The Pardoner in and Out of the Canterbury Tales
  • Robert S. Sturges
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


We may regard the Pardoner and the Prioress as two different, if not opposed, possibilities for the feminine and maternal in language, but, because Chaucer left The Canterbury Tales in a fragmentary and apparently unfinished state, the question of where these two pilgrims’ tales stand in relation to each other in the text has never been answered satisfactorily. It is a question of considerable importance, since the order in which we read the tales would necessarily affect our interpretation of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.1 How, specifically, are we to understand the very different perspectives on gender and language offered by the Pardoner and the Prioress? Did Chaucer identify himself more with one position or the other? If he did, which of the two represents Chaucer’s own thoughts? The unfinished, fragmentary nature of The Canterbury Tales itself complicates even further any attempt to specify Chaucer’s own already ambiguous views on gender.


Female Body Gender Theory Fragmentary Nature Variant Reading Canterbury Tale 
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  1. Robert A. Pratt’s “Intro-duction” to his edition of Geoffrey Chaucer, ’The ‘Tales of Canterbury (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. xxv-xxvii.Google Scholar
  2. Derek Pearsall’s book The Canterbury Tales (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1985), pp. 14–23. A thoroughgoing discussion of the classification of the manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales can be found in the second volume (Classification of the Manuscripts) of The Text of The Canterbury Tales, ed. John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, 8 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940); see especially pp. 475–94 and the tables following p. 494 on the order of the tales.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    See Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer’s Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), p. 6Google Scholar
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    Greetham discusses “the modern” as a historical “interruption to book history,” p. 21; see also Robert S. Sturges, “Textual Scholarship: Ideologies of Literary Production” in Reflections in the Frame: New Perspectives on the Study of Medieval Literature, ed. Peter Allen and Jeff Rider, special issue of Exemplaria 3.1 (March, 1991), pp. 109–31. Greetham’s views, no doubt, could also be extended to later forms of textuality, but print tends to disguise a textual fluidity that manuscripts make manifest. See Bernard Cerquiglini, Eloge de la variante: Histoire critique de la philologie (Paris: Seuil, 1989), specifically on medieval textuality: Non encore serrée au carcan des formes instituées de l’écrit (auteur comme origine tutélaire, stabilité textuelle, etc.), dont nous avons vu combien elles étaient tardives, cette littérature donne à voir, de façon exemplaire, l’appropriation euphonique par la langue maternelle du geste qui la transcende. Cette appropriation se traduit par une variance essentielle, dans laquelle la philologie, pensée moderne du texte, n’a vu que maladie infantile, désinvolture coupable ou déficience première de la culture scribale, ce qui est seulement un excès joyeux (p. 42). [Not yet locked into the pillory of institutionalized forms of writing (author as guardian origin, textual stability, etc.), the degree of whose recency we have observed, this literature demonstrates in exemplary fashion the mother tongue’s euphonic appropriation of the gesture that transcends it. This appropriation betrays itself in an essential variance, in which philology, the modern idea of the text, saw only an infantile sickness, a guilty frivolity, or a primary deficiency of scribal culture, but which is merely a pleasurable excess.]Google Scholar
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    I take the variant readings from the fifth volume (Corpus of Variants, Part 1) of The Text of The Canterbury Tales, ed. Manly and Rickert, p. 62. Defin-itions of “ioly” and “feere” come from The Riverside Chaucer’s Glossary, s.v. “joly” and “fere.” The fourteenth-century definitions of “grom,” from the Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “groom,” include “a man, male person”; the Middle English Dictionary, s.v. “grom,” gives simply “a man” as a possible meaning beginning in 1375.This entire section speculating about a “queer edition” of Chaucer has been inspired not only by Greetham, but also by Jonathan Goldberg, “Under the Covers with Caliban,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 105–28.Google Scholar
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© Robert S. Sturges 2000

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