How Chaucer (Probably) Can't Save Your Life

Times are good for Dante aficionados. If you spend time perusing the reading lists of traditional Christians, classical education fans, or Benedict Option proponents, one poem comes to the fore: La Divina Commedia. It is not just that Dante can save your life, he also provides a vision of how to think about Christianity in tempestuous times. But we may be too eager in looking to Dante for a guide, in part, because his sense of clarity between those who are lost and those who are saved is valuable but anticipatory. If we are looking for a guide to our pilgrimage through these muddled times in a Church so clearly a mixture of saints and sinners, we should turn to another medieval poet: Geoffrey Chaucer.

Chaucer may not save our lives, but he can entertain and humble us. And, in a time of scandal, polarization, and ideological isolation, he reminds us that the muddle and mixture of the Church is its strength. For Chaucer, the Church is ever the place of “Aprill with his shoures soote,” which inspires sinners and saints “to longen . . . to goon on pilgrimages.”[1] He is the great poetic ecclesiologist of a Church marked by sin and so repentance. He is a voice for our times because he can act as a guide to living together, confessing our sins, telling our tales, and sometimes laughing on our way through the vale of tears towards Jerusalem.

A Sundry Company

Traditional Christians place the Divine Comedy next to our prayer books, Bibles, and condensed versions of the Summa. No doubt, Dante is a wise guide and we do well to follow him as he followed Virgil. Dante lived in a time of political turmoil, ecclesial corruption, and strange currents in religious life. He found himself lost amid his epoch, floundering for a clarity that was absent to an exile, a pining lover, and a man marked by sin. We need Dante, in part, because he reminds us of first things.

Amidst our current Dante boom, Chaucer is neglected. This is not to say that scholarship has dropped off but that his impact on the popular imagination is dwarfed by the Florentine. There are some obvious reasons. One of his greatest tales features adultery, deception, anus-kissing followed by anus-impaling, all the while parodying the scriptural tale of Noah’s Ark. Or, in the Merchant’s Tale, he regales us with an account of a young wife a-grinding with her lover in a tree while her hapless—and blind—husband sits below. The Merchant’s story is a parody of enclosed gardens—a symbol of chastity and of Christ’s marriage to the Church. In Chaucer’s enclosed gardens, we find neither piety nor chastity but fornication and an image of ecclesial misdeeds. We also find that these stories are a rollicking good time. They poke holes in our own sense of self-importance because we find ourselves laughing with Chaucer at these all-too-human characters. Really, we find ourselves laughing at ourselves.

Even in the supposedly more righteous figures in the Canterbury Tales, we find tarnished virtues and glittering vices. In the Knight’s Tale, one expects a tale of nobility. Surely the chivalrous and devout knight will provide an edifying discourse! Yet, in the tale we find useless slaughter and romantic loves as vacant of meaning as in the Miller’s Tale. The Clerk—a hero to academics like me, for, though tight for money, “gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche”[2]—tells a tale so deeply marked by a combination of misogyny and blind fidelity that the reader is uncertain what to make of it. Is it satire? Or is this the edifying discourse? Where Dante has a Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, sing the praises of Franciscans, and a Franciscan, Bonaventure, sing the praises of Dominicans, Chaucer has a story about friars flying out of Satan’s ass. These seem the wrong stuff for edifying high schoolers, or for inspiring conversion and devotion in adults. Chaucer won’t save your life.

And yet, I think it is to Chaucer we must turn. We do not live in the Inferno, Purgatorio, or Paradiso (at least not yet); instead, we live on the way with each other. Dante so brilliantly gives us a vision of the places we do not yet inhabit. This provides us the inspiration to reconsider our lives in the face of the question: do we want to end up with God or without? What Dante does not give is the sense of the Christian life in via. We live here in the mixed-up spaces between finding and losing our way. The temptation of Dante is the temptation of the Donatists long ago—to try to separate the wheat from the chaff prior to God’s judgement. In this life, we never get to know who is wheat and who chaff and we must not pretend that we do. We should perhaps pause at Dante’s willingness to damn some and sanctify others. Is he providing an edifying discourse or the pleasures of imagining our enemies having their brains chewed on for eternity?

In contrast, Chaucer writes about the way to heaven and the company we keep on the way. Looking to the church on pilgrimage, he describes the “compaignye /of sondry folk, by aventure [sheer chance] yfalle /In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle.”[3] Chaucer, the translator of Boethius, knew that this is “chance” only from a human perspective. From the divine perspective (a position we can never hold), the times and places and the difficult people in them are providentially provided for us.

At the origin, these sundry folks gather at the Taberd in Southwerk, a pub in a notoriously debauched neighborhood. They are sundry not only because various socio-economic classes are represented but because among them are a mixture of moderately moral, moderately immoral, and monstrously immoral individuals. They do not look holy, but they do look a lot like the Church. For Chaucer, we do not get to pick those who surround us. At the very least, we have very little say about the matter. We are thrown together in this life with noble knights, vain squires, venial friars, and pious plowmen. This is what it means to live in a human world and in a Christianity that is piebald—full of saintly sinners and sinful saints. If you do not believe Chaucer on this, trust Augustine. For Augustine, no one should “abandon the threshing-floor [the Church] before the time of winnowing, tired of putting up with sinners.”[4] Life on this side of the eschaton is a tangle and we are not supposed to untangle it ourselves. We are too ignorant, too proud, too desirous of power to do the untangling. If we try to untangle this, we would be in danger of being “caught outside the threshing-floor and snapped up by birds before ever reaching the granary.”[5]

For Augustine, this granary, in which the grinding will separate wheat and chaff, is the final judgement and the Kingdom (for a parody of this, read the Reeve’s Tale). Life on pilgrimage takes tolerance and patience with those who travel with us because they are sinners. It also takes remembering that we are sinners too and others tolerate us. This tolerance does not mean the acceptance of sin, but it does mean the acceptance of sinners. When we forget this, we isolate ourselves into churches of the perfect, which it turns out for Augustine are churches of the damned.

One might expect that only the holy would join Harry Bailey, the merry Host, on the penitential journey to Canterbury. In fact, there are few contenders for holiness in this group. They gather to travel “The holy blissful martir for to seke /That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.”[6] To be on pilgrimage is to seek because we are all sick. We do this seeking surrounded by sinners. The temptation when reading Dante is to think the demarcation between sinners and saints can be made now. To be deep in The Canterbury Tales, is to be reminded that we do not live with any clear demarcation of who ends up in heaven, who ends up in hell. To be a Christian is to live among “sondry folk” because we are a sundry church.

This is not limited to only our present company because the church is not limited to present Christians. Far along on their journey to Canterbury, two strangers ride up to join their pilgrimage. The Host gladly welcomes both the Canon and his Yeoman. To remember you are sundry is to be open to whatever sundry folk join with you. For Augustine, “you should think of everyone as your neighbor, even before he or she is a Christian, for you do not know what that person is in God’s sight.”[7] The sundry church is tangled up with the sundry world. A sundry church must put out its sign: Sinners Welcome. But a sundry church must not stop there: Sinners Welcome to Repent. Not all will join this merry band or penitential sinners. Whereas the Yeoman confesses their trade and begins his conversion in telling his tale, the Canon “fledde awey for verray sorwe [very sorrow] and shame.”[8] Unable to tell his tale or join the sundry company, he leaves the pilgrim band. He refuses the road and the companionship of forgiveness.

Chaucer’s Pilgrim Ecclesiology

What happens on Chaucer’s pilgrimage? The same thing that happens in all our lives. We travel in the world to our various pilgrim sites, which—if true sites of pilgrimage—are emblematic of the New Jerusalem. For this is the true goal of all our unique pilgrimages. The Parson reveals this at the end of the Tales when he promises to “show you the way, on this voyage /The same as the glorious pilgrimage /To that high celestial Jerusalem.”[9] On this voyage which is the same as the journey to the heavenly city, “the way” is for each figure to offer stories which present an account of sin, usually one that is close to their lives. They offer confessions—often partial—on their penitential journey. They are sustained by the Host who begins their journeying by welcoming the pilgrims “to the supper he set us” where “He served us food of the best sort.”[10] And it is the Host who offers the prize of a celebratory meal at the end of their journeying. The sacramental imagery is rich. By the nourishment of the Eucharist and the healing of Sacrament of Reconciliation, the pilgrims can travel together towards a great banquet despite their differences, mutual dislikes, and disagreeable features.

Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, provides an ecclesiology of the pilgrim church, one rooted in the Augustinian tradition. As Augustine writes: “churches are not made perfect by drawing only on the perfect, because if they consisted of these alone, there would be scant regard for the human race as a whole.”[11] Chaucer shows this regard for the whole by including sinners not in his vision of hell but in his vision of the Church. Too many today—within the Church and without—do not think they are sick and so do not seek. Thinking we are not sinners we do not “yearn to go on pilgrimages . . . to faraway shores/ with their distant shrines known in sundry lands.”[12] Often on the religious right, this means assuming that one is always in the right place dogmatically and cafeteria Christians are always other people. This tends to motivate a desire to exclude those we determine are not sufficiently Christian. But we are all insufficiently Christian which is why none may cast the first stone, and all must confess. On the left, there tends to be the denial of a robust account of repentance and penance. This denial causes people drift away from the Church. For what is the point of a community of repentance if there is nothing to repented for? The former refuse to hang a sign “Sinners Welcome;” the latter refuse to hang the sign “To Repent.” For Chaucer, such errors mean we cannot tell our confessional stories; it means we cannot pilgrimage together. It means that, thinking we are healthy, we quarantine themselves against those we think are sick. In so doing, we cut ourselves off from the Divine Physician.

A growing temptation of our time is to purify our social, political, and religious groups, to drive out those who are cafeteria members, or are part of our groups “in name only.” Our churches are spaces where bad Christians drift away and it seems many of us do not mind. “Pruned it grows” is a motto (a despairing and proud one) of too many Christians. But Chaucer’s vision of sundry folk is closer to Jesus’s vision. Jesus came to gather sinners (prostitutes, tax collectors, and pious religious types) and his message is simple: “sin no more.” Sinners are welcome; sins are not. If we confuse this, we will think we branches prune off other branches. Or we will fail to feel the sorrow of branches falling away. The vine grows when sinners are grafted on it and when sinners remain within it. It is only when they are attached to the vine that they can be healed. We are to weep when the Canon (a sinner) leaves and to rejoice when the Yeoman (a sinner) joins. The Church, as described in both Lumen Gentium and The Canterbury Tales, “clasps sinners to its heart” and so “follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (LG §8). To welcome sinners requires healthy doses of penance and renewal but also patience and tolerance.

Chaucer and his sundry company did not leave people behind in Southwerk at the Taberd. Though they fought amongst themselves they would not have congratulated themselves if others fell to the wayside at Deptford or Dartford. Nor did they reject the Yeoman when he joined at Boughton-under-Blean. Rather, they told and listened to their tales and continued wayfaring together. This is a pilgrimage and, if we forget that, we will settle on the way.

To construct a church for the pure—one without people who are “Christians in name only”—is one way to settle along the way. It is to cut one’s own branch off in order to avoid the others still on the vine. Desiring perfection now we fail to see that by God’s Providence, the Church “will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven” (LG §48). The danger of establishing perfection now is the danger of excluding those who are not perfect yet and in so doing to prune ourselves off from the vine. This is not to say that anything goes. Chaucer’s pilgrimage is a pilgrimage of repentance and confession of sin. Chaucer would little recognize a Church where confession is held for 15 minutes and actual penances never given. This too is a settling on the way. 

When bawdy tales were told by bawdy sinners, the Host did not send them away at Greenwich or Harbledown. Rather, in the morning “when day began to spring, /up rose our Host, and was for all our cock, /and gathered us together, all in a flock; /And forth we rode.”[13] The Host—acting as a rooster, a symbol of Christ—rises in the morning to call all to repentance and gather them together to travel to Jerusalem. He summons, guides, listens, and reproves. And then he provides the feast at the end. On the way, he provides the only righteousness we can achieve in this life, the repentance of sins.

A Funny Commedia

James Joyce said in Finnegan’s Wake of the Catholic Church that “here comes everybody.” We see that this “everybody” in Chaucer’s tales is often difficult and contentious, but it is also something to celebrate and laugh about. Dante’s Commedia is not all that funny (although he does fit in some fart jokes), whereas Chaucer’s Tales are perhaps the funniest in all literature. What would The Canterbury Tales be (or the Church for that matter) without the Miller, the Wife of Bath, or even the Friar who “knew the tavernes wel in every toun.”[14] Life is funny, and Chaucer does not let us forget that. After the Miller’s Tale, “diverse folk diversely they seyde but for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.”[15] It was not just the Wife of Bath or the “pleasure loving and merry Friar”[16] who laughed and jested. Among these diverse folks laughing at this “foolish case” was the Parson “riche he was of hooly thought and werk,”[17] the Knight “true, perfect, and gentle,”[18] and the Plowman who “God loved he best with al his hole herte.”[19] The comedy of life is for the holy and not so holy; because, a life of penitential pilgrimage is not all grimness. The vale of tears is sometimes a place where we cry from laughing. As Aquinas writes: “Those without a sense of fun, who never say anything ridiculous, and are cantankerous with those who do, these are sinners, and are called grumpy and rude.”[20] Surely Chaucer had a sense of fun and could never be called grumpy or rude. Can this be said of us?

But Chaucer is also not frivolous. His tales are confessions, and his journey a penance. This is why he places the Parson’s tale last. The Parson—in contrast to too many priests—knew that “If gold ruste, what shal iren do?” and so “Cristes lore [teaching] and his apostles twelve /He taught, but first he folwed it hymselve.”[21] It is the Parson who reveals that The Canterbury Tales are not just about a journey to Thomas á Beckett’s bones but a pilgrimage to the Kingdom. At the end, he promises to “telle a myrie tale in prose to knytte up al this feeste and make an ende.”[22] What is his merry tale? It is a sermon on penance, confession, and Divine forgiveness. His is the merriest tale because it makes our sordid but comical tales a part of a true comedy. This pilgrimage is a journey in which we set aside our sins because “Oure sweete Lord God of hevene” wills “that no men will perish but we will come all to knowledge of him and to the blissful life.”[23] Our sins may be a source of entertainment in the hands of a writer like Chaucer, but Chaucer knew that life is only a comedy because God will bring us to the Host’s banquet by wiping away these sins. We can laugh at our sins for “our sweet Lord Jesus Christ has graciously spared us from our follies” but these would not be follies “if he had not pitied human souls” for then “a sorry song, we must all sing.”[24] Our failings are follies because Christ graciously transforms what should be tragedies into comedies. What should be mourning, Christ turns into laughing.

What is needed from us is our confessions, our partaking of Communion, our waking to the summons of the Rooster, and our willingness to stick together with our neighbors on pilgrimage. We must confess our tales truly, never settle on the way, and travel with this sundry company so that we may join the “blisful compaignye that rejoysen hem everemo, everich of otheres joy.”[25] Chaucer is the poet for a Pilgrim Church, marked by sin but also the expectation of rejoicing in Christ, rich in each other’s joy. Our shared goal may be like Dante’s Paradiso, but our shared journey is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. We travel to paradise together as diverse folk; we will enter as a redeemed people. We go there as sundry; we get there as blissful. We journey as a pilgrim Church; we arrive as the heavenly Church. Although we are still sinners slowly becoming saints, both the sundry and blissful are ever one merry company. And a merry company we shall ever be from here to Canterbury.

Benedicimus domino!


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), “General Prologue,” Lines 1 and 12. Where possible, I will use Chaucer’s original language. At times, I will transliterate in which case, his original language will be in the footnote.

[2] Ibid., Line 308.

[3] Ibid., Lines 24-26.

[4] Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms 1-32, Vol. I. trans. Maria Boulding, O.S.A. (Hyde Park, NY: New City, 2000), Ex. Ps. 2,25,5.

[5] Augustine, Ex. Ps. 2,25,5.

[6] Chaucer, “The General Prologue,” Lines 17-18

[7] Augustine, Ex. Ps. 2,25,2.

[8] Chacuer, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue,” Line 703.

[9] Chaucer, “The Parson’s Prologue, ”48-51. “Shewe yow the wey, in this viage, /Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage /That highte Jerusalem celestial.”

[10] Chaucer, “General Prologue,” Lines 747-748.

[11] Augustine, Ex. Ps. 8,5.

[12] Chaucer, “General Prologue,” Lines 12-14. “Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, /And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes /To ferne halwes kowthe in sondry londes.”

[13] Ibid., Lines 823-826. “Amorwe, whan that day bigan to spryne, /Up roos oure Hoost, and was oure aller cok, /And gadrede us togidre alle in a flok, And forth we riden a little moore paas.”

[14] Ibid., Line 240.

[15] Chaucer, “The Reeve’s Prologue,” Lines 3857-3858.

[16] Chaucer, “The General Prologue,” Line 208. “A Frere there as, a wantowne and a merye

[17] Ibid., Line 479.

[18] Ibid., Line 73. He was a “verray, parfit, gentil knyghte.”

[19] Ibid., Line 533.

[20] Thomas Aquinas Summa Theologica, II, IIae, q. 168.

[21] Chaucer, “The General Prologue,” Lines 500 and 527-528.

[22] Chaucer, “The Parson’s Prologue.” 46-47.

[23] Chaucer, “The Parson’s Tale,” Lines 72-74.”Oure sweete Lord God of hevene, that no man wole perisse but wole that we comen alle to the knowleche of hym and to the blissful lif that is perdurable.”

[24] Chaucer, “The Parson’s Tale,” Lines 313-315.” For smoothly oure sweete Lord Jhesu Crist hath spare us so debonairly in oure folies that if he ne hadde pitee of mannes soule, a sory song we mighten all synge.”

[25] Chaucer, “The Parson’s Tale.” Lines 1075-1080.

Featured Image: Anon., Portrait of Geoffrey Caucher, early 17th c.; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.

Author

Terence Sweeney

Terence Sweeney is a doctoral candidate in the Villanova University Philosophy Department. He holds the Theology-Philosophy Fellowship and works on philosophical theology in the Continental tradition.

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