The Pardoner’s Tale Term Paper
Introduction: Repentance as the Ultimate Choice
Of all the stories in Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer The Pardoner’s Tale and its Prologue must be the most famous and by far the most memorable of all the “tales”. Setting a challenging plot and developing a rather unpredictable twist, Chaucer wrote a unique work which deserves taking a closer look at. Despite the fact that the Tale and the Prologue revolve around the issue of morality most of the time, the two stories manage to touch upon a range of other issues, among which the one of repentance takes a good chunk of the poem, which makes The Pardoner and its Prologue display certain similarities with the Middle English penitential lyrics.
Calling for the Lord Almighty: Pater Noster and The Pardoner
To start with, The Pardoner’s Tale and the Middle English penitential lyrics touch upon the issue of the relationships between a man and God. While in the Middle English penitential lyrics, the idea of a man establishing relationships with God is obvious.
Indeed, according to Luis Alberto Lázaro, The Pardoner’s Tale offers a lot in terms of revealing the specifics of the Christian belief and the ways in which people speak to the Lord, contrasting it sharply to the ways offered by the Medieval church: “Chaucer himself recited his lines in front of a courtly audience, entertaining his listeners with· biting stories about unscrupulous clergy or dissolute women” (Lázaro 147).
Indeed, if considering Chaucer’s poem closer, one will see that the author tries to convey the idea that people should remember about the words of wisdom that the Bible says and let God into their souls and minds: “Now for the love of Christ Who died for us, forsake / your oaths, great and small” (Chaucer).
Comparing the given feature of Chaucer’s poem, it is necessary to mention that the Middle English penitential lyrics by Patterson actually manages to get the same message across, though in quite a different way: “Une fader in hevene riche, / Thi name be hallid ever i-liche” (Patterson 108).
It should be mentioned though, that, in contrast to the Middle English penitential lyrics, in which the author addresses God in a direct manner and with a certain message to get across, whether it is a plea or appraise: “Ne lete us falle in no fondinge” (Patterson 108) the characters in The Pardoner’s Tale mention the name of God rather as a way to make sure that the Lord will keep them from certain harm: “Now for the love of Christ Who died for us, forsake / your oaths, great and small” (Chaucer) seems an exclamation than a plea; moreover, it seems that the manner of mentioning God’s name I rather a habit than a conscientious attempt to address the Lord.
Hence, the constant mentioning of the Lord’s name in The Pardoner’s Tale and The Prologue can also be considered a specific satire which Chaucer used in his works, as it has been mentioned above. As a matter of fact, satire is the key word that depicts Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, which also makes the poem differ from Patterson’s Middle English penitential lyrics.
While The Pardoner’s Tale portrays the people in the poem in a rather satirical way: “My holy / pardon will cure you all, provided that you offer / nobles and other sterling coin, or else silver rings, / brooches, spoons” (Chaucer), the character in Patterson’s Middle English penitential lyrics are depicted in a much more serious manner: “Jhesu cryst whane he sculd dey” (Patterson 102).
Nevertheless, both authors touch upon the same issue, i.e., faith and a man’s relationships with God, with Chaucer revealing the most despicable sides of human nature: ““O / Lord,” he said, “if only I could have all this treasure / to myself” (Chaucer), and Patterson describing the fear and awe that a sinner feels when speaking to God: “I am duclus sum in to my bed, / terribilis mors [conturbat me]” (Patterson 103).
Pater Noster in Anglico and The Pardoner: The Similarities
Much like Pater Noster, Pater Noster in Anglico has a number of issues in common with Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, i.e., the topic, the theme, the metaphors, to name a few. Despite a comparatively small size, Pater Noster in Anglico yet manages to convey a lot of ideas which Chaucer also offers the readers to consider in his poem.
To start with, Pater Noster in Anglico begins with addressing to God: “Une fader in hevene riche” (Patterson 108) and is altogether devoted to praising the Lord’s name. Likewise, The Pardoner’s Tale is also filled with the lines in which people address God in a certain manner: “‘By God’s precious heart,’/ and ‘By His nails’ and ‘By the blood of Christ in the / abbey of Hales” (Chaucer).
Filled with references to Lord Almighty, Chaucer’s poem, however, contrasts with the naivety of the prayer mentioned by Patterson. While the latter is written for the sake of glorifying the name of God, the people in Chaucer’s poem mention the Lord’s name and the names of saints in vain, which is already a sign that they do not take their beliefs too seriously: “By St. John, you / shall not depart so easily!” (Chaucer).
In addition, while the overall tone of Patterson’s poem is uplifting and high-flown, Chaucer’s characters mention the Lord’s name when talking about the most despicable things, which also adds to the contrast between the two books: “Nay, old churl, not so fast, by God” (Chaucer).
Perhaps, the message which both The Pardoner and the Middle English penitential lyrics works so well because neither of the works uses actual people or even their credible impersonations to convey the key idea. It is not secret that in both cases, the characters are exaggerated versions of themselves.
Each of the characters in the Pardoner’s Tale is a classic stereotype. In other words, the character in Patterson’s poems is a generic image of a praying man, which makes the given image a typical generalization. Hence, the characters in both Chaucer’s and Patterson’s poems are generalized, which serves to make the chain of authors’ arguments even more impressive: “It would be strange indeed if Chaucer had intended his characters to be recognizable as particular living individuals, or as scientific phenomena, and nothing more” (Miller).
Hence, in both poems, the characters are easily identifiable, yet hardly relatable to any particular person, which makes the argument concerning faith and church all the stronger.
Asking for Forgiveness: When Timor Mortis Is Stronger than Ever
Another issue which the two works both touch upon is the one concerning forgiveness. One of the major themes in Chaucer’s poem, the given issue helps draw the line between the Kingdom of God and the church; the author obviously stresses that there is a considerable difference between the faith in God, and its representation in the form of a church and its clergy.
It is quite peculiar that Chaucer depicts the clergy in a rather unpleasant way. As a matter of fact, Patterson does not mention any clergy or even church in his poems whatsoever – there is only the Holy Trinity and him, a portrait of an average sinner praying to the Lord. As Hicks stresses,
Unlike Augustine’s Christian teacher who exercises dignity, restraint, and moderation when he delivers his homily, Chaucer’s Pardoner inverts Augustine’s precautions on action in his sermon. He speaks in an unpleasant, irritating voice and displays unnecessary, distracting gestures when he presents his moral tale; thus, he inverts Augustine’s standards of homiletic decorum. (Hicks 83)
When the Heart Breaks in Three Parts: The Holy Trinity
Along with the rest of the Middle English penitential lyrics, the poem by Chaucer shares a lot of similar issues and ideas with the poem named in Patterson’s book as “Alas, My Hart Will Brek in Thre.” However, as it has been mentioned before, Chaucer’s poem is a satire; hence, the mentioning of the Christ, the Holy Spirit and God is a parody on the then idea of the Trinity: “The oath of the three ‘To lyve and dyen ech of hem for oother’ (703) parodies the mutuality of the divine Trinity.
If successful, this drunken effort to ‘play God’ would of course spell disaster for the race” (Hatcher 247). Like Chaucer, Patterson also mentions the Holy Trinity, yet does so to create the atmosphere of spirituality: “Alas, my hart will brek in thre” (Patterson 103).
Comparing the above-mentioned idea to the one conveyed by Patterson in his Middle English penitential lyrics, one must admit that Patterson’s poems are completely deprived of the bitter irony which Chaucer’s lines are shot through. While the latter manages to develop the idea of faith with the help of the most noble and uplifting images of repenting poor sinners and the Lord Almighty taking care of their lives, Chaucer offers a bitter reality where indulgences are sold as a token of forgiveness from the havens above.
Thus, the two poems provide a rather sharp contrast when compared. Even though Besserman and Storm claim that “That Chaucer held some views in common with the Lollards does not mean that he necessarily held all, and to attribute to him condemnation of Canterbury pilgrimage must surely strain credulity” (Besserman and Storm 406), it is still obvious that Chaucer makes an attempt to remind the readers about the Holy Trinity and make them forget about the power of the corrupt clergy.
Facing the Dread of Death: Forgiveness as a Way to Overcome It
Another recurrent theme that one can find in both The Pardoner and the Middle English penitential lyrics is the idea of forgiveness. Again, offered in a rather subtle way in The Pardoner’s Tale, in Patterson’s lyrics, it is rather on the nose. Anyway, it cannot be denied that the issue is in the spotlight of discussion in The Pardoner’s Tale as well as in the Middle English penitential lyrics.
Again, while in Patterson’s poems, the idea is considered from a viewpoint of redemption, Chaucer takes the examples of how the issue of guilt is handled by the lowest of the low: “Here in / my bag I have relics and indulgences, as fair as any / man’s in Britain, which were given to me by the / pope’s own hand” (Chaucer).
Indulgences, one of the worst ideas that have ever occurred to the clergy, as the means to buy one’s innocence, represent the scale of the moral lapse of the given time slot. Likewise, Patterson also talks about forgiveness, yet his idea of forgiving one’s sins is way more devout: “God graunte vs grace hym for to seure” (Patterson 103).
It is also quite peculiar that The Pardoner offers the idea of forgiveness, and, to Chaucer’s credit, rather subtly, one must admit: “God forgive you your trespasses / and guard you from the sin of avarice” (Chaucer) is, perhaps, the only line in which the word “forgiveness” is mentioned.
However, the idea of looking for repentance is definitely there in Chaucer’s poem. The poem even begins with a cry for forgiveness and the need to repent: “Our Host began to swear as if he were mad; “Help! / Alas! By the nails and cross of Christ, this was a false / churl and a false justice!” (Chaucer).
Compared to Chaucer’s work, Patterson’s poems seem to be more explicit in their idea of forgiveness, like prayers are supposed to be: “Semper in sinnis I ete my bred” (Patterson 103); it is quite important that the author of the poem does not even beg for forgiveness – like a mere mortal in front of God, the author knows that he will be judged like a sinner is supposed to.
However, Patterson’s “Alas, My Hart Will Brek in Thre” also touches upon a very interesting thought which is not developed by Chaucer, yet can serve as the continuation of the idea of forgiveness. According to Patterson, death can be viewed as a logical ending to the life full of sins.
The author starts with the fact any human being is a sinner by default, which is why in the end, terribilis morttis awaits for him/her: “Infirmus sum, I may not Rise. / Terribilis mortis conturbat me” (Patterson 103). However, in the final lines of the poem, Patterson makes it clear that for a sinner who is waiting for his earthly suffer it end, death can be considered as a way of salvation: “In Celum ther is Joy with the! / terrbilis mortis conturbat me.” (Patterson 103).
Therefore, Patterson suggests that death is already repentance for the sins made during one’s earthly life, while Chaucer insists on the fact that guilt cannot be washed away either by money, or by the sands of time: “The Pardoner may have made a mistake, but Chaucer did not” (Swart 47).
Seized by the Fear of Death: Timor Mortis in The Pardoner
Finally, the fear of death as the central theme in The Pardoner’s Tale and its prologue must be discussed. At the given point, the connection between Chaucer’s and Patterson’s works seems obvious; while in Chaucer’s work, the characters decide to defeat the fear of death and, thus, kill the Death himself, in Patterson’s Middle English penitential lyrics, the fear of death is described as a phenomenon.
It is also quite peculiar that the descriptions of death as Chaucer and Patterson see it also differ. Chaucer depicts death as the force that comes out of nowhere and takes people away, leaving their relatives and bellowed one mourn in grief: “A / stealthy thief that men call Death, who slays all the / people in this country-side, came with his spear and / struck his heart in two, and went his way without a/ word” (Chaucer).
Patterson, however, in his penitential lyrics described death as something that is quite natural to fear; the character in his poem fears the death despite his age, belief, or experience: “In August whan the levis falle […] timor mortis conturbat me” (Patterson 107). Thus, Patterson not simply depicts death as The Grim Reaper, but also makes it obvious that it is natural or a human being to be afraid of death.
Hence, the poem somewhat contrasts with the theme of Chaucer’s poem, in which the three men decide to oppose the death and, therefore, defeat their fear of it to a certain extent; at least, they no longer stay motionless in fear, but decide to do something to get rid of death instead of waiting for the day when it strikes them. However, it cannot be denied that the manner in which the three overcome the fear of death seems rather a parody of the Biblical redemption. As Hatcher explains,
When they have slain Death, no one will ever die again – and the world will therefore be perfect. Conceived on a binge, this plan parodies Christ’s redemptive act: his was self-sacrificial whereas theirs is murderous; his overcame the death of the soul whereas theirs aims to overcome the death of the body; his preserved but transcended the natural mortality of individuals whereas theirs aims to subvert the state of nature. (Hatcher 247)
Finally, the development of the characters’ attitude towards death must be mentioned. In Chaucer’s poem, there is a logical development of the idea of death, which starts with sin and fear: “They made the devil’s sacrifice / Within that devil’s temple, wicked wise, / By superfluity both vile and vain” (Chaucer) and ends with an acceptance of the fact that a human is mortal: “And therefore I must / keep my old age as long as it is God’s will” (Chaucer).
In contrast to Chaucer’s characters, the character of Patterson’s lyrics does not evolve – he is fixed on the idea that death is something to be feared: “Thanne ofte thynke on cristes passion / Whan timos mortis conturbat me” (Patterson 108). Hence, in a certain aspect, Chaucer’s work is stronger than Patterson’s preachy tone: “And Pardoner, I / pray you draw near again, and let us laugh and make / sport as we did before” (Chaucer).
Conclusion: When the Pardon Is Finally Given
Taking the above-mentioned into account, one must admit that there is a considerable range of similarities between the Middle English penitential lyrics and the poem written by Chaucer, especially when it comes to discussing The Pardoner’s Tale.
Even though the works by Chaucer and the ones by Patterson belong to completely different genres and have considerable differences in their topics and styles, they still discuss the same issues. Hence, it can be considered that, much like the Middle English penitential lyrics, the poem by Chaucer is shot through with the idea of guilt and repentance.
Besserman, Lawrence and Melvin Storm. “Chaucer’s Pardoner.” PMLA 98.3 (1983): 405-406. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey n.d., The Pardoner, His Prologue, and His Tale. Web.
Hatcher, Elizabeth. “Life without Death: The Old Man in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’.” The Chaucer Review 9.3 (1975): 246-252. Print.
Hicks, James. “Chaucer’s Inversion of Augustinian Rhetoric in ‘The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale’.” Essays in Medieval Studies 3 (n.d.): 78-95. Web.
Lázaro, Luis A. n.d., Orality and the Satiric Tradition in The Pardoner’s Tale. Web.
Miller, Robert P. “Chaucer’s Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner’s Tale.” Speculum 30.2 (1955): 180-199. Print.
Patterson, Frank Allan. The Middle English Penitential Lyrics. Norwood, MA: The Columbia University Press. 1911. Print.
Swart, Jacobus. “Chaucer’s Pardoner.” Neophilologus 36.1 (1952): 45-50. Print.
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