Foxe (Acts and Monuments of the Church, 1583, II, 839) started the absurd theory that Chaucer was a follower of Wyclif. The poet's own abstract habit; his association with the prince who (probably actuated by no very high motives) withdrew his favour from the contemporary reformer when solicitude for a purer practice ran into heresy and threatened revolt; his close friendship with Strode, a Dominican of Oxford and a strong anti-Lollard--these things tend of themselves to denote Chaucer's views in the matter. The opposite inference is "due to a misconception of his language, based on a misconception of his character" (Lounsbury Studies, II, 469). Like Wyclif, Chaucer loved the priestly ideal; and he draws it incomparably in his "Poor Parson of Town". Yet, as has been said, that very "Parson's Tale", in its extant form, goes far to prove that its author, even by sympathy, was no Wyclifite (A.W. Ward, "Chaucer", London, 1879, p. 134, in "English Men of Letters Series"). Passionless justice was the bed-rock of Chaucer's mind. He paints that parti-coloured Plantagenet world as it was, not interfering to make it better, nor to wish it better. Where the churchman type was gross, he represents it grossly. It is well, however, to recall that the famous episode of his "beating a Friar in Fleet street" is the invention of Speght, further embroidered by Chatterton; and that the prose tractate, "Jack Upland", full of invective against the religious orders, is proved not to be Chaucer's. His attitude towards women is just as two-sided. He shows in many a theme a reverence toward them which must have been fed by that "hy devocioun" to Our Lady which is beautifully apparent in his pages, and which Hoccleve mentions in recalling his memory; but dramatic exigencies, Boccaccio's example, presumable hard domestic experience, a laughingly merciless psychology, and a paralyzing outspokenness, contrive too often, as readers regret, to fight it down. He has been held up as a rationalist, on the strength of a few passages, and against the enormous mass of testimony which he furnishes on the soundness of his Catholic ethos. Of that, after all, as of its absence, Catholics are the best judges. The "Nuns' Priest's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 4424-40) raises the question of predestination, only to drop it. The context shows that the poet thinks his sudden side-issue not trivial or tedious, but quite the contrary, he quits it only because he cannot "boult it to the bren", i.e., sift it down, analyze it satisfactorily. Again, the "Knight's Tale" (Skeat's ed., lines 2890--14) implies that the author has no mind to dogmatize upon the final destiny of poor Arcite, newly slain. Both these instances have been cited in the masterly chapter on "Chaucer as a Literary Artist" (Lounsbury, Studies, II, 512-15, 520), to prove, in the one ease, an easy dismissal of a mere scholastic dilemma; in the other, Chaucer's disbelief, or half-belief, in immortality. They prove, rather, a restraint in dogmatizing about the destiny of the individual, a restraint practiced by the church itself. "The Legend of Good Women" opens with some fifteen lines, the purport of which need never have been questioned. They mean nothing if they do not mean that knowledge by evidence is one thing, assurance by faith another thing; and that lack of sensible proof can never discredit revelation. A somewhat playful confession of belief has here been turned into a serious profession of agnosticism, through sheer lack of spiritual understanding. His "hostility to the Church", as Professor Lounsbury calls it, is certainly not borne out by Chaucer's going out of his way, as he does, to defend her from age-long calumnies; for instance, in the "Franklin's Tale", and in the section "De Ira" of the "Parson's Tale", he witnesses to her horror of superstitions and false sciences. Chaucer, in short, though none too supernatural a person, had a most orthodox grip on his catechism.
The "Preces", or prose "retracciouns", which are usually painted at either end of the "Canterbury Tales" date from the evening of Chaucer's life. To Tyrwhitt, Hales, Ward, and Lounsbury, who suspect undue priestly influence, the "Preces" are, in their own words, "morbid", "reaction and weakness", "a betrayal of his poetic genius", "unbearable to have to accept as genuine". In the course of them, Chaucer disclaims of his books "thilke that sounen in-to sinne" i.e., those which are consonant with, or sympathetic with sin. Skeat is the only editor who understands Chaucer in his contrition (Notes to the "Canterbury Tales", in the Oxford Press complete edition, 475). Gascoigne (Theological Dictionary, Pt. II, 377, the manuscript of which is in the library of Lincoln College, Oxford) unwittingly parodies the situation, and represents the old sinner "Chawserus" as dying while lamenting over pages, quae male scripsi de malo et turpissimo amore. To the secular point of view it has all seemed, and may well seem, mistaken and deplorable. But nothing is manlier, or more touching and endearing, than this humble self-subordinationto conscience and the moral law. "Except ye become as little children" is the hardest saying ever given to the intellectual world. These are great geniuses, Geoffrey Chaucer not least among them, to whom it was not given in vain.
The standard recent editions of Chaucer are: (1) "Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Annotated and Accented, with Illustrations of English Life in Chaucer's Time. New and revised edition, with illustrations from the Ellesmere MS." (Saunder's ed., London, 1894); (2) "The Student's Chaucer; being a Complete Edition of his Works" (Skeat ed., Oxford, 1895); (3) "The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous Manuscripts" (Skeat ed. 7 vols., Oxford, 1894-7); (4) "The Canterbury Tales done into Modern English, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat" (The King's Classics Series, Gollancz ed., 1904).