Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Parson's Prologue and Tale"

Genre: A sermon built like a penitential handbook, listing sins and the appropriate penance to heal them.

Form: Prose, like Chaucer the Pilgrim's "Melibee."

Source: (X.80-386 & 958-1080) Raymund of Pennaforte, Summa de poenitentia or Summa casuum poenitentiae (1222/1229); (X.390-955) redactions of William Peraldus,  Summa vitiorum (1236) [Sigfried Wenzel, Traditio 27 (1971): 433-53].

MS Position: always last, and always with the Retraction in MSS that record either (all four main MS groups and the two early witnesses, "Hengwyrt" [Nat. Lib. of Wales MS Peniarth 392D], and B.L. MS Harleian 7334).

Characters: Humanity as a whole, with emphasis on its susceptibility to harming its soul by self-destructive behavior.

Prologue Summary:  Repeating the "astrological" trope for announcing the time by cosmic signs (I.1 ff. and II.1 ff.), Chaucer-the-Pilgrim tells us "we were entryng at a thropes ende" (12) and the Host urges the priest to tell a tale. This includes the controversial claim that "...Now lakketh us no tales mo than oon. / Fulfilled is my sentence and my decree; / I trowe that we han herd of ech degree; / Almoost fulfiled is al myn ordinaunce" (X.14-17). The Manciple is named in many MSS as the teller who just finished, but in Hengwyrt "Manciple" is written over an erasure. Mainly, one wonders how the Manciple's tale could have taken from the morning until 4 P.M. to tell, but then again, one is not Chaucer.  Had he lived beyond 1400, he might well have come up with tales for the Guildsmen, or even their wives, to fill the time gaps in the narrative frame--heck, he might have had them all tell a second tale and make it back to the Tabard Inn for Harry's climactic "judgment of the tales"!  But he didn't, or he chose not to.

        Chaucer may have intended ParsT to conclude the whole CT structure because of the Host's urging the Parson to "knyttte up wel a greet mateere" (28), which could refer to the CT as whole. The Prologue contains echoes of previous tales reaching back to Fragment I with the reference to astrological time, the "pley" issue (23), the act of revelation ("unbokele and shewe us what is in thy male" [X.26]; compare I.3115], and the choice to tell virtuous tales as opposed to "fable" (31-41). The Parson offers to tell his tale "To knytte up al this feeeste and make an ende" (47), implying the tale is a summa or logical "summation" of all that has gone before.  He also elevates the narrative focus, "To shewe yow the wey, in this viage," or the actual pilgrimage, to "thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage / That hyghte Jerusalem celestial" (X.49, 50-51).

        The Parson also says he, as "a Southren man," has not the gift for alliterative romance given those of the the North with their "'rum, ram, ruf,' by lettre" (37), and prepares them for a moral tale in prose (Cf. "Melibee"). He also is "not textueel" or philosophically learned, and "take[s] but the sentence" so he will "stonde to correccioun" by literate clerks on matters of doctrine (57, 58, 60).

"Tale" Summary:

Part One: Defines three parts of Penitance--Contrition (physical and verbal evidence of true sorrow for sin), Confession (complete verbal admission of sin to an appropriate confessor), and Satisfaction (performing expiatory acts like prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage to pay the moral debt incurred by the sin). Expounds causes of contrition.

Part Two: Expounds confession, "verray shewynge of synnes to the preest" (320). Then explains sin as the result of a struggle between body and soul for dominance, producing venial (minor) and deadly sins.

Part Three: Expounds the deadly sins--Pride, "Ire, Envye, Accidie or Slewthe, Avarice or Coveitise..., Glotonye, and Lecherye" (389) in a branching-tree simile with Pride as a trunk. Each sin's description is followed by its spiritual remedy (e.g., humility, from self-knowledge, for Pride). Rules for proper oral confession follow in the second part of the "Pentencie" section. Then the Parson discusses "Satisfacioun" in the third part of this subunit.

        The last lines anticipate Paradise in a series of parallel antithetical paradoxes: "there as the body of man, that whilom was foul and derk, is moore cleer than the sonne; ther as the body, that whilom was syk, freele, and fieble, and mortal, is inmortal, and so strong and so hool that ther may no thyng apeyren it; / ther as ne is neither hunger, thurst, ne coold, but every soule replenyssed with the sighte of the parfit knowynge of God. / This blisful regne may men purchase by poverte espiritueel, and the glorie by lowenesse, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the rest by travaille, and the lyf by deeth and mortification of synne" (1078-80). These are the last lines of the "tales of Canterbury," though not the last lines in MSS of CT (see "Retraction" (X.1081-1091).

Problems, issues, discussion points:

1) The logical structure is marred by some weak transitions, outright errors, and probable transition problems. Most notable is an exceptionally weak transition link between sources @ X.387 ("Now is it bihovely thyng to telle whiche been the sevene deedly synnes..."--so why is it suddenly "bihovely" to do so?).

2)  Is it hasty work, perhaps under stress, maybe using a flawed source of great complexity?  Could it be a death-bed work done as penance, especially considering its consistent association with the "Retraccions"?  Or is it a carefully constructed translation that meditates on a subject of extraordinary importance to C14 English readers (Twu)?

3) Disproportionate sizes of sections on sin and penance.--ditto.

4) Early or late work? If it's a weak tale, critics like to put it as early as 1358, (Langhans, Anglia, 1929--he also accepts a birthdate earlier than 1340, so we don't have to swallow a 14-year-old Chaucer/Parson). Others place it after 1385, like Owen (MLN [1956]: 84-7) and Patterson (Traditio 34 [1978]: 356-70).

Critics on Parson's Tale:

Baldwin, Unity of Canterbury Tales (1955): PT is the moral center of CT and its statements about sin can be taken as GC's intended judgments of individual tellers and tales (also Huppe, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, 1964).

Closure in The Canterbury Tales: The Role of the Parson’s Tale, ed. David Raybin and Linda Tarte Holley.  (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan UP Medieval, 2000).

This collection of essays might be said to derive from Siegfried Wenzel’s lifetime of work on Parson’s Tale, and his introductory essay (“The Parson’s Tale in Current Literary Studies,” 1-10) provides the best overview of the tale’s critical history.  PT might be said to constitute the most difficult interpretive crux in Chaucer’s work, occupying the terminal position in all tale orders and differing so greatly from all the other tales except “Melibee,” likewise a “moral tale in prose.”  [Currently (30 April 07) on “rush order” for the library collection—also available from  ILL from several local libraries, but only the Naval Academy Library in MD.  Sorry to let this slip for so long.]

Ruggiers ('65), Jordan ('67), Norton-Smith ('74) and others read the tale as a more general moral description of society's flaws, a corrective designed to bring CT to closure in as a piece of Christian morality.

E.T. Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (1970) attacked the direct application of ParsT doctrine as an interpretive "key" to unlock the other tales' sentence.

Finlayson ('71), Allen ('73), and Kaske ('75) read the Parson's portrait and persona as ironic, a turgid moralist whose judgment is in no way superior to that of other tellers. Wenzel and Delasanta ('78) have attacked that reading.

Pigg, Daniel F.  “Figuring Subjectivity in Piers Plowman C, the Parson’s Tale, and Retraction: Authorial Insertion and Identity Poetics.”  Style 31:3 (September 1997) 428-39.

            Pigg compares William Langland’s dream vision with Chaucer’s poetic cycle and finds interesting similarities in both authors’ decisions to add “authorial signature” to the works, specifically mentioning themselves in their texts, and associating their identities with the search for penitence and forgiveness.  Piers Plowman (which Langland revised twice, producing the A, B, and C versions) describes Will’s witness of serial dreams in which the Church, Truth, Reason, Confession, the Seven Deadly Sins, and a host of other characters act out the poem’s analysis of the spiritual state of the world, culminating in a vision of the eponymous plowman, identified with Jesus, whose virtue would redeem all.  Pigg explores the possibility that Chaucer may have been aware of this poem, written during while he was just beginning CT (1367-85), because of the unlikelihood that two such different poems would use similar authorial self-positioning strategies, strategies which are strikingly different from other Middle English poems of the era.  Pigg treats the “Retractions” as an “autobiographical confession” that is evidence of genuine spiritual commitment and “developing a sense of textual self-consciousness” (38).

Portnoy, Phyllis. "Beyond the Gothic Cathedral: Post-Modern Reflections in the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review. 28:3 (1994) 279-92.

                Studying the difficulties of the final fragment's tales, Portnoy proposes that their rhetoric against tale-telling and the Parson's sermon contribute to Chaucer's strategy of refusing closure.   Portnoy's title alludes to Robert Jordan's 1967 study (Chaucer and the Shape of Creation) that proposed a structural analogy between the tales' arched oppositions on various topics (professions, marriage, salvation, fraud) and the gothic cathedral's flying buttresses which erect the structure by striving against each other as they rise to the central peak. In Jordan's scheme, the "Parson's Tale," considered a moralizing aesthetic flaw by some 1950s  New Critics and 1970s structuralists, was in fact the apex of the "cathedral"'s highest tower, reaching toward heaven. Portnoy's study of the interpretive patterns in the tales as a whole, and especially in the last fragment, lead her to believe that the "cathedral" structure is a figment of Jordan's imagination because it makes Chaucer more of an optimistic moralist than the tales can support. Finally, the "Retractions" end the act of narration, itself, "as the multiple voices are silenced by the last words of the poet" (279). Portnoy touches on many of the more important early tales, including the whole of Fragment 1, the Wife of Bath's and Nun's Priest's tales, but she spends most of her time on the "Parson's Tale" and the "Retractions."

Twu, Krista Sue-Lo.  "Chaucer's Vision of the Tree of Life: Crossing the Road with the Rood in the Parson's Tale."  Chaucer Review 39:4 (2005), 341-78.

            Showing further evidence of this “tale”’s renewed interest for critics, Twu’s article combines New Critical close-reading analysis with New Historicist evidence from English Medieval authors’ attitudes toward the act of translation.  She concentrates on Chaucer’s lifting of one section of Raymund of Penaforte’s Summa de poenitentia et matrimonio (1221) on the crucial role of penitence in Christian spiritual life, and his decision to change Raymund’s central metaphor from the three-day journey motif to the image of a “tree of penitence.”  Drawing on Medieval iconography to analyze the “vegetative” metaphors in CT and in C15 religious practice, Twu argues that the “tree metaphor both unifies and simplifies the interpretive relationship with the biblical material [in the sermon] while providing a more complex commentary on the two types of pilgrimage,” that of the soul toward God and of the CT pilgrims toward Canterbury (10).  Throughout the article, she refers specifically to “Chaucer” (i.e., the poet, not the pilgrim narrator) as the author of the tale, suggesting a relationship between this tale and the “Retractions” which follow it in modern editions.


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