by Donald R. Howard

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Describe the Pardoner in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales.

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When we first meet the Pardoner, he is riding with the Summoner.  The two church officials have been on a journey to "the court of Rome" (2), meaning the Vatican, and are now making another pilgrimage to Canterbury.  The two men are singing love songs, loudly, as they ride.  The physical description of the Pardoner begins at line 6 (of his description after his name is introduced -- it is within the longer poem of the Prologue)

This pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,
But lank it hung as does a strike of flax;
In wisps hung down such locks as he’d on head,
And with them he his shoulders overspread;
But thin they dropped, and stringy, one by one.(10)
But as to hood, for sport of it, he’d none,
Though it was packed in wallet all the while.
It seemed to him he went in latest style,
Dishevelled, save for cap, his head all bare.
His wallet lay before him in his lap,(15)
Stuffed full of pardons brought from Rome all hot.
A voice he had that bleated like a goat.
No beard had he, nor ever should he have,
For smooth his face as he’d just had a shave;
I think he was a gelding or a mare.(20)

The Pardoner is an unattractive man, who tries to be fashionable.  He has sparse, clumped, and colorless blond hair, which is exposed because he wears no hood (in the "latest style".)  He has no beard and seems unable to grow one, which Chaucer finds repellent.  Chaucer, too, impugns his sexuality, intimating that he is a "gelding" or a "mare".  In Chaucer's mind the Pardoner is possibly an intersexed person, a homosexual, or perhaps a castrated man.

The poet's distaste for the Pardoner increases as he describes the fraudulent pardons and relics that this man passes off on the unsuspecting faithful.  Near the end of the forty-six lines Chaucer devotes to the Pardoner in the Prologue the poet relents and admits that the man sings well in church.  Chaucer returns to his criticism and says, however, that the reason the Pardoner sings his best in church is in order "To win some silver, as he right well could," (42) not from any religious fervor.  In all, Chaucer makes known the repugnant character and appearance of this seller of indulgences and pardons.

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