Chaucer’s Pardoner: an overview

Chaucer’s treatment of his character, the Pardoner, may be seen as in four parts: the account in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales where he is the last pilgrim to be described; the words of the Host to the Physician and Pardoner; the Pardoner’s own Prologue, better named his Preamble; and the Tale itself. In his case the parts all harmonise even though irony introduces an inconsistency in him: whilst preaching against greed for money, he is consumed with avarice himself. There are several questions to consider: how far is he an individual and how far a type, a question which occurs with all the pilgrims who are seen in the light of their trades; his hypocrisy and how far he is aware he is revealing it; how well the Tale suits the teller; his narrative techniques; the element of confession; and how far he represents a satirical example of the decline of the Church.

He commits every wrong possible in his infamous work. He sells flagrantly bogus relics and claims the buyers will be absolved from both a poena [remission of punishment for sin] and a culpa [the sin itself which only God can forgive]. He accepts cash without checking on contrition whilst despising his clients and preaches when Pardoners were not allowed to preach. The Summoner, who should prevent this, is a close – too close – friend. There was perceived to be an antithesis between caritas [love of God] and cupiditas [love of earthly goods for their own sake] and, whilst he preaches against the latter, he embodies it and has no time for the former. Gluttony, gambling and swearing, against which he inveighs, are all manifestations of cupiditas. His Tale is a sermon to illustrate his theme of Radix malorum est cupiditas [love of earthly goods is the root of evils] but, at the end, he brazenly asks for money. The Tale itself had many analogues [comparable stories] and so the interest is in the Pardoner’s skill in manipulating his source and making the basic plot effective for a sermon.

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His appearance in Medieval physiology is that of a eunuch, denoted by his lack of a beard, his high voice and long hair which represent sterility whilst he boasts of being a ladies’ man. In the company, he is one of six ecclesiastics, the others being the Monk, Prioress, Summoner, Friar and Parson. Only the Parson is worthy and virtuous and yet the Pardoner swindles such good men. Pardoners were not popular with priests because they took money which might otherwise be given to the Church. All the others have varying degrees of corruption and, by placing the portrait of the Pardoner at the end of the General Prologue, he may appear the worst as he cheats people face-to-face with no remorse and is so repulsive physically; by then we have read how the Parson represents the ideal. Yet the reader may be swayed by his cleverness and sheer audacity to have some sympathy for him and understand why he was successful in his cheating. As always when reading Chaucer, we can remain ambivalent.

The description of the Pardoner from the General Prologue

The word gentil [noble, having all the qualities of a true gentleman] can be a strong term of approbation but is frequently used ironically by Chaucer, the irony being pointed by the immediate mention of Rouncyvalle, a place infamous for its notorious pardoners. He is riding with the Summoner, who should be reprimanding or punishing him but who is accompanying him with a strong bass acompaniment as he sings his secular: “Com hider, love, to me.” The relationship between the two is not made explicit but is easily inferred as the Pardoner is so effeminate. The Summoner’s groteque appearance with his pimples, other facial eruptions and scabs makes the friendship repulsive from the start. Chaucer’s portrayals are not systematic and he darts about as would the viewer’s eye, picking out salient features at random. The first mention is of the Pardoner’s hair, thin and yellow, emblematic of a eunuch; instead of covering this defect he bares it “for jolitee”.

This is difficult to translate exactly but clearly mean that the Pardoner did not wear his hood out of desire for fun or bravado and because of vanity: the detail is given that the hood is stowed away firmly and will not be used. Chaucer frequently allows his pilgrim vanities to apply to those characteristics of which they should be least vain. His hair is spread over his shoulders in little bundles or strands and he has nothing on his head but a small cap believing this to be the “newe jet” [the latest fashion]. Vanity and attention to personal appearance should have no part in him and, to add to the humour, he has misunderstood how he might be viewed. Sparse, long, pale hair also represented cunning and deceptiveness in Medieval psychology and physiognomy. The animal-like glaring eyes reveal boldness, gluttony, drunkenness, libertinism and, in his case, capacity to mesmerise people. He has bothered to have sewn an image of Veronica onto his cap and his all-important wallet is in his sight always.

It is full of pardons, fresh – as he claims – from Rome. At this point Chaucer returns to the topic of his voice to remind us how he must persuade people to buy the pardons: again it is seen in animal terms and does not seem likely to inspire, being bleating like that of a goat. This, and the lack of a beard, make Chaucer state explicity that he is like a gelding or a mare and yet he is hightly skilled at his trade. Despite all his evident defects, he is a master of his unholy art: there is none like him from North to South. In his bag is a pillowcase which he claims is the veil of Mary as he also declares another bit of cloth is the sail of St Peter: his lies are blatant and could deceive only the ignorant. The mixture of sterility and skill is repellent: he is impotent yet powerful, contemptible yet sinister. At this point it is profitable to ask where the satire is directed: at him or at the Church for failing to control abuses.

He has a brass cross studded with fake gems and glass boxes containing pig bones which he will say are those of saints. The worst aspect of his behaviour is his willingness to cheat people to their face as he will do if he finds a poor parson living in the country. By this time we have read the moving portrait of such a holy, hard-working and sincere man and we despise his swindler who makes more money from him and his peasant flock than the parson earns in two months. Further animal imagery represents his clients as “apes” whom he deceives with “feyned flaterye and japes” [tricks]. A note of direct satire enters when Chaucer says he is noble exponent in church, being well able to discourse and particularly sing for the offertory to gain more money.

He knows how to soften his speech to gain silver: this is his sole ambition as he cares nothing for anyone else or the Church. Physical repulsiveness and moral depravity are connected in his and other cases. He is cashing in on the gullibility, love of God and fear of Purgatory and Hell in ignorant, poor people. Using terror, cajolery, bribery and hypocrisy he abuses the faith of the reverent without compunction, merely pride in his own cleverness. Yet we must note how little explicit criticism of him there is in the portrait: Chuacer leaves it to us to infer and to the Pardoner himself to boast of his deceits later. The central target of the satire is the close bond between the man who is charged with controlling corruption in the Church, the Summoner, and the corrupt Pardoner. They regard the Church as if it were as big a fraud as they are themselves.
To move to the analysis of the ending of The Prologue click here

The words of the Host to the Physician and the Pardoner
Most of this short section is devoted to the response of Harry Bailly, the Host (who is the organiser of the central device of story-telling around which the whole work revolves) to the Physician: his persona is that of the naif but lively, indignant listener. His words concern us in that he reminds us that there is an audience of pilgrims listening of whom Chaucer, whose persona is also naif, is one. This technique of the supposedly innocent speaker or writer allows the reader to form a separate opinion and, in the case of the Pardoner, the structure is even more complex as there are several audiences: the pilgrims including the Host and Chaucer, who is also the creator; the reader and the Pardoner’s usual clients whose reactions we have to imagine. Various levels of irony are thus made possible as the responses of all these groups and individuals are different and play off against each other.

The interest of the Host’s words to the student of the Pardoner’s Tale is that he requests a story including some “japes” which can mean jokes or tricks or even seduction. What he probably means is: “Tell us something light – and quickly.” He refers to the Pardoner as his “beel amy” [my dear fellow] which sounds affectionate even though he is probably aware that the fellow is a scoundrel. The Pardoner agrees but only after he has had a good drink and bite to eat, ironically, just before his sermon against gluttony. Standing before the inn sign and supping, he listens to the plea of the more noble of the pilgrims who beg him not to indulge in “ribaudye” [filth] and want a tale with a moral lesson and practical wisdom instead. They fear he might tell a story of low-life, a fabliau, after his ale and he takes his time to quaff further while he recalls a suitably decent narrative. Many of the pilgrims are shown as trying to impress the others and the Pardoner has a double motive: if he can hold their attention and please them, he can ask for money afterwards. We note that he circumvents their proscription by including low-life within a moral tale thus satisfying his own and their desires. Hypocrisy is the key-note of his character and is one of the flaws much satirised by Chaucer, particularly in reference to the other members of the Church where the Parson’s complete integrity has been presented as the ideal.