WS 2011/2012             exam translation (advanced)       (Staatsexamen Herbst 2010)              text #14

    Any attempt to introduce students to the rich and varied religious culture of the late Middle Ages in England, the age in which Chaucer lived and the context in which his poetry was written, is beset by three formidable problems: the first is the difficulty, in a brief account, of reducing the vast body of complex material that constitutes late medieval Christianity without omitting or slighting something that is vital or substantial to one’s understanding of the subject. The second problem involves gauging the relationship between the sacred and the secular. It is clear that what characterizes religion in the fourteenth century, and what distinguishes it most from our present era, is the omnipresence of ecclesiastical rites and institutions in the rhythms of everyday life. Religion was not an activity set aside for worship on a single day of the week.

    [...] Etymologically, “religion” is derived from the Latin [...] religio, which has the sense of “to bind or to tie securely”. In the late Middle Ages, the Church did everything in its power to bind, contain, or tie securely everyone who adhered to its system into a single moral community. Accordingly, religious rituals attended the most commonplace of events: birthdays, marriages, anniversaries, celebrations of every imaginable kind, sicknesses, and burials. The liturgy (official or approved forms of prayer and worship as distinct from private acts and devotions) structured the calendar year [...]. Nearly every day was a saint’s day and the stories associated with the particular saint made the events in the liturgy more meaningful to the laity and enabled them to link religious activity more fully with the social and the communal. The Church and religion, moreover, infused the vocabulary of the people with a level of referentiality that, alongside the sermons, verse treatises, and images in stained glass windows (sometimes called the Scriptures of the people) that surrounded their daily life, coalesced to shape a religious consciousness that led, ideally, to an internalization of various religious themes and patterns.

The third problem is the modern tendency to assume that the masses of people, especially those who lacked a formal education or were in the lower echelons of society, were naïve, superstitious, and unquestioning in their faith. In actuality, the fourteenth century in England was a vibrant period for lay people, filled with controversy and ferocious debates, particularly in the area of religion. The era witnessed the rise of a vernacular theology that transformed the face of religion and the role of the laity within it.

[from Jim Rhodes, “Religion”, in Ellis, Steve, ed. 2005, Chaucer, Oxford: OUP, p. 81, adapted] 

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