The Purpose of Chaucer's Retraction
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