Chaucer’s Pardoner: The Medieval Culture of Cross-Dressing and Problems of Religious Authority

Medieval Feminist Forum 54.2 (2019): 64–108.

By Larissa Tracy

One of the most ambiguous and contentious characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales is the Pardoner, the last (and arguably worst) of the pilgrims described in the General Prologue. The Pardoner, accused of being a gelding or a mare endowed with several effeminate traits, plays on multiple gendered associations—including that of a cross-dressing woman. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer manipulates gender expectations and assumptions in the figure of the Pardoner without fully clarifying the Pardoner’s sex, sexuality, or gender, leaving the text open to potentially subversive interpretations, including cross-dressing, or homosexuality.[1] A pardoner with papal sanction to grant indulgences, sell relics, and speak authoritatively on matters of sin might be expected to embody the heteronormative masculine identity insisted upon by the Church which denied these kinds of offices to women and decried sexual sins as immoral. A cross-dressing female pardoner subverts the expectations for the office and contradicts the admonition against women preaching. In his 2000 article “Chaucer’s Pardoner as Female Eunuch,” Jeffrey Rayner Myers makes a compelling linguistic argument for reading the Pardoner as female, but that interpretation has received little or no attention since. Myers concludes that Chaucer’s purpose was to “show that the constricting gender roles available to women, whether embraced or shunned, could often require a denial of sexual identity, a kind of social castration that includes gender and class.”[2] However, Myers goes no further in analyzing the analogues and the implications of such an interpretation. The cross-dressing motif, especially among women, was a popular one that may have gained traction, in part, with the emergence of the thirteenth-century myth of Pope Joan, the ninth century woman who adopted male dress to follow her lover, gained prestige in the Curia, and was proclaimed pope.[3] There are several medieval cross-dressing analogues to Chaucer’s work in Old French fabliaux (Frere Denise), in hagiography (the lives of Marina, Pelagia, and Theodora), and romance (Le Roman de Silence) that feature a woman who dresses and lives as man to remove herself from the gendered stigma of femaleness. Valerie Hotchkiss lists more than thirty cross-dressing female saints in the introduction to her Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe.[4] Boccaccio includes tales of cross-dressing women in The Decameron.[5] By the fourteenth century, cross-dressing was a relatively common literary motif, one upon which Chaucer may have drawn in the construction of his transgressive and ambiguously gendered Pardoner.

The Pardoner remains an enigmatic figure whose mere presence troubles the cultural gender assumptions of Chaucer’s pilgrims and his audience. If the Pardoner’s rhetoric represents orthodox theology,[6] revealing the Pardoner as a cross-dressing woman undermines the efficacy of the message because women were considered unfit to preach publicly. While women (both fictional and historical) like the Wife of Bath and Margery Kempe,[7] certainly deploy orthodox rhetoric, they do so from outside the authoritative structure of the Church and can be easily dismissed as ignorant or incompetent. A woman who could convincingly employ orthodox rhetoric from within the institutional structures, with the sanction of the Church, even if she is not visibly a woman, would undermine the argument against giving women a greater pastoral role and more authority. However, by not confirming anything either way, Chaucer leaves open the possibility that the words of female (or even homosexual or castrated male) preachers are untainted by the vice of their gender. Chaucer’s ambiguous description of the Pardoner potentially plays on cultural associations of cross-dressing, drawing from a host of literary analogues, challenging the primacy of male religious authority and legitimizing the rhetorical power of female preachers by providing a platform otherwise denied to women.

[1] While both “homosexual” and “heterosexual” are ahistorical terms, there are the clearest way of denoting same-sex intercourse and opposite-sex intercourse. I use those terms only in reference to sexual activity, not identity. Sarah Salih provides a compelling discussion of heternormativity in the Middle Ages, particularly in relation to marriage, and concludes that heterosexuality did exist, but not as we know it. See: “Unpleasures of the Flesh: Medieval Marriage, Masochism, and the History of Heterosexuality,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 33 (2011): 125–47. Warren Johansson and William A. Percy quite correctly assert that while medieval men and women could engage in sodomy, a term that covers a range of sexual activity including those now associated with homosexuality, “no one in the Middle Ages was or could be have been ‘homosexual,’ ‘gay,’ or ‘queer.’” “Homosexuality,” in Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James A. Brundage, 155–89 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1996), 156. However, same sex desire, referred to here as homoerotic or homosexual desire, certainly did exist and was a concern for medieval audiences who were constantly bombarded with the Church’s message that non-procreative sex in any form should be avoided.

[2] Jeffrey Rayner Myers, “Chaucer’s Pardoner as Female Eunuch,” Studia Neophilologica 72 (2000): 54–62, at 54.

[3] Alain Boureau, The Myth of Pope Joan, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001), 2.

[4] Valerie Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man: Female Cross Dressing in Medieval Europe (New York: Garland, 1996), 4. Vern Bullough cites the popularity of female transvestitism in hagiography in which “the female who donned male garb and acted the role of a male was a much admired figure.” Vern L. Bullough with Gwen Whitehead Brewer, “Medieval Masculinities and Modern Interpretations: The Problem of the Pardoner,” in Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West, ed. Jacqueline Murray, 93–110 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1999), 100. In addition to Hotchkiss’ work, several studies have been done on female transvestite saints. Ad Putter provides ample evidence of transvestite knights in his article “Transvestite Knights in Medieval Life and Literature,” in Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Bonnie Wheeler, 279–302 (New York: Garland, 2000), though he focuses primarily on male cross-dressing. See also: Larissa Tracy, Women of the Gilte Legende: A Selection of Middle English Saints’ Lives (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2003). Cross-dressing often figures into discussions of gendered sanctity, see: Samantha J.E. Riches and Sarah Salih, eds., Gender and Holiness: Men, Women and Saints in Late Medieval Europe (New York: Routledge, 2002) and Sarah Salih, Versions of Virginity in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2001).

[5] Hotchkiss, Clothes Make the Man, 162 n. 1.

[6] Alastair Minnis deftly analyzes the fallibility of both the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, interrogating the perceived heterodoxy of their rhetoric and concluding that they are orthodox figures. Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2008).

[7] See: Minnis, Fallible Authors.