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The Pardoner's Tale in the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Updated on May 25, 2013

Geoffrey Chaucer

A portrait of Chaucer painted roughly 200 years after his death.
A portrait of Chaucer painted roughly 200 years after his death. | Source

“Othes Fals and Gret”: Blasphemy and Swearing in “The Pardoner’s Tale”

Although the Pardoner claims he preaches of “nothyng but for coveitise,” The Pardoner’s Tale prominently features and condemns the sin of blasphemy emphasizing the severity of the sin and depicting its dire consequences (VI.433). The Pardoner’s three “rioters” swear oaths profusely throughout the tale, but this is not the only kind of blasphemy they are guilty of, nor are they, necessarily alone in their guilt. The Pardoner himself is guilty of blasphemy, even as he vehemently condemns it. The sin of blasphemy is a central theme in The Pardoner’s Tale. Chaucer uses the idea of blasphemy in multiple layers of this tale to guide the plot, give the story greater impact, and reveal the sheer hypocrisy of the Pardoner himself.

Blasphemy is a very prominent theme in the Pardoner’s tale and the Pardoner deliberately links it to other sins in the tale in order to emphasize it. Jean E. Jost points out “The rioters' first vice, graphically detailed by the Pardoner, is their superfluous and abominable swearing, not vows but curses against God…” (Jost, 77). The Pardoner makes it quite clear is an attack on God and, therefore a great offense. In describing the oaths the rioters make, he claims that when they swear “Oure blissed Lordes body they totere –” (VI.475). Elsewhere he calls swearing “a thing abhominable” (VI.631). To emphasize the evil of blasphemy, the Pardoner also closely associates blasphemy with other sins such as “forswerynges” and manslaughter, both of which figure in the tale’s development (VI.592-593). The Pardoner even goes so far as to suggest that swearing is worse than killing, saying “Lo, rather [God] forbedeth swich sweryng / Than homicide or many a cursed thyng” (IV.643-644). This is quite a dramatic value judgment to make, especially in a tale that is primarily meant to vilify greed and contains a number of “cursed things” including “homicide.”

The Pardoner expands the concept of blasphemy to include not just cursing, but making false or foolish promises. The Pardoner calls “fals sweryng” even “moore reprevable” than excessive “sweryng” (VI.631-632). Here, Chaucer makes use the duality of the word “swear.” One may “swear” (take God’s name vain, the sin of blasphemy) or “swear” to promise something. However, if one swears (promises), in God’s name, and cannot or will not keep his promise; he is indeed taking God’s name in vain. Therefore, the Pardoner redefines deceit (promising falsely) as blasphemy.

The Pardoner’s association of blasphemy with making a false oath makes the sin of blasphemy the force which moves the tale. With the high level of corruption the rioter’s exhibit, it is tempting to see the “Pardoner’s Tale” as an example of increasing moral degeneration. Christopher Dean argues that the rioters engage in a series of sins culminating in the sin of greed, the sin that causes their deaths (46). However, the sin of blasphemy permeates and drives the tale. The rioters engage in the false oath that they will be brothers and that they will slay death. Each of these oaths is a blasphemy because it is a promise that they will not keep. Since it is these false oaths that spur the action in this story, the entire narrative develops because of blasphemy.

The rioter’s oath to slay death is perhaps the most serious act of blasphemy that they commit from a Christian standpoint. According to orthodox Christianity, Jesus has killed death through his own sacrifice. Therefore, in their vow to kill death, the rioters are guilty of rejecting the power of Christ and attempting to take his place, the ultimate blasphemy. The rioters’ rejection of Christ is made complete when they ignore the Old Man’s warnings and seek death up the “croked way” (VI.761).Dean argues that “[the] Old Man points the way symbolically at this moment to the path of salvation. The revelers, however, flatly reject the way of salvation, intensifying, if anything, their abuse of the Old Man” (Dean, 49). This rejection of salvation which leads to their damnation is, predictably, accompanied by oaths, further impressing the role blasphemy plays in the downfall of the rioters.

The three rioters’ fittingly bring about their own deaths just as much through their oaths as through greed. “[The] Pardoner's criminals make an illegitimate, as well as futile, vow to kill Death. Bad faith is soon exhibited, as each easily breaks the brotherhood to gain more gold for himself” (Jost, 76). Had they not sworn to slay death, they would not have found the gold and had they not sworn brotherhood, they would not have trusted each other, and thus become vulnerable to treachery. Therefore, their deaths are really caused by broken or impossible oaths.

It is blasphemy that gives the tale much of its impact through the comedy of broken oaths juxtaposed with the horrific consequences of sin. In comparing “The Pardoner’s Tale” to other tales in the Canterbury collection, Pugh states that “…it becomes apparent that Chaucer found great satiric potential in male brotherhood oaths, with which he causes narrative constructions of fraternal masculinity to founder” (283). This comic element is useful in demonstrating the foolishness of making vows one cannot keep. The rioters’ vow to “kill death” is humorous because it arises from a misunderstanding of the nature and meaning of death and is coupled with the rioters’ impulsive oath of brotherhood. The humor in these oaths takes a darker turn as the rioters’ forget both their oaths and casually kill one another over the gold. It is this dark twist that gives the tale its potency. Like the merry lives of the revelers, humor in this tale is swallowed up by death.

The Pardoner links the sin of blasphemy to the story of Judas in order to highlight the severity of the sin. Mary Flowers Braswell suggests that various elements of the Tale are reminiscent of the Biblical figure Judas, the betrayer of Christ. In comparing the rioters to Judas, Braswell notes “they too betrayed one another, although they were "sworn brothers," for money and met with violent deaths” (Braswell, 304). Braswell also suggests that “Chaucer's story of a wanderer who cannot die, but who directs three doomed rioters to gold florins underneath an oak tree, suggests a recycling of Judas lore” (Braswell, 306). Contemporary legend suggested that Judas had not succeeded in hanging himself on Christ’s death but had, instead, dropped his money bag beneath the tree and been cursed to roam the earth perpetually, unable to die and possibly find grace (Braswell 304-305). This indirect reference to Judas serves as a reminder that blasphemy, in the form of false oaths, is an extremely serious offense, possibly and unforgivable one. Just as Judas rejected salvation through his betrayal of Christ, so do the rioters who break their oath of brotherhood and betray and destroy one another.

The Pardoner’s redefinition of blasphemy exposes his own hypocrisy as the blasphemy in the tale mirrors the blasphemy in his life. The Pardoner is guilty of breaking his vow of poverty through his lavish lifestyle and fine clothes. Jost states that “…the Pardoner… has broken whatever religious vow he was obliged to take. He is frustrated because he knows, but cannot sustain sincerity and fidelity to his vows” (Jost, 76). His own broken vows mirror the vow of brotherhood which the rioters make but cannot keep. Also like the rioters, the Pardoner is guilty of trying to replace Christ as Savior. Even though Christ has already paid for the sins of believers with his death, the Pardoner seeks to make sinners pay him to absolve them.

The Pardoner is not only guilty of blasphemy in his life but in his speech. Each time the Pardoner describes the rioters’ blasphemies, he is, himself, is committing blasphemy. Although he sometimes indirectly describes the rioters’ oaths saying “And many a grisly ooth thane they sworn,” the Pardoner quite frequently tells what they swear verbatim (IV.708). In his condemnation of blasphemy at the beginning of his tale, the Pardoner launches into a string of examples of the rioters’ speech: “‘By Goodes precious herte,’ and ‘By his nayles,’ / And ‘By the blood of Christ…” and “By Goddes armes” (VI.651-655). He concludes his tirade against oaths with an oath of his own, begging the pilgrims, “fort the love of Crist,” to “lete your othes, bothe grete and smale” (VI.658-659). The Pardoner even swears before telling his tale. In his address to the pilgrims he exclaims: “By God, I hope I shal telle a tale. / Now have I dronke a corny ale” (VI.455-456). In these lines, the Pardoner reveals he is guilty of blasphemy and drunkenness, two sins he openly condemns in his tale.

Greed may be the Pardoner’s main theme, but his tale proves an excellent condemnation on the sin of blasphemy. The tale associates blasphemy with a host of other sins and even links it to the story of Judas, effectively condemning all kinds of “swearing.” The Pardoner’s Tale is so effective it even manages to convict the sin in the life of its hypocritical teller.

Works Cited

Braswell, Mary Flowers. "Chaucer's Palimpsest: Judas Iscariot and the Pardoner's Tale." The Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism. 29.3 (1995): 303-310. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales Complete. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. Print.

Dean, Christopher. "Salvation, Damnation, and the Role of the Old Man in The Pardoner's Tale." Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism. 3.1 (1968): 44-49. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Jost, Jean E. "Foreswearing In Chaucer's Pardoner's and Franklin's Tales: A Recurring Motif of Tale and Teller." Medieval Perspectives. 1.1 (1986): 75-88. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

Pugh, Tison. "For To Be Sworne Bretheren Til They Deye": Satirizing Queer Brotherhood In The Chaucerian Corpus." Chaucer Review. 43.3 (2009): 282-310. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Apr. 2012.

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