The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story
by Geoffrey Chaucer
With blonde hair that he wears long, in the "newe jet," or style, and a smooth, hairless face, it's no wonder that Chaucer "trowe [the Pardoner] were a geldyng or a mare" (General Prologue 693) – a neutered or female horse. With this Chaucer probably means to cast doubt on the Pardoner's sexuality: is he a woman, a man, or some combination of the two?
A Pardoner is someone who travels about the countryside selling official church pardons. These were probably actual pieces of paper with a bishop's signature on them, entitling the bearer to forgiveness for their sins. It seems that this Pardoner also does a secondary trade in relics, or pieces of clothing, bones, and other objects once belonging to long-departed saints. The Pardoner claims to have Mary's veil and a piece of St. Peter's sail. After his tale, the Pardoner tries to sell these relics to the other pilgrims, angering the Host, who questions their authenticity.
From the Pardoner's portrait, we have good reason to believe the Host is probably right not to trust the guy: Chaucer tells us that, among his relics, he's carrying a jar full of pigs' bones, and that, with them, he's able to cheat a poor parson out of two months' salary. The Pardoner is good at preaching, but in his prologue he tells the pilgrims he only does it to win money, berating the people for their sinfulness so they'll be more likely to buy what he is selling.
Like the Summoner's, the Pardoner's portrait throws into question not only the character himself, but also the practices upon which he relies to make a living. Both of these portraits explore what happens when spiritual goods begin to be profit-earning commodities like any other, and question the effect of this trade upon the souls of those who practice it.