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The Canterbury Tales | Chaucer's Retractions | Summary

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Summary

Chaucer begs readers' forgiveness if his work displeases and asks them to consider it the fault of his ability, not his intent. He then apologizes for many of his works that concern "worldly vanities" (that is, works that provide merely frivolous entertainment), and he thanks God for his other, more moral writings. His apology includes a long list of his writings, both "worldly" and moral, not only The Canterbury Tales.

Analysis

Chaucer, addressing the reader, reveals himself as the storyteller behind not just the stories in this collection but also of the frame story. His retractions, then, are made in his own voice, not the voice of Chaucer the pilgrim whom readers encounter in the rest of the tales. He speaks as a medieval Christian, not as a fictional character—one who will at some point need to account for his works before God. To this end his retraction contains many of the elements that would be part of the sacrament of confession in the church. Chaucer admits his own sin, repents of it, and asks for forgiveness.

It's important to note that retractions like Chaucer's were a common feature of medieval writing and may have served more than one purpose. After all, while Chaucer, like his contemporaries, was almost certainly God-fearing, he doesn't go so far as to destroy his body of work. He simply apologizes for it. In doing so he fulfills another purpose—creating a fairly comprehensive bibliography of his writing. Some scholars suggest that Chaucer was concerned about his reputation and wanted to let his contemporary audience know that he, Chaucer, was indeed the author of these works. In his day writings were customarily published anonymously. Of course, Chaucer includes broad hints, such as making himself a character and having the Man of Law complain about an author named Chaucer; but signing one's name outright to a work was considered unseemly. Purposefully or not, by naming himself the author in his Retractions, Chaucer ensures that future readers are aware of his legacy.

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