Christianity in Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales
Christianity plays a prominent role in the early British works, The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf. Beowulf, written between 700-1000 CE, tells the tale of a brave hero on an epic journey. Through the use of allusions, references, and imagery, the work suggests that the narrator of Beowulf ardently believes in Christianity. Geoffrey Chaucer‘s poem, The Canterbury Tales, uses humor to show the differentiation between good and evil in society.With imagery, phrasing, and character usage, The Canterbury Tales not only proves that the narrator knows about Christianity, but also extends the knowledge further to demonstrate the conspicuous doubts in the speaker’s faith.The narrator’s outlook on Christianity in both works reflects the time period during which they were written, the state and understanding of Christianity at that point in history impacting the epic poems.The authors of Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales use Christianity as an agent of momentum for their plots, applying it to unveil deeper themes. Yet it is the historical context, the time period in which the authors wrote these works, and the understanding of Christianity at that specific point in time, that most influences the authors’ portrayal of Christianity.
The early 700s CE, a time noted for many changes and advancements, was known as the Anglo-Saxon period. Anglo-Saxon, a fairly modern term, refers to settlers from the German regions of Angln and Saxony who made their way over to Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire (BBC Primary History). The early Anglo-Saxons were pagans, who were extremely superstitious and believed that rhymes, potions, and stones would protect them from the evil spirits of sickness. It was not until 597 AD that the Pope in Rome began to advocate the spread of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons. The seventh and eighth centuries were times of great religious transformation in the Anglo-Saxon world. The old religion was vanishing, and the new faith of Christianity had arrived via Rome. When the Anglo-Saxon kings accepted Christianity, they banished the old gods from their religious observances and turned solely to the Christian God. The author of Beowulf, claims British literature critic William Witherle Lawrence, had to adopt his story to the new ways. The unknown writer of Beowulf took this new form of faith in his society and adapted it to his work, where it becomes a prominent theme within the poem. Despite the fact that pagan people make up the poem, the narrator’s faith makes itself evident. The unknown author includes Christianity in his work through allusions, imagery, and his own personal narration. The changes taking place in his life, and in history, influence his portrayal of Christianity. (BBC.Co.UK)
The 1300s were a time of change and innovation, with Christianity at the center of it all. During the 14th Century, the time in which Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, the Catholic Church was in turmoil. Greed and avarice consumed many, particularly the priests in the church. The desire for power, money, and success became overwhelmingly bloated, with many clergy falling to corrupt tendencies and habits. The people began to revolt against the immoral ways of the church by creating new denominations and reshaping it. This corrupt and disheveled time period for the church can easily be seen through Chaucer’s work. For example, when Chaucer compares good and evil in the general prologue, he portrays the vast majority of the holy pilgrims in a dark and greedy light. Chaucer’s depiction here speaks to his own negative view and personal opinion of so called pious, religious people, as well as the overall state of Christianity during that era.
The imagery throughout Beowulf promotes Christianity. For example, when speaking of Grendel and his first attacks, the narrator says, “Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, / nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him / to hear the din of the loud banquet ? (Unknown 86-88). The use of words like dark and demon to describe Grendel, create an image of a creature from hell. The poet continues this description of Grendel saying, “He took over Heorot, / haunted the glittering hall after dark, / but the throne itself, the treasure seat, / he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast ? (166-169). This quote portrays Grendel as a creature who brings gloom and wickedness to even the “brightest ? of halls (Magennis “Outcast like Cain, ? 123). Describing him as “the Lord’s outcast, ? shows that the narrator sees Grendel as the opposite of God and disassociates him with the Almighty. To further illustrate contrast, the poet uses light imagery and Godly descriptions to show the purity and superiority of mankind. He writes, “how the Almighty had made the earth / a gleaming plain girdled with waters; / in His splendor He set the sun and the moon / to be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men. ? (92-96) With words like “gleaming ?, and by saying the Almighty is the “earth’s lamplight, ? the poet describes God and mankind as light and brightness, creating a stark contrast to the earlier dark and dismal descriptions of Grendel.
Imagery also plays an influential role throughout The Canterbury Tales, although differing from the role it played in Beowulf. The imagery in The Canterbury Tales acts as one of the many vessels Chaucer uses to negatively portray Christianity.Chaucer’s word choices and diction create images of unpleasantness; his descriptions of the immoral acts of the religious characters on the pilgrimage are vivid. Chaucer paints a visual image as he discusses the Monk and his behavior saying, “Is likned til a fish that is waterlees– / This to sayn, a monk out of his cloister; / But thilke text heeld he nat worth an oyster, ? (Chaucer 180-183). In this quote Chaucer speaks to the fact the Monk does not remain shut away in a monastery, and in doing so, he alienates himself from his spiritual element.The visual picture Chaucer creates to illustrate this is that of a fish flapping out on land.A fish that has no water is in fatal danger; similarly, Chaucer’s implication is that the Monk, like the fish, will also face fatal repercussions from his actions (Swisher 84).
The narrator of Beowulf, undoubtedly Christian, makes religious references and incorporates prayer-like phrases to describe a people who do not know God. The villagers in the poem worship pagan gods. The author writes, “Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed / offerings to idols, swore oaths / that the killer of souls might come to their aid / and save the people” (Unknown 175-179). These people turn and pray to what they perceive as a higher power to help ease their angst. The poet, however, views these pagan gods as parallel to the devil and feels pity for the people for not knowing Christ.At one point, the author has Hrothgar say, “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father / be thanked for this sight. I suffered a long / harrowing by Grendel. But the Heavenly Shepherd / can work His wonders always and everywhere ? (927-930); this passage creates some confusion, for it raises the question:if the people worship pagan gods, then how does Hrothgar know of the “Almighty Father” or the “Heavenly Shepherd ??The overtly Christian language of the passage, spoken by the morally sound character of Hrothgar, reflects the influence of the author.There is a stark contrast between the pagan beliefs of the Shieldings people and the Christian narrator, and yet, in these verses the faith of the poet sneaks into the work (Huppe “A Conflict of Ideas ? 47).
Chaucer uniquely narrates The Canterbury Tales, as he takes his story telling perspective indirectly. Throughout the entirety of the epic journey, Chaucer switches the narrators. He has one for the general prologue, and a different one for each of the tales told on the journey. Yet the general writing mechanics, ideas, and themes of Chaucer can be spotted easily. In the Miller’s Tale, one of the many stories that compose The Canterbury Tales, the female protagonist, Alisoun, swears to cheat on her husband saying, “This Nicholas gan mercy for to crye, / And spak so faire, and profred him so faste, / That she hir love hym graunted ate laste, / and swoor hir ooth, by seint Thomas of Kent, / That she wol been at his commandment, ? (Chaucer 292-298). Alisoun’s swearing to cheat on her husband by Saint Thomas of Kent emphasizes the audacity of her already immoral and unholy act. It also foreshadows the moment when religion again plays a role in sexual sin:Absolon’s lustful longing for Alisoun when he meets her in the parish church. The fact that Chaucer has Absolon’s desire for Alisoun begin in the parish church lays proof to what Chaucer thought about churches in his time. Chaucer associates churches with places where sinful, immoral acts occur, and therefore, the church becomes the perfect backdrop for the start of corruption in his Miller’s Tale.Later in the tale, Chaucer makes another biblical reference within his narration when Nicholas tries to convince John that a fatal flood is coming and that he needs to make preparations to save himself and his wife. Nicholas says to John: “The wyf and thou moote hange fer atwynne; / For that bitwixie yow shal be no synne, / Namoore in looyng than ther shal in deede, / This ordinance is seyd. Go, God thee / speede!, ?(481-484). Nicholas’s line, “This ordinance is seyd”, mimics the “So says the Lord”, a line spoken often by prophets in the Old Testament. Nicholas takes on a prophetic role, perhaps to make himself more convincing to John. (Nardo “Readings on the Canterbury Tales ? 68) Either way, the fact that Chaucer has Nicholas, the male antagonist of the Miller’s Tale, recite the archetypal line from Genesis speaks to how Chaucer connects all Christian features with something bad or wrong.Chaucer has the “bad guy ? of his story represent a biblical figure, not coincidentally, but to further show his personal disdain for the Christian church.
The poet of Beowulf makes the ultimate biblical allusion by having Beowulf represent Jesus. In his final fight against the dragon, Beowulf’s actions mirror those of Christ before his death. In preparation, before facing his fire-breathing combatant, the narrator says, “He was sad at heart / unsettled yet ready, sensing his death. ? (Unknown 2419-2420) Beowulf, like Jesus, knows that this battle will be his last. Before the fight, Beowulf commands his men to remain on the barrow: “Men-at-arms, remain here on the barrow, / safe if your armor,¦ ? (2529-2560). Beowulf selflessly places his men before himself, which is analogous to the way Jesus commanded his disciples to stay in the garden and not fight against the soldiers who had come to take him away. Wiglaf, in the final scenes of the poem, describes Beowulf with a single epithet: “the shepherd of our land ? (2644). The word shepherd, commonly used when describing Christ and his role on earth as the shepherd of us, the sheep, further illustrates Beowulf as a God- like character. The epic repeatedly makes references to Beowulf that mirror the life and nature of Jesus.
The sin of greed appears as a continuous theme throughout the epic, The Canterbury Tales, and creates a destructive pattern in the religious characters on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The unprincipled actions that Chaucer gives the religious characters act as a metaphor for his personal view on the Catholic Church and their unprincipled actions at this time in history.The sin of greed can lead to materialism and gluttony and cause even the most righteous people to become dishonorable and manipulative. For example, the actions of the Monk in The Canterbury Tales differ greatly to that of a conventional monk.A conventional monk studies and prays and works, but the Monk from The Canterbury Tales does not. He instead gives in to his selfish desires; he loves to hunt hares and ride horses, and he continuously ignores his religious duties and expectations to do otherwise. Chaucer shows the Monk’s lack of care when he writes, “He vaf nought of that text a pulled hen / That saith that hunters been nought holy men,”(Chaucer 177-178). The Bible serves as the principle text in the life of a typical monk, but it bares little to no importance in the life of this one. Similarly, the Pardoner fits the greedy archetype by lying to people and abusing human beings natural desire to be close to God. He tells people his “relics ? are godly and of great worth and value, when in reality they are common everyday items. Chaucer writes, “He saide he hadde a gobet of the sail / That Sainte Peter hadde what that he wente, ? (Chaucer 698-699). The Pardoner sells these “holy ? relics for large personal profits. Chaucer’s portrayal of the Pardoner selling holy relics parallels the Catholic Church’s selling forgiveness and indulgences. The Pardoner’s acclamations that the relics have relevance to Christ and his followers are simply tricks and lies to collect more money, similar to the actions of the Catholic Church. The life of both a monk and a pardoner should be above reproach. Their lives should be humble and simplistic, devoid of manipulation and money- making schemes. Their lives should emulate Christ’s. Chaucer places the same selfish qualities in each of his religious pilgrims to create a form of political satire.His characters mock, yet speaking truth, on the religious figures in his society (Nardo 74).
Through the use of archetypal imagery, narration conflicts, and allusions to the life of Christ, the epic works, Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales, weave in Christianity as well as many of the traditional themes associated with Christianity. The authors of both works, influenced by their society’s view of Christianity, reflect that historical context in their writing, both subtly and blatantly. The end result provides a unique perspective of the author, the time period, and the Christian faith.