The Pardoner's Tale and the Unredeemed Dead
 


 
 

The Pardoner's Tale is rife with allusions to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and conversely to the association between the unredeemed dead and the corruption of the body. One way of looking at the quest of the three rioters  may be as a search for eternal death, that is, death without any possibility of resurrection. Such a death represents the triumph of body over spirit, or the reduction of man to his bodily component alone, not susceptible to resurrection.The bodily resurrection of the dead was one of the doctrines that most concerned theologians from the origins of Christianity throughout the middle ages. In the first centuries of Christianity, the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead was that which most clearly separated Christianity from pagan religions such as Docetism (the idea that Christ's body was somehow unreal or metaphorical) and Gnosticism which saw the body as separate and distinct from the soul and denied the redeemable nature of the body. In its most extreme form, Gnosticism understood the resurrection in terms of a moral and spiritual regeneration that could take place on earth. Pagan critics of Christians who found the idea of the bodily resurrection of the dead to be both ridiculous and revolting forced Christian thinkers to respond to such questions as the destiny of aborted fetuses or amputated body parts or fingernail parings as well as the state of the body at the time of resurrection. Would people be resurrected with all the signs of their bodily infirmities? What age would people be at the time of resurrection?
 
 
 
 
 
 

According to Tertullian:
 

 If God raises not men entire, He raises not the dead. For what dead man is entire, although he dies entire? Who is without hurt, that is without life? What body is uninjured, when it is dead, when it is cold, when it is ghastly, whin it is stiff, when it is a corpse? Thus for a dead man to be raised again amounts to nothing short of his being restored to his entire condition. God is quite able to remake what He once made. Thus our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection--so far indeed susceptible of suffering, as it is the flesh, and the same flesh too; but at the same time impassible, in as much as it has been liberated by the Lord for the very end and purpose of being no longer capable of enduring suffering.


Most Christian thinkers tried to reconcile the idea of the perfection of the body in paradise with the identity of its composition on earth. According to Tertullian, the resurrected body maintains all the bodily organs but defects and mutilations are repaired.
 

Now if the death of the whole person is rescinded by its resurrection, what must we say of the death of a part of him? If we are changed for glory, how much more for integrity? Any loss sustained by our bodies is an accident to them, but their entirety is their natural property . . . To nature, not to injury, are we restored.


The basic concept underlying the doctrine of bodily resurrection was the belief in the  identity between body and self. Thinkers such as Athanagoras argued that the human being cannot be said to exist when body is divided and scattered.
 

Although very late, St. Bonaventure's statements about the bodily assumption of Mary illustrate the belief in the essential identity between body and self. If Mary ascended into heaven before dying, she MUST have ascended into heaven corporally because body and self are inseparable.
 

Her happiness would not be complete unless she were there personally. The person is not the soul' it is a composite. Thus it is established that she must be there as a coomposite, that is, of soul and body. Otherwise she would not be there in perfect joy; for (as Augustine says) the minds of the saints are hindered, because of their natural inclination for heir bodies, from being totally borne into God. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

  Titian's Assumption, Chiesa dei Frari, Venice Italy shows the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven.
 

Thus, resurrection required that God reunite the fragments that had been divided, even in cases in which the body had been divided up among many animals.  The ultimate threat to bodily integrity was in fact represented by the digestive process. On the one hand, digestion makes one being a part of another threatens to turn humans into that which they eat, and on the other being eaten incorporates the substance of one  individual into the substance of another. Since the resurrection of the body was conceived of as a reassemblage of the parts of the body, being eaten (by wild animals, or more inevitably, by worms) threatened the identity and continuity of the discreet parts. Caroline Walker Bynum has shown how eating metaphors expressed medieval concerns about death, in particular anxiety about the disintegration, change, and decay of the body and the resulting loss of identity. Eating expressed both the threat to bodily integrity and continuity that comes about through the risk that we become what we eat (thus Athanagoras took pains to explain that humans were incapable of digesting human flesh and that human matter passed through their digestive tracts unabsorbed, as the thinness of cannibals illustrates), or, being eaten, we become a part of something else.

A solution to this problem was offered by the model of the Eucharist. The paradox of the Eucharistic feast that did not threaten the bodily integrity of the risen Jesus offered a model for all Christians who were endangered in their bodies. Ignatius of Antioch, writing about 110, argued that martyrdom, which would transform the individual into a type of Eucharist, offered a means of union with Christ:

 "Let me be the food of wild beasts through whom it is possible to attain God; I am the wheat of God, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread; instead, entice the wild beasts that they may become my tomb and leave behind no part of my body that when I fall asleep, I may burden no one."

". . . Fire and cross, and packs of wild beasts, the wrenching of bones, the mangling of limbs, the grinding of my whole body, evil punishments of the devil--let these come upon me, only that I may attain Jesus Christ."


Irenaeus argued that just as the flesh of Jesus survives digestion by humans in the mass, so the human flesh is capable of surviving digestion. We eat the flesh of Christ, and by eating his flesh we become Christ but without consuming Christ. The fact that we become Christ guarantees our resurrection:
 

And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed rises with manifold increase, and then becomes the Eucharist; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection.
Hell as Digestion

In later medieval iconography, despite the doctrinal belief in the bodily resurrection of all people, the difference between the saved and the damned was often expressed by portraying the damned as separated, disjoined, fragmented while the saved were represented as whole. Likewise, a frequent conception of hell was as a devouring mouth, a metaphor that conveyed the idea that to be damned was to be digested and thus to lose bodily identity. The illustration on the left from a fifteenth century book of hours made for Catherine of Cleves shows hell as a series of concentric mouths which swallow the damned.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

The illustration on the right is a thirteenth century mosaic from the cupola of the Baptistry of the Duomo of Florence in which Satan is  depicted greedily gobbling up the damned. Note the many avenues by which the damned are eaten: through Satan's mouth, through beasts emerging from his ears as well as through beasts emerging from his throne.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
Many portrayals of death emphasize in particular the stink of rot and decomposition, a characteristic that links it to the sin of sodomy. In this illustration taken from the Hours of Jeanne D'Evreux, Saint Louis is seen collecting the skulls of those who died after the massacre of Christians by the Saracens at  Sidon in 1253. On the one hand, collecting and burying the bones expresses faith in the resurrection, but the details emphasize the stink of rot and bodily corruption, as all the characters hold their noses and avert their faces.

One of the disturbing features about the Pardoner's Old Man is that he views death not in terms of bodily resurrection and ascendancy to heaven but as an entry into the earth. Moreover, his flesh is disappearing even before he is dead, further suggesting complete and utter dissolution without any possibility of resurrection. 

 


 

Oaths
Swearing oaths on Christ's body signifies a lack of faith in the resurrection of Christ and thus of the resurrection of the world to come. Oaths were popularly equated with attacks on Christ himself, as this exemplum from the Fasciculus Morum makes clear:
 

Lo, what happened in London. A certain Lombard by the name of Hubert de Lorgo, who is buried among the Domenicans in London, reported that he had a squire who, whenever he spoke, swore terrible oaths by Christ's members, such as his heart, eyes, teeth, and all wounds together, that it was awful to hear him. At last, when he was ill, he saw in a vision a most beautiful lady enter his room, carrying in her arms the sweetest child, who was most cruelly wounded. "Dearest lady," he said, "is this your son?" And she answered with somber voice: "Yes, this is my son." And he replied: "Whoever has mistreated him thus would be worthy of the greatest punishment, wounding an innocent child this way. " When she heard this, she turned to him sharply and said: "You, wretch, are the one who have thus torn my child through your oaths, which often were even false. And now he will be your judge who has said to y, ‘May it happen to you as you have said.' " And with these words she disappeared, whereas the squire, returning to his senses, cried out and told those present what had happened. And then he added: "I shall go to the devils." And with these words he expired at once.


A fourteenth-century confessional manual, Handlyng Synne has this to say about swearing oaths on Christ's body:

 yf žou were euer so fole hardy
To swere grete ožys grysly,
As we folys do all day,
Dysmembre Ihesu alle žat we may,
Gentyl men, for grete gentry
wene žat grete ožys beyn curteysy;
Noželes, blode, fete & y en,
žey scorne Ihesu and vpbreyde hys pyn.
Of hys woundys he haž vpbreyde,
Our shame hyt ys žat yt ys seyd;
 

Gluttony and death
Although many critics have pointed out the Pardoner's "error" in considering Adam's sin to be gluttony rather than pride, in fact the Pardoner  was not alone in considering Adam's sin to be gluttony. Tertullian also thought Adam's sin was gluttony, which symbolized mortality and decay. The anxiety about the perpetual state of change and disintegration of the body was evident in the medieval descriptions of the sin of gluttony which focus on excrement and vomit and in which all the disgust and fear over the corruptibility and impermanence of the body was evident.

This is the description of Glutton from Piers Plowman, which stresses the disgust at excrement.
 

By that time Glutton had put down more that a gallon of ale, and his guts were beginning to rumble like a couple of greedy sows. Then, before you had time to say the Our Father, he had pissed a couple of of quarts, and blown such a blast on the round horn of his rump, that all who heard it had to hold their noses, and wished to God he would plug it with a bunch of gorse.


Homosexuality
It may well be the association of homosexuality with anality and thus with feces and excrement that made homosexuality such a horrifying sin. It was associated with unredeeemed, unregenerate corruption of the body.

Homosexuality was so dangerous a sin that it could not be named even by priests for fear of leading man to temptation, even though those guilty of the sin were required to confess it to gain forgiveness. This is what Mirk's preaching manual, an early fifteenth century handbook of instruction for parish priests,  had to say about homosexuality, a sin not to be mentioned by priests in their sermons for fear of imparting wicked ideas but which nonetheless the sinner was obliged to confess:

Also wryten wel I fynde,
That of synne a eynes kynde
Thow schalt thy paresch no žynge teche,
Ny of that synne no thynge preche;
But say žus by gode a-vys,
žat ‘to gret synne forsože hyt ys,
For any mon žat bereth lyf
To forsake hys wedded wyf
And do hys kynde other way,
žat is gret synne wyžowte nay;'
But how and where he doth žat synne,
To hys schryffader he mote žat mynne.

The author of the Fasciculus Morum,  a fourteenth-century preacher's handbook, shares the concept of homosexuality as that sin which is unspeakable. Likewise, evident in his description of the punishment of homosexuality is the emphasis on internal bodily corruption. It is significant that hell is described as the state of  being swallowed up and eaten by the earth, that is, being consigned to rot, decay, and decomposition of the body. Though their bodies might appear beautiful on the outside, they enclose a sulphurous hell of unredeemable death within. The particular horror reserved for homosexuality would seem to derive from its association with digestion and excrement, and thus with the bodily corruption of death. Homosexuality is the negation of the resurrection of the flesh.
 

The fifth and last branch of lechery is the diabolical sin against nature called sodomy. I pass it over in horror and leave it to others to describe it. . . . Not only did fire and sulphur falling from above kill people and animals, but the earth opened its mouth and swallowed all the living. Thus it is certain that on account of the said sin they perished forever in hell. As an open sign the sea there remains dead even in our days; no living being can submerge or remain it it; and it is all for just revenge in horror of such a sin. As it is said in the book, On the Nature of Things, if a burning light is thrown into this sea, it floats on the surface and cannot drown until it is put out, as a sign that nothing alive that is done in the light of grace for those for whose sake such vengeance was taken is of any use. And a further testimony, according to writers on natural history and several moderns who have observed this with their own eyes, is that while the apples that grow on the shore of that sea are most beautiful to look at, when they are ripe and are cut open they give forth a sulphurous smoke and dusty ashes. The same applies to the evil lechers who are devoted to the aforementioned abhorrent sins: thought they show great external beauty in their body, like green and beautiful apples, the riper they grow, the more they give forth a sickening ash in their lust that burns and smells like sulphur. Therefore, according to Augustine, "God hated this vice so much that, seeing it being committed by men before his incarnation, he almost refrained from becoming a man." And thus God did not want to entrust any angel or man with the execution of this punishment but kept its vengeance for himself, after the words: "Revenge is mine, and I will repay."


The Middle English poem Cleanness (quoted from The Complete Works of the Pearl Poet, ed. and trans. Casey Finch [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993) characterizes the sin of sodomy in terms of digestive references: the stink associated with vomit and excrement. The speech of the Sodomites is referred to in terms of its malodour:

What! They spewed out and spoke of such sickening filth!
What! They shouted such scandalous, sin-ridden words
That the wind and the world and the weather themselves
Still stink from the sin that they spoke of that day!
                                              (ll.  845-8)

Relics

The cult of relics of martyrs also depended on the partition of the body. Whereas the idea of death and hell played on the fear of eternal bodily division, the cult of relics was closely bound up with the idea of the identity of the partial bodily remains of the saint with the saint as a whole, blessed resurrected body. Thus in the mid-twelfth century, Peter the Venerable explains the significance of relics of saints.

 The divine dignity divides his martyr into equal parts, so that he may retain his soul for himself among the mass of the blessed and gie, with marvelous largesse, the relics of his sacred body to be venerated by the faithful still living in the flesh. . . . Therefore we know the spirits of the just will in the meanwhile live happily in the eternal life which we expect through faith, which he promises who is faithful in his words and we anticipate for them a future resurrection in their bodies with immortality and in every sense incorruptibility. For this reason we do not debase as inanimate, despise as insensate, or trample under foot like the cadavers of dumb beasts the bodies of those who in this life cultivated justice; rather we venerate them as temples of the Lord, revere tham as palaces of divinity, hoard them as pearls suitable for the crown of the eternal king, and, with the greatest devotion of which we are capable, preserve them as vessels of resurrection to be joined again to the blessed souls . . .
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

This reliquary Arm of St. Valentine dates from the fourteenth century.

The reliquary, as a repository for the hand bones of the saint, serves as a metaphor for resurrection, the reliquary itself recomposing
the fragments it contains into the original form of the body they composed.

As a result, sharing the possession of relics with the community of the faithful was a religious obligation. On the other hand passing off animal parts for the relics of saints could deceive men into idolatry and damnation. That the selling of animal bones as relics by pardoners was a well-known abuse can be seen by the fact that the Fasciculus Morum uses this misdeed to describe those who cloak their sins in excuses.

We should thus know that people who veil their sins in this fashion are like these false pardoners, who show their relics in some golden vessel that is decorated with precious gems, or else wrapped in cloths of gold and silk, so that they may look truly precious before the people. But as it often happens, when they open them up, you will find nothing but the bones from a farm animal that have been pulled out of a ditch, stinking and dried up and worthy of every abomination. IN the same say,, when such people ought to show their sins frankly and truthfully in confession, they put so many excuses around them like wrappers, as if they wanted to make of their sins relics to be worshipped whereas in truth they stink horribly before God and his angels.
Since the value of the relic lies in its identity with the resurrected body at Christ's second coming, it is not surprising that one of the qualities of the relics of saints is their incorruptibility. Sermon exempla illustrate the point both that those who conceal true relics will be found out and punished and those that have faith in the power of relics will be rewarded. Click here to read the stories of the merchant who falsely bought the arm of St. John and the faithful knight who built a tomb for what he believed was the bridle of St. Thomas of Canterbury. Click here to read the denunciation by Guibert of Nogent (11th century) of the evils of trafficking in false relics.

Avarice and Gluttony
 Although the Pardoner's insistence on avarice as the root of all evil has been seen as a cover for his real sins of lechery and carnality, we should remember that medieval thought closely connected unnatural sexual acts, gluttony, and avarice. A striking if confused metaphor of the association between money, eating, and excrement as the antithesis of the resurrection of the body guaranteed by Jesus is found in Alain de Lille's Complaint of Nature (thirteenth century). Here we find two metaphors used to describe gluttony. On the one hand, gluttony is described in terms of avarice, and the extent to which the sin of gluttony is described in the vocabulary of money is striking. The stomach is a coffer controlled by a tax collector; food is the tax deposited in the coffer or the stomach; digestion is a form of robbery; vomit is the disgorging of coins in order to indulge in their possession.

Not only the aforementioned passion for drink, but also a canine greediness for eating, entices very many. The abnormal desires of such, and their gross thoughts, dream of preparations of food. While they pay too fully their due of food to the daily tax-collector, he, more than loaded, has to pay back his debtor. They prize whatever they hold in the coffer of the stomach, and although neither rust can consume that trust with the tooth of corrosion, nor the guile of the stealthy thief snatch it away, nevertheless it vanishes more ignobly in the baser robbery of digestive heat. That they may more carefully fawn upon this tax collecting stomach, they urge the purse to disgorge its treasure, the coffer to vomit its coins. Though within they enrich the belly with wealth of foods, without they are situated in sheer, naked, and lonely poverty. Now this pestilence, not contented with plebeian humility, extends itself quite deeply among prelates. These, degrading the office of baptism, baptize in the base font of spice salmon, pike, and other fish which are exceptional in equal excellence, and have been crucified in various martyrdoms of cookery, to the end that, by coming from such a baptism, they may acquire a varied and agreeable savor. Furthermore, on the same table the beast of the earth is drowned in the flood of spice, the fish swims in it, the bird is . limed in its paste. And while so many species of animals are confined in the single prison-house of a belly, the creature of the sea wonders that the tribes that go on foot and the tribes of the air are buried With it in the same sepulchre. If freedom to go out is given them, the width of the door hardly suffices for their egress.
The second metaphor used to describe gluttony, and to classify it as a particular vice of the priesthood, is that of a perversion of the death and resurrection of Christ, an obscene parody of the Eucharist. In the following illustration of gluttony taken from the Fasciculus Morum, fish are martyred and crucified to produce the sacrament of baptism consisting of immersion in spiced sauces, and the stomach becomes a sepulcher in which animals, birds, and fishes are promiscuously buried together so that their expulsion from the stomach through an orifice that can hardly accommodate them becomes an obscene parody of the resurrection of Jesus.
 
 Not only the aforementioned passion for drink, but also a canine greediness for eating, entices very many. The abnormal desires of such, and their gross thoughts, dream of preparations of food. While they pay too fully their due of food to the daily tax-collector, he, more than loaded, has to pay back his debtor. They prize whatever they hold in the coffer of the stomach, and although neither rust can consume that trust with the tooth of corrosion, nor the guile of the stealthy thief snatch it away, nevertheless it vanishes more ignobly in the baser robbery of digestive heat. That they may more carefully fawn upon this tax collecting stomach, they urge the purse to disgorge its treasure, the coffer to vomit its coins. Though within they enrich the belly with wealth of foods, without they are situated in sheer, naked, and lonely poverty. Now this pestilence, not contented with plebeian humility, extends itself quite deeply among prelates. These, degrading the office of baptism, baptize in the base font of spice salmon, pike, and other fish which are exceptional in equal excellence, and have been crucified in various martyrdoms of cookery, to the end that, by coming from such a baptism, they may acquire a varied and agreeable savor. Furthermore, on the same table the beast of the earth is drowned in the flood of spice, the fish swims in it, the bird is . limed in its paste. And while so many species of animals are confined in the single prison-house of a belly, the creature of the sea wonders that the tribes that go on foot and the tribes of the air are buried with it in the same sepulchre. If freedom to go out is given them, the width of the door hardly suffices for their egress.


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