Hypocrisy and moral blindness

The image and reality of the Pardoner

There is from the start a mismatch between what the Pardoner ought to be and the way he is described. The expectations for a medieval churchman were that he would be:

  • Modest in appearance
  • Godly in his language
  • Chaste in his behaviour
  • Diligent in service of God
  • Moderate in his appetites
  • Honest in his preaching.

In The General Prologue portrait of the Pardoner, and then in his own prologue, Chaucer conveys that the Canterbury Pardoner is none of these things:

  • He tries to be fashionable (not wearing a hood)
  • He blasphemes
  • He likes a ‘joly wench in every town'
  • He is not prepared to labour when he can earn more by begging
  • He demands his food and ‘licour of the vyne' regardless of the cost
  • He convinces his hearers to venerate fake relics and sign a bogus ‘ticket' to heaven.

Overt hypocrisy

The Pardoner's outward show of holiness is entirely hypocritical. There is a cluster of words about deceit associated with him:

  • ‘fals', ‘japes', ‘ypocrisye', ‘under hewe' (colour, often used at this period metaphorically to mean a pretence, something covering up a secret) l.101-38. 
  • He is open about the fact that his claims of spiritual power are false – the claims:
  • That anyone on his list will be admitted into heaven
  • That he can absolve people from their sins
  • That paying him money is enough to cleanse away sin.

The three youths are equally hypocritical. Despite hailing each other as ‘my sworen brother' (l.5200), ‘felawe' (522), ‘freendes' (527) and ‘My deere freend' (544), they plan to deceive, then kill, each other under the guise of a playful scuffle and celebratory drink.

Moral blindness

Whilst the duplicity of the Pardoner and his three rogues is overt, Chaucer presents them as being blind about the actual consequences of their behaviour. Most obviously the three rioters seem unable to make the connection between seeking death and finding money, the love of which will kill them.

The knowing Pardoner is equally blind however. He is good at deceiving people – or so he says – but he is unable to see that his words and actions can be seen in a very different way by other people. He cannot see that he is exposing his criminality to his listeners: 

  • Having revealed to the Canterbury pilgrims how he works his scams, he totally misjudges their response to his evil, and is outraged when his appeal to them to ‘offre' is roundly rejected
  • As an extended audience, we may have been swayed by the power of the Pardoner's rhetoric, engaging with the moral pity of hurting God (l.612-15). Then we wake up to his immoral purposes, trying to cheat people out of their money, and we, too, do not like being duped.

Both responses demonstrate that the Pardoner deceives himself.

The moral blindness of the church

Ultimately, Chaucer leads his audience, by their reaction to the Pardoner, into condemnation of the wider abuses of the Medieval Church, about which so many clerics were morally blind. It is ironic that the Pardoner describes money offered to him 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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