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The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Elisée Reclus
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
  Art and Anarchy
  Education and Anarchy
  Anarchist Poets
  Music and Anarchy

This text was taken from Godwin's Life of Chaucer by William Godwin, London: T. Davison, White-Friars; 1804.

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After the consideration of the scene in which a man has spent his boyish years, and the studies and modes of imagination to which his early attention has been directed, there is nothing which can be of more importance in moulding the youthful mind, than the religious sentiments which in our tender age we have been communicated to us. As we have no direct information as to this particular in the education of Chaucer, it is fair to fix our ideas respecting him at the middle point, and to believe that he was brought up in all that intuition which, relatively to the times when he was born, was regarded as seemly, decent and venerable, neither deviating into the excesses of libertinism on the one hand, nor of a minute and slavish spirit of devotion on the other. If it should be thought that some of his lighter compositions are marked with no anxious regard to the laws of religion and decorum, there will still remain a considerable portion of his works which are stamped in no slight degree with the religious sentiments then in vogue, and his Testament of Love in particular, the offspring of adversity and imprisonment, when a man's early impressions of this sort are most apt to manifest themselves, is eminently serious, reverential and orthodox.

The religion of England in the times here treated of, was that of the holy apostolical Roman Catholic faith. It was about two hundred and fifty years before the birth of Chaucer that the church of Rome had gradually obtained that extraordinary ascendant and stability which have excited the astonishment of all subsequent ages. The eleventh century was marked with the establishment of thos two cardinal dogmas, transubstantiation and the celibacy of the clergy; the one subduing all human sense and reason at the foot of mystery and implicit faith, and the other creating to the sovereign pontiff an immense army of resolute adherents, dispersed through every region of Christendom, yet detached from all the ties of country, domestic affection and nature. This was the period in which the bishop of Rome openly assumed to himself the power of creating and deposing kings, of setting subjects free from the bond of allegiance, and of subjecting the most exalted personages to the basest and most abject penance. It was in the eleventh century that Henry IV. emperor of Germany waited three days, barefooted and bareheaded, in the month of January, in the outer court of the fortress of Canosa, expecting the clemency and forgiveness of its inhabitant, pope Gregory VII.a It was about one hundred years afterward that Henry II, one of the ablest of the line of English monarchs, suffered flagellation from the hands of monks, at the tomb of Thomas of Becket, his rebellious subject, to expiate the offences he had committed against that distinguished martyr and against the holy see.b The same era which was marked by the submission of the emperor, also put into the hand of the pope the transcendent prerogative of nominating to all vacant archbishoprics and bishoprics through every country which acknowledged the Catholic faith. Lastly, the eleventh century gave birth to those astonishing expeditions which were made for the recovery of the Holy Land; and the closing year of the century witnessed the reduction of the city of Jerusalem to the obedience of the venerable head of the Catholic church. The power of the church of Rome was in a considerable degree founded upon miracles, and it was necessary to the fascination which it at that time produced in the minds of its adherents, that all its enterprises should be attended with brilliancy and success. The recapture of Jerusalem therefore by the Saracens in the year 1187 may perhaps be considered as the first great blow which was struck against the fabric of superstition. This theater of the consummation of the great sacrifice of the Christian doctrine was never recovered. The ardent devotees of a faith, the spirit of which it is to mix with all our concerns and modify all our dispositions, are excited to see the hand and the express providence of God in every event. To such persons many disasters and cross accidents may occur without shaking their confidence. They regard with humble submission the mysterious ways of heaven in all subordinate parts of the system; but they are scarcely prepared to encounter without a kind of murmuring and impious astonishment the miscarriage of what they deem to be the cause of God. In this view the crusades were a very impolitical project of the holy see. They were attended indeed with the utmost brilliancy and astonishment; they propagated a sentiment almost beyond the powers and the sphere of the human mind. But this very circumstance was pregnant with ruin: they stretched too vehemently the religious nerve in the soul of man; and their ultimate defeat recoiled with fatal effect to plague their inventors. The claims of the popes too, by which they narrowed or annihilated the prerogatives of kings, are open to a similar censure. They played in many of these cases for too great a stake; they united too many interests and passions of princes and subjects in opposing their incroachments. Their power was too mighty and monstrous, and its tenure, being founded only in a particular train of thinking, too fragile, to give it a right to promise itself a very permanent duration. In the time of Chaucer it already tottered to its base.

But, however the hold which the Roman Catholic superstition had gained upon the minds of men might at this time be weakened, its external structure was undefaced and entire. It is the peculiar characteristic, I may add the peculiar beauty, of the Romish religion, that is so forcibly addresses itself to our senses, without losing sight of the immense advantage for giving permanence to a system of religion, which is possessed by creeds, dogmas, and articles of faith. Religion is nothing, if it be not a sentiment and a feeling. What rests only in opinion and speculation, may be jargon, or may be philosophy, but can be neither piety toward God nor love to man. This truth was never more strikingly illustrated than in the history of the crusades. A man may be persuaded, by reading Grotius's treatise Of the Truth of the Christian Religion, or any other work of a similar nature, that the man Jesus was really put to death eighteen hundred years ago, and that, after having been committed to the grave, he was seen again a living man; yet this persuasion may produce no effect upon his temper and heart. Far different was the case, when the crusaders, after all their toils, and a difficult and obstinate siege, made themselves masters of Jerusalem by assault. They rushed toward the scene of the agony and death of their Saviour. They traced the venerable ground which had been hallowed by the tread of his feet. They saw the hill on which he died, the fragments of his eross, the drops still fresh and visible of his sacred blood: they visited the tomb in which the Creator of the World once reposed among the dead. Their weaposn, still reeking with blood, dropped from their trembling hands; the ferocity of a murderer was changed into the tenderness of a child; they kneeled before the tomb, kissed it with their lips, and bathed it with their tears, they poured out their souls in one united song of praise to the Redeemer; every one felt himself at this hour become a different man, and that a new spirit had taken its abode in his bosom.

The authors or improvers of the Romish religion were perfectly aware of the influence which the senses possess over the heart and character. The buildings which they constructed for the purposes of public worship are exquisitely venerable. Their stained and painted windows admit only a "dim, religious light." The magnificence of the fabric, its lofty and concave roof, the massy pillars, the extensive ailes, the splendid choirs, are all calculated to inspire the mind with religious solemnity. Music, painting, images, decoration, nothing is omitted which may fill the soul with devotion. The uniform garb of the monks and nuns, their decent gestures, and the slowness of their procession, cannot but call off the most frivolous mind from the concerns of ordinary life. The solemn chaunt and the sublime anthem must compose and elevate the heart. The splendour of the altar, the brilliancy of the tapers the smoke and fragrance of the incense, and the sacrifice, as is pretended, of God himself, which makes a part of every celebration of public worship, are powerful aids to the piety of every sincere devotee. He must have a heart more than commonly hardened, who could witness the performance of the Roman Catholic worship on any occasion of unusually solemnity, without feeling strongly moved.

Whatever effect is to be ascribed to such spectacles, was generated in ways infinitely more multiform in the time of Chaucer, than in any present country of the Christian World. Immense sums of money had been bequeathed by the devout and the timorous to pious and charitable purposes. Beside the splendour of cathedrals and churches, not now easily to be conceived, the whole land was planted with monastic establishments. In London stood the mitred abbeys of St. John and of Westminster, in addition to the convents of nuns, and the adobes of monks, and of friars, black, white and grey. Every time a man went from his house he met some of these persons, whose clothing told him that they had renounced the world, and that their lives were consecrated to God. The most ordinary spectacle which drew together the idle and the curious, was the celebration of some great festival, the performance of solemn masses for the dead, or the march of some religious procession, and the exhibition of the Bon Dieu to the eyes of an admiring populace. Henry VIII, the worse than Vandal of our English story, destroyed the habitations and the memorials which belonged to our ancient character, and exerted himself to the best of his power to make us forget we ever had ancestors. He who would picture to himself the religion of the time of Chaucer, must employ his fancy in rebuilding these ruined edifices, restoring the violated shrines, and collecting again the scattered army of their guardians.

Beside every other circumstance belonging to the religion of this period, we are bound particularly to recollect two distinguishing articles of the Roman Catholic system; prayer for the dead, and the confession of sins. These are circumstances of the highest importance in modifying the characters and sentiments of mankind. Prayer for the dead is unfortunately liable to abuses, the most dangerous in increasing the power of the priest; and the most ridiculous, if we conceive their masses (which were often directed to be said to the end of time), and picture to ourselves the devout of a thousand years ago shoving and elbowing out, by the multiplicity of their donations of this sort, all posterity, and leaving scarcely a bead to be told to the memory of the man who yesterday expired. But, if we put these and other obvious abuses out of our minds, we shall probably confess that it is difficult ot think of an institution more consonant to the genuine sentiments of human nature, than that of masses for the dead. When I have lost a dear friend and beloved associate, my friend is not dead to me. The course of nature may be abrupt, but true affection admits of no sudden breaks. I still see my friend; I still talk to him. I consult him in every arduous question; I study in every difficult proceeding to mould my conduct to his inclination and pleasure. Whatever assists this beautiful propensity of the mind, will be dear to every feeling heart. In saying masses for the dead, I sympathise with my friend. I believe that he is anxious for his salvation; I utter the language of my anxiety. I believe that he is passing through a period of trail and purification; I also am sad. It appears as if he were placed beyond the reach of my kind offices; this solemnity once again restores to be the opportunity of aiding him. The world is busy and elaborate to tear him from my recollection; the hour of this mass revives the thought of him in its tenderest and most awful form. My senses are mortified that they can no longer behold the object of their cherished gratification; but this disadvantage is mitigated, by a scene of which my friend is the principle and essence, presented to my senses.

The practice of auricular confession is exposed to some of the same objections as masses for the dead, and is connected with many not less conspicuous advantages. There is no more restless and unappeasable propensity of the mind than the love of communication, the desire to pour out our soul in the ear of a confident and a friend. There is no more laudable check upon the moral errors and deviations of our nature, than the persuasion that what we perpetrate of base, sinister and disgraceful, we shall not be allowed to conceal. Moralists have recommended to us that, in cases of trail and temptation, we should imagine Cato, some awful and upright judge of virtue, the witness of our actions; and that we should not dare to do what he would disapprove. Devout men have pressed the continued recollection of the omnipresence of an all-perfect being. But these expedients are inadequate to the end they are proposed to answer. The first consists of an ingenious effort of the fancy, which we may sometimes, but cannot always, be prepared to make. The second depends upon the abstruse and obscure image we may frame of a being, who, thus represented, is too unlike ourselves to be of sufficient and uniform operation upon our conduct. The Romish religion, in the article here mentioned, solves our difficulties, and saves us the endless search after an associate and an equal in whom we may usefully repose our confidence. It directs us to some man, venerable by character, and by profession devoted to the cure and relief of human frailties. To do justice to the original and pure notion of the benefits of auricular confession, we must suppose the spiritual father really to be all that the office he undertakes requires him to be. He has with his penitent no rival passions nor contending interests. He is a being of a different sphere, and his thoughts employed about widely different objects. He has with the person he hears, so much of a common nature , and no more, as should lead him to sympathise with his pains, and compassionate his misfortunes. In this case we have many of the advanteages of having a living man before us to fix our attention and satisfy our communicative spirit, combined with those of a superior nature which appears to us inaccessible to weakness and folly. We gain a friend to whom we are sacredly bound to tell the little story of our doubts and anxieties, who hears us with interest and fatherly affection, who judges us uprightly, who advises us with an enlightened and elevated mind, who frees us from the load of undivulged sin, and enables us to go forward with a chaste heart and a purified conscience. There is nothing more allied to the barbarous and savage character, than sullenness, concealment and reserve. There is nothing which operates more powerfully to mollify and humanize the heart, than the habit of confessing all our actions, and concealing none of our weaknesses and absurdities.

Several other circumstances in the Roman Catholic religion, as it was practiced in the fourteenth century, co-operated with those which have just been mentioned, to give it a powerful ascendancy over the mind, and to turn upon it a continual recollection. One of these s to be found in the fasts and abstinences of the church. These were no doubt so mitigated as scarcely to endanger any alarming consequences to the life or health of the true believer. But they at least interfered, in some cases to regulate tho diet, and in others to delay the hours of customary refection. One hundred and seventy-six days (I know not that whether this catalogue is complete) may be easily be reckoned up in the calendar, which were modified by directions of this sort. Thus religion in its most palpable form was continually protruded to the view, and gained entrance into every family and house.

Again: extreme unction is one of the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic religion. A few days ago a person of this persuasion paid me a visit, and in the course of conversation informed me, that his near kinsman lay at the point of death, that he would be buried in a week, and that after the hurry of that affair was over he would call upon me again. I was surprised at the precision, as well as the apathy, with which my visitor expressed himself, and asked how he was enabled to regard this business as entirely arranged. He replied that he had no doubt of the matter, and that the physician had informed the dying man he had only twenty-four hours left, in which to arrange his worldly affairs and the concerns of his soul. This was to me new matter of astonishment: nothing can be more obvious than that to inform an expiring man that he is at the point of death, partakes something of the nature of administering to him a dose of poison. It is equally clear that , in the view of any rational religion, it is the great scope of a man's moral life, the propensities which have accompanied him through existence, and the way in which he has conducted himself in its various relations, that must decide upon his acceptance or condemnation wit his unerring judge.

But such are not the modes, nor such the temper of the Roman Catholic faith. The preparation for death is one of its foremost injunctions. The Host, that is, the true and very body of his redeemer, is conducted in state to the dying man's house, conveyed to his chamber, and placed upon his parched and fevered tongue; he is anointed with holy oil; and, after a thousand awful ceremonies, dismissed upon his dark and mysterious voyage. Every thing is sedulously employed to demonstrate that he is a naked and wretched creature about to stand before the tribunal of an austere and rigorous judge; and that his blameless life, his undaunted integrity, his proud honour, and his generous exertions for the welfare of others, will all of them little avail him on this tremendous and heart-appalling occasion. The chamber of the dying man is the toilet of his immortal soul, at which it must be delicately and splendidly attired, before it presumes to enter the courts of the king of heaven. This scene perhaps produces a stronger effect upon the spectators that upon the object for whom it is performed.

Death, in the eye of sobriety and reason, is an inevitable accident, of which we ought not to make too anxious an account. "Live well," would be the recommendation of the enlightened moralist; "and die as you can. It is in all cases a scene of debility and pain, in which human nature appears in its humblest and most mortifying aspect. But it is not much. Let not the thought of death taint all the bewitching pleasures, and all the generous and heroical adventure of life."

The Roman Catholic doctrine on the topic of a Christian's death-bed, was perhaps a no less fruitful source of pusillaninmity, that the lessons of chivalry and romance were of gallantry and enterprise. The noblest and most valorous knight often died with a cowl on his head, and a hair-shirt bound about his languid frame. The priest eloquently declaimed to him on his manifold and unexpiated crimes done in his days of nature. He saw nothing before him at the best but purging fires, and a tedious and melancholy train of salutary tortures. To abridge and soften these, he often bequeathed no inconsiderable part of his worldly fortune. Achilles, in the retreat of the Pagan dead, is made by Homer passionately to declare how willingly he would change his state for that of the meanest plough-boy who is cheered by the genial beams of the sun:c with much more reason might this exclamation be adopted by a person entering upon the Romish purgatory. The pusillanimous spirit produced by these tenets is clearly to be seen on many occasions by an attentive reader in the works of Chaucer; and I believe the same remark might be extended to every author who wrote under the reign of this superstition.

Such may be conceived to have been the general character and appearance of the religious institutions of England in the fourteenth century. There are other circumstances, which are calculated to bring the subject more immediately home to the period of Chaucer's life we are here considering. It is a principal feature of the Roman Catholic system, to attempt to make profound and indelible impressions upon the minds of its disciples at a very early age. They soon come to be considered as integral members of the church of Christ, and various ceremonies are employed to impress upon them the conviction that they are so. The ecclesiastical rule of order is, that they are to resort to confession as soon as they may be supposed capable of clearly distinguishing between good and evil; and this is ordinarily fixed that the age of seven years. But this rule is not acted on but with considerable relaxation. Where the parents are scrupulous and punctilious in matters of religion, it may be supposed to be adhered to with the utmost minuteness. But in the case of Chaucer, a layman, probably the son of a merchant, and whose parents, as we have no particular information concerning them, we are bound to take at a sort of middle standard, it is probably that he was so early enjoined to engage in this sacramental solemnity. In every case, confession is always made previously to the novice's partaking of his first communion, a ceremony almost universally practiced about the age of thirteen or fourteen years.

All these circumstances naturally involve with them the visit of the priest, who is to observe, as to the younger members of the family, the progress of their comprehension, the degree in which they have been made partakers of religious instruction, and the state of preparation in which they may be supposed to be for admission to the sacraments of the church. Chaucer, while a boy, was probably a witness, and was not altogether excluded from being made a subject, of these visits. If we picture him to ourselves, at the earliest or the latest period above assigned for confession, placed on his knees before a grave and venerable personage of sad and sober attire, enjoined to recollect his offences against God and the wanderings of his thoughts, reminded of the solemn judgment which hereafter awaits him, exhorted to penitence, reformation and devotion, and terrified and encouraged by turns as the priest shall think fit to set before him the threatenings or the promises of his heavenly father, we shall then have no very inadequate idea of the impressions which, judging from general reasonings, probably, and from the hints afforded in various parts of his writings, certainly; were made upon the poet's youthful mind.

If however the sacrament of confession has a certain tendency to lead the mind to sadness and depression, the festival of the first communion is happily calculated to associate the young man's ideas of religion with sentiments of hilarity, beneficence and a reasonable gaiety. This is a period which occurs in the Romish church only once in a year. It is always celebrated in the month of May, when nature puts on her most pleasing attire, when the fields are clothed in all their freshness, and the whole animal creation is restored to cheerfulness and vigour. A procession is formed, which vies gaiety and life to the city or quarter in which it appears. The most sacred symbols of religion are brought forth, surrounded by a train of their chosen defenders and ministers; the young communicants, who are numerous and of both sexes, are drawn forth in bands, and preceded by banners; they proceed from church to church through the city or town where the festival is held; and a sum of money is collected from among them, with which the indigent are relieved, and with which they sometimes proceed to release the unfortunate debtor from prison. On this occasion the accidental distinctions of society are partially suspended; and the poorest are invited to regale themselves beneath the roofs of the parents of the richer communicants. After a day thus spent in acts of benevolence, charity and devotion, the last march of the procession is performed by the light of torches, and the whole is concluded with that participation of the body of Christ which was the object of the festival. Certainly religion never appears more amiable than when thus blended with gay and cheerful ideas; nor can hilarity perhaps ever be shown to greater advantage than when chastened by a sense of the frailty of our nature, and the solemn obligation of our duties.

The rite of confirmation, according to the Roman Catholic discipline, is always subsequent, and never prior, to the first communion.

a A.D. 1077.

b A.D.1174

c Odyss. Lib. XI.


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