Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath

Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath

Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath

Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath


Can an outrageously immoral man or a scandalous woman teach morality or lead people to virtue? Does personal fallibility devalue one's words and deeds? Is it possible to separate the private from the public, to segregate individual failing from official function? Chaucer addressed these perennial issues through two problematic authority figures, the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath. The Pardoner dares to assume official roles to which he has no legal claim and for which he is quite unsuited. We are faced with the shocking consequences of the belief, standard for the time, that immorality is not necessarily a bar to effective ministry. Even more subversively, the Wife of Bath, who represents one of the most despised stereotypes in medieval literature, the sexually rapacious widow, dispenses wisdom of the highest order.

This innovative book places these "fallible authors" within the full intellectual context that gave them meaning. Alastair Minnis magisterially examines the impact of Aristotelian thought on preaching theory, the controversial practice of granting indulgences, religious and medical categorizations of deviant bodies, theological attempts to rationalize sex within marriage, Wycliffite doctrine that made authority dependent on individual grace and raised the specter of Donatism, and heretical speculation concerning the possibility of female teachers. Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath are revealed as interconnected aspects of a single radical experiment wherein the relationship between objective authority and subjective fallibility is confronted as never before.


One read black where the other read white, his hope
The other man’s damnation:
Up the Rebels, To Hell with the Pope,
And God Save—as you prefer—the King or Ireland….
And each one in his will
Binds his heirs to continuance of hatred …

—LOUIS MACNEICE, Autumn Journal, XVI

I grew up in Northern Ireland, a land where the scars of the Reformation were still prominently on display. Born on the Protestant “Scots Irish” side of the religious divide, I knew hardly any Catholics, and certainly had no Catholic friends, until in 1966 I became a student at what was, at that time, the only integrated educational institution in the province, the Queen’s University of Belfast. There my fascination with medieval Catholic thought began—fostered by the unique Department of Scholastic Philosophy (which taught Thomism rather than the fashionable existentialism on offer in the Department of Philosophy just up the street). I must be one of the few people on the planet for whom reading Aquinas and Ockham was an act of youthful rebellion.

My own family, thankfully, was full of people who had little fear of the unconventional. Part of their take on their Protestant dissenting tradition was the conviction that one had to make one’s own life, through faith and works. My grandfather was a striking case in point—and a forceful, though hardly straightforward, influence. Following a disillusioning involvement with the private army which Sir Edward Carson illegally recruited to resist Irish Home Rule in 1914, he settled into an existence wherein pugnacious piety easily coexisted with contempt for many actual clergymen of our acquaintance, together with admiration for the life and works of Joe Stalin, “man of steel” (whose atrocities in the name of social revolution were as yet unknown). Another of his heroes was local author Alexander Irvine (1863– 1941), now commemorated with a drab little square in the town of Antrim . . .

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