The Profession of Pardoners in the Middle Ages
by Francis Williams
A Pardoner is the English name for what the Church
called a Questor. In the Middle Ages, the work of a
Questor was to collect money by appealing to the charity
of Christian people. He was forbidden to preach and
had no power to pardon the sins of anyone. All he might
do was to read out certain documents which were signed
and sealed by the Pope or some other Bishop, appealing
to the charity of the congregation, for a particular
purpose. Following that, he was expected to take up
a collection and hand it over to the authorities that
had appointed him. The Church used such monies collected
for the building and maintenance of churches and hospitals,
the care of the sick and poor and the repair of roads
and bridges and other such deserving causes.
A genuine Questor then, was appointed by some religious
House or Warden of a Hospital. The Blessed Mary of Rouncivalle,
in London, is such a hospital which was founded in 1229
by the Earl of Pembroke. It was this Hospital that Chaucer’s
Pardoner was supposed to serve.
Until 1562 when the Council of Trent under Pope Pius
IV swept the pardoners’ trade away, England was
over-run by hordes of Pardoners who wielded petty power
and lined their pockets with the money or goods that
they collected from gullible people. The Pardoner cashed
in on their love of God and fear of Hell. The Church
did try to control the abuses of the practice but did
not succeed in doing so.
The Questors profession was founded on Catholic teaching.
Christian thought and practice included the theory and
practice of Confession. The person who wished to avail
himself of the benefit of Confession had to fulfill
3 conditions –
. The person had to be fully repentant.
The person had to confess fully by word of mouth to
a consecrated priest.
The person had to perform or fully intend to perform
whatever penance the priest requested.
When all 3 conditions were fulfilled, the priest awards
a punishment and pronounces Absolution. It is not the
priest who forgives the sinner-forgiveness comes from
The punishments meted out were sometimes harsh –many
months and sometimes years fasting on bread and water,
hundreds of lashes on the palm of the hand, to name
but a couple. From the early Middle Ages, the practice
of substituting money payment for severe punishments,
was recognized. This was an advantage to both the penitent
(if he had the money), and the Church (who needed it),
to be punished not in the person, but in the purse.
Such an "indulgence" was not a forgiveness
of sin but an easier way of paying down a punishment
–a commutation of penance.
In addition to the theory and practice of Confession,
by the thirteenth century the theory of The Treasury
of Grace developed. The Church believed that there was
a great treasury of merit which had been acquired by
Christ, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints which was
available for distribution among the penitents who requested
it in faith. By tapping in to this abundant source,
a remission of the penance was readily available. If
the penitent played his role and showed his willingness
by offering a portion of his worldly goods for charitable
purposes, the church would play its role by mediating
and obtaining the merit.
A third doctrine was also connected with the practice
of Indulgences. This was the doctrine concerning the
state of souls in Purgatory. Purgatory was the state/place
where one’s soul went to if one was not good enough
to go directly to Heaven, or evil enough to descend
straight to Hell. The Church held that the vast majority
existed in this in-between state where they underwent
some kind of purgation/punishment, until they had paid
their debt of penance. No-one knew what the duration
of the stay would be but the relatives of the dead person
had a chance at this stage to perform some charitable
act or prayer and procure the dead some indulgences
in order to shorten their stay in Purgatory and send
them soon to Heaven. So, the system of Indulgences which
was already in place for the commutation of penance
on earth, was now being extended to the shortening of
penance in Purgatory –all in return for a charitable
Where does the Questor come in to this? It was his business
to read the Indulgences aloud to assembled congregations.
A Questor was usually a simple monk or priest but there
were also professional Questors, like Chaucer’s
Pardoner who were laymen hired by religious foundations
to raise money, with the permission of the archdeacon,
for a fee.
Of course, abuses flourished. The Pardoners
preached, gave pardon and forgave sins. They performed
both a poena (remission of punishment) and a culpa (forgiveness
of sin) which was really in God’s hands. They
absolved murderers and sent others straight to Heaven.
Many were drunkards. They were deceitful and lied about
miracles. They openly exhibited the bones of beasts
and pretended that they were the relics of Saints. By
feeding on the fears of mankind, the Pardoners, by hypocritical
means and blackmail and cajolery amassed a fortune from
the poor and superstitious.
Langland in Piers Plowman describes a pardoner in this
manner -" Simple folk believed in him and came
up, kneeling, to kiss his bulls: and with his rigmarole
he reached for their rings and brooches; and so they
gave their gold to keep the gluttons going, and believed
in these blackguards that haunted lechery."
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by Mariann Szekely
As we already know, religion played a very important
role in the lives of the people during the Middle Ages.
At the beginning of the 13th century the church had
done little to adjust itself to intellectual and economic
changes influencing the thoughts and the lives of the
people. Rowlands (1999), whose book called Friars I
used to gather most of the information for this presentation,
explains that lay people came to believe that true faith
could only exist within the walls of the monasteries
and they were happy to go through only the motions of
the church services. Throughout Western Europe there
was widespread criticism and calls for reform from within
the church. Records indicate that blasphemous jokes
freely circulated in the taverns of the time (Rowlands
1999). This was a period when the church had a strong
need for teachers and preachers and, according to Rowlands
(1999), a "wave of enthusiasm swept across Europe
for a new form of religious vocation which identified
the service of God with service to man" (48).
This was the era in which the friars’ movements
came into being. Friars, meaning brothers as in the
French "frère", belonged to orders
each of which had their own objectives, customs, dress
codes and rules. The first of these orders emerged from
the zeal of two very different but equally enthusiastic
individuals, namely St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic.
They saw that the spiritual needs of the people were
not being met by the monastic or secular clergy and
sought to create groups that would help the situation.
There were at one time nine different orders in Europe
but some of these never reached England. The four most
influential ones in England were: the Dominicans (established
in England in 1216), the Franciscans (1223), the Carmelites
(1226) and the Austins (1256). Other known European
orders include: the Mercenaries (1235), the Crutched
Cross (1248), the Sack (1251), Servites (1256) and the
The friars appealed to both the intellect and the emotions
of the church and its people and brought a new perspective
to religion (Rowlands 1999). The mendicants, or beggars
as they were often called, aimed to enlighten people’s
understanding of the Gospel by proclaiming the Christian
doctrines through education.
These mendicant friars were a radical breakaway from
the monastic traditions of the past. Most importantly,
they broke from one of the basic principles of traditional
monasticism by abandoning the seclusion of the enclosed
cloisters in order to engage in an active pastoral mission
to society (Rowlands 1999). They brought a new vitality
to the faith as they took their message and enthusiasm
to the rich and the poor at universities, castles, villages
and towns. In their early years they lived out the Christian
message that they were preaching and teaching.
To us the best-known friar is Friar Tuck, the jovial
cleric of Robin Hood:
Many of the Robin Hood stories are based on historical
the stories are centered around Robin Hood’s struggles
Sheriff of Nottingham and king John (. . .) King John
1216. However, the first Dominican friars did not arrive
England until 1221 and the first Franciscans in 1224.
(. . .)
If Friar Tuck was one of the band of outlaws, they could
have been engaged in struggle with King John. Legend
tells us that Robin hood died in 1246. It appears that
John part of the story was added to give the tales a
(Rollings 1999, 194)
Friars, at the time, were much more well known then
today in the towns and villages they frequently traveled
to preach, to work with the sick and needy, and to carry
out their function as confessors. Only a few men adopted
the friars’ way of life, which asked them to be
partly priest and partly monk (Rowlands 1999). They
took the vow of poverty, chastity, service and obedience,
which they upheld by being out with the public and promoting
the church and God’s way of life. They were versatile
Christians who were at ease with the wealthy and influential
but could also work with merchants and the poorest or
the sickest (leprosy victims) of society (Rowlands 1999).
Men who wanted to become friars had to be devoted
to the Christian faith without thought of self-advancement.
Interestingly, many gifted and well to do men became
friars. Dominican Friars were stereotyped as learned
and serious brethren who had shown by their manner that
they considered themselves to be the best-trained and
most competent preachers (Rowlands 1999). The Franciscans,
on the other hand, were seen as jolly friars who lived
by their wits and tongue and even earned the nickname
of God’s Jesters (Rowlands 1999). Individual friars
of the order advocated that cheerfulness was a sign
of a clean heart and a great defense against the devil.
Since they went out most among the ordinary and poor
people, they were much more popular and had a closer
affinity with them then the Dominicans did. Thus the
Franciscans became the trusted confidants and friends
of the communities and the Dominicans came to be seen
as great teachers and intellectuals.
Friars were incorrigible chatterers, for without their
ability to converse they would not have been very successful
in their calling. In fact, prospective Dominican preachers
were expected to be fluent and have a ready flow of
anecdotes for use in their sermons (Rowlands 1999).
It was thought to be of benefit too if they had a sonorous
voice capable of producing a good, clear sound. They
were taught to fit their sermons to their audience,
since there was no one kind of sermon suitable for everyone.
Chaucer, in the General Prologue, describes his Friar
as a man who knows "fair langage" (211) and
is much concerned about the content of speech and its
delivery. We are told that he has a special system of
signs by which he knows the true intention of penitents
who confess to him. Huberd, the friar, through his own
rhetorical abilities in preaching is able to produce
the signs of true contrition, which, in his opinion
is giving money, from even the poorest of his audience
This preoccupation of some friars with money and personal
gain is what brought about their bad name. Although
most friars were diligent and conscientious, by the
fifteenth century many of them fell short of the high
standards of holy life. In their constant struggle to
maintain the financial viability of their houses, friars
resorted to various means of financial support. The
ongoing plying for alms was an important part of their
money making activities but they also took money from
elderly individuals and provided room for them in their
houses for their remaining years. They made every effort
to collect moneys if left to them by a deceased individual.
There are a number of references of the friars going
to court to enforce the payment of legacies (Rowlands
Rowlands (1999) believes, that as in all organizations,
there were many good and honest brethren, but the inadequate
and slothful gave the mendicants a bad name. Despite
their good work in their communities they were tarnished
by the way they solicited funds. Yet without sufficient
funds, they could not have survived. They were caught
in a vicious circle. The standards of friars in England
continued to decline until it all came to an end in
1538-9 when Henry VIII dissolved all monastic houses,
including friaries, in his realm.
Benson, L.D. The Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Houghton
Mifflin Company: Boston, (1987).
Rowlands, Kenneth. The Friars: A History of the British
Medieval Friars. The Book Guild Ltd.: Sussex, (1999).
Williams, David. The Canterbury Tales: A Literary Pilgrimage.
Twayne Publishers: Boston, (1987).
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The Peasant's Revolt
by J. Graham Lee
The English Peasant’s Revolt took place in 1381
but many of its causes were in place years before. The
Black Death swept the nation in the 1340s, killing anywhere
between one third and one half of the population in
just a few years. The resulting deficit in the labour
market put peasant workers in high demand. Crops began
to rot in the fields and cities began to fall apart
because there was no one left to do the work. The peasants’
lives began to improve as the demand for their services
increased. While some land owners switched from labour
intensive agriculture to easier livestock raising (sheep
took fewer people to raise than crops), many others
dug in and stubbornly tried to control the peasants
with harsher standards. There was a renewed emphasis
on Villeinage (the system of tying the peasants to the
land and forcing them to work their lord’s fields
several days a week as "rent," this hereditary
system was little better than slavery) which peasants
had been complaining about for years. The government
also contributed to the problem, enacting Statutes of
Labourers in 1349 and then again in 1351, which were
an unsuccessful attempt to freeze both prices and wages
at pre-plague levels.
The plague also caused the people to question the capability
of the church. There was widespread call for reform
by people upset with the way in which the church had
let them down. They blamed much of the misery of the
plague on the ineptness of the church. One such dissident,
John Wycliffe, expressed much displeasure with the way
the church was run, and even began translating the bible
into English so all could read and interpret it. His
followers eventually became known as Lollards. The Lollards
preached to the sympathetic ear of the common people
and some of their more reactionary members even advocated
taking from the rich and giving back to the poor. One
of these, John Ball, eventually became closely associated
with the organization of the Kentish branch of the Peasant’s
To compound problems, England, then under the rule of
a fourteen year old Richard II, was still engaged in
the 100 years war with France. While England had originally
won vast tracks of land from the French, they were now
suffering heavy losses, and were being forced to retreat.
To subsidize this losing war several new taxes were
levied in 1377, 1379 and 1380. The last of these taxes,
the Poll Tax, was a one-shilling tax on every citizen
over the age of fifteen. The unpopularity of this tax
led to widespread evasion. People hid from the collectors
and lied about the age of their children. The government
received much less money than it expected and so in
the spring of 1381 appointed commissions to find the
missing money. This was what instigated the revolt.
In May of 1381, the people of Essex attacked and drove
out the commissioners who were investigating tax evasion
in their county. They also beheaded the members of a
jury set up to punish their acts of disobedience. There
were several other attacks, including one against the
sheriff of Essex, on June 6. After this they began to
advance on London.
Simultaneous to this, in Kent, a man named Wat Tyler
led another uprising. The rebels stormed Rochester Castle,
opened Marshalon prison, and also began marching on
London. On June 13 the two different rebel factions
met at Mile End just outside of London. They numbered
approximately 100,000. Sympathizers within the city
opened a gate and allowed them to enter. They were surprisingly
wellbehaved, avoiding raping and looting, and even beheading
several of their own members for stealing.
At this point the chronology becomes confused, but Richard
II did meet with the rebels. The rebels never had any
disloyal thoughts towards the king; their hate was focused
on the nobility. Richard conceded to their demands of
an abolition of the Villein system, fair terms of employment
and fixed land prices, and the Essex faction departed
satisfied with the king’s promise. Tyler, however,
was not to be stopped so easily. His men became drunk
and violent, and they attacked and murdered the local
people, each other, and any foreigners they could find.
They also sacked and burned to the ground John of Gaunt’s
house, the Palace of Savoy, because they blamed him
in part for the Poll tax. They stormed the Tower of
London, captured the Archbishop of Canterbury and decapitated
him. They attacked and mocked all the nobles they encountered,
and also attacked the dwellings of lawyers (one of Tyler’s
later demands was rumoured to be the decapitation of
all lawyers).<to top>
Richard again met the rebels with only a small escort,
but this time during some confusion, the mayor of London,
Walworth, stabbed Tyler. When Tyler died the rebels
prepared to attack but quick thinking Richard prevented
catastrophe by throwing himself in front of them and
asking if they would really kill their king. He exploited
the feelings of the rebels, who had no desire to commit
regicide. Their quarrel was with the nobles, clergy
and legal system, all of which they believed were in
collusion to exploit them, not their king. More bargaining
ensued, Richard made more concessions, and eventually
the rebels went home placated. All the concessions were
revoked at a later date, however, and many of those
involved were captured and punished. While the revolt
itself accomplished very little, it did frighten the
nobility into at least making an attempt at cleaning
up a very corrupt justice system. Villeinage was eventually
made financially unfeasible by the laws of supply and
demand and disappeared on its own. The Peasant’s
Revolt did very little to further the cause of a class
of people who were already living under much improved
conditions, but it did show where many of the problems
of society lay. The revolt was very focused, showing
the people’s extreme anger with the exploitive
hurch, legal system and land owning class.
A Couple of good sources on the Peasant’s Revolt:
Turner, Sharon, The History Of England During the Middle
Ages vol. II, London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans,
Price, Mary, A Portrait of Britain in the Middle Ages
1066-1485, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1951.
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Descriptive narratives about saints,
termed hagiography, were a popular genre of literature
in the Middle Ages. Along with classical antecedents
they laid the foundation for the modern genre of biography
(Abrams 22). Saints’ Lives had their origins in
the official trial transcripts and witness accounts
of a Christian martyr’s death. The martyrs in
their willingness to die for their faith, by giving
themselves "to God heroically" (Attwater 10),
became role models of selflessness and commitment. The
brief descriptions of their deaths, called acts or passions,
were read as part of a commemorative ceremony, or feast,
on the anniversary of a martyr’s death (King 65).
In 313 CE, Constantine issued the Edict
of Milan which legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire.
As the chances for martyrdom became less frequent, some
writers turned to the nascent monastic movement for
a new ideal of Christian conduct. The first monks, because
of their lives of self-denial, were considered spiritual
martyrs. The Church called these ascetic men and women
confessores and also commemorated their deaths.
The first saint’s Life proper, meaning
an extended biographical narrative of a "holy person",
was an account of a spiritual martyr, the Life of St.
Antony, written in Greek by St. Athanasius, a bishop
of Alexandria, around 357 CE. Antony was one of the
first monks, who went to live by himself in the Egyptian
desert. Athanasius by drawing on various sources --
including the Gospels, the apocryphal acts of the apostles,
accounts of the trials of martyrs, and biographies of
non-Christian holy men -- created a new genre of literature.
His goal was to "tell the story of an ordinary
Christian who, through the hard work of ascetic discipline,
achieves such holiness that he can do miraculous deeds
and provide spiritual guidance to others" (Brakke
3). His depiction of Antony, dwelling in an isolated
cave battling with devils and curing those who sought
him out, captured the early Christian’s imagination,
and it remained the most influential saint’s Life
to the end of the Middle Ages.
After the Life of St. Antony the most
significant saint’s Life was the Life of St. Martin
written by Sulpicius Severus, a lay person, at the end
of the fourth century. Martin was a bishop of Tours
in Roman Gaul. Like Antony he led a pious ascetic life
but rather than seeking solitude in the desert he took
an active role in society as a bishop caring for his
community of believers. By writing about Martin, Sulpicius
Severus expanded the notion of saintliness to include
ecclesiastics. The Life of St. Martin was greatly imitated
by later hagiographers. Just as Antony became the archetype
for the saintly monk, so Martin became the archetype
of the saintly bishop (King 66).
Other early influential saints’
Lives were written by St. Jerome, St. Gregory of Tours,
and St. Gregory the Great. Jerome, the translator of
the Vulgate Bible, in the fourth century wrote three
Lives: those of Paul the Hermit, St. Hilarion, and St.
Malchus. Gregory of Tours, a sixth-century bishop, wrote
Vitae patrum, De gloria confessorum, and De gloria martyrorum.
Gregory the Great, a sixth-century pope, wrote the Dialogues
(King 66, 67). Altogether, these authors set the template
of a saint’s Life that was imitated thereafter.
By the eleventh century saints’ Lives were being
written in the vernacular in order to satisfy a growing
lay piety. By the thirteenth century saints’ Lives
were being collected into manuscript volumes. These
collections of Lives were meant to aid the new mendicant
orders, the Dominican and Franciscan Friars, by providing
exempla for use in their preaching. The most famous
collection was the Legenda aurea (Golden Legend)
written in Latin in 1258 CE by Jacopo da Voragine, an
Italian Dominican friar (King 69). It was translated
soon after into every European vernacular.
In structure a saint’s Life was
usually divided into two parts: a description of the
subject’s life and miracles -- Vita et Miracula
(Goodich 65). While saints’ Lives originated as
factual records of a martyr’s death, increasingly
in later centuries "style was emphasized over content"
with a tendency towards "a delight in the miraculous
and the fabulous for their own sakes" (King 67,
68). Modern historians have lamented the medieval hagiographer’s
indifference to historical fact: "[H]agiographers
do just as poets do: they affect complete independence
of, sometimes a lordly contempt for, historical facts;
for real persons they substitute strongly-marked types;
they borrow from anywhere in order to give colour to
their narratives and sustain interest" (Delehaye
xviii). In addition, many Lives were written long after
the saint’s true story was forgotten, and are
partly or wholly fictitious -- incorporating elements
of "myth, folklore, legend, romantic and edifying
fiction" (Attwater 12). An example of this is found
in Chaucer’s "Second Nun’s Tale"
about St. Cecilia. Supposedly a third-century martyr,
little is known about St. Cecilia except that she founded
a church in Rome. The details of her life come from
a Legend written at the end of the fifth century. However,
her story "is unsupported by any near-contemporary
evidence" (Farmer 91), and her martyrdom "may
be regarded as a fabrication" (Attwater 81).
The ahistorical nature of saints’
Lives is better understood when we consider that their
ultimate purpose was didactic. Their function was "to
perpetuate [a saint’s] memory among the faithful,
thereby inspiring others to emulate that particular
saint’s behavior" (King 65). Many saints’
Lives are similar to one another. They emphasize the
saint’s virtues and the miracles that show God’s
favour. In addition, the trials a saint undergoes are
often unrealistic and repetitive: "Lists have been
made of saints who overcame a dragon" (Delehaye
21). Yet, this similarity is understandable if one considers
that "the aim of all Christian living is the imitation
of Christ": "The more saintly a person is,
the more that person resembles Christ, in whom there
is no change or diversity" (King 65). In the words
of a thirteenth-century hagiographer named James of
Vitry, the purpose of a saint’s Life was "to
strengthen the faith of the weak, to instruct the unlettered,
to excite the wavering, to provoke the devout to imitation,
and to confute the rebels and infidels" (qtd. in
Goodich 65). Works
Abrams, M. H. "Biography." A Glossary
of Literary Terms. 7th ed. 1999.
Attwater, Donald. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints.
2nd ed. London:
Brakke, David. "Athanasius of Alexandria, Life
of St. Antony of
Egypt." Medieval Hagiography: An Anthology.
Ed. Thomas Head. New
York: Garland, 2000. 1-30.
Delehaye, Hippolyte. The Legends of the Saints.
Attwater. New York: Fordham UP, 1962.
Farmer, David Hugh. The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
3rd ed. Oxford:
Oxford UP, 1992.
Goodich, Michael. Vita Perfecta: The Ideal of Sainthood
Thirteenth Century. Monographien zur Geschichte
25. Stuttgart: Hiersemann, 1982.
King, Margot H. "Hagiography, Western European."
Dictionary of the
Middle Ages. Ed. Joseph R. Strayer. 12 vols. New
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