The smooth preacher / salesman

The Pardoner's vocal skills

Chaucer's portrait of the Pardoner in The General Prologue conveys the smoothness of his patter. He comes across as a ‘noble' church official who can ‘rede a lessoun or a storie' with a fluent, smoothly honed voice – ‘wel affyle[d]'.

The Pardoner himself is very proud of his skill in speaking. He expects the pilgrims to admire his ‘hauteyn speche' (high, dignified speech) which rings out with a full, mellifluous tone, ‘as round as gooth a belle' (l.2,3). He tells his ‘tales' effectively enough to provide a constant income. He spices up his discourse with ‘Latyn' knowing that people associate the language with sacred ceremonies, education and the authority of the Church, without understanding it well.

Sales patter

The Pardoner boasts of the ‘hundred false japes' (tricks) by which he manipulates his ‘lewed' audience. As with any skilful salesperson, he has to have a well crafted ‘patter', peppered with lively anecdotes and jokes, to maintain attention. The passage where he explains the power of his ‘relics' is a model of sales talk (l.64-100):

  • He repeatedly includes his hearers (l.64, 78, 89), politely calling them ‘Goode men and women'
  • He addresses his audience directly, using ‘ye' a lot—the plural form of ‘you'
  • He is obviously holding up visual aids, his tempting goods on offer – ‘this boon' (l.65), ‘a mitayn … that ye may see' (l.84)
  • Chaucer puts commands, imperative verbs, into his speech to them: – ‘take of my wordes keep!' (l.64), ‘Take keep eke what I telle:' (l.82)
  • He speaks emphatically, indicated by the use of exclamation marks
  • He builds on the claims he makes for his relic:
    • First claim - ‘If you use (relic) … on (first problem) … then (first solution) … furthermore … (second problem) … then (second solution)
    • Second claim - ‘If you use (relic) … then (additional benefit)
    • Third claim - ‘If you use (relic) … then (additional benefit)

He thus creates a persuasive case that is hard to resist

  • He uses traditional old jokes, joking about the likely promiscuity of wives and priests
  • He varies his tone, from levity to sudden solemnity – ‘oo thing warne I yow:' (l.89)
  • He uses moral seriousness to convince his hearers, talking of shame, sin, confession and the need for forgiveness. By using priestly language like this, he will be heard with respect by an audience accustomed to obey the teachings of the church
  • He asserts his personal authority at the end, mentioning his papal bull as a visible credential.

Physical presence

We know from the portrait in The General Prologue that the Pardoner has a striking appearance, particularly ‘Swich glaring eyen' (l.16). He uses these to good effect as he stands high above his congregation in the pulpit, taking the stance (and thus authority) of a cleric. Like an actor (or teacher!) he stretches out his neck so as to face into every corner of the building, nodding for emphasis or to particularly indicate certain people. In l.129-31 the Pardoner explains how he singles out certain individuals for censure, ‘By signes, and by other circumstances' i.e. body language, and earlier he takes pride in the way his ‘handes … goon so yerne' (l.110).

The neat ending of l.114 conveys The Pardoner's glee at his own trickery and he expects the pilgrims to share in his own ‘joye to see [his] businesse' (l.111).

Note to students

Remember: all these things are aspects of how Chaucer's writing presents the construct that is the Pardoner. The focus should not be on the ‘character'. Students need to look at the skill of the writing and literary devices, not just the kind of personality that comes across.

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