The Pardoner As a Cheater
The Pardoner of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is representative of the darker side of the corrupt church of the Middle Ages. A pardoner was a church official who had the authority to forgive those who had sinned by selling pardons and indulgences to them. Although the pardoner was a church official, they were almost always part of the church for only economic reasons. The Pardoner of this tale is typical of this kind of person: a devious and fraudulent individual whose only goal was to get the most money for pardons and indulgences by almost any means of coercion necessary.
Although today most people view the indulgences these pardoners sold only as a wicked practice of the Medieval Church, the practice of selling indulgences and pardons actually began much earlier than the Middle Ages, and with noble intentions. The official definition of “indulgence”, as stated by the Roman Catholic Church, is “a partial remission of temporal punishment due for a sin after the sin has been forgiven through the sacrament of penance.” Originally, indulgences remitting punishment for sin could only legitimately be granted to persons who confessed their sins to their own parish priests, rather than pardoners. If the condition of confession was met, they were allowed to purchase indulgences and be relieved of a stated period of punishment that would have instead been received in purgatory.
The first official pardoners were commissioned by the directly by the Pope, and offered indulgences to all those subjects who contributed to the support of Christianity. Many pardoners were sent directly from church-supported hospitals. These hospitals, often times the storage area of religious relics used in curing the sick, commissioned pardoners to take these relics on tour and to offer indulgences to anyone who was moved by their belief in the relics to donate money toward the upkeep of the hospital.
However, the practice of offering indulgences grew corrupt. Selling indulgences became a means for the Church to be able to finance special projects, such as the construction of the Vatican in the sixteenth century. Pardoners also tended to exaggerate the power of their indulgences by pretending to have the authority to release the buyers from hell as well as from purgatory. They might sometimes also claim that those who purchased indulgences needed neither to repent nor to amend their lives in order to be pardoned.
The Pardoner openly admits to being one of these corrupt individuals in the prologue to his own tale. Asked by the Host to “tell us som moral thing”(8), the Pardoner sets up a tale that renounces the sin of greed and materialism by thoroughly describing how he performs his own appalling profession. He admits to completely lying about the power and origins of his supposed relics, boasts about the money he swindles out of poor, ignorant townspeople, and even states: “Of avaryce and of swich cursednesse/Is al my preching, for to make hem free/To yeve her pens, and namely unto me/For my entente is nat but for to winne/And no thing for correccioun of sinne.”(72-76) He also addresses anyone who would expect him to act in the way the church originally intended for pardoners to, saying: “I wol non of the apostles counterfete/I wol have money, wolle, chese, and whete/Al were it yeven of the povrest page.”(119-121) The Pardoner obviously has no shame about being so disgustingly hypocritical, perhaps because he believes that his soul is protected by the Church, or because he, as part of the Church’s corruption, has no real faith in Christianity himself.
The tale told by the Pardoner, a story about three men who find bushels of gold and end up killing one another with there schemes to keep it all for themselves, is a direct extension of his own personality: a moralistic tale that is meant to draw on the fear and guilt of the listeners. It is an utterly shameless tale, a condemnation of the love of money that, of course, stems from the avarice of the Pardoner himself. By condemning the three men in the story for their greed, the Pardoner eventually hopes to motivate the travelers to pay the Pardoner to absolve their sins, even though he has already exposed to them his own methods of fraud and trickery.
Throughout the tale, the narrator’s voice drifts in and out of the story, occasionally leaving the plot of the tale to launch into his obviously well rehearsed sermons against sin. Within the tale, he condemns drunkenness, gluttony, gambling, swearing false oaths, murder, and of course, avarice. This strange method of story telling makes more sense at the end when he returns to trying to make a profit, swearing: “Your name I entre heer in my rolle anon/Into the blisse of hevene shul ye gon/I yow assoile, by myn heigh power/Yow that wol offre.”(583-586) It seems at the end as though he thinks that his tale has had its usual effect, and that the Pilgrims are silently pondering on their own forms of greed. As he once again becomes the eager salesman, he seems to forget that he began the tale by treating the Pilgrims as sharers in his secrets (which includes his contempt of the gullible people who believe his descriptions of his ‘relics’).
Although none of the pilgrims are foolish enough to pay an admitted con artist, one must question why the Pardoner even has the audacity to try and turn a profit off of people who know he is a fraud. Furthermore, besides a few harsh words from the Host, it is also hard to understand as a modern reader why none of the travelers show any visible anger towards the man who openly degrades their intelligence, as well as the religion that they all supposedly follow. It is obvious that at some point, any person living during this time period had encountered several pardoners with bags full of fake relics and well prepared, guilt inducing sermons. Therefore, no member of the group is at all surprised by his confessions or practices.
The Pardoner’s arrogance is a testament to the power that the corrupt church of the Middle Ages had over its subjects minds, as well as their pocketbooks. In the society in which the Canterbury Tales takes place, the practice of buying forgiveness through indulgences had become so commonplace that people could literally pay their penance for sins that they had not even committed yet! The indifference that they show this Pardoner probably comes from the understanding of everyone present that the Church is so powerful that it’s officials are not only allowed, but expected to behave so atrociously. During this time period, the true meaning and practices of Christianity had been almost totally forgotten, replaced by a system of greed, shameless corruption, and coldhearted deceit that Chaucer illustrates brilliantly through the character of the Pardoner.
From corrupt politicians to Real Housewives of Orange County, symbols of hypocrisy in modern day society exude personas that are ripe for criticism. These symbols also exist in Geoffrey Chaucer’s […]
There is no doubt that immoral people can spring from all walks of life, Tall, short, rich, poor and everything in between – any of these can fall victim to […]
The character of the Pardoner in Chaucer’s ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’ is a controversial, ethically depraved character that, it could be said, represents corruption within the Catholic Church. As […]
In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays multiple unique personalities including a conniving, rebellious Monk who selfishly dismisses the church’s rule and lives greedily in his own world. Throughout the […]
Fifteenth-century England, in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, was ruled by a Christian morality that had definite precepts regarding the ideal character and behavior of women. Modesty and […]
Canterbury Tales: The Power of Lust Seven deadly sins. Eight tales. In Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offers insight into human characteristics and actions. Of the seven deadly sins, lust remains […]
When the Miller proposes to “quite,” or revenge, the Knight’s tale in the Prologue to his tale (3127), he alters the host’s use of the word “quite” (3119). Whereas the […]
Based on several Chaucer scholars’ analyses of the description of the Knight in the general prologue, it appears as though there are not two distinct schools of thought on the […]
Carpenters are traditionally regarded as hard-working, rugged men with calluses on their hands and dirt beneath their fingernails. They are strong and silent; they take pride in their work and […]
The Pardoner of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is representative of the darker side of the corrupt church of the Middle Ages. A pardoner was a church official who had the authority […]