The Parson was the only true devout churchman in Chaucer’s group; he avoided all the tricks unscrupulous clerics used to get rich, and spends his attention and energy on his parishioners. He is an example of deep Christian goodness. The portrait of The Parson is wholly good, without any such a hint of irony on display elsewhere in the general prologue ” A good man was ther of religioun”. Around him faith and pastoral care, which should be seen in the church, is failing, but he himself does not appear to falter.
Many of his qualities are described in reverse, as failings that he did not posses, the opposite to those priests and churchmen who it is suggested, did exhibit considerable failings, such as The Pardoner, who were not as committed to their faith or practise. He remains in his modest parish, and is shown as a Shepard with his staff, imitating Christ it seems in his care for the flock. “This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf”.
A noticeable line in the Parsons tale is ” That if gold ruste, what shal iren do?” This relates to the fact that the Parson is describing how on earth that normal people can hope to lead a good and respectable life, if those in the church are not. Those priests that are weak surely can’t expect ordinary people to remain genuine. The image of the Parson is one of true respectability and of a man who is precisely what God meant for the earth, someone who can be trusted and who is superior to others.
The Pardoner is an unpleasant churchman, the opposite of The Parson he earns money by selling “pardons” from Rome, and by letting simple folk see the fake holy relics he carries. The Pardoner is the most controversial of all the pilgrims for four reasons: his work, his sin and greed, his unrepentant pride, and his sexuality. The Pardoner’s job of giving people written absolution from sin was a dubious profession in medieval Europe. As he reveals in his Prologue, the Pardoner is well aware that he himself is greedy, which is the very sin against which he preaches in order to con people into giving him money. What makes him so distasteful to the other characters is that fact that he is so proud of his vice.
Like the other pilgrims, the Pardoner carries with him to Canterbury the tools of his trade-in his case, freshly signed papal indulgences and a sack of false relics, including a brass cross filled with stones to make it seem as heavy as gold and a glass jar full of pig’s bones, which he passes off as saints’ relics “Crois of latoun ful of stones”. Since visiting relics on pilgrimage had become a tourist industry, the Pardoner wants to cash in on religion in any way he can, and he does this by selling actual, material objects.
The presentation of the Pardoner is one of corruption and fraud. The techniques of imagery are used in order to create this representation of a deceitful and malicious man, misleading those who did not know any better. From the portrait of the Pardoner, it is possible to assume that the views of the church in Chaucer’s time were mixed and not entirely reliable. The Parson is a trustworthy churchman, whose practises were almost too honourable, and then contrasted with him is the Pardoner, whose ambiguous and flawed church life gave an unreservedly harsh view of how the rest of the church was. These two characters in the general prologue give two opposite ends of the scale views of the church as a whole unit; both characters are unusual. The Parson is exceptionally good, the Pardoner is remarkably disobedient.