The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales.

February 18, 2009 at 8:19 pm Leave a comment

Other than the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is perhaps Chaucer’s greatest creation. We do not know exactly who he may have based his characters on, but the Pardoner was a well-known figure in fourteenth century Europe.

What Was a Pardoner?

The Pardoner was preceeded by a Summoner, who would inform an individual that they have been excommunicated from the Church, convicted of heresy, or whatever infraction that would mean your soul would burn in hell for eternity. The Pardoner would follow, and contact the individual, offering him a monetary deal (indulgences) for special prayers and consideration on the part of the Pope. 

The Indulgence Scam

Of course, now we know the practice of Indulgence money was the biggest scam in the history of the world, making Bernie Madoff look like a petty theif. In the fourteenth century, most people were vulnerable as God fearing citizens, and did not know any truth other than the Indulgence system. Tens of thousands emptied their life savings.

The Ironic Voice of the Pardoner.

What makes Chaucer’s Pardoner so interesting is that he knows that he is a charlatan. He knows that he is running a scam. In fact, it appears that he does not really have any Papal dispensation whatsoever, and runs a prayer for money operation like a travelling medicine man, a sideshow character.

It is how upfront the Pardoner is about the workings of his business that throws many people. Why is he being so honest and detailed about what a good theif he is? Of course, in an ultimate act of audacity, after telling the pilgrims about his quackery, and delivering a sermon about it, he tries to sell pardons to all the pilgrims!

Is It Satire?

I have often been asked by you all the question as to whether the depiction of the Padoner is Chaucer’s scathing satire against the Roman Catholic Church. There are better minds for whom this area is a specialty, but I would say probably not. It is more than likely that the charcter of the Pardoner is a satire of this particular type of Pardoner who pretends at his job and gets a lot of money, hence, screwing the Church of their cut.

The Pardoner’s Tale: An Exemplum, and an Ironic One.

The Pardoner’s Tale is what is known as an exemplum. These are sermons that convey a moral message by telling a story. The story becomes an example. So the Pardoner’s Tale uses the story of the three friends who find the pot of gold as an example of cupidity, or “greed is the root of all evil.”

You probably notice right off the bat the irony of the Pardoner’s Tale. He tells it as a sermon about how greed is the root of all evil, and yet, he is the most greedy and direputable of all characters.


Entry filed under: Assignments, British Literature.

New Readings: The Wife of Bath and The Pardoner. Questions for Reading, Thinking, Writing: The Wife of Bath

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