Page images
PDF
EPUB

of its moral omnipotence had come to an end many generations before the disruption of its external framework. In the fourteenth century men had long ceased to look for the mediation of the Church between an overbearing Crown and a baronage and commonalty eager for the maintenance of their rights or for the assertion of their claims. On the other hand, the conflicts which still recurred between the temporal power and the Church had as little reference as ever to spiritual concerns.

Undoubtedly, the authority of the Church over the minds of the people still depended in the main upon the spiritual influence she exercised over them; and the desire for a reformation of the Church, which was already making itself felt in a gradually widening sphere, was by the great majority of those who cherished it held perfectly compatible with a recognition of her authority. The world, it has been well said, needed an enquiry extending over three centuries, in order to learn to walk without the aid of the Church of Rome. Wyclif, who sought to emancipate the human conscience from reliance upon any earthly authority intermediate between the soul and its Maker, reckoned without his generation ; and few, except those with whom audacity took the place of argument, followed him to the extreme results of his speculations. The Great Schism rather stayed than promoted the growth of an English feeling against Rome, since it was now no longer necessary to acknowledge a Pope who seemed the henchman of the arch-foe across the narrow seas.

But although the progress of English sentiment towards the desire for liberation from Rome was to be interrupted by a long and seemingly decisive reaction, yet in the fourteenth as in the sixteenth century the

most active cause of the alienation of the people from the Church was the conduct of the representatives of the Church themselves. The Reformation has most appropriately retained in history a name at first unsuspiciously applied to the removal of abuses in the ecclesiastical administration and in the life of the clergy. What aid could be derived by those who really hungered for spiritual food, or what strength could accrue to the thoughtless faith of the light-hearted majority, from many of the most common varieties of the English ecclesiastic of the later Middle Ages? Apart from the Italian and other foreign holders of English benefices, who left their flocks to be tended by deputy, and to be shorn by an army of the most offensive kind of tax-gatherers, the native clergy included many species, but among them few which, to the popular eye, seemed to embody a high ideal of religious life. The times had by no means come to an end when many of the higher clergy sought to vie with the lay lords in warlike prowess. Perhaps the martial Bishop of Norwich, who, after persecuting the heretics at home, had commanded an army of crusaders in Flanders, levied on behalf of Pope Urban VI. against the anti-Pope Clement VII. and his adherents, was in the poet Gower's mind when he complains that while

the law is ruled so,
That clerks unto the war intend,
I wot not how they should amend
The woeful world in other things,
And so make peace between the kings
After the law of charity,
Which is the duty properly

Belonging unto the priesthood. A more general complaint, however, was that directing itself against the extravagance and luxury of life in which

the dignified clergy indulged. The cost of these unspiritual pleasures the great prelates had ample means for defraying in the revenues of their sees; while lesser dignitaries had to be active in levying their dues or the fines of their courts, lest everything should flow into the receptacles of their superiors. So in Chaucer's Friar's Tale an unfriendly Regular says of an archdeacon,

For smallë tithes and for small offering
He made the people piteously to sing.
For ere the bishop caught them on his hook,

They were down in the archödeacon's book. As a matter of course, the worthy who filled the office of Summoner to the court of the archdeacon in question, had a keen eye for the profitable improprieties subject to its penalties, and was aided in his efforts by the professional abettors of vice whom he kept “ready to his hand.” Nor is it strange that the undisguised worldliness of many members of the clerical profession should have reproduced itself in other lay subordinates, even in the parish clerks, at all times apt to copy their betters, though we would fain hope such was not the case with the parish clerk, “the jolly Absalom " of the Miller's Tale. The love of gold had corrupted the acknowledged chief guardians of incorruptible treasures, even though few may have avowed this love as openly as the “idle" Canon, whose Yeoman had 80 strange a tale to tell to the Canterbury pilgrims concerning his master's absorbing devotion to the problem of the multiplication of gold. To what a point the popular discontent with the vices of the higher secular clergy had advanced in the last decennium of the century, may be seen from the poem called the Complaint of the Ploughmana production pretending to be by the same hand which in the Vision had dwelt on the sufferings of the people and on the sinfulness of the ruling classes. Justly or unjustly, the indictment was brought against the priests of being the agents of every evil influence among the people, the soldiers of an army of which the true head was not God, but Belial.

In earlier days the Church had known how to compensate the people for the secular clergy's neglect, or imperfect performance, of its duties. But in no respect had the ecclesiastical world more changed than in this. The older monastic Orders had long since lost themselves in unconcealed worldliness ; how, for instance, had the Benedictines changed their character since the remote times when their Order had been the principal agent in revivifying the religion of the land ! Now, they were taunted with their very name, as having been bestowed upon them “by antiphrasis," i. e. by contraries. From many of their monasteries, and from the inmates who dwelt in these comfortable halls, had vanished even all pretence of disguise. Chaucer's Monk paid no attention to the rule of St. Benedict, and of his disciple St. Maur,

Because that it was old and somewhat strait;

and preferred to fall in with the notions of later times. He was an outrider, that loved venery," and whom his tastes and capabilities would have well qualified for the dignified post of abbot. He had “full many a dainty horse” in his stable, and the swiftest of greyhounds to boot; and rode forth gaily, clad in superfine furs and a hood elegantly fastened with a gold pin, and tied into a love-knot at the “greater end,” while the bridle of his steed jingled as if its rider had been as good a knight as any of them—this last, by the way, a mark of ostentation against which Wyclif takes occasion specially to inveigh.

This Monk (and Chaucer must say that he was wise in his generation) could not understand why he should study books and unhinge his mind by the effort ; life was not worth having at the price ; and no one knew better to what use to put the pleasing gift of existence. Hence mine host of the Tabard, a very competent critic, had reason for the opinion which he communicated to the Monk :

It is a noble pasture where thon go'st;

Thou art not like a penitent or ghost. In the Orders of nuns, certain corresponding features were becoming usual. But little in the way of religious guidance could fall to the lot of a sisterhood presided over by such a Prioress as Chaucer's Madame Eglantine, whose mind-possibly because her nunnery fulfilled the functions of a finishing school for young ladies-was mainly devoted to French and deportment, or by such a one as the historical Lady Juliana Berners, of a rather later date, whose leisure hours produced treatises on hunting and hawking, and who would probably have on behalf of her own sex echoed the Monk's contempt for the prejudice against the participation of the Religious in field-sports :

He gave not for that text a pulled hen
That saith, that hunters be no holy men.

On the other hand, neither did the Mendicant Orders, instituted at a later date purposely to supply what the older Orders, as well as the secular clergy, seemed to have grown incapable of furnishing, any longer satisfy the reason of their being. In the fourteenth century the Dominicans or Black Friars, who at London dwelt in such magnificence that king and Parliament often preferred a sojourn with them to abiding at Westminster, had in general grown

D

« PreviousContinue »