WHAT THE PARDONER LEAVES BEHIND
Gender & Sexuality in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Since the concept of sexual identity frosted in the nineteenth century1, Chaucer critics have devoured details pertaining to the Pardoner’s sexuality with rabid interest. The following are the primary conclusions drawn from his character: he is potentially a eunuch, a homosexual, a creep, or any combination of the aforementioned. All of these allocations fall under the same focus – the attempt to consolidate the evidence Chaucer offers and pinpoint the sexual identity of the Pardoner, a potential key to understanding sexual identity (or at least one) in the fourteenth century. And this focus of course fails over and over again, for we will never really know all the gritty details about the Pardoner. Which leads me to wonder: is that the very point we must gather about his sexuality, this pervading sense of lack? And more specifically, a lack of sexuality that isn’t anything but partial and perverse.
Gregory W. Gross considers many approaches to the Pardoner’s sexuality and their pitfalls in his exhaustive article, “Trade Secrets: Chaucer, the Pardoner, the Critics.” The biggest fault of sexual readings is not the allocation of sexual identity; research into the sexual-social sphere of Chaucer’s time supports many of the arguments that Gross describes. (If we look hard enough, we can find a “homosexual” or “bisexual” person, or a “eunuch”.) Rather, an essentialist reading pervades recent critiques of the Pardoner’s portrayal. Almost all of them center upon the poignant description in the General Prologue of the Pardoner as a female horse: “I trowe he were a gelding or a mare,” limiting his identity to one signified by physicality [line 693]. Gross encourages readers to consider not just what the Pardoner looks like, but what he does. And, with what he does what he does.
Well that is an easy question. The answer is simple: relikes. To more accurately read The Pardoner’s character, we must consider the implications of his relics and how he uses them. His job is to charge sinners a fee so that they may make offerings to the holy remnants in hopes to receive forgiveness. The religious context of the term appears both in the English forms, relics, relikes, and the earlier French form that entered English around Chaucer’s time, reliques. It is during the twelfth century that the term first appears in English texts along with other re- prefixed words, others tied to the same context: religious, religion, repent.2
The Pardoner makes no attempt for his relics to appear authentic. He confesses openly to the pilgrims that they are fake, and explains how he uses them to profit off sinners. “…Though myself be a ful vicious man,” he explains, “A moral tale yit I you telle can, / Which I am wont to preche for to winne” [p. 288, lines 171-3]. He is quite honest about his baser nature and hides not his competitive intentions. Both his relic selling and tale telling he does for a selfish interest. Tale telling, after all, is part of his job — he must convince people of his ability to absolve them of sin. If we consider the two practices closely communicated in this way, we can begin to see the tale the Pardoner tells as part of his sales pitch to the pilgrims. The tale is but a buffer to his relic business.
The relics first appear in the Pardoner’s Prologue to be what they are – just your ordinary relics, albeit fake ones. It is not until the end of his relic description that anything peculiar begins to happen:
Swich folk shal have no power ne no grace
To offren to my relikes in this place;
And whoso findeth him out of swich blame,
He wol come up and offer in Goddes name,
And I assoile him by the auctoritee
Which that by bulle ygraunted was to me.
[p. 286 lines 95-100]
At this point we have to wonder if he has more than just relic-selling on his agenda. The emphasis on his own “auctoritee” and the fact he is addressing the most desperately shamed sinners gives the Pardoner an even creepier edge than he already possessed (as self-confessed viscous man). The wariness felt during these passages proves accurate when he references his relikes again in the Epilogue.
But sires, oo word forgat I in my tale:
I have relikes and pardon in my male
As faire as any man in Engelond,
Whiche were me yiven by the Popes hond.
If any of you wol devocioun
Offren and han myn absolucioun,
Come forth anoon, and kneeleth here adown,
And meekly receiveth my pardoun
[p. 297-8 lines 631-338]
Now we must wonder if he is even talking about relics at all anymore. He goes on to invite the Host to kiss the relikes he keeps in his “male,” or sack – both suggestive terms. This positioning of the relics, the comparison of the relics “as faire,” the request for the pilgrims to kneel before him, and the request of kissing the relics sexualizes the moment. The Host’s rebuttal brings the metaphor full circle: he likens kissing the Pardoner’s relics to “kiss thyn old breech,” and makes a sordid threat:
But, by the crois which that Sainte-Elaine foond,
I wolde I hadde they coilons in myn hond,
In stede of relikes or of saintuarye.
Lat cutte hem of: I wol thee helpe hem carye.
They shall be shrined in an hogges tord.
[p. 286, lines 663-7]
By referencing the authentic relics of the cross (“which that Sainte-Elaine foond”), the Host belittles the Pardoner’s relikes, which he then likens both to his testicles and to the turd of a hog. The metaphor of the Pardoner’s relikes as sexual organs is completed here, and his offended silence after the Host speaks makes it clear that the insult targeted more than his fake relics.
A more fitting understanding of relikes in light of the sexual tension in the Epilogue harkens to the Middle English and Latin roots of the term. Removing the prefix, we are left with likes (or lykes) which suggests the more simplified definition of the term as “body,” not even necessarily dead.3 Giving life to the relikes associates them more closely with the Pardoner’s body, which seems appropriate given the physical description of the Pardoner in the General Prologue:
A vois he hadde as small as hath a goot; No beerd hadde he, ne nevere sholde have; As smoothe it was as it were late yshave: I trowe he were a gelding or a mare.
[p. 235, lines 690-693]
Some critics take these lines to literally imply that the Pardoner has no testicles, in which case the relikes make a substitution. Chaucer does not supply enough information to make such a claim, though he does make it clear that the Pardoner has many feminine traits: his “small” voice, “no beerd,” as well as his hair long, loose, and “dischevelee,” [line 685]. Rather than trying to solidify his sexuality, Carolyn Dinshaw reads this passages to imply a sense of “lacking,” as described by Gross:
In “Eunuch Hermeneutics,” chapter 6 of Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (1989), Carolyn Dinshaw offers a different view of the Pardoner’s eunuchry. From the Narrator’s comment that the Pardoner is a “geldyng or a mare” Dinshaw extracts the generalization that in either case, the Pardoner is identified with absence: if a gelding, he lacks male sex organs, and if a mare, he lacks masculine personality traits. It is in this sense being defined by absence that Dinshaw accepts the Pardoner as a figurative eunuch, if not a literal one as well, and she claims that his sense of incompleteness informs his social interactions and the strategies of his Tale, and mirrors his sense of the fragmentary, incomplete nature of language.  4
Instead of the reductive reading of testicles/no testicles, Dinshaw provides a more complete interpretation of the Pardoner and his relikes. While they may serve as testicular imagery, they also suggest a reason for the Pardoner’s immorality and social awkwardness. Reliks refer to “aftereffects, consequences, traces” 5 ; reliques also can be interpreted as “des debris” (debris) and “la cloture et l’arrêté d’un compte” (closure and end of a bill).6 The French term derives from Latin, relictīo, relictum, relictus — all terms indicating “abandonment,” “that which is left.” From the Latin reliquus and linquere we achieve laisser, French for “to leave,” “to abandon”. The combined sense of “remains” and “the abandoned” are imbedded in the final terms, reliques and relikes.7 We might wonder what it is that the Pardoner has left behind, aside from possibly his testicles, and to do so we can consider what it is that he lacks: masculine traits, indeed — perhaps also his morals? And we can also consider the aftereffects of his business transactions — whether the literal change he receives as profit, or the creepy residue of his scam, his androgynous appearance and perverseness. What he lacks and what he leaves behind situates the Pardoner in the middle of a rather unfavorable position. Forget “homosexual” or “eunch”; if I had to pick “sex offender” out of Chaucer’s lot, my vote is on the Pardoner.
The sexual scrutiny given to the Pardoner entertains modern critics searching for Chaucer’s commentary on homoerotic behavior. While this may be, in part, Chaucer’s intention with feminizing and sexualizing the Pardoner, it often distracts from the larger goal that quite obviously intends to dehumanize the Pardoner, be he male or female, androgynous or quite simply animalistic. No doubt Chaucer was aware of the recent decrees in the 12th and 13th centuries against the arising number of abuses of relics. Bishop Quivil’s comment in 1287 that “We command the above prohibition to be carefully observed by all and decree that no person shall expose relics for sale, and that neither stones, nor fountains, trees, wood, or garments shall in any way be venerated on account of dreams or on fictitious grounds” rustles up Chaucer’s own imagery of “stones” and “pigges bones” [p. 235, lines 701-2] when describing the Pardoner’s relikes. The Host’s insults during the Epilogue can be seen as the evidence for a sexual metaphor, though they also open a larger window into the Pardoner’s character – one who lies, manipulates, cheats and offends. He cannot be read as a real person, let alone a person with concrete sexual identity; rather, he can only be known in relation to that which he lacks and that which he leaves behind.
All quotes from the text refer to The Canterbury Tales in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume A, pages 284-5. Published 2006 W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
1. That which defines sexual orientation or the psychological state of an individual’s sexuality: a truly revolutionary concept that for the first time distinguished the sexuality of individuals depending on their preference.
2. The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition. Vol. XIII. Editors J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weinerr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
3. The Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2007. Online version.
4. Gregory W. Gross. “Trade Secrets: Chaucer, the Pardoner, the Critics.” Modern Language Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4. (Autumn, 1995), pp. 1-36. Online.
5. Middle English Dictionary, p.396. Ed. Robert E. Lewis. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1984.
6. Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Francaise. Dir. Alain Rey. Dictionnaires le Robert, Paris.
7. Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Francaise. Dir. Alain Rey. Dictionnaires le Robert, Paris.