A person can almost wholly learn the history of the world through literature that has been written. This is because the people and times have such a great influence on the writers and their work. Authors did not simply grab ideas from the sky. These ideas came from their mind; they wrote about what they knew. And what they knew is what surrounds them, whether it be war, peace, or a time of transition. In the early centuries, religion ruled the land and people.
The first rulers came about from the idea that God or some other Supreme Being from up above sent forth these people to rule over the land. Literature from these times was highly influenced by religion. Almost every piece of work up until the 18th century contains some kind of religious reference. Evidence of the role and impact of religion in society is shown in the epic poem Beowulf of the eighth century and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales of the fourteenth century.
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The time in which Chaucer lived was “one of the most disagreeable periods of our national history” (Legouis 80). The Black Death destroyed a third of the population and many people turned to the church for help. Goeffery Chaucer, being “the great poetical observer of men, who in every age is born to record and eternize” (Blake 51), wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late fourteenth century in England. Religion dominated this time period in history; and therefore, it played a huge role in literary work. The Tale’s plot is based on a very religious practice, a pilgrimage. The narrator of the Tales starts out by saying that he is “ready to go on my pilgrimage to Canterbury with a most devout heart” (Chaucer 3). A pilgrimage is a very sacred aspect of religion. It is an act of religious devotion, where a person or groups of people travel to a holy site in honor of a religious figure (Quinn 76).
Almost every literary work ever produced at the time that Chaucer lived had religious undertones. This was because of the simple fact that “the church was the fountain of literacy and sole purveyor of what education there was during these centuries”(Vinson 8). The church was the law.
If someone went against what the Bible said, then you went against the government. One might assume that if the Bible was the law, then the government would be holy, good, and obey what it preaches, but Chaucer saw, from inside the palace walls, that this assumption was wrong. Chaucer saw corruption and greed. He displayed this in his story for everyone to see. Of all the pilgrims on the pilgrimage, a third of them were associated with the church in some way. He uses these characters to show how corrupt the church had become.
The monk in particular is described as man who “didn’t give a plucked hen for that text which says that hunters are not holy men, and that a monk, when he is heedless of duty, is like a fish out of water”(Chaucer 11). Chaucer is saying that the monk would rather hunt than pray, which is odd for a man of the cloth and especially for one on a religious pilgrimage. The pilgrimage also parallels with government, in the way that it started out innately good, yet ended up evil.
The pilgrimage starts in April, the season of Lent, and a sign of new, fresh beginnings. As the pilgrim’s progress to their destination, arguments break out and cheating, murder, and vengeance are described in the stories that they tell (Quinn 76). These happen to be the things that Chaucer saw when he worked in the English government. These things corrupted the system and Chaucer wanted people to know what was going on inside.
Beowulf is an epic written in the eighth century, a time that was also dominated by religion and this is evident in the story of the great warrior. The author, who is unknown, has been called a “skilled Christian poet who has chosen to retell the story of a pre-Christian hero in such a way as to impart certain moral lessons” (Goldsmith 2). This poet does so by describing Beowulf to be this man with superhuman strength and ability. One might almost say that he represents Jesus. The people feel that he has been sent to them by God to save them from Grendel, the treacherous monster that is taking over the land.
This fight is part of the “feud between God’s people and the race of Cain” (Goldsmith 3), and Beowulf uses God to help him defeat Grendel. Many times while fighting, Beowulf refers to God for help, he believes in God and that “fate shall allot, the lord of mankind” (Kennedy 82). As Beowulf dies, he gives thanks “to the Lord of all, to the Prince of glory, Eternal God” (Kennedy 89). He feels that it is time for him to die and he is glad that he got to do what he could and defeated Grendel (Cain).
The Canterbury Tales and Beowulf tells much of what society was like in the time periods in which they were written. The reader can tell from Chaucer’s work that Christianity play a big part in people’s lives and that affected every move that they make. Also many people of the fourteenth century work within the church and that it provided many jobs. In Beowulf, one can see that people depended on God to help them in difficult situations, and what happens is meant to be and cannot be help or stopped. The lives and times of people are recorded in words, and the forces that controlled their lives were reflected in to the literature.
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