Geoffrey Chaucer ‘The Canterbury Tales – The Retraction’

The Parson ends his sermon and with it end The Canterbury Tales – almost. We have yet a short prose text known as Chaucer’s Retraction. In this text Chaucer asks his readers to attribute anything they liked about the sermon to God’s inspiration, and anything they didn’t like to his own weakness as a writer. He also revokes all his secular works such as Troilus and Criseyde, The Legend of Good Women, The Canterbury Tales and many others, some of which are lost and known only from this text. He thanks God for making him able to write all his religious works and produce the translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. What are we going to make of this? Is it Chaucer’s midlife (or end-of-life) crisis? Did he undergo a conversion? Or is it just the conventional apology? The former interpretation has some corroboration in the fact that Thomas Gascoigne, a 15-th century scholar, wrote down the legend that Chaucer bitterly regretted before his death having written so many filthy and sinful stories which he now cannot stop from circulating. Modern scholars tend not to believe much in Gascoigne’s story, since it was written half a century after Chaucer’s death. Maybe Chaucer did choose to end his masterpiece on such a serious note in order to emphasize the whole arc of history – the end of pilgrimage meaning the end of life, including author’s own. Or maybe it is, as some critics believe, an addition of his scribe (although it feels like a cop-out to me).

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