Essay on Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: The Parson’s Tale

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales: The Parson’s Tale

The critical acclaim for The Canterbury Tales as a whole is matched by the puzzlement over the work’s conclusion, the “Parson’s Tale” and Chaucer’s retraction. By modern standards, it hardly seems the “merry tale” the Parson promises his audience, and after the liveliness of much of the rest of the Tales, it appears to close the work not with a bang, but a whimper.

However, this does not mean that the tale and retraction aren’t worthy of consideration, both independently and in the larger context of Chaucer’s masterpiece. Indeed, within the last century we have seen scholars arguing for the Parson’s sermon and Chaucer’s retraction as the capstone of the work, as ironic comment, and even as Chaucer’s own response to his life, which was nearing its close as the pieces in question were written. The truth of the matter may well be a combination of all of these elements, as well as others not yet mentioned.


The sermon’s sources seem to lie in the manuals of penance that were widespread in England in the fourteenth century. As Mary Flowers Braswell has observed, the concept of penance as a repeatable sacrament seems to have originated in the Celtic church, and was officially adopted as doctrine by the Lateran Council in 1215. As part of the penitential process, the Celtic monks devised manuals for confessors, which took into account such factors as the sinner’s intent, whether the sin was habitual, and even lists of questions the confessors could use to elicit information from the sinner (20-21).

The cardinal sins were used as a sort of sieve, allowing for classification of specific sin. Interestingly enough, Morton Bloomfield notes that early Celti...

... middle of paper ...

Penance.” In Literature and Religion In the Later
Middle Ages: Philological Studies in Honor of
Siegfried Wenzel, Richard G. Newhauser and John A.
Alford, eds. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance
Texts & Studies, 1995. 61-80.

Olmert, Michael. “The Parson’s Ludic Formula For Winning on
the Road (to Canterbury).” The Chaucer Review 20:2
(1985). 158-68.

Shaw, Judith. “Corporal and Spiritual Homicide, the Sin of
Wrath, and the ‘Parson’s Tale’.” Traditio: Studies in
Ancient and Medieval History, Thought and Religion 38
(1982), 281-300.

Wenzel, Siegfried. “The Source of Chaucer’s Seven Deadly
Sins.” Traditio: Studies in Ancient and Medieval
History, Thought and Religion 30 (1974), 351-378.

Wood, Chauncey. “Chaucer’s Most ‘Gowerian’ Tale.” In
Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange.
Victoria, BC: U of Victoria

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