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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What are The Pardoner's physical characteristics in The Canterbury Tales?

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Chaucer shares specific physical characteristics about the Pardoner that actually provide a great deal of insight into his character.  In the medieval period, many people were believers in the concept of physiognomy, which was supposed to allow people to judge human nature based on physical features--in other words, you could judge a book by its cover. Almost all of the qualities that are mentioned by Chaucer paint a picture of the Pardoner as an emasculated character.  His "hair as yellow as wax, hanging down smoothly like a hank of flax," sounds more like a description of a female's hair style.  The description of his small, goat-like voice is also emphasizing his lack of male characteristics because it suggests that the Pardoner's voice has not/will not change to a lower register. Chaucer the narrator labels him as a "gelding, or a mare," suggesting that the Pardoner either was born with defective sexual organs or had undergone castration. Considering that some members of medieval boys' choirs were willing to be castrated to keep their voices pure-toned and unchanged, this reference would have been clear to the original audience.  Continuing in that frame of reference, the Pardoner also lacks facial hair--"no beard had harboured, nor would harbour, smoother than ever chin was left by barber"--another reference in support of the Pardoner's inability to go through puberty. In addition to his characteristics that lead to a questioning of his masculinity, Chaucer also mentions that the Pardoner has "bulging eye-balls, like a hare."

 

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