Chaucer's Pardoner

What is a pardoner?

Synopsis of the Prologue and Tale

The Prologue

The Tale

Major Themes

gluttony and death


avarice and gluttony


relics of martyrs

Underlying Questions

What is a Pardoner
function/ history/ portrayal

According to canon law, a pardoner or quaestor of alms did not have the right either to forgive sin or to sell indulgences. Indulgences remitting punishment for sin could only be legitimately granted to persons who confessed their sins to their own parish priests. If the condition of confession is met, they were allowed to purchase indulgences and thus be relieved of a stated period of purgatorial punishment.

Many pardoners were commissioned directly from Rome, and offered indulgences to all those subjects who contributed to the support of Christendom. Some pardoners were sent from church-supported hospitals. These hospitals, often times the repository of relics used in curing the sick, commissioned pardoners to take these relics on tour and to offer indulgences to anyone who was moved by their belief in the relics to donate money toward the upkeep of the hospital.

The practice of offering indulgences grew corrupt. Selling indulgences became a means for the Church to be able to finance special projects, such as the construction of the Vatican in the sixteenth century. Pardoners also tended to exaggerate the power of their indulgences—that is, they sometimes pretended to have the authority to release the buyers from hell as well as from purgatory. They might sometimes also claim that those who purchased indulgences needed neither to repent nor to amend their lives in order to be pardoned.

As early as 1212 the Church acknowledged the corrupt practices of many pardoners. Church officials created numerous bulls recommending that the practice of pardoners be restricted: that they not be allowed to preach but only to read their letters; that every precaution be taken to ensure that only fully licensed pardoners could solicit alms. At the same time, popular literature satirized pardoners. When the preaching friar in Piers the Plowman wishes to scorn the Augustinians, his worst accusation is that they lived by the "pur pardoners craft."

[paraphrased from Kantor]