Chaucer's ability to characterize people from all walks of life in explicit detail, as is so wonderfully displayed in The Canterbury Tales, is just one factor that allowed him to be known as one of history's finest literary artists. At the end of a career that would be considered by most artists as an extremely successful one, what could have caused Chaucer to apologize for any of the works which defined literary success? In "Chaucer's Retraction," which appears at the end of The Canterbury Tales (Norton 311), Chaucer not only apologizes for several of his secular works, he also goes so far as to revoke them, and ask for forgiveness for such works which "tended toward sin" (313), as he puts it. Such an extreme action seems to be somewhat irrational. Some believe that Chaucer, nearing the end of his earthly life, was preparing himself for God's judgment in the afterlife. If, by means of his writings, he was guilty of some grave sin, which would keep him from the eternal bliss of heaven, such a retraction might be considered justifiable. Furthermore, the concept of being tormented in the depths of hell for all eternity could easily persuade any person, especially on his deathbed, to renounce all past actions, good or bad. Maybe it is better to be safe than to be sorry, forever. While it is impossible to truly discern Chaucer's reasoning, assuming him to be the actual author of this passage, a closer examination of the "offending" text, as well as a look at some of the social and religious influences of the time period, might give us a clue as to why such a gifted poet would take this position.
The dominant theme of the pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales illustrates one obvious religious...
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...xed with molten lead, brass and other kinds of metal; immense worms with poisonous teeth gnawed at some; others were fastened on by one on stakes with fiery thorns. The torturers tore them with their nails, flogged them with dreadful scourges, and lacerated them in dreadful agonies [The Monk of Evesham's Vision, 1197] (qtd. in Speed 4).
When facing the end of one's life, the notion of spending all eternity in such a place would surely make even the most avid non-believer think twice. A true believer in Christianity might very well think that it is much better to be safe, than to be sorry forever.
"Chaucer's Retraction." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Seventh Edition. Volume1. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc., 2000.
Speed, Peter, ed. Those Who Prayed, An Anthology of Medieval Sources. New York: Italica Press, 1997.
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