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Geoffrey Chaucer: the Canterbury Tales & His Death

Geoffrey Chaucer lived a fulfilled life during the 14th century in comparison to others during the Middle English period, many of whom often lost their lives at an early age due to disease, famine, or war. Chaucer was born into a family with relations to the church and soon became a civil servant to the king in his early teen years. For decades to come he would continue to rise in status as a servant of the church, allowing him to also become very well educated and begin his works as a writer; a title he otherwise may have never established had it not been for his rank in the church.

That being said, many are left to wonder if it wasn’t the church that brought Chaucer to his final days due to his elicit and provocative writings known as the Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales are considered to be Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous work. They are a collection of poems told from the perspective of a vastly different assemblage of people all of which uniquely represented a stereotypical person during the middle ages. Although only 24 tales exist, dozens more were anticipated, but Chaucer was cut short from finishing them upon his death.

Chaucer took considerable risks writing and even more publishing these tales since most of the content was less than favorable among the Catholic Church. For example, during “The Pardoner’s Prologue” the pardoner says, “For myn entene is nat but for to winne, And no thing for correction of sinne” (115-116). The acts of the Pardoner went against many of the Middle English Codes of Chivalry, for instance never lying and remaining faithful.

The Catholic Church likely knew such venality existed and for Chaucer to print it was considered blasphemy. Chaucer doesn’t stop there however. He continues to write more of corruption, sin, and sexual immorality as the tales progress, such as in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” when the Wife of Bath says, “In wyfhode I wol use myn instrument, As frely as my Makere hath it sent. If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe” (155-157), or in “The Milles Tale” when Nicholas says, “Lemman, love me al atones, or I wol dien, also God me save (172-173).

Chaucer himself went against many of the Middle English Codes of Chivalry by writing these characters and their tales. Many are left to wonder if it wasn’t Chaucer’s own conscious or influence from the Catholic Church that caused him to write the final piece of The Canterbury Tales which so ironically happens to be his Retraction. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s Retraction he asks for forgiveness and that if “ther be any thing in it that liketh hem, that herof they thanken ure Lord Jesu Crist” (1-2) and “if there be any thing that displese him, I pray hem also that they arrette it to defaute of myn unconning (3-5). Chaucer is giving praise to the Lord and insisting that his writing and intentions were good. However, it is interesting to note that he continues his Retraction in a very baroque and sarcastic manner, and even goes as far as to mention many of his other writings that may not have directed people for their betterment like he had intended.

It could be said that Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his retraction out of honest and sincere regret for having come too close to sin, but for someone to go into such profundity of two dozen tales it makes it difficult to be certain of his true intentions. A much more justifiable response would be that it was aggressive persuasion on the behalf of the Catholic Church that compelled Chaucer to write the Retraction. Even so, Chaucer had such endowment to write these epic poems in such a way that they would begin to transform the Middle English writings and influence literature for centuries to come.

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