Monday, March 20, 2017

The Rich Man and Lazarus (part 24): Geoffrey Chaucer (part 1)

Geoffrey Chaucer

As noted previously, many other important interpretations of the rich man and Lazarus parable could be found in English literature during this period, such as Handlyng Synne (214.6635-6720), The Pricke of Conscience (84.3062-66) or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (B.16.252-71). Piers Plowman also discusses the parables of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (B.1.183-87), the Unjust Steward (B.6.229-30), and the Talents (B.6.240-48; Wailes 1986: 41-42). The most famous work during this time period, however, is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the greatest masterpieces in English literature. Chaucer was the most important English poet before Shakespeare, but his career also included roles as a diplomat and civil servant under three British kings.

Chaucer was born into a prominent family in London—his father and grandfather were successful wine merchants—which was also involved in government service. The first definite record of his life comes from 1357, where he is listed as a page (under the name of “Galfrido Chaucer”) in the household expense accounts of Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, one of the sons of King Edward III. Chaucer then served as a yeoman (a “valettus”) to Lionel in a military expedition to France, where Chaucer was captured during an unsuccessful siege of Reims (the king ransomed him for £16). This expedition was the first of many journeys that Chaucer would undertake to Europe on diplomatic missions (beginning with a trip to Spain in 1366 and continuing with at least two missions to Italy and several trips to France) and he was granted a lifetime annuity in 1367 by Edward III as a squire of the king’s household (a title that designates a person on a commercial mission), an annuity of £10 (and a pitcher of wine a day for life) by John the Gaunt in 1374 (which he surrendered in 1388 but were reinstated by King Richard II in 1394 and in 1397), and various other payments for his services on the kings’ missions.. Chaucer also served in many other roles: He was a customs controller in the Port of London who collected export duties on hides, skins, and wool (1374-1386), was a Justice of the Peace for Kent (1385-1389), attended Parliament as a “knight of the shire” of Kent, and was appointed by the king as “clerk of the works” (1389-1391), duties which including oversight of all aspects of building and repair projects (Brown 2011: xii-3). Upon his death, Chaucer was only the second non-royal to be buried within Westminster Abbey, in a section that would soon be named the “Poet’s Corner.”

The Canterbury Tales is the best known and most popular of Chaucer’s writings. At first glance, it appears to be merely a collection of fictional short stories of various pilgrims who make their way along the fifty-four miles from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Saint Thomas. These brilliant tales, however, integrate the sacred and the profane, spiritual insights and earthy humor, truth and deception, and numerous literary genres in poetic form, and they display a philosophical and psychological depth that creates an unforgettable band of travelers (see Lerer 2006: 243-4). These characters interact in a familiar setting. Chaucer’s many diplomatic trips, for example, evidently followed the same journey on which he would send his pilgrims in in these tales. 

The language and content of the Bible permeated most literature of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer’s works are no exception:
To begin by trying to assess the place of the Bible in medieval culture is like trying to apprehend the oxygen in the air we breathe. In the liturgy, in proverbs and idioms of common speech, in the language of the law and of political thought, through dramatic performances in churchyards and in village squares, in the art of the cathedrals and of parish churches, for high born and low born alike, the Bible was everywhere; it was a constant component of the mental life of medieval men and women (Besserman 1988: 4).
There are hundreds of allusions and citations of the Bible in Chaucer’s works, but these works demonstrate a significant amount of flexibility in citing and using the Bible that might seem surprising (see Whitehead 2009: 134-51).

Chaucer most likely began work on The Canterbury Tales around 1387, and the work remained unfinished at his death thirteen years later. Only 24, some incomplete (e.g., the tales of the Cook and the Squire), of an estimated 120 tales that Chaucer planned to write are found collectively in a number of manuscripts (Hirsh 2003:43; Chaucer 2008: xx). The general prologue introduces us to a number of pilgrims, such as the Parson, a godly and poor country cleric who is rich in “holy thought and work.” A learned man, he diligently seeks to preach “Christ’s own gospel,” is patient in bad times, and, instead of haranguing his parishioners to tithe is more likely to give his own income and goods to his parishioners who are in need. The parson lives a life worthy to be emulated by his flock; he is holy and virtuous but shows pity to sinners and leads others to heaven by his example. This idealized portrait represents, for Chaucer, “the perfection of religion” (Hirsh 2003: 49), someone who practices what he preaches. On the other hand, the friar in The Summoner’s Tale is similar in some respects to Friar Hubert who narrates The Friar’s Tale. Hubert is described as a wanton and festive man, who gave penance easily when he knew that he could gain financially from it, “was the finest beggar of his house,” and “always got a farthing ere he went.” 

The next post will discuss Chaucer's use of the rich man and Lazarus parable.

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