Pardoner'S Tale

Chaucer – The Pardoner’s Tale #

In the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale. Chaucer appears to drop some of his satire, striking out boldly to condemn an openly corrupt Church.

According to Peter Craven, “the grandly sinister prologue is attached to a medieval allegory done with such a sombre face and soft step that any difference between folk tale and the high art of poetry is eliminated. It’s as if we don’t have the luxury of seeing it happen in language but, as if transparently through it. The inscrutable power of the Old Man as the prophet of the unknowable seeks the death of the three young rioters, who are looking for ‘Death’, will meet it headlong and blind. ‘with my staff I knock upon the earth calling out, Dear Mother let me in.” *

Context & Subject Matter – Pardoner’s Tale #

Circa 1350 – 1400 Written by 1387.

Medieval institutions were under attack because of progress. Feudalism was challenged by rising merchant class engaged in trade and production.

Chivalry by was challenged by brash upstarts – the noveau riche.

Church was still dominant but in decline because of:

Schism between Rome and Avignon…

English Bishop’s loyalty to English King.

Corruption rife – wide spread.

Friars openly hated – (Chaucer fined for having beat a Friar).

Officials were self-absorbed, self-indulgent, decadent, with a dismal record of failed accountability.

Death a common open occurrence especially during the time of the Black Death 1348 - 1380 and often personified in Literature of the time. The three rioters are drinking in an inn when they see a funeral procession of an acquaintance go by and decide to search out Death and kill him.

II. CHARACTERS: The Pardoner’s Tale #

The Pilgrims, 29 plus the host, Harry.

The Pardoner, was perhaps the most depraved and reviled of the Pilgrims. A lay preacher who sells indulgences and fake relics to make money – a hypocrite. He is described as “a geldyng or a mare” Is he effeminate or a eunuch?

His account and actions are a complete negation of all Christian virtues: honesty, humility, poverty, chastity, love of fellow men…….

He is self - obsessed, continually drawing attention to himself for approval.

He may be an earlier example of Babbitt (1922), by Sinclair Lewis, is a satirical novel about American culture and society that critiques the vacuity of middle-class life and the social pressure toward conformity.

The Pardoner claims to abhor rhetoric, but continually indulges in it.

The characters of the 3 Villains/ Vagabonds, - rioters are not developed.

  1. The Proudest 2)     the worste  3)     the youngest (sent to get

food and wine)

All are irredeemably evil, self serving, young, brash, crude, impolite, overbearing. The call the Old man “rude carl”, olde Churl”

The Old Man who is not named is poor, meek, good or virtuous. His code of address is courteous: “loudes and sires”. His speech slow, full of negatives. When asked where they can find Death, he directs them to a large tree in the distance where they discover a pot of gold, averring: “with my staff I knock upon the earth calling out, Dear Mother let me (them) in.”

**The Pardoner’s Tale: **

Three young dissolute rioters are getting drunk in a tavern when they hear a bell announcing a funeral procession. A young boy informs them it is for a friend of theirs who succumbed to pestilence. They become very angry and decide to challenge old man death.

The Pardoner then digresses with a long rambling harangue regarding the vices of gluttony, lechery, drunkenness, gambling and blasphemy. It is highly spiced with liberal references or allusions to classic and Biblical figures. Lot, whose daughters slept with him to become pregnant, Herod, who commanded John the Baptist’s head be cut off. Seneca warning that drink causes men to go mad, Christ’s blood shed to redeem our sins, Adam and Eve thrown out of the Garden due to excess and gluttony, and St. Paul on food. God’s chosen people’s victories over Canaanites were due to their abstinence and prayer. Attila dies in his sleep, bleeding from his nose due to his drunkenness. Samuel hero in the history of Israel, —seer, priest, judge, prophet, and military leader. Stilboun, ambassador from Sparta to Corinth to seek alliance, finds them gambling with dice; so appalled refuses to form an alliance. King of Parthia sends him a pair of Gold dice as an insult, implying hypocrisy?

False swearing of oaths, perjury, anger and homicide are referenced by the second Commandment and Matthew and Jeremiah.

Returning to his tale, the Pardoner reveals how the three rioters pledge an alliance by swearing an oath to slay Death. On the way they meet an old Carl (man), who meekly greets them. The proudest rioter rudely questions why the old man is still living? The old man replies that he has travelled all the way to India but couldn’t find any young person to exchange his youth for old age. When the old man attempts to leave, the “worste” dice player accuses him of being in league with Death to kill the young.

The old man tells them if they are looking for Death, they will find him in a grove down the road under an oak tree where he just left him.

When the three rioters arrive at the tree, they find eight bushels of fine round florins of gold coins. They abandon their search for Death. The oldest “worste” advises that taking the gold home in daylight would leave them open to suspicion of being arrant thieves, so they must wait until nightfall.

They draw straws to see who should go to town to get bread and wine, while the other two guard the treasure. The youngest draws the short straw and with a coin goes to town. The two left behind decide that it would be more profitable to divide the loot into two rather than three so conspire to kill the youngest one when he gets back.

Meanwhile, the youngest, in town reasons that having all the gold to himself might not be a bad thing and so stops by an Apothecary to buy some poison on the pretext that he needs to kill some rats and a polecat that have been attacking his capons.

Buying three bottles of wine, he pours the poison into two of them and returns to the treasure, where the two set on him and kill him, before sitting down to feast on their wine and bread. With an allusion to Avicenna, Islamic polymath and father of medicine, Chaucer then indicates that all three rioters die because of their lechery, gluttony, dicing and blasphemy. It is a cautionary tale against avarice.

Carried away by his eloquence, the Pardoner conducts an altar call offering relics for sale to cleanse the Pilgrims sins and become as innocent as the day they were born. He offers pardon for all their sins as long as they give him gold coins and silver pennies, assuring them they are so lucky to have such a Pardoner with so much power.

He calls on the Host to be the first to kiss his relics. Offended the usually genial and urbane Host retorts:

        *   * *Thou would make me kiss thine old underpants,*

949 And swear it was a relic of a saint,

950 Though it were stained by thy fundament!

951 But, by the cross that Saint Helen found,

952 I would I had thy testicles in my hand

953 Instead of relics or a container for relics.

954 Have them cut off, I will help thee carry them;

955 They shall be enshrined in a hog’s turd!"

The Pardoner was speechless and the two almost came to blows before the Knight stepped in to try to mediate and restore order and cheer.

**II. Themes, Issues, Values, Concerns **The Pardoner’s Tale #

Greed (money) is the root of all evil.

The Pardoner stresses this theme in all his talks but in practices the opposite. He is depicted as one of the greediest of all the pilgrims despite the fact that he would have taken a vow of poverty.

Deception (hypocrisy or duplicity)

The Pardoner admits in the General Prologue that “makes smooth his tongue when about to perform” yet he assures his fellow Pilgrims “I wol you not deceyve” (508)

Chaucer has the Pardoner unwittingly expose his unsavoury corrupt practices vividly, dramatically and convincingly to warn people against the shameless hypocrisy of the Church. The Church is rotten to the core. He doesn’t care if a widow’s children starve, so long as he has his wine.

He embodies capitalist ideology: “Protect your own and to hell with everyone else.”

Chaucer satirises the deceived as well for being well meaning but overly credulous, gullible and easy prey of unscrupulous Con artists.

The viciousness of church politics can rival pretty much any other politics you can name; the difference is that the viciousness within churches is often cloaked in lofty spiritual language and euphemisms.

Many people who claim that Jesus is integral to their life are actually running on empty.


Widespread and expected. Graphic violence of two of the rioutres killing the youngest before they drink the wine and die of poisoning.


Prevalent and open. Medieval writers personify death as the grim reaper. Death is accepted as part of life and openly depicted. All three villains die.


Despite ranting against gluttony and excessive drinking, the Pardoner is drunk in the Tavern when he is coaxed to tell “some moral tale”.

Drink is central to the vagabonds. It is the first thing they think of getting once they discover the money and soon it is one of the vehicles of death through poisoning.

IV. TECHNIQUE The Pardoner’s Tale

Structure: linear, circular, episodic, flash backs, climatic.
Images: (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile, gustatory) figures of speech: similes, metaphors, personification, analogy, synecdoche, contrast, antithesis, unity, irony, Allusions, etc


  1. An imaginary parish of lewd (ignorant) susceptible, credulous,

poor, rustic congregation for his mock sermon.

  1. actual pilgrims; high social class, intelligent, discriminating,


  1. Us the responders.
  2. Drinkers in the tavern.

Prologue is rather self effacing, taking the Pilgrims into his confidence with intimate conversational chattiness, candid confessions, lack of elaboration and figurative language. “entente is not but for to wynne, and nothing for correction of synne”. (75-76). Ulterior motives.

His style changes with the occasion; during the diatribe on vices he slowly becomes rhetorical, argumentative with emotional exclamations to elaborate and rant and rave. 100 lines on gluttony with detailed examples of food and drink, historical examples, learned allusions to biblical, historical and classical authorities and the use of weighty Latin and French phrases.

The mock or sample sermon he preaches is a direct address to an imaginary audience. He adopts a superior patronising attitude while he tries to impress, intimidate, persuade and condition his victims with Papal edits, letters patent and the sprinkling of Latin and French.

“Thus spitte I out my venym of hoolynesses.”

The sermon consists of 3 parts:

  1. Opening Text (Greed the root of all evil)

  2. The examples – a running commentary,

  3. The Finale – a denunciation of the vices addressed directly to the Pilgrims.

(Here he seems to have been carried away and forgets who he is talking to and at tempts to sell them his relics to save their souls.

The Host is not amused and retorts in a rude and abusive manner to the insult.

               Come forth, sir Host, and offer first right now,

944 And thou shalt kisse the relikes everychon,

             And thou shall kiss the relics every one,

945 Ye, for a grote! Unbokele anon thy purs."

             Yea, for a fourpence coin! Unbuckle thy purse right


946 “Nay, nay!” quod he, “thanne have I Cristes curs!

             "Nay, nay!" he said, "then I will have Christ's curse!

947 Lat be,” quod he, “it shal nat be, so theech!

             Let it be," he said, "it shall not be, as I may


948 Thou woldest make me kisse thyn olde breech,

             Thou would make me kiss thine old underpants,

949 And swere it were a relyk of a seint,

             And swear it was a relic of a saint,

950 Though it were with thy fundement depeint!

             Though it were stained by thy fundament!

951 But, by the croys which that Seint Eleyne fond,

             But, by the cross that Saint Helen found,

952 I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond

             I would I had thy testicles in my hand

953 In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.

             Instead of relics or a container for relics.

954 Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;

             Have them cut off, I will help thee carry them;

955 They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!”

             They shall be enshrined in a hog's turd!"

956 This Pardoner answerde nat a word;

             This Pardoner answered not a word;

957 So wrooth he was, no word ne wolde he seye.

             So angry he was, no word would he say.

958 “Now,” quod oure Hoost, “I wol no lenger pleye

             "Now," said our Host, "I will no longer joke

959 With thee, ne with noon oother angry man.”

             With thee, nor with any other angry man."

The Knight intervenes to reconcile the two so the journey can continue.

960 But right anon the worthy Knyght bigan,

             But immediately the worthy Knight began,

961 Whan that he saugh that al the peple lough,

             When he saw that all the people laughed,

962 “Namoore of this, for it is right ynough!

             "No more of this, for it is right enough!

963 Sire Pardoner, be glad and myrie of cheere;

             Sir Pardoner, be glad and merry of cheer;

964 And ye, sire Hoost, that been to me so deere,

             And you, sir Host, who are so dear to me,

965 I prey yow that ye kisse the Pardoner.

             I pray you that you kiss the Pardoner.

966 And Pardoner, I prey thee, drawe thee neer,

             And Pardoner, I pray thee, draw thyself nearer,

967 And, as we diden, lat us laughe and pleye.”

             And, as we did, let us laugh and play."

968 Anon they kiste, and ryden forth hir weye.

             At once they kissed, and rode forth their way.

The Tale itself is a simple flat retelling, recount or narrative. It has a faster pace with a short monosyllabic vocabulary. He exemplifies with contrasts and the use of irony. The old man’s lack of confidence is demonstrated by his use of negatives.

V. LANGUAGE: The Pardoner’s Tale #

Approach: Subjective/Objective, Attitude or Tone, Audience, Style: diction, word play, puns, connotative/denotative, emotive (coloured biased,) /demotive, (technical, dispassionate) clichés, proverbial, idiomatic, expressive, flat, Jargon, euphemisms, pejorative, oxymoron.
Gender biases. Register: formal, stiff, dignified or Colloquial; relaxed, conversational, inclusive, friendly or Slang; colourful, intimate, Rhetorical devices; Questions, exclamations, cumulation, crescendo, inversion, bathos, repetition, 3 cornered phrases.

Cant: false piety, “Money is bad, so give it to me.” He is a slick snake oil salesman.

Pardoner adopts a superior condescending attitude to the ignorant congregations, “Thus sitte I oout my venym of hoolynesse”.

To Pilgrims he is candidly hypocritical; “entente is not but for to wynne, and nothing for correccion of synne.” (75-6)

Style modulates depending on circumstances:

To Pilgrims intimate, confiding and respectful,

To lewd (ignorant) peasant congregation – over-bearing, patronising, rhetorical.

Tale: Contrasts the respectable a courteous address of the old man with the brash, crude and abusive language of the riotoures.

*VI. *Evaluation: The Pardoner’s Tale #

The Pardoner’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s strongest indictments on the systematic and entrenched corruption of the Catholic Church of his time. Though the Church had been corrupting for centuries before, it would be at least a hundred more years before the Reformation where Martin Luther, a former priest would finally move for an alternative form of Christianity.

Chaucer created a variety of flawed Church officials on this pilgrimage and most are portrayed in a subtle satiric manner, however, the Pardoner is scathingly and sarcastically depicted as a petty, mean, self-serving irredeemable hypocrite. He is morally bankrupt and the exchange with the host at the end indicates the contempt most pilgrims had for him.

The Tale itself is not really a narrative, rather an exemplum used to illustrate the mock sermon he delivers to demonstrate his persuasive skills.