A Portrait of The Pardoner from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

There With Him Rode A Gentle Pardoner…

A pardoner was an unordained medieval cleric who raised money for the church by the selling of papal indulgences which offered the purchaser redemption from their sins and reduced periods of purgatorial punishment. Not surprisingly where salvation was available for purchase, the Christian doctrine of repentance and forgiveness inevitably grew corrupt. Pardoners were known to exaggerate the efficacy of their indulgences and claimed the authority to promise deliverance not just from purgatory, but from hell itself. Eventually plenary indulgences required purchasers neither to repent, nor to amend their lives in order to receive complete absolution from sin, causing pardoners to become scrutinized in life and satirized in popular literature. (Kantor, pg 2-3)

The Pardoner depicted by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342-1400) in his frame narrative, ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ reflects contemporary opinion of the church sanctioned profession of salvation salesman and is arguably the most contradictory and contentious of Chaucer’s pilgrims. From his iconic introduction in the General Prologue to the brazen mountebank who declares himself a charlatan yet still attempts to peddle his quack medicines and false relics at the end of his tale, the Pardoner gives readers of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ a thoroughly detestable and corrupt character to grapple with.

The Pardoner of the General Prologue

Our initial introduction to the Pardoner as a ‘noble ecclesiast’ in the General Prologue sees him described in a manner that refers frequently to the ancient practice of physiognomy. Physiognomy was the well known art of judging and interpreting human character and personality based on a study of the facial features. By appropriating these contemporarily familiar precepts, Chaucer outlines the Pardoner’s features, physique and deportment to produce a recognizable character type for his audience. (Gross, pg 7)

The Pardoner’s ‘hair as yellow as wax, hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax,’ confers the clergyman’s probable impotence and lack of manhood. This sentiment is further reinforced through the description of his having a high pitched ‘small voice a goat has got’ which is another physiognomic trait denoting effeminateness, and evoking the probability of homosexuality. Additionally, Chaucer as the narrator judges him to be ‘gelding, or a mare’, an allusion to the possibility the Pardoner may be a eunuchus ex nativitate (a natural eunuch due to congenital defect). Physiognomic interpretation also gives the reader to understand that his ‘bulging eye-balls, like a hare’ were signs of pride, impudence, shamelessness and lack of propriety. Finally, his bare chin which ‘no beard had harboured, nor would harbour, smoother than ever chin was left by barber’ were believed to denote great cleverness and ingenuity and gives an overall portrait of a man who is ‘an abandoned rascal delighting in hypocrisy and possessed of a colossal impudence’. (Duino, pgs 324-325; Gross, pgs 6-8)

The Pardoner is thoroughly emasculated and given characteristics of sexual abnormality to draw parallels between his physical and sexual deviancy and his spiritual and moral perversions. Chaucer brings his audience’s immediate attention to the Pardoner’s preternatural sexuality to draw on the powerful association in the medieval mind between homosexuality and wickedness, immorality, licentiousness and even heresy. (Pearsall, pgs 359-364)

Outwardly praiseworthy, but ultimately censorious, the irony which is thick on the page as the admiring tone describing the clergyman’s gentleness, fashionable mode, delightful singing and unequalled grace is a thin veneer which does not conceal the writer’s obvious distain for The Pardoner. The Pardoner leads a sinister life and is consumed with cupiditas. He is depicted as smooth, delicate, lady-like and honey-tongued, duplicitous in his supposedly holy dealings, extremely rich from his deceitful profession and as a man whose very being is totally incongruous with his career as a servant of the Church. By exploiting his congregants’ desires to find salvation and lead good lives, he cynically sells them fake reliquaries as good luck charms and miracle cures and in doing so he bastardizes the Christian doctrine he preaches into a lucrative money making operation.

The Pardoner of the Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale

Leading into the Pardoner’s Prologue a remarkable moment occurs where we gain an insight to his travelling companion’s impressions of the Pardoner. They express an unwillingness to hear a ribald, merry tale from the effeminate and arrogant Pardoner even though the pilgrims had previously endured the raunchy Miller’s Tale and the unseemly and repulsive Tale of the Summoner. From this we understand that earthy and manly obscenities, while not entirely socially acceptable, are at least tolerable when compared to the risk of being confronted with a tale of potentially unspeakable depravity that might issue forth should the Pardoner be given the freedom to speak his mind. (Duino, pgs 324-325)

This censorious action of the pilgrims is concordant with the account of the Pardoner in the General Prologue. Instead the pilgrims ask the Pardoner for a moral tale. Tellingly, he initially struggles to come up with a suitable exemplum for his travel companions. Eventually he falls back on a sermon which comes out as well practiced and rote delivered, but not before confirming his arrogance by forcing the pilgrims to wait while he indulges his gluttony with ales and cakes.

Directly after this confirmation that the pilgrims are cognisant of his unsavoury and repellent nature, the Pardoner makes the most extraordinary confessions. In the Prologue to his Tale he unabashedly admits the entire nature of his dissolute and avaricious lifestyle and brags of his mastery at his callous ‘game’; that of con artistry. He shares with the party in no uncertain terms his awareness that he sells false salvation through fake pardons and worthless relics comprising of sheep’s bone and ragged cloth and yet boasts of how successful he is at this fraud. He acknowledges how he hypnotises his audiences with rhetoric, theatrics and threats of eternal damnation until they buy his ‘tricks’ and succumb to parting with their money for his false salvation. The Pardoner here, self represented, is proud of his hypocrisy, self congratulatory in his tone and appears to be advertising his astute cleverness and meliority over the commoners to whom he preaches and subsequently swindles. (Khinoy, pg 259)

‘For my exclusive purpose is to win
And not at all to castigate their sin.
Once dead what matter how their souls may fare?
They can go blackberrying, for all I care!
But let me briefly make my purpose plain;
I preach for nothing but for greed of gain
And use the same old text, as bold as brass,
Radix malorum est cupiditas.’
(Chaucer, pg 243)

Having demonstrated his propensity for avarice, deception and gluttony, some of the very vices he preaches against, the Pardoner now wears his hypocrisy firmly on his sleeve. These assertions, while shockingly unorthodox for one in his profession, are entirely consistent with the arrogant and dissipated character we met in the General Prologue and further flesh out the impressions of the Pardoner’s character most profoundly.

The Pardoner from the Pardoner’s Tale

The Pardoner’s Tale itself is an exemplum intended to instruct or educate and is based on a moral narrative of ancient origin. The story introduces a group of three tavern dwelling rioters who the Pardoner uses to demonstrate the vices of avarice and lust; gluttony and drunkenness; gambling and swearing - vices our Pardoner happily possesses himself. The drunken rioters of the exemplum, upon hearing of the death of an old friend, set out to avenge themselves and ‘kill this traitor Death’. On their quest for Death, they encounter a very poor old man who informs them they may find Death in a nearby grove:

‘Well, sirs,’ he said, ‘if it be your design
To find out Death, turn up this crooked way
Towards that grove, I left him there today
Under a tree, and there you’ll find him waiting.
He isn’t one to hide for all your prating.’
(Chaucer, pg 252)

The rioters enter the grove and find not Death, but bushels of gold whereupon plots are hatched to do away with one or some of their cohorts to increase their portion of the find. Naturally the rioter’s greed is their undoing and the tale ends predictably with the murder of one, and the unwitting self poisoning of the remaining two adventurers proving the old man’s statement true - they did indeed find ‘death’ up the crooked way, in the grove.

The moral of the tale is obvious - cupiditas and greed are the cause of moral bankruptcy and certain damnation. However being told by our self confessed avaricious Pardoner it seems inappropriate, inconsistent and extremely hypocritical given his boastful admissions of his own deceptive double dealings. (Gross, pg 5) The Pardoner preaches this moral tale for the masses and an accomplished performer who automatically goes through the mechanical motions of preaching a habitual sermon verbatim, up to and including, soliciting offerings for his fraudulent goods. (Pearsall, pg 361).

Seemingly lacking capacity for self awareness or insight, the Pardoner’s complete spiritual bankruptcy, in spite of his profession as a churchman, makes him the exemplar of the very vices he preaches against. The Pardoner has used his storytelling opportunity to demonstrate his superior preaching skills to his fellow pilgrims and disclosed the effectiveness with which he rorts his congregations. The basic irony is that in doing so he reveals his own inherently evil existence is ruled by cupiditas which in accordance with the medieval belief system, would realize the certainty of his own damnation (Pearsall, pg 359-363).

The carefully crafted character of the Pardoner delivered in the General Prologue seems consistent with the gluttonous, arrogant, braggart depicted in the Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale. However, the Pardoner’s Tale itself, an exemplum bearing the moral that ‘greed is the root of all evil’ is completely hypocritical given the behaviour he demonstrates, the characteristics attributed to him and the perceptions we acquire of the Pardoner’s character. This dichotomy has given rise to such diversity of critical opinion that it was very likely a quite deliberate stratagem on Chaucer’s part and the result of which is a Pardoner who stubbornly resists critical consensus. (Khinoy, pg 256)

After nigh on six hundred years, the Pardoner still evokes strong responses in readers and seems destined to remain an intriguingly contentious and enjoyably problematic character for literature scholars. It is not hard to imagine that Chaucer would be vastly satisfied and amused to discover that his dastardly Pardoner is still the object of intimate introspection and contestable academic study over half a millennia after he penned the narrative of his pilgrims, and their tales, on their way to Canterbury.

Bibliography

  • Chaucer, Geoffrey; The Canterbury Tales, Translated by Neville Coghill, Penguin Books, London © 1977
  • Duino, Russell; The Tortured Pardoner, The English Journal © 1957, National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Kantor, Betty; The Sin of Pride in “The Pardoner’s Tales”, Folcroft Library Editions © 1971, Stanford University Press
  • Khinoy, Stephan A.; Inside Chaucer’s Pardoner? The Chaucer Review © 1972, Penn State University Press.
  • Pearsall, Derek; Chaucer’s Pardoner: The Death of a Salesman, The Chaucer Review © 1983, Penn State University Press.