Discuss Chaucer’s poetic methods in presenting evil in the pardoner’s prologue and tale in the light of this comment. In Chaucer’s time, the nature of evil related to any committing of the 7 deadly sins, consisting of greed, pride, blasphemy, sloth, avarice, wrath, lust and envy. The pardoner’s prologue and tale is comprised of many of these sins, the pardoner himself demonstrating the majority. Other characters, such as the 3 rioters also embody many of these sins. This essay will explore these characters as well as their evil natures and formulate an opinion how Chaucer presents evil in the pardoner’s prologue and tale.
The pardoner’s evil nature is initiated from his physical description in the general prologue. He is described as having hair as yelow as wex and hood we wered noon – a description immediately illustrating him as a rule breaker, as for most clergymen it was assumed they would cover their hair. In addition to this, he is described as having such glaryng eyen.
In the medieval times, this amounted to the suggestion of evil; therefore, Chaucer has constructed the pardoner in such a way to ambiguously imply he may be somewhat evil. Critics, such as Spearing, have noted that the pardoner’s repellent outer appearance reflects his inner corruption.
The description of his fake relics, such as the sayle that saint peter hadde and oure lady veyl are used to demonstrate his evil intentions; taking advantage of the peasants’ good faith by tricking them into buying fake relics, that are nothing more than pigges bones. From the onset, Chaucer has incorporated the theme of evil within the pardoner and has maintained this throughout the prologue and tale.
The prologue outlines the pardoner’s admittance to his evil nature, and suggests he may even be proud of this. He boldly states that his sermons are constructed around the well-known Latin biblical phrase, radix malorum est cupiditas – loosely translated as ‘greed is the root of all evil’. The missing word omnium from this is used to demonstrate his lack of biblical knowledge, which is emphasised by the repititon of this phrase throughout. In medieval times, it was common and often expected, for members of the church to know and practice in Latin. The pardoner admits to using pieces of Latin to saffron my predicacioun.
This cooking imagery may suggest that he only uses Latin to reinforce his false position, and therefore highlighting his evil nature, and may relate to the sin of gluttony as he is referencing food, again reinforcing the evilness of his character. The pardoner states in the prologue, in the form of a confession, that he preche of no thyng but for coveityse. The repetition of this ironic language along with the shocking imagery that is portrayed through his rhetorical question will I live in poverte willfully? and his admittance to taking money from the povereste widye in the village paints an evil picture of the pardoner who is merely driven by greed.
Some critics, such as Georgianna believe in the historical school of thought, and note that the pardoner is merely a vehicle for the substantial embodiment of the church’s abusement. It has been suggested and argued amongst several other critics that Chaucer had no other motive when constructing the pardoner’s character other than to criticize and highlight the wrongdoings of the medieval church. Many fake pardoner’s lived amongst the medieval audience, and carried out the same evil methods as the pardoner, all for the same motive; greed. As a result of this, anticlericalism grew popular amongst the peasant’s very quickly. Therefore, it can be suggested that the pardoner’s character was constructed in such a way to shine light on his evil nature and to draw parallels with the medieval church.
The pardoner’s tale is a sermon against four particular sins; gluttony, blasphemy, gambling and drinking. He talks at length of each of these particular sins, giving biblical examples that he has twisted to his benefit, such as Adam and also his wyfe who were dryven for that vice. The pardoner is suggesting that gluttony was the downfall of Adam and Eve, when in fact it was temptation. To sermonize against drinking is massively ironic as the pardoner has admitted to needing a draughte before being able to think of a moral tale to tell the pilgrims – irony in itself seeing as he should not have to think about a tale of morality. The fact that the pardoner is guilty of committing the very sins he preaches about only adds to his evil nature. Many critics, such as Ruth Nevo, suggest that the pardoner is a character in his own tale that he tells.
The novelle that the Pardoner tells the pilgrims consist of three rioters. He begins by stating the setting of the three men; in the develes temple – metaphorical for a tavern. The three rioters are established as sinners from the very beginning, already being guilty of committing two of the seven deadly sins; drinking and blaspheming. The repeated suggestion of a brotherhood and addressing each other as brethren has underlying irony as each rioter is ultimately killed by each other’s greed. It has been suggested that as the rioters are not named, and therefore are nt personally addressed, that they have been constructed to suggest the embodiment of sin. Their deaths are quick and do not have much effect; instead, the focus is on the sins that they do commit. This stresses that their evil natures are what caused their own deaths.
However, it can be argued that although the pardoner presents evil in the pardoner’s prologue and tale, the fact that he acknowledges this suggests he is fully aware of his evil nature. Koff suggests that the pardoner is not so much evil as he is bold. This can be argued to an extent, as he does admit to being a ful vicious man, yet states that a morale tale yet I yew telle kan. This can be portrayed as being ironic, as he is fully aware of his evil nature, yet still believes that he can preach against the sins he so readily admits to committing. In addition to this, Chaucer does incorporate some good nature into the novelle in the form of the old man.
It has long been questioned as to whether he is the personification of death himself, and therefore cannot die, or whether he is merely an instrument used to emphasise the evil nature of the three rioters. His addressing of the three rioters as sires in comparison to the rude greetings of the rioters compares and relates age and innocence; the old man may have been faithful during his lifetime and therefore God will not take his life. In contrast, the young sinful rioters quickly come to their death through their own lack of faith.
To conclude, I believe that a ‘sinister exploration of evil’ is truly presented in the pardoner’s prologue and tale. Chaucer uses characterization of the pardoner and three rioters to present how corrupt medieval society was, as well as how readily sins were committed. The pardoner’s simile of as dooth a dowve sittynge on a berne to describe how he sees himself is used as an antithesis of his own character; as a dove carries religious connotations of peace and purity; the opposite to what the pardoner is. Despite infiltrating some holy and pure characters, such as the Old man, he only further emphasises the lack of good in the other characters. Overall, Chaucer constructs the prologue and tale in such a way to present several layers of evil in the Canterbury tales.