Relics, bulls and reality

Props to make money

Through his depiction of the way the Pardoner handles relics and indulgences, aiming always to make money for himself, Chaucer was satirising the widespread abuse of people's faith in the Middle Ages.

More on relics and indulgencesRelics are the remains of a saint, such as a bone, or articles which have been in contact with a saint and in which some of the saint's power is believed to reside. These secondary relics could be articles of clothing, such as the breeches worn by St. Thomas Becket which were kept at Canterbury or dust or chippings from the saint's tomb. The resting places of saints and their relics were believed to be places where heaven and earth intersected, where individuals might come close to God and have their prayers answered. It was, however, very difficult to verify the authenticity of such objects, so the scope for fraud was very great.

For detail on the origins of indulgences and papal bulls, see Religious and philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness > Indulgences    

The Pardoner uses his bogus relics and documents for two reasons:

  • To give him status and the appearance of spiritual authority. His ‘bulles' are from ‘popes and cardinales, Of patriarkes and bisshopes' (l.54-5), while his authority to sell pardons has ‘Our lyge lordes seel' (l.49) 
  • Merely as props from which to make money. Chaucer emphasises their physical nature, as bits of cloth and bone, to show how easy it was to dupe onlookers. The image of a sheep's shoulder bone encased in ‘latoun', a cheap shiny metal, illustrates the veneer of authenticity over fake reality.

Later in The Tale, the Pardoner refers to the bottle of ‘blood … in Hayles' (l.364) which purported to be blood which came from the body of Jesus on the cross. Widely venerated in the Middle Ages, this was proved to be a fake during Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s.

Relics exposed

Chaucer uses the figure of the Host to puncture comprehensively the illusion of spiritual authority created by the Pardoner. In l.660-8, he parodies the language and objects associated with the veneration of relics:

  • Instead of kissing a relic (such as the breeches or coarse undergarment of St Thomas Becket), he declares he'd rather kiss the Pardoner's excrement smeared breeches
  • Rather than possess a reliquary, he'd rather get hold of the Pardoner's testicles
  • The Host's vision of the Pardoner's testicles carried aloft encased in a pig's turd, instead of the usual smallish caskets or elaborate containers, is a metaphor for all the Pardoner's relics and claims. They are disgusting and worthless.

By contrast, the Host refers to the most famous of all relics, the remains of the actual cross on which Christ was crucified. Traditionally supposed to have been found by Saint Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, this was held in high regard throughout the Middle Ages.

False spiritual authority

More serious than duping his hearers out of their money for bogus ‘relic cures', was the Pardoner's deception played on ‘lewed peple['s]' faith in God's forgiveness and their place in heaven.

The Pardoner opening up a list to write onto it those who would enter heaven echoes the vision of Revelation 21:27 and appears to make his ‘rolle' (l.623-4) as significant as Jesus' ‘Book of Life' Revelation 3:5. Claiming that he has received permission to issue pardons from ‘the popes hond' himself (l.634) makes the Pardoner's offer seem all the more impressive. No wonder his audience (usually) believes him when he says he can absolve their sins as God's representative (l.636), so long as they ‘offren, always newe and newe' (l.641-2). Yet it was all bogus.

It is ironic that the money is described as ‘goode and trewe', given that it lies at the centre of the Medieval Church's terrible abuse of the doctrine of penitence and grace.

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