C. David Benson




The outrageous Pardoner has often seemed among the most real of Chaucer's pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. Although only a few have thought him an actual portrait from life, the majority of modern critics has believed in the essential truth of the characterization. Paul Ruggiers speaks for many when he asserts that the Pardoner's performance provides "the ultimate example of Chaucer's subtle handling of human psychology.'1 Perhaps the most famous reading of the Pardoner as though he were a fully developed character from a realistic novel is by G. L. Kittredge, who at the beginning of the century demonstrated so brilliantly how much could be made by critical inventiveness from almost nothing. Kittredge's dramatic interpretation culminates in his finding the Pardoner's unremarkable three-line statement that Christ's pardon is best (C 916- 18) an expression of extraordinary emotional crisis in which the pilgrim "suffers a very paroxysm of agonized sincerity."2 More recently, in one of the most elaborate contemporary attempts by a critic to make the Pardoner new, Donald Howard puts forth a sinister yet compelling figure who is said to resemble the French thief and writer Jean Genêt.3 As these two interpretations suggest, the widespread assumption that the Pardoner is a psychologically whole and consistent personality is not supported by any deep agreement about the nature of that personality, and there is debate even over such basic matters as what it is he really wants -- whether it is money, revenge, fun, approval, or love.4

The various critical re-creations of the Pardoner tend to be ingenious, and most are interesting, but they are also overly subjective because they rest on little actual evidence in the text.5 Perhaps even more dangerous is the often unexamined assumption that since the Pardoner is a vivid, truly flamboyant presence in the Canterbury Tales, he can therefore be analyzed as though he were a real person instead of a fictional, even allegorical character. In recent years, most Chaucerians seeking to reveal the "real" Pardoner have focused on the supposed irregularity of his sex life, and it is the assumption that the Pardoner's sexuality can be exactly

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known that I wish to call into question here. Of course it is impossible finally to prove a negative, but I will suggest that the various precise diagnoses of the Pardoner's sexual condition offered by so many critics are much less reliable than most Chaucerians have come to believe. My purpose is not to offer a new explanation of the Pardoner's sexuality but to show the weakness of this entire approach, which is given a specious authority from its claim to be based on hard scientific evidence. The poet undoubtedly hints at sexual disorder of some sort as one part of the Pardoner's general corruption, but the excessive modern preoccupation with the pilgrim's sexuality distorts Chaucer's method of characterization by demanding certainty where none exists.

The sexual interpretation of the Pardoner is quite new and first begins with Walter Clyde Curry's claim in 1919 to have discovered the Pardoner's "secret." Citing medieval manuals on physiognomy, Curry asserted that the description in the General Prologue of the Pardoner's staring eyes, small voice, beardless cheek, and long, soft hair would have been recognized by a contemporary audience as the marks of a eunuchus ex nativitate.6 In his survey of Pardoner criticism, John Halverson notes the wide acceptance of Curry's view, which has been further strengthened by its adoption in an allegorical and scriptural sense by exegetical critics.7 Only a few have seriously questioned the eunuch theory, and some of these, along with others, have then offered alternate sexual explanations -- that the Pardoner is a homosexual or even a hermaphrodite. Indeed, although most critics today seem to agree that the Pardoner's odd sexuality is crucial to his performance, the exact form of that sexuality is as much an open question as other aspects of his character. Some critics are rather cavalier about his condition. Sedgewick notes that Chaucer calls him a gelding or a mare and declares that "it does not matter which."8 Lumiansky calls him a eunuch and then, in a kind of sexual mixed metaphor, compares him to Shakespeare's Edmund.9 Others are breathtakingly precise. Eric Stockton labels the Pardoner "a manic depressive with traces of anal eroticism, and a pervert with a tendency toward alcoholism"; and Beryl Rowland, with enviable assurance, asserts that he is a "testicular pseudohermaphrodite of the feminine type."10

Like most other attempts to treat the Pardoner as a real person, the sexual approach is based on a very few lines. All of the evidence comes from the first section of the brief portrait of the pilgrim in the General Prologue (A 672-91). Yet, even here, the supposed revelation of the Pardoner's

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sexual secret is not as clear or consistent as many have assumed. Although there are some other complementary details, the modern critical fascination with the Pardoner's sexual condition would probably not have been quite so popular except for a single notorious line: "I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare" (A 691). Certainly this line is important and suggests abnormality of some sort; but it cannot sustain the enormous critical weight it has been asked to bear, for it is not nearly as precise as it first seems. Chaucer undermines our confidence at the outset with the phrase, "I trowe." This word most commonly indicates speculation, but even if we take it in its less usual meaning of certainty, is this the assertion of the same narrator who agrees with the Monk's idea of cloistered duty and finds the murderous Shipman a good fellow? Certainly the phrase "I trowe" qualifies what is to follow to some degree, as do the animal metaphors -- "a geldyng or a mare." We may assume a eunuch or a homosexual is meant, but the figurative language adds a measure of doubt; a geldyng is not a eunuchus ex nativitate, and a mare does not necessarily mean a male homosexual but may simply indicate that the Pardoner is effeminate in some way. As often in the General Prologue, Chaucer raises questions but provides no definite answers. To increase our uncertainty even further, Chaucer deliberately confuses the issue by offering us two possibilities -- a geldyng or a mare -- by no means the same thing in any interpretation, though many critics write as if all eunuchs were homosexual and all homosexuals eunuchs. The two very different sexual explanations of the Pardoner offered so tentatively by the narrator do not reinforce one another but instead mock any attempt at precise identification.

The most serious flaw with the sexual interpretation of the Pardoner, however, is that the contemporary "scientific" evidence on which it claims to be based is not nearly as strong as its proponents assert. Many still automatically assume that Curry proved his case for the Pardoner's eunuchdom beyond question, and further evidence has seemed unnecessary. Michael Hoy reflects this consensus when he writes of the description in the General Prologue:

Those features clearly show that Chaucer's Pardoner is a eunuch, and we owe to Professor W. C. Curry the realization that Chaucer must have been very familiar with medieval physiognomy literature (which contained elaborate character judgments in accordance with a man's

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features and bodily form), for the Pardoner's physical characteristics are those of the medieval type of eunuchus ex nativitate.11
Medieval physiognomy is not quite the exact science Curry and his followers suggest because its categories are so loose and overlapping, and if we re-examine the evidence Curry himself supplies, we shall see that it fails to prove all that he says he does.

To begin with, the specific condition Curry identified in the Pardoner (eunuchus ex nativitate) is difficult to accept. As Muriel Bowden has pointed out, the eunuchus ex nativitate is very much a rara avis and not the type Curry claimed, for even he can offer only a single example.12 Except for this one case described by Polemon, most of his evidence refers instead to geldyngs, unfortunates who presumably were made and not born. Realizing this problem, some critics have been satisfied to regard the Pardoner as a simple eunuch (ignoring Curry's specific diagnosis of ex nativitate), but even this interpretation is not justified by contemporary evidence.

Many of the quotations Curry provides from ancient physiognomists do not, in fact, identify the Pardoner's characteristics specifically with eunuchism of any kind, but instead with the more general states of drunkenness, impudency, and shamelessness, qualities that are no secret to any student of the Pardoner but have nothing to do with sexual efficiency.13 The lack of a beard (A 689-90) does seem often to have been associated with geldings in the Middle Ages (though the condition was also thought to result from leprosy),14 but the other physical details Chaucer gives the Pardoner do not point to a specific sexual condition.

The Pardoner's apparently thinning hair, small voice, and glaring eyes say nothing definitive about his sexuality on the evidence Curry provides. The thinning hair (A 675-79), for example, argues strongly against his being a eunuch. Curry quotes Bartholomaeus Anglicus stating that gelded men, like women, do not become bald, and the single eunuchus ex nativitate cited had "abundant hair," not the "ounces" which ay "thynne," by "colpons oon and oon" of the Pardoner.15 The Pardoner's voice is said to be "as smal as hath a goot" (A 688), which both medieval physiognomy and modern common opinion associate with a lack of full virility. But even such a voice does not automatically indicate castration, for like the "gentil Pardoner,' the presumably functional, though

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effeminate, Absolon woos Alisoun in the Miller's Tale by singing in a voice that is similarly "gentil and smal" (A 3360). Curry supports his case by citing a Middle English version of the Secreta Secretorum to the effect that those who have a voice "hei, smale and swete and plesaunt, bene neshe, and haue lytill of manhode" and are like women.16 Even if this is accepted as a description of the Pardoner's voice, it does not necessarily mean he is a eunuch (or a homosexual) any more than Nicholas in the Miller's Tale is one because he is described as being meek as a maiden (A 3202). Moreover, the passage from the Secreta Secretorum continues, although this part is omitted by Curry, to say that a related kind of voice, a "smale hey stronge voice," indicates a person who is easily made angry.17 This second quotation seems just as good a description of the Pardoner's voice as the first one and suggests nothing about the pilgrim's sexuality. The Pardoner's third unusual physical attribute, his eyes ("Swiche glarynge eyen hadde he as an hare" [A 684]), also does not prove he is a eunuch. Curry refers to the Secreta Secretorum again to the effect that "ryst opyn eighyn and glysinynge" indicate shamelessness.18 We should note that as before no anatomical secret is revealed by Curry's evidence (shamelessness is not the same as being a eunuch) and that elsewhere in the same work "ouer-oppyn eyen, lyke as they were y-thryste owte," are said to indicate a fool, which the Pardoner is not.19 Another Middle English version of the Secreta Secretorum declares that "eyen glysteryng as yse, and shynyng, sheweth a gilefull man, bolde, playn, a waker, a gatter of þynges by malice."20 This seems to describe both the Pardoner's strange glance and his general character as well or better than Curry's passage, but it suggests no specific sexual condition.

The animals associated with the Pardoner's physiognomy - and not discussed by Curry - also do not indicate a eunuch. As we have seen, his voice is compared to that of a goat and his eyes to those of a hare. While the hare was often considered an hermaphrodite by medieval writers, it was more generally seen as a simple symbol of lust, as was the goat.21 The latter, far from being associated with eunuchs, is an ancient symbol for the male phallus. D. W. Roberston, Jr., may suggest why these animals were linked with the Pardoner when he notes that "one common medieval device for illustrating lechery is to depict a man riding a goat and either carrying or pursuing a rabbit."22 Rather than identifying him with the specific states of eunuchism or homosexuality, Chaucer seems to want to present the Pardoner as a more general example of

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unspecified lust, a condition which the pilgrim himself freely admits and the 'gentils" seem to suspect when they demand that he "telle us of no ribaudye" (C 324).

The second sexual argument, that Chaucer means us to see the Pardoner as a homosexual, is even more impressionistic than the eunuch theory and is based on much less medieval evidence. The homosexual thesis is quite a recent idea, first suggested tentatively by Bowden and Gerould,23 but is currently a dominant strain in analyses of the Pardoner, perhaps in response to the prominence of the subject in contemporary society.24 As with the eunuch theory, the homosexual interpretation also starts from that one line in the General Prologue: "I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare" (A 691). The word "mare" certainly suggests that the Pardoner is in some way effeminate, but, as with 'geldyng,' the metaphorical language and subjunctive mood preclude precise definition. Although Jill Mann asserts that the "image of the mare" is used by Walter of Châitillon to refer to male homosexuals, the actual phrase she quotes, "equa fit equus," is a play on Latin grammatical gender and not really parallel to Chaucer's term.25 No one has found other examples of such a use of "mare" in either Latin or English. Indeed, the discussion of this question in Mann's excellent book on estate satire shows that attempts to define the sexuality of the Pardoner can confuse even the best scholars. Mann states that "Curry has done useful work in documenting the medieval picture of the homosexual," even though Curry's actual claim was that the Pardoner is a eunuch. Moreover, Mann's own argument for the Pardoner's homosexuality relies less on medieval sources than on the questionable assertion that "the modern stereotype of the homosexual is identical [to him] in every respect."26 More usefully, Mann also notes that many of the details Chaucer uses to describe the Pardoner in the General Prologue come from "the satiric tradition on foppery" previously used in connection with the Squire (a dedicated heterosexual),27 thus suggesting that Chaucer may have had no specific, sexual condition in mind and reminding us that effeminacy in the Middle Ages, of which the Pardoner is definitely guilty, does not necessarily mean homosexuality but also the reverse -- too great a concern with women.

Some who support the idea of the Pardoner as homosexual make much of the supposed pun on "stif burdoun," which the Summoner is said to hold to the Pardoner's rendition of "Com hider, love, to me" (A 672-73). Paull Baum first suggested that in addition to the literal musical

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meaning of bass accompaniment, Chaucer is playing with other words, including bourdon, "staff," to suggest a homosexual relation between Summoner and Pardoner.28 Two other critics have supported the argument that bourdon as staff could be used as a reference to the male phallus, although the evidence they cite is either later (from Gascoigne and, less relevantly, Dylan Thomas) or from medieval French literature.29 Even such weak evidence for the pun should not be dismissed absolutely, but sexual metaphors are notoriously various and must be treated carefully. Donald Howard notes that the next line in the General Prologue ("Was nevere trompe of half so greet a soun" [A 674]) supports the literal meaning and that it is far too easy to imagine that any elongated object is a symbol of the phallus.30 The one other use of burdon in Chaucer, which describes the wife's snoring in the Reeve's Tale (A 4165), refers to sound only without the slightest phallic hint. Likewise the adjective stif, which I believe is the word that strikes modern ears as most sexually loaded, has no such association in its only other certain use by Chaucer (D 2267) and in the alliterative tradition commonly refers to military prowess.

The Pardoner and Summoner are undoubtedly two of the most grotesque and repellent figures in medieval literature, but Chaucer offers no definite evidence that their association is mutually amorous. The Summoner is a thoroughgoing lecher ("As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe" [A 626]), and even if we do not accept Morton Bloomfield's suggestion that the "yonge girles" the pilgrim is said to associate with refer only to females,31 there is no hint among the many accusations in his portrait that his lust is homosexual. If anything like this were meant, one would expect to find it among the other crimes attributed to the Summoner in the Friar's Tale. If the Pardoner and Summoner did share an erotic relationship, it is hardly possible that they would sing of their love so publicly. Their musical offering, "Com hider, love, to me," if not meant as parody of the Canticum Canticorum, probably indicates that these two admittedly very strange characters want to present themselves as two wild and crazy guys ready for a little fun. A more likely, and more important, explanation than homosexuality is that the friendship of the Summoner and Pardoner points to serious ecclesiastical corruption, since the former was supposed to regulate the latter.32

In the most interesting recent brief for the Pardoner's homosexuality, Monica McAlpine wisely rejects the claimed pun on "stif burdoun,"33 but her own argument adds little in the way of solid, new evidence (nor

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is that the primary ambition of her speculative essay). McAlpine relies largely on the claim, borrowed from Mann, that "mare" might mean male homosexual without offering any additional proof ("even if the primary meaning of `mare' was `an effeminate male,' a second meaning may have been `a possibly homosexual male'" [emphasis added])34 and on the doubtful notion that since medieval people had confused and fluid ideas about homosexuality, it alone can account for all of the Pardoner's peculiar characteristics. Although McAlpine says she is only exploring the consequences that would follow from the assumption that the Pardoner might be homosexual, her article demonstrates some of the dangers of the sexual interpretation. In spite of careful qualifications early in her essay, what begins as hypothesis eventually seems to become accepted as fact. Although she first talks about the Pardoner's "possible" status as homosexual, McAlpine later discusses the Pardoner's performance as Chaucer's "study" of homosexuality.35 The most serious problem with this approach, in my opinion, is that it produces interpretations of the Pardoner's Tale as a whole that are too unhistorical and fashionably modern. Although her earlier argument had rested on the claim that Chaucer, like most of his contemporaries, had confused ideas about homosexuality, McAlpine now insists that Chaucer intends to "challenge the sexual phobias of his readers." Finally, she arrives at the surprising conclusion that the poet asserts "the dignity of the Pardoner" and that the reader is reminded that "through his sexual sufferings the Pardoner participates in the crucifixion."36 For all its ingenuity, McApline's article provides no new evidence from medieval sources to prove that Chaucer means us to see the Pardoner specifically as a homosexual. What she has done is to produce a spectacular new re-creation of the Pardoner in the tradition of the critic as Chaucer's collaborator that descends from Kittredge and that is still very much alive today. We may well be impressed with the power of such complex psychological interpretations of the Pardoner, while finally concluding that they are based on little real evidence in Chaucer's text.

I do not mean to deny there is definitely something odd about the Pardoner as described in the General Prologue, but I would suggest that his sexuality remains too imprecise to serve as a reliable guide to his entire performance and Tale. Chaucer throws out several hints, but he does not define. He may have aroused our suspicions, but he does not indicate any exact condition that can be used as a sure foundation on which to build an interpretation. The physiognomists quoted by Curry may be

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more correct than he acknowledges in associating the Pardoner's features only with the general states of shamelessness, impudence, and lust. Despite suggestions of sexual abnormality in his portrait, other information in the rest of the Canterbury Tales -- such as the Pardoner's announcement to the Wife of Bath that he is thinking of marriage (D 166-68), his claim to have a wench in every town (C 453), and even the Host's threat to cut off his "coillons" (C 951-55) -- suggest a more ordinary sexual life, forcing those who insist that the Pardoner does have a sexual secret to read these passages ironically. The apparent contradiction between portrait and tale raises an important theoretical question that applies to other pilgrims as well. Does Chaucer really mean for the reader to take a delicate hint in the General Prologue and apply it thousands of lines later in the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale?

Near the end of his essay, Curry cites without analysis the pseudo-Chaucerian Tale of Beryn as proof of his interpretation of the Pardoner.37 But Beryn, with its long prologue chronicling the adventures of the pilgrims at Canterbury, suggests a very different and more innocent sexual figure from the one created by modern critics. Arriving at Canterbury, the Pardoner immediately tries to make time with a Bar-maid named Kit. He arranges to spend the night with her, "þat was his hole entencioun" (301), but when he arrives that evening "as glad as eny goldfynch" (476), he finds the door locked and Kit in bed with her paramour. The Pardoner becomes furious because of his dashed expectations:

ffor who hath love longing, & is of corage Hote,
He hath ful many a myry þou3t to-fore his delyte;
And ry3t so had the Pardoner, and was in evil pli3te.
In this early "interpretation" of Chaucer's Pardoner, he is seen as neither eunuch nor homosexual, but a randy, if silly, heterosexual whose quest for a "joly wenche in every toun" causes him to be thoroughly duped. He is reminiscent of Absolon in the Miller's Tale (whom we have compared to the Pardoner before), another effeminate cleric who also is not so much incapable of heterosexual love-making as incompetent at it.

The most telling objection to the sexual interpretation of the Pardoner is that, like many other attempts to describe the "real" Pardoner, it trivializes Chaucer's accomplishment. Baum long ago protested that

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the Pardoner was a fictional character with no existence off the printed page;38 thus claims that he is a "testicular pseudo-hermaphrodite" or medieval Jean Gênet seem somewhat irrelevant. The modern demand in biography for the sexual secrets of real people (however doubtfully ascertained) is suspect enough, but a similar curiosity about fictional characters easily becomes ridiculous. The figure of Gluttony in Piers Plowman or Shakespeare's Falstaff has, like the Pardoner, a strong dramatic impact on the reader, but they also derive from the medieval allegorical tradition and are not individuals in the modern sense at all. The Pardoner is a fascinating literary character; he is not a genuine human personality. We should not take the vague and contradictory hints of sexual peculiarity in one part of the Pardoner's portrait as the key to his character, for such hints merely prepare us for the more serious ecclesiastical corruptions to follow. The real perversion of this pilgrim is not sexual but moral, as we see in the rest of his portrait and Tale. If we give up the futile and ultimately trivial attempt to define the psyche and exact anatomy of the Pardoner, we shall gain something of infinitely greater value: a clearer view of one of the most challenging of the Canterbury Tales.

University of Connecticut


From Medievalia, Vol. 8 (1982). Reprinted with permission of the author.


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