The “ars praedicandi” was literally the “art of preaching” – an elaborate theory which set down the rules and guidelines – both moral and technical – by which all preachers must abide. Chaucer was familiar with the “ars”, possibly only because of the many sermons he would have invariably listened to. The moral aspect of the “ars” is that which the Pardoner is guilty of perverting. He is a “vicious” man, and a man guilty of avarice, but the “ars” states that a preacher should not preach for personal gain, but to spread the word of God, and to enlighten the masses.
Chaucer’s Pardoner does anything but – he describes the people he preaches to as being “lewd” and takes full advantage of their ignorance and greed through playing upon his own. The Pardoner’s Prologue is an excellent example of the Pardoner’s lack of morality and his willingness to gain profit at any cost. He reveals his techniques of preaching to the pilgrims – perhaps in an attempt to confess and gain absolution, perhaps because he knows it is futile to attempt to hide his true nature.Order now
Maybe the Pardoner is more intelligent than we think – he is impatient of occupying the place of a futile hypocrite , and wishes to either clear the air before starting his tale, or boast of his abilities. For whatever the reason, his Prologue is one of debauchery and greed on his part and the part of his customary audience – and also the manipulation of gullible people and a total disregard for the consequences of his actions. To begin with, the Pardoner describes his tools: the worthless paraphernalia that he passes off as holy relics, and also the verbal trickery used when giving a sermon.
He moves on to tell of the outrageous properties he bestows upon his “relics” – all, ironically, are based in materialistic need, e. g. the ability of the “mitayn” to multiply a man’s crops. The Pardoner preaches out of avarice, to avarice. He then goes on to tell of his motivation – he is greedy, and does not care if the souls he ‘damns’ go to Purgatory for eternity. Comparisons are made by the Pardoner of himself to a dove – the embodiment of the Holy Spirit – as an image of himself looking down on the congregation as he makes his way through the sermon.
This blasphemy is against all of the moral grounds that the “ars” was attempting to uphold. The pilgrims will, of course, be suitably shocked by this point, and even more so when the Pardoner tells of his indifference to the plight of starving widows and children; to him they are merely more “lewed” people who deserved to be bled dry, in order to fill his own gluttony. The “sermon interlude” is of course another opportunity for the Pardoner to once again demonstrate his complete lack of morality. The sermon is of course the one that he preaches to the people from the villages – his usual congregation – because he only has one.
It is an example of the wilful hypocrisy he uses when attempting to con people out of their money; what better way to do it than by telling them that money is evil, and that gluttony being the root of money is even more so? Little more is said about himself and his own viciousness however, as he launches full on into the only sermon he possesses, and knows by heart. References are made to biblical stories, quotations, and also one secular figure “Senec”. His examples are twisted however – there is, for example, grave doubt as to whether the Fall of Man resulted from gluttony.
As a preacher who should be following the “ars praedicandi”, his perversions of biblical tales is blasphemous at the very least. There is debate over whether the Pardoner actually intended to give his audience a complete specimen of his ‘discourses’, or whether he was merely carried away by professional enthusiasm. In light of the Prologue, and the rest of the Tale, we would be more likely to assume the former. For it seems that the Pardoner, whilst perverting the first aspect of the “ars praedicandi”, is highly skilled at the second – technique. The ‘sermon interlude’, or ‘discourse on the sins’ is nearly two hundred lines long.
The question arises of how the Pardoner avoids the pitfall of becoming tedious. The answer: his extraordinary “virtuosity of preaching”. The “ars” demands a variety of different techniques from the preacher – all instrumental in holding an audience’s interest, and keeping them suitably impressed. For example, suspense, climax, theme and exempla are all demonstrated in the Pardoner’s Prologue and the sermon interlude. Here and there we find smatterings of Latin, snippets of biblical and secular stories and references, and the wonderful apostrophe: O wombe! O bely! O stinking cod! “. This all serves to give the impression that the sermon interlude is not merely the transparent collection of inaccuracies that a real Pardoner would have produced, but an analysis of what will later be demonstrated in the Tale – the merging together of the sins which, together, constitute the major sin of gluttony avarice being merely one aspect of this. At one moment the Pardoner is stern – denouncing all from on high – and in the next he is friendly and jocular.
The level of variety he demonstrates is impressive. Above all, his style demonstrates repetition, for, as we well know by now, his customary audience are “lewed” – “stupid” – and his intention is to give them a sermon that they can fix in their heads and remember well, without becoming bored or inattentive. The Pardoner also has the ability to adapt to the situation he is in – he preaches to a wide variety of people, and has the job of convincing those people who would: “… destourbe… Cristes holy werk” that he is indeed a legitimate preacher.
The end of the Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale is testament to this; the looseness of the Pardoner’s morals is well known to the pilgrims, and therefore he makes no attempt to assume any hypocritical airs or graces. He conforms to the mood of his audience in a way which is essential to the Preacher’s arts – his sermon, despite being the only one he knows, contains anecdotes which could adapt to fit any given situation. The pilgrims are not ignorant, nor are they, for the most part, gullible, but they still clamour for a story, and the Pardoner delivers exactly what they are after.
The extent to which the Pardoner’s preaching complies with the “ars praedicandi” then, is quite far, but only when one just takes into account his dexterity in and competence for the work. When one considers his motivation for preaching, his devotion to doctrine seems less enthusiastic, to put it mildly. The Pardoner, as a literary figure, is a paradox – he preaches out of avarice, to avarice, and he can tell a moral tale even though he is a “ful vicious man”. His preaching is strengthened by the knowledge which supports it – he perverts the preacher’s art, and yet is more powerful because of it.