Magical Thinking: Plague, Pandemic & Unconventional Cures from the Black Death to the Covid-19

When the pandemic strikes, and the trusted authorities are without a sure remedy, people extend their search for a cure, and they often resort to more unorthodox means of healing associated with alternative forms of authority and knowledge. Some of the most famous medieval collections of tales are set in times of plague when folk fled to the countryside to avoid exposure to pestilence, as in Giovanni Boccaccio‘s Decameron and Geoffrey Chaucer‘s grim “Pardoner’s Tale” from his Canterbury Tales (which were themselves modeled on Boccaccio‘s collection of stories).

Portrait of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript ( The Huntington Library, MS EL 26 C 9, f.153v).

Medieval historian John Aberth writes of the plague known as Black Death, “for this pestilential infirmity [of 1348], doctors from every part of the world had no good remedy or effective cure, neither through natural philosophy, medicine [physic], or the art of astrology.” Aberth adds that although there were no medical solutions, those peddling in various cures could profit from a plague, and he argues that “To gain money some went visiting and dispensing their remedies, but these only demonstrated through their patients’ death that their art was nonsense and false” (The Black Death, 37).

In the Middle Ages, whenever plagues hit, people’s fear of the disease quickly resulted in a lack of faith in traditional authorities, at times followed by scapegoating. The later phenomenon has been observed with respect to xenophobic conspiracy theories targeting marginalized groups, which alleged that Jews were poisoning wells (and sometimes gypsies and witches) in order to spread the Black Death during the later part of the medieval period. And, as Samuel K. Cohn observes, it was then, “Not until the late sixteenth century did authorities once again arrest people suspected of spreading the plague through poisons and tampering with food; these later waves of fear, however, did not target Jews as the principal suspects; instead, witches or hospital workers were now persecuted” (“The Black Death and the Burning of Jews,” 27).

Image of priest instructing the sick (lepers). James le Palmer, “Omne Bonum” in The British Library, Royal 6 VI f.301r.

Of course, in the earlier medieval period, when plague descended and church authorities—with all their medical knowledge and spiritual wisdom—were without a cure, medieval people might understandably turn to the other major source of authority in their lives, their kings and secular rulers, for guidance. We see this phenomenon manifest in the medieval belief that French and English monarchs (including saint-kings such as Saint Louis IX and Edward the Confessor) possessed miraculous healing powers. In time of plague, this gesture served to legitimize royalty as divinely sanctioned and win favor with the people, who could understandably become more restless during times of epidemic and pandemic.

Although kings and queens were often unskilled with respect to medical knowledge, especially by comparison to the clergy and university doctors, this sort of magical thinking and desire to imbue a leader with supreme knowledge and boundless inherent wisdom (despite their often limited information and experience) presents a totalitarian image of a ruler, which relies on public ignorance in order to reinforce the notion of a divinely organized, rigidly hierarchical society. It is a form of hero worship which knows no bounds.

The Royal Touch, in British Library, Royal 16 G.VI, f.424v.

As J. N. Hays points out, “the healing touch was a product of political motives, at least in part. But it coincided with a widespread belief in kings as magicians, endowed with near-divine powers” (The Burden of Disease, 33). This political motive leveraged popular belief in the royal touch to solidifying the claim that monarchs were chosen by God and thus superior in both the spiritual and political realms.

If the king’s touch failed to heal, or one simply did not have access to a royal hand, there was always the other—unspoken and taboo—source of power: magic and witchcraft. As Catherine Jenkin notes “During Venice’s plague outbreaks, notably 1575–1577 and 1630–1631, the population, desperate for a cure, turned to both sanctioned and unsanctioned healers. The wealthy consulted physicians; the less wealthy consulted pharmacists or barber-surgeons; the penitent consulted clergy; and the poor or desperate consulted streghe, or witches” (“Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft,” 202). Desperate times called for desperate measures, and without any effective treatments available, everything was on the table.

Image depicts the two witches on a broomstick and a stick, in Martin Le Franc’s “Ladies’ Champion”, 1451; see W. Schild. Die Maleficia der Hexenleut’, 1997, S. 97.

Still, the Middle Ages suffers from a somewhat inaccurate reputation with respect to religious and learned views on the magic, which until the later period regarded folk healing and herbal remedies as mere superstitions, though throughout the period, “witchcraft was universally illegal under both sacred and secular law and even healing magic might be considered heretical” (Jenkins, 204). Nevertheless, folk traditions were generally considered relatively unthreatening by church authorities, especially compared to popular medieval heresies, which argued for unorthodox, though often quite learned, interpretations of Christianity, such as the Catharism & Lollardy, and heretical groups such as the Knights Templar, Hussites & beguines to name a few that drew special attention in the period prior to the advent of the Protestant Reformation.

Furthermore, folk healing was sometimes efficacious, and  Helen Thompson has recently argued for a connection between herbal remedies and modern pharmacies and drug markets.

Old English medical practices, The British Library, Cotton Vitellius C III, f.22v.

Richard Kieckhefer famously categorizes magic in the Middles Ages as either “natural” or “demonic” in orientation. Folk healers, and most so-called witches, (especially during the earlier period) are regarded by Kieckhefer as practitioners of the former, while seemingly more learned necromancers, who adapt and pervert Christian rituals, are considered practitioners of the later category of magic (and feature later in the period). Scholars such as Aberth, Kieckhefer, Jenkins, Brian Levak and others have each demonstrated a relationship between a rise in magic and the Black Death in Europe (Aberth, The Black Death; Kieckhefer, European Witch Trials; Jenkins, “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft”; Levak, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe).

Desperate people might pursue illicit measures to procure a remedy for pestilence, and as a result interest in magic cures, protections, spell, talismans and wards increased alongside demand. Indeed, it is possible that this contributed to theories that witches poisoned wells and ultimately the hysteria surrounding early modern witch-hunts.

Annales de Gilles Le Muisit, Black Death at Tournai, 1349; France Bruxelles, Bibliothèque royale.

It is important to note that, while the church authorities generally maintained that magic was demonic illusion, the rise of universities gave way to a learned study of “natural magic” in the form of the pursuit to unlock the occult powers in the natural world [i.e. God’s creation]. Hayes observes how “Natural magic, which attempted to understand the hidden powers of nature, was bolstered by philosophy as well as by religion. These relations were clearest in the late Middle Ages and the period of the Renaissance, when neo-Platonic doctrines gained wider currency among thinkers. Neo-Platonic beliefs insisted on the complete interrelation and mutual responsiveness of the different phenomena of the universe” (The Burdens of Disease, 81).

This approach became more widely acceptable leading up to and during the scientific revolution, especially the medical theories of the ancient physician Galen [130-210 CE], and so what Kieckhefer might categorize as natural magic in the later period bifurcates into two distinct subtypes—the highly learned, quasi-medical and folk traditional healing practices. Moreover, the university study of medicine rooted in classical theories of the four humors remained a medical authority, and one which generally held the approval of the church authorities and royal authorities alike. It is worth acknowledging that none of these authorities appear entirely “correct” by modern medical standards, and even the most learned methods involved practices that were toxic and harmful to the body.

Physician letting blood from a patient. Attributed to Aldobrandino of Siena: Li Livres dou Santé. France, late 13th Century. The British Library, Sloane 2435 f.11v.

Still, while some medieval and early modern medical practices were undeniably ineffective or even counterproductive, it’s worth pointing out that some practices were helpful, such as quarantine measures during plague. Even the spooky plague doctor outfits from the early modern era—equipped with cloth masks and a leather suit for personal protection—reveal growing awareness with respect to contagion by contact (prior to germ theory), which overlapped with conventional medical theories that alleged the classical notion of miasma or “bad air” was polluting infected spaces with plague and pestilence.

Mark Earnest contends that “Despite its fearsome appearance, the plague doctor’s costume—the ‘personal protective equipment’ of the Middle Ages—had a noble purpose. It was intended to enable physicians to safely care for patients during the Black Death” (“On Becoming a Plague Doctor“). The plague doctors‘ cloth beak contained perfumed herbs to purify the miasma, their waxed robe were designed to shield the practitioner, and their cane allowed physicians a quick means by which to measure their proximity and maintain distance from sick patients during examinations and treatments. Although Earnest seems to regard plague doctors as a medieval phenomenon, historical evidence suggests that these practitioners were primarily a fixture of the early modern period.

Paulus Fürst’s 1656 satirical engraving called ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rom,’ or ‘Doctor Beaky from Rome.’

Although, there is ample evidence for widespread medieval belief in learned scientia “science” (often knowledge from classical sources or universities), many historians maintain the narrative that since the scientific revolution in the early modern era, there has been a gradual trend toward belief in science and medical professionals, and the public has generally come to accept doctors’ advice over the opinions of political leaders, when it comes to issues of health and medicine. However, even if one were to accept this notion of historical progress, today’s pandemic problematizes this grand narrative by demonstrating how similar medieval and modern people can be. Like so many established institutions and professional authorities in the age of (dis)information and the rise of Trumpism in America, medical professionals are under attack, and their recommendations and expert advice have become limited by the president of the United States.

As during some medieval and early modern monarchies, it seems that the political leader of the United States feels his position entitles him to an opinion on everything and bestows him with innate wisdom. And, like the royal touch, Trump is not afraid to offer his own unconventional and unsubstantiated remedies for the novel coronavirus which has resulted in an unprecedented global pandemic during his presidency. Despite no medical training or credentials, Trump has publicly sparred with NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease) Director, Dr. Fauci, and with his own CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines and recommendations. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE), known to slow the spread of this highly contagious and robust virus, has become politicized in the president’s attempt to deny the issue and deflect blame and responsibility by minimizing the perceived impact and threat of the disease.

US President Donald Trump and Anthony Fauci, director of the NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases attend a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland on March 3, 2020, following up on the COVID-19, coronavirus, outbreak. Photo by Brendan Smialowski /AFP via Getty Images.

Indeed, our modern pandemic is not without its scapegoats, as president Trump continues to refer to the coronavirus as the “China virus” in a racially-loaded reference to the place of the virus’ origin in Wuhan, China (briefly referenced in my recent blog on internet trolling). Additionally, calling the coronavirus the “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus” fuels conspiracies theories, including that the virus was engineered in a lab in Wuhan. In addition to xenophobic scapegoating, today’s imaginative responses include now-discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who asserts that the novel coronavirus is being wrongly blamed for many death and even implicates Fauci in a “plandemic” that alleges masks “activate” the virus.

There is no evidence for viral engineering, nor any “plandemic” orchestrated by Fauci, but nevertheless these modern conspiracy theories persists online and ultimately in the minds of those persuaded by their unsubstantiated claims.

CREDIT: COURTESY OF CDC/ ALISSA ECKERT, MS; DAN HIGGINS, MAM.

Trump has himself given a couple of jaw-dropping recommendations, the first being his personal endorsement of the use of untested malaria drug hydroxychloroquin in treating the symptoms of covid-19, which Dr. Fauci repeatedly cautioned Americans against taking unless recommended by medical professionals. Some have raised the issue of Trump’s own small investment in hydroxychloroquin and allege a financial conflict of interest may lay behind his endorsement of the drug, though this claim has been widely discredited. Still, despite clear evidence to the contrary, Trump continues to insist on using this drug as a treatment for the novel coronavirus.

The president’s second and more startling suggestion was that perhaps an “inside injection” of disinfectants, such as Lysol and other Bleach products, directly into the body might do the trick, considering these chemical we so effective at killing the virus (and also people who ingest them). Trump then pointed to his head, adding: “I’m not a doctor. But I’m, like, a person that has a good you-know-what.” As expected, the CDC and Poison Control (as well as manufacturers and eventually social media platforms) responded by contradicting the president’s objectively harmful recommendation, enthusiastically pushed by some of his more ardent supporters.

Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies CEO Martin Meeson [right], speaks as President Donald Trump wears a face mask during a tour of Bioprocess Innovation Center at Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Morrisville, N.C. AP Photo/Evan Vucci.

Even some at the conservative media outlet Fox News, often friendly to Trump and his agenda, in this instance challenged the president’s uninformed suggestion. Fox Business Network’s Neil Cavuto described Trump’s recommendations as “unsettling,” and the news anchor plainly acknowledged that “The president was not joking in his remarks yesterday when he discussed injecting people with disinfectant.” Cavuto also delivered a sober warning to his viewers: “From a lot of medical people with whom I chat, that was a dangerous, crossing-the-line kind of signal that worried them because people could die as a result.”

Indeed, when viewed in this light, Trump’s continued magical thinking with respect to covid-19 seems to mirror medieval responses to plague and the Black Death in certain ways, especially in the tendency to reach for unconventional remedies, from often unqualified authorities, in the search for a cure. But, as president Trump explains, if you’ve got the virus, already: “what do you have to lose?”

Richard Fahey
PhD in English (2020)

Selected Bibliography

Aberth, John. The Black Death. Palgrave, 2005.

Barzilay, Tzafrir. “Early Accusations of Well Poisoning against Jews: Medieval Reality or Historiographical Fiction?Medieval Encounters 22 (2016): 517–539.

Brittain, C. Dale. “The Royal Touch.” Life in the Middle Ages, 2016.

Clark, Dartunorro. “Trump Suggests ‘Injection’ of Disinfectant to Beat Coronavirus and ‘Clean’ the Lungs.” NBC News (2020).

Cohn, Samuel K. “The Black Death and the Burning of Jews.” Past & Present 196.1 (2007): 3–36.

Durkee, Alison. “Nearly A Third of Americans Believe Covid-19 Death Toll Conspiracy Theory.” Forbes (2020).

Earnest, Mark. “On Becoming a Plague Doctor.” The New England Journal of Medicine (2020).

EnserinkMartin and Jon Cohen. “Fact-checking Judy Mikovits, the Controversial Virologist Attacking Anthony Fauci in a Viral Conspiracy Video.” Science Magazine (2020).

Hays, J. N. The Burden of Disease: Epidemics and Human Response in Western History. Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Hetherington, Marc and Jonathan M. Ladd. “Destroying Trust in the Media, Science, and Government Has Left America Vulnerable to Disaster.” Brookings (2020). 

Jenkins, Catherine. “Curing Venice’s Plagues: Pharmacology and Witchcraft.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 8 (2017): 202-08.

Kickhefer, Richard. European Witch Trials: Their Foundations in Popular and Learned Culture, 1300-1500. Routledge, 1976.

—. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Levack, Brian. The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe. Routledge, 2016.

Mark, Joshua J. “Medieval Cures for the Black Death.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2020.

Murphy, Mike.Trump Again Touts Unproven Drug to Treat Coronavirus: ‘What Do You Have to Lose?'” MarketWatch (2020).

Murray, J., H. Rieder, and A Finley-Croswhite. “The King’s Evil and the Royal Touch: The Medical History of Scrofula.”  The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (2016).

. “Medieval Medicine: Astrological ‘Bat Books’ That Told Doctors When to Treat Patients.” The Conversation (2019).

Thompson, Helen . “How Witches’ Brews Helped Bring Modern Drugs to Market.” Smithsonian Magazine (2014).

 

Undergrad Wednesdays – Arcane Incantations and Technobabble: The Exploitation of Exclusive Language in The Canterbury Tales and the Modern Day

[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.]

In the many conversations we regularly engage in, there is always the risk that we will be confronted with an unfamiliar term or concept. When this happens, we are faced with two options: 1) Ask the speaker what it means. B) Don’t ask about it — try to infer the meaning from context and perhaps make a mental note to look up the word or concept later, consigning oneself for the time being to an uncertain or incomplete understanding of the speaker’s message.

While choosing the first option seems like the best and most reasonable way to ensure that one understands what the speaker is saying, there are a number of reasons that people might opt not to ask. Probably the biggest reason is that it requires one to admit ignorance of the word, thus admitting the speaker’s intellectual superiority in the matter, and risking exposing oneself to ridicule if the word is considered common knowledge. People also might not feel at liberty to request a definition (such as if the speaker is the listener’s social superior or is addressing an audience) or they might not trust the speaker to accurately define the term.

Regardless of why listeners might remain ignorant about a word’s meaning, in doing so they grant their speaker a special immunity from criticism or disbelief. Most listeners, when confronted with an unfamiliar word, will by default assume that it was used correctly, or at least refrain from questioning the validity of its usage. If someone were to say that a Diplopod is a type of Chelicerate, most speakers would make no objection unless they knew what those terms referred to. While it seems like common kindness for an ignorant listener to give their speaker the benefit of the doubt in such cases, the trouble begins when speakers learn to exploit this tendency, dazzling their audience into believing falsehood by using intentionally indecipherable language.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, harshly critical of the clergy on a number of fronts, writes of this tendency of medieval clergy-members to abuse their education, especially their knowledge of Latin, to deceive or swindle the uneducated masses. The clearest example of this is during the Pardoner’s Prologue, in which the corrupt Pardoner, a clergyman licensed to collect money and grant indulgences on behalf of the Church, —  is describing the many rhetorical techniques he uses to manipulate people into paying him (for more information on Chaucer’s Pardoner and his relevance to the modern day, check out Zach Prephan’s post).

And in Latyn I speke a wordes fewe
To saffron with my predicacioun
And for to stire hem to devocioun. [1; Fragment VI; lines 344-346]

[“And I speak a few words in Latin/ to season my preaching/ and to stir [my audience] to devotion”]

He boasts of being able to use his knowledge of Latin to lend his sales pitch an (arguably undeserved) air of authority and legitimacy, precisely because the language would be unintelligible to most. While his “theme” which he mentions a few lines earlier — “Radix malorum est cupiditas” (1; VI; 334) [“the root of all evils is greed’] — is indeed a valid biblical quote (1 Timothy 6:10), his use of Latin rather than the vernacular language gives him complete control over the interpretation, as few, presumably, if any, of his audience would also speak Latin.

While most widely-used languages are used for their ability to reach a wide audience, the ubiquitous use of Latin among the clergy seems more readily attributable to its exclusivity. It was frequently argued, especially during the Reformation by religious dissidents such as Martin Luther and John Wycliffe, that the Catholic Church was able to teach false doctrine without facing scrutiny because so few people spoke Latin. Reformation leaders called for widespread distribution of vernacular translations of the Bible, which Catholic Church leaders had, at various times, refused to allow. The Church, they believed, had exploited the exclusivity of the Latin language for its own agenda, preventing the common person from reading and interpreting Scripture for him or herself. If few outside of the clergy could read Scripture, few could pose a legitimate argument about Scriptural teachings against the established Church.

Furthermore, as the Pardoner suggests, the use of Latin likely evoked an emotional response of awe and reverence. To non-Latin-speakers, the language (which would most frequently be heard in a religious setting) would probably take on an arcane or mystical quality in the context of religious ritual which the same words spoken in vernacular would be less able to evoke. Referring to the medieval clergy’s use of Latin, Kathryn Rudy writes “[l]inguistic exotica suggest mystery and superhuman provenance, something more elevated than a common, Earth-born origin”(2; p. 12). This effect certainly persists today — if the magic spells uttered by the characters of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe were based on English rather than Latin or Greek, would they sound nearly as cool?  While it is probably overly-cynical to cite monopoly over theological interpretation and potentially-manipulative emotional effects as the primary reasons for the Church’s preference for Latin, it seems very likely that these contributed to it to some degree.

Another example of Latin’s special gravitas occurs in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” when the protagonist, a rooster named Chaunticleer, quotes “Mulier est hominis confusio(1; Fragment VII; line 3164)” to his wife. The comedy of this is that he later says that the phrase means “‘Woman is mannes joye and al his blis’(1; VII; 3166) while a more correct translation of the Latin reads “woman is man’s confusion.” Again, a character turns to Latin to secure a rhetorical advantage and establish a sense of authority. Chaucer, however, seems to satirize this practice by suggesting that neither party actually understands Latin (or, if Chaunticleer is aware of his mistranslation, that he intentionally uses the Latin phrase to argue something almost opposite to its actual message). Just because something is said in Latin doesn’t mean it’s true, Chaucer seems to suggest.

While vernacular translations of the Bible did become widely available and, with the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church ultimately allowed the saying of Mass in vernacular languages, criticism regarding intentionally-inaccessible language remains prevalent, though now focused on secular authority figures. Namely, the development of increasingly-specific jargon for academic fields has occasionally come under fire for allegedly being intentionally difficult to understand. Often derisively called “technobabble,” defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “incomprehensible or pretentious technical jargon (3),” scientific or academic authority figures are criticized for using excessively-difficult or esoteric language for personal gain, often to appear more knowledgeable or to hide their ignorance on a topic. At its extreme, technobabble can easily be almost as incomprehensible as an unfamiliar language, as the below video demonstrates.

While the video was intentionally satirical, finding proof of “professionals” using their prestige and knowledge of jargon to bamboozle audiences out of their money is as easy as turning on the TV and watching a few minutes of ads. A modern demonstration of the effectiveness of technobabble is the “Sokal Affair,” in which physics professor Alan Sokal submitted to a prominent academic journal “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he described as “an article liberally salted with nonsense”(4). The article was accepted and published, only for Sokal to announce the intentional ridiculousness of the paper, citing its undeserved publication as an example of how academia is able to make ridiculous and unfounded claims without reproof, “the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.”

Sokal suggests the editors of the journal were deferent to the “cultural authority of technoscience,” in that they trusted in Dr. Sokal’s reputation as a scientist to believe that the incoherent paper made sense. The mention of the “cultural authority of technoscience” being trusted in this manner is interesting, as it seems to closely recall the aforementioned trust placed in the medieval Church to interpret Latin texts. Is technobabble the new Latin, and the representatives of technoscience its interpreters for the unlearned masses?

Obviously this is a very limited comparison for a number of reasons — the knowledge required to understand technical jargon is widely accessible on the internet and no longer reserved for those of specific social classes, and the complex and specialized nature of the language used serves an important purpose and can’t easily be translated into “vernacular” (although some have tried, such as Randall Monroe in his bookThing Explainer, which explains various scientific concepts using only the 1000 most commonly used English words(4)).

However, as Chaucer shows, people have exploited exclusive language for personal gain for centuries, and likely will for many more. While mistrusting scientific consensus without reason is a recipe for becoming a flat-earther, perhaps we should be a little more skeptical about the many things we are told and accept without understanding, especially if personal gain for the speaker is on the line. Luckily, unlike in the Middle Ages, Google (or Bing, if you’re a determined nonconformist) is only a quick pocket-dig away for many of us. While trust may be the basis of a functional society, we must be aware of who we are placing our trust in, and ensure that we, like the Pardoner’s audience, are not being manipulated.

Andrew Cameron
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

(1) Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, 2nd ed., Toronto, Broadview, 2012.

(2) Rudy, Kathryn M. Rubrics, Images and Indulgences in Late Medieval Netherlandish Manuscripts. The Manuscript World ed., vol. 55, Brill, 2016. Library of the Written Word.

(3) “techno-, comb. form.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, March 2018, www.oed.com/view/Entry/198460.

(4)http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/lingua_franca_v4/lingua_franca_v4.html

(5)https://www.explainxkcd.com/wiki/index.php/Thing_Explainer

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.