Coming after a catalog of very worldly characters, these two brothers stand out as rare examples of Christian ideals. The Plowman follows the Gospel, loving God and his neighbor, working for Christ’s sake, and faithfully paying tithes to the Church. Their “worth” is thus of a completely different kind from that assigned to the valorous Knight or to the skilled and wealthy characters. The Parson has a more complicated role than the Plowman, and a more sophisticated awareness of his importance.
The Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve are all stewards, in the sense that other people entrust them with their property. All three of them abuse that trust. Stewardship plays an important symbolic role in The Canterbury Tales, just as it does in the Gospels. In his parables, Jesus used stewardship as a metaphor for Christian life, since God calls the individual to account for his or her actions on the Day of Judgment, just as a steward must show whether he has made a profitable use of his master’s property.
The Miller seems more demonic than Christian, with his violent and brutal habits, his mouth like a furnace, the angry red hairs sprouting from his wart, and his black nostrils. His “golden thumb” alludes to his practice of cheating his customers. The narrator ironically upholds the Manciple as a model of a good steward. The Manciple’s employers are all lawyers, trained to help others to live within their means, but the Manciple is even shrewder than they are. The Reeve is depicted as a very skilled thief—one who can fool his own auditors, and who knows all the tricks of managers, servants, herdsmen, and millers because he is dishonest himself. Worst of all, he enjoys his master’s thanks for lending his master the things he has stolen from him.
The Summoner and Pardoner, who travel together, are the most corrupt and debased of all the pilgrims. They are not members of holy orders but rather lay officers of the Church. Neither believes in what he does for the Church; instead, they both pervert their functions for their own gain and the corruption of others. The Summoner is a lecher and a drunk, always looking for a bribe. His diseased face suggests a diseased soul. The Pardoner is a more complicated figure. He sings beautifully in church and has a talent for beguiling his somewhat horrified audience. Longhaired and beardless, the Pardoner’s sexuality is ambiguous. The narrator remarks that he thought the Pardoner to be a gelding or a mare, possibly suggesting that he is either a eunuch or a homosexual. His homosexuality is further suggested by his harmonizing with the Summoner’s “stif burdoun,” which means the bass line of a melody but also hints at the male genitalia (673). The Pardoner will further disrupt the agreed-upon structure of the journey (friendly tale-telling) by launching into his indulgence-selling routine, turning his tale into a sermon he frequently uses to con people into feeding his greed. The narrator’s disdain of the Pardoner may in part owe to his jealousy of the Pardoner’s skill at mesmerizing an audience for financial gain—after all, this is a poet’s goal as well.