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Canterbury Tales

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ANALYSIS OF THE HOLY(!) CHURCH OF ENGLAND THROUGH THE CHAUCER’S PARDONER
Chaucer uses the pardoner character in order to criticize the Church of England in the 14th century which was a wealthy, corrupt, dishonest and an unjust institution that was trying to maintain its position rather than providing spiritual leadership and guidance to the people.
In the general prologue, the pardoner claims in his bag he has a pillowcase of Virgin Mary and a piece of sail that Saint Peter went on the sea. Then, he starts bragging about how he extracts money from people by using these relics that are parts of the body of a saint or something supposedly used by or associated with a saint and venerated as holy, and their influence on people in order to sell them. Since individuals have seen relics as a way to come closer to the saints and thus, to God in a way, relics became a large business and the pardoner uses people’s beliefs in his advantage by deceiving and selling them useless materials claiming to be relics. He also states that by using these “relics”, he earns more money in one day than a commoner can in two months.
“His wallet lay before him in his lap
Bretfull of pardons, come from Rome all hot.”
Here Chaucer is making fun of the existence of pardons and the church as an institution and points the center of church being Rome as the creator of this absurd practice. These lines from the general prologue are two of the many exemplifying Chaucer’s critical approach towards the church and its deceitful practices. “He was in church a noble ecclesiast.
Well could he read a lesson and a story.
But alderbest he sang an offertory”
The pardoner who is supposedly a noble churchman best sings an offertory which is a part of the Mass where the people make their offerings to the priest and the pardoner. These lines indicate the greedy character of the pardoner since the part that excites him and puts him in a good mood is the prospect of money.
In the prologue, pardoner tells the other pilgrims that he always starts his preaches with the same saying: “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” which means “Cupidity (greed) is the root of all evil” and shows the people bishop’s seal in order to gain their trust (“My patent with the bishop’s seal I show/ To help safeguard my person as I go”), then says a few words in Latin to impress the mass and then he shows them his bag full of relics and claiming they have healing powers he fools the people and pockets their money.
“I always preach, to make them ever free
To give their pence (and give only to me);
For my concern is only with collection
And not with any sin that needs correction.”
As these lines indicate, the pardoner clearly does not care about providing people with salvation or correcting their sins, he is solely interested in their money which is completely in contrast with the saying the uses at the beginning of his sermons about the greed and yet interestingly he is aware of the fact.
In his tale the pardoner condemns gluttony, gambling, drunkenness and swearing. He tells the tale of three Flemish people that find gold underneath a tree and each one of them wants the gold all to himself. However, while each trying to acquire the gold because of pure greed; they end up with killing each other. There the pardoner concludes that all must stay away from the sin of avarice because “Radix malorum est Cupiditas”. At the end, although he has told the others that the relics were not real in the beginning, he brags about them being touched by the Pope and no one can find better ones in England. Although, the pardoner being a deceitful, greedy character that actually embraces the actions that he calls to be sins but thinks to be qualities perhaps, he attacks all these concepts in his sermons and offer people pardons and relics that are fake to reach salvation. Thus, he utilizes the people’s fear of committing sins and not being able to find salvation in the afterlife and makes a fine living out of it. The interesting part is he is not ashamed by any of his actions, on the contrary, I think he sees himself to be superior and smarter than the ordinary people that is why he is so arrogant and comfortable with his hypocrisy because he believes since he is such a good preacher and an actor they will never know the truth and he does offer them salvation as far as they know.
In the 14th century England, due to the immense gap of income distribution, the black plague and terrible economic conditions it brought considering the immense amount of deaths that caused a drastic decline in the man force, religion became the most important and effective way to influence the masses and make them give up their earthly desires claiming the world they live in to be temporary and implementing the idea that the actual life begins after death, thus they should focus on their spiritual needs. Therefore, in this environment, where the people were being lied to by the priests and bishops of the church that they unquestionably believed in and who were supposed to provide them with spiritual guidance, they were willing to do anything to be pardoned, forgiven and freed from their sins since that would be the only way to reach the gates of heaven in the afterlife. That is how the church succeeded to manipulate the masses and prevent them from rebelling against the clergy which was extremely rich and enjoyed prosperity whereas the commoners were starving to death. This belief which was planted in people’s minds by the clergy that the ones who suffer in material life were to be rewarded after death if their souls were to be intact and not to be stained with sin was used to make profit and showed itself as the indulgences that were given under the authority of church itself by official pardoners. Moreover, with the permission of the Church, indulgences also became a way for Catholic rulers to fund expensive projects, such as crusades and cathedrals, by keeping a significant portion of the money raised from indulgences in their lands. There was also a tendency to forge documents declaring that indulgences had been granted when they were not. The pardoner of Chaucer acts as one of the greedy, dishonest clergy members of the time and the exaggeration of the flaws of this character and the sins he commits although preaches to be the root of evil is in order to point out the corruption and the deception that is occurring in front of people’s eyes. Consequently, I believe Chaucer in the 14th century with his pardoner stands as an example of what Karl Marx said in the 19th century was truly accurate: “Religion is the opium of the masses.”
Esin Basaran
Del Medievo al Renicimiento en la Literatura Inglesa

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