Essay / Misc.

Fraught: Chaucer’s Mediocrism

To ask about Chaucer’s religion is a little thickheaded, because the main thing about Chaucer is his distance from religion. He’s important in the history of English lit partly because he’s “the first great secular poet in English,” and if we wanted to read religious literature from the 14th century, we could go read that instead of “the first great secular poet” Chaucer. This seems to be the dominant point of view in Chaucer studies, and it’s almost right.

But Nicholas Watson argues something much more interesting in a recent article (“Chaucer’s Public Christianity,” Religion & Literature 37:2 (Summer 2005), 99-114). Having gone out and read all that old religious literature, Watson locates Chaucer’s position within some intriguing 14th-century debates about the piety appropriate for laypeople.

Chaucer, it seems, was doing his best to be a mediocre Christian.

He wanted to locate himself, and people like him, safely within the church, but among the lowest of church members. Medieval theology and spirituality had a kind of two-story structure of holiness built into it: from at least Augustine’s time, there had been a distinction drawn between the professionally holy perfecti, and “those condescendingly termed mediocriter boni, pusilli fideles, or non valde boni (the middling good, the timidly faithful, the not too good): virtuous lay Christians in active life.” The former were monks, nuns, mystics. The latter were decent Christians who got their hands, and maybe their consciences, dirty in ordinary life.

The spirituality of the mediocriter boni shows up at the death bed, where earnest repentance finally breaks forth in a life-transforming way. Watson points to texts from Aquinas and Rolle explaining that on Judgment Day, the mediocriter boni are as scared as the damned, but end up as saved as the perfecti. They’re in the middle somewhere. Watson says:

Whether or not they knew the phrase mediocriter boni itself, we can take it for granted that most English laypeople considered themselves “mediocre” Christians, living in fear of Purgatory and the Judgement though also in hope of final salvation, until the end of the middle ages.” (p. 101)

Of course the more you actually articulate such a position, the more troublesome it becomes. It’s a kind of religious observance that has to go unobserved, or the intolerable tensions inherent in it will break forth. By the fourteenth century, there were a variety of protests against such middling lay piety, with at least three new varieties of perfectionism:

1. A new application of “the mixed life,” which had originated as a way of letting bishops do their active work of overseeing church life, while keeping one foot in devout contemplation. The idea now was that the laity could work their day jobs, but carry out a respectable devotional regime of set prayers and disciplines, which was demanding enough to feel like costly obedience, but brief enough to allow a full work schedule.

2. An emphasis on actively fighting sin and obeying God’s law, which is done right in the midst of daily life rather than in separate devotional exercises. Watson calls this version “the puritanical model.”

3. An affective pursuit, which elevates love above everything, including learning or devotional actions. This is the perfectionism of perfect love.

Much of Watson’s argument hinges on his careful reading of the unreadable Parson’s Tale, which he believes dissolves as it goes along, turning into almost direct address from Chaucer himself. I’m less persuaded by that part, but Watson seems to be onto something when he says

This account of the The Parson’s Tale implies that the rest of the Tales can be read as a self-consciously worldly poem, concerned with life as it is lived before that repentant eleventh hour: life as a pilgrimage, indeed, but a pilgrimage undertaken for all the mixed and underdeveloped motives described and implied in The General Prologue. (105)

And after several well-turned trips around the irony and polysemy of the various narrators:

Despite all this variety, irony, and anxiety, The Canterbury Tales does seriously endorse the mediocrist religiosity that lies behind The Parson’s Tale. For consciously to live out this kind of religiosity, which aspires to salvation but rejects counsels of perfection in favour of worldly engagement, is itself a fraught business. (109)

Fraught! Watson draws a nice contrast with Langland’s Piers Plowman, and points out how difficult is the task of “making conceptual space within the structure of medieval Christian thought –dominated as it had been since late antiquity by the theological and ethical priorities of monasticism– for the practical attitude to worldlines that secular society needs in order to function.” He goes on to point out that satire is a big help in that project, and that Chaucer barely gets his point stated before he self-deconstructs it via the incoherent mock-scholastic arguments of the Wife of Bath.

This is not a key that unlocks every door in The Canterbury Tales, but I am persuaded that Watson has identified one of the most important tasks the great Chaucer set for himself: To articulate, explore, recommend, and enact a kind of middling Christian lay piety, or mediocrism. This would be a task worthy of Chaucer’s wit, because while it is inherently unstable, it is also perennial. Millions are living it out today without theorizing. A proper critical interaction with Chaucer would need to engage this attempt at a deeper level than that indicated by his social and historical situation among the varieties of lay pieties, perfectionisms, and monastic ideals (at which level Watson is an expert guide). What is needed is a direct engagement with the gospel and its claim on daily life. There should be a confrontation between Chaucer, who undertook to be the theorist and advocate of a middling piety, and the thing itself, the thing that evokes any kind of piety whatsoever, the holy thing, “kyng of kynges” and “preest over all preestes.” That confrontation should happen in the midst of life, not on the deathbed or in the final Retraction.

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