Monday, June 15, 2015
Chaucer and the Parables (part 4)
The Parsons Tale is the longest and last of the tales, and it differs significantly from the other tales included in the work. It can be described as a sermon on penitence—drawn from two thirteenth-century Dominican sources—and it is the most biblically rich of all the stories. Some scholars postulate that it is a later addition from another hand, but others speculate that Chaucer wrote The Parsons Tale in his old age, when he realized he would not be able to finish the entire work as he had planned (Chaucer 2008: 463).
The Parsons Tale begins by noting the essential nature of penitence and sets out the case for learning what penitence is, how it functions, the kinds of penitence, and how to perform it. The tale then discusses items inherent to penitence, such as the six reasons that lead people to repent (e.g., “fear of the day of doom and of the horrible pains of Hell”), the nature of the sacrament of Confession, and a lengthy discussion of the seven deadly sins. They are the “mortal” or “principal” sins because they are the “trunk” from which all other sins “branch out.” The root of the seven sins is pride, and each of the seven “principal sins has its branches and its twigs” that the rest of the tale seeks to delineate.
In this sermon on penitence, Chaucer utilizes the parable of the Prodigal Son to discuss the sin of acedia (sloth) in a way similar to how John Gower uses the Rich Man and Lazarus parable to illustrate gluttony. Sloth begets despair, because a person becomes “too sad and hindered to be able to do anything good.” People who enter this stage believe that they have committed so many sins that repentance is futile and therefore they continue to multiply their sins. This slothful despair and descent into deeper sin is what Augustine calls “sinning in the Holy Ghost” and is the “sin most displeasing to Christ, and the most hateful.” The parables of Luke 15, however, demonstrate that such despair should never occur, because God is willing and able to forgive:
Truly he that grows so desperate is like the cowardly and recreant combatant that yields before he is beaten, and when there is no need. Alas, alas! Needlessly is he recreant and needlessly in despair. Certainly the mercy of God is always available to every penitent, and this is the greatest of all God's works. Alas! Cannot a man bethink him of the gospel of Saint Luke, 15, wherein Christ says: "Joy shall be in Heaven over one sinner that repenteth more than over ninety and nine just persons which need no repentance." Behold further, in the same gospel, the joy of and the feast given by the good man who had lost his son, when his son, repentant, returned to his father.
This use of the parable of the Prodigal Son as a prime example of penitence is common for many interpreters in the Middle Ages: Sins committed by humans may be destroyed through proper penitence, fasting, and giving alms, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus. No one should despair, because the love and mercy of God are freely available and abundant, and Chaucer concludes his work with a discussion of how one can receive atonement for one’s sins.
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