Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer’s Pardoner on Wall Street

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Meet Jordan Belfort. The life of this silver-tongued salesman as detailed in The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of a life fueled by greed, deception, and just about each and every one of the seven deadly sins. However, this is far from the first story of this type of lifestyle. The Pardoner of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the epitome of avarice in medieval literature. He cheats his patrons, selling them fake religious relics, pedaling papal pardons for his own profit, and bragging about these exploits along the way. These themes of greed and boastfulness have existed throughout all of human history and are as relevant today as they were in Chaucer’s time. This begs the question, if Chaucer were writing today, where would his Pardoner fit into modern society? What would a day in the life of Chaucer’s greedy archetype look like if he were a Wall Street stock broker instead of a Pardoner?

If Chaucer’s Pardoner lived today, he would likely find himself well equipped to succeed on Wall Street as a stock broker. Traditionally, a stock broker recommends stocks to his clients to buy, and should the client choose to place an order to invest their money in the suggested, or any stock, their broker will execute the order on their behalf and collect a percentage fee for doing so. In essence, they are salesmen who are paid based on volume of sales. This payment structure has resulted in widespread criticism of the profession for inspiring greed among brokers rather than effective stewardship of their clients’ assets, which begets the misleading sales tactics seen in the video. This image of greedy and untrustworthy brokers has also been perpetuated by several bad actors, such as Belfort. However, this stereotype of greed seems to perfectly suit the values and skillsets of Chaucer’s Pardoner.

In the Prologue to his tale, the Pardoner extols his own skill as a salesman as well as the deceitful practices he employs to enjoy such success. He ends the description of his sermons by asserting, “By this gaude have I wonne yeer by yeer / An hundred mark sith I was pardoner” (Chaucer p. 268, lines 389-90). Or translated, he is saying that by this trick (referring to his sermons) he has earned for himself 100 marks (a large sum of money at this time) since he became a pardoner. The video highlights a similar behavior as Belfort is pitching a garage operation as a “cutting-edge firm.” The Pardoner uses these same tactics: “he hadde a pilwe beer, / Which that he seyed was oure Lady veyl” (Chaucer p. 59, lines 694-5). In modern English, the Pardoner carries common items (such as a pillow case) and touts them as sacred relics (such as the veil of the Virgin Mary). It stands to reason that the Pardoner would adjust his own process of preaching to his new life as a Wall Street broker, a process which he describes in the Prologue to his tale. This Pardoner is a man who has honed his craft of taking advantage of people, and is proud of the success he has enjoyed in this manner. Throughout the movie, Belfort is seen flaunting the wealth that he has amassed from his shady dealings as the Pardoner does in his Prologue.

The Pardoner employs a carefully crafted approach to giving a sermon that could very easily be translated into a stock pitch to potential clients. He begins by sharing where he is from while he shows the audience his various licenses that prove both his own legitimacy, as well as the legitimacy of the pardons and relics he sells: “Bulles of popes and of cardynales, / Of patriarkes and bisshopes I shewe, … / And for to stire hem to devocious. / Thanne shewe I forth my longe cristal stones, / Ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones” (Chaucer p. 267, lines 342-3, 346-8). This sounds similar to a stock pitch opening with casual banter followed by an assertion of a broker’s legitimacy given their affiliation with a respected financial institution. The Pardoner then displays his wares of various phony relics, telling stories of how these relics have saved many people from their vices and absolved them of their sins. This feels eerily similar to the vivid picture Belfort paints for his unsuspecting client in the video. From here, the job is complete. The average person will desire the same salvation, or the ability to pay off a mortgage overnight, that has been described to them and will turn to the Pardoner and the false broker in search of it.

The Pardoner exemplifies what it means for a literary character to have significant meaning. He serves as an archetype for greed that not only highlights topics that are still relevant today, but also does so in a way that can be translated into modern professions to see where these same behaviors of avarice still exist in society, such as the case study explored by The Wolf of Wall Street. He is the prime example of the dangers of avarice that he so fervently preaches against. While like pardoners in Chaucer’s day, stock brokers are not inherently evil, they can share some of the same negative stereotypes that these pardoners did, highlighting the inherent distaste that humans have for perceived greed in all its forms.

Zach Prephan
University of Notre Dame

 

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Eds. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. Broadview Press, 2012.

Scorsese, Martin, director. The Wolf of Wall Street. Paramount Pictures, 2014.

The Wolf of Wall Street 2013 Selling thru Phone Scene.” YouTube, 11 Jan. 2014, youtu.be/MJXLV_DMKa0.

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