The Pardoner and his Tale, Jan 19 2021

The Pardoner, from William Blake’s 1810 engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims

Today (January 19, 2021) everyone in the U.S. is busy guessing who will be on the pardon-list of that outgoing guy. The official list will be documented here:

Meanwhile, let’s find out how a person who Pardons does it. Geoffrey Chaucer’s character The Pardoner, and his tale in The Canterbury Tales (1387) come to mind. A Pardoner was an official of the Church who was licensed to sell papal pardons or indulgences (=time off Purgatory, and a less painful Hell). In addition to this scam, a Pardoner often sold fake “relics” of the Crucifixion.

To introduce his tale, Chaucer’s Pardoner shows off his Latin: “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (The root of evil is greed). In his tale, three young men find a hoard of treasure and, while guarding it at night, end up all killing each other – you know this plot.

Below are a few excerpts from Chaucer where The Pardoner confesses to, and explains, his scams. Chaucer is so wonderful in his description of the foibles of his Canterbury Pilgrims.

344         And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe,
And in Latin I speak a few words,
345         To saffron with my predicacioun,
With which to add spice to my preaching,
346         And for to stire hem to devocioun.
And to stir them to devotion.
347         Thanne shewe I forth my longe cristal stones,
Then I show forth my long crystal stones,
348         Ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones —
Crammed full of rags and of bones —
349         Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon.
Relics they are, as suppose they each one.   ….

383         Swich folk shal have no power ne no grace
Such folk shall have no power nor no grace
384         To offren to my relikes in this place.
To offer to my relics in this place.
385         And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
And whoever finds himself out of such blame,
386         He wol come up and offre a Goddes name,
He will come up and offer in God’s name,
387         And I assoille him by the auctoritee
And I will absolve him by the authority
388         Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me.’
Which by papal bull was granted to me.’
389         “By this gaude have I wonne, yeer by yeer,
“By this trick have I won, year after year,
390         An hundred mark sith I was pardoner.
An hundred marks since I was pardoner.

(PS: if you are daunted by the Middle English, try reading it aloud. You will be surprised that you get it. )

Source of the illustration: