The significance of blasphemy
For Chaucer's readership, one sign of a sinful person – an indication that they were not in a right relationship with God – was that they did not respect God's name. Taking God's name in vain meant treating God trivially. Everybody was familiar with the guidance known as the Ten Commandments, which according to the Bible, was given by God for his people. ‘Blaspheme of Cryst' (l.305) meant disobeying the third of these (Exodus 20:7) divine laws.
Adding to Christ's suffering
Medieval Christianity focused extensively on the physical suffering of Jesus prior to – and during – his crucifixion. To blaspheme was seen as adding to that pain:
‘… othes … so grete, and so dampnable, …
Our blissed Lordes body they to-tere –
Hem thoghte that Jewes rente him noght ynough - ' l.184-7
‘Grete' oaths were ones referring to Christ's body and death and they were counted as highly offensive and vulgar blasphemy. It was believed that disrespecting Christ's name equated to dishonouring his tortured body, and, therefore, the sacrifice which Christians believe he was making to save humankind:
‘.. many a grisly ooth thanne han they sworn,
And Crystes blessed body they to-rente;' l.420-1
If Christ's rescue of humanity was treated by someone as null and void, that individual lacked the faith by which they could be saved from hell. It was that serious.
The oaths of the rioters
The instances of blasphemy in l.184-7 and l.420-1 are attributed to the rioters, as obvious ‘markers' of their villainy. The offensiveness of what they say is highlighted by a number of ways:
- Their curses are juxtaposed with the blessings offered by the Old Man (l.460,62), to shocking effect
- The Old Man's use of religious diction represents the teachings of the Church. In l.478-9 he reminds the youths that because God redeemed (‘boughte again') humankind, the offer of salvation (‘God save yow') and moral/spiritual improvement (‘yow amende') is still available to the rioters
- In contrast, the youth swears by John (l.464) (acknowledged as the author of one of the Gospels) and ‘by the hooly sacrament' (l.469) (the bread or wafer which represents the body of Christ in the service of Mass). He is therefore treating the entire church, its sacraments and teachings, with contempt. To the medieval mind this meant that he was ignoring the truths outlined by the Old Man and would not die in a state of grace.
Blasphemy in the Pardoner's sermon
The story about the three youths aptly illustrated the points made in the Pardoner's sermon about the evils of swearing:
- He devotes thirty lines (l.341-71) to the topic, using it as a way of displaying his biblical knowledge as he quotes from the books of Matthew, Jeremiah, Exodus and (from the Apocrypha) Ecclisiasticus
- After the story is finished, he returns to the theme with rhetorical extravagance:
‘Thou blasphemour of Cryst with vileinye
And othes grete …
Alas mankynde! – how may it bityde,
That to thy creatour, which that thee wroughte,
And with his precious herte-blood thee boughte
Thou art so fals and so unkynde, allas? l.610-15
However, in both sections of the sermon, Chaucer immediately undercuts the sincerity of what the Pardoner proclaims:
- Immediately after the impassioned pathos about humankind's unkindness to its ‘creatour', the Pardoner slips into his salesman's patter, using his audience's guilt to lever out their purses. He appears totally unaffected himself by the impact of his teaching
- The message about blasphemy's seriousness is further undercut by the way in which the Pardoner then breaks out of his ‘sermon demonstration' and explains to the pilgrims how all he has just ‘preached' is simply his method of gaining money (l.173 – he only preaches ‘for to winne').
For all the Pardoner's fine rhetoric, in reality the seriousness of blasphemy is immaterial to him.
The Host's blasphemy
The strength of the Host's blasphemy in l.658 (‘Christ curse me if I do') conveys his explosive reaction to the hypocritical challenge of the Pardoner that he should pay first as he is the ‘moost envoluped in sinne'. It is followed by a scatological reference to the Pardoner's excrement.
He then swears by one of the most holy and famous of all relics, a reputed fragment of the true ‘crois' l.663 (on which Christ was crucified), believed to have been found by Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. The Host uses this oath to emphasise his desire to castrate the Pardoner and make a relic of his testicles.
By combining blasphemy and overt coarseness, Chaucer emphasises the grossness of such swearing. However, there is a sense that we are asked to be more forgiving of the Host:
- His oaths are dramatic instances of an anger shared by many at the Pardoner's wickedness
- He swears as an honest reaction, rather than in a spirit of duplicity (like the Pardoner) or to show off to others (like the rioters)
- Referring to a very holy relic highlights his exposure of the bogus claims made by the Pardoner, both for his ‘relics' and in the rest of his sermon.
- English Standard Version
- King James Version
1And God spoke all these words, saying, 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 3You shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, 6but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. 8Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. 12Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor's. 18Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19and said to Moses, You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die. 20Moses said to the people, Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin. 21The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. 22And the Lord said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. 23You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. 24An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you. 25If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it. 26And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.
1And God spake all these words, saying, 2I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3Thou shalt have no other gods before me. 4Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6And showing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments. 7Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. 8Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work: 10But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it. 12Honor thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee. 13Thou shalt not kill. 14Thou shalt not commit adultery. 15Thou shalt not steal. 16Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor. 17Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbor's. 18And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. 19And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die. 20And Moses said unto the people, Fear not: for God is come to prove you, and that his fear may be before your faces, that ye sin not. 21And the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was. 22And the LORD said unto Moses, Thus thou shalt say unto the children of Israel, Ye have seen that I have talked with you from heaven. 23Ye shall not make with me gods of silver, neither shall ye make unto you gods of gold. 24An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me, and shalt sacrifice thereon thy burnt offerings, and thy peace offerings, thy sheep, and thine oxen: in all places where I record my name I will come unto thee, and I will bless thee. 25And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. 26Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon.
Disobedience to the known will of God. According to Christian theology human beings have displayed a pre-disposition to sin since the Fall of Humankind.
The Bible describes God as the unique supreme being, creator and ruler of the universe.
Also called 'The Decalogue' (Ten Words). Instructions said to have been given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai, which have not only shaped Jewish and Christian belief and practice but also strongly influenced the legal systems of many countries.
The Christian Bible consists of the Old Testament scriptures inherited from Judaism, together with the New Testament, drawn from writings produced from c.40-125CE, which describe the life of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian church.
The image of God on his throne in heaven surrounded by his angels and ministers to whom he makes announcements and where he may be petitioned.
The beliefs, doctrines and practices of Christians.
The name given to the man believed by Christians to be the Son of God. Also given the title Christ, meaning 'anointed one' or Messiah. His life is recorded most fully in the Four Gospels.
Execution by nailing or binding a person to a cross.
1. The giving up of something deeply valued
2. Offerings a worshipper gives to God to express devotion, gratitude, or the need for forgiveness.
3. In the Bible, the sacrifice is seen to take away guilt and blame.
Name originally given to disciples of Jesus by outsiders and gradually adopted by the Early Church.
Belief and trust in someone or something.
Jesus describes hell as the place where Satan and his demons reside and the realm where unrepentant souls will go after the Last Judgement.
The state of being whereby two items are deliberately placed together for contrast; in terms of drama, two contrasting events or scenes placed together, so that each is heightened in relation to the other.
The choice of words a poet makes; his vocabulary and any special features of it.
1. Term for a worshipping community of Christians.
2. The building in which Christians traditionally meet for worship.
3. The worldwide community of Christian believers.
Literally, to 'buy back'. In Christian belief, the redemption of humanity was achieved by Jesus who in his death on the cross made a complete sacrifice sufficient to pay for the sins of the world.
In the Bible, salvation is seen as God's commitment to save or rescue his people from sin (and other dangers) and to establish his kingdom.
One of the three closest disciples to Christ. Traditionally, John is thought to have written the Fourth Gospel, the three Epistles of John (1, 2, & 3 John) and the Book of Revelation.
From Gospel - Literally 'good news' - used of the message preached by Jesus recorded in the New Testament.
Title given to the four New Testament books which describe the life of Jesus Christ i.e. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Title (eventually used as name) given to Jesus, refering to an anointed person set apart for a special task such as a king.
The central religious service of the Roman Catholic Church, incorporating praise, intercession and readings from scripture. The central action is the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest.
Religious ceremony which symbolises receiving an inward spiritual grace.
Undeserved favour. The Bible uses this term to describe God's gifts to human beings.
A talk which provides religious instruction and encouragement.
Books whose status as part of the Bible is disputed.
Disrespect towards God or sacred things.
Executed by nailing or binding a person to a cross.
This is the most Jewish of the gospels portraying Jesus as the Messiah promised by David. It contains many parables and accounts of miracles. It also has an account of Jesus' birth and uniquely records the visit of the Magi to Bethlehem guided by a star.
Famous stories from the Bible: Jesus, his birth; Jesus, his temptation; Parable of the sower; Feeding of the 5000; Jesus, his death and resurrection
Active for 40 years, Jeremiah warns of coming disaster to an unrepentant Judah; he observes the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE and Jewish exile. Jeremiah contains the famous prophecy of a 'New Covenant' written on the heart (ch. 31).
Big ideas: Exile; Judgement
Birth and call of Moses; Passover and deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt; giving of the law including the Ten Commandments at Sinai; God takes Israel as his covenant people; beginning of 40 years wandering in the wilderness; setting up of the Tabernacle.
Big ideas: Journey of faith, Exodus, pilgrimage; Moses; Ten Commandments
Famous stories from the Bible: The Ten Commandments given to Moses