In what ways are both the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath thoroughly modern and would these two be portrayed differently today in The Canturbury Tales?

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litteacher8 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Even though the story took place so long ago, we recognize the characters as people who could have just as easily shown up in our modern world.  “The Canterbury Tales is set in fourteenth-century London, one of the medieval period's great centers of commerce and culture” (enotes, see third link).  Yet 700 years later, the tales are still entertaining and still relevant.

The Pardoner is modern in that he is corrupt, and not pious.  It is said that never “was there such another pardoner.”  He basically sells his pardons, selling spiritual salvation.  His wallet is fat but his soul is empty.

His wallet lay before him in his lap

Bretfull of pardons, come from Rome all hot.

The pardoner also is a fraud, because he has a bag full of relics he uses to trick the peasants as he travels.  He is a good story-teller, and is as good at preaching as he is getting money out of people.

If the Pardoner was described today, he’d probably be one of those preachers who claims to be a healer and collects money from people, traveling town to town pretending to be an Evangelical Christian or Baptist.

In modern times we would call the Wife of Bath a black widow.  She seems to like to marry husbands, but she certainly does not keep them around.  She chews them up and spits them out.

Husbands at church door I have had five,

(If I so often might have wedded be).

And all were worthy men in their degree.

She has had 5 husbands, so she is now trolling for husband number six.  She first married when she was 12, which was common then.  She is very opulently and decoratively dressed.  However, she is not really attractive.  For one thing, she is “gat-toothed” (she has gaps in her teeth) and large hips.  In her tale she longs for her youth and beauty, as you’d expect a serial wife to do.  What happened to the husbands?  She seems to have helped them to an early grave to make it to the next husband.

Our society is just as fascinated with women like this as Chaucer’s obviously was.  This woman is a predator.  She keeps marrying, but her husbands keep dying.  I have seen this theme on multiple television shows.  The only difference might be the age she first married.

Perhaps more than any of the other tales, these two seem very relevant and familiar to modern audiences.  We don't have to look far to find them.

Read the Pardoner's Tale here 

Read the Wife of Bath's Tale here:

Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

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