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The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Social Class

Instructor: Scarlett Brooks

Scarlett has a Ph.D. in English and has taught literature and composition for both high school and college.

This lesson will analyze the character of the Pardoner, with special attention to his social class and attitude toward his work. At the end of this lesson, students will be able to identify the Pardoner's primary character traits and evaluate Chaucer's attitude toward him.

What Is a Pardoner?

Ever wonder how the building of those gorgeous and majestic Medieval cathedrals was funded? Well, some of the money came from the sale of indulgences, a lucrative scheme the Medieval Catholic Church devised for saving souls and generating revenue. But a money-making venture was not how indulgences were marketed. Rather, they were presented to the public as a form of absolution a person could purchase for the forgiveness of sin.

Indulgences were sold by pardoners--laypeople with special authority to sell them--and issued in the form of a piece of paper verifying the purchase. The whole idea of indulgences rested on the belief that a person had to take certain sacraments and perform good works in order to get into heaven. Otherwise, he or she could look forward to spending an extended period in purgatory after death. Purgatory is a middle ground between heaven and hell where Catholics believe souls undergo a final purging of earthly sins before entering heaven.

If you think buying one's way into heaven sounds a bit shady, you're right, and it seems Geoffrey Chaucer thought so, too. Let's take a look at his description of the Pardoner in the General Prologue for clues about the Pardoner's social class and Chaucer's attitude toward him.

The Pardoner's Appearance

Chaucer's description of the Pardoner suggests he's part of the Medieval Period's emerging middle class. He is well-dressed and groomed; Chaucer even describes him as a bit of a dandy, a man overly concerned with his appearance. The narrator of the Tales says, ''This Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,/ Hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax/ In dribbles fell his locks behind his head/ Down to his shoulders which they overspread;/ Thinly they fell, like rat-tails, one by one./ He wore no hood upon his head, for fun.'' Chaucer gives his narrator an ironic voice; he often delivers information in a seemingly objective fashion but conveys more than he seems to intend. Here, by comparing the Pardoner's hair to rat tails, he appears to compliment the Pardoner's careful grooming while also hinting at the Pardoner's clever and unscrupulous character.

Continuing with the depiction of the Pardoner as a dandy, Chaucer's narrator says, ''The hood inside his wallet he had stowed,/ He aimed at riding in the latest mode.'' The Pardoner is indeed fashionable, so much so that the narrator seems to read him as effeminate: ''He had the same small voice a goat has got,/ His chin no beard had harbored, nor would harbor,/ Smoother than ever chin was left by barber./ I judged he was a gelding, or a mare.'' The Pardoner's effeminacy is important because Chaucer's Medieval audience might have read it as a sign of decadence.

The Pardoner's Character

As a comfortable middle class character, the Pardoner seems not to have a care in the world, though he is always on the lookout for opportunities to make a sale. We are told, for example, that ''He had bulging eyeballs, like a hare'', a detail that suggests a certain eagerness. But perhaps his most distinctive trait is his callousness toward others. The narrator makes it clear that he is nothing but a conman who has absolutely no conscience about lying to people about the value of his wares: ''For in his trunk he had a pillow case/ Which he asserted was Our Lady's veil,/ He said he had a gobbet of the sail/ St. Peter had the time when he made bold/ To walk the waves, till Jesu Christ took hold./ He had a cross of metal set with stones/ And, in a glass, a rubble of pigs' bones.'' He sells these worthless objects to people by convincing them they are sacred or have healing powers.

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