12 Pages

Priests and People

WHEN the greatest Pope of the 13th century saw in his dream a vision of St. Francis propping the tottering church, both he and the saint augured from this happy omen a reformation more sudden and complete than was actually possible. Church historians of all schools have often seemed to imply that if St. Francis had come back to earth on the first or second centenary of his death, he would have found the Church rather worse than better; and certainly Chaucer's contemporaries thought so. It is probable that in this they were mistaken; that the higher life was in fact unfolding no less surely in religion than in the State, but that men's impatience of evils which were only too obvious, and a restlessness bred by the rapid growth of new ideas, tempted them to despair too easily of their own age. The failure of the friars became a theme of common talk, as soon as enough time had gone by for the world to realize that Francis and Dominic had but done what man can do, and that there was as yet no visi bly new heaven or new earth. Wycliffe himself scarcely inveighed

more strongly against many of the worst abuses in the Church than Bonaventura a century before him-Bonaventura, the canonized saint and Minister General of the Franciscans, who as a boy had actually seen the Founder face to face. The current of thought during those hundred years is typified by Dante and the author of" Piers Plowman." Dante, bitterly as he rebuked the corruptions of the age, still dreamed of reform on conservative lines. In" Piers Plowman" it is frankly recognized that things must be still worse before they can be better. The Church is there described as already succumbing to the assaults of Antichrist, aided by " proud priests more than a thousand "-

One friar, however, is admitted, Brother "Creep-in toHouses," but he turns out the worst traitor of all, benumbing Contrition by his false absolutions-

So ends this dreamer on the Malvern Hills, and so thought many more good Christians of Chaucer's time. It would be tedious even to enumerate the orthodox authorities which testify to the deep corruption of popular religion in the I4th century. Two books of Gower's 1/ Vox Clamantis" (or one-third of the whole work) are devoted to invectives against the Church of his time; and he goes over the same ground with equal minuteness in his 1/ Mirour de l'Omme." The times are out of joint, he says, the light of faith grows dim; the clergy are mostly ignorant, quarrelsome, idle, and unchaste, and the prelates do not correct them because they themselves are no better. The average priests do the e;mct opposite of what Chaucer praises in his Poor Parson; they curse for tithes, and leave their sheep in the lurch to go mass-hunting into the great towns. If, again, they stay unwillingly in the villages, then instead of preaching and visiting they waste their own time and the patrimony of the poor in riot or debauchery; nay, the higher clergy even encourage vice among the people in order to gain money and influence for themselves. Their evil example among the multitude, and the contempt into which they bring their office among the better laity, are mainly responsible for the decay of society. Of monks and nuns and friars, Gower writes even more bitterly; the monks are frequently unchaste; nuns are sometimes debauched even by their own official visitors, and the friars seriously menace the purity of family life. In short, the reign of Antichrist seems to be at hand; if the world is to be mended we can only pray God to reform the clergy. Wycliffe himself wrote nothing

more bitter than this; yet Gower was a whole horizon removed from anti-clericalism or heresy; he hated Lollardy, and chose, to spend his last days among the canons of Southwark. Moreover, in the next generation, we have an equally scathing indictment of the Church from Gascoigne, another bitter antiWycliffite and the most distinguished Oxford Chancellor of his generation. St. Catherine of Siena, who knew Rome and A vignon only too well, is proportionately more vehement in her indignation. Moreover, the formal records of the Church itself bear out all the gravest charges in contemporary literature. The parish churches were very frequently reported as neglected, dirty, and ruinous; the very service books and most necessary ornaments as either dilapidated or lacking altogether; priests and people as grossly irreverent.· Wherever we find a visitation including laity and clerics alike, the clergy presented for unchastity are always numerous out of all proportion to the laity; sometimes more than ten times as numerous. Episcopal registers testify plainly to the difficulty of dealing with monastic decay and to the neglect of proper precautions against the intrusion of unworthy clerics into benefices. Many of the anti-Lollard Articles solemnly presented by the University of Oxford to the King in 1414 might have been drawn up by Wycliffe himself. These pillars of the Church pray Henry V., who was known to have religion so much at heart, to find some remedy for the sale of indulgences, the <I undisciplined and unlearned crowd which daily pressed to take sacred orders";

the scandalous ease with which 1/ illiterate, silly, and ignorant" candidates, even if rejected by the English authorities, could get ordained at the Roman court; the system which allowed monasteries to prey upon so many parishes; the pardoners' notorious frauds, the irreverence of the people at large, the embezzlement of hospital endowments, the debasement of moral standards by flattering friar-confessors, and lastly the numbers and practical impunity of fornicating monks, friars, and parish priests. As early as 1371, the Commons had petitioned Edward III. that, 1/ whereas the Prelates and Ordinaries of Holy Church take money of clergy and laity in redemption of their sin from day to day, and from year to year, in that they keep their concubines openly ... to the open scandal and evil example of the whole commonalty," this system of hush-money should now be put down by Royal authority; that the ordinary courts of justice should have cognizance of such cases; and that such beneficed clergy as still persisted in concubinage should be deprived of their livings. *

To comment fully on Chaucer's clerical characters in the light of other contemporary documents would be to write a whole volume of Church history; but no picture of that age could be even roughly complete without such a summary as I have just given. We must, of course, discount to some extent the language of indignation; but, to understand what it was that drew such bitter words from writers of such acknowledged gravity, we must try to transport ourselves, with our own common human feelings, into that strange and distant world. So much of the old framework of society was either ill-made or long since outworn; a new world was struggling to grow up freely amid the mass of dying conventions; the human

spirit was surging vehf'mently against its barriers; and much was swept boisterously away.