How far is the pardoners tale gothic?

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 11 June 2016

How far is the pardoners tale gothic?

The gothic genre, thought to be introduced in 1769 by Horace Walpole’s noel The Castle of Otranto, was remembered for its crude, grotesque, exaggerated nature. Although in medieval times the Gothic movement had not commenced, Chaucer’s can be considered a forerunner to this movement as many aspects in the pardoners tale are clear gothic, however Chaucer did not perceive his writing as Gothic, he did not intentional write a Gothic tale like later authors did. The pardoner’s tale is considered the most Gothic out of all the ‘Canterbury Tales’ as it is the most abundant with gothic elements. These elements include Chaucer’s description of the Pardoner, the attractiveness of evil in the text, the presence of supernatural and horror, the digressions, and the personification of death. It’s because of the gothic elements this text that modern interpretations have viewed The Pardoners’ Tale as one of the earliest examples of a Gothic text. A common element that is found in the gothic style is the breaking of conventional moral or ethnic code. Morals and ethics in the 13th century originated from the Church which had the authority in medieval England. The Church was known by many to be corrupt because of its hypocrisy and exploitation of the society.

Common peasants in the society were expected to be 10% of their wage to the Church, which is how it attained its extraordinary wealth. Although the majority of people were aware of the Churches corruption no one would challenge it in fear of the punishment of eternal hell therefore the Churches established authority was able to prevail while the people carried on being exploited. Chaucer acknowledged this corruption, and with his presentation of the Pardoner he attacks the established Church. The Pardoner breaks all of the moral conventions set by the Church, his fraudulent nature is exposed by Chaucer as “he hadde a pilwe-beer, which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl.” The role of the Pardoner in society was to allow people to buy pardons for their sins from him. There were gullible or fear stricken people who would often do this, in fear that their sins would prevent them from going to heaven, the Pardoner was one of the most corrupt of the clergy and is a perfect example of the corruption of the Church in Medieval England, Chaucer shows the Pardoner’s exploitation as he uses a pillow case to claim it was Mary’s veil. This would have shocked and horrified the minority of readers who would have had hope for their salvation through the Pardoner.

From the Pardoners description in the General Prologue it’s also clear that he breaks conventions of the Church as he unusually rides with “hood, for jolitee, wered he noon” just in the fact he doesn’t wear his cap shows that he’s not as dedicated to the Church as he likes to portray, it also hints at vanity which in medieval times was considered a sin. There are more inferences in his description that hint he breaks conventions of the Church. He is described to have “heer as yelow as wex” which is significant as the blonde hair was usually associated with cunningness, reinforcing the Pardoner as a sinister character. Blonde hair was also associated with effeminacy, it’s clear that he had intentions of making the Pardoner into a feminine character as he had “no berd” and “he were a geldyng or a mare.” Chaucer’s mockery of the pardoner’s manhood has lead to many modern interpretations of the Pardoner as a homosexual.

This would have been subtle to the medieval audience as homosexuality was not the same in the middle ages, however, to those readers who picked up on this undertone, it would have horrified them as this went against all the moral and ethnics they’d been taught. Chaucer’s presentation of the pardoner breaks morals that the Church set, and therefore is a convention that most modern interpretations would recognise as being Gothic. *The text is filled with a macabre atmosphere; this is particularly achieved with Chaucer’s depiction of the attractiveness of evil. Avarice is one of the most stated sins preached in the Pardoners tale, to the contemporary medieval Christian, avarice was strongly against their morals. Avarice was considered a curse and the Pardoner refers to it as “swich cursedness” because it takes away people’s attention from trying to achieve eternal life. In the tale, the attractiveness of avarice is evidently shown in the presentation of treasure found by the rioters “florins fine of gold, y-coined rounde … so faire and brighte’, a ‘precious hoord.” The young rioters are clearly overpowered by the lust of riches and money, this is echoed by the Pardoners own lust for money, despite preaching ‘radix malorum est cupiditas’ he commits avarice as his daily job. The medieval doctrine would condemn this for the reason that he jeopardises other people’s chance of achieving eternal life for his own profit.

The Pardoner often preaches about various the sins that cause bodily corruption. Bodily corruption was viewed a sin as everyone was expected to take care of their body since it was given to them by the divine. The pardoner preaches about gluttony, which destroys the body due to greed for food, the pardoner states that “corrupt was all this world for gluttony”, he also condemns sex and drinking, this makes it a chilling medieval tale as destroying one’s body was a haunting fear in the society. The most Gothic element that appears in the pardoner’s tale is the theme of death and the depiction of the supernatural in the mysterious man. In the 14th century England was hit with the black plague. This was a tragic disease that wiped out 70% of the population in London. As a consequence, death clearly surrounded everyday life. A common theme in medieval times was death. Many artists and authors personified death, this is most clearly shown in the picture “the dance of the dead” where death is represented as dancing skeletons.

Chaucer also personifies death in the pardoner’s tale. Death in itself is a very gothic theme, it’s included in many later gothic texts, just as the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Stokers ‘Dracula’ and Wildes ‘Dorian Gray.’ The personification of death makes it chilling and horrifying as there’s no way to escape it. Countless Gothic texts, such as Frankenstein and Dracula embody their society’s biggest problems into their ‘supernatural.’ Since the black plague was a massive issue, the old man in the text represents death, one of society’s biggest problems. Chaucer, in his representation of the old man, perverts the usual depiction of them being wise and instead gives him an air of mystery.

Mystery is key in Gothic literature; it tampers with the audiences emotions as they deal with the unknown. Chaucer presents the old man with an eerie atmosphere “this olde man gan loke in his visage.” This line would endorse a sense of horror into the reader as the man just stares at one of the young men. The pardoners tale follows many of the conventions of Gothic, although it was written many years before the Gothic period is thought to have started it’s still considered a Gothic text to an extent as it would have haunted the medieval audience.


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  • University/College: University of Arkansas System

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 11 June 2016

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