Monday, September 01, 2008
More than his tale, the Pardoner in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales exhibits a far interesting character. While he is employed by the Church, he does not practice the very virtues of a Christian. This hypocrisy is evident in both his prologue and his tale.
The Pardoner, like his fellow pilgrims, brings with him to Canterbury the things identified with his profession: papal indulgences as well as a sack containing dubious relics. He offers suspiciously signed pardons for specific sins to the repentant, who would give a donation to the Church via its employed pardoner. In the long run, the penitent’s act of charity morphed into a necessity in receiving indulgences, which the Pardoner pockets instead of reaching the intended destination. Meanwhile, his false relics include a stone-filled brass cross which may be readily mistaken for gold and a glass jar crammed with animal bones which the Pardoner claims as those of saints’ and which can serve as amulets. By selling forged papers which pledge spiritual clemency and “sacred” objects that ward off evils, the Pardoner capitalizes on religion during pilgrimages that double as tours. As if that is not enough to scandalize and to anger both the church and its faithful, the frank manner in which the Pardoner tells this deception and his offering of pardons to other pilgrims point to an even graver outrage that a Christian should feel toward the falsely virtuous Pardoner.
Chaucer’s fictionalization of the medieval period’s controversial pardoners matched the actual criticism by some church people, who condemned the notion that a sinner may be purged of sins by bribing the Church. This practice came under greater fire during the Reformation Movement, when simony as well as the excesses of the priests themselves ran opposite the Christian teachings of self-denial and of the renunciation of worldly possessions.
Prior to the prologue of the Pardoner’s tale, the freshly-told Physician’s tale about a father’s murder of his beautiful daughter so horrified the Host that he requests the Pardoner to narrate a more cheerful story. His agreement to the plea only after having stuffed his belly with food and corny ale reminds one of the capital sin of gluttony. On the other hand, his agreement to the pilgrims’ request that he tell a moral story is ironic since the Pardoner himself is amoral.
After swigging his drink, the Pardoner narrates his exemplum, a special kind of anecdote contained within a sermon during the medieval times and is intended to establish the truth of a moral. His tale’s idea is an ancient one, and its theme “Radix malorum est cupiditas (Greed is the root of all evil)” a universal one, but what is more striking than either the tale or the maxim is the latter’s reflection of the Pardoner’s own avaricious interests as proven by his frank admission of misappropriated donations as well as his actual selling of slips of counterfeit indulgences.
Apart from the disgusting bluntness of the Pardoner regarding his professional corruption, he is also given to preaching, which is his way of retaliating at ill-motivated people but not his way of rectifying their offenses. He constantly preaches avariciousness over material things, but confesses that he himself is stung by covetousness over money, supported by the fact that he will rather deprive a hungry family of its last penny rather than surrender the comfort offered by his income. In effect, he sermonizes against swindling, gluttony and greed, yet violates the very same sins in such a proud manner that his amorality attests to the unchanging universality of greed being the origin of all ills.
The seamlessness with which the Pardoner tells his tale and his interspersion of his long sermons in it are proofs that he is very much aware of the tale’s moral. Why not, when he practically lives it out? He denounces swearing yet mentions Christ’s name in vain, attacks gluttony yet indulges in drunkenness, reviles greed yet asks for contributions from pilgrims whom he had just informed of the relics’ bogusness. While he may not be expecting that his fellow pilgrims will give donations that he will only pocket, the Pardoner may just be testing the extent of believability to which his hypocrisy has rendered them credulous.
His tale is just an extension of his personality, because in telling his moralistic story of three Flemish malingerers who found death with their materialism and in his intermittent sermonizing, the Pardoner wants the pilgrims to grow so guilty of their sins and so fearful of the penalty of their misdeeds as to make them pay him to forgive these through his plied trade. The relatively insignificant characters of his story are created consistently negative—materialistic, excessive, and murderous—so the Pardoner can launch into his condemnation of these sins, some of which are vices that he shamelessly indulges in.
The Pardoner, the representation of the section of the medieval society that’s the mighty church, is presented by Chaucer in a farcical, necessarily bad light, mocking him by virtue of his defiance of the moral system he is truly conscious of. This marginalization of the Pardoner’s character is best captured by the symbolic scene in the General Prologue: he comes last of all the twenty-nine pilgrims heading the sacred shrine of the Canterbury. What is more, he will probably come last among the penitents in terms of absolution for alas, the Pardoner most probably needs the greatest number of pardons, after all.