For this week’s blog post, I would like to examine the character of the Pardoner. I have a few ideas about his peculiar and ambiguous characterization, and I am really curious to know what you all think about him. The Pardoner commits offenses against the morality of Chaucer’s time; “he is not only a ‘geldyng or a mare’ (II. 669-91) but also both a ‘pardoner’ peddling false relics (II. 692-706)” (McAlpine 8). I see a common thread moving through each of the Pardoner’s roles, and the link seems to be the paradoxical idea of open deception. The reader encounters a character who calls attention to his differentness; he “flaunt[s] his friendship with the Summoner” (McAlpine 15), makes no effort to cover his ambiguous face as “dischevelee save his cappe he rood al bare” (685), and he acknowledges his use of false relics. I would like to suggest that despite the unsavory nature of his character, the Pardoner is weaving a complex veil. The more he exposes to us, the more we become aware that he may be one step ahead as he slowly reveals a more complicated intention, making curious allusions to Church debates, sodomitical practices, etc and forcing the reader think about his true motivation. I think that the Pardoner builds a strong defense to protect his precarious position in society by layering openness with deception, and that his ambiguous external appearance is merely an extension of the Pardoner’s manipulation. How can he be prosecuted if he complicates his crimes and confuses his companions?
There is something unique about a man with “A vois he hadde as smal as hath a goot” (690) choosing to sing loudly to his male companion: “Of Rouncival, his freend and his compeer/ That straight was conmen fro the Court of Rome/ ful loude he soong, ‘Com hider, love, to me’” (General Prologue 672-6). I would like to use this song as an example of the Pardoner’s peculiar body and behavior, and not as evidence of a homosexual relationship with the Summoner. Whether the blurring of the gender line is biological (if the Pardoner is a eunuch from birth or by some act of castration) or a choice on the Pardoner’s part (if he chooses to adopt potentially effeminate traits) we are left with a sexually ambiguous character who flaunts this sexual ambiguity in front of his companions. We have all seen through past texts that gender deception in the Middle Ages is extremely dangerous; “in such cases [of sodomy] the gender-conforming parties do not seem to have been punished as severely as their gender-bending associates” (Mills 74). Therefore, no matter the Pardoner’s backstory, he must assume a defensive position to both sell his pardons successfully and occupy his unusual position.
I suggest a reading of the Pardoner where he is neither a victim of circumstance nor a greasy charlatan, but rather an intelligent master of artifice. He subtly weaves manipulation into his story by telling a tale that incorporates most of the commonplace sins (avarice, gluttony, violence, etc) while including a personification of never-ending Purgatory with the character of the Old Man who cannot die. Intense feelings of guilt for the sins and fear of punishment would likely leave the Pardoner’s companions wishing for a temporal pardon despite their logical knowledge that the pardons are false. The Pardoner simultaneously does his business and protects himself by subtly “exploiting the potential self-deceit in those he imagines condemn him, [and he] attempts to convict his customers of being themselves ‘envoluped in synne’” (McAlpine 16). By calling attention to the sins of his customers, he downplays his own sins while urging them to buy his pardons.
In the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue, the narrative voice shifts to a tone of certainty, openness, and rhetorical persuasion. The Pardoner’s technique of disclosing to his companions that “for myn entente is not but for to winne/ And nothing for correction of sinne” (115-6) is brilliant; who better to sell to sinners than a sinner? The trick seems to be an angle of familiarity and self-deprecation; by confessing to engaging in the falsehood his companions may already suspect, he makes them feel special, and by appearing as a potential eunuch or queerly gendered being, he makes himself seem nonthreatening. Therefore, the Pardoner avoids trying to make purchasing a pardon seem logical and instead relies on guilt, fear, and a level of intimacy (however falsely constructed) to do the selling for him.
Finally, I argue that the Pardoner is somewhat successful in his sales pitch. Although the Host does not respond well to the Pardoner’s suggestion to “unbokele anoon they purs” (657) and purchase a relic, the reader can see that the Pardoner has succeeded in making one sale: the Knight urges the Host to forgive and kiss the Pardoner. The Host is clearly unconvinced by the Pardoner’s sales pitch; in his outburst he calls attention to the Pardoner’s ambiguous sexuality and false salesmanship “thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech/ And swere it were a relik of a saint…I wolde I hadde thy coilons in myn hand…Lat cutte hem of” (663-666). However, because the Knight is of a higher social standing than the Host, I read the tidy close of the Epilogue as the Pardoner landing the sale that counts the most: The Pardoner sold no relics, but he sold the Knight on himself. The group going to Canterbury essentially represents a microcosm of the larger society (including a member of each main class and trade,) and therefore when the Knight allows the Pardoner to remain a safely established member of the group, I argue that the Pardoner’s sales technique is ultimately successful.
McAlpine, Monica E. “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How it Matters.” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 8-22.
Chaucer’s General Prologue and the Pardoner’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue.
Mills, Robert. “Homosexuality: Specters of Sodom.”