The Pardoner, Sins Best Friend

Now, good men, God forgive you your trespass,

And guard you from the sin of avarice,

May my holy pardon save you all,

So you can offer coins,

Or else brooches, spoons or rings.

Bow down your heads before this holy bull!

Come up, you wives, and offer of your wool!

Your names I’ll enter on my roll, now,

Into Heaven’s bliss you will all go..

For I’ll absolve you, by my special power,

You that make offering, will be as clean and pure

As you were born.- And lo sirs, thus I preach.

And Jesus Christ, who is our souls’ physician,

So grant you each his pardon to receive;

For that is best; I will not you deceive.

In medieval times Pardoners were people who sold pardons or indulgences as a way for people to lessen their time in purgatory for the sins they had committed. These pardons were certificates from the Pope and pardoners themselves were sanctioned by religious houses given them the backing needed to sell these items. Pardoners became unpopular because many of them were seen as little more then frauds disguised as men of God. This image of unholy man playing at God’s work is the one Chaucer gives us in his Pardoners Tale where the last fifteen lines demonstrate not only how morally bankrupt the pardoner is as he tries to absolve others of their sins but it also is a reflection of the corruption in the church at that time as well.

The Pardoner begins the last lines of his tale by suggesting that the pardons he offers will be able to save those who purchase it from the sin of greed,

Now, good men, God forgive your trespass,

And guard you from the sin of avarice,

May my holy pardon save you all…

Having the Pardoner suggest that his pardons would be able to save anyone from any sin, including greed is a complete stretch of what Pardoners were supposed to be able to do. Buying a pardon might be able to lessen the time one spent in purgatory but in no way would be able to save anyone from their sins. To have the Pardoner make such an obvious lie, given the fact that we know he is well versed in Catholic doctrine due to his ability to quote scripture in his tale, Chaucer is making a statement about the credibility and the moral fiber of this man claiming to be a servant of God. More importantly the Pardoner is preaching against a sin that he admittedly embraces. His focus on greed is also important because his tale was a sermon on how greed can only lead to death, yet in having the Pardoner first relate a tale of the danger of money and greed and then portraying him as being as greedy as the men in his story Chaucer uses him to portray the dissatisfaction that people had with pardoners and money loving church officials at the time.

The Pardoner asserts his authority to be able to sell pardons when he tells the

patrons at the tavern,

So you can offer coins,

Or else brooches, spoons or rings

Bow down your heads before this holy bull!

Come up, you wives, and offer of your wool!

This official edict of his ability to sell pardons goes right to the heart of the corruption the church would have been experiencing at the time. With the Pardoner being as morally bankrupt as he is having church sanctioned authority to participate in what amounts to a government sanctioned swindle, Chaucer indirectly questions the morality of those in position of power in the church. By having the Pardoner wield his “Holy Bull” around Chaucer suggests that whoever gave him this authority knows of his corrupt nature and is just as corrupt as the Pardoner. However, Chaucer’s attacks seem to be aimed at the people in the church not Christianity itself. Never once is there a questioning of Christian teachings or principles, just those delivering the message. The Pardoner offers wonderful lessons on the dangers of gluttony, gambling and swearing, quoting scripture, and imparting ideals that should be followed, yet he is a man who indulges in the same sins he preaches against. This raises the question of how well those in the church were following the teachings of Christ that would later lay rise to Luther and the Reformation.

Also in these lines the Pardoner shows his method of ensuring that no one can claim that they don’t have the means to pay him his fees. In his prologue the Pardoner makes it clear that he doesn’t care about those that he’s selling his indulgences too. That they can be poor and if they can’t feed their families because of the money they give him for his pardons so be it, it is not his concerns. There is a sense of urgency in the lines as he requests these goods, as if by offering many ways for people to pay he is eliminating any possibility that someone would be able to say they don’t have the money or means to purchase a pardon and in turn fulfilling his own greedy desires he expressed in his prologue.

As he continues with his final plea to the patrons in the tavern he ratchets up the sell by making even more extraordinary promises on what he is able to do for one’s soul,

Your names I’ll enter on my roll, now,

Into Heaven’s bliss you will all go.

For I’ll absolve you, by my special power,

You that make offering, will be as clean and pure

As you were born.-

Here the Pardoner promises to absolve the patrons of their sins, a statement that is in direct contradiction of Catholic doctrine as only priests are ones that would be able to offer absolution. Part of the dissatisfaction with Pardoners was that there was confusion on what “powers” they had and what they were really capable of doing. Chaucer’s Pardoner is no exception. He, as his tale established, is clearly a man well versed in church doctrine so he knows he has no power to absolve anyone of sins and it is just a device to assuage the concerns of anyone who may be skeptical of him and what he is selling. He even offers to place there names on his roll as another way to look official and to reassure the patrons of his authenticity. Also, his willingness to deceive those that are relying on him for their salvation is similar to the three friends in his story. They thought nothing of deceiving and killing each other to fulfill their greedy plans and while the Pardoner isn’t a murderer he demonstrates once again how willing he is to deceive for his financial gain.

As he ends his speech the Pardoner reminds the patrons of the salvation that really matters,

And lo sirs, thus I preach.

And Jesus Christ, who is our souls’ physician,

So grant you each his pardon to receive;

For that is best; I will not you deceive.

The Pardoner seems to catch himself in these lines. The previous lines of the speech are all a push, one that starts small and then reaches a crescendo with the promise of absolution but then he brings it back to Jesus Christ seemingly as way to add another of validation to his request. As the “Holy Bull” acted as church sanctioned authority, reminding everyone of their Lord and Saviour gives him the spiritual authority as well. The lines seem to be delivered a bit tongue and cheek. It’s as if the Pardoner has realized he’s pushed things to far so, as any good shady salesman would, he reassures those he’s trying to sale of his honesty. The line is interesting, however, in that the pilgrims know that the Pardoner is a liar, so his assurance of, “I will not you deceive,” seems to be for reassuring the patrons at the tavern as much as it acts as a capstone a, ‘See, I told you I was good at this,” to the pilgrims who know his true nature.

Chaucer offers us an interesting window into the politics of the medieval world with his Pardoner’s Tale. The satire and unflattering portrait of this holy pardoner offers a look at the problems facing the church at the time as well as one of the best villains in English literature.