Academic journal article Magistra

Feith, and Nakednesse, and Maydenhede: Chaucer's Wyclif, or Strength Made Perfect in Weakness

Academic journal article Magistra

Feith, and Nakednesse, and Maydenhede: Chaucer's Wyclif, or Strength Made Perfect in Weakness

Article excerpt

Two intertwined debates continue to interest Chaucer scholars. The first debate can be summed up as follows: was Chaucer primarily a pious, religious poet, whose poetics depends richly on Christian doctrine and Christian intellectual tradition, or was he primarily a non-religious poet, whose oeuvre reflects an intense skepticism about the Church and her teaching? The second, related debate can be summed up in this way: what was Chaucer's stance on the controversy stirred up by John Wyclif and his followers, variously called Lollards or Wycliffites? To rephrase and simplify all the preceding questions: is there a heretical Chaucer? An orthodox Chaucer? A merely Catholic Chaucer - that is, a pure and unadulterated Catholic Chaucer, as against various "Protestant" Chaucers?1

Examining some strands of the Wycliffite reformist agenda in tandem with a few of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this essay will tease out possible implications of a thread of sympathy for Wycliffite ideas in the midst of a poetic project, The Canterbury Tales, which is by and large compatible with orthodoxy. The poet's use of female characters, both religious and non-religious, will be the main focus of the analysis.

A notable piece of documentary evidence for the general scope of Wycliffism, The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards, is a good place to begin. The writers of this document, whoever they were, posted one copy of it on the doors of Westminster Hall while Parliament was in session in early 1395, and another copy on the doors of St. Paul's Cathedral. The anonymity of this document is typical of many Wycliffite texts, and it announces itself as having a plural authorship ("We pore men, tresoreris of Cryst and his apostlis") whose explicit aim is the declaration of "certeyn conclusions and treuthis for the reformation of holi chirche of Yngelond."2

Among these "conclusions and treuthis," the third is a grave accusation leveled primarily at mandatory celibacy itself, and secondarily at the "priuat religions" of monastic and fraternal orders which are here said to be the source of the "lawe of continence," while the eleventh conclusion, similarly, exhorts vowed female religious to marry rather than continue in a perilous state that leads them into sin. The eleventh of the Wycliffite Twelve Conclusions was in a sense a companion piece to the third conclusion, although its less prominent place near the end of this manifesto for reform is understandable.

Men vowed to celibacy greatly outnumbered women at any given time in late medieval European history, because women could not be ordained as priests. Hence, for the Wycliffites, celibacy vows taken by women were a serious problem, but perhaps not quite on the same order of magnitude as the celibacy vows which bound not only those men who joined the oftmaligned private religions, but also the entire priesthood. Indeed, as the third conclusion phrases the matter, the corruption ensuing from mandatory celibacy for men is understood to "[induce] sodomie in al holy chirche," the rotten fruits extending throughout the church from the one rotten root out of which all (implicitly male) institutional leadership must grow. In the eleventh conclusion, on the other hand, grim though the accusations may be, there is no claim, implicit or explicit, that the corruption of women has such a far-reaching institutional impact, yet the impact that is imagined runs possibly deeper.

Both the third and the eleventh conclusions are worth quoting in full:

be thirdde conclusiun sorwful to here is ^at ^e lawe of continence annexyd to presthod, ^at in preiudys of wimmen was first ordeynid, inducith sodomie in al holy chirche; but we excusin us be ^e bible for ^e suspecte decre ^at seyth we schulde not nemen it. Resun and experience prouit ^is conclusiun. For delicious metis and drinkis of men of holi chirche welen han nedful purgaciun or werse. Experience for ^e priue asay of syche men is, ^at ^e[i] like non wymmen; and whan ^u prouist sich a man mark him wel for he is on of ^o. …

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