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.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The unanticipated revelation

In my first encounter with the Canterbury Tales, when Chaucer associated the word Host with the best food and wine, my Catholic background brought echoes of poetic references to the Eucharist. Many more clues identify Christ concealed within the Canterbury Host.
      His bookkeeping transactions are identical to terms portraying Judgment, as if each soul clutches a personal balance sheet when approaching Death's door.
     When the Host requires immediate acceptance of his travel plan for the pilgrims, it can be seen as daily life. Man accepts God's will for each day, without knowing what lies ahead.
     A fleeting image of Christ as traditional shepherd comes to our mind's eye, when the  Host gathers the pilgrims "all in a flock."
     Examples of "offensive language," (trivializing the sacred) in the surface storyline become personal covert references to Christ's passion and death. The most meaningful--"Harrow, by nails and by blood"--recalls Christ's harrowing hell. As a consequence of Christ's crucifixion, worthy souls attained their long-awaited release and entrance into heaven.
     To indicate the Host as the "most enveloped in sin,"again points to a traditional image of Christ, who takes all our sins upon Himself. Sinfulness envelops Christ; it envelops the Canterbury Host, as well.
     For the surface story, the Host's declaration, "I know the substance is in me," is arbitrarily accepted as "I have the capacity to understand." Substance, however, makes a direct theological connection "with regard to the being of God, the divine nature or essence." And substance is "used of the incarnate Christ." The substance is also in the Canterbury Host.

Is this complex sequence of identifiers only meant to confirm that Christ leads pilgrims on their life journey? No. There is more. We have not mentioned the Host's wife before. She is not in the pilgrim company. She is never seen but merely commented upon by the Host. He laments that his wife is cruel, demanding, quarrelsome, unfeeling--then breaks off, hesitant to say too much. The elaborate plan disguises Chaucer's concern. He dare not become obvious.
     Who do we recognize as the Host's wife? In other words, who is the traditional Bride of Christ? The Church. Chaucer dare not have his dissent regarding the Church become obvious.
     Here is the comparative test: If his lament is that of an innkeeper, we see a dreadful married relationship. But, with the potential of allegory, read the words again, as if uttered by Christ accusing the Church: She is cruel, demanding, quarrelsome, unfeeling. This aptly describes the medieval Church's power and widespread action of the Inquisition on the Continent during the 1300s.
     The comic image of an apparently henpecked husband provides a distracting surface characterization. Once Christ's identity is established, however, the poet's dissension is recognized in the covert interpretation. When the hidden intention leapt out at me--I shuddered.

Next time, a look at what inspired Chaucer's risk-taking.

Friday, March 8, 2013

A matter of substance

This entry, our penultimate clue, will focus on a matter of genuine substance.
     The Host interrupts himself while speaking to the Pilgrim Monk. In a brief aside, he advises that if no one is listening, there is no point in telling a story. Then, he repeats the advice but gives it a clerical, a religious emphasis.

For certainly, as these clerics say,
Whereas a man may have no audience,
It helps nothing to tell his sentence.
And well I know the substance is in me,
If anything shall well-reported be.

Sentence, in Chaucer's day, referred to meaning or doctrine. The Host seems to ramble. That gets our attention. What does lack of an audience have to do with a report?
     For the surface story, "I know the substance is in me" is taken to mean "I have the capacity to understand," but that idea is not clear, nor particularly significant. "Substance," however, has great depth for medieval clerics, theologians. Fear not. Only two terms of theology will be dealt with, and their definitions are easily understood.
     "Substance" is a fundamental aspect of faith. Notably in the primary definition of substance, the OED says: "Essential nature, essence; esp. Theol., with regard to the being of God. the divine nature or essence." The Athanasian Creed (1325) says of Christ, "He is God, of the substance of the Father." In addition, and again in the first entry, the MED says substance is "used of the incarnate Christ."
     To declare substance being within the Host (the Eucharist) also confirms Transubstantiation. You could understand the term tran-substantia-tion as a changing of substance. A reading in the Divine Office states: "In [this sacrament] bread and wine are changed substantially into the body and blood of Christ." The Eucharistic Host, in the vocabulary of Scholastic Theology, uses two terms that, as I said earlier, are easily understood: accidents and substance.
     Accidents, in this special designation, refers to qualities (of bread) that can be seen, while the substance (the essence) mystically becomes the body of Christ. One need not accept the doctrine. You just have to understand that THAT was, and is, the Dogma of the Church.
     Chaucer wrote at a time of growing celebration of the presence of Christ within the Eucharist (the Real  Presence). As a parallel, Chaucer's imaginative allegory describes the accidents, the attributes of the Canterbury Host that can be seen. These overt qualities conceal the substance, Christ's divine nature. Chaucer's Host indicates this covert identity here, and wants the fact "well reported."

We've seen a series of clues inscribe Christ within the Canterbury Host. Why? Are we only to see the basic confirmation that Christ leads Pilgrims on their life journey? No. There is more. Our final "clue" penetrates a humorous overlay. When the hidden significance came clear to me--I shuddered.