Pardons, testicles, and hog’s turds

William Blake’s depiction of Chaucer’s Pardoner

On 10 June 1374 Geoffrey Chaucer had spent two days as comptroller of the customs for the port of London, a position he held for twelve years. Like Dickens, Chaucer plays a strong role in London’s history and its street names: there are a number of Chaucer roads, streets, and avenues and, apart from the name of the author, there are also a number of street names that recall the Canterbury Tales.One of these is Southwark’s Pardoner Street (unrelated, but similar, to Pardon Street), named for a pilgrim in Chaucer’s Tales. Pardoners were licensed to preach and collect money for causes; letters of indulgence (a sort of annulment of sins) were given to those who donated generously enough.

This system was, not surprisingly, abused and Chaucer was among those who denounced pardoners as peddlers of forgiveness. (Martin Luther also frowned on the practice in Germany in helped to bring about the Reformations: the formation of ‘Reformed’ (Protestant) churches.)

Chaucer’s Pardoner is certainly not a pleasant character, and freely admits he is in the business for profit rather than the redemption of souls (“Once dead what matter how their souls may fare?”).

The ‘Pardoner’s Tale’, ostensibly an attack on various sins – gluttony, drunkenness, swearing, perjury, gambling, avarice, treachery, and murder – is really sales pitch. An unsuccessful one, however; when the he suggest that the host might like to be the first to kiss the Pardoner’s holy relics for the price of a groat and forgiveness, the host is less than impressed with the idea, and his brutally honest response is:

You’ll have me kissing your old breeches too
And swear they were the relic of a saint

To avoid any misinterpretation, he further tells the Pardoner:

I wish I had your ballocks in my hand
Instead of relics in a reliquarium;
Have them cut off and I will help to carry ‘em.
We’ll have them shrined for you in a hog’s turd.

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