Writing during the second half of the fourteenth century amid the vibrant literary and ecclesiastical cultures of London, Chaucer encountered biblical narrative in a variety of textual forms and media. His principal source of reference would have been the Vulgate Bible of St. Jerome, in which the Latin text of the scriptures was surrounded on each page by extensive patristic and scholastic marginal commentary. In addition, he would also have had access to volumes of distinctiones (alphabetized lists of biblical citations on specific topics) and gospel harmonies (combining the stories of the four Gospels into a single master narrative) and would have been exposed to an extensive “biblical literature” in English (Morey, 2001), including versifications of biblical history, “lives” of Christ, imaginatively augmenting the spare narratives of the Gospels, sophisticated poetic treatments of single biblical episodes, such as Cleanness and Patience, and sermons, subjecting a passage or verse from scripture to extensive exposition. Finally, in common with all sectors of society, Chaucer would have come into regular contact with visualizations of scripture within ecclesiastical wall painting, stained glass, and sculpture and encountered reverential and robust reenactments through the dramas of the liturgy and the urban, open-air mystery play cycles.

Lollardy, The Parson’s Tale, and Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee.

The biblical milieu of late-fourteenth-century London also included controversial voices of reform and dissent. The Oxford theologian John Wyclif and his followers (Wycliffites or Lollards) found fault with the vast apparatus of glosses and commentaries enveloping scripture in most redactions of the Vulgate and advocated a return to a “plain” scriptural text, stripped of gloss and interpretation. They also believed that the Word of God should be made immediately accessible to the laity through its literal translation into English prose, rather than being mediated secondhand through clerical exposition, and turned that belief into action by producing two redactions of the English Wycliffite Bible.

These beliefs were eventually condemned as heresy in the first years of the fifteenth century, and stringent ecclesiastical legislation was passed prohibiting possession of the vernacular scriptures. However, it is important to realize that in the 1380s and 1390s, when Chaucer was composing his more biblically oriented poetry, questions concerning the validity of lay interpretation, the desirability of vernacular access, and the status of biblical glosses could still be debated relatively openly, without any automatic imputation of heresy.

It has proved difficult to gauge exactly where Chaucer fits within this late fourteenth-century melting pot of reformist and Wycliffite debate. We know that for a time Chaucer and Wyclif shared a common patron in John of Gaunt; also, that Chaucer numbered Lollard supporters among his most intimate friends. It has long been a critical orthodoxy that Chaucer made no direct use of the Wycliffite Bible (Landrum, 1924; Besserman, 1998); however, this has recently been questioned by Fehrman (2007) and McCormack (2007) in relation to one of Chaucer’s last and most biblically imbued productions, the Parson’s Tale.

Certainly, Chaucer seems explicitly to want us to think about the Parson in relation to Lollardy. McCormack describes how the portrait of the Parson in the General Prologue fits the contours of the Lollard Poor Priest: an idealized figure of apostolic poverty and charitable concern, basing his practice and preaching upon the foundation of the Gospels. After the Parson chastises the Host for swearing in the Epilogue to The Man of Law’s Tale, the Host responds: “ ‘I smelle a Lollere in the wynd. … Now! Goode men,’ quod oure Hoste, ‘… we schal han a predicacioun; / This Lollere heer wil prechen us somwhat.’ ” (MLT II.1173–1177) The Parson neither refutes nor confirms the Host’s analysis of him; nonetheless, later on, in his Prologue to his Tale, in keeping with Wycliffite principles of biblical exposition, he famously rejects fiction, rhyme, and all forms of “glossing” before embarking on a homiletic narrative dense with translations of scriptural verse into English and with their literal exposition.

Thou getest fable noon ytoold for me,For Paul, that writeth unto Thymothee,Repreveth hem that weyven soothfastnesse,And tellen fables and swich wrecchednesse …I kan nat geeste “rum, ram, ruf,” by lettre,Ne, God woote, rym holde I but litel bettre;And therfore, if yow list—I wol nat glose—I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose.

(ParsT X.31–34, 43–46)

Extensive vernacular translations from scripture rematerialize in “Chaucer the pilgrim’s” prose Tale of Melibee, in which Dame Prudence amasses scores of “proof-texts” from the Bible in the course of supplying her husband, Melibee, with moral and political advice. The female voice behind this scriptural translation and exposition deserves some comment. Prudence is, of course, part of a long, uncontroversial tradition of female personifications of authority within didactic allegory. Nonetheless, it is interesting that she is brought to the fore and positioned as an authoritative expositor of vernacular scripture precisely at the moment in the late 1380s and early 1390s when Wycliffite reformers were exploring the possibility that a woman might defensibly proclaim and expound the Bible.

The Parson’s Tale and Melibee represent Chaucer’s most extended engagement with reformist deployments of the Bible. However, rather than operating in isolation, the competitive format and juxtapositional structure of The Canterbury Tales forces them to be evaluated against comic poetic tour-de-forces, such as the Merchant’s Tale and the Miller’s Tale. Impeccably didactic in their own right, when subjected to aesthetic and literary evaluation, they fare much less well, and the overall effect of their inclusion in this textual environment is to suggest (purely by implication and juxtaposition) that the rejection of poetry and fable in favor of unremitting biblicism creates literary monotony and mediocrity, nigh-on unreadable in parts.

Figural Allusion to the Bible.

This is not to say that Chaucer’s fictional tales in verse eschew biblical allusion. However, in these more literary contexts where the relation of narrator to narrative remains an overriding concern, these allusions are generally utilized, not so much to provide instruction in the verbum Dei as to showcase the ways in which representatives of the different occupations and professions in late medieval society think about and make use of the Bible. For example, by contrast with the reformist overtones of the Parson, the Prioress and the Man of Law both employ a much more traditional typological or figural method in their narratives, aligning the experiences of their protagonists with events from the scriptures. Thus, the Prioress implicitly identifies the young boy murdered by the Jews in her Tale as a second Christ child and labels his bereaved mother a “newe Rachel.” In the same vein, the Man of Law valorizes the religious value of his heroine’s travails at sea by reading them as postfigurations of the trials of Daniel in the lion’s den, Jonah in the whale’s belly, and David confronting Goliath.

These typological references add to the gravity and grandeur of the events being recounted: their protagonists re-embody the salvation narrative at various registers. However, the worldliness of both tale tellers (the Prioress affects aristocratic table manners, the Man of Law despises poverty) allows us to wonder whether Chaucer furnishes them with figural allusions only to identify this traditional mode of scriptural interpretation as a potentially insincere form of narrative hyperbole.

Frequently, figural allusion to scripture is used not to heighten awe but to create comedy and effect social judgment through relations of dissimilarity. When the Miller invites us to link John and Alison, the elderly, dimwitted carpenter and wayward young wife in his tale, to Joseph and Mary and to Noah and Noah’s wife, the stark differences in their moral conduct (Alison’s promiscuity set against Mary’s virginity, Noah’s righteousness against John’s complacency) slyly denigrate contemporary peasant life, signaling that it can only ever recapitulate biblical experience at a level of distortion and parody. Of course, these judgments remain well concealed behind laughter and narrative virtuosity. Further examples include parodic recapitulations of the Eden myth in the marriages of January and May in the Merchant’s Tale, and of Chanticleer and Pertelote in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and of the descent of the Holy Spirit to the apostles at the conclusion of the Summoner’s Tale, in which 12 friars congregate around a churl’s posterior to receive a blast of bad air. It is also worth noting that the Miller derives his scriptural allusions to Joseph’s fears of cuckolding and Noah’s wife’s recalcitrance not from the Bible itself but from the popular mystery cycles enacted each summer. Chaucer realistically records the channels by which his “churls” would have been most likely to come into contact with the biblical characters they imaginatively appropriate to refract their domestic and marital experiences.

Direct Reference to the Bible.

Alongside the serious and satirical figural allusions to scripture via the characters or plotlines of many of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there is also a sizable amount of direct reference to the Bible within the tales, generally to bring scriptural “auctoritee” to bear in proving a point or in exemplifying a vice or virtue. Again, Chaucer’s intent is almost never to provide us with biblical instruction but rather to convey to us something about his characters and occupational representatives through the ways in which they cite the Bible.

By far the greater number of these citations are misuses or abuses, in keeping with Chaucer’s satirical method. Chanticleer, a cockerel in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, cites the Old Testament narratives of Daniel and Joseph, alongside examples taken from saints’ lives and from classical texts, to prove the prophetic and admonitory capacity of dreams, following his own bad dream of a terrifying yellow-red animal with black-tipped ears and tail. The examples are entirely appropriate to the argument in hand, but the intention in using them is primarily to highlight Chanticleer’s metaphorical blindness. He becomes so entranced with his talent for rhetorical speech and for the mesmerizing citation of textual authority that he completely loses sight of the meaning of what he says, in particular, of what these proofs from scripture may mean for him. As a result, shortly afterward, when a fox enters the garden to prey upon the chickens, Chanticleer fails to make any link with the dangerous animal in his dream. Insofar as the tale comments on biblical usage, it would seem to suggest that this usage has become dangerously inert. Scriptural examples function as rhetorical tools to help their exponents exercise verbal mastery over the world around them; their speakers learn nothing valuable from them.

While Chanticleer’s blinded citation of scripture is rendered socially innocuous by its animal fable context, on other occasions Chaucer pulls fewer punches. By far the greater number of his ecclesiastical pilgrims—in particular, his Latinate male clergy, the only ones with direct access to the Vulgate and with authority of exposition—are represented as abusers of scripture, commandeering it to support manifestly corrupt ends. The Pardoner and Friar John in the Summoner’s Tale cite extensively from scripture in the course of homiletic narratives and disquisitions. The Pardoner preaches a sermon on 1 Timothy 6:10: Radix malorum est cupiditas (love of money is the root of all evil), commencing with admonitions against drunkeness, gluttony, gambling, and swearing, which use citation after biblical citation to prove their point (Lot committed incest with his daughters when drunk; Herod ordered the execution of John the Baptist when drunk, etc.). Meanwhile, he gorges, drinks, and swears idly (“ ‘It shal be doon,’ quod he, ‘by Seint Ronyon! / But first,’ quod he, ‘heere at this alestake / I wol bothe drynke and eten of a cake’ ”: PardT VI.319–322) and preaches his sermon on the destructiveness of avarice to the explicit end of wheedling money from a credulous congregation. Failing seminally to practice what he preaches, his corrupt citation of scripture becomes the means by which Chaucer articulates the hypocrisy of his clerical occupation.

Similar mismatches occur in the Summoner’s Tale, in which Friar John preaches fasting and abstinence and counsels against the sin of ire, offering numerous tags from scripture in the course of trying to obtain money for his convent from a bedridden peasant. Simultaneously he calls for capon, soft bread, and roast pork and gives way to fury after receiving a fart from his disaffected victim.

Friar John’s attitude to the Bible also engages with one of the burning issues within contemporary reformist debate: the status of biblical glosses. The Friar prefers the gloss to the letter of scripture, so he says, and preaches from it, because the gloss is easier, and supplies him with validations missing from the plain text of scripture:

But herkne now, Thomas, what I shal seyn.I ne have no text of it, as I suppose,But I shal fynde it in a maner glose,That specially oure sweete Lord JhesusSpak this by frere, whan he seyde thus:“Blessed be they that povere in spirit been.”

(SumT III.1918–1923)

This representation of the Friar’s wilful preference for glosses, and his use of them to support his campaign of fund-raising for his convent, seems to originate from a theological standpoint very similar to that adopted in Wycliffite critique—that biblical glosses were susceptible to manipulation and that the scriptures should stand alone. Nonetheless, we need to bear in mind that the narrative voice is the Summoner’s and that he tells the tale that he does to “quit” the Friar’s preceding tale of a corrupt summoner. Antifraternalism is performed by a speaker who has his own axe to grind. It is one way of reacting to the expository strategies of the friars, but it is hard to say with confidence that it is clearly Chaucer’s way.

Chaucer’s Female Exegete.

Friar John speaks of the biblical gloss with affection. The Wife of Bath, Chaucer’s most radical and unexpected biblical exegete, alludes to it in very different terms in her Prologue, exposing its propensity to create readings of the Bible that idealize virginity, denigrate marriage and remarriage, ostracize sexual pleasure, and give unfounded authority to misogynistic assessments of women.

When the Wife of Bath refers to the gloss (“Men may devyne and glosen, up and down” WBT III.26; see also WBT III.119), she is invariably referring to the way in which the Bible is expounded by St. Jerome in his fourth-century, antimatrimonial treatise, Adversus Jovinianum. Much of the first part of her Prologue is spent attacking this treatise and the way in which it interprets the Bible. Jerome cites the wedding at Cana and Jesus’s meeting with the Samaritan woman by the well to prove that one should only be married once. The Wife of Bath cites the same two episodes simply to rejoin that their meaning is unclear: “What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn” (WBT III.20). Jerome cites Lamech as a negative example of Old Testament bigamy. The Wife of Bath discards Lamech in favor of the more palatable examples of Abraham and Jacob: “I woot wel Abrahmam was an hooly man, / And Jacob eek. … And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two” (WBT III.55–58).

Clearly, the Wife of Bath’s exegesis of scripture is one-sided and partial; as such, on the face of it, her prologue might seem to support the viewpoint of the antireformist churchmen who opined that lay female access to scripture would inevitably give rise to hermeneutic distortion. However, if we allow that the Wife takes St. Jerome (the gloss) as her prime target rather than the Bible per se, we can move her much closer to a reformist position (suspicious of glossing, suspicious of the prominence given to patristic exposition), viewing the partiality of her exegesis as a contestive rejoinder to the equivalent partiality of the Adversus Jovinianum. Jerome distorts scripture to serve his antifeminist, antimatrimonial agenda; the Wife of Bath exposes this abuse by outplaying the patriarch at his own game, quoting the Bible back in an equivalently skewed fashion to support her oppositional campaign for sex and remarriage.

This, our main image of a laywoman expounding the Bible in the Canterbury Tales, is, of course, a deeply problematic one. The Wife of Bath is digressive, inchoate; she trips herself up as often as she trips up her clerical detractors. Nonetheless, the importance of what she experiments with is confirmed by the impact of her voice on the other pilgrims. More than any other traveler in the Canterbury crowd, she engenders debate; her activities leave a trail; nearly every tale is formed, in some way, out of reaction to what she stands for (for the oppressive reaction of the Merchant, see Whitehead, 2009, pp. 146–147).

Together, the Parson and the Wife of Bath represent Chaucer’s most extended forays into reformist biblical poetics. However, if the exemplarity of the one terminates the misrule of the Canterbury Tales and leads to a literary confession and retraction on the part of its author, I am not sure that it is not the vitality and fallibility of the other that ultimately commands more attention and reaction, in both Chaucer’s day and our own.

[See also MEDIEVAL LITERATURE.]

Bibliography

References

  • Besserman, Lawrence. Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. 3d ed. Edited by Larry D. Benson et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. All citations of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are taken from this edition, citing standard tale abbreviation, fragment, and line.
  • Fehrman, Craig T. “Did Chaucer Read the Wycliffite Bible??” Chaucer Review 42, no. 2 (2007): 111–138.
  • Landrum, Grace W. “Chaucer’s Use of the Vulgate.” Publication of the Modern Language Association 39 (1924): 75–100.
  • McCormack, Frances. Chaucer and the Culture of Dissent: The Lollard Context and Subtext of the Parson’s Tale. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 2007.
  • Morey, James H. Book and Verse: A Guide to Middle English Biblical Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
  • Whitehead, Christiania. “Geoffrey Chaucer.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature, edited by Rebecca Lemon et al., pp. 134–151. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Further Reading

  • Fletcher, Alan J. “Chaucer the Heretic.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 25 (2003): 53–121.
  • Jeffrey, David L. “Chaucer and Wyclif: Biblical Hermeneutics and Literary Theory in the Fourteenth Century.” In Chaucer and Scriptural Tradition, edited by David L. Jeffrey, pp. 109–140. Ottawa, Ont.: University of Ottawa Press, 1984.
  • Phillips, Helen, ed. Chaucer and Religion. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2010.

Christiania Whitehead