The significance of blasphemy

For Chaucer's readership, one sign of a sinful person – an indication that they were not in a right relationship with God – was that they did not respect God's name. Taking God's name in vain meant treating God trivially. Everybody was familiar with the guidance known as the Ten Commandments, which according to the Bible, was given by God for his people. ‘Blaspheme of Cryst' (l.305) meant disobeying the third of these (Exodus 20:7) divine laws.

Adding to Christ's suffering

Medieval Christianity focused extensively on the physical suffering of Jesus prior to – and during – his crucifixion. To blaspheme was seen as adding to that pain:

‘… 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 and they 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

If Christ's rescue of humanity was treated by someone as null and void, that individual lacked the faith by which they could be saved from hell. It was that serious.

The oaths of the rioters

The instances of blasphemy in l.184-7 and l.420-1 are attributed to the rioters, as obvious ‘markers' of their villainy. The offensiveness of what they say is highlighted by a number of ways:

  • Their curses are juxtaposed with the blessings offered by the Old Man (l.460,62), to shocking effect
  • The Old Man's use of religious diction represents the teachings of the Church. In l.478-9 he reminds the youths that because God redeemed (‘boughte again') humankind, the offer of salvation (‘God save yow') and moral/spiritual improvement (‘yow amende') is still available to the rioters 
  • In contrast, the youth swears by John (l.464) (acknowledged as the author of one of the Gospels) and ‘by the hooly sacrament' (l.469) (the bread or wafer which represents the body of Christ in the service of Mass). He is therefore treating the entire church, its sacraments and teachings, with contempt. To the medieval mind this meant that he was ignoring the truths outlined by the Old Man and would not die in a state of grace.

Blasphemy in the Pardoner's sermon

The story about the three youths aptly illustrated the points made in the Pardoner's sermon about the evils of swearing:

  • He devotes thirty lines (l.341-71) to the topic, using it as a way of displaying his biblical knowledge as he quotes from the books of Matthew, Jeremiah, Exodus and (from the Apocrypha) Ecclisiasticus
  • After the story is finished, he returns to the theme with rhetorical extravagance:

    ‘Thou blasphemour of Cryst with vileinye
    And othes grete …
    Alas mankynde! – how may it bityde,
    That to thy creatour, which that thee wroughte,
    And with his precious herte-blood thee boughte
    Thou art so fals and so unkynde, allas? l.610-15

However, in both sections of the sermon, Chaucer immediately undercuts the sincerity of what the Pardoner proclaims:

  • Having outlined the seriousness of blasphemy by quoting the Bible, the Pardoner then packs four ‘grete othes' into the next four lines (l. 363-7), declaiming them with a relish which belies his apparent abhorrence
  • Chaucer then makes the Pardoner himself blaspheme to emphasise his message:

    ‘Now for the love of Cryst, that for us dyde
    Lete your othes, bothe grete and smale!' l.370-71
  • Immediately after the impassioned pathos about humankind's unkindness to its ‘creatour', the Pardoner slips into his salesman's patter, using his audience's guilt to lever out their purses. He appears totally unaffected himself by the impact of his teaching
  • The message about blasphemy's seriousness is further undercut by the way in which the Pardoner then breaks out of his ‘sermon demonstration' and explains to the pilgrims how all he has just ‘preached' is simply his method of gaining money (l.173 – he only preaches ‘for to winne'). 

For all the Pardoner's fine rhetoric, in reality the seriousness of blasphemy is immaterial to him.

The Host's blasphemy

St HelenThe strength of the Host's blasphemy in l.658 (‘Christ curse me if I do') conveys his explosive reaction to the hypocritical challenge of the Pardoner that he should pay first as he is the ‘moost envoluped in sinne'. It is followed by a scatological reference to the Pardoner's excrement.

He then swears by one of the most holy and famous of all relics, a reputed fragment of the true ‘crois' l.663 (on which Christ was crucified), believed to have been found by Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great. The Host uses this oath to emphasise his desire to castrate the Pardoner and make a relic of his testicles.

By combining blasphemy and overt coarseness, Chaucer emphasises the grossness of such swearing. However, there is a sense that we are asked to be more forgiving of the Host:

  • His oaths are dramatic instances of an anger shared by many at the Pardoner's wickedness
  • He swears as an honest reaction, rather than in a spirit of duplicity (like the Pardoner) or to show off to others (like the rioters)
  • Referring to a very holy relic highlights his exposure of the bogus claims made by the Pardoner, both for his ‘relics' and in the rest of his sermon.
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.