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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE PARDONER

Pardoners were supposed to issue papal indulgences (forgivenesses of sins) in exchange for alms money, which was to be given to the sick, poor, or another worthy cause. But many pardoners were out-and-out frauds, selling worthless pieces of paper, and even legitimate ones often kept more than their share of the proceeds. This Pardoner is from Rouncivalle, a London hospital well known for the number of illegal pardons connected with it. Most pardoners, like this one, claimed to have come "straight from the court of Rome," with a bagful of pardons "al hoot" off the presses, though of course our Pardoner hasn't set foot outside England.

NOTE:

Fake pardoners claimed they could do almost anything for the right sum of money, even remove an excommunication. Despite widespread abuses, though, there still were plenty of people gullible enough to believe in a pardoner's "powers."

There's something suspect in the fact that the Pardoner sings "Come hither, love, to me," to the Summoner, who accompanies him in a strong bass voice. Some see more than a hint of sexual perversion in this young man who has thin locks of yellow hair that he wears without a hood because he thinks it's the latest style. His small voice and the fact that he has no beard, "ne never sholde [would] have," leads Chaucer to suspect "he were a gelding or a mare"- a eunuch or effeminate man.

NOTE:

Scientific opinion of the day believed that thin hair represented poor blood, effeminacy, and deception, while glaring eyes like the Pardoner's indicated folly, gluttony, and drunkenness. Chaucer's audience would catch the references just as we would instantly see the significance of a villain in a black cape and with a black moustache.

As if the description weren't bad enough, the Pardoner tricks people into buying phony relics of saints, such as a pillowcase that he says was "Our Lady's veil," or a piece of sail allegedly belonging to St. Peter. No wonder he makes more money in a day than the poor Parson does in two months. Ironically, Chaucer calls him "a noble eccesiaste," since he can sing a church lesson beautifully-for money, of course. His tale is right in character: he tells what the pilgrims say they want to hear. He says he bases his sermons on money being the root of all evil (he ought to know). But he admits he's not a moral man, although he can tell a moral tale. In his tale about three rowdies, he ironically delivers a sermon against gluttony and other sins. Afterwards, the Host lights into the Pardoner's hypocrisy with such force that the Pardoner is speechless with anger.


THE HOST

Finally we meet the Host (which is another name for Christ). He is a large man, very masculine (in contrast to the Pardoner), with bright eyes that miss nothing. He's fit to be a "marshall in a hall," a master of ceremonies, which he indeed becomes for the pilgrims. He has the commanding presence to get his plan accepted before it's even told, as long as the pilgrims stand by his judgment-another Christlike reference. The group accepts him as the guide, "governour," judge, and counter of the tales. Tidbits of his personality appear throughout the Tales: he's boisterous, well educated, annoyed by his shrewish wife, a jokester, a philosopher; in other words, a full-blooded, complex man. He's a fair leader and promises a free dinner to the best tale- teller, which some see as a moral or parody of a celestial reward. Chaucer carefully mixes religious and worldly references throughout the Tales.

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