The role of a pardoner
The official duties of a pardonerThe ‘pardoning' of sinLimits on a pardoner's authorityFraudulent pardonersThe pardoner's techniqueClues to Chaucer's PardonerAttitudes to con artistsThere are no such people as pardoners nowadays; in Chaucer's day many of them (though not all) had a bad reputation.
The official duties of a pardonerA pardoner was originally just someone who collected money on behalf of a religious foundation. Chaucer's Pardoner is said to work for the Hospital of Blessed Mary of Rouncivalle in London, which in real life had been associated with scandals and abuses of the system. Pardoners were originally called ‘questors'.
A pardoner worked under the authority of a Bishop
- The idea was that he should introduce himself to a church congregation, show his letters of authority and make an appeal in aid of some worthy cause approved by the Bishop. He would then take the money back to the Bishop to be used for support of a hospital, relief of the poor, building roads, etc.
- These works of mercy were thought of as worthy, and (as is still the case today) morally and spiritually beneficial to the giver, as well as to those who were helped
- Properly conducted, there was no problem with the work of pardoners.
The ‘pardoning' of sinQuestors eventually became known as pardoners, because increasingly they were associated with the pardoning of sins. Some were monks or priests, others properly licensed lay people employed to perform this function. Pardoners used to go round and read out indulgences to church congregations, to inform believers about the need for repentance, confession and the performance of penances.
Limits on a pardoner's authorityThe point about a professional pardoner issuing an indulgence was that he could not himself actually hear the penitents' confessions. Indulgences were therefore issued on the condition that the penitents went to confession as soon as they could thereafter. Officially a pardoner was not supposed to preach, but they did.
Fraudulent pardonersThere is a great deal of evidence that many pardoners were indeed fraudsters, who saw their role as an opportunity to extort money for their own use. Despite the official limitations on their authority:
- They often preached
- They did not just issue indulgences remitting some or all of the punishment due to a sinner, but they issued illegal forgiveness of sins
- Some people therefore thought they did not have to repent: they simply could buy their way out of sins
- Professional pardoners became notorious for their lax private lives, and they developed a profitable sideline selling fake relics.
The pardoner's techniqueBy appealing to ordinary people's piety and goodwill, corrupt pardoners could easily raise large sums for themselves that would be impossible to acquire from honest work. All they needed was a series of impressive looking letters (simple in an age when virtually everybody was illiterate) and a confident manner in making the appeal.
Simple rural congregations would have had little contact with the greater world outside. They would have put their trust in the impressive-looking documents and in the glamour surrounding a stranger, and they would not have known if the money went into the pocket of a thief rather than to some good cause.
Pope Clement V condemned these abuses and did a great deal to rein in the pardoners. The monks and priests and official pardoners were relatively easily controlled, but the fraudsters were a different matter, particularly in England, where they existed in larger numbers than elsewhere in Europe.
Clues to Chaucer's PardonerGiven the association of pardoners with corruption, Chaucer's Pardoner would have been a very suspect character from the start to Chaucer's audience:
- The Pardoner goes through the appearance of absolving people from their sins, though he is not ordained. (Theologians said that deceiving people in this way was a sin, though they also said that God's mercy might pardon sins confessed to a Pardoner by people who were unaware of the deceit being practised on them.)
- He makes it clear to the other pilgrims that the money he collects is entirely for his own purposes i.e. that he is a conman.
- Clothing, especially for clerics, was more uniform than now: the wearing of hoods was part of a cleric's ordinary dress. The Pardoner's lack of a hood (though he does wear a skullcap) was unorthodox, as was his long hair
- His glaring eyes might have suggested a lustful nature.
There was, or so says Titus Livius,
A knight, who was named Virginius,
Filled with all honour and nobility,
Rich in friends he was, and as wealthy.
This knight had a daughter by his wife;He’d had no other child throughout his life.
Fair was this maid, of outstanding beauty
Beyond all others whom a man might see;
For Nature had with sovereign diligence
Created her of such great excellence
As if to say: ‘Behold how, I, Nature,
Thus can form and tint a living creature
When I so choose! Who can this counterfeit?
Not Pygmalion, though he forge and beat,
And carve and paint, nor, I would maintain,
Apelles, Zeuxis who would work in vain
If they should carve, and paint, and forge, and beat,
Presuming to create a counterfeit.
For the Maker, and the Principal,
Appointed me his Vicar-General
To form and fashion earthly creatures
As I wish: all things are in my power
Under the moon that doth wane and wax,
And for my work no payment do I ask;
My Lord and I are both of one accord.
I made her to the honour of my Lord;
So I do with all my other creatures,
Whatever hue they have, or features.’
– Thus it seems to me Nature should say.
Fourteen years of age was then this maid,In whom Nature took such great delight;
For just as she can paint the lily white,
And red the rose, just then such a picture
Had she painted in this noble creature,
Ere she was born, tinting her limbs free,
Wherever the colour should rightly be.
And Phoebus dyed her tresses all complete,
Like to the streams of his burnished heat.
And if she was excellent in beauty,
A thousand times more virtuous was she.
Within her there was lacking no condition
To draw praise from people of discretion.
As much in soul as body chaste was she,
So that she flowered in her virginity
With true humility and abstinence,
With true temperance and with patience,
Restrained in her behaviour and array.
Discreet she was in answering, always,
Though she was wise as Pallas, I dare say;
Her eloquence womanly, without display;
No affected language ever did she
Employ to seem wise, but in her degree
She spoke, and all her words, great and less,
Conducive were to virtue and gentleness.
Modest she was, in her maiden chasteness,
Constant in heart, and in action tireless
Not wishing to be thought idle, lazy.
Bacchus had of her mouth no mastery;
For wine and youth do Venus’ works increase,
Like a fire on which men cast oil or grease.
And of her own virtue, unconstrained,
She had many times an illness feigned,
So that she might flee the company
When there was likelihood of foolery,
As at a feast, a revel, or a dance
Which are occasions oft for dalliance.
Such things indeed may make our daughters be
Ripe and bold too soon, as men may see,
Dangerously so, as has been known before;
For all too soon they practice more and more
Their boldness, when they seek to play the wife.
And you fair mistresses, in later life,Who have lords’ daughters in your governance –
Be not offended by my words, perchance –
Consider, you’ve been set to governing
Lords’ daughters for one of two things:
Either because you kept your chastity,
Or else because you fell, from frailty,
And know it well enough, the ancient dance,
And have forsaken fully such mischance
For evermore; therefore, for Christ’s sake,
Teach them virtue now, and make no mistake.
A poacher of venison who is long pastHis guilty acts, and leaves off his old craft
Makes the best gamekeeper of any man.
So guard them well, for if you wish you can.
Be careful that to no vice you assent,
Lest you be dammed for your foul intent;
For one who shall, a traitor is, for certain.
And take good note of all that I shall say:
Of all treasons, the crowning pestilence
Is when an act betrays pure innocence.
You fathers, and you mothers too, also,Whether you have one child or more, know
You’re responsible for their surveillance
While they remain within your governance.
Beware then, lest, by your mode of living,
Or by your negligence in chastising,
They perish by your example; I dare say
If they do so, then shall you dearly pay.
Under a shepherd slack and negligent
The wolf will many a sheep and lamb have rent.
Let that one example suffice me here,
For I must turn again to my true matter.
This maid, the tale of whom I now express,Governing herself, needed no mistresses.
In her mode of life, maidens might read,
As in a book, every good word or deed
That belongs to such a maiden virtuous,
So prudent she, so meritorious,
Such that her fame was known on every side,
That of her beauty and her goodness, wide
Throughout the land, praised by everyone
Who loved virtue, save the envious alone,
For Envy is grieved by other men’s wealth,
And glad of their sorrow, and of their ill-health –
Augustine is the source of that description.
This maid upon a day went into townTowards a temple, with her mother dear,
As is the manner of young maidens here.
Now, there was then a justice in that town
Governor of the region all around;
And it befell, that the judge his eyes cast
Upon this maid, his gaze there held fast,
As she passed the place in which he stood.
Anon his heart changed and his mood.
So caught was he by the beauty of this maid.
And to himself all secretly he said:
‘This maid shall be mine, before any man!’
Anon the devil into his heart now ran,And taught him swiftly that by some sleight
Of hand, he the maid to his purpose might
Win, for through force or bribery indeed
He saw no way in which he might succeed,
For she was rich in friends, and also she
Was so confirmed in her virtuous duty,
That he knew well he might never win
Her mind or body to indulge in sin.
So after deliberating, casting round,
He sent for a rogue living in the town,
Whom he knew was subtle and was bold.
The justice to this rogue his tale told,
In secrecy, and told him to be sure
Never to tell it to another creature,
For if he did, he would lose his head.
When the cursed reed had thus assented,
The judge was glad, and gave him good cheer,
And gifts as well, gifts both precious and dear.
When shaped was all their conspiracyIn every detail, how his lechery
Was to be satisfied full subtly –
As you shall hear soon, and openly –
Home went the rogue, his name was Claudius.
The false judge, whose name was Appius –
Such was his name, for this is no fable,
But is known to history, and notable;
The substance of it, true, without a doubt –
This false judge now went fast about
To hurry on his crime as best he may.
And it befell, soon after, on a day,
The false justice, for so says the story,
As was his right, playing judge and jury,
Was giving his judgement in another case.
The false rogue rushed in on him apace,
And said: ‘Lord, if it might be your will,
Grant me my rights regarding this true bill,
A bill of complaint against Virginius.
And if he denies that things are thus,
I will prove them so, and find good witness
The truth is as my bill doth here express’
The judge replied: ‘In the defendant’s absenceI cannot bring this new case to sentence.
Summon him, then you I’ll gladly hear;
You shall have justice, not injustice here.’
Virginius came, to learn the judge’s will,And right anon was read the cursed bill.
The content of it was as you shall hear:
‘To you, my lord Sir Appius so dear,
Declares your humble servant Claudius
That a knight, named here, Virginius,
Against the law, against all equity,
Holds, and against my will, most expressly,
My servant, one who is my thrall by right,
One that was stolen from my house by night
When she was very young; this will I prove
By witnesses, my lord, if you approve.
She’s not his child, whatever he may say.
Wherefore to you, my lord the judge, I say,
Yield me my thrall now, if it be your will!’
Lo, this was all the content of his bill.
Virginius stared in horror at the rogue;But swiftly, before his tale could be told,
And he reveal the truth, as a knight,
Call witnesses to demonstrate his right,
And show the falseness of his adversary,
The cursed judge who would no longer tarry,
Nor hear a word more from Virginius,
Issued his judgement and declared it thus:
‘This man shall have his servant, I rule so.
You shall no longer keep her, you must go
And bring her forth, and make her now our ward.
The man shall have his thrall, so I award.’
And when this worthy knight Virginius,Heard the decree of this judge, Appius,
That he by force must his dear daughter give
Up to the judge, in lechery to live,
He went back home, and sat down in his hall,
And anon had them his daughter call;
And with a face dead as ashes cold
Her humble face did silently behold,
A father’s pity striking through his heart,
Yet from his purpose he could not depart.
‘Daughter,’ quoth he, ‘Virginia, by thy name,There are two ways before you, death or shame,
One you must suffer – alas, that I was born!
For you have not deserved this evil morn,
Yet must you die by sword or by the knife.
O dear daughter, ender of my life,
Whom I have nurtured with such joyous glance
You were never out of my remembrance,
O daughter, you who are my final woe,
And of my life are my last joy also,
O gem of chastity, with quiet patience
Embrace your death: such is my sentence.
For love, not hate, I would have you dead;
My pitying hand must strike off your head.
Alas, that ever Appius saw your face!
That is why he falsely judged the case’ –
He told her all the tale you’ve heard before.
No need for me to tell you of it more.
‘O mercy, dear father!’ quoth the maid,And with that both her arms she laid
About his neck, as she was wont to do.
The tears burst from her eyes, anew,
‘Good father,’ she cried, ‘is it death for me?
Is there no grace? Is there no remedy?’
‘No, none, dear daughter mine,’ quoth he.
‘Then give me time, father mine,’ quoth she.‘To lament my death a little space.
For Jephtha he gave his daughter grace,
To lament before he slew her, alas!
And God knows she committed no trespass,
But ran, the first her father chanced to see,
To welcome him with great solemnity.’
And with these words she swooned anon.
And after, when her faintness was all gone,
She arose, and to her father said:
‘Blessed be God that I shall die a maid!
Grant me death, before I come to shame.
Do with your child as you will, in God’s name!’
After those words she begged him full oft,That with his sword he would smite soft;
And then again she fainted and lay still.
Her father with a sorrowful heart and will,
Struck off her head, gripped the hair, and went
To seek the judge, so as to present
Her head to him, being judge and jury,
And when the judge saw it, says the story,
He bade men to take and hang him fast.
But right anon a thousand people passed
Into the yard, to save the knight, for pity,
Since all was known of this false iniquity.
The people had suspicions that the thing,
From the way in which the rogue sought to bring
His charge, had the consent of Appius;
They knew too that he was lecherous.
And so to seek this Appius had they gone,
To throw him into prison right anon,
Where he slew himself; and Claudius,
Who was the servant to this Appius,
Was sentenced to hang upon a tree,
But Virginius, out of clemency,
Prayed that instead he might be exiled;
Or else for sure he would have died reviled.
The rest were hanged, the greater and the less,
Who were accessories to this wickedness.
Here may men see how sin receives its due!Beware, no man knows what rank or who
God will smite, nor in what manner or wise;
The worm of conscience may yet arise
Against the wicked life, though secretly
So no man knows of it but God and he.
For be he illiterate or be he learned,
He knows not how soon the blow is earned.
Therefore I advise you this counsel take:
Forsake sin, before sin may you forsake.