Chaucer's "Retraction" and Its Meaning within the Context of the Canterbury Tales
The "Retraction," a fragment that follows the last of the Tales in Chaucer's masterpiece, has attracted much critical attention, as students of Chaucer attempt to divine whether it implies a renunciation on the author's part of his work, or is intended ironically.
Benson comments that "the authenticity of the Retraction has been challenged" (Benson, 2000), and certainly it is possible that "some scribe added them on to Chaucer's own incomplete copy of the Tales" (Benson, 2000). Establishing authorship of works of that period can be difficult, and there is enough content of a bawdy nature in the Tales that a concerned churchman might have been inspired to round the work off with a cautionary note of piety, however belated, on the author's behalf. However, Benson, along with most scholars, agree that this is not the case; that Chaucer was the author of both the Parson's Tale and the Retraction which follows and relates to it: "This [denying Chaucer's authorship] is an attractive solution for those who would prefer to ignore the problems the retraction raises, but there is no basis for this argument" (Benson, 2000).
Other scholars have seen in the Retraction evidence that Chaucer added the closing to provide for the well-being of his soul, in healthy fear of divine retribution after death. Young expands upon the religious beliefs of the time, the literal belief in the peril of the soul from impious acts, the depth of which is difficult for the modern Christian to comprehend. (Young, 2000) Speed quotes the view of hell at Chaucer's time as described by the monk of Evesham's Vision, 1197: "Some [sinners] were roasted before fire; others were fried in pans; red hot nails were driven into some to their bones; others were tourtured with a horrid stench in baths of pitch and sulphur mixed with molten lead...immense worms with poisonous teeth gnawed at some" (Speed, 1997). Believing in a literal hell of such dimensions would be a powerful incentive to recant any dubious act.
Young describes the Fourth Lateran Council's view of heresy: "We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy that contradicts this holy, orthodox, catholic faith, and condemn all heretics, no matter what they may call themselves" (Young, 2000) - even writers, we can assume. Certainly, there was enough of a dubious moral nature in the Tales to at least flirt with heresy. Young concludes that an aging Chaucer may have decided "it is better to be safe than sorry, forever." (Young, 2000)
Thomas Gascoigne, writing in circa 1457, recounts the story of Chaucer's so-called "Deathbed Repentance" in his Dictionarium Theologicum (available in Wurtele, 1980): "Thus Chaucer before his death often exclaimed 'Woe is me, because now I cannot revoke not destroy those things I evilly wrote concerning the evil and most filthy love of men for women...I wanted to. I could not.'" Gascoigne goes on to compare the Retraction to the repentance of Judas, as an example of "too little, too late." The damage had been done, and "he could not revoke the act nor remedy its evil consequences." (Wurtele, 1980)
Chaucer himself does put similar words in the mouth of the Manciple, who laments, "Thyng that is seyd, and forth it gooth, / Though hym repente, or be hym nevere so looth" (Chaucer, Manciple's Tale IX, lines 354-355).
It should be noted, however, that the "retraction" or in modern terms, something of a Notice to Reader, was a fairly common literary convention of the time. Haines compares it to the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight postcript, "Hony soyt qui mal pense." (Haines, 1983) Thus the intention of the writing is a responsibility shared by both the writer and the reader. This fits with Chaucer's Retraction, as he not only prays for forgiveness from God, "that Crist have mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes" (Chaucer, Retraccioun), but also for forgiveness from the reader (Ibid). He stresses that it is up to the reader to either take "any thynge that liketh hem" as such things proceed from God, or "any thyng that displese hem," as such things are created by the writer's own ignorance (Ibid).
Sayce identifies numerous examples of analogous rhetorical endings in Latin, French and German writings, in which the convention of apologizing or distancing the writer from the possible negative effects of the writing may be traced, along with some sentiments crediting God for any positive results (Sayce, 1971). For example, we could look at Augustine, writing to Darius, as he says: "If anything in [my writings] please you, join me in praising Him to whom and not to myself, I desired praise to be given...pray for me that I may not fail, but be perfected." (Augustine, 429, Pilkington translation) St. Thomas Aquinas also used this convention, which goes back to Plato's Apology.
Throughout the Tales, Chaucer introduces similar phrases to distance himself from the opinions and actions of his characters, for example, as Haines points out, when Chaucer writes of the Monk, "And I seyde his opinion was good', Chaucer's intention is to pull the reader back, to retract, from a straight reading that the Monk's opinion is in fact good." (Haines, 2000) Haines postulates that the purpose of the Retraction is not only to "protect [Chaucer] from vicious censors" (Ibid], but also to suggest "a more subtle and moral meaning." (Ibid) This meaning may be nothing less than that suggested by Knapp, "the semiotic affinity among retraction, irony and penance" (Knapp, 1983). Seen in this light, the Retraction points the way for the reader to the realization of the dichotomy between the word of man and the Word of God. The word of man arises from man's sinful state following original sin, and although it portrays the workings of the natural world, that world along with man is itself fallen. Therefore, as Gascoigne has Chaucer say, the "love of men for women" is, although natural, "most filthy," as opposed to the pre-Fall love of Adam for Eve. (Wurtele, 1980) Thus, Chaucer's recounting of the Wife of Bath's Tale is the word of fallen man for the fallen act of sexual love. By repenting of it, Chaucer subtly calls our attention to the Word of God, that is, the only means of redemption of fallen man by a merciful God (Knapp, 1983)
Boenig mentions that tales such as the story of Melibee showed up anonymously in various "compendia of devotional treatises "of the time (Boenig, 1995). He also brings up an interesting point about language and content, that is, the necessity of man to express his ideas, even his most sublime ones, in secular language. He discusses the Syrian monk known only to us as Pseudo-Dionysius, whose treatises taught "medieval mystics a complex view of language. Pseudo-Dionysius theorizes that language when applied to God, simultaneously signifies and fails to signify...in [Chaucer] there was a similar distrust of language." (Boenig, 1995) If this is the case, it is apparent why most writers of the time would see the importance of some type of retraction after their works.
It is important to recognize the three voices of Chaucer as identified by Portnoy. "The Retraction has been read as a real confession by Chaucer the poet in the face of imminent death; as a realistic confession by Chaucer the pilgrim in response to the Parson's sermon; and as an ironic parody of both confession and retraction in keeping with the Manciple's cynical counsel to silence." (Portnoy,1994) Therefore, all the foregoing experts to some extent support the sincerity of the first Chaucer, the genuinely devout Christian, praying that his book of Tales might be accepted as "writen for our doctrine." (Chaucer, Retraccioun)
Schwarz points out the device of the pilgrimage as one which allowed Chaucer to insert himself in the character of a fellow pilgrim who narrates the story of the journey to Canterbury and recounts the tales told by the sojourners. By using this device, Chaucer the poet is separated from the character of the pilgrim narrator and exonerated from some of his statements and perceptions. The tales of the other pilgrims, as well, are now at an even further remove from the poet himself. Similarly, the Romance of the Rose is about "a young man who attends a garden party," and Piers Plowman about "a peasant who guides a group of people looking for a nobleman." (Schwartz, 2002) Thus, the Retraction can be seen as a reaction on the part of the pilgrim-narrator to the Parson's Tale, which converts the pilgrimage from "a literal journey from London to Canterbury to a metaphorical one, from birth to death and beyond" (Schwartz, 2002). Seen in that context, the narrator is cowed by the sin that "he" has witnessed and recounted, and his retraction is out into the mouth of the poet, in a reversal of what has actually happened throughout the book.
Chaucer's consciousness of himself as poet may be seen in his elaborate contrition in the…