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Tuesday 09 November 2010

History: Pardoner me!

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 29th April 2006

In medieval literature circles, there's much debate about Geoffrey Chaucer's Pardoner in his Canterbury Tales. Elaborate hairstyle, ornate clothes, high-pitched voice...was he or wasn't he?

To answer this question, we need to remember that Chaucer (d.1400) was writing in fourteenth century England, where concepts of gender and sexuality were somewhat different from our own time. Therefore, some medievalists have advanced alternative theories about why the Pardoner is who he is. He might have been a eunuch, having met with an unfortunate accident to his nether bits at some point in the past. S/he could be an hermaphrodite, and assigned to one gender due to his apparent male appearance, more or less. Unfortunately, you had to stay put if you later realised that your assigned gender wasn't appropriate, according to the Catholic Church of that time. He could have had Kleinfelters Syndrome, a medical condition that leads to tiny genitalia, and has such associated attributes.

Or, he might indeed be a queeny men who has sex with other men, however much he's trying to appear as an upright man of the cloth, when really, he's a huckster trying to pass off some distasteful old pig bones as a holy saints relic.

There are some interesting resonances in the Canterbury Tales when the Pardoner comes up for discussion. Is he having it off with his fellow pilgrim, the Summoner, given that he sings a duet with him? Is his fakery of the relics to be seen as a metaphor for his similarly not too successful closeting of his gayness, or is that interpretation an anachronistic one? After all, he does argue that he's interested in women, or is he faking that too?

In any case, there's a nasty little incident when the Pardoner invites the Host, leader of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, to open his purse and kiss his relics. In no uncertain terms, the Host refuses to submit to the Pardoner's invitation and derides the relic as fakery, threatening to make the Pardoner's voice even more high-pitched through involuntary surgery below the waist. To Chaucer's credit, he notes that the Pardoner is angry at the challenge to his religious status (and sexuality?) and may be about to stand up to the Host, when the Knight, another pilgrim, restores peace to the gathering, and unity to the pilgrimage.

And then there's the Pardoner's Tale, as well. In the Canterbury Tales, each pilgrim tells a tale that tells the reader something about them. In the case of the Pardoner, it is a tale of pretence, associated with the Peasants Revolt in 1381, and considerable blackening of the motivation of John Ball, the renegade priest in charge of the social rebellion in question. The Pardoner refers to duplicity, which might also reflect on his relics, which might also be a metaphor for his sexuality or gender identity.

After all, this was the fourteenth century, and Edward II had attracted considerable criticism for his tolerance of Piers Gaveston and Hugh
Despenser, two 'favourites' of that gay monarch, leading to charges of inappropriate relationships, corruption and ruination of England. Nor was Edward II neccessarily the only monarch of questioned sexuality during this period. At the very time that Chaucer was writing, Richard II had just been deposed by his cousin, Henry of Lancaster, soon to be crowned as Henry IV.

Again, there were questions about his possible concealment of his sexuality behind an apparent facade of holiness as a 'virgin king.'

So, is Chaucer homophobic? Possibly not. The Pardoner is shown to be visibly angry and may have taken matters into his own hands and proved that he was manly enough to get into a scrap with the Host unless he apologised, so the Pardoner is no submissive shrinking violet. Rather, he appears to be a fierce queen, rather like Edward II's Isabella, who led a revolt to depose her weak husband. If the Knight hadn't restored the peace...

Hell hath no fury like a slighted queen, who won't tolerate a pretentious challenge to her majesty and stateliness. Pardoner, you go, girl!

Robert Sturges: Chaucer's Pardoner and Gender Theory: New York: St Martins Press: 2000.

Monica MacAlpine: "The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How It Matters" PMLA 95 (1980): 8-22.

Glen Burger: "Kissing the Pardoner" PMLA 107 (1992): 1143-1156.

Steven Kruger: "Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of the Pardoners Tale" Exemplaria 6 (1994): 115-139.

Craig Young - 29th April 2006

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