The Canterbury Tales is a collection of a wide variety of different stories, ranging from such tales as The Miller's Tale, a fabliau that could have easily been told in a tavern, to The Parson's Tale, a very lengthy sermon. While such an interesting combination of tales may seem somewhat peculiar, it seems even stranger that after going to the trouble of writing and gathering this collection of tales, Chaucer would retract most of his work. But yet despite this retraction, The Canterbury Tales survive; rather than destroying his work, Chaucer merely retracts any portions that readers might deem offensive. This raises questions as to the purpose and sincerity of such a retraction. Rather than sincerely retracting his work, Chaucer's retraction seems instead to adhere to techniques and objectives established and promoted throughout the work.
Throughout The Canterbury Tales there are times in which Chaucer uses various techniques to avoid blame for his writing. The General Prologue contains the best example of this. Chaucer states that he must stay true to the pilgrims' words or else "he moot telle his tale untrewe" (GP, 735) even if such words might be offensive to the reader. In other words, it seems that Chaucer is stating that he must either tell the tale just as he heard it, or he may as well not be telling the tale at all. Chaucer then refers to Plato and Christ in support of his argument, appealing to both the secular as well as the ecclesiastical. By appealing to truth as an ideal and to the words of his predecessors, Chaucer attempts to avoid accusations that might arise from his authorship of some of the tales.
Similarly to The General Prologue, Chaucer's retraction once again addresses the issue of the words of some of the tales possibly being offensive to some readers. Chaucer asks the reader to pray that "Crist have mercy on [him]" (Retraction, 1081) and forgive him for any guilt. It seems that Chaucer wants to make it very clear that any sin committed in the composition/compilation of the tales was unintentional, and the entire retraction is a very Christian appeal as it has many references to various Christian ideals and principles. But yet, despite this, at the end of the retraction "here is ended the book of the tales of Caunterbury, compiled by Geffrey Chaucer", and tales still exist. Rather than trying to destroy his sinful work, Chaucer merely retracts it. If Chaucer were really so penitent over the construction this work, would he have allowed it to survive?
If Chaucer's retraction is insincere, one possible explanation for it is that it was used as a technique in which to entice the reader, a technique very likely used both in the retraction as well as in The General Prologue. At the beginning of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells us that he will stay true to the tale even if "al speke he never so redelich and large" (GP, 734). This may draw the reader into the tales, fanning any interest in crude and free language (such as language found in a fabliau) that the reader might possess. At the end of the work, on the other hand, Chaucer might be attempting to cause the reader to reflect back upon the tales. Why must the author of the tales end his work with "of whos soule Jhesu Crist have mercy...amen" right after his name? Perhaps this is a way for Chaucer to clearly point out that he is defying typical conventions with his work. In other words, even though Chaucer literally states that his writing is sinful and should be retracted, he still presents the reader with the work, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This can act to draw the reader's attention to the issues that Chaucer previously raised in his work.
Even if this technique does not apply to the retraction, there is another possible reason that Chaucer may have included it. This reason pertains to a major objective that seems present throughout the work. It seems that Chaucer intended that The Canterbury Tales include something for everyone. There is, for example, The Knights Tale for those of who might like a chivalric story as well as The Miller's Tale for those who would prefer a dirty story. Just as the pilgrimage that holds the tales together is composed of a diverse group of people, so too do the tales apply to a diverse group of people. By ending his work with the parson's sermon-like tale and a Christian retraction, Chaucer may be attempting to keep the ecclesiasts happy, especially after so many tales that could be interpreted as criticism of the church. After all, Chaucer had written in The Summoner's Prologue that the "nest of freres" (SP, 1691) lay up the "tayl" (SP, 1687) of Satan and had insults many other members of the church within The Canterbury Tales. The sermon and retraction at the end of the work might be a way in which Chaucer may be trying to avoid any censorship or criticism of the church upon his work.
Chaucer's retraction of The Canterbury Tales does not seem to be sincere and instead seems to be used either as a technique to entice the reader or another instance of a wider goal to appeal to a broad base of readers. It is likely that if Chaucer were truly serious about the issues raised within his retraction that he would have attempted to somehow destroy the work, rather than just retracting it. In some ways it seems that Chaucer is playing with the reader. Chaucer knows what he is doing, and by intriguing the reader and covering his bases, he is able to create a much more interesting and thoughtful work.
- Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987.
- Boccaccio, Giovanni. The Decameron. Trans. Frances Winwar. New York: Random House Inc., 1955.
- Koff, Michael and Schildgen, Brenda, eds. The Decameron and the Canterbury Tales: New Essays on an Old Question. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2000.
- Petrarch, Francis. Letters of Old Age. XVII, No. 3. http://icg.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/petrarch/pet-intr.html
- Petrarch, Francis. Tale of Griselda: A Tale of Wifely Obedience and Faith. http://icg.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/petrarch/pet-gris.html
The Parson’s Prologue
By the time the Manciple’s tale had finished, the sun had set low in the sky. The Host, pronouncing his initial degree fulfilled, turns to the Parson to “knytte up wel a greet mateere” (conclude a huge matter) and tell the final tale. The Parson answered that he would tell no fable – for Paul, writing to Timothy, reproved people who turned aside from the truth and told fables and other such wretchedness.
What the Parson promises is morality and virtuous matters - and jokes that he does not know of the alliterative poetry tradition of the South. He leaves his tale, he says, to clerks, for he himself is not “textueel”. Everyone agreed that it was the best way to end the project, and asked the Host to give the Parson the instruction to tell the final tale. The Host did so, hasting the Parson to tell his tale before the sun went down.
The Parson’s Tale
The Parson’s tale is not actually a tale as such, but a lengthy medieval sermon on the subject of penitence. The first part of his sermon defines the three parts of penitence – contrition, confession and satisfaction, and expounds at length (with several biblical examples) the causes of the contrition.
The second part of the sermon considers confession, which is the truthful revelation of the sinner’s sin to the priest. Sin is then explained as the eventual product of a struggle between the body and soul for dominance of a person – and therefore there are two types of sin: venial (minor, smaller sins) and deadly (serious sins).
The third part of the sermon considers each of the seven deadly sins as branches of a tree of which Pride is the trunk. Pride is the worst of the sins, because the other sins (Ire, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery) all stem from Pride. Each sin’s description is followed by its spiritual remedy – and the Parson states the rules for oral confession.
There are a number of conditions to penitence, including the intensity of the sin committed, the haste to contrition and the number of times the sin was committed. The fruit of this penitence is goodness and redemption in Christ. Following this short return to the subjects of penitence (and satisfaction), the final lines seem to suggest, by way of images of the sun and the morning, a vision of Paradise: bodies which were foul and dark become brighter than the sun, the body, formerly sick and feeble, becomes immortal and whole, and in a place where no-one feels hunger, thirst or cold, but is replenished by the perfect knowledge of God. This paradise, the final lines of the tale conclude, is only attainable through spiritual poverty and by avoiding sin.
Retraction: “Heere taketh the makere of this book his leve”
The narrator, speaking in the first person, prays to everyone that reads this “litel tretys” (little treatise – probably the Parson’s tale) that, if they like anything they read in it, they thank Jesus Christ. If they find anything that displeases them, moreover, they are to put it down to the narrator’s ignorance, and not to his will – he would have written better, if only he had the cunning.
The narrator then asks the reader to pray for him that Christ has mercy on his sins and forgives him in his trespasses, and particularly of his translations of worldly vanities: the book of Troilus, the book of Fame, the book of the twenty-five ladies, the book of the Duchess, the book of the Parliament of Birds, and the tales of Canterbury – those that “sownen into synne” (tend toward sin).
However, the narrator thanks Christ for his translation of the Boece and other books of saint’s legends and homilies, hoping that Christ will grant him grace of penitence, confession and satisfaction, through the benign grace of the King of Kings, so that he may be “oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved” (one of them at the day of doom who shall be saved).
The book ends with a short Latin prayer and Amen, before announcing that the book “of the tales of Caunterbury, compiled by Geffrey Chaucer” has ended, adding “of whos soule Jhesu Crist have mercy”.
One of the biggest questions about the Tales as a whole is precisely how they end. Throughout his works, and even within the Tales (look, for example, at the interruptions of Sir Thopas and the Monk’s tales) Chaucer proves that he knows how to create a false ending, a trick ending, which ends by not ending, by not concluding. The Canterbury Tales ends on a decidedly pious and religious note, first with the Parson’s lengthy sermon, and then with a retraction written as “Chaucer”. The Parson’s sermon, a translation from a medieval work designed to advise clergy in the salvation of souls, would be a plausible medieval sermon – there seems nothing in it that is ironic: it is a perfect example of its genre.
Yet can the Parson’s sermon seem anything other than just another genre? In a work which has anthologized genres – we have already read beast fables, saint’s lives, fabliaux, Breton lays, and all manner of other stories – and problematised them, drawing attention to their speaker’s voice as something (as the Pardoner points out) ventriloquized, can we really be expected to take the Parson’s voice seriously?
Critics disagree wildly about the answer to this question. The same problem applies to Chaucer’s retraction – which, as in the Man of Law’s prologue, blurs the line between the Chaucer writing the Tales (who has also written the Book of the Duchess, Troilus and Criseyde, and so on) and the fictional Chaucer who is a character within the pilgrimage. Is the Chaucer who writes these tales just another constructed voice?
Or, perhaps, is the Retraction of the tales a genuine one? Chaucer, in this theory, genuinely was dying and was unable to finish the work – or for some reason, felt the need to immediately retract it, as he genuinely believed that it did come too close to sin. Thus, before the Host’s plan was complete, he concluded the tale with a pious sermon and then a Retraction: no-one could therefore accuse the Tales of being unchristian. Is it a death-bed confession?
A Retraction is a fairly usual way for a medieval work to end, and perhaps that points us to the aforementioned effect: its very normality is perhaps a clue that Chaucer’s intention is not pure and simple. For it could be read simply as another “funny voice” – the voice of the Chaucer who told Sir Thopas: could be read as comedy rather than penance. Moreover, as E.T. Donaldson has firmly stated, the use of the Parson’s Tale as an interpretative key to unlock the whole of the Tales is problematic, particularly when you consider the deliberate religious provocation of tales like the Miller’s, the Wife of Bath’s and the Merchant’s. The tales by no means seem to be written to a purely Christian agenda - though Christianity is undoubtedly a key theme.
End-points in Chaucer are difficult to definitively interpret, and perhaps this dichotomy was intended by Chaucer himself. Perhaps this ending is simply one way of closing down the Tales – the Manciple’s tale, of course, has been only the most recent in a line of tales which reiterate the advice of these final fragments to hold one’s peace, and know when to fall silent. Is this Chaucer, on an imaginary, real or literary deathbed, punningly, holding his peace, but also being “at peace”? One thing is for sure: understanding the ending of the Tales seems a fitting encapsulation of the complex problem of interpreting the work as a whole.