The Pardoner

The portrait of the Pardoner in The General Prologue

Chaucer anticipated that his audience would approach the Pardoner encountered in his Prologue and Tale through the perspective of the description given of him in The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer placed the portrait of the Pardoner last in his list of pilgrims in The General Prologue. That might suggest he was the character who is most to be despised (the upper-class, noble Knight comes first: a traditional figure for respect).

The Pardoner and Summoner

The Pardoner is accompanied by his friend, the Summoner, an official of the church courts. By pairing them, the narrative suggests we should also consider the vices they represent as twinned:

Suggestions of satire

In The General Prologue portraits and The Link and The Pardoner's Prologue, Chaucer gives quite a cluster of details which contribute to a satirical condemnation of the Pardoner's and Summoner's activities:

  • They are described as having a bizarre and, in some ways, repulsive outward appearance. To the medieval mind, this would suggest that their behaviour is also repellent and morally dubious
  • There are heavy hints of a homosexual relationship between them and that the Pardoner is effeminate. According to medieval thinking, homosexuality was seen as a barren and irregular relationship and this is reflected in the kind of scams these two operate. They are barren of Christian good works and working against God's order by putting their own financial gain first, ahead of their duty as representatives of the Church
  • Their personal coarseness and lack of sober responsibility underlines the extent to which they simply don't care about other people or God
  • The elements of outward display, show-off singing and even the desire to be fashionable in the Pardoner's portrait perhaps suggest how much he relies hypocritically on empty words and outward show.

The Pardoner as outsider

Some details in The General Prologue description of the Pardoner (l.1-23) add to a pervasive sense that he is an outsider, not obeying expected norms, and - on a moral level - not playing the expected part he should as an official of a church institution. Chaucer wants us to understand that he is a moral outcast and perhaps a sexual one too: 

  • His description comes bottom of the list in The General Prologue
  • His profession was itinerant (i.e. outside of any settled community) and unpopular, for understandable reasons
  • He raucously sings a popular love-song. This bellowing - louder than a trumpet - suggests an irritating, inconsiderate and loutish manner
  • The words of the song, and the fact that the Summoner sings a harmony to it, suggest a same-sex attraction. They could be seem as flaunting a homosexual relationship in a way likely to offend or irritate other people
  • The Pardoner's appearance is ‘unmanly', with strange glaring eyes, a bleating voice like a goat and long yellow hair which hangs uncombed in rats' tails (‘ounces') over his shoulders. In the Middle Ages, long hair lying on the shoulders would normally be the hairstyle of unmarried girls. His inability to grow a beard would also be seen as suspect
  • Regarding dress, he is said to avoid wearing his hood (part of the normal rules for the dress of ecclesiastical officials) because he wanted to appear fashionable. This is a tiny detail that is typical of the way he plays fast and loose with his duties and role.

A duplicitous man

The Pardoner's General Prologue portrait also describes his greed, avarice and deceptions. 

It describes his bogus relics and how much money he makes from cheating poor people into giving him money for these. At the same time, the hypocrisy of the man is foregrounded by the information about how impressively he performs in church, motivated by the fact that such fluency (in singing, preaching or telling stories) will help him to gain money. The Pardoner uses people's faith to manipulate them. There is no sign of any concern with their spiritual welfare; anything will do that gets people to pay for his false absolution.

That last description is a good prefiguring of how he will approach his own tale when the time comes for him to ‘perform' in response to the Host's orders. He will use the occasion as an opportunity to showcase brilliant rhetorical ability, in a fashion that will persuade his listeners to donate.

Chaucer's ironic perspective

Chaucer incorporates a number of apparent compliments about the Pardoner, which invite us to read them ironically:

  • In the Pardoner's portrait in The General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Pardoner as ‘gentil', meaning ‘noble' (l.1), when he is clearly anything but noble
  • In l.24-5, he says that this Pardoner had no equal in the whole kingdom (for deception!)
  • The subtle repetition of ‘he sayde' in l.27 and 28 indicates that the claims about Mary's veil and Peter's sailcloth are questionable
  • The same use of irony appears when Chaucer declares him to be ‘in chirche a noble ecclesiaste' (l.40)
  • It is ironic that the bit of the church service the Pardoner sings most winningly of all is the ‘offertory': the hymn or chant sung as the collection of money is taken from the congregation

It is worth noting that Chaucer occasionally adopts for the narrator (‘Chaucer the Pilgrim') a voice that sounds rather naively ready to accept things at face value. By doing this, he is engaging the reader, allowing the text to leave judgement up to us, rather than offering authorial guidance. But he also frequently presents rogues with this sort of more obvious irony.

Within The Prologue and The Tale it is clearly ironic that the Pardoner preaches on the love of money as the root of evil, while being himself motivated by such a love of money that he commits sins that include deception.

The significance of Rouncivale

The Pardoner is described as coming from Rouncivale (The General Prologue, l.2), a hospital near Charing Cross in London. The name is significant as it was common knowledge that Rouncivale raised a good deal of its money from the sale of indulgences, and had developed a bad reputation for its fund-raising practices.

Adding this specific reference strengthens the impression Chaucer is making, that the Pardoner is himself engaged in abusing his job of raising money via the sale of pardons. It is left unspoken whether the Pardoner is keeping back some of the money donated for himself: his love of money makes it likely.


The Pardoner is also described as coming ‘fro the court of Rome' (The General Prologue, l.3). This was the power centre of all western Christianity, before the Reformation, to which authority all priests were subject.

More on priests: A priest in the medieval church was a man ordained by the bishop and given the authority to celebrate mass, administer the sacraments, and give absolution of sins. Most priests served in a parish, caring for the local community, but monks and friars based in a monastery could also be priests.     

To have come from Rome would have made the Pardoner seem glamorous to ignorant people. They would be used to hearing about papal bulls which directed how the Pope wanted the church to behave. A few lines later, Chaucer writes that his wallet (which meant something more like a large brief-case at the time) was full of pardons ‘comen from Rome all hoot.'

More on papal bulls: These were instructions for the church which came from the Pope. This title means ‘father' (in Italian the word is ‘Papa') and was originally given to any bishop, but gradually came to be used only by the Bishop of Rome.     

Chaucer's wider frame of reference

Chaucer's original audience would have been more alert than we can be today to comments about topical events. However, Chaucer's subtlety means that both they and we have to draw conclusions about whether the Pardoner is lying about Rouncivale and pardons from Rome. Yet even if that is not the case, just the mention of these phenomena aroused a lot of contemporary disquiet. By linking a clearly avaricious, deceitful individual with the official (but questionable) phenomena of pardons and the Rouncivale hospital's system of donations, Chaucer provides a subtle comment on the medieval church as a whole, if the reader chooses to interpret it as such.


Investigating the Pardoner's portrait in The General Prologue

  • Write a list of the different elements brought out in the portrait of the Pardoner. Divide the list into those aspects which:
    • Rely on similes, visual images, hints and associations
    • Directly and explicitly expose the Pardoner as a villain
  • Find examples of how the portrait uses humour, absurdity and irony as weapons in condemning the deceptive use of relics and pardons
  • Is the writing clear or ambiguous about:
    • Its allusions to Rome and Rouncivale?
    • Whether the pardons are genuinely from the Pope or forgeries?
    • Whether the Pardoner honestly gives all the donations back to Rouncivale hospital?
  • Is the writing clear or ambiguous? If you feel Chaucer leaves you without a firm, explicit statement, then what is the effect of that?
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