Sin and stupidity

The impermanence of what we see

In the Middle Ages, much art, preaching and poetry reminded people that life was short and death came to all, whether high or low. It was emphasised that wealth, status, beauty and happiness lasted only for a time. Far more important was the permanent life beyond the grave. By stressing the mutability (changeableness) of all worldly things, such art helped to focus minds on the importance of confession, in order to be prepared for death, whenever it came, with some hope of salvation and eternal life.

Mutability in The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

Chaucer demonstrates mutability through the way in which the idleness of the youths suddenly turns into urgent action, their friendship into treachery. The ‘figure' of Death to which they are given directions by the Old Man, transmutes into a pile of gold. Even the dramatic twists and turns of the Pardoner's narrative, which keep ‘wrongfooting' the reader, demonstrate how easily things lose their shape and take on a different ‘hewe'.

The stupidity of worldiness

In the light of the world's relative impermanence, to be absorbed with the pleasures of ‘worldly' living and materialism was seen by the Medieval mind as being stupid as well as evil or harmful. Such people were often portrayed as being foolish and blind to the realities of eternal life. Medieval moral teaching mocked them, presenting worldliness as an absurd thing to care about, often employing a mocking, witty style to do so.

Chaucer uses a variety of devices to convey this idea.

Foolish self-indulgence

If everything is focused on the present, restraint in the light of future consequences seems pointless. Without such restraint, however, physical indulgence is portrayed as easily tipping over into sinful excess:

  • Relish for food segues into gluttony, even when others have to go hungry (l.160-3)
  • The enjoyment of drink becomes drunkenness (l.180-1)
  • The desire to make a living turns into avarice and the exploitation of others (l.101-2), or murder.

Rhetorical excess 

There is excess and absurdity in the rhetorical devices Chaucer employs:

  • In the Pardoner's diatribe against gluttony, the contrast in the picture of the whole world being ransacked to bring gourmet pleasures to the tiny throat (l.224-49) is extreme 
  • The apostrophe which addresses the digestive tract into which fine food is poured as being merely a stinking bag full of ‘dongue' and ‘corrupcioun' highlights the disgusting reality of what food turns into (l.247).

Chaucer's use of the grotesque has a moral function, vividly suggesting how absurd, unnatural and gross sin can be.

Extreme ‘ensamples'

Chaucer backs up the Pardoner's condemnation of sin by selecting extreme examples:

Absurd behaviour

  • When the seven deadly sins were represented as animals, gluttony was symbolized as a pig, an unflattering comparison. Chaucer heightens his image of a drunkard (seen as a form of gluttony) by portraying a slaughtered pig, staggering around and falling (l.268) 
  • The hard work and elaborate methods of cooks are absurd, given that the end result is the de-naturing of basic ingredients into powder, purees, liquids, etc. (like baby food) l.250.

Loss of dignity

Throughout the narrative there are many incidences of people being seen in a demeaning light because of their subjection to worldly sin:

  • The reference to Sampsoun (l.266-7) imitates what a very drunk person sounds like, panting and breathing through the nose
  • In l.248, humans are reduced to burping, farting gluttons
  • Gambling leads to a bad reputation and loss of honour in l.301-40
  • Seneca links gluttony to abuse of a person's intelligence / loss of reason (l.204) Drunkenness took away the powers of reason and therefore reduced the stature of God's creation
  • The drunkard is ‘disfigured', diminishing his God-given human status Genesis 1:26-27 (l.263) 

Outright stupidity

Chaucer makes clear that evil doers are also associated with stupidity, however clever they seem in their own eyes:

  • The three youths seem particularly thick in their inability to grasp the significance of the figure of Death (l.404-19), unlike the Boy and the Publican. The pride with which the eldest youth declares his ‘wit' to be ‘grete' (l.490) is ironically undercut by his blindness to the motives of others
  • The Pardoner might seem in control of those he dupes. We might even admire his verve and persuasiveness, enjoying his glee in a good scam. Yet he makes an amazing error of judgement in turning on the pilgrims, to whom he has exposed his methods, hoping to fleece them. The scatological response of the Host firmly puts him in his place and treats his behaviour with the contempt it deserves.
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