Throughout this course, I have studied and learned about several civilizations by assessing their literature based on these five themes: sovereignty, man (authority), law, sanctions (causation), and succession. Let’s compare these civilizations using these same themes.
The Hebrew outlook was based on the Old Testament. They believed in a Creator and absolutely sovereign God, with man as His agent over creation. It was man’s duty to adhere to God’s Law, and those who did so would be rewarded with positive sanctions, both temporally and eternally. Conversely, those who disobeyed God’s law would have negative sanctions on this earth and ultimately eternally if they did not change their ways. Central to the Hebrew faith, is the hope of inheritance. The greatest blessing one could receive, apart from eternal life, was to be chosen to be in the line of the Messiah.
The Greeks were polytheistic. They believed that their lives were affected by the Olympian gods, the underground gods, the gods of their cities, and their own personal household god(s). The problem with all these deities is that they didn’t necessarily agree. Their conflicts often created wars between those that ritually honored them. Ultimately, man was just the pawn that was moved on the chessboard. He was a plaything. Opposing authorities also created opposing laws. It was difficult to know which law to follow. One law, however, was unbreakable – the law of revenge. Revenge was carried inter-generationally and could not be satisfied. One death would be avenged by another death, then that death would need to be avenged, and so on… It never ended. As far as sanctions and succession, the Greeks could count on the negative sanctions of Revenge through history, but they did not have any positive hope in the immediate or distant future.
The Roman worldview was based on Greece’s worldview. Their gods and religious practices were very similar to the Greeks but they tended to be much more politically-based. They believed in the partial sovereignty of multiple gods. They were careful to perform the required ritual sacrifices in hopes of appeasing the gods, but ultimately they too were just playthings. The Romans believed that there were five ages of men. Each age was more degenerate than the previous one. Mankind, they believed, would continue to decline as time went on. The only hope was to stop time by creating an empire.
The Christian literature that this course covered was mostly concurrent with Roman literature. Authors of these works upheld the sovereignty of God in contrast to the Roman gods. Although they believed in the higher Law of God, the early Christians were ready to submit to Roman law, unless it directly contradicted God’s Law. But even then, they didn’t revolt, but merely rejoiced in their persecution, looking with hope toward an eternal future. They didn’t view themselves as having any role in history. History would end with the final judgment and the world’s blessings just weren’t worth pursuing. The only succession in history they counted on was that the Church would last until the end of time. They didn’t claim that the Church would be triumphant in history – only that it would last.
Medieval literature also recognized God’s sovereignty. It emphasized hierarchical obedience in institutional systems. God was always at the top, but the typical man obeyed a superior who obeyed God. Apart from obedience, law was not really addressed. There was not even an attempt to relate the obedience of specific laws of God to success in history. Indeed, sanctions and succession in history were not even mentioned. Eternal inheritance, however, did appear to relate somewhat to one’s works on earth. However, (at least in the case of the famous medieval work, Little Flowers, by Francis of Assisi) it appeared that purgatory was foreseeable for most people, no matter how many good works they did. There didn’t seem to be anything you could do personally to prevent your purgatory. You were entirely dependent on the spirituality and prayers of third parties.
Now, let’s apply these summaries to Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
I have written about the devastation of the Black Death in some of my previous essays. Such an occurrence has incredible aftermath. Socially and religiously speaking, it overturned Europe. Boccaccio and Chaucer write post-Black Death stories, and their writings portray how radically different the typical European’s outlook became in a matter of a few decades. Europe had been religiously united by the Catholic Church, but when the Church was unable to stop the insurmountable deaths, people began to lose faith. They gave up on the Church and they gave up on life itself. Nothing stopped the terrible plague. Some isolated themselves and some indulged themselves. But neither approach affected the random death patterns.
Boccaccio and Chaucer’s writings show no trace of a sovereign God. Instead they attack the corrupt hierarchies of both the Church and the state. They offer no program of social redemption and no system of ethics. They do not even identify a system of predictable causation. They reflect only loss of hope. It is as though there is no longer any point to life. But then, this is not surprising, is it? If one had no reason to do anything; if there was no hope for results from one’s actions, what would be the point of life? You’d think that perhaps, if they did not speak of historical succession, they would at least mention eternal succession. But the Church had lost its influence, and eternal succession was barely mentioned in the stories.
In the repercussions of the Black Death, the steady religious belief system in the sovereignty of God, in man’s responsibility to God and His Law, in the ethical causation in history, and in eternal inheritance had been completely abandoned. Although perhaps not in name, the people could have believed in classical (Greek and Roman) religion. The pagans performed the correct rituals and left the rest up to fate. Because there was no reliable causation in their religion, there was nothing more they could do. Similarly, the literature of Boccaccio and Chaucer reflects despair. People no longer acted, expecting a particular result. No, the Black Death had proved to them that there was no such thing as ethical causation. Sure, they continued to use the religious expressions of the Church, and sure they continued to invoke God. But it was as meaningless as the ritual sacrifices of the Greeks and the Romans. Just as those sacrifices offered no surety to the future, so these invocations had no real meaning.
It is no wonder that Europe met with the Renaissance shortly after these pieces were written. The Renaissance was basically a rebirth of ancient culture. People identified with the ancient Greeks and Romans religiously, and now they wanted to identify with them culturally.
The Church never again had the widespread authority and respect which it had enjoyed before the Black Death. A whole new era had begun.