Kinds of Patronage: Church and Court

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Kinds of Patronage:

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Kinds of Patronage: Church and Court

  • What kinds of stakes are being played in Church and Court patronage of writings?

The support of the Church in Literature: Beowulf

  • In patronage writings that are predominantly about the Church, there is a well-established Christian tradition that follows the works. These Christian ideals factor largely into the writing and the argument of oral vs. written works.
  • Beowulf was one of poem that was debated over, including how the work was created (oral or written). This changed how the story was perceived. Beowulf, though it participates in both an oral in literate culture, it is viewed as an oral work probably created by a monk and therefore containing a profoundly Christian outlook.

The support of the Church in Literature: Beowulf

  • M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt claim in their introduction to Beowulf in the Norton Anthology of English Literature that, "The poet was reviving the heroic language, style, and pagan world of ancient Germanic oral poetry [...] it is now widely believed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet who was a Christian and that his poem reflects well-established Christian tradition.”
  • This is just one interpretation of a how a work is viewed as being “backed” by a Church or Christian point of view. The patronage, or the support is predominantly that of the Church in the case of Beowulf to Sir Gawain to Chaucer

Possible Dangers of a “Christian-Driven” Work

  • Some of the dangers that could accompany a work that is based on the Church’s point of view are the disagreement of other readers or listeners. If the story has a strong Christian outlook or tradition, there is the possibility of disinterest.
  • Richard North (Professor of English, University College London) argues that the Beowulf poem interpretation is that of, "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a purely Christian audience), and he also states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given [...] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Grendel's mother and Grendel are described as descendants of Cain, a fact which some scholars link to The Cain Tradition, the story of Cain and Abel. This is a very Christian outlook on the story, creating a possible barrier for readers.

Support of the Court in Literature: Chaucer

  • The debate on whether a work was created as either an oral or written work comes up again with Chaucer. The debate does not change over time, just the influence of the text. This also changes who the audience is. The intended audience of The Canterbury Tales has proved very difficult to determine.
  • Some believe that Chaucer was a court poet and wrote mostly for the nobility. However, none of his associates mention the fact that he was a poet in any known historical document. Though it is never mentioned, it is possible that the intended audience is the “court”.

Support of the Court in Literature: Chaucer

  • This differentiation is made when discussing Church vs Court patronage in writings. Beowulf is a clear work of the Church, whereas The Canterbury Tales lies on the other end of the spectrum as a work of (for) the Court.
  • As we read more of The Canterbury Tales, we can delve into the “Courtly” interpretation of Chaucer’s writing, including his role as a courtier*. We can discuss how his writing was affected by this role.
  • *Courtier: a person who attends the court of a monarch or another powerful person.

Roles of Church

  • Dominated society.
    • The official language of the Church was Latin.
    • Majority of works were written by male Catholic Clerics
  • During the time “Beowulf” was written, most of the literature had been written by Monks and was theologically centered.

Roles of Church

  • The values represented in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight did not directly align with the Church. It was an alliterative Romance.
  • The idea of chivalry, however, which was central to the poem, was connected to the Church
  • Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” was written in English vernacular in order to make it accessible to the common people, since it was not written in the language of the church
  • The original Gawain manuscript, Cotton Nero A.x.

Roles of Court

  • The official language of the Court was French.
  • During the time Beowulf was written, the Royal court played the role of protector
  • The first page of the
  • Beowulf manuscript

Roles of Court

  • During the time Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written, the court appealed to more elitist nobility.
    • Role of Court became more prominent in Literature in late 14th century.
    • New Genre of Literature: Alliterative Romance
  • Sir Gawain’s central themes related to knighthood and chivalry which were important to the Royal Court.

Behavior of Church

  • In charge of bills
  • Only Church Courts could judge bishops, beacons, priests, nuns and clerks
    • Their punishment was typically lighter sentences than Royal Court
  • Code of Chivalry states that knights should fear God and maintain his church.
  • Dream of Rood
    • Heavily pagan

Behavior of Court

  • The Royal Court handled serious crimes such as murder, treason, rape and burglary
  • The Knight Code of Chivalry
    • To serve the liege lord in valor and strength
    • To live by honor and for glory
    • To obey those placed in authority
    • To guard the honor of other knights
  • Sir Gawain pg. 41, line 1100 --Host goes out hunting, “A-hunting I will go…”

Church as a Creator of Ideology

  • Dream of the Rood – Preserved in the 10th century Vercelli Book
    • Missionary tone
    • Exalts the experience of the cross
  • Beowulf – recorded in the Nowell Codex manuscript from between the 8th to the 11th century
    • Missionary tone
    • Moves away from brute violence
  • Sir Gawain – late 14th-century

Gentry’s Determination of Religion

  • Church Patronage by the Fifteenth-Century English Gentleman
      • Privatization of religion
        • Private pews (Sir Gawain, p. 37, line 930)
        • Chapels at home (Green Chapel)
        • Desired ownership of relics (Dream of the Rood)
        • Less communal
        • Increased personal/private experience
        • “having heard three masses by nine a.m.,
        • [Sir John Heveningham] went into his garden to
        • ‘sey a lytyll devocion’”
        • – The Church, Politics and Patronage, p. 194

Urban Piety

  • Increased popularity of Christianity amongst the lay population due to the Black Plague (mid-14th century – 1700s)
  • Increased literacy amongst lay people
  • Increased patronage of Church writing
  • Patronage of Church through wills

Medieval “Best-Seller”: Canterbury Tales

  • Pilgrimages
  • Saints
  • Images
  • Popularity of Canterbury Tales during the 14th Century
  • Influenced by Ovid, Decameron, and the Bible
  • The beginning of The Knight's Tale from the Ellesmere manuscript.

WILLIAM CAXTON – The Man, the Legend

  • English merchant, writer, printer, diplomat
  • Born 1415/22; died 1492
  • Published Canterbury Tales
  • Patronized by church and court
  • Wiliam Caxton c. 1415/22 - 1492


  • Courtly readers desired both devotional and religious works. Caxton delivered.
  • Works reflected preoccupation with death, divine retribution and regrets for committing sins.
  • Jason was an important mythological figure at the Burgundian Court, whose most distinguished order was the Order of the Golden Fleece.
  • Charles the Bold, wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece.


  • Philip the Good, the founder of the Order of the Golden Fleece
  • Many of his works in English were dedicated to nobles in the English court
  • Some books were aimed at the gentry or aspiring gentry
  • Religious patrons commissioned work
  • Only the rich could afford horses. In the Canterbury Tales, travelers were identified socially by the quality of their horses

WILLIAM CAXTON – Pardoners & Indulgences

  • Relied on fear of an afterlife
  • Used Indulgences to raise money for specific purposes
  • The church found the printing of Indulgences to be labor saving
  • The 1476 surviving Indulgence was likely concurrent with his printing of the Canterbury Tales
  • Indulgence for the benefit of the Knights of Rhodes (detail)


  • Came from the highest levels of society such as the Duchess of Burgundy; Edward, Prince of Wales; Edward V
  • Parliament of Henry VII
  • The Church
  • Crucifixion scene from Fifteen Oes


  • Now you know the stakes regarding Church and Court patronage in writings (knowing is half the battle) :
    • What are the dangers?
    • What are the rewards?


  • Beowulf : a dual-language edition. Trans. Howell D. Chickering, Jr. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1977
  • The British Library Board.
  • The Church, politics and patronage in the fifteenth century. Ed. Barrie Dobson. Gloucester [Gloucestershire]: A. Sutton; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1984
  • First Poems in English. Ed. Michael Alexander
  • Patronage, the crown and the provinces in later medieval England. Ed. Ralph A. Griffiths. Gloucester: Alan Sutton ; Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1981
  • Peck, Linda Levy. Court patronage and corruption in early Stuart England. London ; Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990
  • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight ; Patience ; and Pearl. Trans. Marie Borroff. New York; London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001
  • Warren, Ann K. Anchorites and their patrons in medieval England. Berkeley : University of California Press, c1985
  • Wikipedia.


  • Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia.
  • Wikipedia.

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