faith” if that unifying faith turns out to be something other than Christianity.

  • Donna says:

    I would not put the Prioress up as an exemplary Religious. She seems more like a timeserver, with her lapdogs and her ‘Amor vincit omnia’ necklace. Her tale is in a complex form associated more with ‘courtly love’ and its amorality than with the stories of the saints. She also pretends to a world savvy she does not have – she speaks French, but with an English accent. Her tale is a version of the blood libel against Jews which was popular at the time – but which Pope after Pope had condemned.

  • “Be careful about wishing for “a society dominated by a unifying faith” if that unifying faith turns out to be something other than Christianity.”

    Well actually MR the absence of a unifying faith centered in Catholicism creates a vacumn that other faiths have been busily trying to fill, often with disastrous results. I expect this process to continue as the religious impulse for a society as well as individuals has to be satisfied somehow, hence the desire to make politics into a substitute religion or to proclaim sex as the end of life, or any of the other dead ends that our society has run down since the Reformation. I doubt if the world of medieval Catholicism could be recreated as a practical matter, but that does not mean that we should not bitterly regret the passing of a time when more than 90% of the population was Catholic and to accurately assess the societal pathologies that the absence of this reality has caused in our culture.

  • True points Donna but Chaucer also emphasizes her tender heart and her deep faith. As for the regrettable anti-Semitism of her tale, I doubt if Chaucer personally knew any Jews since they had been expelled from England in 1292 by Edward I. They are summoned on as stock villians to add to the pathos of the tale the Prioress was telling and to emphasize her deep pity for the murder of the child saint.

  • Mico Razon says:

    Yes, the Middle Ages produced great saints like St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Thomas Becket. But we live in a world that does not want to go back to its Catholic roots. I, for one, try the best I can not to be taken in by the latest monstrosity produced by modern culture. Maybe someday, I will move to the suburbs. And turn off the television at night. And have my children home-schooled.

  • Very true MR, and three centuries later the Roman Emperor was bowing before the cross. For staying power and success over vast amounts of time no institution, as one would expect, can match the Church founded by Christ.

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