The Pardoner’s Tale

The body and its politics in “The Pardoner’s Tale”

kim zarins


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 Taken on its own, The Pardoner’s Tale is an exemplary tale warning its audience against greed and the sins of the tavern: three revelers go out in search of Death to defy him, yet when they find a stockpile of riches instead of Death at the appointed place, they kill one another and so unwittingly find what they were originally seeking. While its content is secular rather than biblical, it’s the kind of stern tale you might suppose stereotypical medieval people might have heard at a pulpit. But the context around The Pardoner’s Tale is anything but stereotypical or expected when we consider the teller of that tale. Not only is the Pardoner guilty of the vices he preaches against, he is guilty by his own admission and underscores his hypocrisy to his fellow pilgrims, boasting of his ability to con his poorest victims to feed his own avarice.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 His character is further complicated by the attention Chaucer the narrator—and the Pardoner himself—puts on his body. Body humor is abundant in Chaucer’s General Prologue. Consider the Reeve’s skinny calves, the Miller’s furnace-like mouth, or the Summoner’s leprous-looking face. All these bodily features are presented for our quick judgments that in turn affect how we view these characters’ personalities and tales. But the General Prologue’s narrator ridicules the Pardoner’s body with pejorative hints that leave more questions than answers. Efforts to corral the Pardoner’s body and soul are rendered even more challenging when we take into account the narrative from the Pardoner himself, who opens up yet more questions about his identity. If the Pardoner is marked by contradiction and ambiguity, so is the scholarship that seeks to understand him.


3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Unlike any other Canterbury pilgrim, the Pardoner has a way of pushing our buttons yet inciting highly diverse, conflicting interpretations from his readers. In particular, one camp of readers foregrounds the Pardoner’s body and/or sexuality as essential to a reading of his character and tale. Quite a different camp claims you can’t prove anything about his body or sexuality, and not much is said about either, so no use thinking much about such things—better to think instead of the abundant and dominant signs of the Pardoner’s spiritual corruption, including preaching beyond his station and without any compassion for his victims.[1] This fork in the road yields massive consequences. Either way you cut it, reading Pardoner scholarship feels personal as well as scholarly and political, and there’s a sense of high stakes in how we read that body or don’t read it—and how we discuss the Pardoner in the classroom. Whatever camp you fall into, it seems problematic to redirect others in the classroom from those lines in the General Prologue that suggest the Pardoner’s potential queerness in regards to sex, gender, or orientation as if this aspect of his identity were irrelevant, anachronistic, or less important than his spiritual depravity. Just because Chaucer shows apparent discomfort with and avoidance of the Pardoner’s body does not mean we need to behave likewise, especially when this character is so deeply compelling for modern readers who see a marginalized body seeking to be seen, a sexual minority struggling to be heard. The stakes feel high in preventing the Pardoner’s erasure, and without dismissing the importance of the Pardoner’s spiritual condition, his body merits attention.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 So what do we know about his body? Character descriptions in the General Prologue usually yield insights into the tales that follow after, and this seems especially true of the Pardoner. Our first encounter of the Pardoner creates a playful impression as he loudly sings a love song with the Summoner. His high, feminine voice, singing “Com hider, love, to me!”, complements his partner the Summoner’s more masculine base or “stif burdoun.”[2] To some readers, this scene suggests the men’s homosexuality, and the description then unfolds to a suggestion of the Pardoner’s ambiguous sex, conveyed indirectly—and pejoratively—through comparisons to animals:

A voys he hadde as small as hath a goot
No berd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have;
As smooth it was as it were late shave.
I trowe he were a gelding or a mare. (Gen Prol. 688-91)[3]

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 In this portrait, we see not only his sexuality potentially questioned, but his sex as well. If he’s a gelding (a casted horse) or a mare (a female horse), can he be called a man? For almost one hundred years, since Clyde Walter Curry proposed that there is a “secret” to the Pardoner’s body that explains the physical ‘symptoms’ listed in the General Prologue and the behaviors shown by the Pardoner later, readers have attempted to reveal or elaborate on this ‘secret’ with medieval notions of sex and sexuality.[4] Besides Curry’s claim that the Pardoner is a eunuch, readers have called the Pardoner, among other things, intersex, homosexual, heterosexual, feminoid, and a phlegmatic (this last term refers to a man rendered effeminate from the imbalance of his bodily humors).[5] Medieval medicine is often used to support such claims. For example, it was thought that the fetus’ position in the womb determined sex characteristics—a fetus on the right side of the womb would become a masculine man or a masculine woman; the left side would produce a feminine man or feminine woman; the center would produce a person with both male and female sex characteristics (intersex).[6] Scholars have used such medieval understandings of gender and sexuality to explain the Pardoner’s body.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 More recently in queer scholarship, readers have shied away from labeling the Pardoner with any specificity as this limits the Pardoner and how we read him, especially since, as mentioned before, nothing can be definitely proven anyhow. Carolyn Dinshaw argues there is a “lack” in the Pardoner; seemingly he lacks testicles but he could alternatively be lacking in general manliness.[7] Another scholar, Robert S. Sturges, experimentally proposes holding all the conflicting possibilities into play—the Pardoner as both eunuch and intersex, heterosexual male womanizer and lesbian—in a kind of flux conducive to analyzing gender.[8] This shift away from a body with definition, however, puts queer readings somewhat uncomfortably in line with scholarship that shuns discussion of the Pardoner’s body, sex, and sexuality as unknowable and so unworthy of attention.[9] Obviously sex and sexuality are important to queer readings, but if there is no distinct body, how are that sex and sexuality embodied in the first place?

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Of course, the Pardoner is a literary creation and hence not bound by the rules of real bodies: for comparison, consider the size of the monster Grendel in the Old English poem Beowulf—Heorot’s massive doors burst open by a touch of Grendel’s fingers, and he can pick up men to devour them, yet those same arms are outmatched by Beowulf’s grip. It’s a logistics dilemma: how did Beowulf wrestle a creature of that size? Literature can be slippery that way, and the Pardoner is a literary creation, in part derived from the allegorical character False Seeming in Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s French text, Le Roman de la Rose. Allegorical characters might not require defined bodies, yet they often do, and their gender is a site of complex interest. Romance languages include masculine and feminine nouns, and since abstract nouns in Latin were typically feminine, so were their allegorical representations…most of the time. As Diane Watt points out, there were deviations, such as John Gower’s character Mort (Anglo-Norman for Death, feminine linguistically) whom Gower represents as a (predominantly?) male Death.[10] Poets had choice in gendering a personification, even in perceived deviant ways, and Chaucer would possibly be aware of the gender ambiguity surrounding Death when he inserts his own Death into the Pardoner’s Tale. Even if we can never know for sure Chaucer’s intentions in regards to the Pardoner’s body, he probably had some (perhaps developing) notion of that body, and it’s worth pondering it in light of the modern politicization of bodies, particularly bodies that depart from a normative gender binary of male and female.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Key to this discussion is increased awareness of problematic language in our discussion of bodies. You don’t have to read much scholarship to see exclusionary language and discomfort with the possible bodies of the Pardoner. Eunuchs have bodies typified in scholarship by “lack,” an assumed depravity, and compensation strategies because of this lack, without any acknowledgement that this language might be marginalizing to readers, students, and colleagues, considering the realities of testicular cancer or simply being born with such a body. The theory that the Pardoner is intersex[11] has been dismissed as if such bodies and the non-medieval medical terms scholars have used to make the argument are over-the-top and too odd to credit or consider—and yet with one of every 2,000 babies born intersex, these bodies are real and all around us, in our classrooms too.[12] Framing non-binary bodies as ridiculous, anachronistic, or sensationally depraved often perpetuates discrimination and erasure. Scholars no longer feel the need to “prove” the Pardoner to be intersex, gay, trans, or a eunuch, but offer up these possibilities for open discussion (some of which have been more well received than others). Pardoner scholars have begun to see that the Pardoner’s powerful presence in modernity, the way his voice speaks to us not just then, but now. As Steven F. Kruger commented, “our own readings, however historicized, are always in some sense a response to the current moment,”[13] and in light of intersex activists bringing public awareness to harmful genital reconstructive surgeries on children, and trans activists fighting for access to public spaces, it would be productive to see how the Pardoner contributes to the discussion of access, agency, marginalization, and the power to speak.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 In the description of the Pardoner and later in his tale, we confront dichotomies with implied hierarchies—body and soul, fakes and relics, rhetoric and truth. With his body and his words, the Pardoner takes these reductive dichotomies and flips them, entwines them, and implicates his audiences in their comfortable truths.


11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Pardoner’s Prologue before his tale solidifies his moral culpability already hinted at in the General Prologue. However, whereas the narrator foregrounds the Pardoner’s body as effeminate and problematic, in his own Prologue the Pardoner foregrounds his body as a powerful instrument that masters tone and audience. “I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche / And rynge it out as round as gooth a belle” (330-1). If Chaucer comments on his goat-like voice as yet another marker of his problematic body, the Pardoner proudly focuses on his voice’s resonance and effectiveness, refined to practice his avaricious schemes. He describes at length his skill and ease at persuading the gullible to be moved by his sermons and inspiring them to desire—and pay for his own profit—indulgences and sham relics (relics are supposed to be a part of a saint’s body or personal belongings, but the Pardoner’s relics are pig’s bones and other such debris made to appear like actual sacred objects).[14] When he speaks about the sins of gluttony and drunkenness as the ruination of the body, he is at pains to shed tears like the apostle Paul (529-531)—in other words, his body and “pitous voys” emulate the apostle’s speaking “ful pitously” and strengthen his association with purity and priestly wisdom, while he condemns sinners for their belly full “of donge and of corrupcioun” and foul-sounding at both of the body’s ends (531, 529, 535). He couches his praises and critiques with the language of the body, and he implicitly aligns himself with the body of Christ, rent to pieces by those who swear oaths and drink and play at dice, even while he has just fortified himself with “a draughte of corny ale” before beginning his tale (456). He boasts of fleecing his listeners but frames his own body as meek yet attacked—a hypocritical stance, yet haunting in light of his sex and sexuality.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 His rhetorical skill underscores the age-old suspicion that rhetoric is ornamental but false and divided from philosophical truth.[15] A living example of the dangers of rhetoric, the Pardoner shows no remorse for his conning of his audience and his abuse of the pulpit he preaches from. His words are lies, as he freely admits: he tells “an hundred false japes” (394) while his head bobs like an innocent dove’s. He seems pure, but

Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice
Which that I use, and that is avarice (427-8).

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Why is he telling us all this, though—why so truthful about his falseness? Is rhetoric undermining truth or revealing it? While his boasting is a common trope that typically would condemn him, his implicating disclosure points out the ambiguous truth-value of his sermons and “moral tale.” Can a tale be moral if told by a moral teller? Received knowledge since Cicero is that an orator must be a wise and good man, or else his eloquent words are compromised and severed from virtue.[16] While the medieval Church separated the impurities of the preacher from the pure word of God being preached, rending the Pardoner technically accurate, the Pardoner oversteps these boundaries by openly declaring his sinful intentions: “For though myself be a ful vicious man / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (459-60).[17]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 With this background, his simple, if stark, “moral tale” becomes quite complicated. Three revelers, angered at Death, go in search of him, only to find treasure, upon which they murder one another by devious means of playacting to conceal murderous intention through the very vices these men embrace. What seems a playful fight actually is a planned murder, and wine itself is laced with rat-poison. The tale has the feel of a cautionary tale heard at a pulpit to warn an audience against the protagonists’ vices. Even so, the oaths that rend the body of Christ, the dice, and even the drinking don’t seem to doom these men fundamentally as much as their obsession to hunt down Death personified. The Pardoner seems to mock them for their literal-minded, comic quest, yet he also includes the old man’s more tragic version of that quest. As with the Pardoner’s body, ambiguity obscures the quest and the Pardoner’s intention by it. The old man and ambiguously gendered Death (a male according to the rioters, but a “mooder” to the old man, on lines 729-737) both subvert the overall moral that death is a terrible fate, for as the old man’s story makes clear, it is more terrible to live in suffering, out of the reach of a mother’s long-lost embrace, than to die. While the text deals in shifting genders, familial roles, and status (the rioters’ male thief and traitor vs. the old man’s mother), this slippery personification is not the incestuous Death of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book 2 or even Gower’s Mort, as much as it is the Death of British author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels—Pratchett’s Death is a scythe-bearing, physically clichéd figure who surprises us with his heartbreaking fatigue with his job. Pratchett loads the representation with social commentary conveying a nuanced blend of dry humor and cynical frustration with how things are in this life and after, cognizant that people go out of their way to cause misery and destruction to those they formally swear to live and die for “As though he were his owene ybore brother,” while divine power does nothing redemptive or restorative, only continues impartially cycling lives into the grave (704). As Pratchett’s Mort says, There is no justice. Just us.[18]

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Similarly, the Pardoner’s critique is despairing and comic when it comes to the corruption of human hearts and the despair of living in a spiritual vacuum beyond God’s compassion. Maybe it takes a crook to know one, but most readers would find the Pardoner’s corrupted yet sophisticated heart to be on an entirely different level than the foolish men who blunder their way to their deaths. Yet in a fashion, the Pardoners unwittingly stumbles upon shame, violence, and marginalization when he calls upon his pilgrim audience to repent of their sins and while on their knees, receive the benefits of the (fake) relics in his pouch. Every reader has noticed that this is an odd strategy since he’s already unmasked his avaricious, false practices to the audience he now hits up for money and for devotion toward the contents of his “male, / As faire as any man in Engelond” (920-1). There’s some compulsion perhaps in playing this role, in being the “suffisant pardoneer” (932) whose wit and body has the means to redeem men’s souls. This is where the “lack” argued by Dinshaw may come into play—his relics make up for the masculinity he’s missing. He renders the scene yet more sexually suggestive when he invites the Host to “kisse the relikes everychon” and “Unbokele anon thy purs” (944-5). Is he just angling for the Host’s money or is this invitation social or even erotic? And if it is such an invitation, does it bear upon the tale he’s just told—is he seeking the thing that will undo him? Because one cannot defeat Death anymore than the Pardoner can expect the Host to kiss his relics: it’s a quest that can only end one way. Badly.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 The Host rejects the Pardoner’s offer and points out the disconnect between the value the Pardoner assigns to his relics and the reality perceived by the Host: “Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech / And swere it were a relyk of a seint, / Though it were with thy fundement depeint!” (948-50). The Host would rather castrate the Pardoner and carry around his testicles, even if they are enshrined in a “hogges toord” (955). This insult silences the furious Pardoner, but to some readers the Host is implicated—now he styles himself as a Pardoner of sorts, carrying his own testicular relics. His parody perpetuates the possible erotic undertones, and the only way he dodges complicity is through the aggressive violence of his threat to castrate his road trip companion. Like the men of the Pardoner’s Tale, the brethren on the road to Canterbury act out a script of violence ending in the deathly silencing of the Pardoner. True, the Knight stages a reconciliatory kiss between the Host and Pardoner, which suggests a positive reintegration of the Pardoner back into the fold of the pilgrims, yet the Pardoner does not speak another word but only gives the kiss required of him. As much as reconciliation would make the ending more comfortable to us readers, the coercive nature of the Host’s threat and then the imposed kiss and silent compliance cast a somber ending to a tale told by a man who unmasked himself arguably more than any other pilgrim on this pilgrimage.


18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In this section I present a couple questions and a creative project to further engage with the subject of the Pardoner and his body.

  • 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  • The Pardoner’s Tale in Context: the Host famously threatens the Pardoner with castration at the end of his tale. Could there be any contextual significance to the Host’s threat in light of the Physician’s Tale, which ends with Virginia’s father decapitating her? These two tales—so seemingly different on the surface—may carry deeper similarities in terms of power enacted over gendered bodies and narratives of self-justified male dominance. To what extent do Virginia and the Pardoner capitulate to or resist these narratives?
  • The Pardoner’s Voice: The Pardoner may be a con-artist, but his voice is arguably the strongest of all the pilgrims, both in terms of his rhetorical skill and also for those qualities creative writers praise in a good voice, with every word revealing a rich and complex character. We can study that voice on its own or in relation to the Pardoner’s body. Can we clarify that connection between body and voice? Do they work in sync or in tension with one another in regards to the Pardoner’s performance? Why did Chaucer invest so much in this one character’s language and body?
  • How is this discussion of the Pardoner’s body relevant now? How do we talk about these issues of identity when many of the terms we currently use did not exist in the Middle Ages?
  • Creative writing/art project: For this project, pick an artistic medium and explore an interpretation of the Pardoner: draw a portrait of the Pardoner, or rewrite a scene from his point of view (e.g., what went through his mind when the Host threatened castration?), or consider the Pardoner’s subtext or physical reality as you compose dialogue for him with another Canterbury pilgrim in a scene off the books. What was the story he would have told if it weren’t for the pilgrims’ insistence on “some moral thing” (325)? Reread the text for guidance, but feel free to use a modern setting anywhere in the world, or a fantasy setting of your choice; you can fudge it with the window dressing or even core materials, but know where you are taking liberties, and why.[19] In my teaching of Beowulf, I’ve done an assignment in which students draw Grendel, and in post-discussion we share images and explore two main trends: the extreme variation of his size (the range is justified in different parts of the poem), and (2) the sympathy the artist affords to him based on facial expression and humane vs. monstrous features. I would expect similar results for an exercise on the Pardoner—his body and the sympathy the viewer has for him would vary. What kinds of bodies elicit a viewer’s empathy, and which do not? How does the Pardoner speak to audiences today? How relevant is his body, really, and how should we frame it—should it be foregrounded or left blurry and Protean in the background? A creative response differs from an analytical one, but the impulses that drive creative work can be complementary. It’s good to remember that bodies drive character, and that all bodies participate in a culture with demands, expectations, and dangers.


20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 [1] C. David Benson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner: His Sexuality and Modern Critics,” originally published in From Medievalia, Vol. 8 (1982), 337-346, 346; accessed on June 29, 2016, http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/pardt/pard-cdb.htm. For the primary importance of spiritual crimes, see also A. J. Minnis, Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and the Wife of Bath. 2008, esp 99-147.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 [2] The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), General Prologue, 672-673.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 [3] Also, lines 675-9 describe the Pardoner’s pale, long hair, and 684 the glaring eyes of a hare, an animal believed in medieval times to be intersex. See Beryl Rowland, “Animal Imagery and the Pardoner.” Neophilologus 48 (1964): 56-60.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 [4] Curry, Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1926), see Chapter Three, “The Pardoner’s Secret,” 54-70.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 [5] See Beryl Rowland, “Chaucer’s Idea of the Pardoner,” Chaucer Review 14 (1979), 140-54; McAlpine, Monica. “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters,” PMLA 95, no. 1 (1980): 8-22; Richard Firth Green, “Further Evidence for Chaucer’s Representation of the Pardoner as a Womanizer,” Medium Aevum 71, no. 2 (2002): 307-09; Donald Howard, The Idea of The Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978); Elspeth Whitney, “What’s Wrong with the Pardoner? Complexion Theory, the Phlegmatic Man, and Effeminacy,” Chaucer Review 45, no. 4 (2011): 357-89.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 [6] Cary Nederman and Jacqui True, “The Third Sex: The Idea of the Hermaphrodite in Twelfth-Century Europe,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 6, no. 4 (1996): 497-517, 504.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 [7] Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 161-162.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 [8] Robert S. Sturges, Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 1, 21-23.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 [9] For example, Benson, 346.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 [10] Diane Watt, Amoral Gower (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 26-28.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 [11] Today’s intersex community prefers to be called intersex, but the now-marginalizing term “hermaphrodite” is the language you will usually see in medieval literary scholarship (no doubt for historical reasons, as this is the term used in the medieval texts themselves). I use the term intersex unless directly quoting a text using this language.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 [12] I will be discussing this dismissal and the criticism against medical terminology in greater detail in a forthcoming article.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 [13] Steven F. Kruger, “Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale,” Exemplaria 6 (1994): 115-39.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 [14] Relics are an important part of Pardoner scholarship, traditionally underscoring his lack of moral character and allowing for condemnation of the Pardoner’s body and soul alike in his efforts to use relics to cheat people as well as compensate or pass for masculine. More recently, however, M. Bychowski makes an elegant point affirming the Pardoner’s body, in that the Pardoner deals with pig bones and such refuse fit for the trash heap much as his own body has been so harshly judged, yet he’s made something of himself in spite of society’s violence and scorn, and likewise he’s taken dismissed fragments and has built sacred objects of them. Bychowski’s argument elides the Pardoner’s financial schemes, but then again society and much previous scholarship has so often elided everything about the Pardoner except for that moral degeneracy. See M. W. Bychowski, “Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature,” originally presented at The 51st International Medieval Congress on May 15, 2016, Kalamazoo, MI, and published in final form on Bychowski’s blog. The piece carries added significance for its response to transphobic language that had occurred at the same conference: http://www.thingstransform.com/2016/05/genres-of-embodiment-theory-of-medieval.html.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 [15] Rita Copeland, “Chaucer and Rhetoric,” in The Yale Companion to Chaucer, ed. Seth Lerer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 123.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 [16] Copeland, 124.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 [17] Minnis, 125-130.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 [18] Terry Pratchett, Mort (New York: Harper, 2013), 232.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 [19] In a way, I’ve done this assignment myself. See my modern adaptation of The Canterbury Tales, Zarins, Sometimes We Tell the Truth (New York: Simon Pulse, forthcoming September 2016). I had to make decisions I’d avoided unwittingly as a scholar and teacher. Now I wish I’d wrestled with those ideas sooner.

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Source: https://opencanterburytales.com/open-review-home/the-pardoners-tale/