The Canterbury Tales is a piece written by Geoffrey Chaucer sought out to accomplish various goals. Chaucer wrote his tales during the late 1300’s. This puts him right at the beginning of the decline of the Middle Ages. Historically, we know that a middle class was just starting to take shape at this time, due to the emerging commerce industry. Chaucer was able to see the importance and future success of the middle class, and wrote his work with them in mind. Knowing that the middle class was not interested in lofty philosophical literature, Chaucer wrote his work as an extremely comical and entertaining piece that would be more interesting to his audience. Also, Chaucer tried to reach the middle class by writing The Canterbury Tales in English, the language of the middle class rather than French, the language of the educated upper class. The most impressive aspect of Chaucer’s writing is how he incorporated into his piece some of his own controversial views of society, but yet kept it very entertaining and light on the surface level. One of the most prevalent of these ideas was his view that certain aspects of the church had become corrupt. This idea sharply contrasted previous Middle Age thought, which excepted the church’s absolute power and goodness unquestionably. He used corrupt church officials in his tales to illustrate to his audience that certain aspects of the church needed to be reformed. The most intriguing of these characters was the Pardoner. Chaucer’s satirical account of the Pardoner is written in a very matter-of-fact manner that made it even more unsettling with his audience. Chaucer uses his straightforwardness regarding the hypocrisy of the Pardoner, suggestive physiognomy of the character, and an interesting scene at the conclusion of the Pardoner’s Tale to inculcate his views of the church to his audience. The way that Chaucer used these literary devices to subtly make his views known to an audience while hooking them with entertainment shows that Chaucer was truly a literary genius. The first of these devices, his straightforwardness and matter-of-factness regarding the Pardoner’s hypocrisy, is used first to appall his readers, and then to cause them to take a second look at the church in their own society. Chaucer knew that most of his audience lacked the ability to fully understand his views, but he hoped that by using this device he could plant seeds of reason in them that would lead to reform of corruption he saw among church officials like the pardoners. The role of a pardoner in the Medieval Church was to sell indulgences, which granted the buyer pardon for their sins. John Manly, in his book Some New Light on Chaucer, believed that Chaucer developed his negative attitude towards this practice by observing the pardoners of the city Rouncival (127). These pardoners in particular had developed a reputation of being scandalous and full of avarice during the late 1300’s. Chaucer saw this practice of selling indulgences as obviously corrupt, so he therefore sought to make his Pardoner obviously corrupt to his readers. The Pardoner is very open about his hypocrisy and does not show any sign of remorse for it. In preaching to his audiences his theme is always “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (Chaucer 1672), which means, greed is the root of all evil. However, he then proudly admits, “Avarice is the theme that I employ in all my sermons, to make the people free in giving pennies-especially to me. My mind is fixed on what I stand to win and not at all upon correcting sin.” and also boast, “By such hornswoggling I’ve won, year by year, a hundred marks” (1673). The simple fact that a person with such an evil heart, so full of greed, could be successful at accomplishing a duty of the church, makes evident the fact that there must be something morally wrong with that duty itself. Also, the fact that the Pardoner so openly admits his corrupt actions causes the reader to question whether this is not common practice among pardoners. The second way that Chaucer ingeniously attributed corruption to his Pardoner was though physiognomy. In Chaucer’s time there was a well-known science of “interpreting a man’s character from a study of his features”(Duino 322). Certain stereotypes concerning physical features were understood by all people of his time, so Chaucer used these stereotypes as symbolism in his work. By making the Pardoner a eunuch, Chaucer accomplished his goal of writing with deeper meaning and symbolism while maintaining an entertaining work one again. The effect of this on his audience was one of disgust and intrigue, but Chaucer had other intentions that stemmed from Biblical text. The Bible mentions two types of eunuchs: those who became eunuchs for spiritual reasons, and those who became eunuchs unspiritual reasons. The first type of eunuch sought to cut themselves off from worldly desires. If a member of the church was to be a eunuch, this was the only acceptable type. In fact Deuteronomy 23:1 condemns unspiritual eunuchs by commanding, “No on who had been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of God” (Santa Biblia 247). However, the audience knows that the Pardoner is not a spiritual man, so it certainly was not for spiritual reasons. It can be assumed, however, that the Pardoner cut off his genitals because he was a very distorted individual who secretly wished to be a female. In attempt to keep this a secret, the Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath’s prologue to announce that he desires to have a wench in every town (Helterman 2). Later the reader realizes this was simply a cover up when the Pardoner sings a “song of carnal, rather than spiritual, love” to the Summoner (Miller 182). To Chaucer this was the ultimate of hypocrisies. A eunuch who was, according to the Old Testament, not even supposed to be allowed in church, he made a leader of the church. Also, a spiritual eunuch chooses to cut himself off from temporal desires, but Chaucer’s Pardoner choose to cut himself off from spiritual desires. These underlying messages of hypocrisy give the educated reader an idea of Chaucer’s personal views of some of the pardoner’s in the church. Also, the manner in which Chaucer used both obvious character flaws of the Pardoner, and deeper hypocrisies of his nature, show the depth and genius of his writing. Another passage in The Canterbury Tales that invites interpretation and shows more obviously Chaucer’s complexity, is at the conclusion of “The Pardoner’s Tale.”
Blake, William. Descriptive Catalogue (1809). In Blake: Complete Writings, 1966, ed. Keynes: 556–75. Quoted as "On The Canterbury Tales" in Bloom, Harold, ed. Geoffrey Chaucer, Classic Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishing, 2007. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales Complete. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 5-48. Rossignol, Rosalyn. "General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales." Critical Companion to Chaucer: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work, Critical Companion. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2007. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc. Ruud, Jay. "Hengwrt Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales." Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Bloom's Literary Reference Online. Facts On File, Inc.