Changes of the Catholic Church as Portrayed in the
Literature during the Late Fourteenth
The poem ,Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, was written during the late 1300’s. It is a story that was already hundreds of years old. In the poem, Sir Gawain is being measured against a moral and Christian ideal of chivalry. Chivalry is the moral code that knights lived by during the Middle Ages. Chivalrous knights fought for glory and the Christian purpose and not for profit or gain. In the poem, Gawain’s chivalry, along with his faith, are tested to prove his worth as a knight. This poem shows the importance of faith and the church, yet it also shows that although knights are held to a code of chivalry and strict Christianity, they are still human and make mistakes. The mistake, or sin that Gawain committed in the poem showed the more human side of the knight. This was a change from the more normal approach of a strict, almost unbelievably good character that a knight usually portrayed in the Middle Ages.Around the same time that the story of Sir Gawain was written Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the poem The Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales is the story of a group of people who decide to make a pilgrimage to the Canterbury Cathedral. During their journey each person tells a story to the group. What makes the tales interesting is Chaucer’s ability to know how different types of people act. One of the interesting aspects of the story is the way the people related to the church are portrayed by Chaucer. Chaucer portrays his clergy member characters as ironic figures. He portrays some of them as greedy and dishonest, despite their social status. The Nun, the Monk, and the Pardoner are the religious characters in Chaucer’s work. By creating ironies between their characterizations and their duties, Chaucer expresses the corruption of the church during the late fourteenth-century. Chaucer also shows the human side of the clergy. Even though the clergy were held to a higher standard, they still made mistakes and had vices. Chaucer’s character, the Prioress, is an interesting portrayal of a nun in the late middle ages. She is described as a gentle woman, simple and coy. She does not behave as you would think a nun should. She speaks an odd dialect of French, but not to communicate or help others. She speaks this language for her own vain reasons. She tries to act like she is in a more refined social class. It is ironic that she is even on this pilgrimage. Normally a nun would stay inside of the convent walls. One of the most ironic characteristics of the nun is that she wears a large gold brooch around her neck, which reads, "Love conquers all". This is wrong because nuns were not supposed to wear jewelry.
The Monk is another one of Chaucer’s characters that didn’t fit into social norms. The Monk is described as noticeably sarcastic, piggish, and selfish. Like the nun, he seems to be a vain servant of God. He wears expensive clothing and is not separated from the world as a Monk is supposed to be. The tale that he tells about hunting is looked at as a sexual connotation, the hunting meaning hunting women. This would be improper for a Monk to think, let alone talk about to a group of people. He seems to be a misguided servant of God who does not fit the stereotypical description of a monk. The way Chaucer describes him, as not caring for the monastic rules written by St. Maurus and St. Benedict shows that the Monk was a corrupt figure in the church.
The Pardoner is probably the most vile and corrupt character in the story. During the middle ages, pardoners were supposed to issue papal forgiveness from sins in exchange for money. This money in turn was supposed to be given to the sick, poor, or any other worthy cause. Many pardoners were frauds. They kept the money forthemselves, and sold fake relics and pardons. This pardoner claimed to have come "straight from the court of Rome", yet it is known that he has never even set foot out of England. The pardoner uses stories to trick people into buying his fake relics. In essence, he was a good B.S. salesman. Ironically, the stories that the pardoner tells are all moral stories against greed, gluttony, and other sins. The moral of his tale, "money is the root of all evil" is also very ironic, since all he seems to care about is money. The pardoner is an excellent example of corruption in the Catholic Church during this period.
In closing, all of these stories have one thing in common. Whether it was Sir Gawain and the sin he committed, or the mistakes and vices of the three corrupt members of the church in The Canterbury Tales. They all knowingly committed sins. This shows the more human side of the church. At a point when the rules of the church were enforced strictly on the people of England, these stories show that even the people who were supposed to set the example and represent the church made mistakes and committed sins. With this corruption in the Church came change. When the common people began to read the Bible written in the vernacular, English, they realized that they didn’t need the corrupt Church to tell them about the teachings of God. Around the time period that these stories were written the Renaissance was beginning, and with the renaissance came new ideas. Many of these new ideas, e.g. humanism, had an effect on the Church and ultimately the monarch in England. As the saying goes, "No Bishop, No King".