The Pardoner’s (Over-)Sexed Body

  • Robert S. Sturges
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Of all the bodies and behaviors so meticulously described in The Can-terbury Tales, and especially in the General Prologue, it is perhaps the Pardoner’s that have aroused the most critical controversy, especially con-cerning the nature of his genitals, as in the line “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare” (I, 691), and in the context of the other elements of his physi-cal and behavioral description throughout the Tales. In a sense, most crit-ics over the years seem to have wished, like Harry Bailly, that they could grasp the Pardoner’s body, could hold his “coillons” in their hands. In this context, Glenn Burger’s points about the Pardoner’s conceptual instability are particularly helpful: rejecting the choice between EugeneVance’s “masculinist” and H. Marshall Leicester’s and Carolyn Dinshaw’s “feminist” hermeneutical models,1 Burger uses the work of Jonathan Dollimore to reveal some of the ways in which “the Pardoner’s destabilizing presence can provoke the kind of social and discursive dislocation that Dollimore calls ‘discoherence.’”2 Here is Dollimore’s own definition:

To borrow a now-obsolete seventeenth-century word, the dislocation which the critique aims for is not so much an incoherence as a discoher-ence—an incongruity verging on a meaningful contradiction. In the process of being made to discohere, meanings are returned to circulation, thereby becoming the more vulnerable to appropriation, transformation, and rein-corporation in new configurations. Such in part are the processes by which the social is unmade and remade, disarticulated and rearticulated.

The critique whose objective is discoherence further seeks to reveal and maybe to reactivate the contrvate the contradictions which are feeaced by ideology as an aspect of the control of meaning.3


Gender Theory Sexed Body Feminist Scientist Linguistic Construction Canterbury Tale 
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  1. 1.
    Glenn Burger,“Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107 (1992), p. 1145. Burger is responding specifically to the followingCrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), p. 87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See, for instance, David E Greenberg, The Construction of Homosexuality (Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1988), p. 293: Only incidentally do these clerical passages deplore homosexuality; their deepest preoccupation is with men dressing and acting like women. Sexual stratification in the feudal aristocracy had been sharp.... The new styles of clothing and boclily appearance culti-vated by the men of the post-Conquest Norman aristocracy were incompatible with their traditional pastimes (hunting, fighting); gender conservatives interpreted them as involving the imitation of women, who had been traditionally been subordinate to men. The clergy found this voluntary adoption of the life-style of a subordi-nate sex repugnant, perhaps incompatible with the expectations of a ruling class. See also pp. 292–98 generally. On the association of effeminacy with male-male desireGoogle Scholar
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    That is, those who, according to the Glossa ordinaria, “deceptively put on the guise of religion, but in reality are not chaste: the wolves in sheeps’ clothing. ‘Inter hos computantur etiam hic qui specie religions simulant castitastem.”’ [Among those are also reckoned those who simulate chastity under the guise of religion.] Robert P. Miller, “Chaucer’s Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner’s Tale,” in Chaucer Criticism: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Richard Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960), p. 226, quoting the Glossa ordinaria to Matthew 19:12 (PL 94, col. 148); trans. Miller, p. 242, n. 6. And cf.Google Scholar
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© Robert S. Sturges 2000

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