Christianity and Astrology in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

Topics: Astrology, The Canterbury Tales, Astrological sign Pages: 8 (3312 words) Published: May 10, 2006
As the conscientious reader nears completion of The Canterbury Tales, they have seen that Chaucer has written about various types of belief systems such as physiognomy, alchemy, fairies and spells, and pagan mythology. Yet, of all the belief systems that Chaucer explores in The Canterbury Tales, the two belief systems that are most frequently occurring throughout, are Christianity and astrology. This combination may lead to questions why it is that Chaucer explores these two beliefs systems in-depth; specifically combining them the manner that it is done in the Man of Law's Tale. However, the reason for Chaucer doing this may ultimately never be fully understood. Perhaps Chaucer sees the Man of Law as the conveyor

of his ideas. Alternatively, Chaucer might be trying to convey the ideas and questions that the general public, (meaning those who would read or listen to The Canterbury Tales) might have been posing at that time. On the other hand, take the question one step further, Chaucer may have used the Man of Law as a tool to bring those concerns to life in a character in saying that the Man of Law is imposing his view of Christianity and astrology on the "…nyne and twenty in a compaignye…" (Benson 23). Before addressing any of the above questions, readers must have a basic understanding of the history of astrology and Christianity as well as the views that were common in Chaucer's time. Christianity was a prevalent philosophy, as was astrology. Many scholars, specifically in the Christian monasteries were reading the works of Aristotle, Plato, Boethius, Avicenna, Euclid, Manilius, Ovid, and Herodotus; all of which contained astrological material (Carpenter 7). The reading and studying of these above texts helped save the near disappearance of astrology by the having the Greek translated from Arabic (Ness 12:1). Furthermore, the controversy of fate (the view of astrology) versus free will (the view of Christianity) was coming to a boil during Chaucer's era, but astrology did not truly come to fruition until the 15th –17th Centuries. Additionally, astrology was taught as part of the curriculum of many universities from as early as 1125 AD (Miller 21). Although, it is true that in the development of astrology, England lagged far behind Italy and France (Smyser 360); the point becomes mute when readers realize that Chaucer was a "worldly" man of his time and his views would reflect as such. Astrology and astronomy were two interchangeable words in Chaucer's time and due to this interchangeability it is important to distinguish the difference between the two. Astronomy "deals only with the motion of the heavens and the causes thereof…"(Wood 5) and astrology deals not only with the motions of the sun, moon and stars but also concerns itself with predictions. This prediction aspect of astrology is considered to "…merely [be] a superstition"(Wood 5). Yet, with astrology and celestial motions, is not necessary for one to believe. According to Wood, this aspect of astrology is "…something to be studied or ignored"(6). In my opinion, if Chaucer ignored astrology, there would be no references in any of The Canterbury Tales, let alone his writing on the Treatise of Astrolabe. First, one must look at the teller of the tale, in this case the Man of Law. According to North, he suspects that Chaucer attempted to create a relationship between the twenty-four tales and the 12 signs of the zodiac (utilizing each sign twice) and/or the number of hours in a day (also 24). To further clarify his statement, North shows how each pilgrim in the order that their tale was told follows the sequence of the planetary hours for the day of Tuesday. If this idea is followed, the Man of Law becomes the representative of Jupiter. Although, it should be noted that North notices this pattern soon breaks down. North's explanation for this breakdown is that Chaucer eventually decided to abandon his original thought pattern (Carpenter...

Cited: Carpenter, Garth Chivalle. "Chaucer 's Solar Pagent". Pan Planet: Articles. October 14, 2002.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. L.D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
Curry, Walter Clyde. Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences. 2nd Ed. New York: Barnes and Noble. 1960.
Miller, Susan. Planets and Possibilities: Explore the World Beyond Your Sun Sign. New York, New York: Warner Books. 2001.
Ness, Leslie. ARCANA: Research Sources for Astrology. October 2, 2002.
North, John David. Chaucer 's Universe. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1988.
Smyser, Hamilton M. "A View of Chaucer 's Astronomy". Speculum – A Journal of Mediaeval Studies. July 1970: v.XLV, n3 p359.
Wood, Chauncey. Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press. 1970.
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