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To what extent did medieval English literature provide a space for the public voicing of social, political or religious dissent?

To what extent did medieval English literature provide a space for the public voicing of social, political or religious dissent?

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This essay examines the issue of religion in "The Prioress's Tale and Prologue" and "The Pardoner's Tale and Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales, and argues that Chaucer is an ambivalent writer who simultaneously praises and condemns religion in his work.
This essay examines the issue of religion in "The Prioress's Tale and Prologue" and "The Pardoner's Tale and Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales, and argues that Chaucer is an ambivalent writer who simultaneously praises and condemns religion in his work.

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Sep 01, 2012
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11/23/2013

 
To what extent did medieval English literature provide a space for the public voicing of social, political or religious dissent?
During the fourteenth century, the Church occupied a central position in medievalEnglish society. That society was deeply influenced by religion and in the literature of the period, writers attempted to engage with religious issues. Of course it would be naive “toassume that the masses of people, especially those who lacked a formal education or were inthe lower echelons of society, were naive, superstitious, and unquestioning in their faith”(Rhodes 81). Writers like Geoffrey Chaucer gave the masses a platform from which to publicly voice their religious dissent but
The Canterbury Tales
are not absolutely critical of religion. Without doubt Chaucer is a deeply ambiguous writer, both praising and condemningreligion in his work. This scholar believes that such a reality is reflected in “The Prioress’sPrologue and Tale” and in “The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale” in the following ways; thePrioress’s affective piety, anti-Semitism and Marian cult; the Pardoner’s representation, possible homosexuality and inversion of the sacraments; and finally, the tellers’ critique of the contemporary Church.The Prioress’s affective piety was typical of the fourteenth century. As Rhodes writes,“The impetus behind this devotion was the belief that to suffer with Christ was a means toaffective union with Christ, and that the religious elements found in faith can be experienceddirectly, without a priest as intermediary” (89). Affective piety was popular amongst the laityand encouraged by the Church. At a first glance at her tale, it may seem that the Prioress issimply upholding a religious practice without criticising the Church. Yet she identifies herself “as a child of twelf month oold, or lesse” (VII.484), thus identifying herself with the boy-martyr of her tale. She shares in his similarities to Christ: a widow’s son, killed by the Jewswhich was part of Church teaching then and his Christ-like death-“he yaf up the goost fulsoftely” (VII.672). The Prioress empathises with Christ’s sufferings as evidenced in her 
 
 portrayal of the schoolboy. However, by effectively identifying herself as the boy-martyr,there is the suggestion that she feels suffering and persecution in her own life albeit not asextreme as the boy’s sufferings. Affective piety then becomes a tool for addressing her suffering to a public audience, that of the other pilgrims. It has been remarked that whileaffective piety usually centers on Christ's sufferings, it is also true that women who are usedto suffering, and by nature disposed to it, are greatly affected by his sufferings (Robertson148). Robertson argues that the Prioress’s affective piety addresses the marginalised positionof women in religion, especially the Prioress’s subordination to her superiors (150). Chaucer uses a popular practice then not only to value religion but more importantly, to criticise the powerless and peripheral space allotted to women in religion.Pardoners, however, were not marginalised as prioresses were but instead achieved ahigh level of notoriety in medieval society. The Church legislated against their abuses: “The pardoner must bear papal or Episcopal letters; he must be examined and licensed by theBishop. If he is permitted to enter the churches of the diocese, he is forbidden to do more thanread his letters and collect contributions. If he errs in his practices or in his mode of life, he isto be punished by the Bishop” [Kellogg & Haselmayer (K&H) 258]. Of course, theseregulations failed to curb the power of Chaucer’s literary creation. The Pardoner does possessletters and licences to show his authority to do his work (VI.335-40) but he “preche so as yehan herd bifoore” (VI.393) thus breaking canon law. Worse still, he does not seek contributions but openly sells indulgences to satisfy his own avarice (VI.400-4). Not onlydoes he break most of the laws but he also sells fake relics such as a sheep’s shoulder-bonewith purported miraculous powers (VI.350-1). Fake relics are rarely mentioned by the Churchin its regulations (K&H 275). Then Chaucer’s Pardoner is essentially a literary type who bears all the worst qualities of the infamous pardoner and represents the capacity for corruption within religion. It is certainly difficult to detect any tone of praise in Chaucer’s
 
representation of the pardoner. Yet maybe, as some argue, he regards religion as intrinsicallygood although at times its reputation is sullied by the practices of a few (K&H 276).Chaucer’s portrayal is somewhat satirical and the corruption of the Pardoner becomes a stagefrom which the public demand Church reform.The portryal of anti-Semitism in “The Prioress's Tale” has made some critics reluctantto believe that Chaucer espoused anti-Semitic views (Benson 913). Indeed the Chaucer asanti-Semite theory does not take into account Chaucer’s ambiguity and the fact that anti-Semitism was tacitly promoted by the Church through its teaching, in the belief that the Jewswere solely responsible for Christ’s death, and through its failure to prevent secular authorities from pursuing anti-Semitic policies. It can be argued that he was simply beingfaithful to the socio-religious climate of the time. Of course, the Prioress’s tale is situated in adistant land and past where this climate of anti-Semitism persists. From the beginning, theJews are depicted as “sustened by a lord of that contree/For foule usure and lucre of vileynye/Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye” (VII.490-2). Their association with lendingat exorbitant interest and greed casts a negative light on them. But it is the Prioress’s viewthat Satan dwells in their consciences (VII.558-9) which compounds her repugnance for theJews. This repugnance manifests itself in the form of disproportionate action which bears thehallmarks of a minor massacre: “With torment and with shameful deeth echon,/This provostdooth thise Jewes for to sterve/..../Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,/And after thathe heng hem by the lawe” (VII.628-34). The ‘justice’ which is served for the boy’s sake isreally an opportunity to vent anti-Semitic frustrations. Like Chaucer, it seems that thePrioress is only remaining faithful to the anti-Semitism of the time. However, Chaucer’sambiguity appears in her reference to a Hugh of Lincoln, a boy-martyr killed by the Jews(VII.684). Benson maintains that there was another Hugh who ironically protected Jews(916). Then ironically Chaucer may be undermining the anti-Semitism of the tale through this

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