Study Guide

Medieval English Literature Characteristics

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  • The Norman Conquest, 1066

    We typically think of England as being a fancy-pants font of high culture. After all, British people have those upmarket accents, Shakespeare, and the high-quality programming of the BBC. Not. Fair.

    But the U.K. didn't always have it all together. (Which isn't to say this perception is true-to-life now, either.) If we get into the way-back machine, and travel back to the 10th century or before, we see that England had its beginnings as a sort of mongrel nation. It was made up of a variety of cultural and linguistic traditions.

    So, when we talk about Medieval Literature, we're not dealing with the famed British Empire. In fact, Britain didn't even have an Empire at this time, but was instead the victim of many waves of attack and invasion.

    First came the Romans (relatively civilized dudes), and then the barbarian invasions of the Germanic tribes (think of the guys we see in Beowulf). Next were the Vikings… who were essentially more tough, seagoing guys with impressive facial hair.

    Finally, in 1066, we get to the Normans. Back then, there was a dispute over who had the best claim to the throne of England. This spurred William, Duke of Normandy—Normandy is a region in northern France, BTW—to sail on over to England and claim that throne all for himself.

    And he did so without too much effort. He was all, "Time to defeat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings." And so it happened.

    This French invasion changed Britain's formerly Anglo-Saxon culture and language to one that was much more like mainland Europe. And this invasion shaped the English language irrevocably; the new French influx pushed Old English down the path toward Middle English, a variety nearer to what people speak today.

    Prior to the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon language (a.k.a. Old English) wasn't considered appropriate for the high-falutin' realm of literature. Anything that was thought to be vaguely important or permanent was penned in Latin. Similarly, after the Norman Conquest, the language spoken at the English courts was always a form of French—a dialect called, unsurprisingly, "Anglo-Norman French."

    This dialect started exerting an influence on Old English, and all that sexy language intermingling was what gave birth to Middle English. Writers like Geoffrey Chaucer then started showing people that this whole new English business could be used as a genuine literary language. That it could stand its ground against the "fancy" languages of French and Latin.

    So, the Norman Conquest haunts many English texts of the medieval period in the very language they're written in. But the sort of step-sibling rivalry between England and France often emerges in the tensions of many of the time's tales, too. Like how Lancelot is the Bestest Knight Ever to Knight in many Arthurian romances. Hm. Clever.

    Chew on This

    Have you ever read the first few verses of Beowulf, as they were written in Old English? You probably had no trouble at all reading them, right? Wait, what? You did? Well, of course you did. The term "Old English" is a bit misleading because contemporary English speakers think that Ye Olde variety looks a lot like gibberish. Can you recognize any words? We'll give you a minute…

    You're probably pretty comfortable with the language of The Canterbury Tales. Not at all like Beowulf in Old English, right? We here at Shmoop never condone warfare, but one good thing that came out of the Norman Conquest was that English got a whole lot easier.

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a classic in Arthurian literature, which has some roots in the French Arthurian tradition. That tradition made Lancelot the main hero (well, duh), but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ignores that tradition. This work makes Gawain the example of knightly excellence. Now, in the opening lines of the poem, you'll notice that the poet situates France far, far away from England. Like exes who can't bear to be in the same room with each other. Where else do you see of the bitter rivalry between France and England playing out in texts from this period?

  • Allegory

    Allegory is a fancy word that really just means "extended metaphor." In an allegory, people, places, things, and happenings (oh, those nouns) have two layers of significance.

    First, there's the literal level: whatever actually happens within the narrative. Second, there's the figurative or symbolic level: what those people, places, things, and happenings stand for outside of the narrative—like, The Big Picture. The Thematic Head Honchos. You know?

    And way back when, those medieval writers were super into allegory. Some of the most popular works of the period were very long and involved allegories, in fact. The French had The Romance of the Rose. The Italians had Dante's Divine Comedy. And the English had William Langland's Piers Plowman.

    Everyone wanted to get in on this hot allegorical action.

    Anyway, these texts investigated the essential elements of the human condition and experience—that Big Picture we were on about before. The Romance of the Rose personifies abstract qualities like Courtesy, Youth, Love, and Idleness, while Piers Plowman allegorizes the social classes of the 14th century. As an added bonus, Piers represents Jesus Christ in its main character, Piers the Plowman.

    Allegory is fun for everyone. It's Shmoop-analyzed, and English teacher-approved.

    Chew on This

    What Would Chaucer Do? Jump right on that allegory bandwagon along with all the other great writers of the medieval period, of course. Not only did Chaucer write an English translation of The Romance of the Rose, but he also inserted allegory into his Canterbury Tales. Why don't you take a ride on the Allegorical Express and unpack the extended metaphor of his Canterbury pilgrims?

    Piers Plowman is one of the great English allegories of the medieval period. Our friends at Harvard have put together a nice modern English translation of the text's Prologue. Now, head on over and skim that Prologue to get a sense of how allegory works in the text. In particular, check out the "belling the cat" story about the rats and mice. How does this story work on both a literal and a figurative level? What do you think Langland is allegorizing with this story?

  • The Black Death

    Okay, so here's one of the more unpleasant episodes of the Medieval Period: the Black Plague. People back then also referred to it as the Great Mortality or, even more bluntly, the Pestilence. This horrific sickness first swept through England and other areas of Europe around 1348-1349, and it spread through the population faster than the Gangnam Style craze.

    Since you can't WebMD it, we'll tell you a tiny bit of what the Plague did to its human hosts. People would get these huge lesions on their necks and groins, which would start out red and then darken to black. Pretty gross, right?

    Then, well. They'd die. And quickly. Usually within about six days, in fact.

    And since the medieval period wasn't particularly known for its high-tech medical advancements, people thought they were suffering the wrath of God for their sins. Lucky for us, medical science has advanced tremendously since then. But if you think that makes us modern folks smarter and more immune than our medieval counterparts to the fear that a fast-spreading disease might take us out, then you just haven't watched enough zombie movies.

    The Black Plague didn't even have the decency to say bye-bye after it wiped out so much of Europe back in the 14th century. There were subsequent waves in later years. None were as devastating as the O.G. Pestilence, however. It was said that about 30,000 of London's 70,000 people died during the 1348-49 outbreak.

    Not surprisingly, the death of so many people had long-lasting effects on society. One result was a greater feeling of anxiety among the people. Well, duh. Also, there was a sort of employment vacuum created by the disappearance of so many peasants.

    Suddenly, the rich and powerful didn't have enough workers to grind their grain. Or make their bread. Or fluff their pillows. Or dress them in the latest frou frou fashions. (Single tear.)

    As a result, workers were able to demand higher wages from landowners and noblemen. So some peasants started to make some serious bank, and the previously distinct lines between the classes started to blur a bit. As you might've guessed, the 1% didn't really care for that at all.

    Enter: the Sumptuary Laws. These fun laws dictated just who was allowed to wear certain swank fabrics and even some particular colors, and who was not. The ruling class needed some way to make sure that the lady sauntering down the street clad in fine puce velvet was from the right family, and not just a commoner. (The horror.)

    Man, those laws really took the idea of "the fashion police" to a whole new level.

    Anyway, don't expect many medieval texts to jump up and down and tell you outright that they're talking about the plague. Most won't. And really, we hope your books don't jump up and down, because then we might have to seriously recommend that you see someone about that.

    Instead, medieval authors deal with the Black Death in more subtle ways. Like by examining its effects, including an increase in social mobility (see Chaucer's Franklin, for example). Oh, and by delving head-long into a general anxiety about the frailty of the human body. Oh, mortality—that old friend.

    Chew on This

    Sometimes references to the plague pop up in the most unlikely of places. Take, for instance, Chaucer's Cook. While he can whip up a mean stewed chicken and a delicious spicy tart, he has a very unappetizingly oozy sore on his shin, called a "mormal." Its pus is reminiscent of the "buboes" of the Black Death. Why might Chaucer use a Cook as a scapegoat for spreading diseases or illness? You might want to take a look at the Cook's Prologue to get those wheels a-turnin'.

    A lot of medieval texts take up the issue of the Black Death by tackling people's general anxiety relating to death. And by focusing on just how frail our human bodies are. Take a gander at our "Quotation 5" from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. How might fear of the Plague relate to Gawain's general discomfort in the natural world?

  • Romance

    No—this doesn't refer to those novels you see in the supermarket checkout line, featuring muscular hunks with rippling biceps and swooning ladies in peasant blouses. When we say "romance," we're talking about the most popular literary genre of the Middle Ages.

    Originally, "romance" just meant the language certain stories were written in. These were the vernacular languages—so, not Latin, but derived from Latin (or "Roman," hence the term "romance"). That means: French, Italian, Spanish, you-get-the-picture.

    Over time, the term "romance" came to mean a narrative told in either verse or prose that features the manly adventures of knights. Enter: Lancelot, Gawain, and your lesser-known knightly types like The Red Knight of the Red Lands.

    One of the main conflicts in these romance novels is how the ideal knight would behave vs. how knights can often behave IRL, which can fall a bit short. Like how Sir Gawain accepts that dreaded girdle from Bertilak's wife. Yikes.

    Also, brotherhood is very important. Just think of King Arthur's fabled Round Table, where all of his knights are supposed to be equal and serve as the best examples of the knightly code. Again, they don't always live up to the code or even up to snuff (Sir Mordred, anyone?), but the code definitely gives those knight-guys something to aspire to.

    And what would a good adventure story be without a smattering of magic and a little supernatural spice? Medieval romances usually give us a healthy dose of both. We don't want those knights getting too full of themselves, after all.

    So, the traditional medieval romance also involves tons of magic swords, enchanted girdles, and men who can shapeshift into the Jolly Green Giant. Sam and Dean would have a field day with this stuff.

    Now, we don't mean to bore you with stuff you already know, but we need to talk a little about the narrative structure of the romance as well. As you might've noticed, romances are usually organized around the quest—some major goal that the knight must achieve in order to make good on a bargain, fulfill a personal dream, or simply make it home.

    Usually, along the way, the knight learns something about himself, or about his society or culture. One memorable example of this journey-and-revelation narrative can be found in The Wife of Bath's Tale. The knight character in that story gets kicked out of Arthur's court and has to hunt around for a year and a day until he discovers the answer to this all-important question: What is it women desire most?

    (We're not going to answer that question here Shmoopers, sorry. But if you ever figure it out, do let us know.)

    The knight's quest in medieval romances also tends to make the structure of these stories highly episodic. What we mean by that is that they sometimes jump between moments of major action without providing much connective material to fill in the gaps.

    As in: oh, look, this knight is jousting that other knight. Now he's in a different part of the lands talking to some different dude about how to win his lady back. Rinse, repeat.

    But let us not forget about love, because love has everything to do with the medieval romance. You see, love plays a central role in many medieval romances—you're shocked, we know. Anyway, when love comes on the scene in these stories, there tends to be a lot of swooning, sighing, and other overwrought emotional reactions…

    Like turning pale and trembling.

    If you just thought of Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, and/or Palamon-Arcite-Emily, bully for you. You hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what medieval notions of romance were like.

    One last thing before we peace out of this discussion: medieval romances are not about deep, complex characters. No, friends, we're firmly within the territory of "ideal" characters, or character "types," here. So, Sir Gawain is a stereotypically perfect knight, boasting such fine qualities as extraordinary bravery, knightly prowess, smooth talking, excessive generosity, and purity.

    Gawain does learn a lesson at the end of his story. But he doesn't compromise any of his knightly virtue to do so. There's no real character development of the kind we expect from modern-day fiction. So if you're looking for that, we'll afraid you'll have to go elsewhere.

    Chew on This

    Ah, the quest. Who doesn't want to set out from court and take a year and a day to solve a puzzle, fulfill a task, or make good on a promise? Those knights, they are always off questing for something... and we've gotta admit, we're kind of jealous. Anyway, how do you think a focus on the quest might affect the structure of the medieval romance novel? Think it over, and tell us what's up with the quest in The Wife of Bath's Tale and that little-know adventure for the Holy Grail thing.

    Which knight exhibits the best chivalric skills and behaviors? Medieval authors disagreed on this point, and sometimes they even jousted and threw mutton at each other over it. (In our imaginations, at least.) Sir Thomas Malory was all about Lancelot. Can you think of other knights in Le Morte D'Arthur who can measure up to Ole Lancey? What about knights from other works, like Gawain from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?

  • King Arthur

    You know you're important when you get your own brand of baking flour named after you.

    Seriously, though, Arthurian literature has been popular for basically forever. No, really, how long has it been around, you ask? Well, you can find Arthurian literature that dates way back to 300 CE. For those of you who are keeping count, that's over 1,700 years of Arthur.

    It's likely that the legend of A-Man got rolling with a real-life war leader of the Britons. (You know, those native British people who were around before things got all mixed up with the various invasions.) This Arthur was famed for fighting off either the Romans or the Saxons, or maybe even both.

    We're not sure who exactly he fought because of course, legends grow tall in the telling. And so as his story got told and retold, Arthur became more than just a general. He grew to be a real mythic real hero.

    He shows up in Welsh mythology going back to as early as the 7th century. Next stop, several British chronicles, like Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, where we get the first real narrative account of Arthur's life. Geoffrey tells this story as if it were tried-and-true history, but you should take that with a huge grain of salt.

    Arthurian legend is most well known to us modern folks through the narratives of medieval romances. These started to become super popular after the historical chronicles of Arthur's life circulated in France—that's when writers there really started to romanticize the dude's life.

    Before long, stories of Arthur, his Round Table, and his famed brotherhood of knights took off. And lucky us, we got to reap the benefits in works like Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Virtually all of the Arthur stuff that shows up in pop culture is derived from Malory's version of the story.

    So even though Arthur hasn't yet shown up to rescue Britain once more, he is, in many ways, the "once and future king." Aw. Eat your hearts out, other knights.

    Chew on This

    Stories about King Arthur and his knights are commonly grouped into one of two traditions: the chronicle tradition and the romance tradition. Why don't you go ahead and compare Geoffrey of Monmouth's material about Arthur to Malory's version? What are some of the differences you see between these two traditions? How does Geoffrey make his telling sound more like "history"? What makes Malory's tale seem more fantastical? Do the two formats overlap in any ways?

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is part of the romance tradition of Arthurian tales; it gives us yet another view of King Arthur. Notice how Arthur's character is kind of a mixed bag? He's young and silly, but he's also brave and a good host. What might this motley portrait suggest about the many traditions of King Arthur?

  • Authority (auctoritas)

    Quick game interlude. Off the top of your head, name something that is highly valued in contemporary literature. Here's some appropriate quiz-type music to get your noggin working.

    Okay, time's up. Ding ding. That's right, folks: Originality.

    Chances are, "originality" was somewhere high on your list of qualities, because we currently clamor for our authors to have a fresh voice. We don't want the same tired plots and characters re-hashed over and over again, right?

    Right for us, maybe. But just the opposite was true for medieval author and readers. Most medieval authors weren't into fashioning new tall tales. They borrowed (to put it politely) from each other left and right. One example of this "borrowing" is Chaucer's great masterpiece, Troilus and Criseyde, which he basically pilfered from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato.

    Oh, and keep in mind that concepts like "plagiarism" and "intellectual property" just flat out didn't exist back then. So not only did medieval authors take ideas from each other, they were also greatly concerned with shoring up their credibility by showing off how well they knew classic works.

    Basically, these medieval authors strutted their stuff by getting all their Classic Lit and Biblical references lined up in a row. Many routinely drew on a vast number of Latin sources. And used as many Latin phrases as possible.

    For example, the hen-pecked Chauntecleer makes a crazy number of Classical allusions when arguing with his wife in The Nun's Priest's Tale. In a lot of ways, being a medieval author was all about how skillfully you could choose, adapt, revise, and combine your textual authorities and sources… not how innovative you were.

    Chew on This

    Of course, one could also use auctoritas to be deliberately deceptive. If an author wanted to say something (politically dangerous, perhaps) and later have plausible deniability about that thing, he could always cite an authority. In fact, he could even make up an authority to cite for his opinions. This is what Chaucer does in Troilus and Criseyde when he cites a guy named Lollius as being his source of information for All Things Trojan War-ish. There's really no such person as Lollius, but Chaucer uses him as a way to deflect any blame for changing the story a bit. How might the name "Lollius" just scream authority for educated medieval people? Why not use someone named "John Ball" instead (which would be much more Middle English-y, we might point out)?

    Chaucer strikes again. His Wife of Bath is quite notorious for throwing authorities out the window, even while she pretends to use them like a good little medieval writer/orator should. Check out our "Quotes" section to see how she handles this issue. How does she balance personal experience with authority? Which authority do you find more convincing: her own, or the authority that comes from the books she cites?

  • The Peasants' Uprising

    So, when you think of eras known for their pervasive social equality, we're pretty sure you don't think of the Middle Ages. This was a time when there were huge inequities between "the haves" (the rich aristocracy and the higher-ups in the Church) and "the have-nots" (your average peasant on the street).

    The Black Death was a terrible, terrible disease indeed. That itty bitty Plague killed like a third of Europe's population. But there was a silver lining there, too, because the Plague really paved the way for the Peasants' Uprising. Because so many people died as that disease swept across the lands—especially poorer people—the workers who remained were able to ask for more money from their bosses.

    Those rich people still needed peasants to grind their grain, do their field work, weave their clothes, and brew their ale, right? So the surviving peasant class were, for the first time, holding some bargaining chips when it came to securing a good wage. This was a case of supply and demand in action.

    Of course, "the haves" weren't too happy with this situation. They didn't like the peasants trying to rise above their "station." So they got Parliament to pass some laws that limited the amount of money workers could ask for. Then, around 1377 the British government passed a poll tax, which was basically a tax the king and nobility charged people just for being alive.

    Not exactly fair, right? To add insult to injury, the proceeds were being used to finance the war against France, as well as funding wealthy folks' extravagant lifestyles.

    Unsurprisingly, the peasants soon got fed up. In 1381, they decided to act. In a very violent, Occupy London-type movement, thousands of rebels stormed the city. They destroyed property and killed people who got in their path.

    While not many authors of medieval literature deal with this uprising explicitly in their works, it shows up in more subtle ways. Class tensions are never far beneath the surface of medieval works. Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims give us a good example of this tension; did you ever notice how they're always bickering?

    We'd be bickering too, if we had to pay a tax just for breathing air. Ugh.

    Chew on This

    While Chaucer doesn't usually incorporate a lot of current events into his texts, he does sneak in one reference to the Peasants' Uprising. In The Nun's Priest's Tale, at line 628, the narrator mentions "Jack Straw," who was one of the rebel leaders of the Uprising. Plus, since Chaucer lived over one of the main gates where people entered the city of London, he likely witnessed some of the Uprising first-hand. Are there other moments in The Nun's Priest's Tale that make you think of the kind of chaos you'd see at a massive protest? How about in any of the other Canterbury Tales?

    Interestingly enough, the leaders of the 1381 uprising turned to medieval literature to help communicate their points. William Langland's long allegorical poem Piers Plowman was appropriated by the rebels because it was sympathetic to the poor. And its main character, the plowman, was held up as the model of a good medieval worker. Rebel leader John Ball mentions this work in his letter complaining about the 1%'s egregious exploitation of the peasant class.

  • Revenge vs. Forgiveness

    Add this one to the medieval writers' Top 10 Themes List, because you're going to see over and over again. Beowulf gives us one early example of this theme.

    Allow us to explain, though. The Germanic and Scandinavian tribes really liked their fighting. So, to keep blood feuds from getting totally out of hand, a warrior could make peace by paying wergild, or a "man-price" to the victim's family. That way, he wouldn't have to sleep with one eye open for the rest of his life, waiting for the victim's family to get sweet, sweet revenge.

    And seek revenge, they would.

    Perhaps the most memorable example of revenge winning out over forgiveness can be found in Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Arthur's Round Table is totally ruined because Gawain and Lancelot can't make peace. Why? Lancelot accidentally killed Gareth, Gawain's brother.

    In this story, these boys are way past the idea of paying restitution, as happens in Beowulf. Nothing will make Gawain happy. Except killing Lancelot, that is.

    Revenge doesn't always win out in the battle of revenge vs. forgiveness, though. It's not all doom and gloom in those medieval stories, Shmoopers. In the highly entertaining medieval drama, The Second Shepherd's Play, Mak gets caught stealing sheep.

    Now, this is actually a very serious offense—the penalty is death. (And they didn't even have a Three Strikes law back then.) Anyway, instead of killing Mak, the other shepherds "toss him in a blanket," which just makes him look foolish. Because in return for his thievery, he is given a gift.

    See, the blanket is representative of the other shepherds' forgiveness. Mak's theft has also allowed them this opportunity to exercise the Christian virtue of charity—not as in giving money to the needy, but as in showing love to your fellow human beings. Aw. Really warms your heart, doesn't it?

    Chew on This

    In The Wife of Bath's Tale, Chaucer gives us a good example of the revenge-versus-forgiveness theme. Take a look at some of the quotations your friends at Shmoop have pulled together. In particular, compare Quote #2 to Quote #3. What is different about the King's and the Queen's approaches to justice?

    Ever wonder what a medieval version of Family Feud would be like? Well, search no further than Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. Here, family feuding is not all fun and games, though—it's deadly serious. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (and we know you will) is to go forth and explore how vengeance plays a key role throughout the massive work that is Le Morte D'Arthur. Take a look at Quote #3 and Quote #8 on our site. What do these quotes tell us about Sir Gawain's character?

  • Antifeminism

    There's a reason that Chaucer's Wife of Bath stands out for many readers as the most memorable character in his Canterbury Tales… and perhaps even in all of medieval English lit. She wants to live her life as she sees fit, and doesn't give a fig for those crusty old clerics who tell her that she can't have just as many husbands as she pleases. She roundly chastises men who buy into the negative medieval stereotypes about women.

    You go, girl.

    And while we're championing the Wife of Bath, we need to keep in mind that a big chunk of medieval literature was actually written by clerics—those high-powered, high falutin' men who filled the Church offices and who were usually raised and educated by the Church.

    Such men were typically well-versed in the late Classical tradition that claimed women just got in the way of men being good scholars and thinkers. Those writers portrayed women as greedy, shrewish, over-sexed gold diggers who only wanted men for their wallets. Actually, they carried purses back then.

    But anywho. Classic lit = A lot o' talk about those nasty, evil, good-for-nothin' female temptresses. Ugh.

    And the Church's views on women only encouraged this point of view. After all, the Church understood all women through the lens of Eve (the "fallen," disobedient woman) and the Virgin Mary (the image of womanly perfection). Since most women couldn't live up to the unbelievably restrictive and lofty example of Mary, they were, by default, lumped in with Eve…

    Which meant they were automatically suspected of being disobedient, dishonest, and prone to sexual hijinks. Huzzah.

    Chew on This

    Browse through some of the Wife of Bath's pithy statements. What do you notice about her ideas? Does she contradict herself at all? Where do you think she most succeeds at refuting antifeminist ideas?

    Morgan le Fay is often placed right in the crosshairs of the medieval antifeminist tradition. Most of the time, she's the big baddie of any tale she shows up in. Read our character description of her as she appears in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. How do Morgan and Lady Bertilak's characters play off of each other? In what ways is Morgan shown as a sexually promiscuous provocateur? In what ways is her character similar to that of the Wife of Bath? How is Morgan different from the Wife of the Bath?

  • The Church

    The Roman Catholic Church was the central institution around which medieval life was organized. By default, everyone was a member of the Church, and "Catholic" actually means "universal." If you weren't a Christian, you were more than likely Jewish, but Edward I booted Jewish people out of England in 1291. Boo.

    You also could have been Muslim—again, not many Muslim people were seen in England during this time—or some other flavor of "heretic." It didn't matter; if you weren't a Christian, you basically just weren't welcome anywhere in Europe.

    This "us vs. them" mentality of the religious shows up in the literature in many ways. In some tales, non-Christian religions and cultures were portrayed as being simply foreign, while in others, they were depicted as downright evil. Check out The Prioress' Tale for a vivid example of that good vs. bad Christian vs. non-Christian dynamic.

    All in all, the Catholic Church had the religious market cornered for about nine whole centuries. That is, until we get to the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. It was omnipresent in people's lives.

    In fact, everyone had to pay a tax to the Church equaling 10% of their yearly income (called a "tithe"). This donation was not voluntary. Plus, all of the standard services provided by the Church—upon which your immortal soul depended, as the thinking went—cost money.

    Baptism? Kaching. Weddings? Kaching. Prayers to reduce your loved ones' time in Purgatory? Double kaching.

    Some of these proceeds did go to feeding and clothing the poor, which is a pretty good cause, if you ask us. But lots of money also went to lining the pockets of the Church's upper echelon. And their pockets were probably already fur-lined. Womp womp.

    This type of hypocrisy is roundly criticized in a lot of the literature of the time. And once again, Chaucer is our go-to guy for this kind of insight: his portraits of religious figures like the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner are famous for their biting critique of medieval religious life.

    Why were people willing to shell out money to pay for the services of shady characters like the Summoner and Pardoner, you ask? Keep in mind that people in the Middle Ages were terrified of going to Hell for their sins. And the Catholic Church was the only gig in town for avoiding this thoroughly unpleasant possibility.

    Because of this, unscrupulous factions of the Church exploited the fear of the illiterate masses as much as they could. In doing so, the Church came up with fun things like "indulgences," which would buy you a certain amount of time out of Purgatory in exchange for some bank. Yikes.

    As you can imagine, after a while, people got tired of this racket. Eventually, they demanded to have more of a hand in their own salvation. And that's what led to the Lollard heresy in the 14th century.

    The Lollards wanted to be able to read the Bible for themselves, and they Just Said No to Latin-only services. They also wanted the Church to get rid of some of its sketchier practices, like hoarding wealth and selling indulgences.

    Things didn't turn out so well for many of the Lollards, though; lots o' them were burned at the stake for challenging the Church.

    The Church also cornered the education market. If you wanted a decent education during the medieval period, chances were you got it through the Church—at a school attached to a nunnery or monastery. Of course, since the Church was supplying this education to you, they then appreciated it if you stuck around and became a cleric (well, at least the men), and put your learning to good use for them.

    Even once universities really got rolling, the Church was usually heavily involved. Man, the Church really had its hands in everyone's business back then, huh?

    Chew on This

    How does Chaucer's description of the Monk in The Canterbury Tales provide an amusing critique of the Church? Notice, for example, how the Monk is fat. And he's dressed in the finest of clothing. How do these two qualities contradict what's expected of an ideal monk?

    Lest you think that Chaucer was continually hating on the Church, take a look at his character the Parson. Now this guy shows us how a man of God should really roll. How does the imagery associated with the Parson emphasize his idyllic religiosity? Does Chaucer use any of his characteristic humor in this portrait? Why or why not?

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