The role of a pardoner

There are no such people as pardoners nowadays; in Chaucer's day many of them (though not all) had a bad reputation. 

The official duties of a pardoner

A pardoner was originally just someone who collected money on behalf of a religious foundation. Chaucer's Pardoner is said to work for the Hospital of Blessed Mary of Rouncivalle in London, which in real life had been associated with scandals and abuses of the system. Pardoners were originally called ‘questors'.

A pardoner worked under the authority of a Bishop

  • The idea was that he should introduce himself to a church congregation, show his letters of authority and make an appeal in aid of some worthy cause approved by the Bishop. He would then take the money back to the Bishop to be used for support of a hospital, relief of the poor, building roads, etc.
  • These works of mercy were thought of as worthy, and (as is still the case today) morally and spiritually beneficial to the giver, as well as to those who were helped
  • Properly conducted, there was no problem with the work of pardoners. 

The ‘pardoning' of sin

Questors eventually became known as pardoners, because increasingly they were associated with the pardoning of sins. Some were monks or priests, others properly licensed lay people employed to perform this function. Pardoners used to go round and read out indulgences to church congregations, to inform believers about the need for repentance, confession and the performance of penances. 

Limits on a pardoner's authority

The point about a professional pardoner issuing an indulgence was that he could not himself actually hear the penitents' confessions. Indulgences were therefore issued on the condition that the penitents went to confession as soon as they could thereafter. Officially a pardoner was not supposed to preach, but they did.

Fraudulent pardoners

There is a great deal of evidence that many pardoners were indeed fraudsters, who saw their role as an opportunity to extort money for their own use. Despite the official limitations on their authority:

  • They often preached
  • They did not just issue indulgences remitting some or all of the punishment due to a sinner, but they issued illegal forgiveness of sins
  • Some people therefore thought they did not have to repent: they simply could buy their way out of sins
  • Professional pardoners became notorious for their lax private lives, and they developed a profitable sideline selling fake relics. 

The pardoner's technique

By appealing to ordinary people's piety and goodwill, corrupt pardoners could easily raise large sums for themselves that would be impossible to acquire from honest work. All they needed was a series of impressive looking letters (simple in an age when virtually everybody was illiterate) and a confident manner in making the appeal.

Simple rural congregations would have had little contact with the greater world outside. They would have put their trust in the impressive-looking documents and in the glamour surrounding a stranger, and they would not have known if the money went into the pocket of a thief rather than to some good cause.Pope Clement V

Pope Clement V condemned these abuses and did a great deal to rein in the pardoners. The monks and priests and official pardoners were relatively easily controlled, but the fraudsters were a different matter, particularly in England, where they existed in larger numbers than elsewhere in Europe.

Clues to Chaucer's Pardoner

Given the association of pardoners with corruption, Chaucer's Pardoner would have been a very suspect character from the start to Chaucer's audience:

  • The Pardoner goes through the appearance of absolving people from their sins, though he is not ordained. (Theologians said that deceiving people in this way was a sin, though they also said that God's mercy might pardon sins confessed to a Pardoner by people who were unaware of the deceit being practised on them.)
  • He makes it clear to the other pilgrims that the money he collects is entirely for his own purposes i.e. that he is a conman.

The Pardoner's physical appearance would also have raised questions in the minds of Chaucer's audience:

  • Clothing, especially for clerics, was more uniform than now: the wearing of hoods was part of a cleric's ordinary dress. The Pardoner's lack of a hood (though he does wear a skullcap) was unorthodox, as was his long hair
  • His glaring eyes might have suggested a lustful nature.

There is from the start a mismatch between what the Pardoner ought to be and the way he is described.

Attitudes to con artists

Today people would probably consider the kind of activities indulged in by the Pardoner to be illegal or immoral. A fourteenth-century audience would also consider them to be sinful. The Pardoner exploits innocent people's love of God, and trades on their guilt and fears of hell. He takes an activity that is in itself not wrong, but perverts it for his own benefit.

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