Medieval England: Language, society and The Canterbury Tales #6

Philo ME

Hello and welcome to the last part of this short series about Medieval England from 1066 to give or take 1500 CE.
This time I would like to spend some time on the following subjects:

  • Medieval methods of instruction
    • Scholasticism
    • Exemplum
    • Allegory
  • Meanings of a Medieval text
  • Auctoritas

Again I want to give a shout out to my tutors who provided most of the information. Other sources are mentioned in the text and when there’s a useful website I’ll put in the link.

Medieval methods of instruction

  1. Scholasticism provided this definition: the system of theological and philosophical teaching predominant in the Middle Ages, based chiefly upon the authority of the church fathers and of Aristotle and his commentators.

This is a very short definition but it gives me a basis to work with, since it’s more complicated than expected.

The way I see it medieval scholasticism is a method of instruction/teaching that allows the student or scholars to understand phenomena or problems through logic (Aristotle). This logic was or still is a system of analysis universally understood with set rules to verify a certain conclusion. Using the scholastic approach scholars or students would argue for or against a problem or question, so going deeper into the matter that would be discussed at the time.
By using this approach there would be more understanding for certain problems or questions, but mind that this was only for one part of the society. While scholars, clergy and students would get this, the common people would still be kept in the dark. To make subjects more understandable for the people division and subdivision was used, for example to explain sin. Here’s a good example that my tutor used in one of the lectures:

dividing sin

Of course this was not only used to explain sin to the good people but also to bind them to the church. Sin brought eternal guilt and temporal punishment. A priest could help you to deal with the guilt through absolution and repentance  while a pardoner could get rid of the punishment in the form of giving/selling you indulgences.

For more on scholasticism click here and here.

  1. Exemplum

Let’s for the sake of habit use a definition from :(Rhetoric) an anecdote that supports a moral point or sustains an argument, used especially in medieval sermons.

When the definition from the dictionary is supported by the definition from James Burrow’s medieval writers and their work: Middle English literature and its background 1100-1500, we have ourselves quite a complete picture of an exemplum: ‘Exemplification treats facts or events (real or imagined) as examples which demonstrate some general truth’ (Burrow 1982:87)

An exemplum can be in the form of a small story or anecdote but it is also often used in sermons as a formal technique. Histories and books are also seen as a source from which mankind can learn a general truth about life.
An exemplum is used as a generalization and often comes in a certain structure: a theme is stated -> illustrated with an exemplum. From there there’s a difference: a reference to a known tale (Lot)-> full story (Stilboun). Please keep in mind that it’s not known as a literary genre.

Here’s a link to a useful website that has multiple examples of exempla.

  1. Allegory

Unlike an exemplum, allegory is used to translate and treats facts or events as metaphors which represent some truth or other events.
Allegory is an extended metaphor with a literal (what happens in the narrative) and a symbolic meaning (objects and persons within the narrative are equated with meanings that lie outside the story).
The old Greek meaning of the word is to talk different in public than in private, something that says something while having another meaning. Within allegory there is less freedom of interpretation than with other kinds of symbolism.
Allegory was a technique to train lawyers and to interpret literary texts (even the Bible).

“Anything could and should be read allegorically, but the freedom to read allegorically is limited by the accepted medieval view of the world, as God’s creation and plan.” Rigby.

Meanings of a Medieval text

Texts can be interpreted in multiple ways, allegory can be used as exegesis (a critical explanation or interpretation of a text or portion of a text, especially of the Bible).
One of these forms of criticism is patristic criticism which is a form of new historicism and is related to the church fathers and their writings. Medieval texts are a production of time and context and must be read/understood for what they are in their historical and local context.
According to medieval writers poetry should amuse and entertain us but it should do so as the means to a higher end, rather than as an end in itself (Rigby, Chaucer in context: society, allegory and gender, 1996).

A Medieval text has three different meanings:

  1. letter: linguistic construction
  2. sense: literal, superficial meaning
  3. sentence: deeper, spiritual meaning

In order to get to sentence there are external references needed. These references are: imagery and figurative language (fabliau), symbolism (romance) and allegory (stock allegorical symbols. These are generally accepted, standard interpretations from the patristic commentaries).

One of these allegorical interpretations can be: everything (the world) has to make sense as it expresses God’s plan. Written texts also have to make sense (that’s why there are multiple levels of meaning).
Another one is that the world (nature) is created by God and is made to learn from. One can learn from nature by consulting a bestiary.

The Bible was something altogether different and could, according to Augustine of Dacia, be interpreted in four different ways:

  1. literal: what happened
  2. allegorical: what to believe
  3. moral/tropological: how to act/live
  4. anagogical: what to hope for (the future)

There’s is a slight difference there with the way Thomas Aquinas sees it, he thinks the fourth level is where it will lead to instead of what to hope for.


In part two of this series I already referred to Bonaventura who said that there are four ways to write a book. Auctoritas literally means authority and that is what was used by the medieval authors (He writes both his own words and those of another man but his own words are in the prime place while the other man’s words are only used for confirmation).
A medieval author would use another person’s knowledge to legitimate their own vision. The authority could for example provide an answer that the writer of a medieval text would not know, but because the source has auctoritas the answer is taken as true to support the medieval writer’s work.
Sources of auctoritas were usually the Bible, bestiaries and classical authors, scholars and tradition. The works of these classical authors would be read as allegory by medieval authors.

Chaucer also uses auctoritas in The Canterbury Tales, in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale for example. If you click the link you can read the summary of the tale and there’s a short analysis about this tale. When Pertelote and Chauntecleer have their discussion, both name auctoritas. Pertelote refers to Cato while Chauntecleer refers to even more auctoritas. There’s a reference to the Bible (men and women), nature and tradition. Mind that authority can also be abused. For example when the book of Lancelot Du Lake is named as authority, while this book was pure fiction.

The End

This is the end of this first series on Medieval England. In February I’ll start another course about the early Middle Ages and Old English. I hope that this series has been of use to you and remember that if you have any question, feedback or simply something nice to say that you can always comment!



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