Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Great Chill: or Geoffrey Chaucer's Dead and Gone

Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400. Or maybe it was 1402. According to authors Terry Jones (Monty Python), Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor in Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery, the only certain thing we can be certain of about Chaucer's death is that he disappears from history somewhere between 1400 and 1402. How he died, where he died, or any additional details are lost to history. The authors believe he was murdered.

Chaucer lived in a perilous time to be on the king's pay. King Richard II's throne was usurped by the next King Henry IV, the man responsible for Richard's death. The authors describe the different between the two reigns as something similar to us going from the free and easy 1970s directly into the religious and intellectual conservativism of the 2000s.

Orchestrating the chilling political climate change was Thomas Arundel, the former archbishop of Canterbury, who returned with Henry IV from exile and proceeded to scourge the kind of religious questioning and humanism that had been acceptable behavior in the earlier reign. Thomas Arundel made a formidable adversary toward someone like Geoffrey Chaucer who was in the midst of writing what we know of as The Canterbury Tales, a work which satirizes the Church and its clergy and celebrates "country morals."

Previously reformers like John Wyclif had been proposing changes in the Roman Catholic Church doctrines and practices. Wyclif, for example, had suggested the need for an English translation of the Bible that the common people could read. And that was exactly the problem. Arundel didn't want the common people involving themselves in such things as church doctrine--in fact he was quite content to have his clergy equally ignorant.

Arundel hit upon a strategy to pull the dissenters into line: the charge of heresy and the threat of being burned alive. (This was approximately 10 years before the birth of Joan of Arc.) England had not until then used this Continental approach.

Arundel needed a litmus test to prove their support. That issue was transubstantiation--that's the moment the priest holds up the bread and wine and they become the body and blood of Christ. Before Arundel the people could question whether the moment described is more symbolic than literal. Arundel made it literal. And anyone who couldn't agree was at risk of a fiery send-off.

The book quotes the experience of one knight:
... On the breaking of the bread the knight looked again , and saw with his own eyes, in the hands of the celebrant friar, true flesh, raw and bleeding, divided into three parts.

Interestingly, Arundel begins his reign of benevolent terror just as Chaucer stops writing the Canterbury tales.

I was struck as I read the book by the chilling of the arts and intellectual thought--similar to what we see happening about 100 years later with Savonarola in the Florence of Michelangelo and Botticelli, preaching destruction of all books and art and creating the bonfires of the vanities.

I could not help but make parallels between Jones' book and Al Gore's chilling assessment of global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. Here we go again, I thought. Religious conservatism is trying to put a strangle-hold on scientific research, the arts, the social climate--and the pro-Bush/anti-global warming camp seems intent on stressing, "Don't confuse me with facts." The leaders have followed Arundel and rather than using transubstantiation they have taken up the fire brands of gay marriage and global warming. Archbishop Arundel can only be smiling.

Who killed Chaucer? I think you've already figured out their answer.

I have a new paper doll based on two views of Chaucer. Check here.

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