10.2 Chaucer's Retraction

Short Summary:

In Chaucer's Retraction, which comes at the end of the Parson's Tale, Chaucer asks that all who hear or read "this litel trettys" pray that Christ have mercy on him, specifically because of his translations and compositions of "worldly vanities." He specifies his major works, including one, The Book of the Lion (which has not survived), "and many another book, if they were in my remembrance, and many a song and many a lecherous lay." Among his major works he includes the Tales of Canterbury -- "thilke that sownen into synne." He thanks God for his moral works, specifically his translation of Boethius and books of "legends of saints, homilies, and morality and devotion" (most of which must also have disappeared) and states that henceforth he will devote his life to bewailing his guilt.]

Beginning students may find a translation of Chaucer's Retraction useful.


Contextual Information:

The authenticity of the Retraction has been challenged -- by modern rather than nineteenth century scholars. One might have expected F.J. Furnivall, no admirer of religion, to have rejected its authenticity, but neither the free-thinking Furnivall nor the orthodox Reverend Doctor Skeat questioned the authenticity of the Retraction. Even Manly and Rickert, who doubted it was genuine, conceded that the evidence for the legitimacy of the Parson's Tale and Retraction "is as good as for any part of the CT" (M-R 4.527).

Some critics have held that Chaucer never intended the Tales to end with the Parson's Tale and the Retraction, arguing that some scribe added them on to Chaucer's own incomplete copy of the Tales. This is an attractive solution for those who would prefer to ignore the problems the retraction riases, but there is no basis for this argument (see the comments by Siegfried Wenzel in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. 954-55 or in The Canterbury Tales, pp. 473-74), other than the critic's discomfort with so medieval a conclusion. We might wish that Chaucer had left it out, to spare our modern sensibilities. But he did not. As E. T. Donaldson put it. "Logical as ever, Chaucer did what was best for his soul" (Chaucer's Poetry, sec. ed., 1975, p.1114).

For the sake of his soul Chaucer had to repent the works that "sownen into synne." It is sometimes argued that Chaucer never allowed the Canterbury Tales to circulate in his own lifetime. But how could Chaucer repent for a sin he had not committed? If the Canterbury Tales had never circulated, if they were still securely locked in his chest, what was there to repent? He could have destroyed them so that they would never circulate. He could not destroy them, because they were in circulation. As Chaucer writes at the end of the Manciple's Tale:

        But he that hath mysseyd, I dar wel sayn,
        He may by no wey clepe his word agayn.
        Thyng that is seyd is seyd, and forth it gooth,
        Though hym repente, or be hym nevere so looth. (MancT IX.353-5)

The theme of these lines is the same as that which appears in Thomas Gascoigne's account (in his Dictionarium theologicum (LINK) , ca. 1457) of Chaucer's repentance in his last years. That account comes more than a half a century after the fact and one may well suspect that it derives from Chaucer's Retraction itself rather than from some one such as Chaucer's son Thomas, who himself had died (in 1434) more than a decade before Gascoigne wrote.  What is interesting here therefore is not the account of Chaucer's so-called "Deathbed Repentance" but rather the context in which that account is placed -- in a discussion of repentance that comes too late, after the damage has been done and when it is too late to remedy the consequences of the act. Gascoigne uses the example of Judas, who bitterly repented his betrayal of Christ but who could not undo what he had done; he tried to return the thirty pieces of silver, but it was too late because the damage had been done and "he could not revoke his act nor remedy its evil consequences."

Chaucer appears but briefly in Gascoigne's work, at the end of the discussion of Judas, as a kind of "Modern Instance":

Thus Chaucer before his death often exclaimed "woe is me, because now I can not revoke nor destroy those things I evilly wrote concerning the evil and most filthy love of men for women and which even now continue to pass from man to man. I wanted to. I could not. And thus complaining, he died. This Chaucer was the father of Thomas Chaucer, knight, the which Thomas is buried in Huhelm near Oxford.

For a full discussion and an edition of Gascoigne's account, see Douglas Wurtele, "The Penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer," Viator 11 (LINK) (1980), 335-59.

Whatever the truth of Gascoigne's account (and most modern biographers allow it little credit), he provides a valuable gloss on the Retraction or at least on how he, a chancellor of Oxford University, read the Retraction. His report that Chaucer regretted that "now I cannot revoke or destroy those things I evilly wrote" is a fact. Troilus, The Legend of Good Women, and all the rest, including the Canterbury Tales, "thilke that sounen into synne," could not be recalled or destroyed:

        Thyng that is seyd is seyd, and forth it gooth,
        Though hym repente, or be hym never so looth.

Be that as it may, the Retraction ends the Canterbury Tales with a final complexity; repentant or not, Chaucer, as usual, slyly leaves the resolution to the reader.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Retraction (and Parson's Tale), click here.