Today in Catholic History – The Canterbury Tales

On 17 April 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer began his telling of the Canterbury Tales at the court of Richard II and, according to the text, it was on this date in 1387 that the pilgrims of the tale began their journey to the shrine of Thomas Beckett.

At the time in which the Tales were written, the Catholic Church was still suffering from the effects of the Great Schism – two and later three claimants asserted their legitimacy as pope at the same time.  Struggles to end the schism and return unity to the Catholic Church motivated calls for reform by such men as John Wycliffe – who attacked papal supremacy.

The Canterbury Tales thus reflect this difficult time in the Church.  Many of the characters are religious such as the Pardoner, the Summoner, the Friar, the Monk, the Prioress, the Priest and the Nun.   Chaucer uses these characters to attack what he considered the corruption among the clergy and to emphasize what he considered true religious virtue.  Chaucer wanted his stories to point out those who had failed to live as they should and also those who did serve as good examples to others.

Today, Chaucer’s work continues to serve as a model of the Christian pilgrimage to heaven, sinners and saints striving for holiness.  In his 2005 talk for World Youth Day, J. Francis Cardinal Stafford noted:

In this Catholic poet, we see how a many-layered tradition (pilgrimage to a shrine containing a relic) can eventually exhibit a whole range of phenomena, from the authentic spirituality of the Parson to crassest superstition and entrepreneurial greed. The very existence of such beliefs reveals the nature and quality of the Catholic faith at that time: Christians would not respond to a god as a mere abstract idea, an abstract spiritual principle or a subject of speculation. The Catholic faithful wished to see and touch the true God. This was no light matter.

The Canterbury Tales


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