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A Look at the Pardoner: the Genius of Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales is a literary masterpiece in which the brilliant author Geoffrey Chaucer sought out to accomplish various goals. Chaucer wrote his tales during the late 1300’s. This puts him right at the beginning of the decline of the Middle Ages. Historically, we know that a middle class was just starting to take shape at this time, due to the emerging commerce industry. Chaucer was able to see the importance and future success of the middle class, and wrote his work with them in mind. Knowing that the middle class was not interested in lofty philosophical literature, Chaucer wrote his work as an extremely comical and entertaining piece that would be more interesting to his audience. Also, Chaucer tried to reach the middle class by writing The Canterbury Tales in English, the language of the middle class rather than French, the language of the educated upper class. The most impressive aspect of Chaucer’s writing is how he incorporated into his piece some of his own controversial views of society, but yet kept it very entertaining and light on the surface level. One of the most prevalent of these ideas was his view that certain aspects of the church had become corrupt. This idea sharply contrasted previous Middle Age thought, which excepted the church’s absolute power and goodness unquestionably. He used corrupt church officials in his tales to illustrate to his audience that certain aspects of the church needed to be reformed. The most intriguing of these characters was the Pardoner. Chaucer’s satirical account of the Pardoner is written in a very matter-of-fact manner that made it even more unsettling with his audience. Chaucer uses his straightforwardness regarding the hypocrisy of the Pardoner, suggestive physiognomy of the character, and an interesting scene at the conclusion of the Pardoner’s Tale to inculcate his views of the church to his audience. The way that Chaucer used these literary devices to subtly make his views known to an audience while hooking them with entertainment, shows that Chaucer was truly a literary genius.
The first of these devices, his straightforwardness and matter-of-factness regarding the Pardoner’s hypocrisy, is used first to appall his readers, and then to cause them to take a second look at the church in their own society. Chaucer knew that most of his audience lacked the ability to fully understand his views, but he hoped that by using this device he could plant seeds of reason in them that would lead to reform of corruption he saw among church officials like the pardoners.
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The Pardoner is very open about his hypocrisy and does not show any sign of remorse for it. In preaching to his audiences his theme is always “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (Chaucer 1672), which means, greed is the root of all evil. However, he then proudly admits, “Avarice is the theme that I employ in all my sermons, to make the people free in giving pennies-especially to me. My mind is fixed on what I stand to win and not at all upon correcting sin.” and also boast, “By such hornswoggling I’ve won, year by year, a hundred marks” (1673). The simple fact that a person with such an evil heart, so full of greed, could be successful at accomplishing a duty of the church, makes evident the fact that there must be something morally wrong with that duty itself. Also, the fact that the Pardoner so openly admits his corrupt actions causes the reader to question whether this is not common practice among pardoners.
The second way that Chaucer ingeniously attributed corruption to his Pardoner was though physiognomy. In Chaucer’s time there was a well-known science of “interpreting a man’s character from a study of his features”(Duino 322). Certain stereotypes concerning physical features were understood by all people of his time, so Chaucer used these stereotypes as symbolism in his work. The following passage from the general prologue illustrates this well:
This Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax…and let the ends about his shoulders spread in thin clusters…and in his eyes he glittered like a hair…
[and] had a voice like a goat’s bleat. He was beardless and would never have a beard…I think he was a gelding or a mare. (Chaucer 1626-1627)
Chaucer loaded this passage with physiognomy to let his readers know what type of man this pardoner was. First, the long thin yellow hair and high-pitched voice were symbols of a lack of manhood (Duino 322). Second, the wide glittering eyes were a symbol of shamelessness and pride. Thirdly, the fact that he had no facial hair not only was a symbol of a lack of manhood, but was also a symbol of sly cleverness (323). The last line of this passage is probably the most intriguing of them all. It suggests that the pardoner was a eunuch (someone who has either had his genitals removed).
By making the Pardoner a eunuch, Chaucer accomplished his goal of writing with deeper meaning and symbolism while maintaining an entertaining work one again. The effect of this on his audience was one of disgust and intrigue, but Chaucer had other intentions that stemmed from Biblical text. The Bible mentions two types of eunuchs: those who became eunuchs for spiritual reasons, and those who became eunuchs unspiritual reasons. The first type of eunuch sought to cut themselves off from worldly desires. If a member of the church was to be a eunuch, this was the only acceptable type. In fact Deuteronomy 23:1 condemns unspiritual eunuchs by commanding, “No on who had been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of God” (Santa Biblia 247). However, the audience knows that the Pardoner is not a spiritual man, so it certainly was not for spiritual reasons. It can be assumed, however, that the Pardoner cut off his genitals because he was a very distorted individual who secretly wished to be a female. In attempt to keep this a secret, the Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath’s prologue to announce that he desires to have a wench in every town (Helterman 2). Later the reader realizes this was simply a cover up when the Pardoner sings a “song of carnal, rather than spiritual, love” to the Summoner (Miller 182). To Chaucer this was the ultimate of hypocrisies. A eunuch who was, according to the Old Testament, not even supposed to be allowed in church, he made a leader of the church. Also, a spiritual eunuch chooses to cut himself off from temporal desires, but Chaucer’s Pardoner choose to cut himself off from spiritual desires. These underlying messages of hypocrisy give the educated reader an idea of Chaucer’s personal views of some of the pardoner’s in the church. Also, the manner in which Chaucer used both obvious character flaws of the Pardoner, and deeper hypocrisies of his nature, show the depth and genius of his writing.
Another passage in The Canterbury Tales that invites interpretation and shows more obviously Chaucer’s complexity, is at the conclusion of “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Pardoner told a type of tale to the other pilgrims that he was very accustomed to telling. It was a tale that taught the moral, “radix malorum est cupiditas” (Chaucer 1674). The Pardoner had previously admitted to the other pilgrims his manipulative method of selling worthless relics and pardons. However, at the conclusion of his tale he tries to use that exact method to sell his worthless goods to the pilgrims. There is also a very interesting confrontation between the Pardoner and the Host. The Pardoner singles out the Host and tries to sell him his pardons, but the Host refuses and verbally attacks the Pardoner. To this attack the “Pardoner did not answer; not a word, he was so angry, could he find to say” (Chaucer 1685). This is one passage in which entertainment is not necessarily the obvious goal. Chaucer knew that this passage would not be easily understood by the middle class, but hoped it would spur deeper thought in them. In fact, scholars have not been able to agree on its purpose, and have come up with made many different interpretations. The most uncommon of these was by Professor George Kittredge of Harvard University. He believed that this was actually a moment of true sincerity by the Pardoner, and he was genuinely concerned about the well being of the other pilgrims’ spirits when he tried to sell them the pardons (Duino 322). Others believe that the goal of the Pardoner was the ultimate sell. If he could tell the pilgrims his method of selling first, and still successfully pull off the sell, it would have been “the crowning success of his career” as a seller of pardons (Duino 323). I believe, however, that Chaucer was just showing how accustomed the Pardoner was with using this tale in his sales pitch. At the immediate conclusion of his tale the Pardoner announces, “And now, good men, your sins may God forgive and keep you specially from avarice!” (Chaucer 1684). Since the Pardoner naturally and skillfully goes right into this sales pitch, it is evident that he was simply reciting a memorized sermon. Also, the fact that the pardoner recites this pitch with such enthusiasm, shows that this manipulation was something he was very experienced in, and rather enjoyed doing. When the Host refused to buy the relics and then preceded to insult the Pardoner because of his hypocrisy, the Pardoner realized that he had gone right into his sales pitch without even thinking. Unlike most of The Canterbury Tales, this passage demands interpretation even at the surface level. However, the one obvious point Chaucer sought to make in this passage, was how important the pilgrims’ knowledge of the Pardoner’s hypocrisy was. Because of their knowledge of his hypocrisy, the pilgrims were able to refrain from buying into the Pardoner’s con which would surely have brought them “Christ’s curse” (Chaucer 1685). This importance of knowledge, and especially the awareness of the corruption of certain church practices, was what he hoped to instill in all of his readers.
Chaucer’s genius as a writer has never been denied. By stealthily incorporating his controversial views of the church, while still being able to make his tales entertaining to all people, Chaucer succeeded in writing a literary masterpiece. At the decline of the middle ages, Chaucer was seeking to promote rational thought, especially among the middle class. He hoped to do this by showing the obvious hypocrisy of those who sold indulgences and by showing how important awareness of hypocrisy is. He did this with the literary devices of straight-forwardness and physiognomy, as well as the events that took place at the conclusion of “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Breaking through the surface value of this entertaining piece into the more complex aspects of Chaucer’s writings also gives credit to his greatness. However, it was the way in which Chaucer sought to raise questions concerning the church’s practices, almost as propaganda, that Chaucer showed himself to be a writer ahead of his time.