Religious debate and polemic in “Chaucer’s retraction”
christoper michael roman
ESSAY CHAPTER FOR THE OPEN ACCESS COMPANION TO THE CANTERBURY TALES, DRAFT POSTED FOR OPEN REVIEW AUGUST 2016
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “Now I preye to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys, or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure Lorde Jhesu Crist.” So begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s Retraction to his Canterbury Tales. Reading a piece that professes to disavow many of the most enjoyable works (to a modern audience) written by the author at the end of his The Canterbury Tale can be a shock for readers whose experience of the Tales has been one of delight in the romance, earthiness, and jocularity of Chaucer’s voice. But, following in the tone of the penitentially-inflected Parson’s Tale, the Retraction offers up a glimpse of a more complicated Middle Ages, one wrestling with matters of the earth and the divine.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 The language of the Retraction repeats a similar first-line apology in the Treatise on the Astrolabe. In the Astrolabe, dated to 1391, Chaucer writes a treatise to his son, Louis, explaining how to use an astrolabe, an instrument used to measure the distance and height of stars which could then be used to measure latitude and other astrological details. Unlike the Astrolabe apology which discounts its simple style, the Retraction can be read as divided into parts that echoes the genre of penitential literature: an opening prayer, an intercession for Chaucer’s well-being, the retraction and confession itself, asking for forgiveness for his sinful works, and a final prayer. The confession portion also names his literary works, suggesting what Chaucer may have thought his canon contained. The retraction can be analyzed in terms of the medieval literary technique of the humilitas topos found in other writers such as Le Testament of Jean de Meun (c. 1240- c. 1305) and the Genealogia Deorum Gentilium of Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) (two writers influential on Chaucer’s work). This rhetorical strategy allowed the author to be excused for writings the audience might not like while also asserting their role as author of the works they are apologizing for. It is a double-duty rhetorical technique.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 3 The Retraction also follows the terms of medieval penitential practice. The three aspects of medieval confession are listed by Chaucer in this brief work: confession, penance, and satisfaction (l. 1089). Chaucer also invokes the role of auctoritas in creation of his works; Jesus works through Chaucer to produce his best material (that material which elevates the reader) and thus Jesus works through Chaucer in his writing. Chaucer refers to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, “Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine” (l. 1083). Chaucer examines his life’s work through the lens of this verse separating out the works that are too focused on worldly vanities (Chaucer lists such work as his Troilus and those Canterbury Tales that “sowen into sinne” (l. 1085) as falling into this category) and those that have more uplifting morals behind them (Chaucer mentions his saint’s legends and translation of Boethius, the Boece, in this category). After the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, yearly penance to a priest became mandatory. The penitent sought out a priest and through a process of question and answer, the penitent disclosed their sins. Priests, or confessors, heard confession and acted as mediators between the sinner and God. As the Middle Ages developed, texts called penitentials were used to guide confessors in prescribing appropriate penance for the sinner. Penitentials such as the Paenitentiale Theodori, the Paenitentiale Pseudo-Ecgberhti, or, more contemporaneous with Chaucer, Robert Mannyng’s Handlyng Synne (begun in 1303) outline the proper way to confess, a list of sins, as well as various forms of penance the penitent can perform.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 Finally, the Retraction also gestures toward the Lollard controversy in terms of the place of public and private confession in medieval Christian life. The Lollard movement has its roots in the works of John Wyclif (1320-1384), an Oxford theologian, and a translator of the Bible into the vernacular. His works criticized the Catholic Church on matters of the Eucharist and transubstantiation, papal power and riches, the veneration of sins, and confession. Often called the pre-Reformation, Lollardy reached into the halls of power, as well. Sir John Oldcastle, who William Shakespeare would use as a model for his popular character Falstaff, was a Lollard leader and friend of King Henry V. He eventually led a rebellion against Henry and was eventually executed in 1417. In the time of Chaucer, the word “lollard” eroded to become synonymous with “heretic.” Not everyone who was accused of being a lollard necessarily subscribed to all of the tenets of Lollardy, however, to be accused of being a lollard in any of its meanings led to persecution of various kinds. It was a dangerous accusation.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Chaucer’s Retraction troubles readers and scholars. Why would a writer who has created such a dynamic group of literary works suddenly turn on so many of them? Is this really Chaucer’s final, deathbed word on his poems? Is Chaucer even to be taken seriously? To answer these kinds of questions is to ask a question of authorial intention, one that we cannot recover from a writer so distant from us. However, while the Retraction raises these kinds of questions regarding Chaucer’s intentions, it also leads to a re-thinking about Chaucer’s canon, the role of religion and confession in medieval society, as well as the role of the author and their secular and divine inspiration. I will deal with this final issue first and work backwards to Chaucer’s sense of canon as a way to end with the most controversial issue in Chaucerian studies.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 The concept of auctoritas shaped literary production. In Scholastic thinking, auctoritas does not easily translate to just “authority.” Rather it categorizes statements that were considered weighty in the context of an argument. Thus, a medieval writer or thinker may use the work of St. Augustine, not only because he was considered an authority on a subject, but also because his statements weighed heavily on the dispute at hand. This did not mean that one could not argue with Augustine or think Augustine wrong. Thus, auctoritas were not simply used as platitudes; they were used as tools for argument. Thinking about auctoritas in this manner suggests Chaucer thought of his best work, such as his translation of Boece or his “legendes of saintes” (l. 1087) as both utilizing authoritative sources (Boethius, saint’s live), but also that these works held weight in supporting the concept of the work of grace within the author. We may imagine then that Chaucer categorized his “sinful” fables, fabliaux, and romance narratives as having little weight in an argument and derived from sources Chaucer thought of as having less authority, such as classical sources. Thus, the retraction brings our attention to the multivalent use of the concept of auctoritas and asks us to consider how Chaucer and his medieval context would have judged literature itself and how different that sense of aesthetics is from our own.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Connected with this sense of aesthetic judgment is also a consideration of Chaucer’s writing as “sinful.” What part of these works, such as his own Troilus and Criseyde, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, and the tales in the Canterbury Tales that lead to sin (l. 1085) are necessarily sinful? This leads a modern reader to think about the purpose of reading in the Middle Ages. As Margaret Hallissy points out reading “to moderns […] is mainly for intellectual pleasure, to medievals art was for religious instruction.” Hallissy’s point may be somewhat overstated as plenty of non-religious works circulated for some kind of artistic enjoyment, however, she does bring our attention to different sensibilities for the seriousness of literature in the medieval period. Chaucer categorizes some of his works as sinful because of their subject matter. A medieval education would have used classical models, but instructors would have asked students to consider the context as irrelevant and the structure of the work as everything. There is a tradition of eschewing one’s frivolous works stretching back to the ancient Greeks. For an analogue close to Chaucer’s time, the writer Jean de Meun offers up a similar kind of retraction as Chaucer’s own: ‘In my youth I have made many dits because of vanity, in which many people have been delighted several times. Now may God grant me to make one out of true charity so that I can make amends for the ones that have profited me little.” Jean de Meun indicates various purposes to his writing, while his previous literature caused delight in his audience, he now must turn to writing something to make up for the salacious content of his previous work. As Anita Obermeier points outs, Chaucer “begs excuse for three main flaws: the pagan content of his literary material, material celebrating sexuality […], and questionable language.” These literary sins reflect the tension between the use of pagan literature in Christian society. If literature was supposed to reflect back on a Christian morality, writing a spoof of the story of Noah, as Chaucer does in the Miller’s Tale, could be considered sacrilegious and lead to too much audience delight.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 The line-of-thinking in the retraction genre goes something like this: the creation of these kinds of works warrants an act of confession since the author is not using his God-given gifts in the correct, spiritual, or Christian way. In the tradition of other literary retractions, Chaucer’s confessional impulse may stem from a sense of literary legacy. The Retraction appeals to Jesus and the Virgin Mary to “they from hennes forth unto my lyves ende sense me grace to biwayle my giltes and to studie to the salvacioun of my soule, and graunt me grace of verray penitence, confessioun and satisfaccioun to doon in this present lyf” (l. 1089). I quote this line in full to draw attention to the idea that Chaucer was “not dead yet,” as they say in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as a reminder that though this work is situated last in the Canterbury Tales by later compilers of the Tales, there is nothing to suggest that Chaucer did not continue to work on the Tales (or his other works) after he wrote the Retraction. The appeal to “unto my lyves ende” suggest that maybe the rumor that Chaucer wrote this on his deathbed is spurious. Maybe the Retraction could be thought of as Chaucer’s living will. One might imagine Chaucer thinking, in the vein of St. Augustine, “forgive me these dirty tales, but not yet.”
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 Another reason this line is important is that it reflects medieval penitential practice: the aforementioned confession, penance, and satisfaction. Medieval penance was a process in which the penitent sought forgiveness for their sin. The issue surrounding this form of penance has to do with a private, subjective self and a public declaration shaped by the penitential act. Penitential practice reveals a sinner that is shaped by the penitential itself—what if the priest, going through the list of questions, does not ask you the right question? The only sins revealed are the sins the Church think are sins. There is a tension between the identity of the Christian sinner and what the Church thought that sinner should look like. Thus, Chaucer’s Retraction presents a conflicting portrait of the Chaucerian authorial voice: is this Chaucer the writer or is this Chaucer the Christian? Are these even separate identities at all?
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 As the previous paragraph indicates, there was controversy over penitential practice and Chaucer is not immune to its representation in his work. Penitence had a public and private characteristic. To confess one’s sin was to ask forgiveness from God. This emphasized an inner transformation within the sinner. However, penitential practice formalized this process. As the sinner endured penance, their sin was forgiven and they were renewed. Yet, the role of the priest in this act and their wielding of power to forgive were rife with controversy.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 3 Doctrines surrounding penance were attacked by the Lollard movement during Chaucer’s lifetime. This late-medieval heretical movement circulates around Chaucer’s writing, as well. Lollardy challenged the authority of the medieval Church in matters such as papal authority, translation of the Bible into the vernacular, transubstantiation, and the use of priests to hear confession. Some of these ideas find their ways into a number of Chaucerian works, especially the Parson’s Tale or the comedic Summoner’s Tale. For the Lollards, the priest’s absolution was a sign of their false power because only God could forgive. As well, the Lollard’s emphasize the power of internal transformation in the process of penitence. Confession is not the most important part, according to the Lollards, rather, “the veri contricioun of herte” is necessary for salvation. Saying one’s sins out loud to a priest proves unnecessary and makes false claims as to the power of the papacy. Only God forgives.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 There is much debate around whether Chaucer was sympathetic to Lollard causes or not—as in much of the Chaucerian canon, Chaucer is able to make in-jokes and play both sides. However, Lollards believed that confession was an act performed between the sinner and God and, thus, the priest-as-mediator was superfluous. One cannot help but notice that Chaucer’s own literary confession is directly addressed to Jesus and the Virgin Mary without a mention of a priestly intercessor.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Despite its short length, the Retraction is a rich piece in Chaucer’s Tales. Rather than the Retraction acting as his own final word on the works, the historical and analogical evidence suggests, much like the rest of The Canterbury Tales, that there is a high-level of indeterminate meaning contained within it. We can use the Retraction as a piece that disturbs easy chronological ordering of the Tales. We can think about Chaucer’s own sense of aesthetics and, possibly, humor. We can even use the Retraction to think about how an artist sees their work proceeding through time. As much as Chaucer may have wanted to categorize his works into sinful and beneficial—providing sentence—the Retraction ends up raising far more questions than it answers. It is hardly an ending at all.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Despite the retraction’s placement at the end of the Canterbury Tales, critics call into question whether Chaucer wrote this last. If, like the other tales, the Retraction could be moved around in the order, what affect may this have on the tales? Where would you place it and why?
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 2 Utilizing the interpretive strategy of reading against the grain and thinking with the perspective the Retraction presents, how might Chaucer’s virtuous tales, such as the Prioress’s Tale be interpreted as sinful and how might a sinful tale, such as the Miller’s Tale, prove to be virtuous?
Sources for Further Reading
¶ 29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Patridge, Stephen. “‘The Makere of this Boke’: Chaucer’s Retraction and the Author as Scribe and Compiler” in Author, Reader, Book: Medieval Authorship in Theory and Practice. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 106-153.
¶ 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0  From Jean de Meun, Le Testament. Excerpted in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol. II. Ed. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009), 798.
¶ 36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0  See “Sixteen Points On Which the Bishops Accuse Lollards.” Selections from English Wycliffite Writings. Ed. Anne Hudson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), 21.