Nominalism is the belief that signifiers, appearances, and perceived, sensed reality have no weight and do not show the deeper truth. In The Canterbury Tales, especially in the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer affirms nominalism. In the Pardoner’s Prologue, the Pardoner admits that he is not who he appears to be and that his relics are fake. In his paradoxical tale, the Pardoner condemns the vice of avarice, which he is guilty of practicing. Although the tale means what it appears to mean about morality, for the Pardoner, the words he speaks have no moral value. Chaucer not only affirms nominalism in the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale but also in other parts of the book, such as in the disclaimers by various narrators. In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses his characters and their tales to affirm nominalism.
The Pardoner is a noble ecclesiastic who sells indulgences. Being a man of the church, he appears to be holy, pious, and better than common people, but in reality, he is no less of a sinner than anyone else. In his prologue, he admits that he is deceitful and that his relics are not authentic. He says his “intention is to win money, not at all to cast out sins”, and he would never “intentionally live in poverty” (Chaucer 511-513). He preaches arrogantly to dissemble his true intentions. His social status as a pardoner is true in name only. An authentic pardoner would live like the apostles and care about helping sinners, but the Pardoner admits to wanting “money, wool, cheese, and wheat, even if it is given by the poorest page, or the poorest widow in a village, although her children will die of starvation” (513). Chaucer reveals through the Pardoner that people are not who they seem.
The relationship between the Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale also shows nominalism. The Pardoner’s Tale represents the sermons the Pardoner gives. The theme of his tale is “the love of money is the root of all evil” which is the same theme he uses in his sermons (507). He is a successful pardoner because he can tell moral tales without being moral himself. This is possible because of nominalism. If Chaucer were proving realism, the Pardoner would either be a holy, moral person, and could only tell moral tales, or the Pardoner would be immoral and would not be able to tell moral tales. However, Chaucer is proving nominalism, so the Pardoner appears to be different from who he actually is and is able to tell a useful and moral tale.
The Pardoner’s Tale reveals the hypocrisies in life because the Pardoner condemns avarice, yet he practices it. In the tale, the three men encounter death because of their love for gold. The Pardoner also has a love for money, refusing to live in poverty and willing to take money from a poor...