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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Foreshadowing of the Protestant Reformation in The Canterbury Tales

Updated January 11, 2022
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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Foreshadowing of the Protestant Reformation in The Canterbury Tales essay

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The Protestant Reformation changed the religious and political landscape of Western Europe after its tense societal discourse. It stemmed from the anger that some held towards the practices of the Catholic Church, and those that opposed the Church viewed it as an organization that aspired to always gain money and power. These practices included indulgences and corruption amongst Church officials. The Protestant Reformation occurred simultaneously with the Renaissance, which marked the end of the Middle Ages. Moreover, the Reformation signaled the slight yet significant growth in religious diversity, as different sects of Protestantism formed in the midst of the Catholic Church’s powerful influence throughout Europe.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s notable poem The Canterbury Tales displayed some of the societal aspects of European life during the Middle Ages through the stories that were embedded in this work. These facets of life included the role of women as well as the actions of the Catholic Church. Although The Canterbury Tales was written long before the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Chaucer’s negative depictions of the Catholic officials’ actions in this work foreshadows it. Chaucer foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation by showing the actions of the Catholic Church by depicting their corruption and influence in a limited manner.

Prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic church wielded hegemony in many Western European states; it gained and maintained its power through the social mores of these nations. During the Middle Ages, the Church influenced Western Europeans through their legal and political prominence as well as their high social standing. Moreover, Catholicism was the state religion of numerous European monarchies before the Reformation; they included the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and England. The endorsement of this form of Christianity by these monarchies ensured that many Europeans converted to Catholicism and so that it could keep its hegemony.

According to Debora Shuger in the Huntington Library Quarterly, two of the central aspects of Christianity before it faced power struggles in many Western nations were the utilization of “indulgences… and pardoners” (Shuger 558, jstor.org). These practices were used so that the Catholic Church can acquire more money and exert control over Western European citizens. Collectively, the Church’s utilization of these techniques allowed for them to rule corruptly and powerfully, and how they managed their hegemony lended itself to criticism. These criticisms of the Catholic Church ultimately led to the Protestant Reformation.

The Catholic Church was the main faith in numerous Western European nations before the Reformation. They displayed their influence over their followers through their corrupt management practices, the proliferation of this religion by monarchs, as well as the usage of the Inquisition in some countries. Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, the author of A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, argued that one of the key roles that the Catholic administration had was the punishment of those that questioned their tenets (Deane 25-26, eds.a.ebscohost.com.proxy-gsu.psao.galileo.usg.edu).

The Catholic Church would often punish people for not abiding by their tenets and laws via excommunication and other legal penalties. The authoritarian influence of the Catholic Church was shown through their exercise of power, and their authoritarianism was a cause for complaint amongst Protestant Reformers. The expression of this grievance by the Reformers accelerated the Protestant Reformation.

Although the influence of the Catholic Church is not described in as much detail as their practices in The Canterbury Tales, it is shown throughout his depictions of the successes of the religious officials’ actions.The Summoner was described as an influential Catholic official in The Canterbury Tales. In the prologue of The Canterbury Tales, the narrator states “we should be aware of excommunication” when he described the Summoner (Chaucer 21).

The Catholic Church used excommunication as a means of punishing their dissidents. Chaucer’s cautionary tone about excommunication in the prologue of The Canterbury Tales illustrated how he foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation by depicting how excommunication was one of the ways that the Catholic Church exerted its powerful influence in Western Europe during the Protestant Reformation. However, he only portrayed this issue in a limited manner, as The Canterbury Tales only mentioned it once in the prologue, and the Church was not heavily criticized for its practices during Chaucer’s time.

The Catholic Church’s utilization of indulgences was another chief complaint amongst the Reformers. In order to receive them, one must donate to the Church. One may receive a good afterlife after one pays money to Christian officials before the Reformation, according to Lawrence G. Duggan, a writer for the Encyclopaedia Britannica (Duggan, britannica.com). This promise from the Catholic Church convinced their followers to give money to them in exchange for these indulgences. Moreover, the Church’s extraction of indulgences caused the Reformers to feel upset with this religious practice, and these feelings eventually led to the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation.

Geoffrey Chaucer portrays the corruption that surrounds the sale of indulgences through the tale of the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales. His negative portrayals of these officials’ giving of indulgences illustrated how he foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation in a limited manner. In “The Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner pleads with three men: “have my absolution for a shilling” after they have acted contemptuously (Chaucer 296, mtsd.k12.nj.us). The rationale that the Pardoner used to persuade these men to receive indulgences was that they could achieve good religious standing after they misbehaved. People often paid for indulgences during the Middle Ages after they misbehaved so that they could be in good religious standing.

Moreover,Chaucer’s tone illustrated that he portrayed the actions of the Pardoner negatively, as he indirectly expressed his greed. Collectively, Chaucer’s negative depictions of indulgences themselves as well as the Pardoner’s character illuminated how he foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation in a limited manner. Although he portrayed this practice and this character negatively by illustrating how they were corrupt, he only displayed these facets of life before the Reformation because few spoke out against the Church during his time. .

Chaucer managed to foreshadow the Protestant Reformation through his negative depiction of the Summoner’s religious influence over others as well as the Pardoner’s distribution of indulgences, as these were the key aspects of the management practices of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. He portrayed the cunningness and deception of these characters, as well as their religious motivations for acting this way. However, Chaucer did not indirectly condemn the Catholic Church’s influentialness much, and differing opinions amongst Christians in Western Europe was rare and unpopular during his time. Therefore, the unpredictability that surrounded the history of the Church while Chaucer lived, as well as his brief description of the Summoner’s power, illuminated how he only foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation in a limited manner. In conclusion, Geoffrey Chaucer’s foreshadowing of the Protestant Reformation in The Canterbury Tales illustrated how authors could predict the outcomes of history through their works.

Works Cited

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Foreshadowing of the Protestant Reformation in The Canterbury Tales essay

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