Lee W. Patterson


Chaucerian Confession:
Penitential Literature and the Pardoner


Despite a substantial critical commentary, the basic terms for the interpretation of the "Pardoner's Prologue and Tale" remain in dispute. We are typically urged to understand the Pardoner's self-revelation in terms of either medieval convention or modern psychology, and yet neither category is wholly satisfactory: the appeal to convention is too blunt a response to Chaucer's careful observations, while we cannot help but mistrust our modernity.1 But, in fact, this is a false dilemma, for there is further medieval material we can bring to bear on Chaucer's text that can preserve both its complexity and its historicity. I refer to the vast literature of instruction and exhortation that grew up around the sacrament of penance, and in particular to the discussions, both poetic and theological, of the meaning and dynamics of confession. The point is not that the Pardoner's self-display is a confession in any sacramental sense,2 but that the literature of confession can explain both the spiritual condition out of which he speaks and the complicated meanings he imparts. Our problem with the Pardoner's self-revelation, after all, is less with content than with the significance of form, not so much what he says but the meaning of his act of speaking. Hence it is contemporary discussions of the act of confession itself that can perhaps provide us with guidance, As for specific texts, this means that we shall put aside works that are merely adjuncts to the sacrament, such as the numerous versions of the forma confitendi3, in favour of those that, while originally deriving from the sacrament, move beyond it to explore the inner dynamics of the act of confession itself. In Middle English, this self-regard is found both in the penitential lyric and in the confession of the Sins in Piers Plowman, and it is these works that can provide for us a literary context for the "Pardoner's Prologue and Tale".4 Theologically, our concern is with discussions of the psychology of confession, and specifically of the penitential motive of contrition and its dark semblance of despair. And it is here that writings both patristic and medieval can furnish a terminology and an imagery that will reappear in the Pardoner's self-portrait; indeed, we shall see that Chaucer has, with typical economy, taken the defining terms of the Pardoner's character from the very penitential system of which he is an agent.

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The range of the Middle English penitential lyric includes both the exemplary and the analytic. The forma confitendi, for example, appears both in a complete form, so that the reader can check every category, and in a more selective and subtle way as the structure of a dramatized and personal act of penitential reflection.5 Similarly, many of the poems are frankly instructive of doctrine or, more usually, emotion, providing the reader with a pattern of penitential feeling.6 But others qualify this severe impersonality with an implicit psychological dialectic: they seek not simply to arouse or even express sorrow but to show it transformed and made fruitful by confession. A good example is the Harley lyric "God, þat al þis myhtes may."7 By his sin, the speaker has alienated himself from God -- "ichabbe be losed mony a day, / er ant late y-be by foo" (3-4) -- and is now overcome with self-disgust: "when y my-self haue þourh soht, / y knowe me for þe wrst of alle" (15-16); "Ich holde me vilore ben a gyw" (29). His feelings, then, are perilously near to despair, but the remainder of the poem provides a rescue. These very feelings are transformed into an offering, the broken and contrite heart that, says the Psalmist, the Lord will not despise.8 The speaker remakes the broken relationship with God not by petition -- "louerd crist, whet shal y say?" (50) -- but by assuming the language and posture of penance: having been set against God in his arrogance, the sinner now kneels before Him in humility and supplication. Seen penitentially, self-disgust becomes contrition, and hence an advocate for salvation, so that the first line of the poem that originally threatened judgment can be repeated at the end as a warrant of mercy: "In þy merci y me do, / god, þat al þis myhtes may" (55-6). The poem ends, in short, in prayer: confessio peccati is fulfilled in confessio laudis.9

Prayer is the most common of the resolutions towards which the speaker of the penitential lyric directs his sorrow, but moral generalization also appears frequently. By understanding his life as an instance of a moral law, the penitent not only grants it a certain significance, however dismaying, but is able to use his new understanding as a sign of his conversion from the past. The sententia in which he generalizes his personal experience completes both his poem and his life of sin: possessed of bitter wisdom, he is self-evidently no longer the man he once was, and in the very course of the poem he becomes less a penitent than a sage, directing his words to an audience that has not yet learned the lesson he now knows so well. Hence a poem that begins, "In my 3owþe fulle wylde I was," and includes a carefully individualized confession can end in a tone of severe impersonality:

Man take hede what bu art!
But wormys mete þu wote wel þis!
Whanne þe erthe hath take his parte,
heven or helle wolle haue his.

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Yf þu doest welle þu goest to blis;
Yf þu do eville vnto þy foo;
love þy lorde, and thynke on þis,
Or wite þy self þyn owne woo!
Most relevant to the "Pardoner's Tale" are the numerous poems in which the penitent is an old man. At times the speaker fears he has repented too late, that his profession in old age of the values he abused in youth is belated and unwelcome.11 As the speaker of the Poema Morale says,
Wel late ich habbe me þi-bouht bute god do me mylce . . . .
Ich myhte habbe bet i-do heuede ich eny selhþe
NV ich wolde and i ne may for elde ne for vnhelhþe;
Elde is me bi-stolen on er þan ich hit wiste . . . .
Þ:e wel nule do hwile he may ne schal he hwenne he wolde.
Age is at once a symbol of sinfulness, the sin itself,13 and, final irony, the punishment, a cheerless decay that stands as nature's mocking parody of the spiritual change that will now never be achieved. Here, the old man turns from his anguish into an exhortation to others to do penance; in other poems he finds relief simply by understanding his sorrow within a penitential context, by turning regret into contrition. This pattern can best be illustrated by comparing two of the best known poems, "Le Regret de Maximinn" and the so-called "Old Man's Prayer."14 Maximian's complaint is uncompromising in its despair. He hates not only the old man he now is but the youth that brought him to it, and the poem is an act of self-annulment, a betrayal of the past to the bitterness of the present: even if he had his youthful strength back, he can think of no other use for it than to silence his badgering wife. The most serious negation is his failure to arrive in the poem at a prospect from which his experience, however sad, can become significant. "Wat helpeþ al itold?" (80) he asks; he has no sententia with which to redeem the past: "Deþ ich wolde fawe, / For I ne may tellen no sawe" (199-200). Hence, the lament lacks both structure and direction and sinks sullenly to a closing obsession with the present: retrospection is not possible for the self-absorbed mind.

While "An Old Man's Prayer" also opens in an embittered tone, it revises the feelings and materials of lament in a penitential direction. God has created man both as a lover of "murþes" and a victim of time, and the paradox baffles and grieves the poet. He used to be a man of "semly sawes" (10) but now he does not know "whet bote is beste" (26). His remedy, interestingly, is not a new saw but redefinition of the "murþes" that have been lost: the speaker changes his poem from lament to a confession by describing his youth in terms of the seven deadly sins:

whil mi lif wes luþer & lees,
glotonie mi glemon wes,

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wiþ me he wonede a while;
prude wes my plowe-fere,
lecherie my lauendere --
wiþ hem is gabbe & gyle --
Coueytise myn keyes bere, Niþe ant onde were mi fere,
þat bueþ folkes fyle,
Lyare wes mi latymer,
sleuthe & slep mi bedyuer,
þat weneþ me vnbe while.

This penitential perspective redefines both youth and age. The "murþes" of sin are now well left behind, and age is not a betrayal but a merciful respite in which the penitent can bewail his sin: "Monne mest y am to mene, / lord, þat hast me lyf to lene" (66-7). Now the poet knows both that "Murþes helpeþ me no more" (92) and "whet ys be beste bote": to "heryen him þat haht vs boht, / vre lord þat al þis world haþ wroht, / ant fallen him to fote" (100-2). The poem thus completes its transformation from lament through confession to prayer:
Nou icham to deþe ydyht,
y-don is al my dede,
god vs lene of ys lyht,
þat we of sontes habben syht
ant heuene to mede!

The old man's anguish is resolved, not merely by the hope of salvation, but by the prior and larger step of being understood within the penitential process in the first place: the sorrow of old age becomes the sorrow of contrition and, with the closing prayer, the poem becomes itself an act of penance.15

The explicitness of "An Old Man's Prayer" helps us to recognize that contrition is at the heart of the penitential lyric as a whole, whether it is resolved into the hindsight of wisdom or the forward movement of prayer. The poems function to prevent the sorrowful mind from sinking in on itself, as in "Le Regret de Maximian," and to direct it rather towards patterns of action and language in which sorrow becomes fruitful. In the confession scene of Piers Plowman, the most accomplished piece of penitential literature of the fourteenth century, Langland explores the same themes, and it is worth inquiring how he disposes his inherited material in order to open up these inward areas. For in the vernacular treatises on which he draws, sinfulness is presented not as a condition of the soul but as a deed, or at most a habit: the sinner recognizes himself, not by what he is, but by what he has done. Even when personified and allowed to describe themselves, as in Deguilleville's three Pélerinages or

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the Morality plays, the sins remain exteriors, dutifully rehearsing the things that have been said about them: their speeches are hardly more than identifications, tituli to stand beside the crude allegorical image. Although often they speak for no reason or in defiance of reason -- Deguilleville's Treason carefully unfolds her devices to the pilgrim she is about to attack -- their self-revelations are not removed from human range simply by being unmotivated. Belial's "Ho, ho, be-holde me!" for example, springs from a manic self-delight that in its consistent display throughout the play stands as sufficient motive; and Faus Semblant's self-exposure in the Roman de la Rose is compelled by the God of Love. But this motivation does not proceed from the sinfulness that is both embodied and expressed, so that Jean de Meun, for instance, accords to the paradox of the sincere hypocrite only a passing acknowledgement, rather than allowing it to complicate Faus Semblant's self-revelations. The autobiography of medieval allegory, in other words, habitually severs the link between character and language that helps us to recognize the intention and ultimately the significance of human speech. In Langland's confession scene, on the other hand, the challenge of the allegorical form is accepted: he restores the link between self-revelation and the self revealed. By forcing upon the Sins the confessional occasion they are designed to serve in others, not only does he give them the best of all Christian reasons to speak, but he allows them to speak to and from their sinfulness. In a sense, Langland's innovation is simply to take the short step from confession in terms of the sins to confession by the sins; in a larger sense it is to combine the didactic and hortatory substance of one tradition with the literary purposes of another, to fuse content (the nature of Avarice) with form (have I committed avarice?). In Langland's scene, Avarice confesses to itself, so that the well-worn literary details become now the symptoms of an inward and hopefully problematic human condition. It is from this grounding of speech in the self, rather than vividness or energy, that the force and originality of Langland's scene derive,

The scene is based on a paradox, for by confessing to itself, the Sin calls into question its very existence. "lch, Pruyde, pacientliche penaunce ich aske" (C. VII. 14), but, once patient, he is no longer prideful; " `I haue ben coueytouse,' quod this caityue, `I biknowe it here' " (B.V.200), but if he was Couetyse (or coueytouse), who is he now? The scene turns not just on a quirk of the allegorical confession but on the mystery of spiritual rebirth that is at the heart of penance. As the Sin confesses, he is caught in the middle of a transformation from the old self that is extinguished in the words he speaks to the new self he hopes to become. He can, of course, speak without understanding, and it is precisely by their bland obtuseness that several Sins erode the force of their confessions: Couetyse of the B-Text, when asked if he has made restitution, proudly

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describes robbing merchants while they were at rest, and when corrected complains that he doesn't know any French. But while the Sins do on occasion play the fool, the scene as a whole is not primarily satiric in intention. Langland stresses the anguish of sin as much as its hardened impenitence: the self-consumption of Enuye, the endless rage of Wrathe, and the despair of Sloth are traditional attributes here raised to the level of motive.16 The purpose is not to portray the Sins as moved by contrition but to trace the vicissitudes of contrition itself within the sinful soul. "Enuye with heuy herte asked after shrifte, / And criede `mea culpa' corsynge alle hus enemys" (C.VII.63-4): the sorrow for sin and desire for amendment of contrition are overwhelmed in the last half-line by the anguish and obsessions of envy. Again, Repentauncc asks him if he is sorry: " `Ich am euere sory,' sayde Enuye, `ich am bote selde other;/ That maketh me so megre for ichne may me auenge'" (93-4). Enviousness suborns and appropriates the contrition that is its only cure; the pain caused by the sin overwhelms the pain by which sin is cleansed. The same question is asked of several of the other Sins. Can contrition survive Wrathe's fury? Is Gloton contrite or hung over? Can Couetyse worry about his soul when he has to worry about his money?17 Langland's scene demonstrates how sin destroys its own cure, and so condemns itself to itself. By subverting the contrition that would annul them, the Sins succeed in prolonging a life of anguish, condemning themselves to damnation, a death without death and an ending without an end.18

Langland's interest in the dynamics of contrition is confirmed by the processes of his own revision. In the B-Text the comically stupid Couetyse falls into wanhope and needs the comfort of Repentaunce's words about the breadth of God's mercy. But the C-Text goes beyond this negative point to show contrition in its positive workings: the reductive humour gives place to Couetyse's own careful explanation of how the anxiety of the miser overcomes care for his soul. Having so explicitly established the power of sin to nullify its antidote, Langland then preserves the balance of the scene by similarly strengthening the claims of Repentaunce: he replaces the abstract arguments against despair with the living proof, as it were, of 3even 3eld-a3eyn and Robert the ryfeler.19 The effect of this revision is not only to gain vividness and persuasion but to express the ontological paradox of the literary form and of penance itself. Having demonstrated his contrition by accepting the demands of satisfaction (Reddite quod debes), Couetyse is freed from himself and allowed to become a man who can be saved, whether 3even or Robert. They are arguments against despair less by their typology than by their participation in the salus animarum of the Christian dispensation, a dispensation from which a being who is Couetyse (or coueytouse) is forever excluded. This is, then, Langland's rendering of personal change through penance,

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the articulation into the inward complexities of human experience of some of the central concerns of medieval penitential theology.

At the centre of the Christian dispensation stands the idea of a radical transformation of the self, literally of its "reformation" according to the pattern (imago Dei) in which it was originally created and from which it has defected through sin.20 The process begins with the inward turn of self-confrontation. "Quid te foris circumspicis, et non intus inspicis? . . . . Intus inspice, quid transis te? Descende in te."21 The sinner must set himself before himself, face to face with the defilement he has become: no longer the imago Dei he is now the imago terreni hominis (I Cor. 15.49). "This image if thou behold it wittily," says Walter Hilton, "is all belapped with black stinking clothes of sin, as pride, envy, ire, accidie, covetise, gluttony and lechery. . . . This image and this black shadow thou bearest about with thee where thou goest."22 A true knowledge of himself humiliates the sinner, and he cries out to the Lord, "In Thy truth Thou hast humbled me."23 Gratefully, he abandons his corruption to the gnawings of the worm of conscience, receiving in his present pain a warrant against eternal agony.24 Now is the moment for the crucifixion of the old Adam, the annihilation of the man of sin, the pulverizing force of contrition that destroys the dying to bring forth life.

Whether called compunctio or contritio, the impulse which gives rise to penance is complex and even conflicted. In the authoritative Summa de casibus poenitentiae, St. Raymound of Pennaforte lists the six causes of contrition:

Causae inductiuae contritionis sunt sex, cogitatio,25 et ex ea pudor de peccatis commissis: detestatio vilitatis ipsius peccati: timor iudicij, et poenae gehennae: dolor de amissione patriae caelestis, et multiplici offensa Creatoris: et spes triplex, veniae, gratiae, et gloriae.26
Contrition is an uneasy balance of negation and assertion, a radical self-hatred and fear of God that is paradoxically joined to spes triplex and a reliance on divine mercy. "Idcirco te alloquor, ut sperare doceam et timere," says Augustine to Petrarch in the Secretum Meum, and he warns him against excesses of both hope (praesumptio) and fear (desperatio).27 Presumption and despair are the Scylla and Charybdis of the spiritual life, the Devil's greyhounds, in the words of the Ancrene Riwle, "igedered to gederes . . . nexst þe 3ete of helle."28 Despair is both the more interesting and the more apposite of these false ways. For, while presumption removes the sinner from the penitential context entirely, despair not only arises from the self-confrontation that initiates penance but is tragically close to the genuine spiritual impulses that lead to salvation. It is not simply one of the impedimenta to contrition or even its obverse, for its terrors and self-negations are themselves an important part of the penitential

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motive. Five of the six causae listed by Pennaforte, for instance, are also characteristics of despair; and, in his influential discussion of penance, William of Auvergne lists ten "motus virtutis confringentis veterem hominem, ac funditus, ac radicitus mortificantis:" timor, pudor, dolor, ira, indignatio, abominatio, horror, odium, execratio, detestatio -- a virtual litany of despair.29

The dangerous instability of these ncgative feelings had long been recognized by writers on the spiritual life. According to St. Paul, there are two kinds of sorrow over sin, tristitia secundum Deum which works repentance unto salvation and tristitia secundum saeculum which works death (2 Cor. 7.10). For Augustine, tristitia is so unstable that he admits, even in the midst of an attack on Stoic apathy, that "scrupulosior quaestio est, utrum inveniri possit in bono."30 And, says Cassian, whereas Godly sorrow secures for the soul all the fruits of the Holy Spirit, its obverse is "impatiens, dura, plena rancore et moerore infructuoso, ac desperatione poenali, . . . fructus spirituales evacuans, quos novit illa conferre."31 Warnings against the danger of contrition deteriorating into despair are common in discussions of penance,32 and more personal accounts in the literature of the fourteenth century show it to have been one of the hardest passages of the spiritual life. Julian of Norwich warns that "the beholding of [our sinfulness] maketh us so sorry and so heavy, that scarsely we can find any comfort. And this dread we take sometimes for a meekness, but it is a foul blindness and a weakness."33 Margery Kempe begins her autobiography and her spiritual life with the story of how her conscience and her confessor drove her from contrition to despair and then to madness.34 And Henry of Lancaster presents a homeopathic explanation for the double effect of tristitia: it is a triacle drawn from the venom of sin itself, and, while in some it cures, in those too deeply infected it adds its force to the sin already present.35 In sum, if the ulcerous sinner is cleansed by the worm of conscience, he may also be killed by it:

Cest de conscience le ver
Qui a les dens durs comme fer
Si cruel est et si mordant
Si poignant et si trespercant
Que sil nauoit qui le tuast
Qui le ferist ou assommast
De tant runger ne fineroit
Jusques son maistre oscist auroit.
In destroying its victims, despair operates in two ways. The most dangerous is simply the working out of its own internal dynamic. A sin not of commission but feeling -- Donne's "sin of fear" -- despair is efficiently self-fulfilling: thinking himself lost, the man in despair refuses to ask for mercy; refusing to ask, he cannot receive; and not receiving, he becomes lost in deed as well as thought. In practical terms this means that the man

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in despair avoids confession: "Non confitetur autem qui desperat de misericordia Dei," says Gregory flatly, and the confessional manuals are virtually unanimous in warning against despair.37 And yet, of course, the bitterest irony is that it is only by confession that despair is finally conquered.38 The other way is through the excesses of desperation and final impenitence. According to Augustine, the despairing man is like a gladiator doomed to the sword: "Jam peccator sum, jam iniquus, jam damnandus, nulla veniae spes est; cur jam non faciam quidquid libet, etsi non licet? Cur non impleam, quantum possum, quaecumque desideria, si post haec non restant nisi sola tormenta?"39 And a well-known Gregorian text describes the hidden anxiety and inner torment of the despairing impenitent:
Quia dum feriri se undique insidiis credit, salute desperata, semper ad nequitiam excrescit. Aliquando vero iste perversus etiam superna judicia attendit, et super se haec venire metuit. . . . Sed a malo non avertitur, ut etiam ipsa quoque ab ejus interitu valeat averti. Accusante se autem conscientia feriri metuit, sed tamen semper auget quo feriatur. Contemnit reditum suum, desperat veniam, superbit in culpa; sed tamen testem suae nequitiae intus habet timorem. Et quamvis prava videatur foris audacter agere, de his tamen apud semetipsum cogitur trepidare.40
Licentiousness is a vain attempt at distraction, and beneath a reckless bravado works the anxiety of despair, tormenting the sinner with a foretaste of the eternal punishment that awaits him.

But hope must never be abandoned for the man in despair. Even if contrition does collapse into despair, the process can be reversed: in DeGuileville's language, the worm of conscience can be broken by the hammer of contrition, and the lesson of the triumph of Mercy at the close of the Castle of Perseverance is not so much to cast out despair as to convert it to the work of penance.41 The mystical writers tend to see despair as an early stage in the soul's progress towards God, the necessary siccitas of the dark night rather than the accidia of sin, and they accept its scourges and corrosion as both the punishment for sin and the pain by which the old Adam is destroyed that the Christ within may live.42 Although the acts of desperation to which despair gives rise are perilous in the extreme, its negations are an important part of the penitential process, and any impulse that forces upon the sinner the reality of his condition can prove in the event to have been useful. The emotions that excite penance are complex, and no matter how refractory or self-regarding the initial motives, they can be transformed by the penitential act itself into an offering acceptable to God. Putting aside the ontological changes effected ex opere operato, simply at the level of psychology the movement of the sinner towards contrition is understood to be a gradual and even hesitant process.43 Similarly, the act of confession itself can excite in even the impenitent fruitful spiritual motions. "Multi enim accedunt

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indevoti," says Jacques de Vitry, "qui cum lachrymis et devotione recedunt,"44 and according to Walter Hilton,
Though the ground of forgiveness stand not principally in confession, but in contrition of the heart and in forethinking of sin, nevertheless I expect that there is many a soul that should never have felt very contrition, nor had full forsaking of sin, if confession had not been. For it falls oft times that in time of confession grace of compunction comes to a soul that before never felt grace, but aye was cold and dry, aud far from feeling of grace.45
In the confession scene in Piers Plowman Langland revises earlier forms to bring into poetic focus the nature of contrition and its relation to sin, penitential concerns characteristic of medieval, and especially fourteenth-century, religious thought. In the "Pardoner's Prologue and Tale" Chaucer's revision of his inherited materials is in the same, inward direction. The one-dimensional monologue of allegory is deepened, not by functioning as the Pardoner's confession, but by becoming part of a larger sequence of involuntary self-exposure that is fulfilled only in the tale; and the tale is, in turn, transformed by the context of its telling from an exemplum about avarice into a psychological allegory that reveals the Pardoner as a man in despair. The confession of despair, like that of Pruyde or Couetyse, is a theoretical impossibility, and it is this paradox that requires the transformations of genre: the direct self-revelation of autobiography is distorted by strategies of manipulation and concealment, and the negatives of his condition are visible only in the displacement of fiction. It may well be that his oblique confession brings sacramental healing no closer to the Pardoner, but, if we are to understand why he speaks and what he is saying, we must recognise the penitential context.

The ironic smile with which the God of Love accepts Faus Semblant's pledge of loyalty is Jean de Meun's perfunctory gesture towards the discontinuity between character and speech implicit in the paradox of the truthful hypocrite. But the Pardoner's illegitimately-assumed role of the professional speaker places this discontinuity at the centre of his charactcrization. Language is the means by which he creates himself for others, whether it be the cocksure prattle with which he disguises his eunuchry or the witty and learned sermon, liberally embellished with impressive exempla, with which he establishes his authority before the "lewed peple." The "Prologue," for all its apparent candour, is part of this image-making. Recent critics have rightly argued that the pardoner of the Prologue, a monster who cheerfully anticipates his victims' damnation and steals food from the mouths of starving children, is a gross and deliberate parody of sinfulness.46 At once offending the censorious gentils and titillating the raucous lower elements represented by Harry Bailly, he plays to the full the role of the diabolical sinner, the man who has chosen with open eyes the path to his own damnation. Always the rhetorician,

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he speaks in the uncompromising tone of allegory, sounding at times like DeGuileville's Avarice, who tells her pilgrim-victim that
Souvanteffois par le pais
Faulx sainctuaires et fainctiz
Va moustrant a la simple gent
Pour faussement tirer argent.
But the similarities are only on the surface, and the differences in detail and dramatic energy between allegorical self-exposure and the Pardoner's "Prologue" spring ultimately from a deep difference in intent. The allegorical figure speaks in order to be fully known, while the very excess of the Pardoner's revelations hide him from us: rather than being created by the conventions of medieval allegory, he himself exploits them.

This is not to say that there is no controlling convention here, but that we must find its source elsewhere. I would suggest the false or uncontrite confession of satiric literature, what in the summae confessorum is called the liar's confession or confessio ficti.48 Instances in Middle English include Lady Meed's confession to the friar and the Devil's confession with which Robert of Brunne closes Handlyng Synne,49 but its most common appearance is in the Renart story. In the French version Renart confesses no less than five times in all, and his habit of misusing the sacrament led at least one cleric to label the perfunctory or uncontrite confession a confessio renardi.50 The instance closest to Chaucer's poem, and one which he almost certainly knew, is Renart's confession to "frere Huberz" the kite.51 Desperately hungry, Renart lures the kite within striking distance by confessing, apparently truthfully, that he has in his gluttony devoured even Hubert's children. He begs the horrified kite to forgive him, but when Hubert leans forward for a kiss of peace Renart gobbles him up. The parallels between this scene and Chaucer's poem are striking: the confession as a trap, the extravagant sinfulness, the crucial role of the kiss of peace, and the ambiguity of both confessions -- in neither case can we easily separate truth from fiction. Whether this episode is a specific source for Chaucer or not, the analogies suggest that, in revising the allegorical monologue, Chaucer moved in the direction of the rogue's confession. "3a, whanne þe fox prechyth, kepe wel 3ore gees!" is a cautionary proverb that applies in the first instance to the "lewed peple"; by giving his Pardoner a confessional prologue Chaucer wittily brings it to bear upon the pilgrims as well.

By choosing as his speaker an habitual sinner like Renart, rather than a hypocrite like Faus Semblant, Chaucer has avoided the stock satire of the mendicant controversy. In his further revision, however, he also avoids the irrepressible cynicism of the Roman de Renart. Renart is a cheerful outcast who remains always in control of his language and his victim, but Chaucer's reaccenting of the same narrative elements creates a character

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who is anxious and dependent. For not only does his trap close on the Pardoner himself, but the whole relationship between his real and his created selves is less controlled and deliberate than with Renart. From the pilgrims the Pardoner covets not money, but admiration: his confession is designed to extract from the gentils a shocked respect and from Harry Bailly and his ilk the dubious title of "a good felawe." But, in fact, he goes too far and defines himself as a man outside the human community, making his ultimate rejection inevitable and revealing a pattern of self-destruction that surfaces in the offer of the relics. More significant than this misjudgment of others' cynicism, however, is the genuineness and even vulnerability that the Pardoner reveals. While insisting early and often that his motives are brazenly simple (403-4, 423-4, 432-3, 461), he also claims -- and repeats the claim -- that he is doing good works:
But though myself be gilty in that synne,
Yet kan I maken oother folk to twynne
From avarice, and soore to repente.
. . . .
For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle kan.

(429-31, 459-60)
These hints are made all the more telling by the Pardoner's own response to them. In both cases he hastily withdraws from the disturbing complications he has raised to the comforting simplicity of avarice: "But that is nat my principal entente; / I preche nothyng but for coveitise" (432-3), and his moral tale is only a device "for to wynne" (461). And in both instances he cuts off his line of thought with a misdirected and defensive conclusion: " Of this mateere it oghte ynogh suffise" (434) -- although he himself continues to worry at the subject; and, "Now hoold youre pees! my tale I wol bigynne" (462). This fugitive and embarrassed self-defense shows the Pardoner acknowledging in his spirit the values he subverts in his working, a complication that appears again in the benediction with which he closes the tale. In sum, he is by no means unambiguously impenitent, and his attempt to reduce himself to the simplicity of allegorical evil is best understood as an attempt to escape from a consciousncss that is too painfully divided. The "Prologue," then, by turns derisory and hesitant, vaunting and awkwardly candid, reveals in its very lack of clarity a spirit in conflict.

In fleecing his victims, the Pardoner in fact proffers both wisdom and an opportunity to perform the penance of alms-giving; and, doubtless, the knowledge that God turns even the wicked to His purpose encourages these gingerly efforts at self-justification. But are they not simply further instances of his presumption? Our answer to this question, and indeed our final judgment of the Pardoner, depends in large part upon our understanding of his eunuchry. Current opinion generally follows Robert

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Miller's exegetical reading that identifies the Pardoner as the eunuchus non Dei: "Instead of cutting himself off from evil works, he cuts himself off from good works, He refuses offered grace. In short, he is the presumptuous man who, by his act of will, commits the unpardonable sin, not for the sake of, but in despite of, the kingdom of heaven."52 This reading is uncompromising in stressing the Pardoner's damnation and encourages us to see him as an instance of pure evil, Chaucer's "one lost soul," in Kittredge's too memorable phrase. It is quite true that in this case an exegetical approach is probably the right one, especially as it accords with the larger strategies of the poem. But I would propose a different pattern of scriptural imagery, that of the arbor infructuosa. Not only does the symbol of the withered tree allow for a less absolute reading, but it offers distinct critical advantages. For one thing, it is a far more common image than the eumuchus non Dei and has a wide currency in medieval art and literature.53 For another, it has a striking presence in the tale in the "ook" where the rioters find death, the radix malorum that bears the bitter fruit of three corpses. The appropriateness of this biblical imagery to the Pardoner is obvious. He is like the fig tree of Matthew 2 1.18-21 that offers to the hungry Lord not fruit but foliage and is withered with His curse: according to the exegetes the foliage shows that the tree glories in vain words (pompa locutionis), while lacking the fruit of good works.54 The Pardoner is one of those "qui verba habent, et facta non habent,"55 and his need is for precisely the "fructum dignum poenitentiae" (Matt. 3.8) that can alone save him from the fire of judgment: "lam enim securis ad radicem arborem posita est: omnis ergo arbor quae non facie fructum bonum exciditur et in ignem mittitur" (3.10). Yet, for all its judicial gravity, this sequence of biblical imagery includes a controlling message of mercy in the parable of the sterile fig tree (Luke 13.7-9). The paterfamilias commands that the tree be uprooted and destroyed, but the cultor advises that it be ditched and dunged and given one last chance; according to the exegetes, the ditch is "humilitas poenitentis" and the dung "memoria peccatorum," "cordis luctus et lacrymarum."56 "Non potest arbor mala fructus bonos facere" (Matt. 7.18) remains an inviolable principle, but, as Augustine (among others) insists, each righteous Christian has been made a fruitful tree: "Quisquis igitur homo hodie bonus est, id est, arbor bona, mala inventa est et bona facta est."57 The radix arboris, the human will, can be changed by penance from cupiditas to caritas: "ut in semetipsum oculos convertat, in se descendat, se discutiat, se inspiciat, sc quaerat, et se inveniat: et quod displicet, necet; quod placet, optet et plantet."58

Perhaps the "hogges toord" in which the Host would enshrine the Pardoner's non-existent "coillons" is a last, bitter reminder of the cophinus stercoris by which the sterile tree can be made fruitful, a dung also nastily brought to our attention by the Host's comment about the "fundement"

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with which the Pardoner is supposed to paint his "olde breech." At any rate, it is in the "Tale" that the penitential contradictions of the Pardoner's condition are most fully revealed to us, although we must avoid the temptation to misread it that the Pardoner himself puts in our way. Taken literally, as he recommends, it is an exemplum meaning Radix malorum est cupiditas

; but, read spiritually, it is a moral allegory about the Pardoner himself, and it figures not avarice but despair. On the one hand, the rioters enact the Pardoner's life of self-damnation. Brazenly impenitent ("And ech of hem at otheres synne lough" [476]), they are perverse imitatores Dei both in symbol ("we thre been al ones" [696], "the yongeste of hem alle" [804] serves bread and wine) and action ("Deeth shal be deed, if that they may hym hente!" [71O]).59 And when, like the Pardoner, they issue from their tavern to do God's work, they receive their deserts with the terrifying efficiency of final judgment.60 These are, as it were, the facts of the Pardoner's'case, his history both past and future. But the human meaning of that history is expressed in the emotional centre of the talc, the old man. Rather than the saintly wise man of the analogues, a philosopher or hermit or even Christ, the Pardoner presents a figure who accurately reflects his own irreducible contradictions. Like the Pardoner, the old man proffers advice both needful ("Agayns an oold man, hoor upon his heed, / Ye sholde arise" [743-44]) and perilous: "turne up this croked wey" (761). Also like the Pardoner, he knows the truth but is unable to use it. In the terms of the story, he knows where Death is to be found but cannot find him himself, while tropologically he has won through to a gentle wisdom that has done little to relieve his suffering: hence he too offers a closing benediction -- "God save yow, that boghte agayn mankynde, / And yow amende!" (766-67) -- that is in the event self-excluding. For the old man's fate is to remain ever unregenerate, whether this be expressed in the fairy-tale (or allegorical) terms of exchanging age for youth or in the theological terms of exchanging the "cheste" of his worldly goods for the "heyre clowt" of penance.61 As we should remember, he speaks with a voice traditional to the penitential lyric that of the sinner whose repentance has come too late and whose wisdom is bought at the price of endless anguish: "Deþ ich wilni mest, / Wi nis he me I-core?"62 These are "Maximian's" words in his "Regret," and it is precisely Maximianus's first elegy that Chaucer drew upon for this portrait and that directs us to the context of failed penance which helps to explain the old man. "Vivere poena mea," says the speaker of Maximianus's poem, and it is this penance that the old man now suffers. Like the sterile quaestor whom he faithfully expresses, he is condemned to a life-in-death of Cain-like wandering, and in his fruitless penitential yearnings he has descended into the hell of despair.63

It is not difficult to see how the condition that is expressed symbolically in the old man should function literally in the Pardoner himself, for the

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mechanism that Chaucer provides is astonishingly precise. In detailing the Pardoner's eunuchry Chaucer renders it, as we know, meaningful in the medieval languages of both science and religious symbol. But the Pardoner egoistically misreads himself, and, like the rioters of his tale, takes letter for spirit, fleshly understanding for spiritual. As we have seen, contrition includes a powerful, at times overwhelming negative movement, its separate aspects traditionally termed pudor, detestatio, dolor, and timor. In obvious ways, each of these feelings is known to the Pardoner, but he misuses and misapplies them: his obsessive self-regard is directed not to his sinful acts but to his physically-maimed body. Ashamed of his literal eunuchry, he hides behind a far more shameful spiritual sterility; fearing exposure to his companions, he mocks the judgment of God; his sorrow is not de amissione patriae celestis, et multiplici offensa Creatoris but simply de ipso; and his hatred is not vilitatis peccati but for the vileness of his body. In the "Parson's Tale" Chaucer quotes St. Paul's famous lament, "Allas, I caytyf man! who shall delivere me fro the prisoun of my caytyf body?" (X. 344) In a sense that exceeds his comprehension, this is the meaning of the Pardoner's words, and it is only in the symbolic displacement of the "restelees kaityf" that he finally reveals himself to us.

Change, of course, remains possible, even for the Pardoner, although his vain and self-indulgent literalism, his "ariditas litterae," seems to forestall any real conversion. As we remember, the fatality of despair is its ability to destroy its own cure.64 At once defiant and self-hating, wretched in his licentiousness and yet hardened in sin, the Pardoner yearns towards the release of confession but is unable to bring himself to it. The distortions and displacements of his speaking, then, are not superficial awkwardnesses or vestiges of irrelevant conventions but the essence of his paradoxical meaning. The "Prologue" presents inflated self-advertisements and fugitive glimpses of a more genuine self; the "Tale" displaces into fiction the Pardoner's deepest self-understanding, while hiding its meaning from the man who speaks. Finally, the offer of the relics comes as the fitting conclusion to this sequence, an elliptical and compact gesture that is as contradictory as the Pardoner's previous utterances. On the one hand, he asks for inclusion, either in the fellow-feeling of a jest or the earnest respect due a "suffisant pardoneer"; on the other hand, he invites exclusion, even punishment. The punishment that is, in fact, inflicted is exquisitely apt; it clarifies what had previously been garbled and makes explicit the fruitlessness that only true confession can finally cure. In its full dimensions, then, as an invitation to be hurt and forgiven, the epilogue exactly fulfills the post-confessional part of pennncc: it provides a satisfaction that fits the sin65 and a gesture of absolution: "Anon they kiste, and ryden forth hir weye." Penitential theology has provided Chaucer not only with one of his subtlest pilgrims, but also with one of his finest structural achievements: a "Prologue" and "Tale"

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that are related at the deepest levels of language and doctrine, and for an epilogue a dramatic gesture which, while participating in these levels of meaning, provides emotional release from the problems raised.


Printed from Medievalia et Humanistica 7 (1976); printed here with the perimssion of the author.


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