This Pardoner hadde heer as yelow as wex,
But smothe it heeng as dooth a strike of flex;
By ounces henge his lokkes that he hadde,
And therwith he his shuldres overspradde;
But thynne it lay, by colpons oon and oon.
. . .
Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare.
A vernycle hadde he sowed upon his cappe.
His walet, biforn hym in his lappe,
Bretful of pardoun comen from Rome al hoot.
. . .
He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,
And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.
The pardoner describes his professional tricks in his prologue and then delivers a sermon embodying an exemplum of three riotous young men, frequenters of a tavern, who set out to kill Death. They meet a mysterious old man and rudely demand that he tell them where death is. He tells them to follow the crooked path; they will find death under a tree. They find gold; and the youngest then goes into town for food and drink. He poisons the wine. When he returns his two friends kill him and then drink the wine. They too die. This, the Pardoner says, is the reward of gluttony. Then the pardoner offers to sell his wares to the Host, who rudely rebuffs him. The Knight must intervene to make peace, and the pilgrimage continues.
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The Pardoner's Prologue is, like those of the Wife of Bath and Canon's Yeoman, an "apologia" or "literary confession," in which a character explains his or her way of life. The model for the Pardoner's confession is thought to be the long monologue of "Fals Semblant," in the Roman de la rose (even though his preferred disguise is that of a friar rather than a pardoner). See lines 6082-7292 in RomC in The Riverside Chaucer, pp.750-762, for this speech. For a translation of part of the French see: The speech of Fals-Semblant in Le roman de la rose
The selling of false relics was an abuse frequently satirized; the adventure of Friar Cipollo (Friar Onion) in Boccaccio's Decameron has some general similarities to the Pardoner's trickery: Decameron; Sixth Day, Tenth Tale.
The Pardoner's Tale embodies an exemplum (for an explanation see the page for The Friar's Tale. It was a very popular tale, which survives in a large number of analogues, from ancient times to modern (The Bogart movie, "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is often said to be one of them, though that seems a bit of a stretch). But they account for little of the tale's power; almost all involve the discovery of a treasure and then the three thieves who send one of their number into town for food; he poisons the food; the other two murder him and then eat the poisoned food and die.
The closest analogues to Chaucer's tale are in two Italian novelle: Summaries of two novelle
The old man in Chaucer's version is a far more mysterious figure than in any of the other versions of the tale. In the versions in the novelle the role of the Old Man is taken by Christ and by a hermit; in others he is a magician. In none of the analogues is the identity and function of the old man a problem. In Chaucer, critics have found it one of the main problems, and a good deal of critical ingenuity has gone into the attempt to define exactly what he represents. Chaucer, perhaps pointedly, does not tell us this.
The most difficult problem, in both the prologue and the tale, is the question of the Pardoner's sexual identity. The assumptions one makes about this can color the reading of the Pardoner's account of himself, his tale, and the dènouement -- the Pardoner's attempt to sell his fake pardons to Harry Bailey and Harry's crude rejoinder, which reduces the Pardoner to speechlessness.
Interpretations of this scene have varied widely; one of the the first, and still one of the most influential, treatments of it is George Lyman Kittredge's famous article on what he called the "one lost soul" on the pilgrimage: George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer's Pardoner, The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 72, 1893, pp. 829-33.
Kittredge says nothing about the Pardoner's possible sexual orientation, a subject that has much exercised more recent critics. We are told in the General Prologue:
A voys he had as smal as hath a goot.
No berd hadde he, ne nevere shold have;
As sooth as it were late shave.
I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare. (GP 688-691)
A "geldyng" is a eunuch, and a "mare" is a cant name for a homosexual.
Walter Clyde Curry, in an influential work on Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences, New Haven, 1926, pp. 59-70, argues that the Pardoner is a eunuch, a "eunuchus ex nativitate"; his lack of facial hair and high voice are attributes commonly associated with this condition. Beryl Rowland, using modern medical texts, defines him as "testicular pseudo-hermaphrodite of the feminine type" [Neophilologus, 48, 1964, 56-60]. Others, accepting the assumption the Pardoner is a eunuch, see him as a spiritual symbol, the opposite of the "eunuch of God": Robert P. Miller, "Chaucer's Pardoner, The Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner's Tale," Speculum 30 (1955), 180-89.
More recently, critics have argued for the position that the Pardoner is a homosexual; see especially: Monica McAlpine, The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How It Matters, PMLA 95 (1980), pp. 8-22.
C. David Benson and R.F. Green argue that the Pardoner is an effeminate heterosexual and womanizer (somewhat like Absolom in the Miller's Tale):
David Benson, "Chaucer's Pardoner: His Sexuality and Modern Critics," Medievalia 8 (1985 [for 1982]), pp. 337-46.
Richard F. Green, "The Sexual Normality of Chaucer's Pardoner," Medievalia 8 (1985 [for 1982]), 351-57.
This (both C.D. Benson and R.F. Green argue) is the view of the author of The Prologue to the Tale of Beryn, a fifteenth-century continuation of The Canterbury Tales in which the Pardoner is the eager but unsuccessful wooer of the barmaid Kit at the tavern where the pilgrims are lodged: Prologue to The Tale of Beryn
The author of the Tale of Beryn gives us the only interpretation of the Pardoner by an early reader of Chaucer. The character appears but briefly in Lydgate's continuation of The Canterbury Tales, his prologue to The Sege of Thebes, where he is confused (or rather merged with) the Summoner, his companion in the General Prologue: Prologue to The Siege of Thebes
What Lydgate meant by this confusion or merging of the two characters (if anything) is not at all clear. There are no other clues to the Pardoner's sexual identity in early comments on Chaucer's tales. And Chaucer -- who says only "I trowe" he is a gelding or mare -- leaves the solution of this problem up to his readers. That may be the most important clue of all.
Nevertheless, critics remain fascinated with the figure of the Pardoner. As a sampling of the rich critical literature see:
Alfred L. Kellogg, An Augustinian Interpretation of Chaucer's Pardoner, Speculum, Vol. 26, No. 3. (July, 1951), pp. 465-481
Lee Patterson, "Chaucerian Confession: Penitential Literature and the Pardoner," Medievalia et Humanistica 7 (1976).
Derek Pearsall, "Chaucer's Pardoner: The Death of a Salesman," Chaucer Review. Vol 17. No. 4 (1983).
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale click here.