Friday, March 22, 2013

Why risk it?

Chaucer had traveled the Continent--eyes and ears open. We've read the startling message concealed in the Canterbury Tales. The Host's wife (The Church) is cruel, demanding, quarrelsome, as was the widespread action of the Inquisition. Today's scholars describing the Host's wife, could be characterizing the medieval Church: easily angered, absolutely reckless, awe-inspiring, powerful arms, fearing no one.
     In the early 1300s, Inquisitors asked to apply torture without limitations to heretics, and thus "the Church grew harder and crueller and more unchristian," states H. C. Lea, an historian of the Inquisition.
     How would Chaucer view life after all he'd seen? He advises, "Here is not home, here is nothing but wilderness." Christians were often called suddenly to Judgment from disease, politics, or random violence.
     To publicly--or privately--raise objection to the ruling system, you'd be in jeopardy. Those in authority were seen as chosen by God, so to differ with God's chosen ones amounted to high treason.
     Allegory thrives in a rigid authoritarian environment. Fourteenth-century Europe would have been fertile ground for hidden protests.
     The poet's well-being and the survival of his messages, depended upon maintaining his good relationship with the royal court. Disaster struck many near him. Friends were executed with varying degrees of cruelty. Nevertheless, Chaucer and his works, remained unscathed.
     On the Continent, Inquisitors were nowhere yet everywhere, like secret police. When the Inquisition reached England, religious dissenters met increasing severity. Consequently, a few month after the poet's death, the first English heretic to be "found guilty" (William Sawtre) was burned at the stake.

Why would Chaucer persist while knowing the result could be fearful death? The answer--it was a matter of conscience. One who had important information had a moral responsibility to share it. He sinned "who shutteth knowledge in his mouth."
     Pilgrim Chaucer speaks of messages discreet and wise. Allegory could discreetly prove his obedience to God, and ease his conscience, as well.
     When the poet moved to Westminster Abbey in June, 1400, England was once again in political upheaval. Several courtiers who were his friends had been cruelly executed. Thomas Usk, for example, was both hanged and beheaded. It is speculated that his motive for moving to the Abbey could have been for the protection of sanctuary.
     The inspired "paper pilgrimage" led to Thomas á Becket. Who better to supplicate when in need of courage and perseverance? I believe Chaucer sought courage to persevere no matter what the cost, and to face death (if need be) as Thomas á Becket had.
     The poet's closing prayer pleads, "Christ have mercy on me and forgive me my offenses." He concluded with the hope "that I may be one of them, at the day of judgment, that shall be saved." I believe Geoffrey Chaucer saw this world's hazards, however great, as temporary; but the hereafter, unending. As a man of conscience, he took the risk.

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