Written by the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer more than 600 years ago, The Canterbury Tales still speaks to the human condition. With its pilgrimage motif, its plenitude of tale-tellers and its comic tone, it offers many diverse pleasures. Like Dante's Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales transcends traditional disciplinary boundaries on theological grounds. And like all good literature, it "shows" rather than "tells." In the process, Chaucer makes a profound contribution both to "the making of the Christian imagination" and to a theology of the enduring unity of the pilgrim church, oriented as it is toward the beatific vision.
For Chaucer, such a vision is implicit in the pilgrimage motif. It is true that, in satirizing abuses of pilgrimage, he articulates long-standing concerns about the practice — criticisms to be voiced even more loudly by 15th century Lollards and 16th century reformers. He includes characters who probably ought not to be on pilgrimage at all and many who ought to have higher motivations than the ones most in evidence, such as the Wife of Bath's apparent desire to shop for yet another husband. Yet as a symbol revered by the Church in its scriptures and unfolding tradition, pilgrimage speaks deeply to
Christian faith, obedience and hope. It attests the eschatological orientation of the people of God. As deployed by Chaucer, it declares the world of the work to be the world of that people. On a symbolic level, all the pilgrims have assented to life pilgrimage and "toward Caunterbury wolden ride." Despite their many individual foibles, acrimonious rivalries and attempts to "quite" (outdo) one another — as much to shut them down as to win the contest that publican Harry Bailey has proposed — they remain a fellowship. Often inadvertently, they attest the power of the Word that unifies them and enables them to respond both to Him and to one another.
Chaucer's literary and theological strategy resembles that of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams observes that Dostoyevsky's novels ask us, in effect, whether we can imagine a human community of language and feeling in which, even if we were incapable of fully realizing it, we knew what was due to each other; whether we can imagine living in the consciousness of a solidity or depth in each other that no amount of failure, suffering or desolation could eradicate. But in order to put such a challenge, the novels have to invite us to imagine precisely those extremes of failure, suffering and desolation.
Williams emphasizes the role of our imagination. To know what is due one another, to recognize the imago Dei in the other person, is to exercise the imagination and to stay in conversation with them, regardless of the failure or desolation involved. To put this challenge in fiction is to invite readers to imagine the extremes of what humans can do and say to one another. Chaucer certainly does that, recording speech and action by some pilgrim that routinely leaves another angry, humiliated or reflecting bitterly on his own situation. And yet the fellowship remains intact.
A further comparison with Dostoyevsky is instructive. Williams explains that the Russian Orthodox novelist advances a vision of freedom dependent both on language and otherness. Being addressed enables one to respond: "[Dostoyevsky] sees language itself as the indisputable marker of freedom: confronted with what seeks to close down exchange or conflict, we discover we can always say more." At the same time, the relationship between language and freedom involves the need to make oneself recognizable. Dostoyevsky evinces an interest in the freedom to respond as one wishes, the need to be recognizable, and the resistance both of the refusal to engage in conversation and of speech that strives to be so clear that it obviates the need for response.
Williams observes that Dostoyevsky in effect argues that this necessity of saying what is recognizable is finally grounded in the order established by a creator: Recognition is possible because we are all at the most basic level of our being made to resonate with the interdependent life of a universe that is addressed and sustained by a Word from God.
Chaucer's pilgrims likewise remain in conversation together; they find that there is more to say. This phenomenon in the context of pilgrimage suggests the same theological confidence.
Some readers have suggested that Chaucer does not concern himself with the beatific vision, that his interests are more this-worldly. The implied opposition is disastrous. The orientation toward Heaven of the Christian and of all of creation vivifies this world. C.S. Lewis once observed, "Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither." Numerous theologians have discussed this phenomenon in terms of participation or a "sacramental ontology." Hans Boersma, who specializes in Catholic theology, observes that a sacramental understanding of embodiment elevates creatureliness while at the same time keeping one's theological focus firmly on Heaven and the participation of creation in the life of the self-giving, trinitarian God. Far from detracting from Chaucer's delight in creation, the teleology of the pilgrimage motif enables it.
The reconciliation and proper ordering of blessedness and embodiment to which participatory ontology gives expression enables one to embrace both a vision of the whole and specificities, differences. Where The Canterbury Tales are concerned, it has been tempting to cast aspersions on the work's unity because of the project's obviously unfinished condition. The plan was for each of 30 pilgrims to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and another two on the way back, making 120 tales in all. As it happens, only twenty-four get told and the pilgrims never reach their destination. Yet the Host says to the Parson, in what everyone agrees is the final section of The Tales, "Now only one tale is lacking." For his part, the Parson responds:
I will you tell a merry tale in prose
To knit up all this feast and make an end.
And Jesus, for his grace, wit me send
To show you the way, in this journey,
Of that perfect glorious pilgrimage
To that place called Jerusalem celestial.
This exchange not only buttresses an allegorical (or rather, symbolic) interpretation of pilgrimage but also draws attention to an underlying unity implied in the work, accompanying its ongoing unfinishedness. Recognition of the unity in a life of pilgrimage as seen through an eschatological lens is comparable to the ability to see "both the figure and that which shines forth from the figure," to which theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar refers when he writes of "seeing the form" that is Christ. The capacity to see both unity and Chaucer's humorous interest in all the details of ordinary life in The Canterbury Tales is at once an aesthetic and a theological issue. Chaucer's highly particularized English humour ought not to detract from an appreciation of his theological heft. G.K. Chesterton saw the congruence: "It is typical of the neglected side of Chaucer that he admired Dante more than Petrarch," Chesterton wrote, going on to observe a quality in Chaucer "symbolic to the eye of a serious mystic."
The action of the Prologue exemplifies the internal pressure under which the fellowship comes. After the Knight has told his tale, set in pagan Greece, with its clean moral and rational lines (like those of the surveyors who clear-cut a grove so Theseus can build a coliseum), the Host wants the Monk on the pilgrimage to tell the next tale. But the Miller is having none of it. Already drunk in the morning, he insists on going next and telling "a legend and a life / Both of a carpenter and of his wife, / And of how a clerk made a fool of him." This is a promise (on which he makes good) calculated to upset the Reeve, who is a carpenter and apparently a cuckold as well. But the fictional Reeve and his missus are not likely the only "carpenter and his wife" to come to mind, either for a medieval Christian audience or for many readers of Convivium. Four times in the Prologue, the Miller, or the narrator, alludes to the Gospel story. Available for blasphemy at the hands of the Miller, it is nonetheless now simply part of a historical reality that everyone can take for granted. The Christ event decisively distinguishes the 14th century present from the pagan past, ordering both to itself.
That first tale begins with Theseus, paragon of Greek conceptuality, vanquishing Creon of Thebes, whose name was a byword for tyranny in the medieval world. The tale, however, ends ambivalently. Theseus delivers a long, monological speech and looks to many readers like a tyrant himself. The tale alludes to a restored golden age, with references alike to Saturn and to Samson, the latter a type of Christ. Having raised the issue of tyranny, however, the tale — restricted to a pre-Christian setting — offers no satisfying answer to the problem.
All of that changes with the Gospel story, which fulfills the promise inherent in pagan and Hebraic conceptuality. As Chesterton once said, "It is only Christian men / Guard even heathen things." The Incarnation, as the Miller's Prologue makes abundantly clear, unleashes an unanticipated messiness and incalculable possibilities into the world of the present in The Tales. The pilgrim fellowship inhabits and embodies this reality of tyranny overcome, whether it takes the form of absolutism, terrorism, media that manipulate the myth of absolute freedom, or the Petrine Church. The true
Church, the Marian Church, is the faithful, pure and obedient bride. Early in its history, Mary became a symbol of the Church; in the Orans or Panaghia icon, she bears Christ within her. Chaucer hints at her with the motif of "the girl with two lovers" in The Knight's Tale; in The Miller's Tale, the randy graduate student Nicholas sings the Angelus ad virginem before grabbing the carpenter's young wife by the "haunche-bones." Chaucer will go on to explore Marian incarnationalism in contrast to the threat of tyranny in a tale about an abusive husband (The Clerk's Tale), another inspired by the pagan author Livy's anxiety about corrupt rule (The Physician's Tale) and one about the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia (The Second Nun's Tale).
In the prologue to The Second Nun's Tale, the last story in which a woman speaks in The Canterbury Tales, the nun invokes Mary's help to tell her story with words taken from the climactic canto of Dante's Paradiso. These lines celebrate the mystery of "the creator of every creature" in Mary's womb:
Within the cloister blissful of thy sides
Took man's shape the eternal love and peace
That of all the universe lord and guide is….
The incarnate Son is the peace that replaces all tyrannies. In the tale, Cecilia calls the ruler responsible for her death a "bladder" (the word in Chaucer's Latin source is uter) full of wind and empty threats; its opposite is Mary's womb, full by the Spirit's working of the omnipotent Word.
The imaginative, defamiliarizing work of the Christian artist no doubt from time to time enjoins repentance. Perhaps this is why, for his part as poet, Chaucer closes The Canterbury Tales with a retraction in which he repents of many of his works. Like the rest of the pilgrim company, he has listened to the Parson's Tale, which calls for confession. This is his last word. And yet, Chaucer bathes the entire retraction in words of belonging that evoke the Trinity. In the end, as Augustine does in On the Trinity, Chaucer directs his audience and readers to the praise and worship of the God who has revealed himself in the Word.
There is much else one could say about The Canterbury Tales, about love and sex, about anger and greed, about the need to exercise practical wisdom. Chaucer weaves many topics through the tales and the links between them. The theme of freedom and the life-giving Word, though by no means minor, appears performatively and obliquely. But the Word nonetheless inspires Christian pilgrimage, setting in motion the meaningful living of life together and the anticipation of ever deepening participation in the divine life.