Ugly Beauty: Chaucer's Poetic Ecclesiology

Rowe, Britta, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Holsinger, Bruce, Department of English, University of Virginia


Over the last several decades, the “religious turn” in Chaucer studies has opened up numerous avenues for analysis of Chaucer’s poetics without completely resolving questions about their specifically Christian character, or lack thereof. Approaches to answering such questions include biographical analysis, which in Chaucer’s case seems least likely to yield substantial conclusions: we simply don’t have enough biographical data to be confident that Chaucer held strongly to one, or another, or no version of Christian faith. Our limited sources of knowledge about Chaucer’s distinctly secular professional life certainly give us no basis for confident assertions about his own personal piety. Unlike his contemporary John Lydgate, for example, Chaucer was no monk. On the other hand, given the numerous, lively and vigorous forms of lay piety in Chaucer’s era, his lack of religious vocation and/or sacerdotal ordination is not per se a limiting factor on the possibility that his poetics is robustly Christian at a deep philosophical level. One important movement of lay piety, founded on protest against ecclesial corruption, was inspired in large part by the indignation and influence of another Chaucer contemporary, John Wyclif, and this movement has been the focus of a substantial body of scholarship over the last several decades. Not surprisingly, possible allusions to Wyclif’s ideas found in Chaucer’s poems, placed under various scholarly lenses, have led to recurrent speculation as to the possibility of a generally heterodox or, indeed, a decidedly Wycliffite bent in Chaucer’s poetic oeuvre.
In order to test the notion that Chaucer’s poeisis reflects a Wycliffite bent, scholars must consider most especially the Wycliffite doctrines themselves, many of which are more negative than positive: that is, they express a piety that is characterized above all by objection to and protest against real or perceived ecclesiastical abuses of a divine calling. Many scholars have speculated that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, with their pungent, pointed satire directed at the foibles of errant clergy and vowed religious, could well share a common spirit with the Wycliffite reformist agenda. That Wyclif’s ideas and the movement he sparked have long been considered a type of “premature reformation” is no surprise, and if in fact Chaucer’s poetics is distinctively Wycliffite-leaning, we should be unsurprised by the manifestation of a “Protestant Chaucer” across prior generations of Chaucer scholarship. On the other hand, in spite of the pungent anti-clerical satire that features so prominently in the Tales, there is much evidence to suggest that Chaucer’s poetics is more genuinely Catholic than heretical, and scholars are quite right to continue to subject the “Wycliffite” Chaucer to careful, multivalent scrutiny.
The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, a late fourteenth century precursor to Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, provides a handy summary of the accusations leveled by Wyclif and his followers at the late medieval church. Among the aspects of Wycliffite thought and polemic which are represented in the Conclusions and relevant to the Canterbury Tales, the third and eleventh conclusions rail against the celibacy mandated for secular clergy, for monks, and for nuns, while the ninth conclusion rejects the sacrament of penance. Certainly Chaucer had a keen eye for manifestations of clerical corruption, but it is doubtful that his Tales, taken as a reasonably complete and unified work of art, reflect the outright heretical loathing of ecclesial foibles that characterizes the most savage aspects of Wycliffite polemic. Furthermore, there are some important indicators, deserving of deeper investigation, that Chaucer’s poetic ecclesiology as crafted in the Tales, is consciously an orthodox ecclesiology characterized especially by the theological virtue of hope, as against the heretical ecclesiology of suspicion, fear, and contempt proffered, all too often, by Wyclif and the polemicists whom he inspired.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, Parson's Tale, Clerk's Tale, Wife of Bath's Tale, Canon's Yeoman's Tale, Summoner's Tale, Pardoner, Melibee, orthodoxy, heresy, Aquinas, virtues and vices, poetics, Catholic Church, John Wyclif, Lollards, Wycliffites, pilgrimage, penance, ecclesiology, clerical celibacy, marriage
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