In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the Pardoner serves as a moral exemplum in that his drunken and greedy habits highlight an opposite path of righteousness. The Pardoner embraces his love of wealth and alcohol however, and emerges as an exemplum of transparency in addition to sin. The Pardoner is in fact a skilled preacher who uses language to persuasively advertise his false relics. He specifically personifies medieval rhetoric, or the use of poetic tropes such as metaphor and exemplum to elevate speech and sway his audience.
This elevation occurs at the expense of transparency however, as the Pardoner’s decorative rhetoric veils his speech with layers of symbolism and subjective interpretation. The Pardoner’s language therefore mirrors his relics; just as the relics claim morally healing properties, his words possess the false promise of religious guidance. His biblical exempla for example present the Bible as a kind of linguistic relic that he compartmentalizes and dismembers. His apostrophes to body parts also fuse relics with figures of speech and draw illustrate the multiple meanings of his words.
The Pardoner’s words ultimately become goods he ells to the public- objects that, like his relics, possess the potential for monetary gain. Through comparing the symbolic nature of the Pardoner’s relics with the duplicity of his words, I will argue that Chaucer uses relics to parody the ways in which rhetoric often manipulates and divides words from their “entente” or significance. disingenuous exempla particularly liken his rhetoric to his deceptive relics.
Exemplum is the Pardoner’s favourite and most persuasive rhetorical device however, as he states, “Than telle hem ensamples many oon / Of olde stories longe tyme agoon, / The Pardoner’s morally For lewed peple loven tales olde” (“The Pardoner’s Tale” 435-37). The three rioters embody the Pardoner’s fixation with exemplum, as he adapts them from Thomas of Cantimpre’s “Exemplum 103. ” In Poetria Nova, Geoffrey of Vinsauf testifies to the moral worth of proverbs and exempla, stating that an exemplum must “not sink to a purely specific relevance, but raise its head high to some general truth” (Vinsauf 22).
Exemplum therefore transcends narrative to establish its teller as both a narratorial and moral authority- personas that the Pardoner must cultivate in order to sell his relics. In medieval rhetoric however, exemplum is primarily a stylistic principle that elevates one’s speech or writing; while performance and truth are not mutually exclusive, truth is “nat [the Pardoner’s] principle entente: [He] preche[s] nothing but for coveityse” (Pardoner 430-433). Though the rioters’ fates warn against gambling, drunkenness, and swearing, the Pardoner’s sinful intentions complicate the seemingly clear moral of his tale.
No longer “cosin to the dede” (“General Prologue” 741), his story lacks its corresponding “entente” and, as a result, its moral authority. The Pardoner’s exemplum thus mirrors his relics- while the Pardoner claims that the relics will absolve or heal people, they, like the exemplum, are only performative. Chaucer uses this correlation to criticize rhetoric and illustrate how these rhetorical tropes only decorate lies rather than reveal truth. The Pardoner’s biblical exempla also illustrate the correspondence between rhetoric and relics, as they compartmentalize the Bible in the way relics divide the body.
Using Herod, Adam, and Lemuel to convey the dangers of gluttony and drunkenness, each exemplum functions as a icrocosm of wisdom that fits into the Pardoner’s overall aphorism about greed- “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (334). However, while the Pardoner’s familiarity with the Bible may bolster his religious authority, his examples are excessive and reflect the absurdity of his melodramatic sermonizing. Moreover, he presents the exempla outside of their biblical context and, in doing so, forsakes accuracy and distorts their morals.
In describing Herod’s downfall for example, the Pardoner claims “Whan [Herod] of wyn was repleet at his feste, / Right at his owne table he yaf his heste / To sleen the Baptist John ful giltelees” (489-91). Here, the Pardoner reduces Herod and St. John the Baptist’s complex history to a simple decision involving too much wine and food, falsely suggesting that Herod executed John the Baptist simply because he was too drunk or full. This version of events proves the Pardoner’s statement however, and is therefore the only one worth depicting.
As with his other exempla, the Pardoner manipulates the Bible to bolster whatever version of the “truth” is financially beneficial to him; his inaccurate portraits of Adam, John, and Herod become ommodities that, like his relics, demonstrate false paths to righteousness. The Pardoner thus textually dismembers the Bible as a source of authority and his exempla become emblematic of his misleading rhetoric. As the Pardoner converts the Bible into a literary relic that he manipulates and sells back to the pilgrims, Chaucer uses this textual dismemberment to highlight the inauthenticity of medieval rhetoric.
The Pardoner’s overriding moral claim, “Avarice is the root of all evil,” possibly serves as biblical mediator that unifies his exempla under a common theme or intention; while disparate nd out of context, his examples nonetheless direct his audience to the understanding of “general truth” that Vinsauf advocates for. The moral of “Radix malorum est Cupiditas,” is not necessarily transparent or unequivocally true however- it is in fact another rhetorical strategy that decorates rather than reveals.
While the aphorism is the moral foundation of his sermon and tale, the Pardoner quickly undermines its ethical validity, stating a few lines later, “And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe, / To saffron with my predicacioun, / And for to stire hem to evocioun” (Pardoner 344-46). Given Latin’s limited application amongst educated men and elite clergy, the Pardoner’s departure from the vernacular constructs a persona of both That said, intellectual and religious authority.
Nevertheless, as the Pardoner acknowledges his own lewdness and limited knowledge of Latin, his aphorism derives from a false sense of authority and lacks any claim to moral truth; like many of his biblical exempla, “Radix malorum” is simply “saffron,” or decoration to make his words more appealing and authoritative. His hypocrisy thus strips “Radix malorum” of its moral authority and converts it into a biblical relic that only pretends to offer religious guidance.
The Pardoner’s Latin statement is therefore another rhetorical relic that strips his language of its transparency and efficacy. motivation behind the Pardoner’s preaching further equates his rhetoric with his relics. While the Pardoner’s various exempla and poetic tropes direct his audience towards a particular perspective, his rhetoric transcends persuasiveness; not only does the Pardoner force the pilgrims to share his viewpoint, he eeks to materially benefit from his carefully cultivated language. The Pardoner’s intention is therefore not simply to persuade, but to advertise.
In his essay “Advertising, Rhetoric, and Literature: A Medieval Response to Contemporary Theory,” Andrew Cowell examines Medieval preaching as a popular form of advertisement, claiming that the clergy’s persuasive discourse used “the illicit seduction of rhetoric” to appeal to “desire rather than truth” (Cowell 813). The Pardoner’s ability to incite desire is integral to his business, as his rhetoric must appeal to a longing or salvation rather than just offer it. Likewise, when customers buy the Pardoner’s relics, they are really buying the healing properties the Pardoner advertises.
The Pardoner therefore sells his advertisements in tandem with the relics. For example, the Pardoner constantly repeats “tak of my wordes kepe” or “Tak kepe eek what I telle” (Chaucer 352; 360), acting as if his words were physical goods that the pilgrims can use in their quest for spiritual enlightenment. He jeopardizes his ability to induce desire however when he reveals his deceitful intentions; hile he advertises his relics “As faire as any man in The commercial Engelond” (921), his confessional sermon ultimately shatters the illusion of his rhetoric.
The fact that the Pardoner still attempts to sell his words is nonetheless a testament to “his belief in the power of language to produce fruit even from the base of corruption” (Baumlin 132). While the Pardoner still believes in his persuasiveness however, Chaucer does not. Instead, Chaucer uses the commercial similarities between the Pardoner’s relics and words to criticize the false nature of rhetoric.