Richard Firth Green - The Sexual Normality of Chaucer's Pardoner

Anyone who contemplates "a new explanation of the Pardoner's sexuality" so hard on the heels of C. David Benson's admirable demonstration of "the weakness of this entire approach" might justly be charged with temerity.1 I share Benson's suspicion of what L. C. Knights long ago referred to as the critic's "readiness to abstract a character and treat him (because he is more manageable that way) as a human being,"2 and I applaud the skill with which he exposes the specious and factitious character of earlier attempts to prove the Pardoner a eunuch, hermaphrodite, or homosexual. If I find myself still inquisitive about the Pardoner's 'pryvetee" it is because I am not wholly convinced that he is an example of "unspecified" lust or that his sexuality remains quite as "imprecise" as Benson suggests; I am in fact emboldened to take the question a little further because I believe that the general character of what I take to be the nature of the Pardoner's sexuality is already implicit in Benson's own argument, and because I believe that neither of us strays as far from the "actual evidence in the text" as those critics from whom we both dissent.

Let me begin with the Pardoner's friend, the Summoner. I entirely agree with Benson that although the Summoner is portrayed as a "thorough-going lecher," Chaucer gives us "no hint among the many accusations in his portrait that his lust is homosexual." I agree, too, that the primary reason why the Summoner and the Pardoner have been linked together is that Chaucer wishes to make a point about "serious ecclesiastical corruption" (presumably the pair should be read as a grotesque perversion of the twinned virtues, justice and Mercy),3 not because he is interested in their sexuality per se. Nevertheless, their sexuality is a vivid symptom of their deeper corruption, and in the case of the Summoner at least, its precise nature seems quite clearly articulated. The Summoner is a "good felawe"; in fact, one could hardly fine a "bettre felawe' (A 648).4 He consorts with other good fellows, accepts bribes from them (A 650), and keeps them out of the archdeacon's hands (A 653); moreover, when his double, the hero of the Friar's Tak, runs across the devil, he too is recognized as a good fellow (D 1385). That this phrase "often Page 352

connotes dissipation or lechery in Chaucer"5 is confirmed by the Wife of Bath's admission that she could never withhold her "chambre of Venus from a good felawe"(D 618), but in fact we have excellent external evidence for the general currency of this term among Chaucer's contemporaries from Sir John Clanvowe:

But now swiche as been synful men and wacches of þe feend been cleped of þe world 'goode felawes'. ffor þei þat woln waste þe goodis þat God hath sent hem, in pruyde of the world, and in lustes of here flessh, and goon to the tauerne and to þe bordel, and pleyen at þe dees, waaken loonge any3tes, and sweren faste, and drynken, and ianglen to muche, scoornen, bakbiten, iaapen, gloosen, boosten, lyen, fi3ten, and been baudes for here felawes, and lyuen al in synne, and in vanitee, þei been hoolde goode felawes'. 6

Chaucer's description of the Summoner as a quintessentiauy "good felawe" thus reinforces other details in his portrait to suggest that he is an habitué of taverns and brothels, the companion of pimps and prostitutes, and a quite open debauchee.

The Pardoner is his "compeer" (A 670), that is, literally, his `equal.' The only other compeers to be found in Chaucer are the jolly prentice the Cook's Tale (Wel was the wenche with hym myghte meete" [A 4374]) and:

a compeer of his owene sort
That lovede dys, and revel, and disport,
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance.
(A 4419-22)

These two, it seems to me, are cast in much the same mold as the Summoner and the Pardoner (the Pardoner, after all, gravitates naturally to a tavern at the beginning of his tale, and later boasts of having "a joly wenche in every toun" [C 453]), and all four have much in common with the three rioters of the Pardoner's own tale, who "haunteden folye, / As riot, hasard, stywes, and tavernes" (C 464-65). In other words, Chaucer

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seems to intend the Summoner and the Pardoner to be taken as a pair of rakes, fellow patrons of the brothel and the alehouse, and companions in crime. Like Benson, I find no hint that their relationship is in any way homosexual, still less that the Pardoner is impotent or in some way sexually incapacitated.

The Tale of Beryn provides striking confirmation of this view of the Pardoner's "more ordinary sexual life." As Benson implies, Curry's use of this tale to support his view of the Pardoner as a eunuch is an example of transparent special pleading.7 In fact, I would go further than Benson to claim that the author of the Tale of Beryn, an early and far from inattentive reader of the Canterbury Tales, portrays a Pardoner who is neither homosexual nor sexually incompetent. The bedroom farce which occupies much of the prologue to the Tale of Beryn becomes far funnier if its butt is less a maladroit bungler than a thoroughly experienced womanizer who has finally met his match. Prom the very outset the Pardoner flirts with Kitty, "as a man I-lernyd of such kynd[e]nes" (24);8 he worms his way into her confidence, sings her a love-song -- not "Com hider love to me," but "Now, loue, þou do me ri3te" (70) -- , offers her money (87), and hints at the possibility of marriage (111-12). The lines in which he appears finally to win her over (which contain the truly inspired come-on, "Shall I help you keep the cat off the bed?") reveal a thoroughly practised seducer at work:

Thou3t the Pardoner, `this goith wele', & made hir better chere,
And axid of hir sofft[e]ly: 'lord, who shall ligge[n] here
This ny3te þat is to comyng? I prey 3ewe telle me!'
"Iwis it is grete nede to telle 3ew," quod she:
"Make it nat ovir queynt, þou3e yee be a clerk!
Ye know wele I-nou3 I-wis, by loke, by word, by work!"
"Shall I com þen, Cristian, & fese a-wey þe Cat?"
"Shul yee com, sir? benedicite! what question is that?
Where-for I prey yew hertly, do be my counsaille;
Comyth somwhat late...." (345-54)

This Pardoner seems quite at home flirting with barmaids, and when his plans ultimately go awry it is just punishment for his glibness. I see no difficulty with finding the original for such a Pardoner in Chaucer's own work.

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Those who are unsympathetic to the view shared by Benson and myself that the Pardoner is portrayed as neither homosexual nor physiologically abnormal will wish to lay the greatest possible emphasis upon the effeminate characteristics he unquestionably exhibits: the fine hair, the high voice, and the beardless chin. Howard's point that "many limp-wristed and reedy-voiced men are heterosexual,"9 is well taken, but we must still explain what Chaucer intends by making his Pardoner effeminate. The final cause, which clearly has to do with the Pardoner as a type of ecclesiastical corruption, is not really part of my brief, but I suspect that from this perspective he is made to appear effeminate because the Christian virtue of mercy, of which he is a walking parody, is a feminine virtue; probably, too, the doubleness of his physical nature is intended to reflect his spiritual duplicity -- his hypocrisy and treacherousness.10 The material cause, however, seems to me to be hinted at in Benson's passing comment that effeminacy in the Middle Ages might imply quite the reverse of homosexuality -- "too great a concern with women" -- and it is this insight that I should like to take further.

When Lancelot expresses a manly horror of sensual self-indulgence -- "for knyghtes that ben auouturous or lecherous shal not be happy ne fortunate vnto the werrys"11 -- he is echoing a long-established tradition that equates sexual intemperance with physical debilitation. In the Middle Ages, Samson, a strong man weakened by a woman's wiles, is frequently cited as an example of this effect, but others -- Mars ensnared with Venus, or Paris bewitched by Helen -- are also adduced.12 In this context, it is hardly surprising that one of the verbs most commonly chosen to describe the deleterious effects of licentiousness is effeminare: "O extrema libidinis turpitudo," writes Innocent III, 'que non solum effeminat, sed corpus enervate"13 a phrase which Chaucer renders, "Nat oonly that thou feyntest mannes mynde, / But verraily thou wolt his body shende" (B 925-26). Nor is it surprising that such effects might be seen to go beyond a simple loss of manly fortitude: by a piece of etymological logic well within the power of even the humblest successor of Isidore of Seville, if a lecherous man was effeminatus then he became womanly. As Sydney writes in the Arcadia, "this effeminate love of a woman, doth so womanish a man...."14 The Secretum Secretorum, discussing the consequences of lechery, seems to understand effeminacy in this extended sense; James Yonge's version reads, "the foly company of women destrueth the body . . . And doghty men and hardy hit makyth lyke women, neshe and feynte,

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dedis of armys to don."15 Other versions render this: it "makith a man oft femynyne," "it engendrys women maners," or "gendryth womannys condycionys."16

In the Middle Ages, the prime example of the effeminizing effects of lust, a man who, as Surrey puts it, "scace the name of manhode dyd retayne, / Drenched in slouthe and womanishe delight,"17 was the Assyrian king, Sardanapalus. In the Speculum Morale, Vincent of Beauvais writes, "qualiter autem luxuria emolliat, & resoluat animum virilem & regimen, patet per Sardanapalum.... Hic inter mulieres conuersabatur omni muliere mollior, in operibus muliebribus gestu & habitu."18 His story, in a form which seems to go back to Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, appears in the Gesta Romanorum and in Robert Holcot's Moralitates.19 John Gower uses it in the Confessio Amantis to show how a man might become "muliebri oblectamento effeminatus":

. . . thilke fyri rage
Of love, which the men assoteth,
Wherof himself he so rioteth,
And wax so ferforth womannyssh,
That ayein kinde, as if a fissh
Abide wolde upon the lond,
In wommen such a lust he fond,
That he duelte evere in chambre stille,
And only wroghte after the wille
Of wommen.

The story is repeated in Lydgate's Fall of Princes:

To vicious lust his liff he dede enclyne;
Mong Assiriens, whan he his regne gan,
Off fals vsage he was so femynyne,
That among women vppon the rokke he span,
In ther habite disguised from a man.21

Lydgate, however, omits the detail which appears in his source, Laurence Premierfait, that Sardanapalus encouraged "flateurs & iangleurs et ruffiens sentans la flaireur des bordeaulx qui sont fiente et reffus de toutes gens,"22 men whom the Summoner would no doubt have regarded as "good felawes."

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In this pre-Krafft-Ebbing world, sexual over-indulgence might have even graver consequences than effeminacy or transvestitism: it might turn one into a hermaphrodite. That at least is the implication of the description of a well in the Garden of Cupid which appears in Lydgate's Reson and Sensuallyte:

In this Erber of Deduit
Ther ys a welle wonderful,
That, who drynketh hys bely ful
And ys bathed therin oonys,
Among the colde cristal stonys
The nature shal him enclyne
To be-come Femynyne,
And ouer, yif I shal not feyne,
Departed in-to kyndes tweyne,
Double of nature and yet al oon.
But prudent folkys that be sage
Eschewe of wisdam the passage,
Wher Cupide hath most hys haunte
And is of custom conuersaunte.
The place yt is so perilouse,
So dredful and contagiouse,
Ful of treson and of gyle.23

Even if we do not take too literally this curious metamorphosis of Ovid's Fountain of Salmacis (which Lydgate takes from Les Echecs Arnoureux), it illustrates dramatically the medieval belief in the effeminizng effects of sensuality. Indeed, this is one of the morals which the Ovide Moralisé draws from the original story of Hermaphrodite:

II n'a au monde home si sage,
Tant soit de ferme volenté,
Plains de vertu, plains de bonté,
S'il se soulle en son fontenil
Dont la jonchiere est de penil,
Que molz et fleches ne deviegne.

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The relevance of all this to Chaucer's effeminate Pardoner scarcely needs elaboration. It suggests that there is no need to take the line which compares him to a gelding or a mare in any literal sense (as Benson rightly argues), and makes clear that the marks of effeminacy which he bears are (like the finch-pulling Summoner's poxy complexion) emblems of his carnality. Like Benson, I believe that the time has come to reject the arguments of those who wish to claim that the Pardoner is a eunuch, a hermaphrodite, or a homosexual, and to replace them with an account of his "more ordinary sexual life" -- ordinary in everything, perhaps, but its debilitating excesses.

University of Western Ontario


1. I had already completed a preliminary draft of this paper when my attention was drawn to Professor Benson's forthcoming article. It became at once clear to me as I read the typescript that Professor Benson was kind enough to send me that on very many points our thinking was virtually identical. I have therefore recast my original paper as an appendix to "Chaucer's Pardoner: His Sexuality and Modem Critics" in the hope that my thoughts may help to confirm its general conclusions.

2. "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" in Explorations (London, 1951), P. 15.

3. See A. W. Hoffman, "Chaucer's Prologue to Pilgrimage: the Two Voices," English Literary History, 21 (1954), 12-14.

4. All references are to the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1957).

5. D. Biggins, "More Chaucerian Ambiguities," Notes and Queries, 207 (1962), 166.

6. The Works of Sir John Clanvowe, ed. V. J. Scattergood (Cambridge, 1975), pp. 71-72.

7. See also E. J. Bashe, "The Prologue of the Tale of Beryn," Philological Quarterly, 12 (1933), 1-16.

8. The Tale of Beryn, ed. F. J. Fumivall & W. G. Stone, EETS, ES 105 (London, 1909), p. 2.

9. Donald R. Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley, 1978), p. 344.

10. See D. Wurtele, "Some Uses of Physiognomical Lore in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales," The Chaucer Review, 17 (1982), 138-39.

11. Caxton's Malory, ed. J. W. Spisak (Berkeley, 1983), p. 147.

12. See M. Storm, "Troilus, Mars, and Late Medieval Chivalry," Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 12 (1982), 45-47.

13. Lotario Dei Segni, De Miseria Condicionis Humanae, ed. R. E. Lewis (Athens, Georgia, 1978), p. 171.

14. The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia, ed. A. Feuillerat (Cambridge, 1912), p. 78 (I, 12, 5).

15. Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum, ed. R. Steele, EETS, ES 74 (London, 1898), p. 139.

16. Steele, ed., pp. 14 and 58; Secretum Secretorum, ed. M. A. Manzalaoui. EETS, 276 (London, 1977), p. 135.

17. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, Poems, ed. E. Jones (Oxford, 1964), p. 29 (32, 9-10).

18. "Now how lechery softens and relaxes a manly spirit and discipline is shown by Sardanapalus.... This man from being amongst women became softer than any woman and was converted to female ways of acting and dressing"; Speculum Morale (1624; Graz, 1964), p. 1378 (III, 3, 9). See Speculum Historiale (Graz, 1965), p. 77 (II, 93).

19. Gesta Romanorum, ed. H. Oesterley (Berlin, 1872), p. 616; Moralitates (Simon de Luere, 1514), f. 8b.

20. G. C. Macaulay, ed., EETS, ES 81 & 82 (London, 1900-01), II, 356 (VII, 4318-27).

21. H. Bergen, ed., EETS, ES 121-24 (London, 1924-27), I, 263 (II, 2241-45).

22. "Flatterers, liars, and libertines reeking of the brothel -- scum who are shunned by all men"; ed. Bergen, IV, 177.

23. E. Sieper, ed., EETS, ES 84 (London, 1901), p. 102 (3866-95).

24. "No man alive is so wise, no matter how firm his resolve or how full of virtue and goodness, that if he sates himself in her well, fringed with the reeds of puberty, he will not become soft and flaccid'; ed. C. De Boer, vol. 2 (Amsterdam, 1920), p. 60 (IV, 2269-74).

From Mediaevalia, Vol. 8, 1982. Printed here with permission of the author.

[For a further development of this argument see R.F. Green, "The Pardoner's Pants and How They Matter," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 15 (1993), 131-45.]