In week five of our class we discussed Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale” (the prologue and the tale itself) and “The Canterbury Tales as a Death Warrant” chapter from the Jones text. We talked about Chaucer’s depictions of members of the Church, the Pardoner’s Tale itself, and why the Canterbury Tales could have been considered controversial enough for Thomas Arundel to want Chaucer dead.
The Pardoner as a Greedy Salesman
In medieval times it was common practice for members of the church, known as “pardoners”, to sell indulgences for anything from forgiveness of someone’s sins to salvation from eternal damnation. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer presents the Pardoner as having fashionable long blonde hair, wearing nice robes, and carrying with him all sorts of gaudy relics. This represents a departure from the traditional image of a pious and poor monk with a shaved head wearing modest robes. Instead, the Pardoner is presented, to quote our professor, as a “ladies man.”
Before the Pardoner begins his tale of morality, he prefaces it by freely admitting that he is a fraud. He proudly exclaims that he is only in the pardoning business for the money and that he is guilty of extreme greed. He even reveals that his relics, which are supposedly Saints’ relics certified by the Pope, are really rags and animal bones. Chaucer presents him as a snake oil salesman corrupted by greed, yet he is the man that the host asks to tell a tale of morality.
The Pardoner’s Tale of Morality
The Pardoner tells us a tale of three young men who spend all of their time drinking, swearing, gambling, and indulging in excess. It is here that the Pardoner interrupts the tale to, somewhat ironically, tell the group why all of these things are terrible sins forbidden by God in the Bible. The three young men find out that one of their friends has been slain by Death, and in their drunkenness decide that they shall find death and slay him as revenge. While wandering the road looking for Death, they meet an old man who says that he had left death under an oak tree and points them towards a grove. Under the tree they find several sacks of gold and decide to wait until nightfall to carry them away so as not to arouse suspicion. While one of the young men goes to get bread and wine the other two plot to kill him upon his return so that they only have to split the gold two ways. Meanwhile, the man on his own poisons two of the three wine bottles so that he can keep the gold all to himself. Upon his return he is stabbed by his two friends and they drink the poisoned wine in celebration and die as well.
In truth the old man really did leave death under the oak tree by leaving the gold. This tale demonstrates that greed will only lead to your own demise and that it brings out the worst in people. Although this is a great classic tale of morality it also begs the question of whether who is telling the story affects it’s validity. The Pardoner is practically the embodiment of greed and intoxication so is it possible for him to tell a tale of morality and be taken seriously? I personally think that the tale would lose a lot of its effectiveness since it is being told by someone who is living the life of luxury and is essentially given permission by the church itself to be greedy. The Pardoner has yet to pay for his greed and the tale is all about greed leading to only treachery and death. Here Chaucer presents a stark comparison between the idealized tales of the day and the reality of how life really works.
Thomas Arundel’s Reaction to the Canterbury Tales
Throughout our readings in Terry Jones’ book we have covered the history and culture of Chaucer’s time but this week we got into the “whodunit” portion of Jones’ argument. Chaucer was already on Henry IV’s bad list because of how heavily he was tied to the culture of Richard II’s court. To make things worse, Thomas Arundel came back into power as the archbishop and as we discussed in previous weeks Arundel was not a nice guy. He was one of the foremost opponents of John Wyclif and wanted to stamp out dissent and heresy wherever possible by the most brutal of means. It is especially fitting that we read the Pardoner’s tale this week because it is one of Chaucer’s most blatant criticisms of the Church and his opinion on it’s corruption. The Pardoner is presented as a fraud, but not necessarily as a fraudulent pardoner. There is nothing to indicate that the Pardoner has fake letters of authority. So not only is Chaucer casting a bad light on a man of the Church, he is implying that the Pardoner’s fraud is endorsed by the Church. Another detail that wouldn’t escape Arundel’s notice is the fact that the Pardoner’s writ of authority would be signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, at the time Thomas Arundel himself.
It is debatable as to whether Chaucer was intentionally using the Canterbury Tales to blatantly criticize the Church or whether he was trying to simply give an honest view of the way the world actually worked; either way Thomas Arundel would not have been happy about it. Not only did Chaucer have the audacity to point out corruption and hypocrisy within the Church, he did so in English so anyone literate could understand it. Arundel was all about the control of information; it’s one of the reasons he pushed so hard to get rid of English translations of the Bible. Even though he might have agreed with some of the criticisms of the Church, his number one goal was to prevent the airing of the Church’s dirty laundry to the common people. His power came from people’s faith that the Church was an uncorrupt institution that could help them attain eternal salvation for their soul. As we previously discussed in class, the peasant’s revolt was enabled by education of the common people. Education led to disillusionment and threatened Arundel’s very source of power.
It is clear that Thomas Arundel would have considered Geoffrey Chaucer an undesirable and that the Canterbury Tales would be seen by him as dangerous, but so far Jones has only presented us with motive. One of his main arguments is that for a man so famous to have simply fallen off the pages of history that it had to have been a cover up by someone in power. While he makes a good argument, it is all circumstantial; it is also possible that Chaucer caught a case of pneumonia and died of natural causes and that we have simply lost the records of it happening in the 600 years since his death. I think that his thesis that Arundel had Chaucer murdered is very interesting but I hope that he can present us with a little bit more solid evidence in the rest of the book.
Looking at the Past to Understand the Present
Another topic that we discussed in class this week was looking at the parallels between Chaucer’s time and our own. Jones was working on “Who Murdered Geoffrey Chaucer” from 1997-2004. This is a time period which saw the transition from a liberal and fairly peaceful era under Clinton to the events of September 11th which sparked an era of war, the separation of church and state slipping to a degree, and arguably the beginnings of a “big brother” style authoritarian government. It is very easy to draw parallels between this era and what Chaucer saw happen when Richard II was deposed and Henry IV backed by Arundel took control of England. This of course brings up the question of whether it is fair to compare the past with the present? We discussed how it is important to learn from history but drawing such parallels leads to a sense that history will repeat itself and that it is a fate we can’t do anything about. It also over simplifies the issues and doesn’t take into account the vast differences between society now and society 600 years ago. Technology has changed so much and the world is now connected in a way that was never possible before and along with that change is a whole new set of problems that has never before been experienced by humanity. By trying too hard to compare problems of the past to the present we can become blind sighted to what the real underlying issues are.
Questions to Ponder
- Does a tale of morality still ring true and have credibility when told by someone corrupt?
- Did Arundel have Chaucer murdered for his writings?
- How can we apply lessons learned from 14th century history to the present and why is it not always a good idea to do so?
Jones, Terry. Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2004. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, “The Pardoner’s Tale”, accessed at http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/translation/ct/15pardt.html
“The Pardoner’s Tale.” Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/pardoner.htm Digital Image
“The Pardoner’s Tale Redux.” Rambling Follower. http://ramblingfollower.blogspot.com/2011/10/pardoners-tale-redux.html Digital Image
“The Medieval Inquisition: Catholicism’s Answer to the Cathars.” Christian Heresy. http://www.askwhy.co.uk/christianheresy/burningalive01.jpg Digital Image
“Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury.” Luminarium: Anthology of English Literature. http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/arundelpreaching.jpg Digital Image