The Pardoner’s Tale (3)

In Classical and Medieval rhetoric, exempla were used to give the speaker or writer authority: they were examples or stories from revered authors or the Bible and they conferred an aura of learning on the user. It was not considered plagiarism or unoriginal to use such sources provided they were acknowleged, precise and relevant and the teller quickly returned to the thread of discourse. The Pardoner’s references can be traced to specific Biblical and classical texts and any good edition will give chapter and verse.

Yet he does not actually tell the story which gives his example weight but merely refers to Lot, Herod and the rest with a brief connection to their sin of drunkenness, a version of gluttony. He quotes Seneca but makes no real use of the reference except to paraphrase his assertion that a drunk is the same as a madman, apart from its temporary nature. When he claims that the gluttony of Adam was the cause of the Fall of Man we (and almost certainly the other pilgrims, some of whom have religious training and all of whom would have known the story) feel that he is stretching the example to fit the point. Adam’s sin was not gluttonous desire for fruit but disobedience and refusal to adhere to God’s prohibition. Making matters worse, the Pardoner expands and claims that all was well in Paradise whilst Adam fasted but that when he ate he was “out cast to wo and peyne.” This hits home because mankind now has to work as well as inheriting Original Sin. He now preaches against gluttony and excess in general, making food and eating both repulsive yet fascinating. Presumably his motive is to encourage his listeners to cut back their expenditure and give more money to him out of guilt for earlier indulgence.

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The throat is decribed as short because the pleasure of taste is brief: again there is a lack of logic as, presumably, if the delight were lasting, the sin would be greater. St Paul is misinterpreted as he was probably proscribing particular foods but the Pardoner is attempting to frighten and disgust his audience by threatening their belly, “womb”, and very nature with destruction and by connecting the imbibing of white and red wine with using a lavatory. We must constantly recall that he could not start his speech until he had had cake and ale and is trying to win a prize – and doubtless expensive – dinner. The invective is against dainty food which needs much labour in its production and is often consumed in excess.

St Paul is quoted again (Letter to the Philippians 3, 18-19) quite accurately: the Pardoner is precise in this reference which he delivers with gloomy relish, using the rhetorical device of apostrophe [speaking directly to something not usually so addressed] to make the stomach seem repulsive and unnatural: “O stynkyng cod! [bag]/Fulfilled [filled full] of donge and of corrupcioun.” In order to achieve this horrible result, cooks must beat, pound, strain and grind ingedients (there is somethink of an in-joke here as the pilgrims would recognise the processes, particularly the Cook himself) thus turning the inner reality, “substaunce” into outward qualities only, “accident”. Although these are technical terms of philosophy their use here is a stale jest, glancing at the doctrine of Transubstantiation whereby the body and blood of Christ are believed to be turned into bread and wine in the Mass. The labour of the cooks is aimed at inceasing, at great cost, the sensual appetites and consequent pleasures of the diners and produces grotesque results, using the marrow and making everything go through the guller “softe and swoote” [easily and pleasantly] – we notice the onomatopoeic “s” sounds here as the food slips down. The methods are intended to increase and tempt appetites by spicing sauces; those who succumb are guilty of a deadly sin.

At this point we may wonder how many of the Seven Deadly Sins the Pardoner exemplifies: Sloth seem to be the only one missing and even in that he is culpable since he prefers to sponge off people rather than do honest labour. He demonstrates: Pride in his shameless exhibitionism; Gluttony in his desire for the Host’s prize, his fascination with food and his need for cake and ale before starting out; Avarice throughout in his greed for money; Wrath against any enemies; Lechery in wanting a girl in every town or in his relationship with the Summoner; and Envy in his general attitudes to other people. He has no faith, no generosity and no love as counteracting virtues. Now he turns his attention to drunkenness, a specific form of gluttony, connecting it with lechery and also making it disgusting in its effects. He does not seem to notice that the two are contradictory; if the person is made foul by the effects of drink, he is unlikely to be able to indulge in sex. He appeals to the listeners’ sense of dignity as he describes a drunk falling over like a stuck pig, using animal imagery again.

He hopes to make the gourmands amongst the pilgrims ashamed and ready to give as he speaks of the noise made by a drunk and the lack of “honeste cure” [self-respect and sense of decency] caused by excess of wine. The man who has imbibed is incapable of discretion: the irony would not escape the pilgrims who have heard the Pardoner reveal his tricks under the power of ale. The drunkard is also made foolish, “wit” (l. 271) having the wider meaning of intelligence. The Pardoner shows himself to be knowledgeable about wines, more than a tee-totaller would be, when he inveighs against the particular wine of Lepe and is even aware of where it might be bought. He risks showing that he is familiar with the fact that wines are frequently mixed (l. 277) in order to raise a smile at another in-joke against vendors.

It is almost comic and certainly ironic that he cannot list examples of virtuous and uplifting behaviour from the Bible, actions done in “abstinence and in preyere.” Eiher he does not know any or he finds them ineffective in raising money. If members of his audience applaud themselves for their virtue by recognising themselves in the stories, they will keep their purses shut. It is more profitable to use terrifying examples such as that of Attila who died of suffocation from a nose-bleed in his sleep or to become haughty and patronising in his learning over the name Lemuel, advising the pilgrims to read the Bible for themselves as he has said enough.

An explicit oral signal tells his listeners than he is changing topic: his is crude but such indications are needed to redirect the listeners’ attention. Chaucer neatly evades the realistic question of how such a large group of pilgrims could hear the teller but he does remind his reader that the stories are recounted in a human voice and that, in this case, we are judging the skill of a practitioner of the art of sermonising. If the Pardoner can be effective after confessing his skulduggery, he is indeed a master of his infamous art. Now he will forbid gambling because of its connection with other sins but also because it wastes money that could come to him. He is also preparing the listeners to disapprove of every vice that will enter his Tale; although this preaching is a digression, it is controlled and such moving off track is allowed in rhetoric provided the speaker rejoins his thread before too long. The Pardoner pushes his digression somewhat beyond the limit but it is for his own purposes. The higher the person’s rank, the worse sin it is for him to gamble and be thought “desolaat” [abandoned]. The habit is connected to lying, to deceit, to perjury, to blasphemy, to murder and waste of goods and time. It causes shame and is the opposite of honour to be considered a “commune” [habitual, notorious] gambler. The Pardoner’s treatment of the example of a prince gambling is less detailed; he is unfamiliar with aristocrats and unsuccessful in describing them. It is as though he is using a scatter-gun approach to hit one of his listeners: if he enumerates several sins, one is likely to find its target and bring in revenue.

He makes a small error in naming Stilboun instead of Chilon, fails to make the example strike home and the story falls flat. Perhaps he does not have the interest in gambling that he has in gluttony as there is less of a lurid aspect to it and it is, probably, less common than gluttony in its various forms. The rhythms and the language are not as intense; his heart does not seem to be in the topic. In the case of Demetrius he is also vaguer, mentioning merely “the book” instead of a precise reference and does not specify what other kind of amusement might take the place of gambling. Sometimes the word “hasard” is a general term and sometimes a particular game but the sense is the same whichever he means.

He is much more effective on the topic of oaths: he knows that some of his fellow pilgrims swear, even though the Second Commandment forbids it and feels that he can frighten them into a dread of death and a readiness to buy pardons. He draws a distinction between “gret” [hard] swearing and “fals” [oaths which one does not intend to keep] but both are forbidden by God and here his references become specific and accurate. Swearing a proper and sincere oath is acceptable but “ydel” [vain] promises are sinful. Because this was written on the first tablet, it is seen as more important than murder which appears on the second, though the first contained duties to God and the second duties to Man and therefore homicide would be on the second.

The Pardoner’s language becomes Biblical in its threats: “vengeance shal nat parten [depart] from his hous/That of his othes is to outrageous” [excessive] and he also flatters those of his hearers who “his heestes understondeth” [who understand/know his commandments]. He gives instances of the kind of swearing that might accompany gambling and we note that the words are blasphemous: again he wraps up many adjacent sins along with this practice. The more sins the merrier for his purse. Now he is ready to begin his Tale and must capture his audience with its skill despite having given away all his tricks.

When he starts, he quickly and skilfully establishes the characters and the setting: the group of young folk mentioned originally in order to create an impression of widespread evil have been reduced to three roisterers because the story demands a neat geometry; the time of day is before the bell has sounded for Prime (about six o’clock) and they are seated drinking in a tavern. The characters are not differentiated but their sinfulness is stressed. A corpse is carried past to remind them and the pilgrims of the constant threat of death from the plague and they ask the serving boy to go quickly to find out who it is. He knows that it is a companion of theirs who died suddenly in his cups the previous night, slain by Death who was frequently personified in the Medieval mind.

The vignette is terrifyingly close to their lives and suggests that all listeners should hasten to absolve themselves in case they are struck in a similar fashion. The boy’s account is clear and without motive but the Pardoner has every reason to make it lurid. Once again the narrative is complex: Chaucer is speaking through the Pardoner who gives us the voice of the servant. There is more than one audience: the boy speaks to the three men; the Pardoner addresses the pilgrims and Chaucer directs his narrative at his own readers/listeners. The portrayal of Death is a common one, pictured at that time as an allegorical figure of a skeleton with a spear. He has killed a thousand in this wave of the plague and the boy, speaking for the Pardoner, tells them to be wary. His mother has warned him, in a memorable sentence; “Beth redy for to meete him everemore [at all times].” The boy is seen as wise about death and constantly alert, though young.

The Innkeeper, in a similar trade to the Host and therefore close to the pilgrims’ experience, warns them that Death lives nearby and that they should be cautious. This reminds them that they started off in an inn and that they are vulnerable. The first rogue – another skilful imitation of a voice – swears by a part of God’s body as has been expressly forbidden by the Pardoner as he rashly vows to set off to find and slay Death himself. They becomes sworn brothers as was a Medieval practice and the narrative gains pace as all the action will clearly be concluded by nightfall. We sense already that there will be an ironic outcome as their arrogance and speed reveal Pride as well as all their other sins and Death, although personified, cannot be killed like another man. They are in a drunken frenzy and continue to blaspheme, their overbearing nature emphasised by the memorable line: “Deeth shal be deed, if that they may him hente [seize].”