Parson’s Tale, The

Parson’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1395)
   CHAUCER’s Parson’s Tale is the final section of The Canterbury Tales, as they are arranged in the two earliest and most important manuscripts of the Tales, the HENGWRT and the ELLESMERE manuscripts. The “tale” is a lengthy prose treatise on penance, including a sermon on the Seven Deadly Sins, and is not entirely in keeping with the pilgrim Parson’s promise in the prologue to the tale to tell a “merry tale in prose” that will “knit up” the taletelling contest that provides the overall structure of Chaucer’s text. This discrepancy has led some readers to speculate that Chaucer did not intend The Parson’s Tale as the conclusion of The Canterbury Tales, but regarded it as a separate text altogether. Others have argued that the tale is perfectly appropriate and provides an effective ending for Chaucer’s tales: The Parson sees the earthly pilgrimage to Canterbury as a figure of the ultimate pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem, and for him the sacrament of penance is necessary before it is possible to enter the heavenly city.
   The speaker begins the tale by defining penance and discussing types of contrition. He talks about the difference between venial and deadly sins. Then in part 2 of the tale, the speaker deals with three parts of penance. First, and at greatest length, he considers the recognition of sin, discoursing on the seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride), and details different varieties of each major sin, as well as the remedies for these sins, such as humility for pride or chastity for lust. The second part of penance is confession, and the speaker describes how to make a full and true confession. Finally he discusses satisfaction. The tale ends as the speaker invites all those who seek the heavenly Jerusalem to repent, confess their sins, and make appropriate satisfaction for them. In the end it appears that Chaucer himself seems to have responded to the call for repentance, as the tale, and the Canterbury Tales as a whole, ends with a “Retraction” in Chaucer’s own voice, in which the writer expresses his repentance for writing many of his greatest works, including The Canterbury Tales themselves. The Parson’s Tale seems to use a number of sources, including mainly 13th-century Latin and French treatises on penance and on the seven deadly sins. Critical commentary on the tale has focused on its relationship with the rest of the tales, and with the question of how it contributes to the unity of the Canterbury Tales text,with most critics seeing the moral view of The Parson’s Tale providing a comment on the world and values of the pilgrim narrators. Critics who have discussed the “Retraction” have seen it as either the narrator’s response to the Parson’s sermon, or as Chaucer’s participating in a literary convention that gives him a chance to list the works for which he wants to be remembered.
   ■ Baldwin, Ralph. The Unity of the Canterbury Tales. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Little, Katherine. “Chaucer’s Parson and the Specter of Wycliffism,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 225–253.
   ■ McGerr, Rosemarie P. “Retraction and Memory: Retrospective Structure in the Canterbury Tales,” Comparative Literature 37 (1985): 97–113.
   ■ Owen, Charles A., Jr. “What the Manuscripts Tell Us about the Parson’s Tale,” Medium Aevum 63 (1994): 239–249.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. “The ‘Parson’s Tale’ and the Quitting of the Canterbury Tales,” Traditio 34 (1978): 331–368.
   ■ Wenzel, Siegfried. “The Source of Chaucer’s Seven Deadly Sins,” Traditio 30 (1974): 351–378.
   ■ ———.“Notes on the Parson’s Tale,” Chaucer Review 16 (1982): 237–256.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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