Did Geoffrey Chaucer know and sympathize with John Wyclif and his
Lollard disciples?[i] Was Chaucer himself a Lollard? An answer to this question is suggested by a closer look at Chaucer’s “parson” and some biographical facts. Some may ask: what difference does it make? What does it matter anyway? It matters only so far as we care to expand our understanding of the man, Chaucer, and his “parson” as the antithesis to his criticism of the established clergy—the prioress, monk, friar, and pardoner–in the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. That Chaucer portrays the fourteenth-century clergy as apostate in his “Prologue,” is unquestionable; however, in the example of the “parson” he may be affirming a controversial movement of his day—Lollardy–and more specifically, genuine disciples of Christ. If true, Chaucer made, what for his time would have been, a life-threatening social statement and the Canterbury Tales spoke on the prophetic edge of the English Reformation.
Wyclif was well known by many in his time:
He was of unblemished walk in life, says William Thorpe, and was regarded affectionately by people of rank, who often consorted with him, took down his sayings, and clung to him. ”I indeed clove to none closer than to him, the wisest and most blessed of all men whom I have ever found. From him one could learn in truth what the church of Christ is and how it should be ruled and led”[sic].[ii]
Could this not have been the kind of man Chaucer would have presented as an example to the church? Due to the popularity of the Lollards, they could hardly have escaped so observant an eye. R. S. Knighton tells us that, “In those days that sect was held in the greatest honor, and multiplied so that you could scarce meet two men by the way whereof one was not a disciple of Wycliffe.” [iii]
The Lollards and Wyclif denied many of the teachings of the Roman
Catholic Church which undermined the authority of the Scriptures and the gospel of Christ and his twelve Apostles. For the first time in English history, an appeal was made “to the people, not the scholars.”[iv] No doubt, Wyclif’s ideas piqued Chaucer’s interest: “As a fellow-protégé of John of Gaunt, Chaucer must often have met with Wycliffe in that princely household; he sympathized, as so many educated Englishmen did, with many of the reformer’s opinions.”[v] Though Chaucer may not have agreed with all that Wyclif and his followers believed, his support of their cause seems likely.
The “parson” is the only idealized clerical portrait in the
“Prologue”; the others are satirized. Of the Parson it is said, “A good man was ther of religioun.”[vi] Whereas of the Monk it is said, he did not hold to St. Augustine’s work ethic for monks but preferred instead that which men of the times considered unholy for clerics–hunting:
Therefore he was a prikasour aright.
Grehoundes he hadde as swift as fowl in flight.
Of priking and of hunting for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost woulde he spare.(105: 189-192)
A fat swan loved he best of any rost. (105: 206)
And of the Friar it is said,
A Frere ther was, a wantoune and a merye,
A limitour, a ful solempne man.
In alle the ordres foure is noon that can
So muche of daliaunce and fair langage:
He hadde maad ful many a mariage (105: 208-212)
He was an esy man to yive penaunce
Ther as he wiste to have a good pitaunce; (105: 223-4)
He knew the tavernes wel in every town
And every hostiler and tappestere, (106: 240-41)
To have with sike lazars aquaintaunce:
It is nat honeste, it may nought avaunce,
For to delen with no swich poraile,
But al with riche, and selleres of vitaile; (106: 245-48)
His purchas was wel bettre than his rente. (107: 258)
Chaucer also tells us that his writings are intended for “oure
doctrine”.[vii] His model-priest shares several interesting traits with his Lollard contemporaries.The Lollards were described as:
. . . bound by no vows and no formal consecration, poor, and yet not mendicant . . . barefoot with a long staff in token of their pastoral vocation . . . prelates, priests, and abbots scorned and hated them, but the people loved them and flocked around them.[viii]
Wyclif says of himself and the Lollards:
“Verily, the life of Christ is an example and a mirror to us, which we must imitate as far as lies in our strength.”[ix] This paints a humble, Christ-like picture of sacrifice and commitment.
The “parson”, we are told, was poor of money but rich in holiness and works (480-1); kind and diligent (485); his appearance was Christ-like, “in his hand a staf” (497); his teaching was by precept and example (520-22); ”But Cristes lore and his Apostles twelve / He taughte, but first he folwed it himselve” (529-30).
These characteristics may point to the example of Wyclif and his disciples. Add to these the “parson’s” sacrificial giving, long travels to visit his parishioners, and his reluctance to “curse” (excommunicate) for non-payment of tithes or indulgences; and, we see Chaucer reflecting the lifestyle of a Lollard through his brightly polished “parson.”
The portrait of the “parson” commends a life of orthodoxy and allegiance to Christ, not the papacy. Three times Chaucer tells us that his “parson” preached or taught Christ’s “Gospel” (483, 500, 529). This may suggest that he needed to make a point of it to his readers. We know from history that the Roman Catholic Church held tradition to be of equal import with scripture, which, over the centuries, resulted in more church tradition emerging from the clergy than scripture. Wyclif fought bitterly against this brand of what he considered to be a heretical substitution. For the Lollards, “Dogma was superseded by the Bible, which was made the sole source of faith and practice.”[x] Other imperfections cried as loudly for reform as well.
Clerical absenteeism was one of the curses of the English church. Contemporaries of that period tell us that ”the Lollards are especially vehement about absenteeism.”[xi] The “parson” would have been notably unusual for his day. We are told he “dwelte at hoom and kepte well his folde” (514). His example would easily have stirred up resentment among his, not so dedicated, colleagues. Those priests who took parishes that were wealthier or pursued vocations that compensated them more abundantly–as Chaucer refers to in lines 509-513–were labeled “mercenarius,” which meant hireling.[xii] This term immediately carries us back to the line, “He was a shepherde and nought a mercenarye
” (italics mine)(516).
More evidences of a Lollard “parson” show themselves in further study but none so potentially telling as the Innkeeper’s antagonism: “I smelle a Lollere in the wynd . . . this Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat.”[xiii] Twice the “parson” is accused of being a Lollard; yet he never denies the charges.
Though there may not be complete proof to establish Geoffrey Chaucer himself as a Lollard or a Wyclifite, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that Chaucer sympathized with Wyclif and the Lollards, intentionally fashioning his “parson” after them. Assuming this to be the case, he commends them perhaps because of the integrity of their integration of Biblical theology and the lifestyle of Christ–living examples of the Christ they preached in contrast to the dead orthodoxy and the overwhelmingly un-Christlike, mean-spirited religion of his day.
[i] By Lollard it is not meant those of the semi-monastic settlement in the Netherlands; rather, the English followers of John Wyclif (c. 1320-1384).
[ii]” Wyclif, John,” New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1910 ed. Hereafter referred to as Ency. of R.N.
[iii] G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and his England, (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1950), p. 307.
[iv] “Lollards,” Ency. of R.N.
[v] Coulton, Chaucer, p. 308-9.
[vi] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M.H. Abrams et.al., 4th ed. (Toronto: W.W. Norton & Company Inc., 1962), p. 112, ln. 479. All further references to this work appear as page and line numbers in the text.
[vii] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, student’s Cambridge ed., ed. F.N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co., 1933), p. 314, ln.1083.
[viii] “Lollards,” Ency. of R.N.
[ix] Muriel Bowden, A Commentary on the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, (New York: MacMillan Co., 1954), p. 385.
[x] “Lollards,” Ency. of R.N.
[xi] Bowden, Commentary on Prologue, p. 235.
[xiii] Chaucer, Complete Works, p. 90, lns. 1173, 1175-77.
Copyright 1982, David C Alves