In The Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner suggests that the pilgrims buy his pardons and relics, even after his lengthy admission of their worthlessness.
Why does he do this—what does this offer suggest in terms of the Pardoner's personality?
In Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the author describes the wide variety of people who are traveling on this holy pilgrimage in order to visit the site where Thomas Becket was martyred at the Canterbury Cathedral. This is one of the few instances within a medieval society where such a diverse group of people would inhabit the same "social space."
It is Chaucer, who—acting as a member of the pilgrimage—describes his companions. Chaucer was a student of human nature, and his observations are either genuinely admiring, or satirically biting. Written in the newly emerging Middle English, his work was very popular, although it did condemn unlawful practices of some "clerical" servants of the Church. It is in the case of the Pardoner that Chaucer draws his attention to the hypocrisy often found with servants of God in the day.
Chaucer observes in verse the physically unappealing appearance of the Pardoner and his less than sterling behavior. The man cares too much about his looks. He spends a great deal of time singing songs not appropriate for a man of the cloth. He does not dress as a Pardoner should, but does possess a "wallet...brimful of pardons come from Rome all hot." The pardons are stolen goods. It was the practice of the Church at the time to take money in exchange for absolution (forgiveness). He sells the pardons to make money for himself, not for the Church. He makes more than any other man of his profession. He also preaches quite well, knowing that in this way he can also make more money.
The Pardoner is not truly a servant of God, but a servant of self. He lives the high life with the money he makes. He does not take his vows (such as poverty) seriously, and he acts contrary to the teachings of the Church by stealing and lying. While the man's profession may be "Pardoner," he is not devoted to any calling other than the one that brings him personal success.
Chaucer was much aware of this common practice during his life and describes several "holy members" in the Prologue who were hypocrites not just because they did not "practice what they preached," but because they took advantage of the innocent, gullible and poverty-stricken members of his parish. (Contrary to the Pardoner, Chaucer has nothing but praise for is the Parson who is truly a man dedicated to his holy calling.)
In the telling of his own "moralistic" tale, the Pardoner is drunk, and says that he is telling a story of greed, but is also admits that he is guilty of that sin himself.
It is suggested that by sharing his "sins," The Pardoner is (ironically) able to (unwittingly) set an example for others so they can avoid being like him.
The Pardoner is an enigmatic character...and apparently aware of his own sin — it is not clear why he tells the pilgrims about his own sin in the prologue prior to his tale — yet his preaching is correct and the results of his methods, despite their corruption, are good...
...the Pardoner might also be seen as a reinforcement of the Apostolic Authority of the priesthood...the corrupt Pardoner is able to tell a morally intact tale and turn others from his same sin.