The Pardoner, a Symbol of Greed in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
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Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous medieval classic, The Canterbury Tales, offers its readers a vast array of characters. This God’s plenty features numerous unique and challenging individuals, but there is one specifically who stands out as particularly interesting. The immoral Pardoner, who, in a sense, sells away his soul for the sake of his own avarice, puzzles many modern readers with his strange logic. Already having laid his considerable guilt upon the table, this corrupted agent of the Church attempts to pawn off his counterfeit relics for a generous price. His actions are slightly troubling and mysterious, but his shameless misdeed is easily explainable if a reader chooses to interpret the man as a symbol rather than a fully formed human…show more content…
A dishonest clergyman could easily prey on the insecurities of the population in order to profit from the sale of false relics. The Pardoner, similarly, is only “fixed on what [he stands] to win” (PP 75). Perhaps this suggests that the corrupted character has little else on his mind, wishing only to cheat the devout and turn a greedy profit; he thinks of nothing but of his personal gain. He “won’t do any labor with [his] hands,” but his greedy heart intends to live the life of the most well-to-do (PP 114). The Pardoner’s sermons, preaching the ills of avarice, condemn the sin of which he is guiltiest. “Radix malorum est cupiditas,” is the general theme of the Pardoner’s sermons, meaning that greed is the root of all evil (PP 6). In essence, evil is born from the foolishness of greed, and playing the part of Greed, the Pardoner is a fool. His sermon drips with the revelation of his own guilt, for he can think of little else other than his next financial gain, and so, he thoughtlessly speaks of his own wicked guilt. Then, oddly, the Pardoner has the audacity to pitch a sale, offering forgiveness for “pennies, silver brooches, spoons, or rings” (PT 424). He is incapable of doing otherwise. After all, the Pardoner is the symbol and purest form of guilt; his avarice is too great a temptation to steer him from making his eloquent sales pitch to the traveling pilgrims. It is inevitable
With blonde hair that he wears long, in the "newe jet," or style, and a smooth, hairless face, it's no wonder that Chaucer "trowe [the Pardoner] were a geldyng or a mare" (General Prologue 693) – a neutered or female horse. With this Chaucer probably means to cast doubt on the Pardoner's sexuality: is he a woman, a man, or some combination of the two?
A Pardoner is someone who travels about the countryside selling official church pardons. These were probably actual pieces of paper with a bishop's signature on them, entitling the bearer to forgiveness for their sins. It seems that this Pardoner also does a secondary trade in relics, or pieces of clothing, bones, and other objects once belonging to long-departed saints. The Pardoner claims to have Mary's veil and a piece of St. Peter's sail. After his tale, the Pardoner tries to sell these relics to the other pilgrims, angering the Host, who questions their authenticity.
From the Pardoner's portrait, we have good reason to believe the Host is probably right not to trust the guy: Chaucer tells us that, among his relics, he's carrying a jar full of pigs' bones, and that, with them, he's able to cheat a poor parson out of two months' salary. The Pardoner is good at preaching, but in his prologue he tells the pilgrims he only does it to win money, berating the people for their sinfulness so they'll be more likely to buy what he is selling.
Like the Summoner's, the Pardoner's portrait throws into question not only the character himself, but also the practices upon which he relies to make a living. Both of these portraits explore what happens when spiritual goods begin to be profit-earning commodities like any other, and question the effect of this trade upon the souls of those who practice it.