Sunday, August 17, 2014

Medieval Queer Studies: "Pardoning the Pardoner: the In and Out Role of the Pardoner in the Group Dynamic of the Canterbury Pilgrims"


Pardoning the Pardoner: the In and Out Role of the Pardoner in the
Group Dynamic of the Canterbury Pilgrims
mykl g sivak
December 2007

The Pardoner. Woodcut by Rockwell Kent.
The Pardoner plays an integral part in three portions of the Tales: the General prologue, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and the section that begins with the exchange between the Host, Physician and Pardoner and continues on through the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. In these passages we are given a rich and complicated portrait of a character whose motivations are, at first glossing, almost as difficult to determine as his specific gender type. On close reading it appears that Chaucer’s main function in writing the Pardoner was to use the character primarily as a means to explore the concept of identity as a collusion of forces both internal and external to the individual and how identity serves to place the individual within the dynamics of the group.  The Pardoner, given the effect of his unique appearance, his profession as pardoner, and the particular ethics on which he operates, is an active, if not totally self-aware, party in his own social complicatedness. As outsider and insider, ecclesiast and charlatan, male and not-male, the Pardoner fills a singular position in the social order of culture of his time. There is also in the Pardoner a strong need for acceptance, and though his gift for showmanship and oratory grants him a position of prominence among those to whom he preaches, he seems to long for a more “real” acceptance that takes into consideration the flaws of not only his character, but the perceived flaws of his physiology as well.  This seems to be the propelling force behind the Pardoner’s approach toward his interaction with the other Canterbury pilgrims, and it represents a risk that, though coming precariously close to utter failure, ends up succeeding in its goal of integrating the Pardoner as a fully fledged member of the pilgrims’ fellowship.
Much scholarly emphasis is placed on the unusual appearance of the Pardoner, and almost equally as much is spent in attempt to nail down specifically what is going on with the physiology/psychology of the pardoner to explain said appearance. Commonly, an explanation will focus on  the description of the pardoner set forth in the general Prologue, and specifically on line 691 which states: “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare” (Chaucer 16).  Researchers have cited textual and speculative evidence for placing the Pardoner in gender categories as varying as eunuch, homosexual, female-to-male transvestite, and hermaphrodite, all with varying levels of persuasiveness. It seems that the case can be made for each of these conclusions; however, it also seems that the level of ambiguity in this matter is of a level of abundance which implies that Chaucer did not feel the need to supply the readership with a particular hard and fast explanation. All that is important is the recognition of the Pardoner’s societal gender-otherness and how that otherness contributes to the way in which his associate pilgrims think about him and how he thinks of himself.
The majority of interpretations of Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner’s physical appearance lean toward the hypothesis that he is some type of eunuch. Indeed the General Prologue description seems to support this interpretation. “A voys he hadde as small as hath a goot. No berd hadde he, ne never shoulde have; As smothe it was as as it were late shave” (Chaucer 16). These lines, with the mention of the Pardoner’s total lack of facial hair, and mention of his “small voys” seem characteristic of a castrated male. The goat-like aspect of his speaking voice, when coupled with the recurrent references to his extraordinary singing voice is reminiscent of the castrati of later centuries, lending further credence to the eunuch hypothesis.  As to the possible homosexuality of the Pardoner, there is less direct evidence. As Myers writes, much of the support for the alleged homosexuality of the Pardoner relies on Line 673 of the general prologue which states that while the pardoner sings “Com hider, love, to me!” His companion the Summoner responds by bearing to him “a stif burdoun,” which can be simultaneously interpreted as meaning a strong bass line accompaniment or a traveler’s staff, itself a metaphor for the Summoner’s phallus (Chaucer 16, Myers 56). This double-entendre may, of course, simply be a joke; however, it does effectively serve to further muddle the sexual specificity of the Pardoner. This lack of specificity may also allude to the possibility that the Pardoner’s sexuality may elude simple traditional categorization, not fitting easily into any single stereotypic sexuality. This may perhaps be what it is about the Pardoner that is ultimately so disquieting to the Narrator. He eludes easy classification, and in a society based, to a large extent, upon the compartmentalization of individuals on the ground of physical and sexual attributes, this presents a remarkable problem: just where does the Pardoner fit in?
Myers presents the Pardoner as a female passing as a male. He points out that while the word “mare” in Line 691 of the General Prologue is often interpreted to mean homosexual, in context it more accurately means female. Following the logic of analogy, he writes: “As ‘gelding is the equine equivalent of eunuch, so “mare” is the equivalent of woman” (Myers 54).  Any of these interpretations is consistent with Chaucer’s intention of setting up the Pardoner as one of a gender unconsidered for easy inclusion within the framework of the social order of his time. In any respect, the Pardoner cannot exist as himself, and so must pass as a member of one of the existing sexual castes. This passing is mirrored by the Pardoner in his practice of passing off false relics as genuine. Since it can be assumed that the Pardoner’s physical type preexists his professional practice, one can conclude that the concept of disguise found its genesis in the Pardoner’s secular life and shaped the philosophy of ethics which would come to be the foundation for his professional practices. The concept of illusion finds further purchase in the oft repeated imagery of the Pardoner’s relics and his tendency to store them in “His wallet, biforn hym in his lappe” (Chaucer 16). Regardless of the actuality of the Pardoner’s being a true eunuch, it is clear that these relics have come to represent for the Pardoner a sort-of prosthetic manhood.  With his own manhood constantly in question, the Pardoner has found power in the relics. He has allowed them to define him in a way that his own (possibly nonexistent) testes could not.
The Pardoner’s gender otherness is probably the impetus that propels him in his need for inclusion, as well as his openness to the inclusion of others, as in his praising the Wife of Bath in her skills as preacher.  The exchange between the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath in the Wife’s prologue, presents an interesting window into the psychology of the Pardoner and prepares us better to interpret the complexity of his presentation during his own prologue and tale. Prior to the Pardoner’s interjection during the Wife’s prologue, the Wife has already presented herself as a preacher of sorts, espousing her own sexual philosophy and no doubt raising the ire of some of the less open-minded pilgrims.  The Pardoner’s interjection, which teasingly jibes the Wife, may be intended by the Pardoner to serve as a defusing force. There is indeed, an almost vaudevillian interaction between the Wife and the Pardoner, specifically in Lines 186-188. Here the pardoner says “‘…Telle forth youre tale, spareth for no man, And teche us yonge men of youre practice.’ ‘Gladly,’ quod she…” (Chaucer 87).  It is clear there is no ill-will between the Pardoner and the Wife, as contrary to the later comments of the Friar who mocks the Wife in her amateur sermonizing. “And lette auctoritees, on Goddes name, To prechyng and to scoles of clergye.” (Chaucer 104).[1] This may be due to the Pardoner feeling some communion with the wife, as they are both considered to be, to some extent, non-males in a male dominated system, and thusly gender-outsiders (Myers 57-58).  The Wife and the Pardoner also share the love of oratory, and though the Pardoner tells us that he is able to deliver sermons in his line of work, officially a pardoner would have no right to do so.[2] These two characters are defined by their society by their respective genders, and so they react, each in their own specific way. In reacting they have each sculpted specific philosophies of self-preservation, which are called into question the other “properly gendered” members of the pilgrimage.  They each have learned to accept their respective sexual otherness, and to integrate it into their self-advancement, be it through the weaponry of sex, or the destabilizing effect of an unclear sexuality.  Neither character seems afraid of placing their otherness at the forefront of discourse in order to diffuse the attacks of those who would use their otherness against them.
It is clear from the General prologue that appearance is very important to the Pardoner. He seems to attempt making up for his physical abnormality by dressing stylishly. He wears no hood, which is said to be for fashionable purposes, and he wears his hair long “his shuldres overspadde” (Chaucer 16).  This importance of appearances is obviously linked to his profession as marketer of false relics.  Everything he does entails a good degree of showmanship, and his success in this endeavor is a testament to his abilities as showman. Based on the purely physical, the Pardoner may face an uphill struggle in any attempt to win over a crowd. It is only through the skillful use of language, spoken and sung, (and the weaponry of papal bulls which he displays often) that he is able to gain credibility and acceptance for himself and his relics. The nature of the pilgrimage and the dynamics of the group of pilgrims may serve as the exception. This is a different audience than the backwoods’ audiences he is used to. His approach in the instance of his interaction with the group and his style of oratory in this case may be a novel one for him as well. In the introduction to the Pardoner’s tale, the Host, calls upon the Pardoner to “Telle us som myrthe or japes right anon” to which the other Pilgrims protest, claiming that his tale will only consist of “ribaudye.” “Telle us som moral thing,” they say “and thane wol we gladly here” (Chaucer 176). This brief scene demonstrates that in calling upon the Pardoner, the Host has demonstrated that the Pardoner is, in some respect, already considered to be a part of the party. However, the Host does appear to view him as a jester of sorts, and the other pilgrims seem to agree. More  importantly, this scene illustrates how the Pilgrims want to accept the pardoner on their own terms. They request his false moral speech over his, perhaps more true, so-called “ribaudye” manners. This reception inspires the Pardoner to tell in his prologue a highly personal moral sketch illustrative of his own immorality in his practice of religious deceit.
It is clear that the world in which the Pardoner lives is, for him, one in which fear is a major issue. He expresses the need he feels to protect his body: “Our lige lordes seel on my patente, That showe I first, my body, to warrenet” (Chaucer 176). Though presented as a reference to his questionable business ethics, it is obviously relevant to the fact that it is his body, his appearance that is constantly under attack by the thoughts of others.  Even the more intellectual endeavors of oratory and singing; exist in his mind in terms of the physical. He makes constant references to his tongue, his hands, his outstretched neck, all of which he uses to gain power of the congregations to whom he preaches (Chaucer 177).
During his prologue, the Pardoner claims that his main goal of his performances is the attainment of money. Indeed he makes a good living at it; however, there is also the position of acceptance it attains for him. He seems dissatisfied with the acceptance, for like his relics, it is only illusionary and false, based on lies.  The Pardoner’s portrayal of himself and his business approach, though probably accurate, seems wrought with disingenuousness. The approach of his prologue is guided by the dualistic dynamic between his yearnings for a purer acceptance and the anger he feels for his being preemptively rejected and judged. His self description is harsh and highly self-critical, not stopping short of calling himself evil, stating that he takes money even from “the povereste wydwe in a village, Al sholde hir children sterve for famine” (Chaucer 178). In actuality, however, the Pardoner’s actions are not so out-of-step with the less than honest business practices of the other pilgrims, some of them clergymen of higher church rank than himself.  In this one respect, his seeming status of other may be more of a falsehood than presented.
Storm presents the Pardoner as a bona fide disruptive force that throws the fate of the entire pilgrimage into uncertainty: “Chuacer concerns himself not just with evil but its consequences, presenting in the Pardoner a force that threatens to destroy the pilgrimage” (Storm 810) While this may be true, it does not seem to be on the terms Storm presents. It is not the Pardoner’s relics and pardons that could undermine the pilgrims’ journey, but their refusal to accept him that could destroy the fellowship. It seems unlikely that the Pardoner’s attempt to sell pardons to the pilgrims is in earnest, after his long confession regarding his charlatanism. His truer goal is acceptance. By including the pilgrims, he hopes that they will include him. It is only after they fail to do so enthusiastically, in the manner he is used to following a sermon, that he presents his relics and pardons. This presentation is symbolic/sarcastic at best.
The portrait of the Pardoner presented by the Narrator in the General prologue is one of his being an excellent speaker and singer. The animal imagery likens him to a hare and a goat, essentially harmless herbivores.[3] The portrait the Pardoner paints of himself in his prologue is highly divergent. He describes himself as a predator and a snake, stinging and spitting venom [4] (Chaucer 177). This illustrates a degree of self-loathing that is probably informed by his perception of what the other Pilgrims think of him.
Just as when he figuratively thrusts his supposedly non-existent manhood in the face of the Host, in his prologue, the Pardoner is throwing the Pilgrims prejudices back in their faces. This is driven by his need for inclusion, but ultimately manifests itself in a self-destructive manner. The Pardoner’s prologue and tale does not achieve his goal of inclusion directly. In the end, it is the Hosts complicity in the Pardoner’s approach that finally leads the Knight to interject his authority. He silences the Host, and deems the Pardoner one of them. With a final kiss the Pardoner is finally brought into the fellowship, false relics and all.
By presenting his relics to the Host to be kissed, the Pardoner opens himself up, fully displaying for the group his shortcomings. The Host, in turn opens the wound more deeply. This hazing may serve, unintentionally, as a part of the initiation process. For acceptance requires a true critical reception. Through the Knight’s interjection, the pardoner is finally taken in. The highest secular authority deems the pardoner fit to be accepted. By forcing the Host to kiss the Pardoner, the Pardoner finally takes a true place above his relics. It is not the illusion that is kissed, but the human being, shortcomings and all.

Work’s Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Metzger, Bruce M. and Murphy, Roland E., eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible  New York: Oxford U.P. 1994.

Myers, Jeffery Rayner. “Chaucer’s Pardoner as Female Eunuch.” Studia Neophilogica 72 (2000): 54-62.

Storm, Melvin. “The Pardoner’s Invitation: Quaestor’s Bag or Becket’s Shrine?” PLMA 97.5 (1982): 810-818.



[1] Though the Friar does not go on to attack to Pardoner directly, he does set his sites on the Summoner, his traveling companion and business partner, as it were.
[2] The pardoner must be aware that though he is an outsider, his ability to pass as a male-type, though not entirely convincingly, in some ways makes him less of an outsider than she is.
[3] Admittedly, rabbits were considered unclean and inedible by the Hebrews. “The hare, for even though it chews the cud, it does not have divided hoofs; it is unclean to you” (11 Lev. 6). The biblical goat reference in an interesting one, specifically when one considers the Azazel of Leviticus: “Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering” (16 Lev. 9). This introduces the idea of a sacrificial “scape goat” into the conversation.
[4] The serpent image is common in the bible, an excerpt from the book of Job appears particularly relevant to the pardoner’s prologue in its bodily imagery, and seems a possible source of many aspects of his speech: “Though wickedness is sweet in their mouth, though they hide it under their tongues, though they are loath to let it go, and hold it in their mouths, yet their food is turned in their stomachs; it is the venom of asps within them. They swallow down riches and vomit them up again; God casts them out of their bellies. They will suck the poison of asps; the tongue of a viper will kill them” (20 Job 12-16).

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