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Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' is full of barbed comments on the society in which he lived. Chaucer had experienced the world of court and war and had many opportunities to view people's vanity and hypocricy. Some of his views echoed the attitudes current at the time, for example that Monks enjoyed eating.
The key, when reading Chaucer, is to separate 'Chaucer the poet' from 'Chaucer the pilgrim'. In his poem, Chaucer has created an innocent and gullible observer ('Chaucer the pilgrim') who comments on the characters he meets in 'The General Prologue'. This observer is easily impressed and comments without judgement. However, Chaucer, and his audience, are more knowing - this creates irony as we know that some of the things that 'Chaucer the pilgrim' comments on are not positive. An example of this may be seen in the portrait of the Prioress who feeds white bread to her dogs and has a brooch with the inscription 'Amor vincit omnia' (Love conquers all) - hardly the behaviour we would expect from a senior nun.
If we keep these points in mind when we look at the portrait of the Pardoner, we can see that Chaucer was calling him a hypocrite. He does this from the start of the portrait by calling the Pardoner 'gentil' (noble) and then demonstrating that he is not.Chaucer does this through his use of irony and description. Examples of this are:
- He is a religious character on a pilgrimage and yet sings 'Come hider, love to me!'
- He carries a 'pilwe-beer' (pillow-case) which he claims to be 'Oure Lady veyl' (Our Lady's veil) - suggesting that all his religious artifacts are fake, he sells these fakes to people wanting to be pardoned for their sins
- Chaucer includes 'he sayde' (he said), suggesting that what he says is not the truth
- His physical description is unpleasant - his hair is 'thynne', he has a voice like 'a goot'. Chaucer also suggests that he is not a 'real' man by comparing him to 'a geldyng or a mare'
- Chaucer's final point is that the Pardonner sings loudly to 'wynne silver' suggesting that it is greed, rather than religion that motivates him. The reference to 'silver' would also link to Judas.
Unlike some of the earlier portraits, where the criticism is suggested, this is a very openly critical one. It is worth comparing this portrait with that of the Parson, a truly good man. Finally the position of the Pardonner's portrait, at the end, following a group of corrupt men, suggests that Chaucer views him as the worst.
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