Canterbury Tales and Nationalism

Nominalism is the belief that signifiers, appearances, and perceived, sensed reality have no weight and do not show the deeper truth. In The Canterbury Tales, especially in the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer affirms nominalism. In the Pardoner’s Prologue, the Pardoner admits that he is not who he appears to be and that his relics are fake. In his paradoxical tale, the Pardoner condemns the vice of avarice, which he is guilty of practicing. Although the tale means what it appears to mean about morality, for the Pardoner, the words he speaks have no moral value. Chaucer not only affirms nominalism in the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale but also in other parts of the book, such as in the disclaimers by various narrators. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses his characters and their tales to affirm nominalism.
The Pardoner is a noble ecclesiastic who sells indulgences. Being a man of the church, he appears to be holy, pious, and better than common people, but in reality, he is no less of a sinner than anyone else. In his prologue, he admits that he is deceitful and that his relics are not authentic. He says his “intention is to win money, not at all to cast out sins”, and he would never “intentionally live in poverty” (Chaucer 511-513). He preaches arrogantly to dissemble his true intentions. His social status as a pardoner is true in name only. An authentic pardoner would live like the apostles and care about helping sinners, but the Pardoner admits to wanting “money, wool, cheese, and wheat, even if it is given by the poorest page, or the poorest widow in a village, although her children will die of starvation” (513). Chaucer reveals through the Pardoner that people are not who they seem.
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...not what they appear. They are deceiving because they do not reflect the opinions of the narrator; they reflect the people whose stories are told.
Chaucer uses his characters and their tales to affirm nominalism. The Pardoner and his tale prove that he is a pardoner in name only - his social status does not reflect who he really is. The metaphor that death is a man in the Pardoner’s Tale is not to be taken literally because it is actually symbolizing the plague. The disclaimers that various narrators give reveal that their words are deceiving - they appear to reflect the opinions of the narrators, but they do not. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer affirms nominalism and destroys the convention that things are what they appear to be.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, A. Kent Hieatt, and Constance B. Hieatt. The Canterbury Tales. Toronto: Bantam, 1971. Print.
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