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  • The Pardoner's Relics (and why They Matter the Most)
  • Robyn Malo

When Chaucer the pilgrim introduces the Pardoner in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, he makes it clear that we should pay special attention to the Pardoner's relics. The General Prologue portrait affiliates the Pardoner with relic cults and pilgrimages by the pilgrim souvenir he wears,1 but even more so by the relics he carries:

For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer,Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl;He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seylThat Seint Peter hadde, whan that he wenteUpon the see, til Jhesu Crist hym hente.He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones,And in a glas he hadde pigges bones.But with thise relikes, whan that he fondA povre person dwellynge upon lond,Upon a day he gat hym moore moneyeThan that the person gat in monthes tweye;And thus, with feyned flaterye and japes,He made the person and the peple his apes.

(I 694–706)

Of the forty-five lines allocated to describing the Pardoner, four describe his singing, three his traveling companion and personal history, fourteen his physical appearance (including Chaucer's notorious speculation that he is "a geldyng or a mare" [I 691]), and six his ecclesiastical role and preaching. Chaucer devotes no fewer than eighteen lines to describing the Pardoner's relics, and in his own prologue, the Pardoner himself calls attention to his "sholder-boon / Which that was of an hooly Jewes sheep" (VI 350–51), among other relics. The amount of space allocated to relics clearly shows their importance to Chaucer's conception of the Pardoner. [End Page 82]

In the sixteenth century neither John Heywood nor Thomas More missed this emphasis. Heywood's 1533 play The Pardoner and the Frere satirizes a corrupt pardoner who, like Chaucer's Pardoner, uses relics to make money.2 Heywood lifts from Chaucer phrases such as "Here is a mytten eke, as ye may se"3 and "I shewe ye of a holy Jewes shepe / A bone,"4 and he augments the General Prologue's eighteen lines on relics to eighty-one. Relics are paramount even in Heywood's stage directions: "In the meane whyle entreth the Pardoner with all his relyques, to declare what eche of them ben, and the hole power and vertu thereof."5 And in More's 1529 Dialogue against Heresy—a work that, unlike Heywood's play, defends relics and their appropriate veneration—the Messenger, a character who questions the More-persona on matters of orthodoxy and faith, dismisses relics by observing that people often venerate "some olde rotten bone that was heppely some tyme as Chaucer sayth a bone of some holy Iewes shepe."6 As Alastair Minnis has observed, the Messenger is very "aware of Chaucer's Pardoner."7 I would add that both More and Heywood were very aware of Chaucer's Pardoner's relics, and that they highlighted these relics at the expense of some of the Pardoner's other attributes.

Unlike Heywood and More, modern readers of Chaucer have often passed over the Pardoner's relics. Indeed, most medieval scholarship on Chaucer's Pardoner has not taken account of the significance of relics within late medieval culture in general. Few studies have examined the Pardoner's relics (and the Pardoner's presentation of them) with reference to medieval devotional practices—and those that have done so frequently elide distinctions between various kinds of relics.8 Siegfried Wenzel has sought to counter some inherited assumptions about relics in general (including the notion that pardoners were never associated with relics); Wenzel also debunked the idea that the Pardoner sells relics.9 However, his work does not incorporate the conventions of relic cults into an interpretation of the Pardoner and does not examine the relics Chaucer's character claims to have. Nor does Seeta Chaganti explore the history of relics and their cults in her assessment of the Pardoner; instead, she focuses on the ways in which relics and reliquaries correspond to poetic language.10 Chaganti and Wenzel are nonetheless exceptions to a critical discussion that foregrounds the...


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