Essay – The Pardoner’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Pardoner Uses Religion to Identify Himself as an Orator

Religion plays an important part in The Pardoner’s sense of identity as a great orator. On pretense of working for the church as a Pardoner, the individual behind the official role may sell relics and use his skill as an orator to establish an identity for himself where he can feel needed and can be remembered for his skills. He takes pride in his ability to persuade through rhetoric and makes a profit from it. The Pardoner does not believe it matters what his intentions are because he considers the profession more like a job that will get him food and drink as long as he can convince others to trust him. Making money means he could just buy his way out of sin from someone else so it perpetuates the very idea of greed. This is possibly the whole irony of the Pardoner’s sermon against avarice.

Another way religion has helped him is that it protects The Pardoner’s identity as a fraud because people can overlook his actions as long as what he is preaching is the Word of God. In addition, the allegedly signed documents from the Church protect his body from physical harm if people should attack him. His need for physical protection propels the suggestion in the text that the Pardoner could be castrated. It is never confirmed explicitly but the imagery of bodily mutilation is present in many forms throughout the tale and it seems that the Pardoner wishes to share a sense of discomfort about it with others. In sharing such feelings, the individual behind the role can extend his personal struggles to others around him. Missing a sexual organ from the body, according to the Host in the general prologue, might explain the effeminate appearance and high pitched voice of the Pardoner. In missing a part from the body that can provide intimacy with another person, the Pardoner may want to find other ways to connect to people. Also this could be his drive to making an identity for himself in the first place. If he does not belong to any obvious gender group, then he makes himself a spot in society where he can feel useful and confident. The function of the body as a link but also as an obstacle in connecting the person to others can be compared to how relics are used to connect people to saints and through them to the power of God. The way the Pardoner connects to others is through speech. Through preaching, the Pardoner gains a sense of power and control over how others feel and act. Furthermore, the willingness of the audience to believe in the relics gives the Pardoner a sense of the power of language which he in turn uses to establish himself as a convincing orator. The need to be remembered and feel connected to other people does not excuse his dishonest sale of fake relics however. In telling his tale to the group of pilgrims, the Pardoner may be encouraging the pilgrims to recognize the power of language to define and modulate how others see them but also how they see themselves.

The Pardoner considers his profession as a job and a way to make a profit using the skills he has. It is related by the Pardoner that he “al by rote” (332) tells his sermons and that, “[he] peynes to han a hauteyn speche and rynge it out as round as gooth a belle” (330-31). The fact that he memorizes his sermons speaks to his dedication in delivering the carefully crafted speech with precision. Like a bell, he hopes the speech is pleasing and joyful for the audience to hear.

Additionally, a method he uses to make his sermons memorable is to use an exemplum. He knows that “lewd peple loven tales old. Swiche thynges kan they wel reporte and holde” (437-438). Again the Pardoner’s ability to understand the art of rhetoric is made clear, further establishing himself as a fine orator. In this line he distances himself from the laypeople by claiming he knows what can influence them. At the same time he exudes arrogance by saying that the laypeople can only remember things when they are told as a tale but he can memorize entire sermons. In this way the Pardoner isolates himself from the crowd by making himself feel special and this plays into creating an identity for himself. This is because to create an identity, the person has to stand out in some way but as explained later, the Pardoner also feels the need to belong in a crowd. His preaching also helps him connect to others.
Another hint at his dedication to the craft is his consideration to organize his speeches. The theme of the sermons he says is “alwey oon and evere was: Radix malorum est cupiditas” (333-334). If his intent is to make money from selling pardons but he is preaching against greed, the Pardoner admits to his hypocrisy. This questions the authenticity of his preaching; whether he really means what he says. The Pardoner does not necessarily have to follow through with the teachings himself because they are not originally his but the Bible’s teachings. In terms of the relics which he admits are just “clouts and bones” (348) the Pardoner is not excused for lying about such objects. It is clear that he is willing to lie in order to gain money. The whole idea that the pardoner preaches against greed but makes money is ironic because money is needed in the first place to buy people’s way out of sin. Perhaps the Pardoner is aware of this irony and tells the tale to make others aware of this loop.  By using his skills, the Pardoner can be remembered for his sermons and feel accomplished and useful because of his successful work.

His career as an orator is what he is praised for and so he defines himself through this skill but the Church has given the Pardoner protection to continue this work. Whether they did so directly or indirectly is unclear. Before he gives a sermon, the Pardoner his “bulles shewe alle and some oure lige lords seel on my patente, that shewe I first, my body to warente” (336-337). In a time when many people were illiterate, these letters could have been forged and so it really falls on the individuals to decide whether to trust him or not. In any case, the documents would at least be a reason to avoid bothering the Pardoner in case they were actually authentic.

For the Pardoner, it does not matter that his intentions are to gain profit from Pardoning because he can get away with not practising what he preaches since he is only relating the Word of God. As so, people can overlook the spokesperson in this case. The Pardoner’s belief is that his intentions in preaching do not matter because “many a predicacioun comth ofte tyme of yvel entencious” (407) and “yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne from avarice and soore to repente” (430). Even if his intentions are not aligned with what he preaches, the preaching is to be received by the people for the material of the speech itself. Again the Pardoner makes a distinction between the person behind the preaching and the official role as Pardoner. There can be private feelings behind a preacher but he still has to do his job and the Pardoner does so very well since people are still reminded of the religious teaching from him.

Religion protects the Pardoner’s identity because it gives him a place in society and with that, a position within a structure of social hierarchy. This idea is suggested through the Pardoner’s adamant lecture on how swearing is worse than murder or any other sin for that matter. He says “it is grisly for to here hem swere. Oure blissed Lordes body they to-tere” (473-474). According to medieval belief, swearing gives the people power to affect the actual body of the Lord. In addition he points to the numbered organization of the Ten Commandments to emphasize the gravity of swearing “as by ordre thus it stondeth” (645) since it is “the seconde heest of hym” (641). By this reasoning, swearing would threaten the identity of the Pardoner because it would break down the structure of hierarchy that makes sure people stay within the limits of their position. If anyone can harm the Lord through swearing then it wouldn’t take much to harm him.

Going back to showing documents from the Church as proof of authority, the Pardoner says his reason to show the documents is to protect his body. This shows how the church has protected his identity as the Pardoner but also how it has physically protected him from any harm someone may inflict.

For the Pardoner to specifically admit that the seal on the documents is to protect his body, pushes the Host’s suggestion that he may be castrated and that this plays into his need to establish an identity for himself. It also explains why he might wish to connect with others through speech but also maintain distance. Religion gives him a place to practice his craft in a way that brings him closer to a crowd but also to not get too intimate. If his job is to give sermons and remind people of their guilt, it is less likely that they will become friendly with him. His effeminate appearance, as the Host suggests, makes him an outcast from the general populace. The Pardoner uses his skills to make an identity for himself instead where he can be recognized.

If indeed the Pardoner is castrated, this can speak to his need of gaining control over how others see the body as there are many images of bodily mutilation in the tale. When he describes the gut to discourage gluttony, he says it is a “stinking cod, fulfilled of donge and of corrupcioun” (534-35). It makes the listeners feel disgusted by what is inside them. On the other hand it also suggests that the result of materialism – corruption and faeces- is “fulfilling” and necessary for feeling satiated. This could be his way of excusing himself of the greedy reason to carrying out dishonest work. Also about drunken men he says their face is disfigured (551). Adding to the imagery of mutilation, there is the idea that swearing can tear apart the Lord’s body. The Pardoner looks to make up for the lack of control he would have had on his own physical mutilation by forcing others to imagine the body in abnormal ways. He might wish to share the discomfort of mutilation in this way with others through his speech to share his personal struggle with feeling like an outcast.

The Pardoner’s preaching and selling of relics gives him a post where he can feel needed and important because the people want his relics and want to hear his teachings so they can get closer to God. The body functions as a link between the spirit and the outside world just as the relics connect the people to a saint and through them to God.

Considering that he could be missing a sexual organ, the Pardoner might seek other ways to feel desired. After telling his tale, the Pardoner tells the Host that he should “kisse my relikes everychon (943). There is sexual innuendo in these lines as the Pardoner tells him to kiss his relics and then the Host suggests his balls be “shrined in an hogges toord” (955). In this comparison, there is the suggestion that the relics which are animal bones, are being sold so the Pardoner feels desired and thus validated when people buy these from him. The relics are a symbolic way of sharing a body part that he cannot share because he may not have it. Therefore the relics function to help the Pardoner interact with people so he can be remembered by them but again this action also deprives him of any actual connection and intimacy. His identity as Pardoner is fixated by desiring closeness but always maintaining distance.

Furthermore, the Pardoner uses his body to preach in a compelling manner that demands the audience’s attention. As he stands on the pulpit he “peyne[s] to strecche forth the nekke and est and west upon the peple bekke” (395-396). In this strange description of the delivery of a sermon, the Pardoner describes himself as a bird pecking at the crowd. It shows that he is very eager and ready to grab at whatever they will offer but also puts him in a physical position above the others so as to remain under control of the crowd.

Continuing this image of him as a bird, when the people don’t listen he says he “wol stynge hum with my tonge smerte in prechyng” (413-14). He sees speech as something that can sting and yet again he describes his oration as “spitte[ing] out my venym under hewe of hoolynesse” (421-22). Religion acts as a shield for him to appear holy but his speech is like venom. This line emphasizes how the Pardoner sees his preaching as a way to feel like a predator that can control his prey. It also suggests that the Pardoner is aware of the poisonous nature of his speech that is to take from others to benefit himself. Also spitting venom can be seen as a defence mechanism to protect himself from threat. This threat could be a refusal of his identity as a Pardoner. His speech functions like a body because it can sting and spit out venom. He is able to aggressively defend his position as Pardoner because of his talent for persuasive rhetoric.

In conclusion, religion has provided the Pardoner a role to carry out that he uses to his advantage to make a profit and also to feel connected to others. It has protected him from harm and given him a sense of control. In the suggestion that he may be castrated, the need to feel closer to others is propelled by his being an outcast to intimate social interaction. Using his skills, the Pardoner establishes himself as an orator. He sees his profession like a job that will get him money and food to satiate his desires. The irony of his preaching is evident because he preaches against avarice but admits to preaching for money. The cycle of buying one’s way out of sin only furthers the Pardoner’s need to be greedier. The Pardoner is an interesting character who is intelligent and self-aware but his authenticity is questioned because he admits to hypocrisy. How can what he says about others or even himself be trusted? This questioning may be what Chaucer desires out of this tale. I think what Chaucer emphasizes through the Pardoner’s tale is that people have more control over reading and interpreting than they usually know. The Pardoner too seems to be aware of the powers of language to work in the dimension of both the speaker and the receiver but also as something to be seen objectively on its own.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Pardoner’s Tale”. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. 2 ed. Broadview press. 2012. p.267-276.



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