Here's a paper I wrote for midterms in my British Author's class this past summer:
The Pardoner’s Tale and England in the Middle Ages
Geoffrey Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales, lived in England between 1300 and 1400. As a servant to the Court, he had to be careful how he expressed his political, religious and social views. I believe Chaucer used the Tales to illustrate the social unrest, specifically the religious unrest, of his day; allowing his views to be made public, but through the voice of a fictional character.
The Great Famine of 1315-1317 and the Black Death ushered in a time of social instability and war between social classes. The people of the European lands, which had been prospering for so long, now found themselves involved in peasant revolts such as The Hundred Years' War, (www.vlib.us).
For hundreds of years, the Pope was deemed to have full authority over the State. The Church was the highest power in Western Europe and there were continuous struggles for power between secular and Church leaders. Pope Boniface VIII stated, around the beginning of the 14th century, that it "is necessary for salvation that every living creature be under submission to the Roman pontiff," (Unam Sanctam).
Chaucer began writing The Canterbury Tales in 1386 or 87, (Chaucer, 16). This is a time when the Catholic Church was falling apart as it attempted to deal with the split known as The Great Schism. These conflicts damaged the Church's honorable place of universal authority and eventually led to historical benchmarks like the Reformation, (Oxford Dictionary). The disunity of this seemingly solid foundation of society became a target for satirical writings like The Pardoner's Tale.
Some would argue that the Pardoner uses his turn at storytelling to clean his conscience. He describes himself as a liar, a drunk, and one given to greed and avarice; a definite hypocrisy for someone committed to the church. I think the Pardoner was carried away in drunken boasting and was too caught up in the attention he was receiving to realize that these confessions may come back to haunt him one day.
In my opinion, Chaucer uses the character of the Pardoner to portray the "most confused and disordered society" (Ackroyd, 158) in which he was living. Even though the Reformation was still about 150 years in the future, citizens were beginning to recognize a need for change regarding absolute church authority. However, since to boldly speak out against the Church would mean forfeiture of his employment for sure, and very likely his life, it seems that he, instead, chose to subtly visit the controversial themes in his writing.
With all the faults of which we could accuse our Pardoner, we can make one generalization: he is a hypocrite. He gives the impression that he believes it doesn't matter what his personal sins might be--this does not affect his power and "rights" as a leader of the Church. This attribute could stem from an ironic truth of the Catholic Church called the Apostolic Authority of the priesthood. Among other things, the doctrine states that a priest is still in authority even when he is involved in sin and that a priest has the power to forgive sin, (therealpresence.org). The Pardoner seems to embody this idea when he states, “It is an honour to you to have found a pardoner with his credentials sound”, (Chaucer, 275). Just as we see him as ridiculous and lacking in integrity, it's possible that the people of Chaucer's day felt the same about their real-life "Christian" examples.
As I stated earlier, the Pardoner's actions are a definite hypocrisy for someone committed to the Church. Perhaps that's where the real issue lies. There is a big difference between being committed to the Church and being committed to God. The Church can have stringent rules for each member to obey, protocol by which all things are done, and can make judgments of others in comparison to themselves. When one commits himself to the Church, he must concern himself with following its laws. When one commits himself to God, he can take each day as it comes to him and allow God to direct his path according to God's plan for each individual on the earth. He can allow God to work on the things that need to be changed in the order that God sees fit and not that the Church sees fit.
When one is committed to the Church, it is often because he feels like he has to be. When one is committed to a relationship with God, it is only because he wants to be. It's all a heart issue. From what I see with this Pardoner, the issue to him was making sure he displayed just enough “God” so that others would trust, or at least respect, him as a man of God and thus, leave themselves open to be taken advantage by him. This Pardoner had to be committed to a relationship with the church in order to better his own cause: himself.
Ackroyd, Peter. Chaucer. New York: Doubleday, 2005
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: translated by Nevill Coghill. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Cross, F.L. & Livingstone, E.A. eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford University Press, 2005.