Preaching in the Prologue and Tale

The Pardoner's task

In the first link before his Prologue, the Pardoner is asked to relay something amusing or funny. He declares that it will be ‘som honest thing' (l.40), which presumably he thinks will be amusing. What he is ‘honest' about is the way in which he uses his skills as a preacher to dupe people into giving him money.

The conventional vehicle for preaching was the sermon – a talk that had particular characteristics and was commonly delivered in church, or outside on the steps of a market cross. In displaying how he preaches, the Pardoner slips into delivering an actual sermon to the Canterbury pilgrims. In l.591, he uses the term ‘sermone' which backs up this impression, though the Pardoner is also conveying the derogatory sense of the word as ‘talking about (at some length)'.

Sermons as a genre

Sermon from pulpitThe sermon genre was a popular mode of communication in the Middle Ages. People enjoyed lively sermons, listening either to their parish priest or sometimes to peripatetic friars, who were often riveting performers at giving lively, amusing, and persuasive sermons.

Sermons were used to explain to believers how they should live. In a time when few could read, oral teaching in sermons was central to people's Christian education.

Sermons had several functions:

  • To educate people about the Christian faith and the Church's rituals and practices
  • To make known the contents of the Bible
  • To help people understand the system of confession and to prepare for their confession to their parish priest in a careful way
  • To explain about sin and virtues.

Common features of sermons

Medieval sermons might be expected to include any or all of the following:

  • ‘ensamples' l.147 (examples), stories told to illustrate a point. The Pardoner's Tale purports to be one such story, showing how love of money can be the root of evil
  • References to ‘authorities' – biblical texts or the writings of learned men such as the Romans, Seneca and Boethius. These were used to back up the preacher's point (as well as incidentally demonstrating his own learning!). The Pardoner draws on a number of authoritative writings in his narrative
  • Direct address to the congregation
  • Aspects of rhetoric such as repetition, exhortation, lists of three points, apostrophe.

The motivation to preach

The Prologue exposes the motivation behind the Pardoner's sermons:

  • His principle intention is to design sermons that will encourage people to give the largest possible donations for pardons or to buy one of his bogus relics
  • He acknowledges his desire for ‘veyne glorie' (l.123), showing off his preaching technique:
    • His tongue is ‘wel affyle[d] … To winne silver' (General Prologue portrait l.44) and he delights in his ‘hauteyn speche' (l.2)
    • He ‘speke[s] a wordes fewe' in ‘Latyn' to sound impressive
    • He uses his eyes, head movements, ‘handes' and ‘tonge … so yerne, / That it is joye', in the Pardoner's estimation anyway, to see his ‘businesse' (l.110-11)
  • He may flatter people via his preaching, for his own self-advancement, which he openly admits is ‘ipocrisye' (l.122) 
  • Alternatively, some sermons are simply vehicles of his desire to get even with adversaries:

    ‘Thus spitte I out my venim, under hewe
    Of hoolynesse,' (l.33-4)
  • What he does not intend, but inadvertently may happen, is the true aim of a sermon, which is to ‘maken other folk to twinne … and soore to repente' (l.142-3).

An immediate message

By its very nature, a sermon is intended to elicit a response from everyone who hears it. So as the Pardoner segues from taking about how he delivers sermons, into actually delivering a homily which engages the Canterbury pilgrims, Chaucer's readers are also drawn in. The rhetoric and moral points raised are no longer just applicable to their original audience of ‘lewed peple' (l.104) (‘them') but to ‘us'. For example, after the grisly deaths of the three youths, Chaucer moves us on from involvement in a clearly moral story back to the persuasive rhetoric of the sermon. Then the Pardoner deftly moves from deploring sin generally to addressing the particular group of people in front of him – which, by extension, includes the reader.

The fact that Chaucer puts the Pardoner's satirical sermon into a first-person narrative, rather than simply painting a third-person description of what a deceitful Pardoner might do, also makes it very immediate. The switches in the Pardoner's style, from quoting authorities, to extravagant apostrophe, to narrative, to exhortation and back, also add to the vibrancy of the account.

Chaucer's intentions

Chaucer gives a wickedly funny caricature of preaching directed towards completely unholy purposes: making money. He demonstrates the Pardoner's effectiveness by getting the reader to engage with the moral pity of hurting God (l.607-15), then bringing us up short with the realisation of the Pardoner's immoral cheating of people to obtain their money.

The need for reform

Chaucer also asks us to stand back and see the representation of the Pardoner as symptomatic of the wider abuses of the Medieval Church:

  • The whole system of indulgences, based on dispensations from the Pope, is being brought into question
  • Ordinary people's veneration of relics is demonstrated as ultimately being spiritually empty, given that so many were fraudulent
  • By exposing the abuse of relics, Chaucer implies that much of the power exerted by churchmen is based on false assumptions and the ignorance of common people – i.e. that many clerics lacked true spiritual authority
  • This is backed up by the way in which the Pardoner (and those preachers mentioned in Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue) misuses the Bible for his own ends:
    • For example, because he seeks an ‘authority' to prove his point about the evils of greed, he claims that as long as Adam didn't eat anything in the Garden of Eden he stayed out of sin – where he went wrong was to be greedy! (l.222)
    • However, it wasn't that eating itself was wrong, but the fact that Adam and Eve had specifically been told not to eat the fruit from a particular tree, and had therefore been disobedient Genesis 2:16-17.

A desire for change

Through his characterisation of the Pardoner, Chaucer is vividly illustrating how ordinary, illiterate believers were at the mercy of the clerics' stranglehold on the ‘truth'. They would have been taught since infancy to trust what they heard at church, rather than question it, yet the Medieval Church was, in many ways, abusing that position of trust.

It was exactly for such reasons that John Wyclif and his reforming associates wanted a vernacular translation of the Bible to be available to everyone. Only then could people have access to the word of God for themselves, unmediated by a powerful institution which was seen to be serving its own ends rather than the spiritual wellbeing of those for whom it was meant to care.

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