Sunday, 9 December 2007

Chaucer's Parson

Like most Protestants, I had a fairly bleak picture of medieval Christianity. The picture one gets is usually a self-serving hierarchy, superstition and corruption, coupled with bad doctrine and a complete ignorance of the content of the Bible. A brief reading of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) should dispel that picture. As I work my way through his Canterbury Tales I'm impressed with how diverse life was back then. There was no such thing as a medieval spirituality, equally applicable to all members of society. Just like today, there were the frauds, the sincere, the simple and the educated. Chaucer doesn't hold back from pilloring typical examples of hypocrisy and evil within the church (as our stereotypes perhaps confirm), yet I nevertheless found it refreshing to read his description of the country parson. It was possible to make a distinction between "Cristes gospel", which could be exemplified in the lives of those who took it to heart, and the phony religious scams practised, perhaps, by the majority of the ecclesial guild.

Here's Nevill Coghill's modern translation:
A holy-minded man of good renown
There was, and poor, the Parson to a town,
Yet he was rich in holy thought and work.
He was also a learned man, a clerk,
Who truly knew Christ's gospel and would preach it
Devoutly to parishioners, and teach it.
Benign and wonderfully diligent,
And patient when adversity was sent
(for so he proved in much adversity)
He hated cursing to extort a fee,
Nay rather he preferred beyond a doubt
Giving to poor parishioners round about
Both from church offerings and his property;
He could in little find sufficiency.
Wide was his parish, with houses far asunder,
Yet he neglected not in rain or thunder,
In sickness or in grief, to pay a call
On the remotest, whether great or small,
Upon his feet, and in his hand a stave.
This noble example to his sheep he gave
That first he wrought, and afterwards he taught;
And it was from the Gospel he had caught
Those words, and would add this figure too,
That if gold rust, what then will iron do?
For if a priest be foul in whom we trust
No wonder that a common man should rust;
And shame it is to see - let priests take stock -
A shitten shepherd and a snowy flock.
The true example that a priest should give
Is one of cleanness, how the sheep should live.
He did not set his benefice to hire
And leave his sheep encumbered in the mire
Or run to London to earn easy bread
By singing masses for the wealthy dead,
Or find some Brotherhood and get enrolled.
He stayed at home and watched over his fold
So that no wolf should make the sheep miscarry.
He was a shepherd and no mercenary.
Holy and virtuous he was, but then
Never contemptuous of sinful men,
Never disdainful, never too proud or fine,
But was discreet in teaching and benign.
His business was to show a fair behaviour
And draw men thus to Heaven and their Saviour,
Unless indeed a man were obstinate;
And such, whether of high or low estate,
He put to sharp rebuke, to say the least.
I think there never was a better priest.
He sought no pomp or glory in his dealings,
No scrupulosity had spiced his feelings.
Christ and His Twelve Apostles and their lore
He taught, but followed it himself before.

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