Christian Obligation And Religious Uncertainty In The Song Of Roland And The Canterbury Tales

Europe was witness to religious turmoil during the Middle Ages. Islam and Christianity were two major religions emerging from the West. The success of Christianity saw the Roman Catholic Church rise to the top of most western religions. However, as with all powerful institutions, it was becoming increasingly corrupt (Swanson 409). Lillian Bisson wrote in Chaucer and The Late Medieval World that the “Medieval Church. . . It was made up of many competing factions that had often conflicting agendas.

Public mistrust of religious authority was a result of the church’s internal conflicts. Bisson’s observations being expanded, this paper will discuss the rise of religious doubt and how it relates to Medieval Europe’s literature. I will compare two of The Song of Roland’s greatest texts from the Middle Ages: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and an anonymous epic called The Song of Roland. The latter shows a profound distrust of religious authority, which is not evident in the former. The Song of Roland presents a different image of the church than the Canterbury Tales. This is based on the fact that the Canterbury Tales and The Song of Roland are early-Medieval, while the former is late-Medieval. Bisson explains that the Catholic Church grew in power as it was unable to be separated from the government. Constantine, Roman Emperor of Rome converted to Christianity and the church quickly gained power.

Individuals who rejected Catholic doctrine were either treated as subhumans or, if living in Christendom was the case, persecuted as heretics. The church was distrusted by the clergy, especially the lower and middle classes. The clergy, who were ordained to the church for their status and money rather than their religious convictions, routinely abuse their authority. The abuses were discovered by the public, and the decline of religious authority was inevitable.

Black Plague was a terrible tragedy that struck Christendom and left many dead. The public also mistrusts the church as people realize their clergymen are useless in praying against it. People watched as their loved ones passed away, and lost faith in God’s power or His benevolence. Fear of their work with the terminally ill (50), many clergymen fled their posts.

The Great Schism is a third problem that plagued the church. In 1956, the church was in danger of being destroyed by scandalous internal conflicts and two men claiming the right to the papal throne (56). John Wyclif, an Oxford scholar and critic of the church, started to speak out during that same time. He not only challenged fundamental beliefs and practices, but also tried to undermine the power of the priests.

He also translated the Bible into English, making it easier to read (58). The new translation of the Bible and the growing literacy rate from the lower classes resulted in a reduction in priests needed to conduct worship. The church was no longer needed to be involved in religious matters. The literature at the time reflects this shift in religious power: early Medieval writings highlight the high ranking of nuns and monks, but later works emphasize the importance of poor preachers and the laity.

Many Christians began seriously to reexamine their church beliefs and doctrines after the church became weaker from both internal conflict as well as a declining credibility with the public. This period’s literature expresses deep reservations about church doctrine and values, which are not evident in older texts. The Song of Roland is a French national epic that supports church authority. It was written before Wyclif’s criticisms.

The Song of Roland, a propaganda piece for Holy Wars’ necessity, demonstrates intolerance of the church during the Middle Ages. The Song of Roland is set in 778 but was written in 1095, the year of the launch of the Crusade against Muslims. However, it is not a holy battle. It had nothing at all to do Islam. It was the Basques that had killed the Frankish army’s rear guard, and not Muslims.

The Song of Roland is a story about Christianity triumphing over Islam. The author makes extensive use of his creative freedom. “The writer attaches religious meaning to secular actions, using the 778 campaign not only as a holy war, rather than as a war between God and Satan.”

Roland’s story tells of Jesus’ resurrection and crucifixion within the context of the text. Roland is a Christ figure that dies as a martyr’s sacrifice; the parallels between these characters reinforce the dogmatic nature the text. Roland has twelve Peers (Roland1259), which is similar to the Twelve Disciples. Ganelon is Roland’s downfall.

He tells the Saracens, pagan enemies of Christianity, how they can kill and ambush the skilled warrior and betrays Roland. Ganelon is more proud than he is rich, and he betrays Roland. Ganelon said to the pagans during his conversation, “If someone could bring about Roland’s demise, / Charles would lose his right hand.” The author compares Roland to Jesus Christ, often referred as the “right handed” of God in Christian mythology.

Roland’s suicide reaffirms that epic’s allegorical nature. Roland blows his horn in an attempt to warn his army that he has been attacked. Angels take his soul straight to Heaven almost immediately. The language used to describe the death scene is similar to that of The Passion.

The church is justified by Christian allegory. This includes the Crusade that the church was supporting at the time the epic was written. Roland’s tragic death is presented as noble. This scene reminds readers of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for humanity. Holy war is justified in that its warriors must bear the consequences of sin. The Song of Roland serves to promote Holy War as a necessary sacrifice which elevates the warrior to Jesus Christ.

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales was composed between 1386- 1400. This text is late-medieval and marked by serious conflict regarding the Catholic Church of that time. Lee Patterson’s introduction of Chaucer to the Norton Anthology of Western Literature understates the importance of religious doubts in Chaucer’s work. He wrote that “most” of the events “within and around the church” are barely mentioned in Chaucer’s poetry.

Other critics have also noted that Chaucer’s texts often touch on religion at a subtextual or intertextual level. Bisson points out that Chaucer shared friends with John Wyclif who had extensive connections to church critics (58). Helen Phillips agrees with Bisson that Chaucer’s writings may be called “anticlerical fasciaux”, a late Middle Ages literary technique that mocked the church and undermined its authority (104). Phillips also notes Chaucer’s subversive choice to write vernacular English in place of Latin, which was the official language Roman Catholicism. This is a marker of the elitism characterized by the Medieval Christian church.

Chaucer, who was aware of growing literacy among lower classes, used vernacular English to make his works accessible to everyone. His writing shows his sympathy for people from the lowest social ranks. Phillips says Chaucer’s portrayal peasants as “empathetic and unpatronizing” is his best work. He contrasts “their sound, moral judgment, sense of fairness and disgust with the arrogant clerical predators” Chaucer aligned his views with those who criticized the church. Their skepticism was often directed against its most powerful leaders. Chaucer saw the higher ranks of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, as corrupt and hateful, while his few examples if good religious figures were of the lowest level.

Chaucer’s writings were heavily influenced by religious themes, even though they only deal with indirectly the church. Chaucer’s most well-known work, The Canterbury Tales, uses imagery and character to critique the corruption of church authority. Chaucer’s most powerful vehicle for expressing religious doubt is the Miller, an unrelated character.

The Miller is getting ready to tell his story. He says, “I’ll tell both a legend and a live,” which Nicholas Watson points out is a common phrase that describes stories about saints’ lives at the time. Chaucer “strips [Christianity] off its pretenses” by describing the Miller’s sinful tale of adultery using language from a holy text (52). Thus, the Miller announces his story as a parody of religion’s authority and seriousness at the time.

There is also a subtext that suggests religious doubt in the Miller story. Miller tells about Alison who is a young married woman to John. Alison has an affair and Nicholas is an Oxford student. Absolon is also interested in Alison. The story’s crudeness and sexuality make it a profane one that is not in accord with Christian doctrine.

The Miller’s story has many religious references. The Miller introduces Nicholas by singing “Angelus to Virgin,” an ancient prayer which, when used to explain adultery, is considered sacriligious (1720). Chaucer wrote the following:

As her Christian duty, she will be a saint one day.

This was the way she went to the parish Church.

Her forehead lit up as she moved.

It was shining bright, because she had washed so many of them.

When she was done with her work, it glowed.

Chaucer employs juxtaposition to create a sacriligious effect. The images that Alison takes to church in her Christian duty, along with the fact she is clean and pure “bright”,” “glow”, and “glistened”, make it clear that she is a hypocrite. Alison’s devotion and love for the church are incriminated. Chaucer suggests that this woman, who is committed to the church, leaves much to be desired in Christianity.

Alison and Nicholas make blatant jokes about Christianity by using trickery to hide her husband’s adultery. John is coerced by the lovers to believe another flood is coming. Chaucer feels that the church is often used to obtain sexual pleasure, rather than a way to spiritual fulfillment.

Similar to the earlier episode, Absolon uses images and language taken from the Biblical Song of Songs to try to seduce Alison. It’s interesting that “Song of Songs” was originally a love song from the Bible. However, clergy interpret it to be a symbol of God’s unconditional love. Absolon uses the song to try to get a wife, which is in direct contradiction to the intended purpose of its text. Miller’s Tale is a funny interpretation of the hypocrisy surrounding the authority and actions in Medieval Christian churches.

The Canterbury Tales presents many negative images of religious figures, but the Pardoner is the most egregious. In exchange for money and an act of retribution, a pardoner sold papal indulgences. The 13th century saw the introduction of full purgatory doctrine, and the pardoner was a key figure within the church.

Purgatory is a place for short-term punishment that sinners can use to punish them for not being completely freed at death. However, they must not have committed sins so grave as to cause them to be exiled to hell for ever. To decrease the time in purgatory one could indulge either a living or deceased person. These indulgences were a major source of church corruption. Pardoners falsified these documents to make more money. The laity could indulge in sin as they could buy forgiveness.

Chaucer’s Pardoner even in such a corrupt profession is especially shameful. In the Prologue’s first paragraph, he declares that his sermons are always based upon the phrase, “Radixmalorum est cupiditas” (Avarice is evil’s root). The Pardoner immediately describes how he uses religion as a means to gain material wealth by selling counterfeit relics. The Pardoner contradicts his sermon directly and reiterates the theme of religious doubt running through The Canterbury Tales. His hypocrisy further complicated by his tale which presents a moral lesson about three men who are killed for their greed.

Phillips refers to the Pardoner’s “spiritual barrenness” in the General Prologue. He is described with long, blonde hair, no eyebrows, and a high voice. These characteristics suggest that he’s effeminate. He is also noted as being fashionable, which is a feminine characteristic. Accordingly, the narrator observed that “I believe he were a Mare or a Gelding.” (1715). The Pardoner could either be a homosexual or an Eunich, which would mean that they are both figures that represent complete fruitlessness and barrenness during Middle Ages. His infertility physical suggests his spiritual infertility.

The Parson in The Canterbury stories is shown sympathetically as opposed to Chaucer’s Pardoner. The Parson, who is of the lowest order of clergy, is sympathetically portrayed. This suggests that Chaucer was directing his religious criticism at the church’s upper tiers. In the General Prologue, he is described as “a good priest’s vocation man / A poor Parson of true Consecration in a town / But he was rich with holy thought and work” (1710).

Parson is a caring man who values his congregation and doesn’t like to discipline people who aren’t able tithe. His story is more like a sermon than a tale. His tale shows that his piety is genuine. A pious religious figure wouldn’t waste time telling light-hearted stories when they could be spreading God’s word. The Parson, a lower-class man of faith, is true to his preaching.

Two Medieval works are compared to show that the conflicts surrounding the Catholic Church in the latter half distinguishes Medieval literature from later ones. Song of Roland, a work that was written before major problems such as disease, dissent, and corruption made it difficult for people to believe in the authority of religious authorities, depicts the church triumphing over the final evil, which is Islam.

It is not clear that the author doubts Holy War’s authenticity. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a critical account of the influence and motivations of the church. Chaucer, himself a man who believes, doesn’t criticize Christianity as belief system. Instead, he views Christianity as organized religion. Chaucer is most critical of the hypocrisy, corruption, and incompetence of clergymen at the highest levels of the church hierarchy. The Song of Roland shows the rise of Christianity to power during the Middle Ages. The Canterbury stories reveals the beginning of church’s internal fracture and decreasing credibility.

Works cited

Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and The Late Medieval World. St. Martin’s Press released a version of the book in 1998 in New York.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. A collection of stories by Geoffrey Chaucer about a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. Trans. Theodore Morrison’s work. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature is a compilation of works from various authors across the literary canon. Ed. Heather James et al. Norton published an edition in New York in 2005. 1696-1759.

Dominik, Mark. “Holy War, The Song of Roland: The Mythification’ of History.” The Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal published its second volume in 2003. 2-8.

Patterson, Lee. “Geoffrey Chaucer”. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature is a compilation of works from various authors and eras of western civilization. Ed. Heather James et al. Norton published a book in New York in 2005. 1696-1701.

Phillips, Helen. An Introduction To The Canterbury Tales. In 2000, Palgrave published a work in New York.

“The Epic Poem of Roland”. Trans. Frederick Goldin. The anthology that contains works of literature from the western world. Norton published a book in New York in 2005. 1247-1316.

Watson, Nicholas. “Christian Ideologies”. A Companion for Chaucer. Ed. Peter Brown is the name of the person. Blackwell Publishers of Oxford released a book in 2002. 75-90.


  • finlaymason

    Finlay Mason is a 36-year-old blogger and teacher from the UK. He is a prominent figure within the online education community, and is well-known for his blog, which provides advice and tips for teachers and students. Finlay is also a frequent speaker at education conferences, and has been quoted in several major newspapers and magazines.

Back to top