Lazaro’s fifth master is a seller of indulgences (also referred to as a pardoner) whom Lazaro meets by chance in Toledo. Lazaro describes the seller of indulgences as a cunning and ruthless salesman who had dozens of tricks up his sleeve, such as giving small bribes of fresh fruit to the priests so that they would help him sell his indulgences.
The sale of papal indulgences (printed pieces of paper that were claimed to have the power to pardon the sins of whoever purchased one) was a highly controversial practice during this time. Many saw it as a way of transforming the notion of moral purity into nothing more than a matter of wealth. Sellers of indulgences were therefore seen as highly morally suspect characters, whose livelihood depended on tricking people into giving their money away. This particular seller of indulgences earns the reader’s suspicion immediately by offering bribes to the clergy.
The seller of indulgences has been preaching in a region of Toledo for three days but has failed to make any sales. One night at the inn, the seller of indulgences gets into a fight with the constable after the constable calls the seller of indulgences a fraud, saying the indulgences he sells are fake. The fight attracts a lot of attention from the townspeople, who eventually break up the fight by leading the constable away. After that everyone goes off to bed.
As the primary law enforcement official for his town, any constable would naturally have an interest in protecting the citizenry from someone he saw as a fraud. The public nature of their dispute later becomes an important detail in understanding the ruse that the constable and the seller of indulgences have worked out together.
The next morning, the seller of indulgences goes to the church and asks that the church bells be rung because he wants to give a sermon. When all the townspeople gather, they are still talking about what had happened the previous night and repeating to one another what the constable had said about the indulgences being fake. Once the sermon is almost finished, the constable enters the church, declaring loudly that the indulgences are false and warning the people against wasting their money. The seller of indulgences responds by saying a prayer that the constable will be punished if what he says is false, and that he himself will be punished if what the constable says is true. As soon as he has finished his prayer, the constable falls off his bench and begins foaming at the mouth and flailing his limbs. It takes more than fifteen men to hold the constable steady. Meanwhile Lazaro’s master remains on his knees in the pulpit, in a kind of religious trance. When the seller of indulgences wakes up from his trance he encourages the people to pray for the constable. Everyone gets on their knees and prays with the seller of indulgences. Then the constable is brought to the pulpit, and the pardoner places an indulgence on the constable’s forehead, at which point the constable regains consciousness and asks the pardoner for forgiveness, saying his actions had been guided by the devil. Everyone who witnessed the episode then rushes to the pulpit to buy indulgences and nobody leaves without buying one. News of the event travels to surrounding villages, so that people are already eager to buy indulgences when the pardoner arrives. Lazaro admits that he was initially fooled by the pardoner’s theatrics, but later recognizes his master’s genius for collaborating with the constable in this act of deception.
While sellers of indulgences were criticized for conflating moral purity with wealth (the ability to buy indulgences), it’s notable that indulgences are so popular in the world of the book. Considering that the poor have been portrayed as more generous and Christian than the rich, despite that they are looked down on and more likely to be wrongfully punished, the logic of indulgences—that the wealthy deserve moral authority—is actually consistent with the values of Inquisition-era Spain. In that sense, despite the public’s professed ambivalence about indulgences, they are actually primed to be receptive to the seller of indulgences’s elaborate act of deception. This deception makes for a scathing critique of both government and church officials, who together conspire to defraud the people they are supposed to serve. Of all the masters Lazaro has served, the seller of indulgences is the most ruthless and conniving. Lazaro does not say much about the role he played in all of this, though it is clear by his account that he was a witness to all of it. While he claims not to be complicit in the con, the admiration Lazaro professes for the scheming pardoner is yet another indicator of the narrator’s shifting set of values.
In the next village, the townspeople are strongly opposed to buying the pardoner’s indulgences, even after he announces that they can have an entire year to pay for them. The pardoner realizes that he won’t make any sales and begins giving away indulgences by throwing them from the pulpit, smiling and shouting that they are being given to the people by the grace of God. The townspeople scramble to pick up the indulgences, and soon everyone in the town has taken an indulgence for themselves and their family members, dead or alive. Before Lazaro and the pardoner leave the town, the local clergymen approach the pardoner to ask whether an indulgence’s coverage extends to unborn children, to which the pardoner replies that they will have to consult more learned scholars than himself.
In this village, the townspeople make a show of being morally opposed to the sale of indulgences, but as soon as the pardoner begins handing them out for free, the moral pretensions of the townspeople vanish and a violent free-for-all ensues as the townspeople scramble to get their hands on the slips of paper. The moment when a member of the clergy asks about indulgences for unborn children is the height of the author’s satirical commentary on the ridiculousness of papal indulgences and the hypocrisy it represents in the church.
On their way to the region of La Mancha, the seller of indulgences and Lazaro come to a village that is even more reluctant to buy indulgences. Here, the seller of indulgences has another idea. He has a small cross which he rests on top of a brazier (a small heater) until it becomes very hot, and at the end of his sermon he takes the cross in a handkerchief and holds it out for the local clergymen to kiss. An old magistrate is the first to kiss the cross, and he jumps back when he feels how hot it is, but the pardoner exclaims that it must be a miracle. One by one the clergymen kiss the cross and are burnt by it. When the pardoner suggests that this miracle is God’s response to the village’s lack of charity, there is a rush to buy indulgences. Lazaro guesses that three thousand indulgences were sold this way. As they are leaving the village, the clergymen beg the pardoner to leave the cross with them. The pardoner agrees only after the clergymen offer him a much older and more valuable cross, made of silver, in exchange.
In the third and final act of deception in this chapter, it is the brazenness and unscrupulousness of the seller of indulgences that is most striking, in contrast to the utter gullibility of the clergymen. The pardoner’s easy success in getting others to believe that such a simple trick was in fact a miracle would have been seen as particularly blasphemous, since it insinuates that other miracles are falsified for the purpose of bringing financial gain to the church.
Lazaro explains that he was too afraid of his master to expose his lies, and that he swore never to tell the truth about the false miracle with the cross. Lazaro excuses himself in part by saying that he was too young to know better, and that he had thought many of the pardoner’s tricks were funny. He also mentions that although he suffered plenty of hardships while serving the pardoner, he was always well-fed.
Lazaro’s claim that he didn’t know any better seems dubious at this point in the story. It’s much more likely that, because he was well fed, it was in Lazaro’s interest to go along with the pardoner’s acts of deception.