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Analysing The Pardoner In 'Canterbury Tales'

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3628 words Published: 2nd May 2017

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The Pardoner in the Canterbury Tales is hypocritical, gluttenous, vindictive, and spiteful towards others; he is morally and spiritually corrupt in the extreme. He does, however, tell a tale that, as he promises it shall be in the section that precedes his prologue, a valid sermon against avarice and greed. When Harry Bailey speaks at the end of the Pardoner’s Tale, he does not reject the tale but the teller, the Pardoner. Chaucer the poet aptly presents the Pardoner as a skilled orator and conman and he deliberately illustrates that it is possible for a character far beyond redemption to tell a moral tale.

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The Pardoner tells a moral tale against avarice, gluttony, and the love of money. The latter is a theme that the Pardoner says is always central to his sermons, citing the Latin, the love of money is the root of all evil. The origin of the tale, which was part of common folklore in Chaucer’s day, is an Oriental myth.

The three rioters who are central to the tale, damn themselves literally and metaphorically. They betray each other over gold and their desire for it. They also drink and gamble excessively. Upon learning that an old friend of theirs has died, they further damn themselves by going in search of death.

The Pardoner tells a tale, however, that is both instructive and valid as a sermon because it is loaded with advice against drunkeness and gluttony. The Pardoner cites examples of stories from the Bible, too, to illustrate the dangers of drunkenness (Solomon and John the Baptist; Lot and his daughters) and gluttony (Adam and Eve).

There can be no doubt that the tale is moral. The Pardoner professes himself that although he is a ‘ful vicious’ man, he can still tell a moral tale.

The Pardoner as a character, an individual, and a typification of a group of professional churchmen is entirely amoral and, despite telling a moral tale, Chaucer uses various markers to illustrate why he cannot be trusted or accepted on any level.

One of the most telling qualities that Chaucer gives the character of the Pardoner is rhetorical skill. The characteristic essential for Chaucer to illustrate that the teller of the tale cannot be accepted is arrogance.

The question of authority is central to the Pardoner’s tale and its significance both seperated fro and as part of The Canterbury Tales. As the Pardoner is such a skilled orator, Chaucer implies, using the Pardoner and also by selecting Harry Bailey, one of the most astue of the pilgrims and a conman himself, to expose him and silence him so he cannot speak a word more.

Apparently deeply affected by the Physician’s sad and gruesome tale of Virginia, the Host praises the Physician by using as many medical terms as he can muster. However, he rejects the Physician’s moral to the tale and substitutes one of his own: Thus the gifts of fortune and nature are not always good (“The gifts of Fortune and Nature have been the cause of the death of many a person”). Thinking that the pilgrims need a merry tale to follow, the Host turns to the Pardoner. The more genteel members of the company, fearing that the Pardoner will tell a vulgar story, ask the Pardoner for a tale with a moral.

The Pardoner then explains to the pilgrims the methods he uses in preaching. His text is always “Radix malorum est cupidatis” (“Love of money is the root of all evil”). Always employing an array of documents and objects, he constantly announces that he can do nothing for the really bad sinners and invites the good people forward to buy his relics and, thus, absolve themselves from sins. Then he stands in the pulpit and preaches very rapidly about the sin of avarice so as to intimidate the members into donating money.

He repeats that his theme is always “Money is the root of all evil” because, with this text, he can denounce the very vice that he practices: greed. And even though he is guilty of the same sins he preaches against, he can still make other people repent. The Pardoner admits that he likes money, rich food, and fine living. And even if he is not a moral man, he can tell a good moral tale, which follows.

In Flanders, at the height of a black plague, three young men sit in an inn, eating and drinking far beyond their power and swearing oaths that are worthy of damnation. The revelers mark the passing of a coffin and ask who has died., A servant tells them that the dead man was a friend who was stabbed in the back the night before by a thief called Death. The young revelers, thinking that Death might still be in the next town, decide to seek him out and slay him.

On the way, the three men meet an old man who explains that he must wander the earth until he can find someone willing to exchange youth for old age. He says that not even Death will take his life. Hearing him speak of Death, the revelers ask where they can find Death, and the old man directs them to a tree at the end of the lane. The revelers rush to the tree and find eight bushels of gold coins, which they decide to keep. They decide to wait for night to move the gold and draw straws to see which one will go into town to get food and wine. The youngest of the three draws the shortest straw. When he leaves, the two others decide to kill him and divide his money. The youngest, however, wanting the treasure to himself, buys poison, which he adds to two of the bottles of wine he purchases. When the youngest reveler approaches the tree, the two others stab him and then sit down to drink the wine before they dispose of his body. Thus, all three indeed find Death.


From the Pardoner’s perspective, the Physician told a cheaply pious story and the Host, a sanctimonious fool, reacts to the tale with what seems high praise. Then, after praising the Physician, the Host turns to the Pardoner and asks for a merry tale or jokes (“som myrthe or japes”), even though preaching is the Pardoner’s profession.

The Pardoner agrees by mockingly echoing the same oath the Host has just used-“By Saint Ronyon.” The echo of the Host indicates, if anything at all, the Pardoner’s irritation at hearing the Physician praised as being “like a Prelate” (“lyk a prelat”). The Pardoner is further insulted when some members of the company cry with one voice, “No, don’t let him tell dirty jokes!” (“Nay, lat hym telle us of no ribaudye”). The Pardoner will have his revenge on all the complacent, self-righteous critics, and he resolves to think his revenge out carefully.

The ironic relationship between The Physician’s Tale and The Pardoner’s Tale-and therefore the Physician and Pardoner-is that both men are self-loving dissemblers. However, one of the two, the Pardoner, possesses enough self-knowledge to know what he is; the other, the Physician, being self-satisfied and affected, does not.

The function of a pardoner in Chaucer’s time was to collect moneys for charitable purposes and to be the Pope’s special agent in dispensing or rewarding contributors with certain pardons as a remission for sins. By canon law, a pardoner was required to remain in a certain area; within this area, he could visit churches, receive contributions, and, in the Pope’s name, dispense indulgences. An honest pardoner was entitled to a percentage of the take; however, most pardoners were dishonest and took much more than their share and, in many cases, would take all the contributions. Thus, as he boasts, Chaucer’s Pardoner belongs to the latter class-that is, he speaks of how much he collects by refusing to give indulgences to anyone except the very good people.

In his prologue, the Pardoner frankly confesses that he is a fraud motivated by greed and avarice and that he is guilty of all seven sins. Even though he is essentially a hypocrite in his profession, he is at least being honest as he makes his confession. But then, ironically, at the end of his tale, he requests that the pilgrims make a contribution. Thus, for many reasons, the Pardoner is the most complex figure in the entire pilgrimage. He is certainly an intellectual figure; his references and knowledge demonstrated in the tale and his use of psychology in getting only the good people to come forward attest to his intellect. But in making his confessions to the pilgrims about his hypocrisy, he seems to be saying that he wishes he could be more sincere in his ways, except that he is too fond of money, good food and wine, and power.

The Pardoner takes as his text that “Love of money is the root of all evil,” yet he emphasizes how each relic will bring the purchaser more money; in emphasizing this, he sells more and gains more money for himself. Thus, his text contains a double irony: His love for money is the root of his evil, yet his sales depend upon the purchaser’s love of money. Furthermore, his technique of relying upon basic psychology by selling only to the good people brings him more money. His sermon on avarice is given because the Pardoner is filled with avarice and this sermon fills his purse with money.

Scholars, critics, and readers in general consider The Pardoner’s Tale to be one of the finest “short stories” ever written. Even though this is poetry, the narration fits all the qualifications of a perfect short story: brevity, a theme aptly illustrated, brief characterizations, the inclusion of the symbolic old man, rapid narration, and a quick twist of an ending. The entire tale is an exemplum, a story told to illustrate an intellectual point. The subject is “Money (greed) is the root of all evil.”

The Pardoner’s Tale ends with the Pardoner trying to sell a relic to the Host and the Host attacking the Pardoner viciously. At this point, the Knight who, both by his character and the nature of the tale he told, stands as Chaucer’s symbol of natural balance and proportion, steps between the Host and the Pardoner and directs them to kiss and be reconciled. In the conflict between the Host and the Pardoner, the Pardoner-whose official role is to get men to call on God for forgiveness of their sins-is unmerciful in his wrath; that is, the Pardoner is unwilling to pardon, and the pardon is effected only when the noble Knight steps in.




objects esteemed and venerated because of association with a saint or martyr; here, the Pardoner’s relics are false.



Lot’s daughters got their father drunk and then seduced him (from the Book of Genesis in the Bible); the Pardoner’s point is that Lot never would have committed incest if he had not been drunk.



the biblical “strong man.” He revealed the secret of his strength to Solome, who then betrayed him to his enemies.



a town in Spain noted for its strong wines.


Cheapside and Fish Streets

streets in London that were known for the sale of strong spirits.



See Proverbs 31:4-7.


King Demetrius

The book that relates this and the previous incident is the Policraticus of twelfth-century writer John of Salisbury.



an Arabian physician (980-1037) who wrote a work on medicines that includes a chapter on poisons.


St. Helen

the mother of Constantine the Great, believed to have found the True Cross

The Pardoner’s Tale

There once lived in Flanders a company of three rioters who did nothing but engage in irresponsible and sinful behavior. At this point, the narrator interrupts the tale itself to launch a lengthy diatribe against drunkenness – mentioning Herod, Seneca, Adam, Sampson, Attila the Hun and St. Paul as either sources or famed drunkards. This in turn oddly becomes a diatribe against people whose stomachs are their gods (their end, we are told, is death), and then a diatribe against the stomach, called, at one point a “stynkyng cod, fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun” (a stinking bag, full of dung and decayed matter). This distraction from the story itself ends with an attack on dice-playing (dice here called “bicched bones”, or cursed dice).

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The three drunkards were in a tavern one night, and, hearing a bell ring, looked outside to see men carrying a corpse to its grave. One of them called to his slave to go and ask who the corpse was: he was told by a boy that the corpse was an old fellow whose heart was smashed in two by a secret thief called Death. This drunkard agreed, and discussed with his companions how this “Death” had indeed slain many people, of all ranks, of both sexes, that very year. The three then made a vow (by “Goddes digne bones”) to find Death and slay him.

When they had gone not even half a mile, they met an old, poor man at a style, who greeted them courteously. The proudest of the drunkards responded rudely, asking the man why he was still alive at such a ripe age. The old man answered that he was alive, because he could not find anyone who would exchange their youth for his age – and, although he knocked on the ground, begging it to let him in, he still did not die. Moreover, the old man added, it was not courteous of the drunkards to speak so rudely to an old man.

One of the other drunkards responded still more rudely that the old man was to tell them where Death was, or regret not telling them dearly. The old man, still polite, told the drunkards they could find Death up the crooked way and underneath an oak tree.

The drunkards ran until they came to the tree, and, underneath it, they found eight bushels of gold coins. The worst one of them spoke first, arguing that Fortune had given them the treasure to live their life in happiness – but realizing that they could not carry the gold home without people seeing them and thinking them thieves. Therefore, he suggested, they should draw lots, and one of them should run back to the town to fetch bread and wine, while the other two protected the treasure. Then, at night, they could agree where to take the treasure and carry it safety. This was agreed, and lots were drawn: the youngest of them was picked to go to the town.

However, as soon as he had gone to the town, the two remaining drunkards plotted amongst themselves to stab him upon his return, and then split the gold between them. While he was in the town, the youngest thought of the beauty of the gold coins, and decided to buy some poison in order to kill the other two, keeping the gold for himself. Thus, he went to an apothecary, bought some “strong and violent” poison, poured it into two of three wine bottles (the third was for him to drink from), topped them up with wine, and returned to his fellows.

Exactly as the other two had planned it, it befell. They killed him on his return, and sat down to enjoy the wine before burying his body – and, as it happened, drank the poison and died. The tale ends with a short sermon against sin, asking God to forgive the trespass of good men, and warning them against the sin of avarice, before (this, we can presume narrated in the Pardoner’s voice) inviting the congregation to “come up” and offer their wool in return for pardons.

The tale finished, the Pardoner suddenly remembers that he has forgotten one thing – that he is carrying relics and pardons in his “male” (pouch, bag) and begins to invite the pilgrims forward to receive pardon, inciting the Host to be the first to receive his pardon. “Unbokele anon thy purs”, he says to the Host, who responds that the Pardoner is trying to make him kiss “thyn old breech” (your old pants), swearing it is a relic, when actually it is just painted with his shit. I wish, the Host says, I had your “coillons” (testicles) in my hand, to shrine them in a hog’s turd.

The Pardoner is so angry with this response, he cannot speak a word, and, just in time, the Knight steps in, bringing the Pardoner and the Host together and making them again friends. This done, the company continues on its way.


The Pardoner has – in recent years – become one of the most critically discussed of the Canterbury pilgrims. His tale is in many ways the exemplar of the contradiction which the structure of the Tales themselves can so easily exploit, and a good touchstone for highlighting precisely how Chaucer can complicate an issue without ever giving his own opinion.

Thus the Pardoner embodies precisely the textual conundrum of the Tales themselves – he utters words which have absolutely no correlation with his actions. His voice, in other words, is entirely at odds with his behavior. The Pardoner’s voice, at the beginning of his tale, rings out “as round as gooth a belle”, summoning his congregation: and yet his church is one of extreme bad faith. There is a genuine issue here about whether the Pardoner’s tale, being told by the Pardoner, can actually be the “moral” (325) tale it claims to be. For, while the tale does indeed demonstrate that money is the root of all evil, does it still count when he is preaching “agayn that same vice / Which that I use, and that is avarice” (against the very vice I commit: avarice”). How far, in other words, can the teller negate his own moral?

Yet the real problem is that the Pardoner is a successful preacher, and his profits point to several people who do learn from his speeches and repent their sin. His Tale too is an accurate demonstration of the way greed and avarice lead to evil. Hollow execution nevertheless, the Pardoner is an excellent preacher against greed. His voice, in short, operates regardless of his actions. Hollow sentiments produce real results.

This is also reflected in the imagery of the tale itself. The Pardoner hates full stomachs, preferring empty vessels, and, though his “wallet” may well be “bretful of pardoun comen from Rome” (687) but the moral worth of this paper is nil: the wallet, therefore, is full and empty at the same time – exactly like the Pardoner’s sermon.

In just the same way Chaucer himself in the Tales can ventriloquize the sentiments of the pilgrim – the Reeve, the Pardoner, the Merchant – and so on, without actually committing to it. Because the Tales themselves, in supposedly reproducing the “telling” of a certain pilgrim, actually do enact precisely the disembodied voice which the Pardoner represents. The moral paradox of the Pardoner himself is precisely the paradox of the Tales and their series of Chaucer-ventriloquized disembodied voices.

There is a doubleness, a shifting evasiveness, about the Pardoner’s double audience: the imaginary congregation he describes, and the assembled company to whom he preaches, and tells his “lewed tales”, even calling them forth to pardon at the end. The point is clear: even though they know it is insincere, the Pardoner’s shtick might still work on the assembled company.

The imagery of the Pardoner’s Tale also reflects this fundamental hollowness. The tale itself is strewn with bones, whether in the oath sworn “by Goddes digne bones”, whether in the word for cursed dice (“bones”) or whether in the bones which the Pardoner stuffs into his glass cases, pretending they are relics. The literary landscape is strewn with body parts, and missing, absent bodies: beginning with the anonymous corpse carried past at the beginning of his tale. Bones, stomachs, coillons – words for body parts cover the page, almost as a grim reminder of the omnipresence of death in this tale.

The General Prologue, suggesting that the Pardoner resembles a “gelding or a mare”, hints that the Pardoner may be a congenital eunuch or, taken less literally, a homosexual, and, as the Host seems to suggest at the end, might well be without his “coillons”, a Middle English word meaning both “relics” and “testicles”. All of the “relics” in this Tale, including the Pardoner’s, evade the grasp of the hand. The Pardoner thus can be categorized along with the other bizarrely feminized males in the Tales, including Absolon, Sir Thopas, and, if we believe the Host, Chaucer (the character).

And of course, at the center of the tale, there is a search for somebody called “Death” which, naturally, does not find the person “Death”, but death itself. It is a successful – but ultimately unsuccessful – search. All that is left over at the center of the Tales is the bushels of gold, sitting under a tree unclaimed. The root of the tale, as its moral similarly suggests about the root of evil, is money: and money was, to a medieval reader, known to be a spiritual “death”. Notably, moreover, in the tale, both “gold” and “death” shift from metaphor to reality and back again; a neat reminder of the ability of the Tales to evade our grasp, raising difficult questions without ever answering them.


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