The Canterbury Tales
The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale
Fragment 6, lines 287–968
Summary: Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale
The Host reacts to the Physician’s Tale, which has just been told. He is shocked at the death of the young Roman girl in the tale, and mourns the fact that her beauty ultimately caused the chain of events that led her father to kill her. Wanting to cheer up, the Host asks the Pardoner to tell the group a merrier, farcical tale. The Pardoner agrees, but will continue only after he has food and drink in his stomach. Other pilgrims interject that they would prefer to hear a moral story, and the Pardoner again agrees.
Summary: Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale
My theme is alwey oon, and evere was—
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.
After getting a drink, the Pardoner begins his Prologue. He tells the company about his occupation—a combination of itinerant preaching and selling promises of salvation. His sermon topic always remains the same: Radix malorum est Cupiditas, or “greed is the root of all evil.” He gives a similar sermon to every congregation and then breaks out his bag of “relics”—which, he readily admits to the listening pilgrims, are fake. He will take a sheep’s bone and claim it has miraculous healing powers for all kinds of ailments. The parishioners always believe him and make their offerings to the relics, which the Pardoner quickly pockets.
The Pardoner admits that he preaches solely to get money, not to correct sin. He argues that many sermons are the product of evil intentions. By preaching, the Pardoner can get back at anyone who has offended him or his brethren. In his sermon, he always preaches about covetousness, the very vice that he himself is gripped by. His one and only interest is to fill his ever-deepening pockets. He would rather take the last penny from a widow and her starving family than give up his money, and the good cheeses, breads, and wines that such income brings him. Speaking of alcohol, he notes, he has now finished his drink of “corny ale” and is ready to begin his tale.
Summary: The Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner describes a group of young Flemish people who spend their time drinking and reveling, indulging in all forms of excess. After commenting on their lifestyle of debauchery, the Pardoner enters into a tirade against the vices that they practice. First and foremost is gluttony, which he identifies as the sin that first caused the fall of mankind in Eden. Next, he attacks drunkenness, which makes a man seem mad and witless. Next is gambling, the temptation that ruins men of power and wealth. Finally, he denounces swearing. He argues that it so offends God that he forbade swearing in the Second Commandment—placing it higher up on the list than homicide. After almost two hundred lines of sermonizing, the Pardoner finally returns to his story of the lecherous Flemish youngsters.
As three of these rioters sit drinking, they hear a funeral knell. One of the revelers’ servants tells the group that an old friend of theirs was slain that very night by a mysterious figure named Death. The rioters are outraged and, in their drunkenness, decide to find and kill Death to avenge their friend. Traveling down the road, they meet an old man who appears sorrowful. He says his sorrow stems from old age—he has been waiting for Death to come and take him for some time, and he has wandered all over the world. The youths, hearing the name of Death, demand to know where they can find him. The old man directs them into a grove, where he says he just left Death under an oak tree. The rioters rush to the tree, underneath which they find not Death but eight bushels of gold coins with no owner in sight.
At first, they are speechless, but, then, the slyest of the three reminds them that if they carry the gold into town in daylight, they will be taken for thieves. They must transport the gold under cover of night, and so someone must run into town to fetch bread and wine in the meantime. They draw lots, and the youngest of the three loses and runs off toward town. As soon as he is gone, the sly plotter turns to his friend and divulges his plan: when their friend returns from town, they will kill him and therefore receive greater shares of the wealth. The second rioter agrees, and they prepare their trap. Back in town, the youngest vagrant is having similar thoughts. He could easily be the richest man in town, he realizes, if he could have all the gold to himself. He goes to the apothecary and buys the strongest poison available, then puts the poison into two bottles of wine, leaving a third bottle pure for himself. He returns to the tree, but the other two rioters leap out and kill him.
They sit down to drink their friend’s wine and celebrate, but each happens to pick up a poisoned bottle. Within minutes, they lie dead next to their friend. Thus, concludes the Pardoner, all must beware the sin of avarice, which can only bring treachery and death. He realizes that he has forgotten something: he has relics and pardons in his bag. According to his custom, he tells the pilgrims the value of his relics and asks for contributions—even though he has just told them the relics are fake. He offers the Host the first chance to come forth and kiss the relics, since the Host is clearly the most enveloped in sin (942). The Host is outraged and proposes to make a relic out of the Pardoner’s genitals, but the Knight calms everybody down. The Host and Pardoner kiss and make up, and all have a good laugh as they continue on their way.
We know from the General Prologue that the Pardoner is as corrupt as others in his profession, but his frankness about his own hypocrisy is nevertheless shocking. He bluntly accuses himself of fraud, avarice, and gluttony—the very things he preaches against. And yet, rather than expressing any sort of remorse with his confession, he takes a perverse pride in the depth of his corruption. The Pardoner’s earnestness in portraying himself as totally amoral seems almost too extreme to be accurate. His boasts about his corruption may represent his attempt to cover up his doubts or anxieties about the life of crime (in the name of religion) that he has adopted. It is possible to argue that the Pardoner sacrifices his own spiritual good to cure the sins of others. Yet he doesn’t seem to really consider his spiritual corruption a real sacrifice, since he loves the money and the comforts it brings him. Either way, he quickly covers up his statement, which shows at least a flicker of interest in the good of other people, with a renewed proclamation of his own selfishness: “But that is nat my principal entente; / I preche nothyng but for coveitise” (432–433).
The Pardoner’s Tale is an example, a type of story often used by preachers to emphasize a moral point to their audience. The Pardoner has told us in his Prologue that his main theme—“Greed is the root of all evil”—never changes. We can assume that the Pardoner is well practiced in the art of telling this specific tale, and he even inserts some of his sermon into it. The Pardoner’s point is quite obvious—his tale shows the disastrous effects of greed. The hypocrisy he has described in his Prologue becomes evident in his tale, as all the vices he lists in his diatribe at the beginning—gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing—are faults that he himself has either displayed to the other pilgrims or proudly claimed to possess. Ridiculously, when he has finished his condemnation of swearing, he begins the tale swearing his own oath: “Now, for the love of Crist, that for us dyde . . . now wol I telle forth my tale” (658–660). Such an overtly hypocritical act is perfectly consistent with the character that the Pardoner has presented to us, and an example of Chaucer’s typically wry comedy.
As if on automatic pilot, the Pardoner completes his tale just as he would when preaching in the villages, by displaying his false relics and asking for contributions. His act is intriguing, for he makes no acknowledgment of his hypocrisy. Only a few lines before, in his Prologue, he exposed to the entire company the fraudulence of his whole operation. It is inconceivable that he would now expect to get contributions from his fellow travelers—so why does he ask for them? Perhaps, like a professional actor, the Pardoner enjoys the challenge of telling his tale so convincingly that he tricks his audience into belief, even after he has explained to them his corrupt nature. Or perhaps he takes delight in showing the audience how his routine works, as an actor might enjoy showing people backstage. In any case, the Pardoner’s attempt to sell pardons to the pilgrims is a source of rancor for the Host, because, in trying to swindle the other pilgrims, the Pardoner has violated the Host’s notion of fellowship on which the storytelling pilgrimage is based.
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