Gregory I (540 A. D.-604 A. D.) and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. (03/30/2001)

Arguing in favor of finding any connection between an early Pope of the church and the work of an English poet who lived 800 years later, even if the Pope is Gregory the Great, credited with formalizing the rituals and offices of the ecclesiastical estate into the fixed clerical structures that survived well after Chaucer's death (1400 A. D.), no matter how obvious and apparent those connections might appear to be, probably cannot rise above the level of speculation, even of idle conjecture. One can always appeal to coincidence as a means of explaining parallels between the Pope's Epistles and the poet's Canterbury pilgrimage where no one can ever say for certain what Chaucer might, or might not, have read during his lifetime. The letters of a Pope, even a great one, hardly seem appropriate matter for a poet of Chaucer's secular reputation. Yet, and on the other hand, it is also true that Gregory I has a direct and essential connection, outside anything Chaucer may have read, to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury. This connection arises from the fact that Gregory sent a monk under his tutelage from Rome to Canterbury in the hope that Augustine, as he was called, might be successful in converting the Angels to Christianity. Because the king of East Anglia, Aethelberht, both allowed the Christians to proselytize his subjects and was actually converted himself to the new faith, Augustine ultimately became the first archbishop of Canterbury and as such certainly plays a role, even if only a silent and unacknowledged one, in any pilgrimage making its way during the Middle Ages from London to Becket's shrine.

Chaucer may allude to Gregory's connection to Canterbury, and to Augustine as its first archbishop, in the choice he made to tell the story of Januarie and May in Fragment IV of his story-telling contest. While no clear motive surfaces in Chaucer's decision to assign the story to the Merchant, as opposed to another pilgrim, that can be said to point back at Pope Gregory, many aspects of the story's content do suggest he may have had that Pope in mind when he included the story in the sequence. Januarie is an old man, who "was passed sixty yeer" (IV, 1252), when he decides that he should take a wife for the first time because he believes that "wedlok is so esy and so clene,/ That in this world it is a paradys" (IV, 1264-65). During the opening passage of the story, the Merchant comments that he cannot tell whether the old knight made his decision to find a wife out of "hoolynesse or for dotage" (IV, 1253). As readers, of course, we discover that the latter cause is the one that best characterizes Januarie's actions since the woman he chooses to marry, who is much younger than he is, May, in fact, to his January, turns him into a cuckold with his faithless man-servant, Damyan, after only a few weeks or months of marriage.

Januarie also seeks advice from his friends, since there are conflicting opinions regarding the wisdom of marriage from both secular and religious authorities at the time. Only two advisors are named and subsequently speak. Placebo, appropriately, claims to have been a "court-man al [his] lyf" (IV, 1492) and has never once contradicted the opinion of any lord under whom he has served (IV, 1495-97). He expresses full agreement with Januarie's decision to marry. Justinus, on the other hand, advises against Januarie's plan and is dismissed on the ground that wiser men than he have already assented to the old knight's plan. A final point concerns the setting of the tale in Pavia, which was under the control of the Lombard knights and was famous during Chaucer's day for "usury, wealth, and amorous sensuality" (Benson 885).

With regard to Gregory I and the Lombard connection, while not a definitive link, it is true that for most of his reign as supreme pontiff, from 590 A. D. to 604 A. D., Gregory was forced to confront the threat of a Lombard invasion of Rome. Hostilities broke out in 592 A. D. and Rome was placed under seige for a time a year later by Agilulf, Duke of Turin. Legend has it that Gregory met the prince of the Lombard army on the steps of St. Peter's and convinced him to withdraw by an overpowering display of piety and reverence for God. Later, however, Gregory referred to himself as "paymaster to the Lombards," which probably suggests that he purchased the end of the seige with money from the papal treasury (Catholic Encyclopedia). This action was by no means an unwise thing for the Pope to do, since there was no other way for him to secure the independence of Rome from Lombard rule at the time. In the context of the Merchant's Tale, Januarie would have been one of Agilulf's knights and would have participated in its pillage had Gregory capitulated to the seige.

The name Januarie, meant to suggest an old man who foolishly takes a young bride (May in this instance), cannot be surely traced to any obvious source but may have been suggested by Deschamps's ballade "Contre les mariages disproportiones," where the old husband and the youthful wife are named January and April (Benson 886). Another potential source for the name of Chaucer's hero in the Merchant's Tale arises from a series of letters Pope Gregory was forced to write to the Bishop of Cagliari to rebuke him for his intemperate and foolish behavior which, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, had reduced the church of Sardinia to a state of semi-chaos. The Bishop's name was Januarius, who appears to have been suffering from the effects of senility. In the first Epistle of Book IX of Gregory's letters, after he notes that Paul forbids the cursing of one's elders, he says to Januarius that "so great [a] wickedness has been reported to us of thy old age that, unless we were humanely disposed, we should smite thee with a definitive curse." After outlining the specific charges against him, which involved the destruction of a parishioner's fields just after the Pope had received his 10% payment of the "first fruits" tithe, which he was forced to return to prevent the parishioner's starvation, Gregory says to Januarius "seeing that we still spare thy gray hairs, bethink thee at length, old man, and restrain thyself from such levity of behavior, and perversity of deeds. The nearer thou art approaching death, the more careful and fearful oughtest thou to become." Finally, Gregory takes note of the fact that Januarius has been given bad advice by his counselors, against whom he issues a decree of excommunication for two months, and warns Januarius "to stand aloof from their counsels, lest, if thou be their disciple in evil whose master thou oughtest to have been in good, we no longer spare either thy simplicity or thy old age." A parallel in the Merchant's Tale can be said to surface in the fact that none of the principal actors (Januarie, May, Damyan) are actually punished for their misdeeds in the story, a fact which has generated a considerable amount of critical confusion over the moral probity of Chaucer's handling of his material.

While nothing here definitively links the Januarie of Chaucer's story to the Bishop of Cagliari, the series of "coincidental" connections do not stop at a superficial level of mere appearance, as it were, since the theme of the Merchant's Tale, which can be said to draw the sacrament of marriage on to a ground that may threaten the stability of the church, due simply to Januarie's "levity of behavior" and May's "perversity of deeds," generated in part by the bad advice of his counselors, extends outward to the very kinds of problems Gregory was compelled to address in his numerous letters to Januarius. It seems unlikely that so many minor and major elements of Chaucer's story, even to deeply thematic concerns, could have fallen together in obvious parallel to Gregory's problems with an aged and senile Bishop, who shared the same name with Chaucer's hero, without there being some knowledge on the poet's part of the Pope's letters to Januarius. What seems certainly true is that Gregory's letter, even if one prefers to leave it at the level of mere coincidence, in order to avoid the difficult problems of elevating it to the status of an analogue, nevertheless does cast a serious and useful light on efforts to evaluate the Merchant's Tale in the wider framework of the Canterbury pilgrimage.

A second letter, also in Book IX (CVI), which Gregory wrote to the Bishops of Gaul, was addressed to problems and issues that Chaucer takes up in Fragment VI in the Canterbury sequence. In Gregory's Liber pastoralis curae, as a suitable place to begin, for instance, which became a kind of manual in the Middle Ages outlining the way in which Bishops were supposed to administer their holy office, the Pope "regards the Bishop preeminently as the physician of souls" (Catholic Encyclopedia). Also noteworthy in this same context is the long standing tradition in the church that Gregory, especially in his sermons, displayed a remarkable mastery of the Bible. This matters in Canterbury because Chaucer says of his Physician in the General Prologue that "His studie was but litel on the Bible" (I. 438). While this might be taken to mean any number of things in the context, it again seems remarkable that Chaucer's characterization of the Doctour of Phisik reflects, with such compelling thoroughness, an anti-type to a Pope who was renowned in the Middle Ages for insisting that Bishops be physicians of the soul, a task Chaucer's Physician fails miserably to accomplish, and who possessed a legendary mastery of Biblical texts himself.

In his letter to the Bishops of Gaul, then, Gregory informs them that it has come to his attention through numerous reports that the practices of simoniacal heresy are running without restraint through most of the areas under their control. If there is one all-inclusive sin or crime with which Chaucer's Pardoner can be charged, of course, it would be the sin of simony, since he is selling pardon, even a false absolution of sin, a gift conferred on man by the grace of the Holy Spirit, for profit, and profit not for the benefit of the church either, but for himself alone. There is one very significant verbal parallel between the Pardoner's speech act and Gregory's letter as well. When describing himself, his intent, and his primary preaching text, the Pardoner says that

"I preche of no thyng but for coveityse.

Therfore my theme is yet, and ever was,

Radix malorum est Cupiditas.

Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice

Which that I use, and that is avarice." (VI.424-28)

In expressing the reason for his letter to the Bishops of Gaul Gregory says that

"since we cannot keep close to the author of all good, unless we cut away from us covetousness, which is the root of all evil, we therefore by these present writings . . . approach your Fraternity in accordance with apostolic institutes, that, leaning on the rules of the Fathers and the Lord's commands, we may banish from the temple of faith avarice, which is the service of idols, so as to suffer nothing hurtful, and nothing disorderly, to be in the house of the Lord."

"Radix malorum est Cupiditas," the Pardoner's preaching text, of course, can be translated exactly as "covetousness, which is the root of all evil," as it has been done in this version of Gregory's text. Again, however, since the Pardoner's text is a virtual cliché in the Middle Ages, finding it in both places at once does not prove that Chaucer relied specifically on Gregory's letter as a source for his conceptualization of the Pardoner's character. At the same time, it is also true that Chaucer's "ful vicious man" (VI.459), as the Pardoner characterizes himself, does preach from the pulpits of local churches, a fact which demonstrates precisely what Gregory warns against here, that things both "hurtful" and "disorderly" cannot be banished from the "temple of faith" if avarice is allowed to function in the church. Gregory's 6th Century concern over simoniacal heresy in Gaul is also Chaucer's focus in Fragment VI of his Canterbury pilgrimage, where the Physician's Tale tells the story of Virginia, who is about to be robbed of the value of her virginity by a corrupt Roman judge, while the Pardoner's speech performance describes the way in which honest parishioner's are robbed of the good deeds of their almsgiving by a corrupt churchman who converts their gifts to his own avaricious use. Gregory addresses this aspect of the abuse specifically when he notes that "the perverseness of this iniquity . . . . drives those to sell whom it deceives into buying [and brings] to pass that it increases, and becomes doubled in one and the same contagion of sin, to wit of the buyer and of the seller." In other words, as the parishioner is robbed of his/her good deed in giving, he/she is also caught up in the same sin of simoniacal heresy that infects the seller of the gifts of the Holy Spirit which, in Chaucer's context, are the pardons his "ful vicious man" carries with him in his wallet. This may seem to be an overly harsh judgment against people who are only performing a good deed by donating money to a genuine cause meant to help the needy, but for two different reasons it is exactly appropriate. In the context of Gregory's letter, the problem he was addressing concerned the granting of benefice to a person who paid a price to receive it, the granting of a parish as its priest for instance. In such a case, the buyer is just as aware of the simony as the seller is and hence both are guilty of the same sin. In Chaucer's context, where one might argue that the buyer is not aware of the dishonesty of the seller, we are necessarily prevented from making that claim because the Pardoner himself admits, even proclaims, his vicious intent and all-pervasive subterfuge. Secondly, since the dishonesty of pardoners was universally recognized and condemned by the church at the end of the fourteenth century, it is difficult to imagine any parishioner who was not aware of the risk of sin he/she took in purchasing pardon through an act of almsgiving.

In a closing statement Gregory makes in his caution to the Bishops of Gaul about the sin of simony, he evokes the image of Satan when he says that

"the adversary of souls, when unable to insinuate into them what is wrong on the face of it, endeavors to supplant them by throwing over it as it were a show of piety, and persuades them, perhaps, that money ought to be received from those who have it, so that there may be wherewith to give to those who have it not, if only he may even so infuse mortal poisons concealed under the appearance of almsgiving."

The idea here that "the adversary of souls" uses the subterfuge of concealing "mortal poisons" under the appearance of performing a good deed, in order to "infuse" the unwary with its deadly sting, is nothing short of exactly what Chaucer's Pardoner says himself during the course of the Prologue to his Tale. After describing how he slanders anyone who speaks against him or his fellow practitioners, he says: "Thus quyte I folk that doon us displesances;/ Thus spitte I out my venym under hewe/ Of hoolynesse, to semen hooly and trewe" (VI.420-22). In short, then, every aspect of the Pardoner's preaching is directed at concealing, like Satan does, the dangerous "mortal poisons" hidden under the "hewe/ Of hoolynesse" he projects outwardly to the world of souls patiently awaiting their turn to be stung by the venom of doing a good deed. There is hardly any difference at all in these two statements.

A final parallel exists in the fact that the Pardoner's actual tale is set in Flanders. Ancient Gaul, of course, was an area that included most of France and all of Belgium, where Flanders, in the fourteenth century, and Belgium, today, with slight modifications in actual territory, are the same country. As an exemplum of the Pardoner's various sins against God, his tale features three tavern rioters who witness the death of an acquaintance from the Black Death, decided to track down his murderer and kill him out of revenge. Their quest leads them to a pot of gold, which a mysterious old man assures them is the object they are seeking. Since they do not want to recover the gold in the daylight, the three revelers decide to wait until nightfall to do so. The youngest member of the group is sent back to town to get food and drink to sustain them while they wait. The two guarding the gold in his absence decide to kill him when he returns in order to increase their share of the windfall. At the same time, their intended victim decides to conceal rat poison in the wine he has purchased in order to murder his companions and thereby increase his share of the gold. The first two murder the third when he returns with the wine and they in turn die when they drink it. Hence, all three find the object of their quest just as the old man assured them they would. A point that can be made here is that the rat poison concealed in the wine is a "venym" hidden under a "hewe/ Of hoolynesse," as it were, because wine is an essential element of the Eucharist in the sacrament of the Mass, which confers eternal life to the true believer. In the context of Gregory's letter to the Gauls, an act of simoniacal heresy, which elevates an unworthy person to the role of administering the sacraments of the church, necessarily destroys their validity so that a ritual meant to confer eternal life instead brings about eternal death. The Pardoner's story perfectly exemplifies both what he says about himself as a preacher, ("Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice/ Which that I use, and that is avarice."), since the three revelers are drive to death by greed, and what Gregory warns against in his letter over the practice of simoniacal heresy, since an element of the Eucharist becomes an agent of death, instead of life, when administered by a person who has purchased a gift freely given by the Holy Spirit.

While it might remain in doubt that Chaucer was motivated, at least in part, by Gregory's Epistles (I and CVI), it is certainly clear that both were addressing precisely the same issues of simoniacal heresy and ineffectual church administration when they wrote. Chaucer's fictional account of the problems Gregory experienced in alleviating the ill-effects of the misdeeds of his senile Bishop of Sardinia, Januarius, which had reduced the church there to a state of semi-chaos, are transformed into a parody of the sacrament of marriage between the old and foolish Lombard knight, Januarie, and his faithless and adulterous wife, May, in the Merchant's Tale. In his Physician-Pardoner pair in Fragment VI, Chaucer perfectly fictionalizes the issue of simoniacal heresy that Gregory expressed in his letter to the Bishops of Gaul by showing us two examples of individuals who are unworthy of the moral and ecclesiastical duties they endeavor to execute on behalf of the church. Given the fact that Gregory was also responsible for sending the monk who became the first archbishop of Canterbury to East Anglia in 595 A. D., it seems only appropriate that Chaucer would rely on his written word in the course of telling a tale about a pilgrimage to Becket's shrine 800 years later. In a very real sense it can be said that one would not exist without the other.