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The Pardoner's Tale

Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343 - 1400) began writing The Canterbury Tales (1476) around the year 1387. It tells the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to visit a famous religious site, the grave of a Catholic saint and martyr Thomas Becket in Canterbury, a town in southeast England about 60 miles away from London. To pass the time during this journey, the pilgrims decide to hold a story-telling contest. Each of them would tell four stories–two on the journey there, two on the return—with the innkeeper, Harry Bailey, judging which story was best. Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales, so we don’t actually hear from all of the pilgrims four times.1

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The Pardoner's Tale

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Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343 - 1400) began writing The Canterbury Tales (1476) around the year 1387. It tells the story of a group of pilgrims on their way to visit a famous religious site, the grave of a Catholic saint and martyr Thomas Becket in Canterbury, a town in southeast England about 60 miles away from London. To pass the time during this journey, the pilgrims decide to hold a story-telling contest. Each of them would tell four stories–two on the journey there, two on the return—with the innkeeper, Harry Bailey, judging which story was best. Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales, so we don’t actually hear from all of the pilgrims four times.1

The Pardoner's Tale Cathedral StudySmarter

The pilgrims are on their way to a cathedral, much like this one, that houses the relics of a famous saint. Pixabay.

Among the twenty-odd pilgrims is a Pardoner, or a person who was authorized to excuse certain sins in exchange for money. The Pardoner is an unsavory character, openly stating that he doesn’t care whether his work prevents sin or saves people as long as he gets paid. Ironically preaching against the sin of greed, the Pardoner tells a story designed as a powerful warning against avarice, drunkenness, and blasphemy while simultaneously engaging in all of these himself.

Summary of "The Pardoner's Tale"

A short moral tale sandwiched between two sermons, "The Pardoner's Tale" shows how greed is not only a violation of religious ethics but can also have immediate, deadly consequences.

The Introduction

Still reeling from the Physician’s story of Virginia, a maiden whose parents murdered her rather than see her lose her virginity, the Host of pilgrims asks the Pardoner for something more lighthearted as a distraction, while others in the company insist that he tell a clean moral tale. The Pardoner agrees, but insists that he be given some time to drink beer and eat bread first.

The Prologue

In the prologue, the Pardoner boasts of his abilities to trick unsophisticated villagers out of their money. First, he displays all of his official licenses from the Pope and Bishops. Then he presents his rags and bones as holy relics with magical powers to heal diseases and cause crops to grow, but notes a caveat: no one guilty of sin can benefit from these powers until they pay the Pardoner.

The Pardoner also repeats a sermon on the vice of greed, whose theme he repeats as radix malorum est cupiditas, or "greed is the root of all evil." He acknowledges the irony of preaching this sermon in the name of his own greed, remarking that he doesn’t actually care whether he prevents anyone from sinning as long as he himself earns money. He travels from town to town repeating this act, unashamedly telling the other pilgrims that he refuses to do manual labor and would not mind seeing women and children starve so he can live in comfort.

The Tale

The Pardoner begins to describe a group of hard-partying young revelers in “Flandres”, but then launches into a long digression against drunkenness and gambling that makes extensive use of Biblical and classical references and lasts for over 300 lines, taking up nearly half the space allocated to this tale.

Eventually returning to his story, the Pardoner tells how early one morning, three young partiers are drinking at a bar when they hear a bell ringing and see a funeral procession go by. Asking a young servant boy who the dead person is, they learn that it was one of their acquaintances who died unexpectedly the night before. As a response to who killed the man, the boy explains that a “thief men clepeth Deeth”, or in modern English, "a thief called Death," struck him down (line 675). Seeming to take this personification of death literally, the three of them vow to find Death, who they denounce as a “false traitour”, and kill him (lines 699-700).

The three drunken gamblers make their way towards a town where a number of people have died recently on the assumption that Death is likely nearby. They cross paths with an old man on the way, and one of them mocks him for being old, asking, “Why livestou so longe in so gree age?” or, "Why have you been alive for so long?" (line 719). The old man has a good sense of humor and replies that he hasn’t been able to find any young person willing to trade his old age for youth, so here he is, and laments that Death has not come for him yet.

On hearing the word “Deeth”, the three men go on high alert. They accuse the old man of being in cahoots with death and demand to know where he is hiding. The old man directs them up a “crooked way” towards a “grove” with an oak tree, where he swears he saw Death last (760-762).

The Pardoner's Tale Gold Coins Treasure StudySmarter

The three drunken revelers unexpectedly discover a treasure of gold coins. Pixabay.

Upon reaching the grove that the old man directed them to, they find a pile of gold coins. They immediately forget about their plan to kill Death and start scheming of ways to get this treasure home. Worried that if they’re caught carrying the treasure they will be accused of theft and hanged, they decide to guard it until nightfall and carry it home under cover of darkness. They need provisions to last the day–bread and wine–and draw straws to decide who will go to town while the other two guard the coins. The youngest of them draws the shortest straw and heads off to buy the food and drink.

No sooner is he gone than one of the remaining revelers relates a plan to the other. Since they would be better off splitting the coins between two people rather than three, they decide to ambush and stab the youngest when he comes back with their food.

Meanwhile, the young man on his way into town has also been thinking of a way that he could get the whole treasure to himself. He decides to poison his two colleagues with the food he brings back to them. He stops at a pharmacy to ask for a way to get rid of the rats and a polecat that he claims has been killing his chickens. The pharmacist gives him the strongest poison he has. The man proceeds to place it into two bottles, leaving a clean one for himself, and fills them all with wine.

When he returns, his two comrades ambush and kill him, as they had planned. They then decide to rest and drink the wine before burying his corpse. They both unknowingly choose a poisoned bottle, drink from it, and die.

The Pardoner's Tale Wine Bottle StudySmarter

Poisoned wine turns out to be the undoing of the remaining two drunken revelers. Pixabay.

The Pardoner concludes the tale by repeating how evil the vices of greed and swearing are before asking for a donation of money or wool from his audience in order for God to forgive them of their own sins.

The Epilogue

The Pardoner once again reminds his audience that he possesses relics and is licensed by the Pope to excuse their sins, remarking how lucky they are to have a pardoner on the pilgrimage with them. He suggests they make use of his services as soon as possible in case they should have any kind of unfortunate accident on the road. He then requests the Host come and kiss his relics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Harry refuses. Having been told by the Pardoner himself that the relics are fake, he suggests that he would actually just be kissing the Pardoner’s “olde breech”, or pants, that are “with thy fundament depeint”, meaning stained with his fecal matter (lines 948-950).

The Host continues insulting the Pardoner, threatening to castrate him and throw his testicles “in an hogges tord”, or in pig dung (952-955). The other pilgrims laugh, and the Pardoner is so angry that he doesn’t respond, riding along silently. Another pilgrim, the Knight, bids them to literally kiss and make up. They do so and then change the subject without further comment as the next tale begins.

Characters in "The Pardoner's Tale"

The Canterbury Tales is a series of stories within a story. Chaucer's tale of a group of pilgrims who decide to travel to Canterbury is what can be called the frame narrative. This is because it acts as a kind of enclosure or container for the other stories told by the various pilgrims as they travel. There are different sets of characters in the frame narrative and the tale itself.

Characters in the Frame Narrative of “The Pardoner’s Tale”

The main characters in the frame narrative are the Pardoner, who tells the tale, and the Host, who interacts with him.

The Pardoner

Pardoners were religious functionaries in the Catholic Church. They were granted a license by the Pope to offer contingent forgiveness of a limited number of sins in exchange for money. This money was, in turn, supposed to be donated to a charity such as a hospital, church, or monastery. In practice, however, pardoners sometimes offered total forgiveness of all sins to anyone who could pay, keeping much of the money for themselves (this abuse would be an important factor leading to the Protestant Reformation in the centuries after Chaucer's death).2

The Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales is one such corrupt official. He carries around a box of old pillowcases and pig’s bones, which he passes off as holy relics with supernatural healing and generative powers. These powers are denied, of course, to anyone who refuses to pay him. He also delivers emotional sermons against greed, which he then uses to manipulate his audience into buying pardons.

The Pardoner is totally shameless about the way he exploits the religious sentiments of naïve and gullible people for his own gain, noting that he wouldn’t care if they starved so long as he could maintain his own relatively high standard of living.

First described in the “General Prologue” of the book, the pardoner, we are told, has long, stringy blond hair, a high-pitched voice like a goat, and is incapable of growing facial hair. The speaker swears that he is “a geldying or a mare”, that is, either a eunuch, a woman disguised as a man, or a man who engages in homosexual activity (line 691).

Chaucer's description casts doubt on the Pardoner's gender and sexual orientation. In a deeply homophobic society such as medieval England, this means the Pardoner would likely have been seen as an outcast. What effect do you think this has on his story?3

The Host

The keeper of an inn called the Tabard, Harry Bailey is described in the “General Prologue” as bold, merry, and an excellent host and businessman. Supportive of the pilgrim’s decision to walk to Canterbury, he is the one who proposes that they tell stories along the way and offers to be the judge in the story-telling contest if they all agree to it (lines 751-783).

Characters in the Tale of “The Pardoner’s Tale”

This short tale is centered around three drunken revelers who encounter a mysterious old man. A servant boy and an apothecary also play minor roles in the tale.

The Three Rioters

Little is revealed about this group of three nameless revelers from Flanders. They are all hard drinkers, swearers, and gamblers who eat excessively and solicit prostitutes. While there is little to distinguish the three of them from each other, we know that one of them is prouder, one of them is younger, and one of them is called "the worste" for hatching a murder scheme (lines 716, 776, and 804).

The Poor Old Man

The old man who the three rioters encounter on their way to kill death is subject to their mockery but has done nothing to provoke them. When they accuse him of being allied with death, he cryptically directs them to the grove where they find a treasure (lines 716-765). This raises several interesting questions: did the old man know about the treasure? Could he have predicted the consequences of these three people finding it? Is he, as the rioters accuse him, allied with death or perhaps even death himself?

Themes in "The Pardoner's Tale"

Themes in “The Pardoner’s Tale” include greed, corruption, and hypocrisy.

A theme is the central idea or ideas that a work addresses. It is distinct from the subject matter and may be implicit rather than stated directly.

Themes in “The Pardoner’s Tale” – Greed

The Pardoner zeroes in on greed as the root of all evil. His story is meant to show how it leads to worldly destruction (in addition, presumably, to eternal damnation).

Themes in “The Pardoner’s Tale” – Corruption

The Pardoner has no interest in his clients’ spiritual well-being or the authenticity of his ability to offer forgiveness. He is, in other words, only in it for the money. Such a figure suggests that some (perhaps many) religious officials were more interested in living a life of luxury than in any kind of spiritual calling. Corrupt officials such as the Pardoner would be one driving force behind the Protestant Reformation over a century after The Canterbury Tales was written.

Themes in “The Pardoner’s Tale” – Hypocrisy

The Pardoner is the ultimate hypocrite, preaching the evil of sins that he himself commits (in some cases simultaneously!). He sermonizes on the evil of alcohol over a beer, preaches against greed while admitting that he cheats people out of their money, and condemns swearing as blasphemous while he lies about his own religious bona fides.

Irony in "The Pardoner's Tale"

"The Pardoner's Tale" contains several levels of irony. This often adds humor to the tale and makes it a more effective satire while also adding a degree of complexity.

Irony is a discrepancy or difference between words and their intended meaning, the intentions of an action and its actual results, or between appearance and reality more broadly. Irony often has absurd or paradoxical results.

Two broad categories of irony are verbal irony and situational irony.

Verbal irony is whenever someone says the opposite of what they mean.

Situational irony is whenever a person, action, or place is different from what someone expects. Types of situational irony include irony of behavior and dramatic irony. Irony of behavior is when an action has the opposite of its intended consequences. Dramatic irony is whenever a reader or audience knows something that a character doesn't.

"The Pardoner's Tale" contains a neat example of dramatic irony: the audience is aware that the two revelers are planning to ambush and kill the younger one, who is unaware of this. The audience is also aware that the youngest reveler plans to poison the wine of the other two, and that their alcoholism will ensure they drink this poison. The audience can foresee the triple homicide several steps ahead of the characters in the story.

More interesting and complex examples of irony can be found in the actions of the Pardoner himself. His sermonizing against greed while admitting that money is the only thing that motivates him is a clear example of irony, as is his denunciation of drunkenness and blasphemy while he himself is drinking and abusing his sacred office. We might think of this as irony of behavior, as the reader expects someone preaching against sin to not commit that sin (at least not openly and unashamedly). It could also be thought of as verbal irony, as the Pardoner says these things are bad while his attitude and actions imply that they are not.

The Pardoner's attempt to get the other pilgrims to buy his pardons or give donations at the end of the tale is an example of situational irony. Having just revealed his own greedy motives and phony credentials, readers would expect him not to immediately launch into a sales pitch. Whether from an underestimation of the other pilgrims' intelligence or from misplaced confidence in the power of his story and sermons, however, this is just what he does. The result—laughter and abuse rather than contrite offers of money—is a further example of irony of behavior.

The Pardoner reveals his relics to be inauthentic and fraudulent, and suggests that these aspects of religious beliefs are mere tools to extract money from gullible people.

The Pardoner's audience is a group of people on a pilgrimage to visit the relics of a saint. What do you think the Pardoner's hypocrisy might suggest to a group of people engaged in this activity? Is this a further example of irony?

Satire in "The Pardoner's Tale"

“The Pardoner’s Tale” uses irony to satirize the greed and corruption of the medieval Catholic church.

Satire is any work that points out social or political problems by mocking them. The aim of satire is ultimately to use irony and humor as a weapon to fix these problems and improve society.4

The practice of selling pardons (also known as indulgences) would be a source of anger and resentment in medieval Europe that would ultimately lead to the Reformation. The Pardoner, a corrupt, shamelessly greedy figure who lies to the other pilgrims’ faces in the hope of making a little money, represents the extreme form of exploitation that the sale of pardons could result in. His greed and hypocrisy reach comical heights until he is cut down to size by the host.

The Pardoner's Tale (1387-1400) - Key takeaways

  • "The Pardoner's Tale" is part of Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a fictional collection of stories told by pilgrims on a journey from London to Canterbury in the late 15th century.
  • The Pardoner is a corrupt religious official who tricks people into paying him money by lying about the magical powers of fake relics that he carries with him, then by making them feel guilty about being greedy with an impassioned sermon.
  • The Pardoner's Tale is the story of three "rioters", drunken gamblers and partiers, who all kill each other while trying to get a greater share of a treasure they stumbled across.
  • After telling this story, the Pardoner tries to sell his pardons to the other pilgrims. Having been let in on the scam, they are not interested and mock him instead.
  • There are several examples of irony throughout the story, which is used to satirize the increasing greed and spiritual emptiness of the church.

References

1. Greenblatt, S. (general editor). The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 1. Norton, 2012.

2. Wooding, L. "Review: Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise?" The Catholic Historical Review, Vol. 100 No. 3 Summer 2014. pp. 596-98.

3. Grady, F. (editor). The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. Cambridge UP, 2020.

4. Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Penguin, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Pardoner's Tale

Death is personified as a "thief" and a "traitour" early in the tale. The three main characters take this personification literally, and end up dying themselves due to their own greed. 

The main themes of "The Pardoner's Tale" are greed, hypocrisy, and corruption.

Chaucer is satirizing certain practices of the medieval church, such as selling pardons, that seem to indicate more concern with money than with spiritual or religious duties.

"The Pardoner's Tale" is a short poetic narrative told as part of Geoffrey Chaucer's larger work, The Canterbury Tales. The tale itself has features of a sermon, but it is also framed by the interactions between the Pardoner and the other pilgrims traveling to Canterbury.

The basic moral of "The Pardoner's Tale" is that greed is not good.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which is the best definition of a frame narrative?

What is the frame narrative in The Canterbury Tales?

Which best describes the Host, Harry Bailey?

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