Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Chaucer's Enemy

William Thorpe before Arundel, 1407; a case of heresy
Yesterday's post discussed Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, and suggested that he was Chaucer's enemy. Let's discuss that assertion.*

England had become more liberal under Richard II. John Wycliffe had pushed for a more people-oriented approach to Christianity that focused far less respect on the hierarchy of the Church—the hierarchy of which Arundel had reached the pinnacle in England, as Archbishop of Canterbury. Wycliffe had even started producing parts of the Bible in English, accessible to more people. The followers of Wycliffe, called "Lollards," were considered heretical by many, and especially by Arundel. Prior to his exile, he had tried to curb that hotbed of Lollardy, Oxford, and had been rebuffed and insulted by its chancellor. Now, restored as archbishop under Henry IV, Arundel had a freer hand to pursue his goal of asserting harsher control over the moral fiber of the realm.

One of his targets, by necessity, would have been the popular poet whose freely circulated works showed numerous signs of Lollardy. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales constantly mocked the hierarchy of church officials, displaying their worldliness and corruption. The pilgrim who seems to have Chaucer's greatest respect is the antithesis of the worldly Arundel:
The Parson may be poor but he is rich in holy thought and works. He's a learned man—a clerk—and he truly teaches Christ's Gospel. He's benign and diligent and patient in adversity. He is loathe to excommunicate folk because they can't pay their tithes ... and he would rather give them from his own income and property. [Who Murdered Chaucer, p. 219]
But would Arundel's dislike of these portraits turn into action? Well, it was during the reign of Henry IV (in 1401, in fact) that England started burning heretics, and a few years after that (1407) Arundel made knowledge of the Bible by non-clergy a sign of heresy. He was controlling, heavy-handed, vengeful when it came to Oxford and Lollardy and of anything that attacked or mocked the hierarchy of the church.

Jones et alia assert that Arundel's need to change the tone in England may have been the guiding force behind Chaucer's difficulties at the end of his life (Henry IV officially confirmed Chaucer's annuity, but records show that the payments weren't actually forthcoming) and the obscurity with which he was treated when he died—although praised by fellow-poets during his life, there is no public notice taken of his death. Chaucer might have seen the writing on the wall; hence the Retraction he wrote for the Tales in which he asks forgiveness for his vulgar stories and prays for God's mercy, in a tone very different from everything else he has written.

*I give full credit for this theory to the authors of Who Murdered Chaucer, discussed in a previous post.

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