Lying and The Pardoner

Perhaps the most famous of liars.

Everyone has told lies, and anyone who tells you they haven’t is lying. Whether it’s a young child trying to absolve their guilt over eating forbidden cookies, or an adult just trying to spare someone’s feelings, lying is inherent in the human condition. But where is the line drawn between a good or acceptable lie and a bad, abhorrent one? And how important are the intentions of the liar?

In Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale the Pardoner seems a repugnant and morally corrupt individual. This is compounded by his role as church employee tasked with forgiving others of their sins, which in many cases were likely much less severe than his. I found lines 160-173, starting on page 314 particularly telling of his moral compass.

The Pardoner seems absolutely chuffed with the fact that he can manipulate the “lewed” people out of their money. To him, it seems not to matter their social status, or what importance that money may have in their lives. He is perfectly fine with taking money from even the most destitute, including “the poorest widwe in a village” (l.162).

It is interesting that the Pardoner thinks himself particularly adept at lying, and seems eminently proud of this fact. Most people, today and in the time of Chaucer, would consider the Pardoner’s brand of lying and story-weaving quite depraved. He takes advantage of those ignorant to his real intentions, and uses his own ingenuity and speaking skills to take money from others under the guise of religious forgiveness. It is this religious aspect that strikes a chord in his story. As a representative of the church and, one would hope, practicing member, it only makes sense the Pardoner should be held to a certain level of morality. However, and this is almost surely intentional on Chaucer’s part, the Pardoner seems almost the anti-thesis to what he should be.

But is the Pardoner’s lying completely appalling? His stories arguably help people lead more moral lives. As well, when he “pardons” someone, he is removing the guilt they have carried. Would it matter if the pardoner wove these complex lies and stories if his intentions were “good?” What if he truly was attempting to reform people with his tales and fake relics, and not extort money? It is the same lie, just with different intentions. Does the Pardoner get any credit for being honest about himself? He calls himself “a ful vicious man” (l.171) and describes numerous times his various nefarious acts. Whether you consider the Pardoner a terrible man, or a cunning one, his greed and lies are starkly contrasted with his favourite sermon “radix malorum est cupiditas” or “avarice is the root of all evil.” If only he listened to his own advice!


Works Cited:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Norton Anthology of  English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. A. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 2012. 314-315. Print.


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3 Responses to Lying and The Pardoner

  1. Stephanie Van Dewark says:

    I like the question that you raised: “Would it matter if the pardoner wove these complex lies and stories if his intentions were ‘good?'” Parents tell stories to scare their children into good behaviour, yet we don’t label them as selfish liars. Even if the intentions of the Pardoner were good, he is still guilt tripping people out of their money. That being said though, modern day charity adverts do essentially the same thing.

  2. bkmilne says:

    As a liar and a thief, the Pardoner, who is proud to announce his tactics to the group of men in which he is travelling, may make him, not necessarily more moral, but seems like he is justifying his actions, by making sure everyone else lives a more moral life in the name of the church.

    “He takes advantage of those ignorant to his real intentions, and uses his own ingenuity and speaking skills to take money from others under the guise of religious forgiveness.” – Would the Pardoner seem like less of a “repugnant and morally corrupt individual” if he did not hold such a place of power. If he was a poor beggar who managed to manipulate people out of money, would that make it anymore forgiving?

    I question if Chaucer purposely used the Pardoner to tell the tale riddled with greed because of his hierarchical status, the fact that he does have lots of money already, and that he is supposed to be a moral human being working for the church.

    I don’t believe Chaucer was trying to make accusations about the church and its truth, but the fact that he had such power gave the story a more disgusting feel to it. The fact that someone who is supposed to be trust worthy steals creates a more dynamic look at how “avarice is the root of all evil.” Because even though the Pardoner has money, and power, and respect, it is never enough.

  3. OliviaH says:

    Nice work! I agree with Stephanie; you raised a good question. It is interesting to wonder if the lying and being a thief is all due to good intentions. I think it definitely makes a difference if the intentions are different. It is important to understand what the motive for the action is. But I think the question then becomes how is the pardoner’s actions an attempt to reform people when it is still lies and tricks that he is performing, even if his intentions have changed?

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