Therfore my theme is yet, and evere was,
Radix malorum est Cupidiias. Thus kan I preche agayn that same vice Which that I use, and that is avarice.
The Pardoner, like many of Chaucer’s characters, begins his prologue with a frank admission of his faults. As a religious authority, the Pardoner’s largest fault takes the form of hypocrisy. He preaches against sin but indulges in all forms of sin at the same time. The Pardoner even tries to excuse his behavior by favorably comparing himself to other hypocritical preachers who seek power or inflame hate. Next to them, he claims, his simple greed seems hardly a sin. Readers most likely note such a weak rationalization, indicating that perhaps this detail operates as a sort of warning or lesson.
For though myself be a ful vicious man, A moral tale yet I yow telle kan[.]
Another way that the Pardoner tries to excuse his hypocrisy is by claiming that his tales do provide moral guidance. While the Pardoner does have ulterior motives, his tale demonstrates knowledge of the Bible, and he does spread the word against sin. Such a contradiction may indicate that there is good to be found in religion even if religious figures are flawed.
What nedeth it to sermone of it moore? For right as they hadde cast his deeth bifoore, Right so they han hym slayn, and that anon. And whan that this was doon, thus spak that oon: ‘Now lat us sitte and drynke, and make us merie, And afterward we wol his body berie’ And with that word it happed hym par cas To take the hotel ther the poyson was, And drank, and yaf his felawe drynke also, For which anon they storven bothe two.
In the conclusion of the Pardoner’s Tale, the three rogues all murder each other, and no one gets the money. The old man they met was right: Death was lying in wait under the oak tree. The Pardoner’s tale is presented as a straightforward fable with an obvious moral. Greed is the root of all sin, and the wage of sin is death. Though the Pardoner himself may be as sinful as his drunken characters, he delivers a story that contains a clearly presented religious lesson.
But, sires, o word forgat I in my tale: I have relikes and pardon in my male, As faire as any man in Engelond, Whiche were me yeven by the popes hond.
Once the Pardoner finishes his tale, he immediately scams his companions for money to absolve them of their sins. Before his short tale began, the Pardoner confessed that his relics are junk, and yet he now proclaims them to be genuine. Chaucer may have heightened this obvious hypocrisy for humor or to satirize the corrupt Church. Either way, the message seems clear: Don’t put your faith and trust in an object or one who claims an object can deliver you from sin.
’Nay, nay!’ quod he ‘thanne have I Cristes curs! Lat be’ quod he, ‘it shal nat be, so theech! Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech, And swere it were a relyk of a seint[.]
In response to the Pardoner’s blatant con, the Host angrily declares that he would call his own pants a relic and ask people to kiss them. This announcement was made after the Pardoner specifically called out the Host for his sinful tavern, where, of course, the Pardoner himself got drunk before the trip began. The Pardoner’s companions do not fall for his trickery at all, a detail indicating that Chaucer is calling even more attention to the Pardoner’s, and thus religion’s, hypocrisy. Then again, Chaucer may have wanted to show that common people are not fooled by the corruption of the Church.
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