TITLE:Bulles, Coillons, and Relics in The Pardoner's Tale
SOURCE:ANQ 21 no2 7-11 Spr 2008

    The brief closing episode of The Pardoner's Tale features ecclesiastical bulles, coillons, and relics. By conventional semantic criteria these three items are intrinsically unrelated, but Harry's menacing comment about enshrining the Pardoner's coillons as relics establishes an explicit connection between two of them.

 wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.
Let kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord! (VI 952-955)(FN1)

    There is also an implicit connection with the third item, since the comment follows the Pardoner's invitation to bow before a bulle (V1909). Earlier commentary on the identification of coillons and relics has recognized that the motif has been adapted from Roman de la Rose.(FN2) The purpose of this note is to reactivate some long-dormant wordplay and to enhance the complex thematics of the Pardoner's genitalia by revealing another facet of Chaucer's elaborate conceit in which the linking of genitalia and "sacralia" also implicates the Pardoner's bulles. The standard ecclesiastical meaning of this term has always been clearly operative here (as it is in The Clerk's Tale, IV 739 and 744), but its anatomical complement is yet to be recognized.
    A key lexical datum here is bulles, meaning "testicles," as documented in the Old French Perceforest, which mentions apes who "monstroient leurs bulles."(FN3) A second lexical consideration is that bulla, the Latin precursor of the crucial word, was used well into the medieval period to designate certain pendant ornaments, bullae dependentes, which were sometimes used as reliquaries in Britain.(FN4) The meaning of bulle documented in Perceforest, however, has never been applied to the contemporary polyglot Chaucerian lexicon, even though critics have made passing associations of a nonlexical nature between genitalia and the Pardoner's ecclesiastical documents,(FN5) the bulles which were so named for the metal discs that hung down from them.(FN6) From this point on bulle, besides carrying its conventional meanings, is to be considered as a synonym of coillon, with which it also shares the semantic link with "relics."
    The general narrator's report of Harry's castration threat in the postlude to the Pardoner's narrative is actually his second conspicuous reference to the Pardoner's emasculation, for he has enigmatically asserted in the General Prologue (I 691) that the Pardoner is a "[gelding or a mare]." Although the two comments on castration are widely separated by intervening text, both are voiced by the same narrator, who, unlike the first-time reader, would have already known of the Host's threat at the time of his initial observation. This leaves the literal-minded reader to puzzle over a castration threat to a eunuch and the enshrining of nonexistent testicles, or over the narrator's, or the poet's, apparent inconsistency. It is possible of course to see Harry's inherently idle threat as simply a taunting reminder of the Pardoner's genital privation. The recovered meaning of bulle, however, opens up another solution that enables Chaucerian wit to redeem an incident that otherwise seems gratuitously crude and mean. It is not the narrator, though, but the Pardoner who speaks of bulles, and he does so repeatedly.
    In his prologue the Pardoner expounds on the techniques and accoutrements of his profession, including fake relics and the ecclesiastical bulles that authorize him to dispense indulgences. He is actually redundant in his references to the displaying of the bulles, while also specifying that the term refers to the seal on the documents.

And thane my bulles shewe I, alle and some.
Our lige lordes seel on my patente,
That shewe I first, my body to warente,
That no man be so boold, ne preest ne clerk,
Me to destourbe of Cristes hooly werk.
And after that thanne tell I forth my tales;
Bulles of popes and of cardynales,
Of patriarkes and bishopes I shewe. (VI 336-343)

    Whether by coincidence or not, the idiom that he twice uses for the display of his documents -- "shewe bulles" -- is a close echo of the Old French phrase "monstrer les bulles." Applying the meaning of French bulles, in any case, activates a double entendre whereby the same phrase means both "present ecclesiastical credentials" and "display testicles." The irreverence of the pun is extended by associations with "Cristes hooly werk" and the genitalia of hierarchs. There is also an associated pun in "my body to warente," a phrase that applies to his personal credentials while also ironically evoking his allegedly bulle-less physical condition. All of this punning must put any receptive reader on the alert for subsequent references to documentary and anatomical bulles.
    Upon concluding his narrative, the Pardoner returns to the topic of his relics and credentials as he urges the assembled listeners to come forward and, for a fee, take advantage of his presence to gain absolution. His invitation specifically instructs them to bow their heads below a bulle (909). The reader who is familiar with the diverse meanings of bulle and with the associated realia must now have at least two potential images available. One of them will have the Pardoner extending in front of himself a sheet of vellum from which a testicle-like leaden seal dangles on a cord, quite possibly just below his midsection.(FN7) In that case the reader might reflect on the grammatical and objective singulars as another allusion to genital impairment. Under the circumstances, though, the singular bulle might also suggest that the Pardoner is extending a bulla dependens, one of those reliquaries suspended from a cord. In any case, the Pardoner follows his general invitation with one specifically directed at Harry, whom he invites to kiss the relics. Harry cynically retorts that the Pardoner would claim that his own soiled breeches were relics to be venerated. In rejecting the invitation to venerate the relics, he adds the castration threat and the proposal to enshrine the severed testicles, precisely as relics. The concept of testicles as relics might seem (at least to anyone unversed in the Roman de la Rose) unmotivated here were it not for the semantic diversity of bulle, but by his earlier use of that word the Pardoner has already supplied Harry with the two essential elements of his conceit linked together. Harry now reinforces the connection and provides a clarifying gloss by substituting for bulles the synonymous coillons-qua-relics. He thus completes a "sacro-genital" lexical circle: reliquary = bulle = testicle = coillon = relic. Between them, then, bulle and coition make overlapping reference to several of the Pardoner's dubious properties: ecclesiastical documentation, relics, and genitals. The whole intricate structure of pun and allusion is further complicated by Harry's reference to the breeches, which evokes the hair breeches of St. Thomas enshrined at the pilgrims' destination in Canterbury.(FN8)
    The Host can be imagined dramatically reinforcing his verbal suggestion with gestures. Does Harry actually snip off any dangling appendages? Can we, in other words, read the interchange of Pardoner, Host, and Knight as a miniature drama of mock castration in which Harry detaches the Pardoner's means of livelihood, the credentials that enable him to ply his trade in indulgences? To envision such actions matching the words is only consistent with the recognized dramatic qualities of the exchange.(FN9) It also serves to account for the Pardoners nonplussed silence, and for the onlookers' appreciative laughter. A practical joke involving sophisticated wordplay thus graces a context that has often seemed, at least on its surface,(FN10) to contain little more than coarse invective.
    University of Manitoba

    I am grateful to an anonymous and learned reader for ANQ whose critical comments I have applied to the improvement of this note.

1. All citations from Chaucer follow The Riverside Chaucer.
2. See Osborn for a recent and extensive discussion of the conceit and related matters, which includes references to much of the earlier literature.
3. See Roussineau 64 (for the text) and 1279 (for bulles glossed as "testicles"). Cf. Godefroy 737.
4. For lexical and archeological evidence, see Leclercq, cols. 1331-34.
5. See, e.g., Steiner 164-65. Fleming 450, followed by Vance 737, seems, without citing any lexical support, to have had intuitions of "a coarse double-entendre" involving bullae here.
6. For a brief description of the documents, see Skeabeck and Boyle 880-81; for a more detailed one, covering only the period through the ninth century, see Kirsch, 1334-50. At the time of publication, numerous Web sites illustrate papal bulls with appended bulla and/or detached bullae.
7. Compare Vance 741, Laskaya 192, and Osborn 367 and 380nl5 on the positioning of the Pardoner s relics.
8. See Knapp 1-26 and Osborn 368 with references to more recent commentary.
9. See, e.g., Benson 62.
10. This proviso acknowledges that the whole coillons-relics conceit has been seen to reflect, by association with the Roman de la Rose, serious philosophical issues. See Osborn 370-78 with citations of earlier literature.

    Benson, C. David. Chaucer's Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in the Canterbury Tales. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1986.
    Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1976.
    Fleming, John V. "Gospel Asceticism: Some Chaucerian Images of Perfection." Revue de l'Université d'Ottawa/University of Ottawa Quarterly 53 (1983): 445-457.
    Godefroy, Frédéric. Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française et de tous ses dialectes du IX[supe] aux XV[supe] siècle. Paris: Vieweg, 1881.
    Kirsch, J.-P. "II. Bulle (sceau.)." Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1910.
    Rnapp, Daniel. "The Relik of a Seint: A Gloss on Chaucer's Pilgrimage." ELK 39 (1972): 1-26.
    Laskaya, Anne. Chaucer's Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1995.
    Leclercq, H. "I Bulle (Bijou)." Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1910.
    Osborn, Marijane. "Transgressive Word and Image in Chaucer's Enshrined Coillons Passage." The Chaucer Review 37 (2003): 365-384.
    Roussineau, Gilles, ed. and trans. Le Roman de Perceforest, quatrième partie. Geneva: Droz, 1987.
    Skeabeck, A. H., and L. E. Boyle. "Bulla." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2nd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003.
    Steiner, Emily. Documentary Culture and the Making of Medieval English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.
    Vance, Eugene. "Chaucer's Pardoner: Relics, Discourse, and the Frames of Propriety." NLH 20 (1989): 723-749.