The Cross

A vivid reality

Jesus' crucifixionThe image of Jesus Christ being tortured and crucified was very vivid in the medieval mind. It was dwelt on at length in church teaching and central to the significance of the Mass all believers regularly attended. Surviving medieval wall paintings show that artists did not shrink from depicting its grisly reality.

This image permeates the language used in The Pardoner's Prologue and The Tale, whether in the (insincere) exhortation of the Pardoner, or the disrespectful curses of the youths and the Host.

Cursing by Christ

To blaspheme was seen as adding to the pain of the physical suffering of Jesus prior to and during his crucifixion:

‘… othes … so grete, and so dampnable, … 
Our blissed Lordes body they to-tere – 
Hem thoghte that Jewes rente him noght ynough - ' l.184-7

‘Grete' oaths were ones referring to Christ's body and death, which were counted as highly offensive and vulgar blasphemy. It was believed that disrespecting Christ's name equated to dishonouring his tortured body, and, therefore, the sacrifice which Christians believe he was making to save humankind:

‘.. many a grisly ooth thanne han they sworn,
And Crystes blessed body they to-rente;' l.420-1

Examples of ‘Blaspheme of Cryst' (l.305) that focus on his death include:

  • The Pardoner's own curse as he preaches against blasphemy: ‘for the love of Cryst, that for us dyde' (l.370)
  • A more physical depiction is found in the Host's ‘By Corpus bones!' (Corpus was short for ‘corpus Christi', the body of Christ l.26) and the rioter's ‘Goddes arms … Goddes digne bones!' in l.404, 407. This draws on the popular image of Christ's emaciated body, with its arms stretched out on the cross
  • Swearing ‘by the hooly sacrament' in l.469 means to swear by the wafer or bread used to represent the body of Christ in the service of Mass (also known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion) which was ‘broken' to rescue humankind

The example of the cross

Similar emphasis on the physicality of Jesus' death was used by those exhorting others to avoid sin:

  • In l.213, the Pardoner states how Christ ‘boght us with his blood again', referring to the idea of his death as a sacrifice which Christians believe ‘paid' for human sin
  • According to the writings of Paul in the New Testament, sinners are depicted in l.244 as ‘enemys of Crystes crois'
  • To illustrate the depravity of those who blaspheme, the most graphic reference, to the nails that pinned Christ to the Cross and the blood that he shed in dying, is quoted by the Pardoner in l.363-4:

    ‘By Goddes precious herte, and by his nayles!
    And by the blood of Cryst..'

However, the fact that he is effectively blaspheming ironically undercuts the point he is making.

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