The Pardoner In “The Canterbury Tales” By Geoffrey Chaucer’s

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

A preacher stands visible on a television screen. He has a million-watt smile and a thousand-dollar three-piece suit. His hair is perfectly coiffed, and he is wearing about as much makeup as the average Miss America contestant (one must look good for the camera). He is onstage at the front of a megachurch so enormous one might easily confuse it for a dome stadium on a Saturday night. His melodic voice rings out with a hint of snake oil and an extra helping of Southern drawl. He speaks to the crowd while he looks at the teleprompter, preaching about love, healing, and prosperity-based belief, such as his belief that everyone ought to send him a twenty-dollar donation before the day is through for the sake of saving souls. Today this image is as stereotypically American as baseball and apple pie. However, the concept of a slick preacher selling pardon is far from modern or American in origin— corrupted clergy and clergy-adjacent laity were already a common image in the Middle Ages. Known in Chaucer’s time as a Pardoner, this role’s duties, wealth & status, and his value to society would scarcely be different from televangelists today.

A Pardoner’s primary duty was the distribution of papal indulgences, and the collection of voluntary donations or tithes (Lenaghan). In the general prologue, Chaucer’s Pardoner has “come straight from the court of Rome… [his knapsack] brimful of pardons…” (Chaucer 671, 686, 687). The Pardoner abuses his position by selling the indulgences for profit and keeping the donations which were meant to go to the Church for himself. “The Pardoner sells fake relics as an additional sideline” (Lenaghan). A Pardoner also presided at religious services from time to time for the good of the people, although in this Pardoner’s case it served as an another means of making money: “He was in church a noble ecclesiast… For he knew well, when that song was sung, He must preach and well smooth his speech to win silver, as he very well knew how; Therefore, he sang the more merrily and loud” (Chaucer 708-714).

Working for the Catholic Church, the Pardoner should not have been wealthy. Normally, the clergy take vows of poverty, and laypersons are either given a small stipend or else work as volunteers. Chaucer’s Pardoner however finds a way to turn a profit. “In one day, he got himself more money than the parson got in two months” (Chaucer 703-706). In this point is he most like his modern equivalent, the televangelist— both take advantage of the gullible and trusting for their own benefit, exploiting people’s faith, ignorance, and superstitions for monetary gain. Both also enjoy an undeserved social status. Individuals tend to give respect automatically to representatives of the Church. One assumes them to be good people. Unfortunately, this does not always prove to be the case. Chaucer rails hardest against the clergy in “The Canterbury Tales” because of their betrayal of their duties and their undeserved good reputation. He wanted to expose the corruption of this estate and of all those connected with it. He did not hold back with the Pardoner. “The Pardoner has traditionally been seen as the most sinful or abandoned of all of Chaucer’s pilgrims, the one lost soul in the Canterbury group” (Sturges 47).

The value of a Pardoner in medieval European society is entirely debatable depending upon whom one asks. In the Middle Ages they garnered respect since they worked for the Church, although most were utterly undeserving. People believed Pardoners labored for the good of men and women’s souls because they supplied access to indulgences. It is important to understand why individuals would desire an indulgence in the first place: in the Catholic faith, it is believed that once a person’s sins have been forgiven, he or she still owes a debt of temporal punishment which is either paid in this life or in a place called Purgatory after death. One might think of this in terms of an analogy: if a child breaks his or her neighbor’s window with a baseball, they can go and say they are sorry, but still ought to help replace the window to appease the neighbor. Indulgences in the correct understanding were not meant to forgive sin or save souls but to aid in repairing the spiritual windows one had broken and heal his or her relationship with God.

One gains indulgences through good works or prayers applicable to oneself or to deceased persons to pay off their debts and gain their release from Purgatory (meaning they can be happy in Heaven). The opportunity to free either oneself or one’s friends and family from Purgatory meant a lot to these people, therefore they valued the Pardoner. However, given what is known now about the Pardoner, he was not helping anyone but himself. He is a valueless scumbag who manipulated poor trusting souls (the same as the televangelist). Chaucer goes as far as to outright question whether the Pardoner is “a eunuch or a homosexual” and implies an unholy (from the medieval perspective) relationship with the Summoner (Sturgis 48), who sings a love song with him: “Very loud he sang ‘Come hither, love, to me!’ This Summoner harmonized with him in a strong bass…” (Chaucer 672-673). Were the medieval public to think this was the case, he would have been a social pariah (Sturgis 48). Rumors of homosexuality also haunt many modern televangelists as well.

The character of the Pardoner was ripe for satire when Chaucer began writing his magnum opus, “The Canterbury Tales.” Between the noble reputation and the reality of the corruption lay a sizeable gap within which he could conjecture. While entertaining, it also served the purpose of exposing corrupt members of the clergy for what they were, charlatans who abused their positions. One only wishes that their modern equivalent, the Joel Osteens of the world, received a calling out half as succinct as Chaucer’s for their private jets and gated mansions at the expense of God’s good name.

Works Cited:

  1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” Translated by Larry D. Gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer. Houghton Mifflin Company.
  2. Lenaghan, R. T. “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ as History and Literature.” Poetry for Students, edited by Anne Marie Hacht, vol. 14, Gale, 2002. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 28 9 2018.
  3. Originally published in Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan. 1970, pp. 73-82.Sturges, Robert S. The Pardoner’s Different Erotic Practices. 2000. 28 9 2018. pp. 47-59. .


Read more