Monasticism in Late Medieval Literature

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Monasticism in the Late Medieval Literature
The Canterbury Tales

Table of Contents

I. The Reason of Topic Selection

II. Background Information
-Introduction of the Monastic Life in Medieval England

III. The Literary Genre: Estates Satires

IV. The Discussions of the Monastic Characters in the Tales

V. Influences and Conclusion

VI. References

I. The Reason of Topic Selection
As I am taking a course of English Literature, I came across Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. And, it occurred to me that it can be an interesting idea to view upon this work in a different angle, namely the discussion of monasticism in this class. Therefore, my research aims to discuss the depictions and reflections of the monastic life of those characters in the Tales during the late medieval ages in England.

II. Background Information
-Introduction of the Monastic Life in Medieval England
In order to be able to see the differences or to be able to notice the ironies in the Tales, one must first understand what the rules were for the monastic figures, and what kind of lifestyle they were supposed or expected to be leading. The monastic life consists of four vows—chastity, poverty, obedience and stability. That is, a monk or a nun should remain unmarried, own no private property, promise lifelong obedience to the rule of the monastery and to stay at the cloister if without permission to leave. While friars don’t vow on the last vow for they can travel around begging for offerings yet, they tend to stick to a stricter rules on poverty. The daily routine of a medieval monastery was rather complex and it varied with the season of the year and to the life of the order. But the Augustinians and Benedictines are the concerns here because they were the most influential ones. According to the primitive Benedictine plan, there was only one meal in the winter, and fasting was carried out twice a week. A marked feature of monastic life was the extensive use of silence. It was practiced to show peace and humbleness thus silence was largely unbroken during the most of the day except for some special circumstances like reading in the refectory pulpit or progressing meals. Studying and doing manual labor were regarded important as well. The monks had to do a great deal of monastic chores including reading, preaching, writing, binding books, repairing clothes, making wooden baskets and gardening. The maintenance of daily round of worship was central to the monastic life. There were precise and complicated patterns for prayers, meditation and mass worship. Due to the fact that monastic life was quite rigid at the time when laws and self-control were still uncommon, the monasteries played the role as a model of discipline in the middle ages.

III. The Literary Genre: Estates Satires
To be able to fully appreciate Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the understanding of its literary genre is crucial. Its General Prologue is written under a literary genre called “Estates Satires” which is a popular genre of the medieval European literature. By definition, it means an analysis of the virtues and the vices of a certain social functions, professions and estates, not of individuals. For instance, Friar Hubert whom we will see in the discussion later may seem to be strongly individualistic with his merry songs and skillful lisps, yet he does not mean to represent himself alone but the friars in general. Also, what often appear to be the individual traits or naturalistic details in portraits of the characters to the modern readers are, in fact, stereotypical. The classic three estates of that time, the knights (those who fight), the clergies (those who pray) and the peasants (those who work) were denounced if they failed to live up to the social necessary duties or praised if they performed their duties. Interestingly, the fallings of the clergies often received particular attention. And, it had a lot to do with the anti-clericalism,...
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