The Parson's Tale
Publisher: Tumblar House
Publication Date: February 24, 2011
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The Parson's Tale is the final chapter of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Because of its profound Catholic content, this tale has been selectively excluded from most modern versions of Canterbury Tales. In it a humble parson, or priest, educates us on the topic of sin: its identification, repentance, and atonement. A primary emphasis is given to the seven deadly sins. Upon delving into this section, a person may subtly undergo an examination of conscience pertaining to each sin that is being discussed. This book is a guide for spiritual perfection. Foreword by Charles A. Coulombe.
Transcript of Video
(Slightly abridged and paraphrased for brevity and clarity)
Vincent: I read this book about ten years ago. The main takeaway I had from it was how strict the parson, or priest, had toward Catholicism. It was so rigorous compared to the modern approach. I remember one of the things he said was it was sinful if your wore clothing that was too fancy, because there’s too much vain labor, wasteful labor, in the creation of the clothing. So I have multiple questions. The first is: did medieval priests really talk like this?
Charles: Well some of them did. One of the things you have to bear in mind: the reason why The Parson’s Tale was published is because it is almost never translated into modern English. Usually when you pickup a modern English copy of The Canterbury Tales, it’s given a summary, and the summary doesn’t really say what it’s about. The truth is that, the three classes, the nobleman, clergy, and commoners, of medieval society, are all skewered in The Canterbury Tales. And one of the ways he skewers them is by having a virtuous representative of each. For the nobility, most of those who are represented are just silly, but not the knight, who was “a very parfit gentil knight.” For the commoners, the same is the case. They’re all out to lunch, except the franklin, who is the brother of the one clergyman who’s not out to lunch, the parson.
Medieval society made up of Catholics, nevertheless had its own share of horrors and sins. Chaucer makes fun of them, which is a more effective way of condemning them rather than just saying they’re bad. But the parson brings it all together and makes sense out of it all. They fashions of that time, some of them were very strange. Men’s hose were very tight in the rear. And the rear was very often colored with garish colors.
Vincent: Yeah we were talking about this, Chaucer said something about a baboon…
Charles: Yeah he said it makes it looks like a baboon’s rear, and he says “why would you want to attract attention to that part of your body from where foul smells come forth?” We don’t dress that way, but we have our own fashions that are equivalently as strange. Why do we tattoo ourselves? Why do we run around with bare midriffs, especially if we’re fat? A lot of the specifics of The Parson’s Tale are specific to medieval society. But the general principles carry on throughout. And one of them is you need to expect more from the clergy than the laity. He summarizes this by saying “if gold should rust, what can poor iron do?” That’s referring to the clergy and the laity. And all of that is timeless.
Were they all as strict as he? No. But he presents his parson as the ideal. Just like today, if you were to do a similar story, like a pilgrimage to Lourdes or something, and you had a bunch of people from the Catholic world, the same thing. Some priests would have faith, some wouldn’t. Some nuns would be pretty devout and sane, while others would be “sisters of creation.” If you ever go on an open retreat to a religious house, not a very conservative religious house, but one where you have a real cross-section of Catholics, you’d think you’re in The Canterbury Tales again, because everyone’s got their own story. A few of them have it together but some of them are quite crazy, but that’s humanity. And Chaucer managed to do, in The Canterbury Tales, in one book, what Shakespeare did in the whole of his body of work, which was to capture the many types of people in the time and place they lived in.
Vincent: So, what about what he actually preached about fashion? If you wear brand name clothing, is that a sin?
Charles: I don’t think it’s a sin, but I think it’s ridiculous if you spend extra money on ripped designer jeans when you can get the same effect for a cheap pair at home. Just take a knife to them and see what happens. Some of us do put to much attention to fashion. If you’re spending a lot of money that could go to something else. That’s the equivalent of vain labor – wasting money. The truth of the matter is, if you buy good conservative clothing that will last, you won’t have to spend as much money as if you’re trying to be on the latest magazine. It’s like with ties. This tie isn’t terribly thin, but it isn’t fat. It’s midway. It’s never so out of fashion that it looks weird.
A good man was there of religion,
He was a poor parson of a town,
But rich he was in holy thought and work;
He was also a learned man, a clerk,
That the Christian Gospel would truly preach,
And his parishioners devoutly would he teach.
Benign, he was and very diligent,
And in adversity, full patient,
As often he was proved in this wise.
He was full loath to demand his tithes
But rather he would give, without a doubt,
To his poor parishioners, all about
From his own alms and his own subsistence.
He could in little things have forbearance.
Wide was his parish with houses asunder
But he did not neglect, in rain or thunder,
In sickness nor in troubles to visit
The farthest in his parish, great and slight,
Upon foot, and in his hand a stave.
This noble example to his sheep he gave,
That first he acted and afterward he taught
Out of the Gospel, he the meaning caught,
And this figure he added also thereto,
That if gold rust, what shall iron do?
For if a priest be foul, in whom we trust.
No wonder if a common man will rust;
And shame it is if a priest be seen
As a foul shepherd and the sheep clean.
Well ought a priest a good example give,
By his cleanness, how his sheep should live.
He never left his parish to hire
And left his sheep struggling in the mire
While he ran to London to Saint Paul’s
To get money for praying for souls
Or with a guild to be retained.
But stayed at home and kept his fold contained
So that the wolf could not them harry.
He was a shepherd and not a mercenary.
And though he was holy and virtuous
He was not to sinful men contemptuous
Nor in his speech mean nor scornful,
But in his teaching, discreet and thoughtful
To draw people to heaven by fairness,
And by good example; this was his business.
But if any person were obstinate
Whether he were of high or low estate,
Him would he rebuke sharply, right there.
A better priest I trust there is nowhere.
He wanted no pomp and reverence,
Nor did he have a scrupulous conscience.
But Christ’s doctrine and his apostles twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.
(Lines 476-526, General Prologue.)
Thus does Chaucer describe his Parson in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. His total approval of this good priest who practices what he preaches is evident. More subtle is the condemnation of all priests who do not as the Parson does, who preach one thing and do another themselves, who are anxious for recognition and pomp, who are respecters of persons of high estate, who are disdainful of sinners, who are greedy for money, who seek important parishes or benefices, who neglect the poor, who are lazy, who are lustful, etc.
The Parson, the Knight, and the Ploughman are the only pilgrims of the thirty in the Tales who escape Chaucer’s acerbic wit. Each of these three represents one of the medieval “estates.” The Parson is the best of the clergy; the Knight is the best of the nobility; the Ploughman, brother to the Parson, is the best of the workers. The Knight is the first story teller and the Parson, in all significant editions, whatever the other arrangements, is always the last, by design, as the words of the Host in the Parson’s prologue show: “For every man, save thou, hath told his tale” (Parson’s Prologue Line 25).
Chaucer did not finish all the tales he indicated to us in the General Prologue. The reason is open to speculation but it is clear that he had some structure in mind. The Parson’s Tale is integral to this structure. It underscores all the other tales by sharpening the concept of pilgrimage, not only to the tomb of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury but the pilgrimage of life to the “heavenly Jerusalem,” as the Parson points out in his Prologue (line 51) and throughout his tale. For this reason, it is sad that so many modern translations omit The Parson’s Tale, passing it off as a long, boring treatise on the seven deadly sins, written in prose and too heavy to be of interest. To a person who loves Chaucer and finds the medieval mind remarkable, The Parson’s Tale is neither boring nor uninteresting.
Recently a friend asked me to translate The Parson’s Tale for his research. He found that in six current editions of The Canterbury Tales in modern English not one included this tale. Even the Everyman and Book of the Month Club editions of The Canterbury Tales in Middle English excluded this tale.
Although twenty-five years have passed since I did my work on Chaucer in Carnegie Mellon’s rare book room, I found the same absolute delight in reading the sharp, clear words as I felt as a graduate student. I thought how sad that so many people think of “The Father of English Literature” only as a poet, a witty teller of sometimes bawdy stories, like The Miller’s Tale, and a satirist of human nature. Chaucer was all that but he was much more. Some know he wrote romances. Some know he was a member of Parliament and in the service of three kings. Few appreciate his depth and intelligence as a translator of Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy, and a scholar capable of transposing the technical treatises of Saint Raymond of Penneforte and William Peraldous into the voice of a simple country priest.
To find The Parson’s Tale left out of The Canterbury Tales is like putting together a beautiful picture puzzle, only to discover that three central pieces of the picture have been left out. Missing is the piece that shows the underlying viewpoint that ties all the odd assortment of medieval travelers to a fellowship closer than we can imagine. It is the piece that shows how the pilgrims could accept as a fellow pilgrim a hypocrite like the contemptible Pardoner or the Monk or Friar, or any of them, for that matter, and how these people saw their own transgressions. Also missing is the piece that shows the author’s search for structure. Finally, missing is the piece revealing the inner heart of Chaucer himself, who ended the whole work with the Retractions, a few lines so curious to some critics that they consider it another of his jokes or perhaps some scribe’s interpolation. These would provide the frame of reference needed to appreciate the whole work.
FIRST MISSING PIECE
THE MEDIEVAL VIEWPOINT
The medieval mind was a long way from the mind that is reflected in USA Today. It saw Truth as an absolute, not relative to what one believed it to be. If it filled one with consolation or if it filled one with consternation, Truth did not change. Men change, circumstances change, weather changes. To the Medieval mind, there was such a thing as sin. It began with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve. All mankind, their descendants, must be baptized “with water and the Holy Spirit”, as Jesus said in the Gospel and Saint Paul reiterated, to attain salvation. But there remains a taint on all mankind; no one is perfect. All men are tempted by sin. The Parson says, “And this thing may not fail as long as he live; it may well grow feeble and weaken by virtue of baptism and by the grace of God through penitence” (line 340 ff.). In sinning we offend not only each other (as the emphasis is given today) or ourselves (as others affirm), but primarily as the Parson emphasized over and over with each sin described, the all good and loving God who is ever ready to forgive those who are sorry, no matter how horrible their sins. However, as the Parson also points out, in sinning without repentance, we choose for ourselves an eternity with the devils in an Inferno not unlike that described by Dante. This is the absolute on which the Parson focuses. It was clear to all the pilgrims that, not only were the Pardoner and the Miller less than perfect, they themselves all were. They needed all the grace they could get; hence the pilgrimage.
The philosophy which pervaded the medieval mind, in England especially, in that period was still that of St. Augustine rather than the more recent philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Augustine was influenced by Plato rather than Aristotle. He was what Neo-Thomistic scholars call an “ultra-realist,” that is to say he believed in the reality of Universals. Truth is Truth even if no man believes it. To the medieval mind, the concepts of good works and sin, just reward, and just punishment, heaven and hell were realities. Order in the Universe was a reality coming from and sustained by the mind of God. Life was real, death was real, and life after death was real.
To this mind the Communion of Saints was a reality. A pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Thomas was neither a superstition nor a vacation trip. It was like a trip to ask one’s older brother, a favorite of the Father’s, to put in a good word about one’s needs. To this mind which saw the Incarnation of God as the ultimate reality, the body was a holy thing that would be resurrected, glorified, and united to the soul after death. It was worthy of great dignity. The body of a saint like Thomas à Becket was a very holy thing, surely, in the eyes of Almighty God and, therefore, a source of grace to those on earth.
The Wife of Bath might have had a notion in the back of her mind that she would find husband number six on the pilgrimage; the Pardoner might have had an idea he could find plenty of fervent souls who would be susceptible to what the Parson calls “foolish largesse.” But they did not fool themselves into thinking that they were not sinners or not in the need of the grace of this pilgrimage, the intercession of Saint Thomas. Thus the Host speaks for all of them at the end of the Parson’s Prologue:
“Be fructus, and that in little space
And to do well God sende you His grace.”
Helen Cooper states so well, “Thus he gives the secular world’s blessing on the Parson. Secular and spiritual are not in opposition: they are all traveling the same road and are eager to end in ‘some virtuous sentence’” (Cooper, p. 397).
SECOND MISSING PIECE
As for the second missing piece, it is Chaucer’s search for structure. It seems as if all artists are obsessed with this search: structure in their work, structure in their lives, structure in the universe and, especially in our times, structure in their personal view of the universe. The creative impulse longs for a structure in its work, even if that work is to reflect chaos. It is found either in the way the universe is ordered or in the frame man uses to try to understand it. For Chaucer, structure in the universe was pretty clear. He lived in a God-centered culture. The diversity of human works, human personalities, and human foibles fascinated him, delighted him, but he saw them as all channeling toward one goal, a life everlasting, “perdurable.”
The Tales begin with the beautiful catalog of characters, their particularities spread out before us in a colorful tapestry. Each person is different. Each tale is different and reflective of a unique person. The three estates are all represented including a gamut of characters from the ploughman to the wealthy merchant class, all rising from the agricultural workers’ estate. Their common denominator seems to be found in their desire to make this pilgrimage, their Catholic faith in God, and their faith in the sanctity of St. Thomas. All are familiar with the Scriptures and use them to their own intent; the Wife of Bath to justify her way of life, the Pardoner to wring money from the fellow travelers, etc.
The Parson, however, is utterly honest, free from the guiles of fiction and poetry’s “rim, ram, rif,” and uses the Scriptures to lead the others toward their salvation. His primary appeal is to reason; he teaches rather than persuades. He explains that the reason must be subject to God and then it must take control over the emotions, then emotions over the body, in that hierarchy.
The Parson moves from the concept of the three estates of that day to a new concept of three estates, universal to all humankind: “Certainly, the estate of man is in three manners: either it is the estate of innocence as was the estate of Adam before he fell into sin... Another estate is that of sinful man. Another estate is that of grace; in which estate he remains firm in the works of penitence” (lines 681-684). Thus the structure of the whole Canterbury Tales seems to move from the general diversity of human nature at the base of a triangle to the point where human nature is universal, moving upward toward God and the “Jerusalem celestial.”
That which points it upward toward the right path is Penitence. Penitence is the subject of The Parson’s Tale. In this way the Tale underscores the work as a whole, giving it an overall structure in keeping with the idea of pilgrimage.
The internal structure of the Tale follows a favorite medieval concept: a division into three parts. These are Contrition, Confession, and Satisfaction. Contrition is sorrow for sin; Confession is the formal telling of sin to a priest; Satisfaction is making amends and doing penance. The Parson compares Penitence to a tree: Contrition is the root; Confession if the trunk which has leaves and branches; Satisfaction is the fruit.
The Tale opens with the analogy of a path on a journey to the celestial Jerusalem, heaven. The way or path is Penitence. The first 106 lines pertain to Penitence, what it is, its etymology and its divisions and kinds. The next section is of those things that pertain to Penitence: Contrition, Confession, and Satisfaction. Contrition which takes the reader to line 315 is divided into four main parts: what it is, what moves a man to be contrite (which is in six parts); how he should be contrite, and what contrition does for the soul.
Confession is by far the longest part, taking the reader to line 1027, because here the seven deadly sins, Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust, are explained and their remedies, Humility, Charity, Patience, Fortitude, Generosity, Moderation, Chastity, and Continence, are given. The Parson divides this whole section into three parts: what confession is, whether it is necessary, and what is necessary for a true confession. He says that confession is a true showing of one’s sins to the priest along with all the circumstances. He then explains the seven deadly sins, their sources and varieties, and when they are venial and when mortal, their circumstances, and, finally, their remedies. With the decorum of the person he is described to be, he always puts emphasis on the sin and not the sinner, “not angry at the man, but angry at the misdeed of the man” (line 540). It is noteworthy that nowhere does the Parson seem to make any particular rebuke to any of the individual pilgrims.
One might expect that in discussing the selling of religious treasures, for example, there would be some kind of a side rebuke to the evil Pardoner, but there is none; he confines himself to an explanation of simony. Sometimes it seems to modern man a negative and depressing attitude to concentrate mostly on the sins and so little on the “remedies” or opposing virtues. But to confess, it is necessary to know just what is sinful and why and how. In that day, sin was a popular subject for treatises and discussion, especially after the decree of the Lateran IV Council.
The lines on satisfaction take the reader to line 1056. Then come the things which hinder penance, taken briefly to line 1075. The tale ends with a brief passage of five lines, about as close as the Parson comes to emotional rhetoric, describing the bliss of heaven as being the fruit of penitence and the goal of life’s pilgrimage.
THIRD MISSING PIECE
THE MULTI-FACETED MEDIEVAL MAN
Whatever opinions scholars may have of The Parson’s Tale, they seem to agree that it is quite different from all the other tales. It is in prose. It is long, and it is not fiction. Chaucer’s own Tale of Melibee is also long and in prose, but fiction. Whether Chaucer intended to instruct or bore with that tale is open to question. It is a story about Melibius whose wife and daughter were beaten up by an intruder while he was out working. It presents the question whether Melibius should be vengeful or, as his wife Prudence advocates, forgiving. The point is seriously taken by the Host who wishes his own wife had some of Dame Prudence’s qualities. But the reader wonders if Chaucer, who has just failed to entertain with the Tale of Sir Topas, is still teasingly pretending to be a very dull, unaccomplished storyteller.
The Parson’s Tale, on the other hand, seems perfectly suited to its teller, and that teller is one Chaucer has admired without reserve. It is not fiction, as the Parson makes very clear. It is based on three treatises of theological scholars but transposed into the voice of a simple, sincere country parish priest who sometimes strays from the points he has planned, numerically, but rarely indulges in rhetoric. Now the reader must wonder again what was in Chaucer’s mind as he transposed this material. Nowhere does he seem to be jesting or having the Parson take it lightly. He is not without wit and satire, but his satire is reserved for some contemporary fashions in dress, speech, and behavior. Never does Chaucer indicate doubt about the Parson’s sincerity or devotion to God. So sincere is he that, as the Tale progresses, the voice of Chaucer himself seems to blend with that of the Parson.
What do we learn here of Chaucer from the voice of the first Parson?
First that Chaucer was a religious man; not sentimentally religious, but rather realistically so. He did not regard Jesus Christ as a “buddy,” nor even as a wise teacher. He saw Him as Almighty God Incarnate before whom men should kneel in loving reverence. He regarded the Church Christ founded as the way given to men to reach everlasting life in heaven. He regarded men as sinful creatures yet worthy of great respect and dignity, created by God for eternal life. The only time he allows the Parson to shade contempt for the sin with contempt for the sinner is in speaking of clergy unfaithful to their high calling. He regarded the prophets of the Old Testament and the Fathers of the New as speakers of clear, understandable Truth. Life was a mixture of sorrow and joy, ups and downs, at times amusing, always interesting, and never boring. Finally, he regarded himself as another sinner among many, no better, no worse, but with the need for grace.
Another aspect of the voice of Chaucer slipping into the voice of the Parson, deliberately or not, we never know, is in the imagery. Although the prose, seriousness of the subject, and the address to the intellect may be thought to make this tale remote from the other tales, it contains several colorful similes and images that are recognizable as Chaucer’s tongue-in-cheek satire. For example, in the explanation on Pride in dress, he compares the buttocks of a man addicted to short shirts and tight hose which show off his posterior to “the hind end of a she-ape in the full of the moon, full horrible to see.” A bit further on he adds, “For certainly from that part of their body they purge their stinking odor, they show to people proudly.” He has a few things to say about the same short shirts over parti-colored hose which made half their “private members” which protrude red and white or blue and white or black and white as if “corrupted by the fire of St. Anthony or cancer or other such mischance.” Exterior pride, he notes, is a sign of interior pride as the “gay bush at a tavern door is a sign of the wine that is in the cellar.”
He compares envy to a blacksmith who “holds a hot iron to the heart of a man with a pair of long tongs of “longe rancor.” He compares lecherous old men to a dog who “comes to the rose bush or other bush and lifts his leg though he cannot piss, but he holds his leg up to make a pretence to piss.” He warns the good and chaste to avoid bad company for a white wall may be blackened by a candle, though it may not catch fire itself. He compares mortal and venial sin to the sinking of a ship. The ship may sink fast in a terrible storm or slowly through a leak in the sink in the hold of the ship. Either way, it ends up on the bottom.
He wryly says the man who does no good works should sing the new French song, “Jay tout perdu mon temp et mon labour.”
Other times when the voice of the narrator seems to be that of Chaucer himself are in places the voice is hesitant; for example, in speaking of sins of pride that we slip into without conscious intent, he notes that these may be grievous, “But I gesse that they ne been nat deedly.” He apologizes for not discussing the Ten Commandments: “But so huge a doctrine I lete to the divines” even though, as he notes, he has touched on them all. Although he has quoted from the Old and New Testaments and the Fathers, especially Saint Augustine, it is clear Chaucer does not consider himself or his Parson a theologian or a “divine,” by any means.
But never can one say that the voice of the Tale does not seem well suited to the characterization of the Parson who speaks with the authority vested in his sacramental role. He emphasizes this authority with frequent use of “For certes,” “soothly,” “it is sooth,” “truly” and many, many quotes from the Fathers of the Church and the Bible. He has much to say about sex and methods of abortion and contraception which make one realize there is nothing new under the sun. The one sin he says is too horrible for him to even name is apparently sodomy, which he notes Holy Scripture can name and does; but Scripture is like the sun that can shine on the dung hill without becoming corrupted.
There are a few moments of dramatic rhetoric seeming to be of both voices. There is the description of the pains of hell for the proud, which calls to mind Dante’s Inferno. Then there are the closing lines of the Tale, mentioned earlier, which poetically describe the “blisse of heaven.”
Then come the Retractions. This, of course, is the voice of Chaucer alone, but, after The Parson’s Tale, it seems to have the benediction of the Parson. It is a key part of the whole process of Penitence, Chaucer’s own Penitence. It brings a closure not only to The Parson’s Tale and The Canterbury Tales but also to Chaucer’s own literary life.
For many centuries there has been a practice among Christians referred to as an Examination of Conscience, done with a certain regularity - daily by some, or weekly, monthly or at least yearly by the less motivated. It seems as if the study and transposition of these treatises on penitence and sin might have been a strong and effective Examination of Conscience for Chaucer himself. It has been that for more than one reader. To what use have we put the time and talent God gave us? As we ponder this from the medieval point of view, the reason for the Retractions becomes clear and we gain insight into the very loveable heart of Chaucer himself. True humility is a lovely attribute. We ourselves can acknowledge how hard it is to accept any rebuke, especially such a solemn one that holds a mirror up to our soul; it would be more pleasant to disclaim all guilt for our transgressions. Here, Chaucer accepts a very harsh rebuke from himself. For our part, we are reluctant to see him retract because in some way, his retraction implicates us. For this reason we can see why The Parson’s Tale and the Retractions are not Chaucer’s most popular works.
The assumptions I have made about Chaucer’s reaction to his work on The Parson’s Tale must remain pure speculation, of course. We know little more about his life than we know about Shakespeare’s. The Retractions is the only thing that comes close to a personal letter. There is no evidence that his literary genius was recognized or rewarded monetarily. It is not even certain when any of his writings were done. The book of the Duchess, a memorial for John of Gaunt’s second wife is the first work for which a date can be supposed, 1369, since that is the year she died. Scholars speculate that most of his writing was done after that period. The Canterbury Tales was probably written between 1380 and his death in 1400, and the pilgrimage is thought to have taken place on or about April 16, 1387. Whether Chaucer himself ever actually took such a pilgrimage is not clear, but many think it probable.
Chaucer’s life was spent in the service of the court over the reign of three kings: Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. Most of the records we have of him concern payments made for services to the Crown. It is apparent from these that he rose in service from a page in the household of Lionel, the Duke of Clarence, son of Edward III, to envoy between the King and the Duke stationed in Calais, to squire in the King’s own household. The “vallettus” or “esquire” that was his office can be compared to what we would call a secretary in charge of important messages and secret service work, as well as supervision of property.
We know he was the supervisor of construction on various public buildings including the Tower of London and St. George’s Chapel, Westminister, and some royal residences. We know he served in Flanders, France, and briefly in Italy where he might have met Boccaccio and Petrarch. He was Controller of Customs for the Port of London from 1374 until 1386 when he became Justice of the Peace for Kent and then Knight of the Shire, and thus a member of Parliament.
He had married Philippa Roet, a Lady of the Chamber to the Queen Philippa, wife of Edward III, in the 1360’s. Chaucer’s wife was sister to the third wife of John of Gaunt, and received her own pension from the crown. They had one son, Thomas who became chief butler to King Richard II, and probably another “litel sone Lowys” for whom he wrote A Treatise on the Astrolabe. No record gives us knowledge of other children. Philippa died about 1387.
We know some of his friends and associates: John Gower, an English poet who was put in charge of his affairs when he left for France; Ralph Strode, a Fellow of Merton College at Oxford; Eustache Deschamps, a contemporary of Chaucer and a popular poet in the French court, who sent him a copy of his poems with a ballad dedicated to the “Grant translateur, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.” There is further evidence of other friends who were noblemen and literary men.
From studying his sources, scholars have concluded that, like a gentleman of his age, he knew Latin, French and Italian, but probably not Greek. He translated the thirteenth century allegorical French love poem Le Roman de la Rose and the sixth century Consolations of Philosophy of Boethius. These are thought to have had a strong influence on him and his work. The influence of Boccaccio is found in The Knight’s Tale, Troilus and Criseyde and the story of the patient Griselda of The Clerk’s Tale which he took from Petrarch’s translation into Latin of Boccaccio’s Decameron. Dante, too, appears in the Invocation of The Second Nun’s Tale and the Troilus.
What do we know of the man from this bit of information? Most of his life seems to have been spent in service to the court; he was well read: he enjoyed the poetry and romances popular in that day as well as the religious tracts, the Bible, and the works of the Doctors of the Church. This was not uncommon knowledge to the medieval man. We know that the King and his court must have found him dependable and intelligent, a good writer and communicator or he would probably not have risen to such responsible positions.
Some would assume that his literary career was an avocation rather than his primary interest. That, again, must be speculation. Certainly The Canterbury Tales do not appear to have been prepared with the idea of presentation to the public close at hand. Nevertheless, they seem to tell us more about Chaucer the literary genius than any other work, to some degree because of their variety and to some degree because he includes himself as one of the characters. Since they are, for us today, the primary source of our understanding of the man, it is all the more pity to exclude the last tale and denigrate his final words.
It is true that there are scholars who never once had a twinkle in their eye; there are religious people so myopic they cannot focus on the greatness and goodness of God; there are satirists who become frostbitten; there are politicians who become betrayers; there are lovers of romance who never come down to earth; there are earthy jokesters who never come up for air; there are poets who always sing to the same tune. And then, on the other hand, there is Chaucer.
And so I bring this introduction to a close and hope that you will find the following version easy to follow, interesting, and thought provoking. My objective was to make it faithful to Chaucer but clear to that modern reader who finds Middle English a stumbling block. The divisions in the Prologue and those in the text (some with English sub-headings in CAPITAL LETTERS) are mine because Chaucer’s pattern of page-long paragraphs is unappealing to the modern reader. The Latin subheadings are from the original Robinson text, probably taken from the Ellesmere Manuscript (conserved at the noted Huntington Library, San Marino, California) which Professor Robinson judged to be the best of the early manuscripts.
Mary Farrell Pomerleau
March 25, 1995
 clerk - (from clericus, priest), in Chaucer’s day, a scholar and a clergyman.
 tithes - a tenth part of land use or income used for the support of the church
 alms - money, food, etc. given to poor people
 stave - a walking stick
 hire - to give the use of something in return for payment, or to pay someone to take over one’s duties
 guild - in Middle Ages, a union of men in the same trade or craft to protect members and uphold standards
 estates - in the Middle Ages, the three social classes with political responsibility: the Lords Spiritual (the clergy), the Lords Temporal (the nobles), and the Commons (merchants, farmers, and working class)
 Universals - philosophical term. Plato’s Ideal Forms which according to St. Augustine and the Medieval philosophers, have a Real existence as the archetypes of all created beings in the mind of God.
 Communion of Saints - the shared relationship and unity of the followers of Christ on Earth, in Heaven, and in Purgatory.
 incarnate - to be made flesh
 largesse - generosity, associated with nobility of spirit
 perdurable - everlasting
 simony - buying or selling sacred or spiritual things such as sacraments or benefices
 divines - theologians, in Chaucer’s day
 Examination of Conscience - the self evaluation of past thoughts, words, and deeds that were transgressions against God in order to repent, confess, and ask pardon
In this modern age where everything is so lacks, where we as Catholics can't even be hassled to abstain from meat on Fridays, this was a fresh new perspective on Catholic spirituality and prudence. I think the parson, even for his time, does use exaggeration a little bit because it's better to err on being too strict than too lackadaisical. For example, he condemns things which normal Catholics don't even think about, like extravagant clothing. He says that all the vain labor and excess materials used in creating overly extravagant clothing is sinful. Whether this is true or not, it gets your mind turning in a new direction! You wonder what this parson would say about our modern day styles and luxuries.