The Pardoner's Prologue - l.41-100

Synopsis of l.41-100 of The Pardoner's Prologue

The passage is framed by two statements of the Pardoner's constant theme: Relics, photo by Boston, available through Creative CommonsRadix malorum est cupiditas, Money is the root of all evil (love of).

The Pardoner describes how he uses the opportunity of preaching a sermon to encourage people to offer him money. They believe that they are buying relics and other objects which he claims have spiritual powers. Alternatively, they can offer money in honour of certain relics, in the hope of receiving a pardon for their sins. However, he admits that such objects are worthless fakes. 

Commentary on l.41-100 of The Pardoner's Prologue

l.41 Lordynges: common address to an audience, ‘Ladies and gentlemen'.

l.42 peyne me: I take pains
        hauteyn: elevated, impressive (French haut ‘high'. Many words for upper-class, elegant concepts were—and still are—words borrowed into English from French)

l.44 kan al by rote: know everything off by heart

l.45,46  theme: the ‘text' on which a sermon is centred, a quotation from the Bible:

Papal bulll.48 bulles: official church documents / papal bulls
        alle and some: all of them

l.49 lige lordes seel: the official seal of our liege lord (could be either the king or the local bishop). This seal shows that his ‘letter patent' genuinely authorises him to sell pardons

l.50 my body to warente: as guarantee / protection for myself. The common idiom of using the word ‘body' as equivalent to ‘self' is used. A warente is a noun meaning a guarantee. ‘To warente' means ‘as protection' 

l.51  ne preest ne clerk: anyone in [3holy orders]:

  • Priests were ordained to preside over Mass; clerks were literate church workers who might lead a church service or read the Bible aloud
  • Chaucer' indicates that there is always a danger that a proper priest may try to stop the Pardoner's preaching, guessing what he is up to
  • The impressive display of documents and seals is to give the Pardoner protection from such an event.

Papal seall.54-5  the list of important church leaders who are said to have issued the Pardoner's documents include ‘patriarchs', a title used for the bishops of certain Mediterranean cities and even the pope. The visual display of lots of apparently authoritative letters and official seals convinces people of the honesty of the Pardoner. 

l.57  To saffron: to season, spice up: an image from cookery. The Pardoner sprinkles Latin words in his preaching (like saffron in cooking) to make an impression. Saffron, very expensive, was used lavishly in high class cookery at the time.

l.59-60  relics: bits of cloth and bone purporting to belong to dead saints are inside crystal containers, so that they can be displayed to encourage onlookers to greater devotion

  • Chaucer describes what these ‘props' are made of - bits of cloth and bone - rather than telling us their spiritual significance (eg. possibly a saint's veil or the bones of a martyr)
  • Thus he makes us see them just as physical objects, not as something holy.

l.61 been: ‘are' (the word ‘are' was only used in the North at this period)

l.62 latoun: a shiny but fairly cheap metal

l.62-77  This scam is directed at the anxieties of an agricultural community:

  • The pardoner claims that his sheep bone comes from the flock of some Old Testament patriarchs who herded sheep and goats (presumably someone like Jacob) and so can cure animal diseases
  • The good-man (farmer) is advised to drink water in which the bones have been dipped to make his animals produce abundant young
  • The details (fasting and taking the water before cock-crow) all add an air of serious, medicinal procedure to this bogus recommendation.

l.65 Boon: bone. Many genuine relics were the bones of saints

l.69 hool: ‘whole', healthy

l.72 Taak kep eek: pay attention too

l.74 er: before

l.77 stoor: store, stock: his animals

l.78-83  The claim that this water will stop a husband suspecting his wife of an affair (even when he knows the truth of her fault, l.82) amuses Chaucer's audience. It would be obvious that those attracted to paying for the sheep's bone will be guilty wives:

  • Part of Chaucer's witty presentation relies on the reader guessing things, especially things that make us feel clever or enjoyably superior to people in the text.

Potage, photo by Gran, available through Creative Commonsl.80 potage: thick soup, usually of barley, beans, and vegetables: basic everyday food of ordinary people:

  • The sentence's grammar shows the Pardoner is targeting wives at this point: ‘let his [i.e. the husband's] soup be made with this water'.

l.83 preestes: typical of the anticlerical mode this text is written in; Chaucer satirically imagines an extremely unfaithful wife might have had affairs with two or three priests:

  • Because of their vow to remain celibate, priests were particularly the butt of suspicion and satire, which often accused them of seducing other men's wives.

l.84 miteyn: mitten: 

  • Like the pottage, this is an object belonging to poor people's everyday experience: people would wear fingerless mittens to keep their hands warm. It's also, like a sheep-bone, a cheap trick for a cheat to produce
  • The human anxieties these supposed holy relics are targeting are not spiritual ones but practical, day-to-day issues: wives who had had affairs and farmers wanting a bigger crop
  • Note that the desired results, however, also depend on the victim donating some money.

l.88 So that he offer: So long as he offers

        groat: this was worth four pence, quite a lot of money

l.90 wight: person

l.91 that hath: Chaucer's English doesn't use who as a relative pronoun, so that here = ‘who'

l.92 dar nat … yshryven be: ‘dare not confess and be absolved':

  • To be shriven was to confess your sins to a priest and to receive absolution. This was the reassurance that God would forgive the sins of those who truly repented of them and intended to live a better life in future
  • Chaucer here touches on a common problem. People like pardoners undermined the spiritual authority of parish priests, whose parishioners might try to avoid a proper confession (because of embarrassment) and do something like this. However, they are paying a pardoner for what is actually an empty promise of forgiveness.

The rhythm of The Pardoner's Prologue

Rhythm, metre, lines of verse

Chaucer's verse form here, as in most of The Canterbury Tales, is the iambic pentameter. Each line is shaped to have five strong stresses in a line ( / = strong stress)

x / x / x / x / x /. See Literary context > Chaucer's metre: iambic pentameter for further detail

Using the rhyming couplet

Chaucer sets up the (subconscious) expectation that there will be a rhyming word at the end of each couplet:

  • This can then be used to Chaucer to place emphasis on significant words, as well as on a clever and surprising word
  • Because we anticipate that rhyme word, there is also a feeling of waiting for it
  • The clinching effect of the two rhyming words, coming so close together, can give an aural effect of pairing
  • Chaucer exploits that too: sometimes the paired words are juxtaposed in a surprising way and do not go logically, decently or morally together.

Investigating the rhythm of The Pardoner's Prologue l.41-100

  • Find some examples of where Chaucer uses the reader's reaction to couplet rhymes:
    • For emphasis
    • For surprise
    • For bringing ideas together.
  • How often in the Prologue do you find a line where the natural way of speaking the line also coincides naturally with the iambic expectation?
    • Are these lines particularly emphatic as a result?
  • You may need to sound an optionally silent e or elide one vowel into another to produce an exactly iambic metrical line
    • As a start, try one or both of these ways of pronouncing the sound in lines: 42, 44, 47, 48, 49, 99
    • Now look whether they are needed for any other lines
    • Which lines become exact if you do this?
  • Where are there lines that do not fall naturally into the expected pattern?
    • Identify those lines which clearly require the reader to start with a strong stress
    • Identify those lines where two strong stresses fall together
  • Such devices can wake up the reader's mind, and, by breaking mental expectations, create a sense of rapidity, vehemence, firmness or forcefulness
    • Looking at the examples you have already found, see whether breaking the rhythmic expectations creates such an effect.

Investigating the effect of Chaucer's word choice l. 41 – 100

  • Which features of the wording in this section help to build up an impression that the Pardoner relies on outward show, pretence and blarney?
    • Select the words, details and images in l.47-60 that carry associations of show, an impressive but empty display?
    • How do the wording and details in lines 60-88 suggest that the Pardoner's tricks work best on uneducated country folk?
  • The theme of the pardoner's sermons is ‘Love of money is the root of all evil' (l. 46, 138)
    • How does Chaucer introduce the theme of making money in l. 87-9, 98-100?

Investigating your reactions to l. 41-100 of the The Prologue

  • As you read l. 41-100 is your dominant response that the passage is comic, satirically laughing at the gullible people and exposing the Pardoner's grotesque tricks? OR that it is a serious condemnation of the Pardoner's callous abuse of his position in the Church?
  • Do you enjoy the satire more at:
    • The Pardoner's expense?
    • His victims' expense?
    • Both the Pardoner's and his victims' expense?
    • What is the effect of focusing on a particular target for Chaucer's satire here?
  • Why do you think the Pardoner's peddling of false relics and pardons is associated by Chaucer with the theme of death?
    • How many different links do you see between his activities and death?
  • What is the effect of Chaucer putting 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?
  • For further information on sermons see: Literary context > Medieval literary conventions and The Pardoner's Prologue > Sermons (last heading on page)
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