Canterbury Tales - Medieval Church


In discussing Chaucer's collection of stories called The Canterbury Tales, an interesting picture or illustration of the
Medieval Christian Church is presented. However, while people demanded
more voice in the affairs of government, the church became corrupt --
this corruption also led to a more crooked society. Nevertheless,
there is no such thing as just church history; This is because the
church can never be studied in isolation, simply because it has always
related to the social, economic and political context of the day. In
history then, there is a two way process where the church has an
influence on the rest of society and of course, society influences the
church. This is naturally because it is the people from a society who
make up the church....and those same people became the personalities
that created these tales of a pilgrimmage to Canterbury.

The Christianization of Anglo-Saxon England was to take place in a
relatively short period of time, but this was not because of the
success of the Augustinian effort. Indeed, the early years of this
mission had an ambivalence which shows in the number of people who
hedged their bets by practicing both Christian and Pagan rites at the
same time, and in the number of people who promptly apostatized when a
Christian king died. There is certainly no evidence for a large-scale
conversion of the common people to Christianity at this time.
Augustine was not the most diplomatic of men, and managed to
antagonize many people of power and influence in Britain, not least
among them the native British churchmen, who had never been
particularly eager to save the souls of the Anglo-Saxons who had
brought such bitter times to their people. In their isolation, the
British Church had maintained older ways of celebrated the major
festivals of Christianity, and Augustine's effort to compel them to
conform to modern Roman usage only angered them. When Augustine died
(some time between 604 and 609 AD), then, Christianity had only a
precarious hold on Anglo-Saxon England, a hold which was limited
largely to a few in the aristocracy. Christianity was to become firmly
established only as a result of Irish efforts, who from centers in
Scotland and Northumbria made the common people Christian, and
established on a firm basis the English Church. At all levels of
society, belief in a god or gods was not a matter of choice, it was a
matter of fact. Atheism was an alien concept (and one dating from the
eighteenth century). Living in the middle ages, one would come into
contact with the Church in a number of ways.

First, there were the routine church services, held daily and
attended at least once a week, and the special festivals of
Christmas, Easter, baptisms, marriages, etc.. In that respect the
medieval Church was no different to the modern one. Second,
there were the tithes that the Church collected, usually once a year.
Tithes were used to feed the parish priest, maintain the fabric of the
church, and to help the poor. Third, the Church fulfilled the
functions of a 'civil service' and an education system. Schools did
not exist (and were unnecessary to a largely peasant society), but the
Church and the government needed men who could read and write in
English and Latin. The Church trained its own men, and these went to
help in the government: writing letters, keeping accounts and so on.
The words 'cleric' and 'clerk' have the same origin, and every
nobleman would have at least one priest to act as a secretary.

The power of the Church is often over-emphasized. Certainly, the
later medieval Church was rich and powerful, and that power was often
misused - especially in Europe. Bishops and archbishops were appointed
without any training or clerical background, church offices changed
hands for cash, and so on. The authority of the early medieval Church
in England was no different to that of any other landowner. So, the
question that haunted medieval man was that of his own salvation. The
existence of God was never questioned and the heart-cry of medieval
society was a desire to know God and achieve intimacy with the divine.
Leading a life pleasing to God was the uppermost concern,