The Pardoner's Tale  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Pardoner's Tale is one of the The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The story is in the form of an exemplum: the Pardoner first explains the theme he will address, then tells his story and finally draws the conclusion he had already mentioned in his introduction.

At the time, a "pardoner" was a person selling indulgences officially recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Church sanctioned the exchange of indulgences for money during the Middle Ages, the temptation of corruption for pardoners was great. In the Pardoner's Prologue, the Host invites the Pardoner to tell the next tale; the Pardoner delivers a sermon against greed, gluttony and gambling, previewing vices he will address in his tale. After he tells his tale, the Pardoner invites the other pilgrims, beginning with the Host, to pay him for pardons and to buy the relics he has, though he had already told them that they were fake.

Character analysis

In the General Prologue, the narrator describes the Pardoner as having a voice as small as hath a goat and a face as smooth as it were lately shaved. From this, the narrator concludes that the Pardoner is either a gelding [eunuch] or a mare [effeminate]. Such physical descriptions indicate that the Pardoner may not only be sexually deficient, but spiritually deficient as well. As a man of the Church, he should live a spiritual life and not participate in the pleasures of the flesh, so ironically, he may be also considered a spiritual eunuch.

The religious climate at the time that Chaucer wrote this piece was pre-Reformation. Therefore, the Sacraments were still largely considered, as explained by St. Augustine, “outward and visible signs of an inward and invisible grace.” The suggestion that outward appearances are reliable indicators of internal character was not considered radical or improper among contemporary audiences. Indeed, the vivid depiction of the Pardoner’s hair, those locks “yellow as wax But smoothe as a strike (hank) of flex (flax),” does little to improve the reader’s opinion of his moral character.

Chaucer develops his description and analysis of the Pardoner throughout the Pardoner’s Tale using suggestive analogies that provide the reader with the perception of a man of extreme sexual and spiritual poverty, willingly admitting that he abuses his authority and sells fake relics. Eugene Vance illustrates one parallel effectively fostered by Chaucer’s sexual innuendoes. He writes: “The kneeling posture to which the Pardoner summons the pilgrims would place their noses right before his deficient crotch.”

In addition, Vance expands upon this comparison, identifying a sexual innuendo implicit in the Pardoner’s many relics. “The pardoner conspires to set himself up as a moveable shrine endowed with relics unsurpassed by those of anyone else in England.” Yet, of course, the relics are all fakes, creating a suggestion of both the Pardoner's impotence and his spiritual ill-worth.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Pardoner's Tale" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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