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One of the most ambiguous and contentious characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales is the Pardoner, the last (and arguably worst) of the pilgrims described in the General Prologue. The Pardoner accused of being a gelding or a mare endowed with several effeminate traits, plays on multiple gendered associations—including that of a cross-dressing woman. Throughout the Canterbury Tales Chaucer manipulates gender expectations and assumptions in the figure of the Pardoner without fully clarifying the Pardoner’s sex, sexuality or gender, leaving the text open to potentially subversive interpretations. By the fourteenth century, cross-dressing was a relatively common literary motif, one upon which Chaucer may have drawn in the construction of his transgressive and ambiguously gendered Pardoner. In analyzing the Pardoner in relation to a selection of these texts—Frere Denise, Le Roman de Silence, and the lives of female transvestite saints—I argue that Chaucer’s ambiguous description of the Pardoner potentially plays on cultural associations of cross-dressing, drawing from a host of literary analogues, challenging the primacy of male religious authority and legitimizing the rhetorical power of female preachers.


An earlier form of this article was first delivered at the International Medieval Congress at the University of Western Michigan, Kalamazoo, May 2005 as “Robing and Disrobing Gender: The Cross-dressing Culture of the Fabliaux.” The current incarnation was inspired by long discussions with my Chaucer class (Spring 2011), and I am grateful to my students for sharing their insight, unclouded by years of reading criticism. I am indebted to Peter G. Beidler, Laura F. Hodges, Holly Crocker, Ellen L. Friedrich, Gila Aloni, Rikk Mulligan, Sarah Salih, Dorothy Kim, and A.E. Christa Canitz for their insightful comments on early drafts of this piece. I am especially grateful to Amy Vines for her suggestions and questions.


Chaucer, Pardoner, cross-dressing, transvestitism, religious authority

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Copyright © 2019 Larissa Tracy