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Materialism Our One God

Today in the harsh daylight of our overcrowded cities, in developed nations around the globe, we are encouraged to worship only one god, the holy dollar. People are rushing about in their cars, and on public transport, to reach their destinations, their places of work and of investment, where labour and lead may be turned into gold. Sitting at terminals, tapping keys, in the hope that interest rates will rise or fall, that the market will strengthen their position; and that bears will turn into bulls. If you can imagine an animated city scene, with hundreds of besuited pedestrians crossing the pavements, all with a cartoon circle above their heads, showing their thoughts as a dollar sign. This is the charge of the light brigade, where horses have become mobile phones and helmets and swords, iPods and sunglasses.

Newspapers, and online sources, today are filled with economic imperatives, and this obsession, which began in the late nineteen seventies, has become the overriding concern for dad and mum; and their kids. Money is on everyone’s lips and in everyone’s mind, how to get it, how to make it, how to keep it; and how to hide it. Everyone’s become  a banker and governments are complicit in this – the tax department has driven these changes , as your tax return became more and more complex, you had to think like an accountant to make sense of it. Paul Keating, as rock star Treasurer, had a hand in it, as he, and PM Hawke, deregulated the banks and made public announcements about “banana state economies.” Suddenly everyone had to get up to speed on the balance of payments and interest rate figures daily made the front page. It was like a crash course in economics, skewed with the dramatics and sensationalism that sells papers.

There are and were positives, about this new found economic literacy amongst the hoi polloi, as people are always empowered by knowledge. In this new era of freedom, individuals and groups, were able to break down decades and centuries of banking obfuscation, to achieve their wants; even women, who had been particularly disadvantaged by the prejudices of this male dominated industry. Economic growth came spurting out, after years of lazy conservative rule, people got money and invested it in new businesses and real estate – the housing market exploded. Of course we got some excessive behaviour, Alan Bond, Christopher Skase etc but generally it was much more for the good, as a greater number and spread of people were enabled to become productive.

However, and I will use a controversial analogy here to illustrate my point, the economic awareness grew and has now become such an overweening thing that it has strangled all other gods. I liken it to the historical journey of Western women, from their hair covered and protected imprisonment in wifely roles, through the suffragettes and then the women’s liberation movement, up until now in their emancipated state from legislated prejudice; but still with the biological necessities to be women. This potentially challenging, dichotomous position is most dramatically seen in the form of the traditionally attired Islamic woman, as she represents the other extreme pole, as if she has just stepped out of the pages of history into the twenty first century. I respect the fiercely won freedoms of today’s Western woman, but also see the conflicting impact that the demands of the world have made upon the inner life of some women. In a similar vein, today’s awareness of the economic imperative has damaged the inner life of us all, removing perceived value from other pursuits not so closely held to the material bosom.

As Science, in the service of money, has slain the Christian religion, condemning it to the irrelevancy of a surfeit of poorly attended suburban churches clamouring for ageing attendees, the great god avarice has filled the breach. Materialism, what you can buy with money, has taken hold of head and heart inside the majority of us all. What is the holiest, most sacred, thing that you can purchase? It is of course the home, a house or flat, villa or apartment, but  a home by any other name just the same. This haloed quest, the often life time journey devoted to owning your own home, is, in Australia anyway, a culturally approved goal that lies beneath the day to day activity of millions. It gives meaning to life to many of these people, and I imagine the banks must really love it. It reminds me of the association between diamond rings and marriage; doctors, pharmaceutical drugs and illness; and other firmly entrenched cultural beliefs. How do you get people to work all the time and do it more or less willingly? By making what they want so expensive that they have to. If the average home is priced around nine times the average income, and you have to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from the banks at substantial and fluctuating interest rates, then you are going to be tied into working for a very long time. Mentally, by the time you have paid off your house and loan, you are often so brain washed into that behaviour that you go on working anyway. Homes bought as investment properties, charge rentals at a market value so determined,  that they can pay off housing loans and or profit accordingly – thus making shelter/housing expensive for everyone.  The goal for many in owning their own home is financial freedom, which often really means, once achieved, becoming a landlord and profiting from others, for money as they say does not stand still and you will be advised by those who work with money to invest your new found freedom in more real estate; and the cycle continues.

Going to work every week day, and often doing something that you dislike in some way, treating another human being in  a less than  human way by focusing on the money at the expense of everything else, damages the soul some say. You might go to your doctor and complain that you are not feeling, dare I say it, happy, and he most probably will tell you that you are depressed and prescribe an antidepressant.

“Over the last 30 years, rates of depression have been steadily increasing in Western societies. In the last ten years, consumption of antidepressants has doubled in the most advanced Western countries. Today, more than 11 million Americans are taking antidepressants. The estimated number of people in Britain taking antidepressants is two million. In Australia, 66 percent of those seeing a GP for the first time about depression have a chance of being medicated – in most cases with antidepressants. These data are so stark that most of us and our institutions prefer not to think about them.”

Dr David Servan-Schreiber, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Pittsburgh University School of Medicine

Author of Healing Without Freud or Prozac, 2004, Rodale.

 

Then, in a tra la la drugged state, not caring so much about a lot of things, unable to achieve an orgasm, you will keep on doing what you were doing, working in much the same way and edging hopefully closer to that nirvana, called financial freedom. When you set out on the journey as a youngish adult, I imagine that the many things you associate with financial freedom will change over the years and that when you get there, often decades later, you will be a completely different person. It is like any long journey, in that it is better to make the experience of your journey your succour than the goal itself. Otherwise you are training yourself, every day, to switch off subtly and desensitise yourself to life, killing yourself a little bit each day in the hope that when you get to the end you will be able to turn yourself back on; and enjoy that wonderful financial freedom you see in the scenes depicted in those TV ads for the banks.

If you read a little history and have a good look at the Christian religion, you will see that belief in god, for much of their sixteen hundred years in power, was not optional. From the time of Constantine, the Roman emperor in the fourth century AD when Christianity became the state religion – the Holy Roman Catholic Church,  if you did not believe in a Christian god, and their version of that Christian god, you were very likely to be put to death. This heavy handed approach began to soften after the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, but life remained very hard for those who did not acquiesce and worship in the prescribed manner. Jews of course were murdered, exiled, banned and generally hated since the time of Christ. The crusades slaughtered millions of Muslims over centuries and religious pogroms have continued the genocide of both Jews and Muslims by Christians. I always smile when I remember Sunday School, and the things I was told about the poor Christians being thrown to the lions by the Romans, of course this was true for the three centuries it happened,  but nobody was teaching the children about the next twelve centuries of Christian atrocities committed against the rest of the world; and also within their own communities in the prosecution of heresies. History always favours the victors.

Within, and despite all this bloodshed, many people had an experience of god being present within their lives. It seems in a lot of instances to have provided these individuals with a sense of belonging to something divine, which was beyond the reach of those with the swords. I would posit that the very threat to some people’s belief in god, through perceived heretical accusations, as in the time of the Cathars in France in the thirteenth century, and in the very bloody later schism between Catholics and the Reformation Church in the sixteenth century, to name but a few, intensified their experience of their religion and god. Nobody loves quite so much as when that love is threatened and or about to go away. Religion, and or belief in god, is always like that enormous elephant in the room, which will not go away.

“Superstition requires credulity, just as true religion requires faith. Deep-rooted credulity is so powerful that it may even, in false beliefs, be thought to perform miracles. For if anyone believes most firmly that his religion is true, even if it is in fact false, he raises his spirit by reason of that very credulity until it becomes like the spirits who are the leaders and princes of that religion and seems to perform things which are not perceived by those in a normal and rational state.”

Cornelius Agrippa (1486-1535)

De Occulta Philosophia

I ask myself, a lot, what belief in god really is. Rationally there is no evidence for  the existence of a god, and in my historical search so far, there never has been any evidence. In Christianity’s case, we now clearly know that the gospels in the Bible, which were written between seventy and up to two hundred years after the time of Jesus, are not reliable historical accounts and indeed are more like PR releases or overly favourable biographical sketches, designed to sell Christianity to the Roman power elite and others. The account of Pilate for instance, is completely fictitious and reworked by the writers of the gospels to exonerate the Romans from the execution of Jesus and to put that blame squarely upon the Jews; which has had onerous historical consequences to put it mildly. Christianity is not alone in creating fictions to make it divine and more than merely human, in PR and sales there is a great and long lasting tradition, which is about making your product uniquely special and divinity ticks all those boxes. The tablet which held the ten commandments, where is it and who else but Moses really saw it and if it was placed in the Ark of the Covenant, where is it also? The Mormons then, through their prophet, Joseph Smith Junior, and I imagine from his impression of the historical precedent set by Moses as reported in Exodus, had a solid gold tablet from the Angel Moroni containing their scriptures, which conveniently only Joseph actually saw. Now Christians, who believe in Jesus rising bodily from the dead, often chuckle softly at the unrealistic beliefs of other religions, whilst having no problem with the outlandish collection of miracle stories and the like contained in their Bible. When we inherit beliefs from our parents, these loving and respected beings, and they likewise inherited their beliefs from their parents and so on, it is easy to understand why these often ridiculous beliefs have lasted so long. It is hard to shoot down the firmly held beliefs of your elders and those whom you love; many people choose to turn away from confronting the elephant in the room.

Buddhism, both the Theravada and Mahayana schools of Buddhism, are also a collection of stories tinged with the magical properties of the divine. Siddhartha Gautama, the Nepalese prince  did exist historically and most probably did venture out on a spiritual quest, but then the story tellers take over and we are regaled with unearthly feats designed to impress the uneducated masses. Hinduism is a fantastic collection of wildly colourful stories, creation myths involving gods and demons, many of them extraordinarily beautiful.

“An ancient Hindu warrior-king named Muchukunda was born from his father’s left side, the father having swallowed by mistake a fertility potion that the Brahmins had prepared for his wife; and in keeping with the promising symbolism of this miracle, the motherless marvel, fruit of the male womb, grew to be such a king among kings that when the gods, at one period, were suffering defeat in their perpetual contest with the demons, they called upon him for help. He assisted them to a mighty victory, and they, in their divine pleasure, granted him the realisation of his highest wish. But what should such a king, himself almost omnipotent, desire? What greatest boon of boons could be conceived of by such a master among men? King Muchukunda, so runs the story, was very tired after his battle: all he asked was that he might be granted a sleep without end, and that any person chancing to arouse him should be burned to a crisp by the first glance of his eye.

The boon was bestowed. In a cavern chamber, deep within the womb of a mountain, King Muchukunda retired to sleep, and there slumbered through the revolving eons. Individuals, peoples, civilisations, world ages, came into being out of the void and dropped back into it again, while the old king, in his state of subconscious bliss, endured. Timeless as the Freudian unconscious beneath the dramatic time world of our fluctuating ego-experience, that old mountain man, the drinker of deep sleep, lived on and on.

His awakening came- but with a surprising turn that throws into new perspective the whole problem of the hero-circuit, as well as the mystery of a  mighty king’s request for sleep as the highest conceivable boon.

Vishnu, the Lord of the World, had become incarnate in the person of a beautiful youth named Krishna, who, having saved the land of India from a  tyrannical race of demons, had assumed the throne. And he had been ruling in Utopian peace, when a horde of barbarians suddenly invaded from the northwest. Krishna the king went against them, but, in keeping with his divine nature, won the victory playfully, by a simple ruse. Unarmed and garlanded with lotuses, he came out of his stronghold and tempted the enemy king to pursue and catch him, then dodged into a cave. When the barbarian followed, he discovered someone lying there in the chamber, asleep.

“Oh!” thought he. “So he has lured me here and now feigns to be a harmless sleeper.”

He kicked the figure lying on the ground before him, and it stirred. It was King Muchukunda. The figure rose, and the eyes that had been closed for unnumbered cycles of creation, world history, and dissolution, opened slowly to the light. The first glance that went forth struck the enemy king, who burst into a torch of flame and was reduced immediately to a smoking heap of ash. Muchukunda turned, and the second glance struck the garlanded, beautiful youth, whom the awakened old king straightaway recognised by his radiance as an incarnation of God. And Muchukunda bowed before his Saviour with the following prayer:

“ My Lord God! When I lived and wrought as a man, I lived and wrought – straying restlessly; through many lives, birth after birth, I sought and suffered, nowhere knowing cease or rest. Distress I mistook for joy. Mirages appearing over the desert I mistook for refreshing waters. Delights I grasped, and what I obtained was misery. Kingly power and earthly possession, riches and might, friends and sons, wife and followers, everything that lures the senses: I wanted them all, because I believed that these would bring me beatitude. But the moment anything was mine it changed its nature, and became as  a burning fire.

Then I found my way into the company of the gods, and they welcomed me as a companion. But where, still, surcease? Where rest? The creatures of this world, gods included, all are tricked, my Lord God, by your playful ruses; that is why they continue in their futile round of birth, life agony, old age, and death. Between lives, they confront the lord of the dead and are forced to endure hells of every degree of pitiless pain. And it all comes from you!

“My Lord God, deluded by your playful ruses, I too was a prey of the world, wandering in a labyrinth of error, netted in the meshes of ego-consciousness. Now, therefore, I take refuge in your Presence – the boundless, the adorable – desiring only freedom from it all.”

When Muchukunda stepped from his cave, he saw that men, since his departure, had become reduced in stature. He was as a giant among them. And so he departed from them again, retreated to the highest mountains, and there dedicated himself to the ascetic practices that should finally release him from his last attachment to the forms of being.

Muchukunda, in other words, instead of returning, decided to retreat one degree still further from the world. And who shall say that his decision was altogether without reason?”

Joseph Campbell

The Hero With A Thousand Faces, 1993, Fontana Press, pp 194-196.

 

I would say that the original author of this story was probably a new parent, indicated by the hero wishing for eternal sleep over all other riches LOL. What it also tells us, is that the successful religions, which have been taken up by kings and therefore the state, all have messages at their heart which assure the listener that the rewards and sufferings of life are nothing in comparison with the promises of divinity. These are not their only messages, but clearly that message would resonate with the suffering masses – to hear that all life, good and bad, is an illusion, would be a panacea to the many who were decidedly short changed by the distribution of commonwealth. It is kings who have driven religions and enforced participation in their rituals, and kings who have controlled and censored the scriptural content of these religion’s holy books. Kings have had much more need of religion and its ability to control the behaviour of adherents, than have subjects had need of religious beliefs.

The belief in  a god, who will upon the death of the believer, even things up in terms of getting a fair share of the goodies, in heaven or some paradisiacal garden in the afterlife, has had broad appeal among the disadvantaged. I think we see that now in the fervent take up of extremist Islamic beliefs, many of these adherents are poor and have been racially slighted in the countries they reside in, and they believe that their actions and belief in a vengeful Allah will deliver them to paradise. The African American slaves took the Christian message of the meek inheriting the Earth to heart; women, who have been down trodden and abused by men, have found succour in religion, and it is often a belief which burns brightest in the hearts of mothers within a family; perhaps as salve to the tragedies that historically affected women through the deaths of their children. To believe in something better than avarice, competition and bloodshed is an understandable wish, if Darwinian evolution can only provide that the strong/intelligent will prevail, then it is perfectly understandable that humanity would invent a god that possibly offers the mercy of something else with a kinder face. Although the original incarnations of the old testament Judo-Christian religions were decidedly brutal.

“The great unmentionable evil at the centre of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal – god is the Omnipotent Father – hence the loathing of women for 2000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.”

Gore Vidal

The belief in god has been used by the strong to justify their rule and control over others, the divine right of kings to rule, and the same belief has been employed by the weak to salve their hurts and pains in the hope for  a better deal in the afterlife; it is a flexible beast this elephant. All religions seem to make a heap of promises, which require your extinction before they pay out on them, and as nobody has as yet returned from the dead (Jesus excepting but then he works for them) we are none the wiser when it comes to knowing their truth and efficacy. The poor and down trodden masses, who were forced to subscribe to the state religion – the Holy Roman Catholic Church – would have taken what message of hope they could from their time in church. The church collected taxes from these same people and controlled their lives as much as the king, for hundreds of years people were expected to go on a religious pilgrimage during their lives and if they did not they were expected to pay the church the equivalent amount of money they would have spent on their holy journey. Representatives of the church would sell common folk religious relics, purporting to be splinters of the cross that crucified Jesus and the like, and absolutions; so you could buy a piece of heaven, a bit like you can buy financial freedom through home ownership today.

I would say that in our relationship with the new religion, materialism, we have done away with a good deal of hypocrisy about money and its importance in our lives. When I was growing up it was considered rude to ask direct questions about money, which set me back somewhat for many years when it came to negotiating transactions. It was bad form to ask how much something was worth – shopping could be a struggle – bad manners to ask how much someone earnt for a living – life was a bit less exacting I suppose – I imagine as it was before the advent of the electric light, when the edges of existence were not so pronounced in gaslight and candle light. Not a bad thing sometimes to have a bit more mystery. There was however a great deal of downplaying falsely of the importance of money and this was simple dishonesty in many instances. A bit like not being able to talk about ‘fucking’ and always having to say ‘making love’ when referring to sex, which was also the case when I was growing up, at least in polite society or with a lady. But sometimes ‘fucking’ is a more correct description for the activity and incorporates more of our animal natures, whereas ‘making love’ is a far more ethereal term, non-corporeal in fact; and “fucking” is after all only a small part of making love. There always needs to be black and white in the equation, otherwise if we are forced to pretend to only live in the light, we will get corruption, as we do with celibate priests and all those who deny the darkness and their shadow side.

Similarly we need the balance of spirit, inchoate things inside of us, anti-matter if you like, especially now in the time of money. When the zeitgeist is the passion for money and the things that money can buy and people are marching to the consumerist beat, for technological toys like IPhone’s and other gadgets, then the opposite pole becomes so very important. Familiarity breeds contempt and that is what is happening, and will happen even more, with materialism, its strident voice drowns out the sensitive and the mysterious. Science like a Krispy Kreme doughnut has deliciously explained the how but has nothing at its centre to explain the why – consciousness continues to elude neuroscience and all other branches of material knowledge. We need to realise that just because we have named a street on a map and given a moment in time a precise number, that it does not truly define the reality of that particular space and moment. We have killed the mystery, the unexpected nature of existence, by naming and measuring everything and then agreeing amongst ourselves that this is its only reality – we have turned symbols into things and references into realities. No wonder so many people are depressed, having lost contact with the earth beneath their feet, because they are walking on a line on a map inside their head.

I wonder if you or I were to go and lie in a dark cave for a year, a space with no light whatsoever, but with enough warmth, food and comfort to sustain us, and we had no contact with the outside world for that entire year – how we would be on our emergence from the cave after the year? Would our consciousnesses be changed, affected, transformed in any meaningful way? What would we encounter within our own psyches and would the zeitgeist of the times slip away? I imagine that our thoughts would continue to go around and around, as they do, chasing their own tails and tales. But after awhile, with no points of external reference, with which to reinforce their existence, these thoughts would, I suspect, evolve or devolve. Perhaps as in a spiral motion returning to their points of origin, regressing to where they came from – things someone said that we appropriated; wisdom from mum and dad; teachers and mentors; books that we have read; Sunday School scriptures; and finally back even further as we lie there in the pure blackness. We would, I suspect, begin to break down all thoughts and all the things we live by, our moral compass so to speak, our very own philosophy of life, and things would be reduced to essentialities and much of the guff would simply fall away. Close your eyes now and drift away.

©Sudha Hamilton

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Who Murdered Chaucer?

Who Murdered Chaucer?

Book Review

Who Murdered Chaucer? – A Medieval Mystery

By Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, Juliette Dor

Methuen, 2004.

 

Geoffrey Chaucer, poet and most importantly one of the earliest literary stars of the English language, was the author of The Canterbury Tales – a celebrated collection of verse pieces which have provided an incredibly rich source of historical information about the types of people inhabiting the Middle Ages. Many of us studied Chaucer at school, and I am afraid, that by dint of either my own shallowness or via unenthusiastic teaching, I was not a big fan at the time– the early English language was quite challenging I seem to remember – he remains however a major influence upon our Western canon. Like much of the history taught at school, a great deal of important information and context was omitted, thus denuding what could have been a powerful lesson about real life. You see, Chaucer seems to have been disappeared, in the same way, that more recently, people in South American countries have been disappeared by forces within their governments.

I don’t know if it is merely that the majority of people who study history and literature are averse to making waves, or that it is something else entirely, but we seem to get a dry, unquestioning version of history being passed down in our educational institutions. I know here in Australia, teaching was always the profession of choice for the less academically gifted and the ones who didn’t really know what they wanted to do at university. Perhaps the title of this essay should really be, Who Murdered History? As one of the primary integral qualities for teaching must be passion, if a teacher’s communication is not imbued with enthusiasm and real care for the topic, then who is going to listen to him or her?

Geoffrey Chaucer was a poet and scholar in the court of the English king, Richard the second, at the close of the fourteenth century. Now if you are at all familiar with medieval history, or Shakespeare, you will know that Richard II has a seriously sullied reputation as the fey, spoilt, generally unloved king, who was usurped by a far more deserving Henry IV. Here however, is a great example of the fact that history is written by the victor, and the disappointing thing in this circumstance is that in this case, it has been unquestionably accepted by historians down the centuries. I personally came across Richard II as an acting student, when I was doing my NIDA audition – I studied Shakespeare’s play of the same name and chose an audition piece, of Richard expressing his outrage and righteous indignation at being deposed. The whole experience made a lasting impression upon me and I found it very interesting to revisit this piece of history. Terry Jones and his co-authors make it abundantly clear, that Richard was not the despot history and Shakespeare made him out to be, citing chronicled evidence to the contrary. More importantly they show that these chronicles, kept by the religious orders within their abbeys (Westminster, Kirkstall), had been doctored and amended once Henry IV had taken the throne.

Richard II had ascended the throne at the age of ten, and so you can imagine the difficulties he had in establishing his authority as he grew into the role, with overweening advisors and power hungry barons all around him. Terry Jones posits, that far from being a weak and corrupt king, Richard was in fact a king who was at the forefront of new royal practises. He suggests that Richard was creating a uniquely English court, and that Chaucer, with his wonderful wielding of the newly flourishing English language(in contrast to Latin and French), was a big part of that. Richard resisted supporting the maintenance of  the military campaigns in France, that his father, the Black Prince, and grandfather Edward III and his forebears had campaigned so vigorously at. Indeed he wished for a peaceful reign and copped a great deal of flak from the more warlord like dukes around him. Similarly today in the United States, great chunks of their industrial wealth is based on armaments and technologies of war, and Presidents are lobbied to support these activities to maintain the economy (Donald Rumsfeld and George W Bush in Iraq). Likewise, several of the barons around Richard, depended upon constant military actions for their upkeep and any threat to this was viewed with great resistance, especially by Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Richard’s uncle and the youngest son of Edward III. Often this military action was portrayed, especially to the poor, as courageous and brave behaviour to be admired in a man and a leader; manipulations utilising cultural assumptions that still exist today. So Richard reigned during a precarious time and his behaviour actually challenged the status quo, in ways, which we would now admire in our modern more peaceful world.

Terry Jones and co-authors make clear that Richard II, once he had taken personal control over the realm in 1389, made the pursuit of peace with France a priority. They cite the influence of Giles of Rome, the Italian theologian and philosopher, in Richard’s education, as a setter of kingly aspirations in the direction of peace. They also suggest that Richard may have been a more intellectual king than his predecessors, and one who fostered and encouraged men of letters; like Chaucer and his contemporaries. Jones makes a good argument for Richard’s court being one of new ideas and creativity; and in a cultural ferment with the recently flourishing English language at its centre.

‘Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,’

Quod oure Hooste, ‘for thou makest me

So wery of they verray lewednesse

That, also wisly God my soule blesse,

Myne eres aken of thy drasty speche.

Now swich a rym the devel I biteche!

This may wel be rym doggerel,’ quod he.

The Canterbury Tales, VII, II. 919-25

‘No more of this, for God’s dignity,’

Swore our Host, ‘for you make me

So weary of your total unlearnedness

That, just as God will bless my soul,

My ears are aching with your dreadful speech.

Now such a rhyme I’ll teach the devil!

This may well be doggerel rhyme, ‘ said he.

 

It is interesting to read the early English employed by Chaucer and in particular the spellings of the words – I found it threw new light and understanding about certain words and their origins. The piece above by Chaucer, is in the persona of the character Harry Bailey, and highlights the author’s opinions of the travelling minstrels, who were the traditional courtly entertainers before the advent of the poet/authors. A modern parallel for this evolution in courtly tastes would be the difference between the singer/songwriters of the sixties (Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and the vocalists or cover bands of the previous decade , who did popular renditions of standards. So Richard II was a new type of ruler and under him there flowered a new language, new expressions and new ideas.

In the book Who Murdered Chaucer? the authors describe the effect this change had on those with vested interests in how things were, and the Roman Catholic Church was one organisation who had deeply rooted and very valuable vested interests in medieval England. The powerful leaders of the Church were busy protecting their own authority against forces for change, like John Wyclif, an Oxford theologian who translated the Bible into English and was against many of the commercial aspects of the Church. Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, eventually aligned the Church establishment in its reactionary crushing of all dissent and introduced the practise of burning heretics at the stake into England. Terry Jones and co-authors produce evidence, that it was the recently exiled Archbishop Arundel who joined forced with Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby, another recently exiled by Richard II, to topple the young king and place Henry on the throne. Together they travelled from Europe back to England illegally, and became irresistible forces of conservatism, appealing to the barons and bishops who had been dismayed and offended by Richard’s new methods and associations. Richard II had been surrounding himself with men of ideas and letters, who were not necessarily from the aristocratic classes, and promoting these men of middle class into positions of power. This is suggested as one reason for the relatively quick and successful usurpation by Henry, as he and Arundel were able to unite the anti-Richard forces together and bring down the king.

Chaucer,  and his literary cohorts, had under Richard II been able to express a number of quite radical ideas in their work, ideas about the role of the Church and State. There are many Wyclifian concepts within Chaucer’s work, and in particular in the mouths of certain characters,  who inhabit The Canterbury Tales. The Poor Parson truly embodies Christ like behaviours in his holy thoughts and good works, and these sit in direct contrast to the avaristic exemplars of what Jones calls the ‘Church Commercial.’ Chaucer parodies other Church representatives,  like Friar Huberd in The General Prologue and the character of the Summoner in The Summoner’s Tale, conveying the well known corruption within the Church, being practised by these ecclesiastical officers. The selling of relics to the general public, pieces of the holy cross which crucified Jesus and a myriad of other bogus bits of rubbish, was rife throughout Christendom. In addition to this, people were encouraged to purchase prayers, and if they did not go on a pilgrimage they were expected to donate the dollar value of the journey to the Church in compensation. The Church collected taxes from everyone in the form of tithes, which could be 10% of their income or more. Basically the Church was  a vehicle for the systematic abuse and exploitation of the population. It was run by the disinherited children of the aristocracy, the sons who were not first born, and became their private fiefdoms – many bishops were ordained at the ages of twelve and fifteen. You had the irony of the Church being run by completely irreligious people, who were more akin to our corporate CEO’s today.

Archbishop Thomas Arundel, was like a Rupert Murdoch of the Church Commercial, conspiring to prevent the radical forces of change from interrupting the control exerted by the Church and the flow of revenue coming to it. Chaucer could be seen as a literary lion, who expounded with humour and style the lie of the land, and told those who would listen, what was really going on. During Richard’s reign this was permissible and Terry Jones would say perhaps even encouraged, but upon Henry IV taking over, it was now an entirely different universe. The rules had changed and it was unfortunate for Chaucer that he had a written body of work out there, which could act as evidence of his heretical beliefs. Like many usurpers Henry IV was insecure, especially just after murdering an anointed king in Richard II, and he looked to secure his newly stolen throne by  a policy of containment and suppression. Apart from the evidence of his sending out a directive to all chroniclers, that he wished to witness what they had written, an unspoken message that said you better write nice things about me and my new rulership of the realm or else, there was also a spate of mob executions of most of Richard’s friends and allies. Henry IV, with the help of the master strategist Arundel, was able to eradicate much of his opposition without directly bloodying his hands. The last known record of Chaucer, was that he had in the year 1400, just taken out a 53 year lease on  a house in the garden of Lady Chapel, in Westminster Abbey.  Westminster was a sanctuary of the Church, which meant that theoretically it was  a place you could go and not be touched by forces of the State, but in practise it did not stop determined agents riding in and dispatching whoever they were really after. Westminster became known as a place where people who were still loyal to Richard II gathered, and indeed the Abbey itself, was implicated in a plot to overthrow the new king and this was discovered by Henry IV not long after the usurpation; and there were deadly ramifications for some of those involved. So it was  a time of secrets and suspicions, a bit like East Berlin during the cold war, and those writers and liberals who had flourished in Richard’s court were under the microscope of Archbishop Arundel and Henry IV.

John Gower, a Chaucer contemporary, managed to rewrite sections of his Confessio Amantis, swapping praise of Richard II to Henry of Lancaster, and this rewriting of history to support Henry IV’s new regime was so successful that it was used by later historians to justify the Lancastrian view of English history. This was one example among many of the exorcising of Richard II from histories warm embrace and his consignment into no-speak and ignominy. Thus we have had six centuries of misinformation and unfounded slander upon Richard II and his reign. This book and its detailed referencing of available records and evidence, really showed me how easily history can be re-edited by those who control the information and records. If we do not ask the question and are not prepared to dig  a bit deeper then we will never know the truth.

There is no clear and incontrovertible evidence that Chaucer was murdered by agents on behalf of Arundel or Henry IV, but there is a long list of unexplainable facts.

  • Why did Chaucer the literary star of his day just disappear?
  • Why did he leave no Will, when he was a meticulous public servant?
  • Why was no monument built to him?
  • Why do none of his own copies of his work survive today?
  • Why is his death eulogised as a tragedy by other poets?

 

It seems as if Geoffrey Chaucer, England’s most esteemed poet and public servant, just dropped off the face of the Earth. It is the very lack of recorded information about his death, which points to something decidedly suspicious having occurred and the likelihood that he may have died in Archbishop Arundel’s prison; like many other perceived heretics of the time. Arundel used the uncertainty of the times to eradicate enemies of the Church at home and managed through the threat of burning heretics at the stake to get many dissenting voices within the Church to recant and retract their statements. William Sawtre was the first man burnt at the stake in this new England, this religious police state. Sir Lewis Clifford, one of Chaucer’s oldest friends and one of the Church’s most outspoken critics , was persuaded to recant under the new regime and to bow before the unholy spectre of an agonising death amid the flames. Chaucer’s fellow poet John Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury, was ripped to pieces by the mob at Cirencester in the wake of an abortive revolt in 1400. This was a very scary time to be alive, if you held to an alternative view about Henry IV’s right to be on the throne and the nature of Church and State.

Nobody knows exactly when Chaucer died, whether it was the year 1400 or 1402, various biographers down the ages have drawn on misinformation and then compounded that by using that as mistaken sources for factual information. Like a few journalists today, I suppose these biographers thought why spoil a good story just because there are no concrete facts about the ending. Most commonly Chaucer is depicted as gently dying of old age, in a state of contentment at his own home, of course there is no evidence for this and a whole lot of holes in the story – what happened to his substantial library (books were very rare and valuable in 1400) and his own copies of his body of work? Why didn’t an old man, well versed in the law as a respected public servant in the employ of a king, leave a Will? Very strange indeed and highly unlikely. Who murdered Chaucer? The most likely candidates, Archbishop Arundel and Henry IV, have swept clean histories trail and left little trace, but the book concludes, that the glaring omissions of any recorded evidence regarding Chaucer’s final days and demise are highly suspicious, and considering that they quietly despatched Richard II with similarly no official announcement- it is, in detective speak, their MO modus operandi.

©Sudha Hamilton