BECK index

Mystics, Wyclif, Gower, and Chaucer

by Sanderson Beck

Mystics: Rolle, Hilton, and Juliana
The Cloud of Unknowing
Wyclif and the English Bible
Pearl, Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain
Piers the Plowman
Gower’s Confessio Amantis
Chaucer and His Poetry
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

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Mystics: Rolle, Hilton, and Juliana

Aelred of Rievaulx's Spiritual Friendship
John of Salisbury on Politics

Richard Rolle was born about 1300 near Pickering in the York diocese. He studied theology at Oxford with financial help from the archdeacon of Durham, Thomas de Neville. He left the university without taking a degree before he was 19 and returned to his father’s house in Yorkshire. He decided to become a hermit and wore a strange rain hood. His sister exclaimed, “My brother is mad!” At Oxford he had met John de Dalton. After living as a hermit with the Dalton family in Pickering for two summers, Rolle moved on to follow his ascetic way of silent prayer. Little is known of his life other than the writings he left behind. He may have studied at the Sorbonne in the early 1320s. In his later years he moved to Hampton in Yorkshire near a Cistercian convent, and he became friends with the recluse Margaret Kirkeby, who suffered from epilepsy. He apparently helped to cure her, “and he promised her that as long as he lived in the flesh she should never again suffer such torment.”1 She was enclosed at East Layton, but she suffered one more seizure on the day of Rolle’s death during the Black Death on September 29, 1349.

Rolle was the first to translate the Psalms into English, and he did so word-for-word from Jerome’s Latin translation. He often wrote or copied manuscripts for friends. He wrote the English Psalter for Margaret Kirkeby and The Mending of Life near the end of his life for William Stopes. Rolle wrote for those “who are trying to love God rather than to know many things.”2 Although written near the end of his life, The Mending of Life (Emendatio vitae) is a good introduction to the more advanced experiences of The Fire of Love (De incendio amorist). Both these books were written by Rolle in Latin and aim at learning how to experience union with God. He also wrote lyrics and prose works in English.

Rolle began The Mending of Life by urging his readers not to be slow to turn completely to God. He warned that it is a great sin to continue sinning because one trusts in the mercy of God. He suggested that by training your interior eyes indefatigably on Christ you may avoid the nets of temptation. Obstacles are the abundance of riches, flatteries of women, and physical beauty. One should hold in contempt all temporal things in order to pass through life without them. Seek nothing outside of God, barely accepting the necessities of vain joys and comforts. “The more thoroughly you caste out greed, the more intensely you will savor divine love.”3 Why desire with such emotion things that perish? He concluded the chapter,

Choose what you will!
If you love this world, you will perish with the world.
If you have loved Christ, you will reign with Him.4

To Rolle poverty means also humility, or it does more harm than good. Humans may sin in thought, word, and deed—in thought by thinking anything against anyone; in word by lying, cursing, backbiting, foolish talk, and foul language; and in deeds by lascivious touching and kissing, stealing, striking blows, and other abuses. A person may be cleansed by contrition, confession, and satisfactory deeds such as fasting, praying, and giving charity. The heart is cleansed by meditating on God, restraining the senses, and honest actions such as reading, speaking about God, writing, or doing useful deeds. Discipline is establishing correct habits and knowing what to avoid. Rolle believed it is insane to reject the most delicate feasts of uncreated Wisdom by submitting oneself to the uncleanness of lust and gluttony.

Patience is the free and willing bearing of hostilities. If a person loves the Creator, one resists everything that is in the world. When placed in temptation, you should immediately begin praying; for if you pray purely, you will be helped. The truest prayer is when we do not think about anything; but our entire will is directed toward the highest, and our soul is on fire with the Holy Spirit. Rolle recommended meditating on the passion of Christ, on the miseries of the human condition, and on praising and loving the Creator. He advised reading, especially the scriptures. Sins can be destroyed by directing your undivided intention toward God. For Rolle the love of God is insuperable, inseparable, and singular. Love is insuperable or unconquerable when it cannot be overcome by any other feeling. Love of God is inseparable when the Christ never recedes from one’s memory; but one is always connected to God. Love becomes singular when it has excluded any other consolation except the love of Christ.

In the last chapter Rolle divided contemplation into reading, prayer, and meditation.

In reading, God speaks to us.
In prayer, we address ourselves to God.
In meditation, the angels descend to us.5

Contemplation is also the penetrating observation of the soul opened to the discerning of virtues. To some it is rejoicing in heavenly things, and to others it is the death of carnal affections by raising the spirit. He suggested that we begin through voluntary poverty so that we may desire nothing in this world but to live sober, chaste, and devoted to God and mankind. By expelling useless thoughts and vain knowledge one may experience the saying in Psalm 45:10: “Be still and know that I am God.”

In The Fire of Love Rolle described his mystical experiences as feeling warm like fire, wonderfully sweet, and hearing heavenly music.

Walter Hilton (1340-96) graduated from Cambridge and was ordained a priest before he became a hermit. He was leader of the Augustinian canons at Thurgaton Priory in Nottinghamshire. The Ladder of Perfection (Scala Perfectionis) became his most popular book. He wrote that the active life of love is for all people living in the world. The contemplative life is developed by spiritual virtues and true knowledge of God. He described three levels of spiritual contemplation as intellectual knowledge of God, loving God, and the union of the two by knowing and loving God perfectly. In the third level the soul experiences union with God.

The three practices Hilton recommended to the contemplative are reading the scriptures, meditating, and continuous prayer. The four ways he suggested for interpreting the meaning of the scriptures are the literal, the moral, the mystical, and the heavenly. After one has completely turned to God, one may meditate. Hilton recommended meditating on the love of Jesus. Prayer begins with devotion and grows into love. Hilton’s third degree of prayer is in the heart without words.

Virtue can be developed by meditating on the humility of Christ. Humility improves discernment because pride can be an obstacle to learning. The humble love and respect all others, but hypocrites consider themselves superior. Those who choose God are tested and tempted, and afterward they are comforted. Each person must study oneself to know one’s abilities and to destroy the roots of sin. Things perceived by the senses may be good or evil, but one should not judge other people. We may love people sincerely while hating their sins. Virtues are first understood by the mind and reason. Then they are developed by the will, and they are perfected in love. Humility keeps the soul from going astray. For overcoming temptations Hilton suggested trusting Christ, ignoring them, and seeking advice from a wise man. He associated the seven deadly sins with different parts of the body—the head with pride, the back with covetousness, the breast with envy, the arms with anger, the stomach with gluttony, the legs with lust, and the feet with sloth. Some of the enemies he warned against on the journey of life are bodily desires, foolish fears, deceitful spirits, flattery, and vanity. Hilton recommended that humility and charity help one to acquire all other virtues.

Hilton wrote that God is just and does not forgive sins unless they are corrected. The soul may be restored to the likeness of Christ through penance. Reformed souls need to fight constantly against temptations to sin. Lovers of the world and sinners may come to resemble animals. Reform takes time and much effort before it is achieved by grace. Perfection may be attained by purifying one’s desires. Self-knowledge leads to spiritual knowledge. Love is God’s greatest gift, and divine love makes the practice of the virtues easy. The secret voice of God is heard within the soul and brings illumination. The Light enables the soul to perceive angels and the Christ and to transcend all created things.

Juliana of Norwich was born in the fall of 1342. While she was severely ill on May 8, 1373, she experienced a series of fifteen revelations in the morning between four and nine. Later that night she experienced the sixteenth revelation. She soon wrote a short version about these experiences, and many years later she expanded it considerably into the book Revelations of Divine Love. This is the first book by a woman that was published in English. Juliana wanted to have a better understanding of the suffering and death of Jesus. She was willing to undergo suffering herself so that she could love others better. Her mother and other companions were present during the serious illness that almost took her life. The three wounds that Juliana wanted to experience were true contrition, genuine compassion, and sincere longing for God. She prayed that all souls may be saved.

The sixteen revelations of Juliana may be briefly summarized as follows:

1. The crowning of Jesus with thorns.
2. The “discoloring of his fair face.”
3. God is almighty, all-wise, and all-loving, has made everything and works through all things.
4. The tender body was flogged and bled copiously.
5. The pitiful passion of Christ conquered the Fiend.
6. God is grateful for the suffering, and his blessed servants receive heavenly rewards.
7. Feelings of delight and depression reflect God’s grace and love as well as the frustration of temptation in the body.
8. The final suffering and death of Jesus are described.
9. God wants us to be comforted and to rejoice in the passion of the Christ until we come to heavenly fulfillment.
10. Jesus rejoices to display his love and heart riven in two.
11. His beloved mother is revealed.
12. Our Lord is the being of all and is most worthy.
13. The will of God is that we should value all his works.
14. Our Lord is the foundation of right praying and sure trust, and he will answer our prayers.
15. God will take us suddenly from our pain into heaven for our reward of bliss with Jesus.
16. Our Creator as the Christ lives in our soul and governs all things with power and wisdom for the sake of love.

 The Cloud of Unknowing

The Cloud of Unknowing was written and published anonymously in English about the middle of the 14th century. The book begins with a prayer and a forward warning the reader that the book is intended for those deeply committed to following Christ.

The first chapter explains four ascending phases of spiritual growth as common, special, singular, and perfect. Beyond the common Christian life, the special calls one to a more perfect interior life. Singular living is found at the deep core of your being. The perfect way can only be attained after one has completed mortal life. The reader is warned not to be deceived into thinking you are holier or better because of your spiritual calling. You will be pathetic if you do not do all you can to live up to your calling with God’s grace and guidance. God is a jealous lover who wants all your love. Lift up your heart with gentle love desiring God, but not his gifts. Center your mind and heart on God and forget everything else. Diligently persevere until you feel joy, for at first darkness and no feeling are usual. Unable to grasp God with your mind, you will feel frustrated, but your heart will relish his love. The author is confident that God will bring you to a deep experience.

God created us like himself, but the intellect is too small to comprehend God. Yet the eternal miracle of love is that a loving person can embrace God who transcends creation. To experience this love is the joy of eternal life. By persevering in this spiritual work you may gradually rise from sin and grow in divine intimacy. So be attentive to how you spend your time. God is the master of time, and nothing is more precious. God gives us only the present. A 24-year-old replies that he has scarcely noticed time. God creates time, and man can consciously master time. The contemplative work is not counterfeits such as daydreaming, fantasizing, or subtle reasoning. Between you and God is an unknowing darkness. You must make a cloud of forgetting between you and all created things. Let your mind rest in the awareness of God; love and praise him.

No person can comprehend God by thinking. If you feel the grace of God calling you, lift up your heart to God with humble love and with a naked intention to God alone. The author suggests that you take a one-syllable word such as “God” or “love” to use as a focus to suppress all thoughts. If you are tempted to think of your goal, the word is your answer. Reasoning is a divine ability, but it may be used for good or evil. The author considers the active life lower and the contemplative life higher. The active life begins and ends in the world, but the contemplative life goes on eternally. In the higher part of the active life is inward activity. The higher part of the contemplative life is beyond yourself in God. Even in this life love may reach up to God, but knowledge cannot. In the darkness your mind may be engaged with something less than God, but above you is only God. Let God draw you up to that cloud of unknowing beyond the mind.

Harboring thoughts about natural ability, knowledge, charm, position, or beauty are Pride. Thoughts about wealth, possessions, or ownership are Avarice. Thinking about food or drink is Gluttony, and desires for pleasure, flirting, and fawning are Lust. Hold to your firm intention and penetrate the cloud of unknowing with the “sharp dart of longing love.”6 If the love is truthful, then all the other virtues will be included. Virtue is a deliberate affection directed to God for his own sake. Thus God is the pure cause of all virtues. The two main virtues are love and humility, for whoever truly has these needs no more. Humility is true awareness of yourself as you really are. Realizing human weakness and the love and worth of God brings humility.

The author believed that contemplation is the quickest way for a converted sinner to obtain God’s forgiveness. A true contemplative avoids the active life and will not even defend oneself against criticism. The story of Jesus saying that the loving Mary chose a better way than the busy Martha is used to justify the contemplative life. The best prayer does not focus on a particular person. Before attempting deep contemplation one must purify one’s conscience of all sins. Then one must persevere in contemplation, willingly bearing suffering and judging no one. Reading, meditating, and praying are three good habits for the beginner. Again the author recommends a one-syllable word as the shortest and most effective prayer. “In itself prayer is nothing else than a devout setting of our will in the direction of God in order to get good and remove evil.”7 Moderation is recommended in everything except in contemplation, which helps perfect moderation in everything else. The author advises,

See to it that there is nothing at work
in your mind or will but only God.
Try to suppress all knowledge and feeling
of anything less than God,
and trample it down deep under the cloud of forgetting.8

One must lose self-centered consciousness in order to reach the heights of contemplation. This can be done by longing for God. The author describes many snares that need to be avoided. One must discern between good and evil joys. Sensual consolations are not essential to perfection in life which comes from a good will. Physical descriptions such as “up” and “in” do not elucidate the spiritual life. The flesh is to be subject to the spirit, not the reverse.

The three major faculties of the soul are the mind (which includes memory), reason, and will. The minor faculties are imagination and the senses. Reason and will work spiritually without help from the minor faculties. Imagination and the senses work in the physical life and in animals and do not require reason and will. Mind spiritually embraces all the other faculties. Reason distinguishes good from bad. Will chooses the good after it has been discerned by reason. We exercise the will when we love God. Imagination can picture anything in the past, present or future. Spiritually the imagination needs to be directed by reason and will, or it may be perverted. The senses perceive and also control bodily reactions. Whenever the mind is involved in something physical, it is beneath itself and outside the soul. When the mind is engaged with the higher faculties such as the virtues, then it is within yourself. When the mind is directed toward God, then you are above yourself and beneath God.

When one withdraws all one’s powers and thoughts within oneself, then one may seem to be nowhere. The superficial self may ridicule contemplation as a waste of time. Yet being nowhere physically is to be everywhere spiritually. In this nowhere the soul may look at its past sins and by hard work and many sighs and tears may wash them away. The highest understanding of God comes from Grace beyond our spiritual knowledge. Different contemplatives have different experiences.

Wyclif and the English Bible

John Wyclif was born about 1324, and he was educated at Oxford. As one of the seculars who had to pay his own way, he may have resented the friars who had all their expenses paid. He had become master of Balliol by 1360. Wyclif was ordained a priest, and on May 4, 1361 he was installed as vicar of Fillingham in Lincolnshire. The next year Pope Urban V granted him the prebend for the church of Westbury near Bristol. Although statute specified that the warden should be a monk, Archbishop Islip of Canterbury appointed Wyclif warden of Canterbury Hall in 1365; but Islip’s successor Langham had Wyclif replaced in 1367. When the seculars refused to accept Langham, Islip dispossessed the seculars. Wyclif and his colleagues appealed to Pope Urban, but they lost. In 1366 he was cited for being a non-resident canon and for having failed to provide a chaplain for his prebend of Aust. In 1368 Wyclif exchanged Fillingham for Ludgershall, and he got permission to be at Oxford for several more years. In 1371 Pope Gregory XI provided Wyclif with the canonry in Lincoln, and he earned his doctor of divinity in 1372.

In 1371 papal nuncio Arnold Garnier had arrived in England to recover all property bequeathed for the deliverance of the holy land. However, in February 1372 Garnier was forced by King Edward III to swear before Chancellor Thorpe and others that he would not act contrary to the interests of the realm nor take any treasure out of England for the pope or cardinals. Wyclif may have been present; but even if he was not, he was impressed by this. In April 1374 Edward III gave the rectory of Lutterworth to Wyclif, and he resigned Ludgershall. In July the King sent him on a commission to Bruges to negotiate peace with France and resolve differences over appointments in England with papal agents.

Wyclif wrote treatises on civil and divine dominion, suggesting that a church in sin should give up its possessions. Three principles he emphasized were that the clergy and especially the pope should be humble and ready to serve, that they must remove themselves from secular affairs according to the apostolic example, and that thus the Church should be relieved of its excessive endowments. Under the influence of John of Gaunt, Wyclif preached in favor of moderate disendowment. Wyclif agreed with the Franciscan Spirituals that possessions, not only by monks and friars but also by the Church itself, are evil because poverty is the way of the true Church. Thus he repudiated all costly churches, especially those of friars. In his sermons Wyclif urged that the goods of the friars be seized and given to the poor in London. In his book On the Duties of a Priest he suggested that if a priest or bishop was a sinner, then his parishioners should refuse to tithe to him.

William Courtenay, the young bishop of London, summoned Wyclif to appear before him and Archbishop Sudbury on February 19, 1377 at St. Paul’s. John of Gaunt provided Wyclif with one friar from each of the four mendicant orders, and he appeared with him along with the King’s marshal Henry Percy. They asked that Wyclif be allowed to sit down during the examination; but Courtenay said he must stand, and he denied the Marshal had any magisterial rights in the church. A quarrel ensued between the prelates and the secular authorities, and Gaunt’s party withdrew with Wyclif before any questioning. Londoners were angry over what was presented at Parliament, and they broke into Percy’s house and released his prisoner. Then they went to Gaunt’s home in Savoy, hoping to get Peter de la Mare released. A priest who refused to give in to them was beaten to death. Then Courtenay arrived and persuaded the crowd not to be seditious during Lent.

On May 22, 1377 Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against Wyclif with a list of nineteen suspected propositions taken mostly from his De Civili Dominio, and he called for his arrest. Three of the five letters the Pope addressed to Sudbury and Courtenay blamed them for not preventing Wyclif’s radical views from being spread, instructed them what to do to Wyclif, and assured Edward III, his sons, Joan, and the nobility that Wyclif’s doctrines were contrary to the faith. Gregory also sent a separate letter to the King, and the fifth was addressed to Oxford University and its chancellor. Before these documents arrived, Wyclif urged the first Parliament under Richard II to withhold papal taxes. Wyclif’s teachings were found to be similar to those of Marsilius which had already been condemned. If Sudbury or Courtenay found that Wyclif taught such doctrines, he was to be arrested. Pope Gregory asked Edward III to help the bishops, who were made papal commissioners and were to set up an investigation in England.

Fearing violence, Wyclif refused to go to St. Paul’s, but he appeared before the bishops at Lambeth in March 1378. Prince Edward’s widow Joan tried to intervene on Wyclif’s behalf through Lewis Clifford. The bishops prohibited Wyclif from spreading his theses in schools or sermons. He sent an explanation to the Pope, and he published a summary of his De Civili Dominio as Thirty-three Conclusions on the Poverty of Christ in both English and Latin. His two main theses were that no one in sin could exercise lordship, and anyone in a state of grace has real lordship. He argued that if the state determined that a church official was delinquent in his duties, then he could be deprived of income from his lands. Wyclif also wrote,

If through the absence of temporal cooperation
one could destroy the power and abuse of the tyrant,
we should withdraw our cooperation from him.9

Wyclif’s treatise on the truth of sacred scripture was published in 1378, and in this he argued that all lying is sinful; a good intention does not justify falsehood, even for the pope. He warned that making the pope a god on Earth could result in him being the anti-Christ. In his De Officio Regis he argued that the king represents the divinity of Christ while a priest represents his humanity. He criticized the abuses of the Church caused by its love of temporal gain. After Gaunt’s men killed squire Hawley taking refuge in Westminster Abbey and a sacristan, Wyclif argued before the Parliament at Gloucester in October 1378 that royal servants had the right to bring criminals to justice even from sanctuaries.

Wyclif studied the original teachings of Jesus and objected to church rituals; he could not agree with the doctrine of the eucharist transubstantiation that the spiritual presence of the Christ also made the physical bread his body. Chancellor Berton at Oxford put this doctrine under scrutiny by a biased panel, and two of his doctrines were condemned. Wyclif argued that Jesus conferred spiritual powers on Peter, not metal keys, and that all saints that come to heaven have these spiritual keys. He bitterly criticized and satirized the pope’s practice of getting money by tribute and taxation, comparing such priests to those who clip coins and cut purses. Wyclif lamented that Bible study was excluded from the religious life and that officials were reluctant to spread this knowledge among the people. He called the scriptures “God’s Law,” and he believed that every person should know and obey the law of God directly. In 1380 he began directing work on translating the Bible so that an order of Poor Preachers could take its message to the people. Wyclif believed it was a fundamental sin to withhold the scriptures from the laity, and he held that the first duty of a priest is to make them known in the mother-tongue of the people. He defended his view of the eucharist in his Confession in May 1381.

Wyclif sympathized with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 that arose after a flat tax of half a mark was laid on the head of all clergy; poor vicars had to pay as much as rich prelates; deacons, acolytes, and other inferiors had to pay one shilling. People were upset by government corruption, rampaging soldiers, and because Parliament had forced all adults to work for their present lord at the same pay as was current before the Black Death even though Edward III had depreciated the silver coinage in 1351. During the uprising the propertied and clergy such as Despenser of Norwich sided with the state by hanging hundreds of peasants. Wyclif denounced the taxes and fines that monasteries levied against their villeins, but he objected to the violence. He believed that serfdom should not be hereditary so that the institution could peacefully die out. Even if the clergy held superfluous wealth, he did not believe they should be put to death.

Shortly after the revolt Wyclif in his de Blasphemia urged patience and clemency to avoid hatred and division in the realm, and he blamed the people’s excesses for the murder of Canterbury’s archbishop Simon of Sudbury; yet he did assert that Sudbury died in sin because he also held the office of chancellor. His successor, William Courtenay, condemned the works of Wyclif in 1382, and Oxford banned his writings. A synod at Blackfriars arrested many of his followers but left Wyclif himself alone, perhaps because he suffered a stroke that year. Yet 24 conclusions from his writings were condemned; ten were declared heretical and fourteen erroneous. The doctrines called heretical are as follows:

1. That the substance of the material bread and wine remains in the sacrament of the altar after consecration.
2. That the accidents do not remain without the subject in the same sacrament after consecration.
3. That Christ is not in the sacrament of the altar identically, and really, in his proper corporeal presence.
4. That if a bishop or priest be in mortal sin, he may not ordain, consecrate, or baptize.
5. That if a man be truly contrite, all exterior confession is superfluous and unprofitable to him.
6. To declare obstinately that it is not established in the gospel that Christ ordained the mass.
7. That God must obey the devil.
8. That if the pope be a reprobate and an evil man, and consequently a member of the devil, he has no power given him over faithful Christians from anyone, except perhaps from the emperor.
9. That after Urban VI, no one is to be received as pope, but every man should live after the manner of the Greeks, under his own laws.
10. To say it is contrary to the holy scripture that ecclesiastical ministers may have temporal possessions.10

For the Parliament of May 1382 he wrote papers on disendowing the Church and ending imprisonment for excommunication. On May 21 a major earthquake struck England with its epicenter at Kent. The bell tower of Canterbury cathedral crumbled to the ground; the nave was so cracked that it was considered unsafe. Many people believed that this was another sign that England was a sinful nation. Courtenay blamed Wyclif’s belief that Church wealth should be redistributed for the attacks on the monasteries and clergy, and he used an ordinance, which was denounced by the Commons, to arrest defenders of the condemned doctrines. On May 30 he ordered the condemned conclusions published in every church in his province.

Nicholas Hereford defended Wyclif in a sermon on Ascension  Day and urged King Richard II to lessen the tax burden on the laity by reforming the clergy. Oxford’s new chancellor Robert Rigg then appointed Philip Repingdon, another supporter of Wyclif, to give the sermon on June 5. One week later Rigg was charged with contempt of the Archbishop, and he submitted. He was ordered to keep Wyclif from preaching or performing any academic action. A search was to be made, and books by Wyclif and Hereford were to be sent to the Archbishop. Wyclif, Hereford, Repingdon, John Aston, and Lawrence Steven were banned from teaching, and they were ordered to appear before the Archbishop to recant. Hereford and Repingdon won over many Londoners who tried to stop the second hearing of the inquisition. Repingdon and Steven recanted. Hereford decided to appeal to Pope Urban VI, and he went to Rome, where he was condemned and sentenced to death; but the Pope commuted his sentence to life in prison. Meanwhile Archbishop Courtenay ordered the Oxford committee to burn all of Wyclif’s manuscripts they could find. Wyclif was in ill health and suffered a major stroke in November 1382 that left him partially paralyzed.

Wyclif was also disgusted by the crusade Bishop Henry Despenser of Norwich was preparing for Urban VI against the Avignon Pope Clement VII in 1383, and he wrote tracts condemning the clerics, curates, prelates, priests, and monks as enemies of peace and maintainers of war in order to perpetuate their possessions and rob poor tenants. He especially criticized the friars for preaching the crusade against other Christians. If they loved peace, they would give up their lordships in charity; but they maintain armed men to kill Christians in the thousands. Using biblical scholarship, Wyclif challenged the Church’s authority to sanctify war. In his Trialogus Wyclif used a discussion between Alithia (truth), Pseustis (falsehood), and Pronesis (wisdom) to elucidate the principles that if the Bible and the Church do not agree, one should follow the Bible; when conscience and human authority conflict, one should obey conscience. This was the first work by Wyclif that was publicly burned and also the first that was printed. Wyclif was summoned to Rome by Pope Urban VI, but he refused to go and sent him a letter explaining his views. Wyclif noted that Jesus had refused to let the people make him king, and he urged the Pope also to renounce all worldly lordship. Wyclif died on the last day of 1384.

Wyclif organized the first complete translation of the Bible into English, and Nicholas Hereford began working on a word-for-word translation from Jerome’s Latin version. Hereford had to flee from England in 1382, but John Purvey soon completed the first translation. While Pope Urban was away in June 1385, Romans rioted and released the Pope’s prisoners from the Vatican, including Hereford. The treatise On the Seven Deadly Sins has been attributed to Wyclif; but it was written in a western dialect he did not use, and it was published by Hereford. It noted that anger is the opposite of fellowship and charity and can lead to war; but the Christ taught the law of patience and that men should not fight bodily.

William Swynderby was charged by the bishops of Hereford and Lincoln in 1390 and went into hiding. Swynderby sent a letter to the bishop of Hereford, pointing out that Jesus taught loving our enemies, but the pope’s law permits hating and killing them for money. Two Cambridge professors replied that a just war against infidels was holy; but Walter Brut supported Swynderby’s view and criticized the Roman pontiff for promoting wars not only against infidels but against Christians too for earthly goods. Swynderby appeared before a bishop at Kington on June 30, 1391; he wrote out his defense in English, and in Latin he accused the friars and lecherous priests. When he did not return for sentencing, he was excommunicated. He was able to avoid the sheriffs and preached in Herefordshire and Shropshire.

In January 1395 Wyclif’s followers, called the Lollards, presented “Twelve Conclusions” to Parliament. These criticized the Church of England for doting on temporalities, claiming more than angelic authority, priestly celibacy causing shameful evils, idolatry of the bread sacrament, exorcisms and benedictions that are necromancy, making prelates secular judges, offering special prayers, rituals involving crosses and images that are idolatry, priests abusing confessions and blessings and excommunications, killing in war or for any temporal cause in violation of Christ’s teaching to love enemies, vows of chastity by women causing sins, and practicing unnecessary arts in waste, luxury, and showy apparel. The bishops responded with sixteen charges against the heretics, condemning the belief that it is not lawful to kill any person. Purvey and Lollards published a second English translation of the entire Bible in the late 1390s that was much more readable. Those called Lollards referred to themselves as “true men” or “Christian men,” and they went even further than Wyclif in denouncing war and promoting English translations of the scriptures. Wyclif’s views would later be condemned at the Council of Constance, and on December 16, 1427 his bones were exhumed and burned before the ashes were thrown off a bridge in to the River Swift.

Pearl, Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain

Pearl, Purity, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight were discovered in a manuscript from the end of the 14th century, and they were probably written by the same person in the last forty years of the century in the northwest midland area of England.

In Pearl the poet describes a flawless and clear pearl that he lost in the grass. He feels sad and falls into a sleep. His soul goes forth into another place where the rocks in a stream sparkle like gems. Across the stream he sees a young woman dressed in white sitting by a crystal cliff, and her mantle is bound with lovely pearls. She removes her crown and greets him cheerfully. He asks if she is the pearl he lost. She replies that he is wrong to grieve for her as though she were lost. She departed from life at a young age, like the poet’s daughter, and has become a bride of the Lamb, who crowned her his queen in heaven. The dreamer doubts that she could take the place of the Virgin; but she answers that in God’s realm all kings and queens live in perfect charity. He wonders why a child should have the same reward as one who suffered longer in the world, and she explains that all who are innocent as a child enter heaven.

He asks what use is a treasure that he must lose again. She says that his prayer may secure mercy. The Lord loves the humble and gentle and hates arrogant pride. She repeats the parable about the workers in the vineyard who all receive the same reward beginning with those who come last. The innocent and the just receive the same reward. She urges him to renounce the world and buy the spotless pearl. She is one of the 144,000 brides of the Lamb who died for them in Jerusalem. The New Jerusalem is a city of God and peace. The poet asks her to bring him to that blessed place. She tells him to follow the stream up toward its source, and he sees the New Jerusalem and a procession of maidens wearing white robes and crowns. The dreamer longs for the pearl maiden and tries to join her by crossing the stream. Then suddenly he is wrenched out of his dream and wakes up in the garden on the grass. Later he gives up his lost pearl and prays that God will grant us precious pearls.

Purity begins with a discussion based on the teaching of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) The poet recounts his parable of the wedding feast from Matthew 22:1-14 and his parable of invitations to a feast in Luke 14:16-24. Then the poet tells the stories of Noah and the flood, Sodom and the family of Lot, and Belshazzar’s feast. The poet implies that God does not tolerate uncleanness and punishes it quite severely. The destruction of all humanity except for Noah’s family is almost a complete catastrophe. The poet believes that homosexual activity perverts God’s greatest physical gift of bliss to humans, and God appears to be so angry that Lot’s wife is destroyed for even a minor disobedient act. Zedekiah and Belshazzar are punished for perverting the worship of God. The Dead Sea is a symbol of sin. The ministry of Jesus makes the corrupt whole again. The Christ offers joy (a feast) in heaven and rejects those who are too busy to come, inviting the poor. Noah is faithful to God’s word, and Abraham properly provides hospitality to guests. Even Nebuchadnezzar is rewarded for respecting the religion. Lucifer fell because of pride but was not too severely punished. Nebuchadnezzar later fell too; but he repented, and Lucifer did not. Adam’s disobedience is being expiated.

Patience is a shorter poem and begins with the eight beatitudes Jesus gave in the sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:1-12). The poet writes that Patience and Poverty are sisters and work together. Poverty is the first beatitude, and Patience is the last that bears persecution. The poet tells the story of the reluctant prophet Jonah to show that if one does not patiently endure, then one’s situation may become worse. When God decides not to punish the people of Nineveh, Jonah complains that his preaching has been turned into lies. God shows him that patience means acceptance and charity. Jonah has gone through a lot, but still he should realize it is better for the people of Nineveh to be forgiven and survive.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a myth set in the court of King Arthur. A large knight in green says he comes in peace and is not spoiling for a fight. He suggests a Christmas game, and Sir Gawain accepts the challenge on New Year’s Day. Gawain modestly says he is weak in mind and body; he is only honored because Arthur is his uncle. The Green Knight will accept the first blow from an ax on his neck, and Gawain agrees to seek him out to receive his blow one year later. With the ax Gawain chops off the head of the green knight; but he picks up his head and mounts his horse, and after charging Gawain to find him at the Green Chapel, he rides away.

Gawain is known for his goodness, and he is devoted to the five virtues of franchise, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and charity. He travels through the realm of Logres looking for the Green Chapel, but no one knows where it is. He prays to mother Mary he may find a place where he may hear mass on Christmas. A lord welcomes him to his castle and is pleased that he is from King Arthur’s court. Gawain meets an elderly lady and the lord’s beautiful wife, who finds his company amusing. He asks about the Green Chapel and the green knight, and he is assured that it is very near there and that he will be taken there on New Year’s Day. The lord plans to go hunting, and he makes a pact with Gawain that they will exchange whatever each wins. While the lord is out hunting, the beautiful woman talks with Gawain and kisses him on the lips. The next day she tells Gawain that she will do whatever he commands, and she kisses his face. On that day the lord kills a large boar with his sword. The next day the woman offers Gawain a valuable ring, but he refuses to accept it. Instead she gives him a sash of green silk. When he accepts it, she tells him not to tell her lord. She kisses him a third time. Gawain goes to a priest and is granted absolution. Gawain kisses the lord three times, and the lord says he caught a fox.

Gawain asks for a guide to the Green Chapel, and he wraps the green sash around his red robe on New Year’s Day. The servant is afraid to stay with him because the knight he is meeting is mighty, cruel, and kills for pleasure. The Green Knight walks to a field of snow with his ax and meets Gawain there. Gawain says he can take his blow without opposition, and he bows. The Green Knight is about to strike, but he holds back the handle as Gawain flinches. The knight doubts he is Gawain, who says he will not shy away again. A second time the Green Knight holds back the ax, and Gawain does not move. Then the Green Knight uses his ax and nicks the nape of Gawain’s neck, spattering blood on the ground. Gawain puts on his helmet and says no more strokes or he will fight back. The Green Knight releases him from any other duties. He recognizes his wife’s green sash and says he sent her to test him with her advances. He proclaims Gawain “the finest man that ever walked this earth.”11 The Green Knight gives Gawain a gold-embroidered girdle. Gawain thanks him and says he will remember the frailty of foolish flesh. He asks his name, and the Green Knight says he is Bertilak de Hautdesert. He explains that the elderly lady is Morgan le Fay, Gawain’s aunt. Gawain’s cut neck heals into a scar, and he is welcomed back at King Arthur’s court. Arthur proclaims that his knights of the round table shall each wear a baldric of burning green in honor of Gawain.

Piers the Plowman

William Langland was born about 1332 in Shropshire and died about 1400. He studied theology at a monastery, but he lacked a patron to go beyond minor orders. He wandered and lived in London, copying legal manuscripts. Later he lived with his wife and daughter in Cornhill. While writing poetry he lived near poverty, making a little money performing prayers for wealthy patrons. His first (A) version of Piers the Plowman was composed about 1370 in twelve steps (passus). The B version revised and extended it to twenty steps in the late 1370s. The C text in 23 steps has many revisions and may have been written by an imitator in the 1380s or 1390s. The B text is the most widely distributed and is summarized here. The poem is not in rhyme, but a pattern of alliteration is used in each line. The poet blamed Edward III for the ruinous campaign in France that followed his failing to keep the peace treaty of Brétigny. In the first version of his poem Langland had hope that Prince Edward would become a good king; but after Richard II became king, his vision changed to hoping for the reign of Christ in which all weapons would be transformed into farm tools.

In the prolog of Piers the Plowman the poet dressed as a hermit roams through the world. He falls asleep by a river and dreams he sees people on a plain between the Tower of Truth and the Dungeon of Falsehood. They are seeking gain, and he notices many greedy clerics. A king has been established to maintain law. The fable of rats and mice trying to bell the cat symbolizes the failure of the commons to restrain their tyrant.

In a dream Lady Holy Church explains that Truth is God and provides worldly goods for survival. She advises the poet not to trust his body because the Devil in the Dungeon uses those desires to deceive people. The dreamer asks her for advice, and she suggests seeking Truth. The Father of Lies fell from Heaven. She says that God (Truth) is Love and is found in the heart. Faith and virtue come from Love. Falsehood’s daughter Fee has an illicit relationship with Fraud, but Theology stops them. So Fee heads toward Westminster; but the king intends to arrest them, and they scatter. His officers arrest only Fee. She tries to get along in court by promising favors. The king will pardon her if she will marry Conscience; but he refuses and denounces her before the king. Conscience criticizes Fee and prophesies a society of truth and peace without Fee. Any man who refuses to give up his weapon may be put to death. The weapons are to be turned into farm tools. Because Conscience refuses to marry Fee, the king summons Reason for advice. Conscience brings Reason to court, where Crime is accused of oppressing people. Worldly Wisdom and Fee argue on behalf of Crime, but Reason persuades the king and the majority of the court. The king promises to follow Reason and Conscience in all things.

The dreamer awakes and falls asleep again. Reason preaches on the Plain against sin. The seven deadly sins confess to Repentance and ask Christ to forgive them. They are Pride, Lechery, Envy, Anger, Avarice (coveting), Gluttony, and Sloth. Piers Plowman speaks up and says he serves Truth and can guide them. When people learn how difficult it is, many leave and go home. Piers offers to go with pilgrims but asks them to help him on his farm first. They agree; but some men shirk from working until Hunger punishes them. After Hunger is put to sleep, they become idle. Truth sends Piers a pardon for his sins and those of his helpers who work honestly. When a priest reads the document, they discover it merely says those who do well will go to Heaven and those who do evil go to hell. Piers rips up the pardon, gives up farming, and begins a life of penance and prayer. He argues with the priest, and the dreamer awakes. He decides that doing well is what is most important for salvation.

In the second part the poet wanders  looking for Do-well. Two friars say that Do-well lives with them, but Will disputes that. A friar says that God has given humans free will and intelligence to take care of themselves. The poet continues on his quest and falls asleep in a forest, where he dreams that he meets Thought. He gives his theory of Do-well, but it is not practical. He advises Will to ask Intelligence, who explains that Do-well guards the castle Flesh, created by God and Nature. God with his Word is giving him eternal life. The Soul is to be governed by Good Sense. He reproaches those who abuse the gift of Sense, and he says the Church should protect them. A prelate who does not distribute the patrimony of Christ to those in need is a traitor. Those who fear God Do Well; those who love God Do Better; and those who abstain from words or time Do Best. Intelligence lectures him on the uses and abuses of marriage, and he concludes that Do-well is to do as the Law requires; Do-better loves both friends and foes; and Do-best takes care of the young and the old.

Lady Study is the wife of Intelligence, and she criticizes the dreamer for being only casually interested in intellectual pursuits. When he begs for a pardon, she sends him to her cousins Learning and Scripture. They receive him well, and Learning lectures about Do-well, castigating the hypocrisy of those in religious orders. Then they discuss whether good works are needed for salvation. The dreamer wonders if Do-well and Do-better are kingship and knighthood; but Scripture replies that they never got a man closer to Heaven anymore than riches and power. Then the dreamer goes on about how learning is detrimental to salvation, which is predestined. Scripture condemns this idea, and the poet falls into a deeper dream. For 45 years he follows the goddess Fortune. When he reaches Old Age, Fortune and friars desert him. He complains about this, but then he sees Good Faith. Scripture comes back and preaches how difficult salvation is, though the pagan Trajan was released from hell. Good Faith teaches that the love and poverty of Christ are the way to salvation. The dreamer continues debating until he meets Nature. Seeing the wonders of creation, he turns against Reason, who criticizes him. He wakes from this deep sleep ashamed and in confusion.

Still dreaming, he decides to follow Imagination, who shows him how he has wasted his life. Imagination explains his views of Do-well, Do-better, and Do-best. He disapproves of riches and shows him how Learning and Wisdom can aid salvation. The dreamer awakes completely but is bewildered and falls asleep again. In his dream Conscience invites him to dine with Scripture, Learning, and a master of divinity; but the dreamer and Patience are seated at a side table with simpler food. After his feast the master friar answers his question about Do-well briefly. The dreamer is not impressed, and Conscience asks what Learning and Patience think. Learning is not sure, but Patience claims he has a charm that has Do-well. Conscience is won over and follows Patience as a pilgrim. They meet the active man Haukyn, who describes his work as a baker. However, they notice that his clothes are smeared with various sins, and he confesses it is true.

Conscience advises Haukyn how to clean his Baptism suit with Contrition, and Patience nourishes him spiritually. Patience teaches him how Poverty can overcome each of the seven deadly sins. Patience summarizes, saying in Latin,

Poverty is a hateful blessing, the putting off of cares,
possession without fraud, the gift of God,
the mother of health, a narrow way without disquiet,
the nurse of wisdom, business without loss,
an unsettled fortune, yet a happiness without anxiety.12

Haukyn is persuaded to repent, and the poet awakes.

The poet tries for many years to understand Do-well and does not respect officers. Finally Reason takes pity on him and rocks him to sleep. He dreams about Anima, which means spirit or soul. The poet quotes Isidore’s interpretation of some of its meanings as follows:

The soul has different names
according to its different functions:
while it animates the body, it is Life;
while it wills, it is Soul;
while it knows, it is Mind;
while it recollects, it is Memory;
while it consents or refuses, it is Conscience;
while it breathes and lives, it is Spirit.13

The poet is very eager to learn from Anima and is reprimanded for seeking knowledge vainly. Anima preaches against proud clerics and corrupt priests. The dreamer asks him what charity is, and Anima says that Piers (Peter) the Christ can make it visible. He praises the discipline of the desert fathers. He is sad that learning has decayed and that avaricious prelates reserve treasure for their relatives, servants, and executors. He emphasizes the responsibilities of the priests toward the poor. Monks who accept gifts should give away more than they receive, satisfying only their needs. In his long sermon he notes that when Constantine endowed the Church, that wealth poisoned the Church.

Charity is like precious trees that grow under the guidance of Piers. Hearing that name, the poet goes into a deeper dream. Piers explains the tree and knocks down some of the fruit, but the Devil quickly snatches it up and carries it off. When Piers goes after him, the dreamer sees the life of Jesus from the annunciation to the cross. The dreamer awakens from the deeper dream and goes looking for Piers. He meets Abraham, who is called Faith. Then the dreamer sees Hope, who is Moses carrying the Tables of the Law. His charter has been concisely summarized as “Love God and love your neighbor.”14 He is traveling with Faith and Hope when a Samaritan on a mule catches up to them. They all see a wounded man on the side of the road. Faith and Hope hurry on, but the Samaritan stops and helps him, taking him to an inn. As the Samaritan continues on to Jerusalem, the dreamer offers to serve him. He explains to the dreamer that he needs to believe in both Faith and Hope.

After more wandering, the poet falls asleep again, dreaming about Jesus entering Jerusalem, his trial, crucifixion, and death. The dreamer flees and arrives at the border of hell, where he sees God’s four daughters Righteousness, Truth, Mercy, and Peace discussing a light at the gate. The Christ is breaking into hell to bind Lucifer in chains and bring out the righteous souls. The four daughters are reconciled, and they sing and dance in joy. The poet is awakened by church bells on Easter morning and takes his wife and children to worship Christ.

The poet falls asleep during the Mass and dreams he sees Jesus carrying his cross. Conscience explains how the Christ fulfilled his mission as a knight, king, and a conqueror. After the resurrection he gives to Piers (Peter) and the apostles the power of bishops so that they can live as Do-best. Grace gives Piers Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John to pull his plow and also Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory's the scholar, and Jerome. The seeds are the cardinal virtues of Prudence, Moderation, Fortitude, and Justice. The dreamer sees the Holy Spirit descending on them and distributing gifts to Christians. Piers becomes his plowman so that he can plow the field of the world. As the Antichrist is about to attack, Conscience directs Christians to bolster their defense in unity as the Church. Then Conscience offers them the Eucharist as a reward. Some refuse to pay back what they have taken, and the dreamer learns from a vicar that they are not prepared. Conscience complains that a bad Pope sends armies out to kill the people he is supposed to save.

The poet Will continues his wandering in hunger and misery, and Need reproaches him for being weak, praising poverty. He falls asleep again and dreams he sees the coming of the Antichrist. Conscience and a few loyal supporters defend the castle of Unity. Nature helps them by sending Old Age, Death, and the Plague against his enemies. Yet after the Plague ends, people return to being reckless in pleasure. Old Age attacks the dreamer, who adheres to Unity. Conscience lets a friar in to hear confessions, but he makes penance so easy that they lose their fear of sin. Conscience, needing help against the Antichrist, begins a final pilgrimage to find Piers. Finally the dreamer cries out for Grace and awakes.

Gower’s Confessio Amantis

The poet John Gower was born about 1330 in a wealthy Kentish family in Suffolk. He acquired much property and was an absentee landlord, spending some time at court. He supported Edward III’s claims in France. However, in 1369 he joined a group of prelates in opposing more taxes because a truce with France had been broken. He was a friend of Chaucer, who gave him power of attorney when he went to Lombardy in 1378.

In his early French poem, The Mirror of One Meditating (Speculum Meditantis), Gower began by describing the origin of sin and then discussed the vices and virtues. The seven deadly sins seemed to have developed in the monasteries, but they had been taken over by the court. Then he criticized the London of the 1370s. He reminded knights that God looks into your heart and that even in a just cause one must do no wrong. Love, pity, and charity keep war far away. Although he began the poem defending Edward III’s claim to France, in discussing the king’s role he criticized his taxing the clergy to support a war. He was probably criticizing the King’s mistress Alice Perrers when he argued that a king who is deceived by a woman he loves more than God has abandoned his honor for foolish joy. Such a king is not feared and surrenders his shield to battle in bed. Gower supported the rise of the commercial class, and he castigated Lombards for despoiling English merchants. He criticized both the tyranny of the rich and violent rebellion by the poor.

In his Latin poem Vox Clamantis (Voice of One Crying) Gower described the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. He condemned the bloodshed by the peasants as following the Antichrist, but he criticized all three estates. He blamed the clerics for practicing war when they should restore peace, and he castigated the lords for gaining loot from war and laughing at those who suffer or complain. Disillusioned by the Norwich Crusade of 1383, Gower compared the peaceful preaching of Peter to Pope Urban VI’s fighting and killing with armies for riches. Gower believed that knights should serve the common good, defend orphans and widows, and protect the Church; but he lamented that avarice often leads them astray. In Vox Clamantis and his Cronica Tripertita, which covers the years 1387-99, he criticized King Richard for being undisciplined and neglecting moral behavior. Older men pursue gain and tolerate scandals for the boy’s pleasure. Because he jokes about wrongdoing and finds dishonor a glorious sport, his destiny leads to wrong. Because law is failing, wrongdoing has become its own justification.

Gower wrote his poem Confessio Amantis (The Lover’s Shrift) in English; it has 34,000 lines and is considered his greatest work. The prolog says it was composed at the request of King Richard in his sixteenth year (1383), and the first version of the poem was published in 1390 and was dedicated to Richard. About two years later Gower dedicated the second version to Henry of Lancaster. The third version was published in 1393 and became the standard work. Almost the entire poem is written with eight syllables on each line in rhymed couplets. In the prolog Gower criticized all of society and lamented, “Love has grown all discordant now.”15 He concluded the prolog with a plea that all men on every side pray to Christ for peace. Confessio Amantis includes 150 stories illustrating its points.

In the first book of Confessio Amantis the poet indicates he is going to focus on love, which often causes men to lose their self-control. He prays to Venus, the goddess of Love, and to her son Cupid, who sends a dart into his heart but does not linger. Venus asks who he is and what is his complaint. The poet says he serves in her courts. She asks him to disclose his sickness by confessing to a priest all his sins related to love. There follows a dialog between Gower and his Confessor, whose name is Genius. The Confessor asks him to begin with his senses of sight and hearing. Various temptations are described by telling stories such as Ulysses plugging the ears of his crew so that they would not hear the sirens.

The first sin they take up is Pride, and it has five servants. Hypocrisy is the “feigning and pretence of purity and innocence without, who is not so within.”16 However, whatever one gains by guile is later lost. Disobedience goes against one’s conscience, and Gower admits that love has caused him to do that. Murmur and Complaint are closely related to this. Another companion of Pride is called Surquidry, which means Presumption. Pride causes one to presume that one is above others. Gower realizes that Pride causes misery, but he says he never felt proud in love. The Confessor also mentions the vice of Boasting, and Gower promises he will not boast of love at all. Another related vice that brings men down is Vainglory that thinks the joys of this world are so great. Gower admits that he may array himself better for love’s sake and that he has composed songs for his love. In the story of Petronella and King Alfonso she realizes that what is of most worth to a person and of least cost is humility, but what is of least worth and highest cost is pride.

Book Two is on Envy, and the Confessor asks Gower if he has known distress because of the success of others in relation to love. The poet confesses that he has many times seen a happy lover and felt hot resentment. When he has felt he is in Love’s disgrace, he has often hoped that others would fail. The Confessor warns him that one may lose one’s good by spoiling that of others. He warns that Detraction may enlist the aid of calumny to ratify one’s own action. Gower admits that he has haunted his love with slanders because he does not trust his love. He has spied on others and said things to blame them. The Confessor also gives examples of False Semblance or Dissimulation that may wreck love. Another vice is Supplanting one’s rivals. The priest explains that Charity is the virtue that tames Envy, and Pity makes the heart tender toward others.

The third book is on Wrath or Anger that causes the flames of violence to arise. The first servant of Anger is called Melancholy, and for Gower this means sullenness and sadness as well as violent anger. The second servant of Wrath is Chiding, but Gower says he is innocent of that in love except when he chides himself for his own carelessness. A strong form of Wrath is Hatred, and the poet admits that he has hated his lover’s cruel words and liar’s who balk him in love.

Gower asks the Confessor if it is lawful to kill a man. At first the priest indicates that exceptions can be made by a judge for robbery, murder, and treason according to the laws, and one may defend oneself in war. However, when Gower asks about deadly war for a worldly cause, the Confessor says,

If charity be held in awe,
Then deadly wars offend its law:
Such wars make war on Nature too;
Peace is the end her laws pursue –—
Peace, the chief gem in Adam’s wealth;
Peace which is all his life and health.
But in the gangs of war there go
Poverty, pestilence, and woe,
And famine, and all other pain
Whereof we mortal men complain,
Whom war shall trample down until
Our only succor is God’s will.
For it is war that brings us naught,
On Earth, all good that God has wrought:
The church is burnt, the priest is slain;
Virgin and wife, vile rapes constrain;
Law pines away, God is not served:
Now tell me, what has he deserved,
The man who brings such warfare in?
First, if he stirred up war to win
Advantage, count his heavy cost,
With all the people who are lost:
By any worldly reckoning,
The man has not won anything.
Then, if he acts in hope of grace
From heaven, it is not my place
To speak of such rewards; but still,
Both love and peace were Our Lord’s will;
And he who works their opposite
Must reap an ill reward from it.
Since in their nature, as we find,
Battles and wars of every kind
Are so displeasing to Our Lord,
And since their temporal reward
Is woe, it mystifies the mind
To guess at what can ail mankind
That they agree no armistice:
Sin, I think, is what makes us miss;
And sin is paid with death. I know
Not how such matters truly go;
But as for us, who are of one
Belief, in my opinion
Peace were a better thing to choose
Than ways by which we doubly lose.17

The Confessor finds the real cause of war in coveting. He tells a story of a pirate who justifies himself to the great Alexander by arguing he only does on a small scale what Alexander does with his empire. Yet even Alexander met a tragic end. The Confessor concludes that only in a just cause is slaughter justified. Gower then asks if it is lawful for men to go across the sea to slay Saracens, but the Confessor says this is contrary to the examples of the Christ and those he sent out to preach to the world. If they had killed, the faith would be uncertain. Thus all killing is evil, because murder makes men worse than beasts. Finally the Confessor explains that the cures for all forms of Anger are patience and mercy.

The fourth book is on Sloth, and the first degree is Delay that lets all business get behind. Gower confesses that he practices Delay. The second kind of Sloth is called Pusillanimity, which means cowardice. Another form is Accidia or Forgetfulness. The poet admits he suffers from this because he is afraid of his lady. Other kinds of Sloth are Negligence and Idleness. Gower claims he does not suffer from idleness, and the Confessor acquits him on that. Somnolence or sleeping too much is another form of Sloth. Sadness or Despondency is also a vice, and it is related to Obstinacy which prevents one from listening to reason.

The fifth deadly sin is Avarice. The Confessor describes how at first people did not fight over worldly goods because they shared things in common. When men began to collect flocks and horses and oxen, then property began to increase. After the common wealth was made private, money was invented and increased. This led to wars and building walls to protect gold. A miser has wealth but does not want to use it. Instead of owning property, it owns him and makes him its prisoner. Gower believes he does not practice Avarice in relation to love. The story of Midas indicates that gold by itself is not a solution. The Confessor explains that in love Jealousy is a kind of Avarice because it makes the object of one’s love a kind of possession. Coveting is a major form of Avarice. Gower says he does not love his lady for her riches but for her grace, goodness, and beauty. Coveting can also lead to False Witness or Perjury. Usury is a kind of Avarice. The Confessor explains that love does not expect anything in return but considers love an act of grace. Avarice can also be Parsimonious or Mean, and another form is Ingratitude. The Confessor also discusses Rapine or seizing other men’s goods by force, and in love this is the terrible vice of Rape. Avarice may also practice Stealthy Stealing, and lovers may practice Sacrilege. An opposite vice to Avarice is Prodigality, and the virtuous mean between them is Generosity. Prodigality is a vice because it is thoughtless.

The sixth book is on Gluttony. Drunkenness is a form of Gluttony, and the second kind of Gluttony is called Delicacy or Daintiness. One suffers from this in love if one’s appetite cannot be satisfied. Gower denies he suffers from that. Sorcery is also discussed.

The Lover asks Genius how Aristotle educated Alexander, and this becomes the subject of the seventh book. Genius divides philosophy into Theory, Rhetoric, and Practice. The three parts of Theory are Theology, Physics, and Mathematics, which includes Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. Theology is concerned with divine and spiritual things while Physics studies temporal and corporal things such as minerals, plants, animals, and humans. Human nature is of four kinds related to the four elements. Melancholy corresponds to earth, Phlegmatic to water, Sanguine to air, and Choleric to fire. The heart may rule these, and all are inferior to the soul. Astronomy studies the movement of the planets, and Astrology their effects. Mercury has to do with communication, Venus with love, Mars with war, Jupiter with commerce, and Saturn is cold and cruel. Rhetoric has to do with speech, which only humans have. The three branches of Practice are Ethics, Economics, and Policy. The virtues of Policy are Truth and Straightforwardness, Liberality which should avoid Flattery, Justice, and Pity, whose opposite is Cruelty. These are illustrated by stories. The Confessor notes that Solomon did well by asking for Wisdom, which holds the balance between Justice and Mercy. In love a fifth element of Policy is Chastity.

The last book discusses the seventh deadly sin of Lechery. Gower mainly focuses on incest which includes violating the chastity of the religious. He says that he could never dote on a nun. The poet denies that he lusts like a beast, and he says the worst he has done is to wish that Danger would be out of his way with his lady. Gower is deeply grateful to Genius and asks for permission to send a formal petition to Venus. Gower sits on the grass and uses his tears as ink to write his request. Genius carries his message and presents it to Venus. Gower sees Venus beneath a tree, and he humbly kneels on the earth and prays for her grace. She says he must submit to her power in love. She read his complaint but says she is powerless in regard to Nature. She reminds him that he is old, and he begins to understand. Her son Cupid comes and withdraws his dart from the poet and vanishes. Gower asks for liberty to pray, and the Confessor declares that he has been pardoned and forgiven. He is advised to take Reason as his guide and that he not pursue anymore a quarry he cannot attain. The poet is shriven and decides that he will give himself to prayer for the rest of his life.

In 1390 Richard II gave Gower the rectory of Great Braxted in Essex. He lived there until 1397, when he resigned and married Agnes Groundolf. He was going blind, and she apparently took care of him in a Priory until his death in 1408. Gower came to believe that Edward III’s claims in France were not justified, and thus the war was wrong. Gower agreed with the criticisms that accused Richard II of eight violations of his duty to keep the peace toward the clergy and his people. Thus Gower supported Henry IV in his taking of the throne in 1399.

Gower’s last important poem “In Praise of Peace” was written in 1400 when he was going blind, and it is dedicated to the new king Henry IV and begins by presenting his claim to the throne as by the grace of God and popular election. Gower supports the view of Chief Justice Thirning, who had objected to Henry’s claiming the throne by conquest. He warns Henry against presuming he has a right of conquest by comparing what happened to Solomon and to Alexander. The poet reminds Henry of the promise he made on September 30, 1399 that he would not deprive any man of  his heritage, franchise, or rights. Most of the poem urges the new king to maintain peace and put war away. He advises the King to seek good counselors and fulfill his responsibility to maintain domestic tranquility and the rights of Christians against the pagans but to avoid conflicts with other Christians. Finally the poem concludes with an exhortation to seek peace and rule with mercy. “In Praise of Peace” urges the new king to make peace with France. Yet Gower warned him that some appeal to peace for their own ends. The test of peace is if one’s motive is love.

Chaucer and His Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer was born into a prosperous family, probably in 1340 or 1341. His father John Chaucer was a prominent vintner and became deputy to the king’s butler in 1348. He had gone with Edward III to Antwerp in 1338 and owned property in Ipswich as well as in Suffolk and London. Geoffrey grew up speaking English and French, and he learned Latin and Italian. He studied at St. Paul’s Almonry. Geoffrey served Prince Lionel for about three years and was a member of his wife Elizabeth’s household; in 1357 she gave him a complete set of clothes. In 1359 Chaucer went to France as part of the largest army of invasion that Edward III ever mustered. He was captured during the siege of Rheims that failed, and the King paid £16 as part of his ransom in March 1360. During the peace negotiations that year Chaucer was sent as a messenger from Calais to England. Little is known of him in the next five years. He may have been studying law or at Oxford, and he was probably in the King’s service. Chaucer translated the famous Romance of the Rose from French into English.

Chaucer married Philippa Roet, who had been a lady in waiting to Queen Philippa after Elizabeth died in 1363. Philippa was the sister of Kathryn Swynford, the governess and mistress and later the wife of John of Gaunt. She began receiving an annuity of ten marks per year from the royal treasury in 1366, and John of Gaunt became a patron and close friend of Chaucer. On February 22, 1366 King Charles II of Navarre issued a safe-conduct certificate to Chaucer, and he was the chief diplomat on a mission to Spain with three companions and their servants. Geoffrey’s father John died in 1366 or early in 1367. On June 20, 1367 King Edward referred to Chaucer as “our beloved yeomen,” and he was given an annuity. He was apparently studying law when the Temple authorities fined him two shillings for assaulting a friar. Chaucer went with John of Gaunt on an expedition from Calais to Harfleur in 1369.

That year Chaucer completed his first important poem, The Book of the Duchess to commemorate the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first wife. This poem and The House of Fame are written in rhymed couplets with eight syllables on each line. In Duchess the poet has been experiencing sleeplessness. He reads a romance about King Ceyx, who drowns at sea, and his wife Alcyone, who prays to Juno for a dream that will tell her if her husband is still alive. The corpse is taken to her, but the spirit of Ceyx comes to her and says he is dead and not to mourn because she will never see him again. Three days later Alcyone dies. The poet falls asleep and describes his dream. He finds himself in a room with stained-glass windows that depict the story of Troy and Romance of the Rose. He sees a 24-year-old knight dressed in black who is composing a song about his lady who died. He seeks Death who keeps avoiding him. He plays chess with Dame Fortune, loses his queen and is checkmated. The knight tells how he serves Love in his life, and he meets the good and beautiful Blanche the Fair. He declares his love and fidelity, but eventually the poet learns that she is dead. The poet wakes up and decides to put the story in rhyme.

Chaucer traveled to Genoa on the King’s business in December 1372 and returned the following May. He also visited Florence and may have heard Boccaccio’s lectures on Dante. He was in charge of building projects and could have studied Italian architecture. In April 1374 he was awarded a pitcher of wine each day for the rest of his life, and on May 10 he was given a free lease for life on the mansion over Aldgate. On June 8 he became controller of customs and subsidies on wools, skins, and hides and also of the petty customs of wine at the port of London. Five days later John of Gaunt gave Chaucer an annual pension of £10. Chaucer probably agreed with John of Gaunt, who opposed the “Good Parliament of 1376” that removed Alice Perrers from Edward’s court. On December 23 Chaucer went on a secret mission with John Burley, captain of Calais. In February 1377 Chaucer went to France to negotiate a marriage between young Richard and Charles V’s daughter Marie with Richard Stury and Guichard d’Angle. However, Marie suddenly died. Chaucer went with Burley to Lombardy to arrange a marriage between Richard and the duke of Milan’s daughter Caterina. He visited Milan, where Petrarca had spent his last twenty years. This mission also failed, and Chaucer returned to his customs job.

About 1379 Chaucer wrote The House of Fame, which is also a dream of the poet after he invokes the god of sleep. He recounts the story of Aeneas and Dido. In the second book the poet is seized by an eagle and carried in its talons to the House of Fame. In the third book the poet invokes Apollo and describes his dream of the House of Fame and relates stories of the famous people. Some wanting fame even committed evils in order to be remembered. The poet also describes a Hall of Rumor where truth and falsehood are in conflict, but the poem breaks off unfinished.

Chaucer was charged with seducing Cecily Champain, but on May 1, 1380 she released him. Soon after the Peasants Revolt he sold his house in London on June 19, 1381. He translated The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius into English.

Chaucer completed The Parliament of the Birds in 1383, possibly for Valentine’s Day. This and the rest of his major works are written in ten-syllable lines. He admits that he has read about the difficulties of love in many books. He writes about Scipio’s Dream by Tullius Cicero, who describes heaven and hell as well as earth. The ancient Roman tells how any man of virtue who loves the common good will dwell in the eternal joy of heaven. The poet puts the book of Cicero aside and falls asleep. He dreams that Scipio Africanus leads him into a beautiful garden teeming with animals, music, and fragrant breezes. They pray to Venus, and the poet’s guide tells him that he must be a devoted servant of Love to understand what he sees. The poet becomes aware of Pleasure, Adornment, Liking, Courtesy, Craftiness, Delight, Good Breeding, Beauty, and Youth as well as Foolhardiness, Flattery, Desire, Report, and Bribery. Lady Peace and Lady Patience sit by the temple door, and Wealth keeps the door of Venus. He sees many gods and goddesses, and several stories of famous people are portrayed in art. All the birds are picking mates because it is Saint Valentine’s Day. Birds of every kind have assembled there around the goddess Nature. Each group chooses a bird to speak for them. The tercelet falcon, the goose, and the turtle dove discuss love. Nature keeps the peace, and all the birds are allowed to choose their own mates. The different kinds of birds represent the classes and occupations in human society.

Chaucer wrote The Legend of Good Women in the mid-1380s; he planned to write twenty lives but completed only ten. Much of the poem is drawn from Ovid's Metamorphoses and Heroides. In the prolog Chaucer questions heaven and hell because no one alive has been there. The poet walks in the fields and describes a spring day before falling asleep and having a vision of the god of Love who flies in with wings, dressed in silk and adorned with green boughs. The god of Love meets the poet and urges him to write about good and true women. The women are portrayed as heroic martyrs to Love while the men are depicted as unfaithful and vicious. One wonders whether Chaucer’s wife Philippa, who was above his station, had a strong influence on this work.

In telling the legend of Cleopatra the poet skips over her relationship with Julius Caesar and portrays her as faithful to the noble Antony, finally jumping naked into a pit of snakes. The Babylonian Thisbe wants to marry Pyramus, but their fathers keep them separated by a wall. They meet at the tomb of King Ninus. After Pyramus believes she was killed by a lion and kills himself, she joins him by committing suicide also. The tale of Dido is adapted from Virgil's Aeneid. In Chaucer’s version they take refuge from a storm in a cave; Aeneas swears to be true to her before she yields to him. He claims that Mercury told him that he was to conquer Italy. He refuses to take her with him even though she is pregnant.

Hypsipyle and Medea are betrayed by the legendary Jason, and each is abandoned with two of his children. After being threatened with murder and disgrace before being raped by Tarquin, the noble Lucrece takes her own life. Although the usual myth is that Ariadne abandoned Theseus to follow Dionysus, in Chaucer’s version Theseus abandons Ariadne because he prefers her younger sister Phaedra. Tereus rapes his sister-in-law Philomela, cuts out her tongue, and locks her in a prison. Philomela weaves her message into cloth and sends it to her sister Procne. Demophon, the son of Theseus, breaks his marriage oath to the princess Phyllis by abandoning her, and in despair she hangs herself. Danaus tries to make his daughters kill their husbands on their wedding night, but Hypermnestra refuses to cut the throat of Lynceus, who then runs off. Hypermnestra is put in chains. Thus ends abruptly The Legend of Good Women.

Although Troilus and Cressida of Troy are mentioned by ancient authors, the romantic tragedy seems to have been developed in the middle ages by Benoit de Sainte-Maure in his Roman de Troie about 1160, by Guido della Colonne in his Historia Trojana in 1287, and by Boccaccio in his Il Filostrato. Chaucer based his poem on Boccaccio’s version, but he made Pandarus older as the uncle of Cressida and increased the length of the story by half. He wrote his Troilus and Criseyde in the 1380s, using the rhyme scheme of ababbcc with lines of ten syllables.

In his poem Troilus and Criseyde Chaucer presents the priest Calchas as the father of Cressida; but he foresees the destruction of Troy and defects to the Greeks. Hector generously does not hold this against Cressida, who is a beautiful widow dressed in black. Chaucer believes that the men of greatest worth experience the deepest love. When Troilus first sees Cressida, his heart begins to swell and rise. He thanks the god of Love that he has found his love at last. He does not tell her, and his friend Pandar realizes his distress from his groaning and lamenting. He persuades Troilus that she can make no reply until she learns of his love for her; so he tells Pander that she is his niece Cressida. Pandar offers to be an intermediary for him, and Troilus accepts him as his guide and confidant. Troilus then becomes more friendly, gentle, generous, and free. Pandar tells his niece Cressida that Troilus loves her and that she holds the power of life or death over him and that Pandar would die also. She is concerned about her good name, but she is willing to yield with honor to save her uncle’s life. She will not love a man against her will, but she will try to please him day by day. Gradually her love is won by liking him first. Troilus writes a letter to her that Pandar delivers. She refuses to take it, but he grabs her dress and puts the letter down her bosom. She tells Pandar that she thanks Troilus for thinking well of her, and she will try to please him as a sister.

Pandar takes Cressida to Troilus, who blushes. They talk, and she promises to cherish him as he deserves and to replace his woe with bliss, sealing her words with an embrace and a kiss. Troilus thinks how he can serve his lady best. On a rainy day she decides to stay with Pandar to avoid the flood. Her women sleep in the room between. Pandar says that Troilus has come by a secret vent. Pandar asks her to help Troilus, and she offers him a ring. Pandar persuades her, and Troilus kneels by her bed. Cressida learns that he is jealous, and she removes his doubts. Troilus faints, and Pandar appeals to Cressida, undresses Troilus, and puts him in her bed. She puts her arm around his neck and forgives him with soft embraces. Troilus whispers that she is caught, and she says she would not be there if she had not already yielded. A thousand kisses seem like a few, and their love is consummated. Now they cannot endure the idea of separation. In the morning she accuses Pandar of deceiving her; but he offers her his sword to cut off his head, and they are quickly reconciled by her forgiving her uncle. They find their love and joy growing, and Troilus says he is a new man.

Calchas has predicted that Troy will be defeated and burned, and he arranges for Antenor to be exchanged for his daughter Cressida. Hector says she is not a prisoner of war and that they will not sell women. However, the Trojans want Antenor and trade Cressida for him. Troilus is so upset that he hits his head against the wall. When Pandar learns that Cressida is going to be sent to the Greeks, he and Troilus weep. Pander tells Troilus that he will find a new love, but Troilus says he will never be false to her. He says he is ready to die, and Pandar suggests he could keep her there by force. Troilus replies that that would cause an uproar, and it would ruin her reputation. Pandar says he can take her just as Paris took Helen, and she will thank him. If he is killed, he will be a martyr and go to heaven. Troilus says he will abduct her but only if she consents.

Meanwhile Cressida blames her father Calchas, and she says she will stop eating and drinking. Pandar suggests she spend a night with Troilus discussing this. She sheds many tears, and Pandar advises her not to let Troilus see her like that. She says she will restrain her weeping. The lovers meet and embrace and kiss. Cressida faints, and Troilus fears she is dead; but she awakes. She suggests that she could come back to him soon; she could bribe her father. Troilus begs her not to go away at all; he does not want to risk their joy on doubtful prospects. He suggests they could run off together. She tries to persuade him that she will be true to him and accuses him of not trusting her. He swears that he will be true. She promises not to forsake his love, and they say their last goodbyes.

The Greek hero Diomede comes to escort Cressida, and he notes that she is sad. He asks her to regard him as her brother and a friend, and he begins to speak of love. Her father Calchas welcomes her with hugs and kisses, and he curses the gods for wrecking his hopes. Troilus sends for Pandar, who suggests they amuse themselves during the ten days, and they go to the house of Sarpedon. Then they go and see the windows are shut at the house of Calchas. Troilus complains that Cupid has defeated him, and he prays that Cressida will come back soon. Cressida among the Greeks laments that her father will not release her, and she sinks into despair. She remembers Troilus and his fair qualities. Diomede wants to win the heart of Cressida, and on the tenth day he goes to the tent of Calchas to see her. He urges her to forget the past, and he promises to honor her with all his strength. She respects the Greeks but says she is the wedded wife of a lord to whom he has pledged her heart until death. Yet she admits that only Diomede among the Greeks could rouse her heart, and she gives him her glove as a pledge.

Cressida finds that this relieves her pain, and to heal her heart she gives him her love. Although she cannot undo her former guilt, she will be true to Diomede. Troilus walks on the city walls and looks for Cressida, but he goes home disappointed. Now he abstains from food and drink. He dreams that Cressida is embracing a boar and feels betrayed. Pandar suggests he write to Cressida, and in his letter he complains it has been two months. He asks how she is doing. She writes back that she will come, but she does not know when. Troilus sends for his sister Cassandra, who interprets his dream. Diomede is the boar and has replaced him. Troilus calls her a sorceress and says it is false. He writes again to Cressida, who answers that she cannot come back to Troy. One day in battle Deiphebus tears a cloak from Diomede, and on it Troilus finds a brooch he had given to Cressida. He realizes she broke her promise. He decides to take vengeance. In the war he kills several Greeks, but then Achilles kills Troilus. The poet narrates how Mercury takes his soul to its appointed place.

In October 1385 Chaucer was appointed justice of the peace for Kent, and the next year he was elected to Parliament. John of Gaunt financially helped his daughter Elizabeth live in a convent, and Chaucer moved the rest of his family to Greenwich. He became a knight of the shire in 1386, but that December he lost all his offices. He probably began working more on his Canterbury Tales, and his wife Philippa died about 1387. Thomas of Woodcock, who became the duke of Gloucester, was his adversary, and Chaucer did not attend the “Merciless Parliament of 1388.” His Exchequer annuities were transferred to a Gloucester man, and that year Chaucer was sued for small debts. John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389. After Richard II began to govern in May 1389, Chaucer was given his annuities back. He was appointed chief clerk of the king’s works on July 12. He was responsible for maintaining and repairing public buildings, and he held that lucrative position until June 1391. Chaucer was no longer a judge in Kent when Nicholas Brembre hanged 22 felons on September 3, 1390 without giving them a trial. That year Chaucer served as a subforester of Petherton Forest. He received royal grants between 1393 and 1397. Henry IV confirmed his grants, and Chaucer died on October 25, 1400.

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Chaucer is justly famous for his great work The Canterbury Tales. These stories told by various characters while on their pilgrimage in April to Thomas Becket’s tomb illustrate many points of view on life from ribald accounts of lust to high moral fables. The prolog describes the storytellers, and each tale reveals their personalities. They are a chivalrous knight, his squire, a yeoman, a charitable prioress, a nun with three priests and a monk, a gossiping friar, a merchant, a moralizing cleric, a lawyer, artisans, a cook, a sailor, a doctor, the wife of Bath, a preaching parson, a plowman, a miller, a manciple who purchases food for a college, a reeve or steward, a summoner, a pardoner, and the poet Chaucer himself. They meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Each pilgrim is to tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two more on the way home.

The knight tells the first story that begins with Theseus in ancient Athens. He marries the Scythian queen Hippolyta. When he returns home, he finds the wife of King Capaneus complaining for women whose husbands died in a siege. Old Creon of Thebes is refusing them burial. Theseus sends to a prison for life in Athens two young knights, Arcita and Palamon, who are cousins. In an adjoining garden Palamon and Arcita see Emilia and fall in love with her. Pirithous loves Arcita and persuades his friend Theseus to release him to exile outside of Athens. Arcita goes to Thebes, and in a dream Mercury tells him to go back to Athens. He goes to the court, using another name, and Theseus makes him a squire. Seven years later Palamon breaks out of prison. He finds his cousin Arcita, and they contend over who shall court Emilia. They get weapons and fight the next day, spilling much blood. Theseus is alerted and separates the two. Both deserve to die; but because love for Emilia drew them back there, their trespasses are forgiven. Theseus announces a tournament in fifty weeks from then between the two with one hundred knights on each side to decide whom Emilia shall wed.

Palamon prays to Venus, and Arcita worships Mars; but Emilia wants to remain a virgin and prays to Diana for peace. Yet she asks for the one who most desires her, and Diana says she will marry one of them. Saturn devises a plan to end the strife, and he says Palamon will win his lady. In a large stadium before Theseus, Hippolyta, and Emily the two Thebans and the two hundred knights battle with lances and swords. Occasionally Theseus orders a rest to eat and drink. Finally Palamon is driven to the barrier, and Theseus declares that Arcita shall have Emily. Then Arcita falls from his horse on his head. No one was killed in the tournament, but Arcita is dying. Theseus makes a long speech and gives Emily’s hand to Palamon, and they are married.

The miller is a brawny man and an outstanding wrestler. He is drunk but tells the next tale. A carpenter named John marries 18-year-old Alison whom he loves more than life. The clever cleric Nicholas, who was educated at Oxford, seduces her and threatens to tell her jealous husband if she does not give in to him. A parish clerk called Absalom also tries to woo Alison from the window, but she scorns him. Nicholas persuades John that a great flood is coming, and they must prepare as Noah did by filling tubs with food and drink. When the rain comes, they must pray and not sin. Thus he persuades John to sleep away from his wife, giving Nicholas the opportunity to sleep with her. She also decides to have fun by putting her bum in the window for Absalom to kiss; but when Nicholas puts his butt in the window, Absalom sears it with a hot iron.

The Reeve’s tale is similar to one from Boccaccio’s Decameron. When the miller Symkyn overcharges a college for his wheat, two students take revenge by managing to sleep with his wife and 20-year-old daughter in the confusion after a long night of drinking wine. Thus the cheater was cheated.

The cook’s tale is unfinished, but the lawyer tells about merchants in Syria. A knight cuts the throat of Hermengild, the wife of King Alla. The Christian Constance is blamed; but the lying knight is killed. After Alla agrees to convert, Constance marries him. She is protected from rape and is eventually taken to Rome. Alla follows her there and is cleared of guilt.

The wife of Bath introduces herself by talking about her five husbands, and she admits that she nagged them tremendously. Her fourth husband was a reveler and kept a mistress, and her fifth husband was brutal to her. She says she will be playful and speak from her own fantasy. Her tale is from the time of King Arthur. A young knight rapes a virgin and is brought to justice in the court. King Arthur says he must die; but the ladies plead for mercy, and he lets his queen decide. She grants his life if he will tell her what women most desire after having one year to learn about the question. He talks with many women and finds that they want riches, fame, beauty, elegant clothes, sex, to be a widow, remarried, or flattered. Then he finds 24 women dancing in the forest, and the crone promises to save his life with her answer. So the knight tells the court that women desire most to have sovereignty over their husbands, and not one woman at court denies it. The old woman who taught him this then asks the Queen for a wish from the knight, and this is granted. She asks the young knight to take her as his wife. He protests and begs her to ask for anything else; but she insists, and he agrees. She discusses where nobility comes from, and she agrees with Dante that it is not hereditary but depends on God and the individual’s deeds. She argues that poverty can help one to improve. Because he lets her decide whether she shall be old and true to him or young and fair, she promises him both. When he discovers that she is fair and young, he is happy and kisses her a thousand times. She obeys him in everything, and they live in perfect joy.

The friar hates the summoner and tells a story about a summoner and a yeoman who claims he is a bailiff. The summoners took people to ecclesiastical courts but could not do so for a sin someone had confessed to a friar. The summoner and the yeoman agree that they work in devious ways. The yeoman says that he works by extortion and violence, and he even admits that he is a fiend from hell who has made a deal with the devil to share their profits. The summoner shows the yeoman how he works by demanding twelve pence from an old widow. She says she is not guilty, but the summoner threatens to take her new pan for an old debt he claims is for her adultery. Again she accuses the summoner of lying. She curses the summoner, and asks the devil to take him and the pan unless he repents. Instead the summoner asks for all her clothes, but the devil says he will take him and the pan by right to hell. The friar says that the devil took the summoner, and he prays that summoners become good men.

After hearing this story, the summoner is angry and insists on telling his tale to show that friars and fiends are not far apart. He tells of a mendicant friar who collects alms and promises to pray for people, but he erases their names. The friar interrupts to object, but the host has the summoner continue his story. The friar calls on a sick man and demands a roasted pig’s head to eat and money to build his order’s cloister. The man complains he has given much to friars and is still ill. His wife comes in, and the friar embraces and kisses her. She complains that her child died soon after the friar left. He claims the friars are devoted to poverty, continence, charity, peace, and abstinence. The friar tells three stories to show the harm that anger can do. Finally the sick man farts on the friar’s hand.

The clerk of Oxford tells the story of Griselda, which he says is from the poet laureate Petrarch. Actually it is the last story in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Petrarca translated it into Latin. Philippe de Mézieres translated Petrarca’s version into French. The clerk tells of a young Christian lord named Walter who likes being a bachelor but is persuaded to take a wife. He chooses to marry the humble and hard-working Griselda, and she swears to obey him. He does not allow her to take anything with her but a simple smock to cover her nakedness. Soon she bears a son. A month later the marquis to test his wife sends the child away with his sergeant to a countess in Bologna. Griselda bears a boy, and two years later he is sent away also. The scandal of Walter’s cruelty spreads. When his daughter is twelve years old, Walter gets a forged papal bull so that he can marry again. He brings his two children home and tells Griselda that he is to marry the girl and that she must return to her father’s house. Griselda meekly agrees and wishes God’s blessing on him and his new wife. She returns all her clothes, jewels, and even her wedding ring, leaving again in a poor smock. When Count Panago comes to visit from Bologna with the two children, the marquis sends for Griselda, who kneels before them. Walter orders her to be a servant. She accepts the new wife and says she is fair. Finally Walter explains that he has been testing her steadfastness, and he begins to kiss Griselda. He shows her their daughter and son, and she embraces them. Walter honors her, and they live in high prosperity with his son as his heir. The clerk concludes that not all women can be as humble as Griselda, but she is an example of how to remain true in adversity.

The merchant has been married only two months, but he complains that his wife is the worst. In his tale the 60-year-old merchant January from Pavia takes the advice of his brother who pleases him rather than his just brother, and he marries the girl May, who is under twenty, despite the danger he may not please her. The squire Damian desires her and writes her a letter. After January provides a beautiful garden, he becomes blind. One day they enter the garden as he clings to her as his guide. Damian sneaks into the garden and waits for her in a pear tree. May asks January for a pear, and he lets her climb the tree to pick one. She and Damian begin to have sex, and suddenly Pluto cures January’s blindness. He looks up and sees what they are doing, but she tries to explain he cannot see well yet and that she is doing this so that he can regain his sight. She warns that his mind may continue to be beguiled.

The squire is the knight’s son, but his tale about an Asian king and a falcon includes fantastic magic and is left unfinished.

The franklin’s tale is about a knight named Arviragus who marries Dorigen and promises her that he will never assume his right of mastery against her will. He will practice patience and not find fault with her. Yet no one else knows of their arrangement. He goes away for a year or two to Britain to seek honor in arms, and she mourns and complains while he is gone. She goes to a garden, and the squire Aurelius, who is devoted to Venus, secretly declares his love for her. She is devoted to her husband, but he says he must love her or die. She feels the same way about being untrue; but concerned about her husband’s life, she says that if he can take away all the black stones on the shore that hinder ships, then she will love him. He goes away sadly. Arviragus wins honor and comes home to Dorigen. Aurelius prays to Venus, who performs a miracle by causing the removal of all the dangerous black stones. When Dorigen finds out, she says she would rather die than be unfaithful to Arviragus. She cites many examples of women who died to preserve their honor. Yet when she tells her husband what happened, he says she must fulfill her promise. Then Aurelius recognizes their true love and releases her from her promise. Aurelius had run up a debt of a thousand pounds of gold, but the philosopher forgives this debt. The franklin concludes his tale by asking who was most generous.

The physician’s tale is from the Roman historian Livy. The noble Virginius has a 14-year-old daughter named Virginia. The judge Apius secretly lusts for her and persuades Claudius to claim in court that she is his run-away slave. Judge Apius orders the father to give her to Claudius. At home Virginius tells his daughter he must kill her to preserve her honor. She accepts this, and he cuts off her head and takes it to the court. When Apius condemns him for murder, a thousand people rise up and put the judge in jail, where he commits suicide. Virginius is merciful to Claudius and lets him go into exile.

The pardoner begins with the Latin proverb “Radix malorum est cupiditas,” which means “The root of evil is desire.” He promises to absolve people who confess to him, but he also sells fake relics. In his tale he warns that lust is in wine and drunkenness. From gambling comes the evils of false swearing, deceit, blaspheming, and murder in addition to wasting time and money. Three men drinking in a pub miss a departed friend and decide to kill Death. An old man tells them they can find Death under a tree. They go there and find eight bushels of gold florins. Two of the rogues send the third into town to buy wine and food, and they plan to kill him. In town the other man also buys rat poison and puts it in two of the three bottles. When he returns, the other two men kill him, drink the poisoned wine, and die. The story illustrates the pardoner’s theme, and all three men found Death under the tree.

The shipman tells about a rich merchant with a beautiful wife. She tells the visiting monk John that women desire six things in their husbands, that they be hardy, wise, rich, free, obedient to the wife, and fresh in bed. She says she has to pay one hundred francs soon and asks to borrow it without her husband knowing. Before the merchant leaves on a trip to Bruges, the monk John borrows one hundred francs from him; no one else knows about it. After the husband leaves, John gives the wife one hundred francs to be in bed with her all night and hold her in his arms. When the merchant returns, the monk tells him that he paid back the money to his wife. When the merchant asks his wife for it, she says she spent it all on clothes. She says she will only pay him back in bed.

The tale told by the prioress reveals the anti-Semitism of some Christians. A widow teaches her son to worship the Virgin Mary, and while walking to school he sings “O Alma redemptoris” in a Jewish neighborhood. Satan influences a Jew to seize the boy, cut his throat, and throw his body in a pit. His mother searches for him and finds his body which is miraculously singing the same song. The Christians summon the provost, and Jews are tortured and executed. The boy continues to sing and says he will until the grain under his tongue is removed. After a holy monk removes it, the body becomes still.

Significantly, after he is cut off in his tale of a knight named Sir Thopas, the story that Chaucer puts into his own mouth is an enlightened account of peacemaking and diplomatic counseling called “The Tale of Melibeus.”

Melibeus is a powerful and rich young man who has a wife named Prudence and a daughter Sophie. One day when Melibeus is out playing in the fields, three of his old enemies break into his house, beat his wife, and wound his daughter in five places. Melibeus becomes greatly upset and weeps profusely as Prudence attempts to console him. Melibeus decides to call in all the people he knows in order to get advice about what to do. He sadly describes his trouble and angrily speaks of vengeance and his eagerness for war. First the physicians help the wounded and declare their policy of never doing harm to anyone; however, they add that as diseases are cured by their opposite, so war might be cured by vengeance. Many flatterers praise the wealth and might of Melibeus and his friends while disparaging the strength of his enemies. The older and wiser recommend that he guard his person and his house but that he wait before deciding on war. Then the young people rise up and begin to cry, “War, war!” An old man advises caution, but the young heckle him until he sits down.

Melibeus is ready to go along with war when his wife Prudence asks him to listen to her counsel. Melibeus says he would be a fool to give over his sovereignty to a woman, women being evil and unable to keep secrets. Prudence declares that he ought to change if previous counsel has been foolish, that listening to advice is not giving up one’s power to decide, and that all women are not necessarily bad and untrustworthy. So Melibeus agrees to listen to Prudence.

First, she says, one ought to begin by praying to God for guidance. Then one must remove the three impediments to good counsel from the heart—anger, covetousness, and hastiness. After having taken counsel within oneself it is best to keep it secret so as to receive unprejudiced and objective counsel from the advisors. Melibeus has betrayed his desire, and all the flatterers have agreed with his passion. Prudence suggests that it is best to ask advice from friends that are old, faithful, discreet, and wise; he must beware of former enemies and those who are afraid of him.

Prudence teaches Melibeus that in counsel he ought to be truthful about the situation and examine the probable results of the advice and the various causes. Then Prudence takes up the specific issues. She points out that vengeance is not the opposite of wickedness as the physicians thought; but it is wrong for wrong. Peace is the opposite of war. As to guarding his person and garrisoning his house, Prudence declares that friends are the best defense. War would be foolish because his enemies have more relatives than he and surely would revenge his acts of vengeance. Only a judge with the proper jurisdiction should punish. The consequences of war would be injuries, deaths, and the waste of wealth. Spiritually the ultimate cause of everything is God. Therefore if God has allowed this to happen to his family, it must be chastisement for previous sins. Allegorically the three enemies of mankind are the world, the flesh, and the devil, and the five wounds symbolize the five senses through which the sins have entered the heart. He should leave vengeance to the sovereign Judge, for “‘Vengeance is mine,’ saith the Lord.” Besides Melibeus does not have the power to avenge himself. Chaucer and Prudence discourage fighting under any circumstances.

It is madness in a man to strive with one
who is stronger than himself;
and to strive with a man of even strength is dangerous;
but to strive with a weaker man is foolish.
And for this reason a man should avoid all strife,
in so far as he may.18

Melibeus figures that he can count upon his wealth; but Prudence warns that no amount of wealth is sufficient to maintain war, and a great man is as easily killed in a war as a poor one. She counsels him to make peace with God and become reconciled to his grace, and God will change the hearts of his enemies so that they also will seek peace. Prudence then tells the adversaries privately that they ought to repent for the injury and wrong they had done to Melibeus, herself, and her daughter. They are surprised by her gracious words and acknowledge the wrong they have done. She convinces them to trust themselves to Melibeus and her for a reconciliation. She then gathers their true friends, and they, when correctly informed, give counsel for peace. When the adversaries submit, Melibeus still wants to punish them by confiscating all their property and banishing them; but Prudence warns him against gaining a reputation for covetousness and then advises mercy. Finally Melibeus forgives them for all the offenses, injuries, and wrongs done against his family so that God will forgive him the sins he has done in the world. Thus Chaucer showed us through Prudence how to alleviate the mood for war and bring reconciliation.

The monk tells a series of brief biographies that are tragic. He begins with Lucifer and Adam and then moves on to Samson, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, Zenobia, Nero, Antiochus, Alexander, Julius Caesar, and Croesus. Then he concludes with Pedro I of Castile, Peter of Cyprus, Bernabo Visconti, and Ugolino of Pisa.

The nun’s priest relates a tale about the cock Chantecleer and his wife Pertelote. Chantecleer dreams he is going to be killed and eaten by a fox, but Pertelote doubts that dreams have any significance. Chantecleer notes that several dreams of prophets and famous people came true. The fox appears and flatters the rooster into crowing so that he can grab his neck. The priest describes the panic that results and compares it to the Peasants Rebellion led by Jack Straw. Chantecleer persuades the fox to stop and tell the presumptuous peasants to turn back. When the fox opens his mouth to speak, Chantecleer escapes.

After invoking Mary, the second nun tells the life of the saint Cecilia, who tells her husband Valerian that she has an angel lover. If he tries to love her in the vulgar way, the angel will slay him. Valerian asks to see the angel, and she takes him to the good Urban, the current leader of the persecuted Christians in Rome. An old man in white appears and shows Valerian a spiritual book. Valerian is converted and is baptized by Urban. Valerian wishes that his brother Tibertius could also be saved. Cecilia teaches him and urges him to be baptized also, and he sees the angel too. The prefect Almachius sends them to Jupiter’s image, and they refuse to sacrifice to the pagan god. The officer Maximus interrogates them on their beliefs. Cecelia encourages them, but the brothers are beheaded. Maximus says he saw their souls going to Heaven. He converts many, and Almachius has him executed also. Cecilia has his body buried with the others. Almachius questions Cecilia. She accuses him of condemning the guiltless because they revere Christ. Almachius says she can escape death by denying her faith, but she laughs at the idea of denying her innocence. She is taken to her house and boiled in her bath, but she remains calm and cool. The executioner strikes her neck three times; but her head is still attached, and she continues to teach for three days. She gives away her goods, and finally Urban buries her body.

When the canon learns that his yeoman is going to tell his secrets, he leaves. The yeoman says that he served the canon for seven years, and he describes how he fooled people by pretending to have alchemical skill. The idea is to transform the metals associated with the planets—Mercury with quicksilver, Venus with copper, Mars with iron, Jupiter with tin, and Saturn with lead—into gold of the sun or silver of the moon. The yeoman warns his listeners to remove any Judas from their group. He tells how his canon uses slight of hand with his sleeve to fool a priest into believing he is creating bars of silver from quicksilver and other ingredients. The greedy priest is happy, but he is bound to be disappointed. The yeoman advises against attempting alchemy, and he concludes,

For who-so maketh god his adversarie,
As for to werken any thing in contrarie
Of his wil, certes, never shal he thryve,
Thogh that he multiplye terme of his lyve.19

After insulting the cook for being too drunk to tell a story, the manciple tells a fable about Phoebus (Apollo) who is so jealous that he keeps his wife at home. Nonetheless she finds a lover from the lower class. When the white crow reveals their secret, Phoebus kills his wife with an arrow and tears out the feathers of the crow, making it black with an unpleasant voice. The manciple’s point is that it is better not to say anything bad about anyone even if it is true.

The parson declines to tell a fable or to use rhyme or alliteration. Instead his “tale” is in prose and is really a long sermon or a treatise on repentance and the seven deadly sins based on popular works of the time. He begins by quoting Jeremiah that the traditional ways are best for finding rest for one’s soul. He says penitence is mourning for past sins and resolving to improve or punishing oneself for what one has done wrong. He divides penitence into contrition of the heart, oral confession, and making restitution. The miserable usually lack friends in this life and go to hell after death. God is lord over reason, which is lord over the senses, which lord it over the body. When a person sins, these are turned upside down. To love God is to love what God loves and hate what God hates.

In discussing contrition the parson describes the seven deadly sins as pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lechery. Pride can be disobedience, boasting, hypocrisy, scorn, arrogance, impudence, strife, rebelling, presumption, irreverence, obstinacy, vainglory, and much else. One may take pride in clothing and the benefits of fortune, but one is a fool to do so. The remedy for pride is humility in the heart, in speech, and in action.

Envy is a very negative sin because it is against the goodness and virtues of others. From envy comes backbiting and detraction. The solution to envy is to love your neighbor as yourself, for one cannot do without others. This commandment of God includes loving your enemies, for they need your love even more than your friends.

Anger or wrath usually derives from pride or envy, and it is the desire to harm those you hate. The parson says that good anger can be caused by zeal for goodness by being angry at wicked deeds but not persons. A quick temper is only a venial sin because it can be easily corrected; but the calculated attempt to take vengeance is a mortal sin. Yet whoever tries to harm another first harms oneself. Hatred is old anger that lingers. Swearing is against God’s commandment. When anger leads to war, every kind of wrong is committed. The antidotes to anger are patience and tolerance.

Sloth is a passive sin and comes from despair; it causes negligence, carelessness, idleness, and laziness. The virtues that counteract sloth are fortitude, strength of character, and magnanimity.

Avarice is related to covetousness and greed. Coveting desires what one does not have. Greed is a desire for more and more, and avarice is a reluctance to part with what one has as well as the desire for more. The avaricious person loves one’s treasures more than God and thus becomes an idolater. Simony is buying or selling spiritual gifts. Avarice can lead to lying, stealing, false testimony, and false promises. Stealing can be material by using force or fraud, or it can be spiritual by sacrilege. Avarice can be relieved by pity and mercy which lead to generosity.

Gluttony is excessive eating or drinking, and its remedy is moderation or abstinence.

Lechery is similar to gluttony and comes from lust. God forbids adultery and coveting the wife of one’s neighbor. Adultery is sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than one’s spouse. Fornication by the unmarried is also considered a sin. Adultery breaks the faith of the marriage and is like breaking one’s religious faith. Being involved in prostitution is an especially bad sin and includes the whoremasters, pimps, and procurers. The remedies for lechery are chastity and continence. Marriage is the proper relationship for sexual activity, but the parson condemns excessive sex even within marriage.

Next the parson discusses confession, saying it should be sorrowful, soon, free, and honest. He advises against waiting until one is sick or near death before confessing.

The third phase of penitence is restitution, satisfaction, or penance. Giving to the poor privately is recommended. One may also fast, pray, and conduct vigils. Fasting means forgoing food, drink, and worldly pleasures.

Chaucer did not complete all the tales planned, but he concluded his Canterbury Tales with a prayer and some retractions. He gives the credit for anything good to Jesus Christ and wrote that any faults were because of his own ignorance and not his intention. Feeling in a religious mood, he retracted most of his writings, including The Book of Troilus, The Book of Fame, The Book of the Nineteen Ladies, The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of the Birds, and any of the Canterbury Tales that tend toward sin. He also thanked Jesus and the saints for his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and for his religious writings.


1. Legenda in the Office Prepared for the Blessed Hermit Richard Lesson VIII in The Life of Richard Rolle by Frances M. M. Comper, p. 308.
2. The Mending of Life by Richard Rolle tr. M. L. del Mastro, p. 24.
3. Ibid., Chapter 2, p. 49.
4. Ibid., p. 51.
5. Ibid., Chapter 12, p. 85.
6. The Cloud of Unknowing tr. Clifton Wolters, p. 68.
7. Ibid., p. 98.
8. Ibid., p. 102.
9. De Civili Dominio I, 28.201.33 quoted in Philosophy and Politics in the Thought of John Wyclif by Stephen E. Lahey, p. 192.
10. Quoted in The Prosecution of John Wyclyf by Joseph H. Dahmus, p. 93-94.
11. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight 4:16 in The Complete Works of the Gawain-poet tr. John Gardner, p. 318.
12. Piers the Ploughman by William Langland tr. J. F. Goodridge, p. 175.
13. Ibid., p. 179.
14. Ibid., p. 207.
15. Confessio Amantis by John Gower tr. Terence Tiller, Prologue, line 121.
16. Ibid., Book 1, 595-597.
17. Ibid. Book 3, 2261-2304.
18. Canterbury Tales “Tale of Melibeus” 46 by Chaucer, tr. J. U. Nicolson.
19. Ibid., “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale.” 16,945-16,948.

Copyright © 2009 by Sanderson Beck

This chapter has been published in the book Medieval Europe 1250-1400.
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Crusaders and Byzantine Decline 1250-1400
Eastern Europe 1250-1400
Catholic Ethics 1250-1350
German Empire 1250-1400
Scandinavia 1250-1400
Castile, Aragon, Granada, and Portugal 1250-1400
Italian City States 1250-1400
Dante and Marsilius
Petrarca and Boccaccio
Low Countries and Burgundy 1250-1400
France and National War 1250-1400
England, Scotland, and Ireland 1250-1400
Mystics, Wyclif, Gower, and Chaucer
Summary and Evaluation


World Chronology 750-1300
World Chronology 1300-1400
Chronology of Europe to 1400

BECK index