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The Pardoner's Passing and How it Matters: Gender, Relics and Speech Acts

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  • UserDr Alex da Costa (University Lecturer at the Faculty of English; Fellow of Newnham College)
  • ClockTuesday 14 March 2017, 17:45-19:15
  • HouseGatsby Room, Wolfson College.

If you have a question about this talk, please contact Dr Rachel E. Holmes.

For decades, critics have been ignoring the particular doubt ‘Chaucer’, the narrator, raises over the figure of the Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales when he says ‘I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare’ (l.691). Even as the Pardoner has been embraced as a ‘a complicated sort of gay “ancestor”’ by first gay and lesbian studies and later by queer theorists, just one critic has been prepared to doubt his essential masculinity, though several have accepted his masculinity as neutered or castrated. The question of whether the Pardoner is a ‘mare’, a woman passing as a man, has thus been ignored, despite being the most straightforward gloss, until Jeffrey Rayner Myers ventured to suggest in 2000 that ‘this sexually ambiguous character might be a woman.’ This critical lacuna is all the more puzzling given that when Chaucer was writing there were several texts in which writers presented women passing as men. The widely circulated Gilte Legende included two saints lives in which a female dresses, lives and passes as male, without suspicion, until her death. Gower included the legend of Iphis and Achilles’ successful disguise as a maid in the Confessio Amantis. There were also Old French texts with similar episodes, such as Yde et Olive and the Roman de Silence, while Boccaccio included the tale of Pope Joan in De mulieribus claris, as well as the stories of a female disguised as an abbot and a steward in the Decameron (Day II, Tales III and IX). In this paper, I want to explore the possibility that the Pardoner is a woman passing as a man and to show how such a reading allows a parallel to emerge between the figure of the Pardoner, relics and oaths, bringing out a narrative interest across general prologue, prologue and tale in accident and substance, doubt and complicity.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Humanities Society talks series.

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