Exploring the Role of A Biblical Figure In The Canterbury Tales

In Chaucer’s works, but especially in the Canterbury Tales there is a large use of biblical Exempla, texts, figures, and many quotations. All these features have the power to give to the topics a great emphasis through creating a halo of solemnity, thus a great relevance in the general point of view of the work. In addition, they can give also, a great persuasive value to the thesis the taletellers express in the story even if they are not religiously acceptable . The role of biblical proof-texts and figures is very important in a work as Chaucer’s one, with a religious theme. The pilgrimage to the ‘hooly blisful martir’ , Saint

Thomas Becket, is the reason to purify their souls, at least in appearance. Every pilgrim occupies a specific level in the society and very often, they are in disagreement with their ideas expressed in the tales . The Scripture represents a very precious source with the right examples for their explanations. In the medieval age, the Bible was the greatest authoritative source because it represented the voice of God, thus trustable. What I am going to focus on, in this essay, is: which direct sources have influenced Chaucer in the organisation of the religious material and in what tales we can find relevant biblical references, the connections with the medieval age methods of teaching the Scripture and what kind of secondary sources have influenced Chaucer’s creation of the tellers figures. In addition, the relevant point I am going to analyse is what are the biblical figures and situations used by Chaucer and the utility in the tale-telling process, and in conclusion the impact the religious figures and texts create on the fictional audience of the work and on the real one.

The art of preaching was the commonest medium to divulgate the religious knowledge, which involves rhetorical rules, consideration of the audience’s background and quotations from the Bible . In fact, the sermons had to explain and teach the Christian belief to people who had only a superficial knowledge about it. Actually, the sermons had to be expressed orally in front of the audience and the preacher had to demonstrate some very good speech capacities and to be able to shift and to solve, in some ways, the contradictions a biblical text could present . The persuasive devices were created using, not only some rhetorical patterns, but also quotations, references and exempla from the Bible. The technique of the preacher used the biblical figures, texts and situations to support his moral theories. The sacred texts are used as justifications and clarifying examples. The art of preaching involves not only the personal faith and feelings, but also even some fixed rules and a great care in the exposition .

The Canterbury Tales present many connections with the medieval ars praedicandi. The sermons were an immediate way of communicating the Christian knowledge, especially if we consider the reality of common people. The possibilities for common people were so restricted and it is clear that the common lay people had to resort to the sermons. In the Canterbury Tales, the pilgrims are common people and they show to have the kind of knowledge acquired only by the sermons. Actually, they use the patterns of the medieval preaching, involving the biblical proof-texts and figures. Obviously, the level of culture was not so elevated and sometimes Chaucer’s characters use partial or oblique quotations and allusions . When the taleteller tells the tale, sometimes he/she has to find some supporting and clarifying examples that lead the audience towards an understanding process. Furthermore, Chaucer prefers to set the situations in the reality and to do so, he makes the pilgrims use many colloquialisms such as, ‘whan God first maked man’ . The sermons were so important and popular for lay people and these kinds of colloquialisms make the reader understand how frequent they were and how popular . The biblical colloquialisms Chaucer introduces lead us towards the existence, in the medieval age, of a religious imagery that everyone could understand. Through these patterns, the narrations of the Canterbury Tales appear easy and powerfully contextualised for the late medieval audience, in that case for the fictional audience of the pilgrims.

The taleteller represents, in the entire point of view of the work who has got the authority. During the narration, the reader faces different topics that could be religious or not. The taleteller uses what was the truest authority in that age: The Bible . The tales are about invented situations but reflect the reality of the tellers . Sometimes the tellers are not great examples of virtue and could be object of criticism, the figure of the pardoner or the wife of Bath. To avoid this opportunity, Chaucer introduces in his work many biblical allusions and quotations. The role of the biblical texts and figures in the Canterbury Tales is to be the justification for what the teller is saying . The Bible cannot be criticised and the Chaucerian characters it to give to their narration a halo of solemnity. Again, when the situation is objectively unacceptable and immoral the use of biblical allusions can make the audience change its mind. The wife of Bath, for instance, proclaims something unacceptable, but the biblical references surprise the audience, as we can note from the reaction of the friar . If we consider that the religious person resorted to the Bible in order to clarify, explain, support how the human conduct should be, we can assume that the role of the biblical texts and figures is the one of supporting, without any chance of criticism, one thesis . Chaucer recognised the great principal authority of the sacred texts because he approved the catholic theory that the interpretation of the Bible should be under the strict control of the church . In the second place, we should consider that the use of biblical texts in the Canterbury Tales is not only of supporting but also persuasive. If we analyse in a detailed way some tales such as The Wife of Bath’s and The Pardoner’s, we could realise that the authoritative teller is trying to persuade his/her audience. The behaviours of the two characters are not so positive but their tales and prologues impregnated with religious references are not susceptible of any critical comment.

In the Canterbury Tales there are many biblical allusions and quotations, which underline how important the Bible was, and how it could help in a persuasive process . Chaucer in the Pardoner’s Tale, for instance, adopts several biblical references, which allow the teller to achieve a great level of authority. The pardoner citing “radix malorum est cupiditas” shows his wisdom and enforces the moral aim of his tale. At the beginning of the tale, he cites a long list of biblical situations and characters . His moral aim is to admonish the lecherous behaviours especially of the drunks. He finds a lot of supporting references citing characters such as: Lot, Herod, and specifying that the Holy Scripture highlight what kind of reactions and sins they committed while they were drunk . Obviously one figure as the Chaucerian pardoner, clearly corrupted, has to find some authoritative foundations to his ideas, in order to not to be susceptible to any criticism. The tale keeps going on with a second list of biblical justifications for his admonishments. He cites Adam and his wife corrupted , the apostle Paul who denounces the gluttony pointing it as the greatest reason of damnation . The pardoner at one point of his introduction of the tale exhorts clearly to read the Scripture and he says that it offers such great examples of how not gluttonous people made the best actions. He also gives some examples through the figure of Attila and Lamuel, to clarify his position . He concludes his moral preamble with the citation of the Old Testament in order to condemn the people who do not show the proper respect to God . The entire tale is impregnated with biblical references and, through this device, Chaucer gives, some kind of authority to one figure is not worthy at all. His inner aims are different from what he foretells, but in this way the audience can agree with him and he cannot receive any disapproval.

In the Wife of Bath’s Prologue , Chaucer using the same pattern adopts biblical references to support the wife’s thesis that there is not a prescript number of husbands. From the first two lines of the prologue, she addresses to the great authority and explains that it is the only one true justification . She keeps going on with her prologue explaining that the marriage is only a cage . Furthermore, she introduces the fact that Jesus did not go more than once to weddings in Cana, to support her theory . It is easy to find some connections with the medieval preaching in these cases. The taletellers know their theories and find proper justifications to perorate their causes. Again, she keeps on saying that it is not a sin to get married twice, three, six or eight times and cites Salomon who had more than a wife . She admires Salomon and adds that, a propos, she had her five husbands and she affirms that would be ready even for others . During the first part of the prologue she lists some other examples such as, Abraham and Jacobs’ situations , they had not only one wife and she wonders why religious people should restrict if god did not establish a precise number. In the second part of the prologue Chaucer uses biblical references, and not only, to support the misogynist thoughts of Jankyn, her fifth husband . Chaucer gives to Jankyn the power of the authority, to show that he is cultured. Apart from that, Chaucer highlights that, with biblical justifications, no disagreement may appear. The wife, at that point, does not know how to critic his position and has not an appropriated reaction . He mentions Sampson , betrayed by his wife while he was sleeping. Again, Eva who has ruined all the human beings with her sin . It is obvious and clear how much emphasis the peroration of Jankyn’s acquires with the biblical references. This is another example about how much linked were the medieval preaching and the medieval literature. Besides, it results clear how the biblical authority may be used for both good theories and bad ones. The Bible offers good exempla and the taleteller has only to get the best ones to support his thesis.

One of the best examples, in the Canterbury Tales, about the use of biblical references to support the teller’s theory is the Prioress’s Tale and Prologue . At the beginning of the prologue, the prioress begins her introduction to her tale with direct reference to the psalm eight, which is in honour of the Virgin Mary . The audience can understand from this what will be the topic of the tale. The centre of the story is the holy figure of the Virgin and her fellows; she is the mother of God . The biblical references in the case of the Prioress’ Tale are to highlight her spiritual and sentimental involvement. In fact, the virgin is a great figure; she is the symbol of the purity, the chastity, and all the divine grace. Chaucer uses the reference from the Exodus to underline that she recognises the Virgin Mary as ‘bussh unbrent’ and her heart guards the infinite power of the Holy Spirit. After that, we can underline the quotation from the New Testament, the first letter to the Corinthians . There is to say that, this last quotation gives a very strong idea of the Marian devotion of the prioress. These allusions draw the prioress’ position and lead the audience towards a sympathetic attitude with her thought floss. The tendency of the entire tale is towards a celebration of the sanctity of the mother of Jesus and all her fellows. The prioress is sentimentally involved in that topic and faces it with proper exempla and supporting sources. Especially in the last part of the tale, she mentions an important extract from the Apocalypse that enforces how dramatic is the death of the young child, faithful to the Virgin. The passage says that who have lived his life in chastity will follow the holy Lamb always singing a new hymn to him forever. Apart from the dramatic death, this quotation from the New Testament, takes again the perseverance of the child in learning the hymn and his tender age. These citations in the entire context of the story make the tale very dramatic and sad. The taleteller in this case uses the great authority to specify that only pure people can enter in heaven and the simple examples from the Bible reveal, furthermore, to be effective and appropriated.

In conclusion, all the examples from the Canterbury Tales I have chosen, demonstrate how tightened were the relations between the medieval preaching and the medieval literature. Medieval preaching used exempla from the Bible to support the moral theories of the preachers, to interest, to involve and to lead the audience towards the preacher’s conclusions. Apart as proof texts and supporting texts, they are sources to make the discourse easier for the audience, to give the speaker a high level of authority and no chances for the audience to criticise the tales. Generally, in the sermons, the biblical Exempla functions as proves to what the preacher is saying. In the cases I have analysed, the functionality of the biblical texts and figures is the same but focusing on them might clarify how these patterns are susceptible to different interpretations. Chaucer, for instance, shifts the power of the authority from one character to another in order to indicate the most relevant position, in the case of The Wife of Bath’s Tale; the authority is shifted from the wife to her husband. Chaucer gives more power to Jankyn to highlight what is the hot point of the tale at that stage, what causes someone other’s reactions. In the case of the pardoner, the biblical patterns have the functionality to support the fake moral aims of the character.

He lives in a very different way from what he tells us , but he occupies a specific place in the society and he has to keep it, with fake sermons if necessary. The role of the biblical texts, in this case, is to cover the negative conduct of the pardoner. In the case of the prioress, the biblical texts are used as supporting sources, but mostly to highlight her sentimental involvement. It is more than obvious at this point that the authority is only one but subject to many interpretations and many final aims such as to justify, hiding, to support. The contextualisation of the work in the medieval age is important to understand the reason of these patterns. The relations between the biblical references and the teller or the telling in general show that, in the Canterbury Tales, it is only a matter of convenience. The teller would be better to find some authoritative and true foundations to his/her thesis to not allow to the audience to disagree with the ideas, with the feelings. The matter, in general, is to make sentimentally involved the audience.

Bibliography:

– Benson, L., (1988), The Riverside Chaucer, Oxford, Oxford university press.

– Besserman, L., (1998), Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics, USA, University of Oklahoma press.

– Brewer, D., (1998), A New Introduction to Chaucer, London, Longman.

– Brother Anthony of Taize, (2005), Chaucer and Religion, Sogang University, Seoul, available at

– Ellis, S., (1998), the Canterbury Tales, Essex, Longman.

– Volk-Birke, S., (1991), Chaucer and medieval Preaching, Tubingen, Germany,
Gunter Narr Verlag Tubingen.

-Brown P., (2002), A Companion to Chaucer, second edition. Oxford. Blackwell publishing.

-Boitani, P., Mann, J., (2005), The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, Cambridge, Cambridge university press, second edition

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