The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

The Pardoner's Tale

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The Introduction to the Pardoner's Tale

Following the Physician’s Tale, the Host began to swear as if he were mad, wishing a shameful death on the judge and his advocates, and concluding that the cause of the maiden’s death was her “beautee”. The Host pronounced the tale a piteous one to listen to, and prayed to God that he protect the Physician’s body.

The Host, concluding that he has almost “caught a cardynacle” (had a heart attack) after the brutality of the Physician’s Tale, decides that he must have medicine in the form of a merry tale, in order to restore his heart. Turning to the Pardoner, he asks for some “myrthe or japes right anon”, and the Pardoner agrees, though, before he begins, he stops at an alehouse to “drynke and eten of a cake”. The company protests that the Pardoner not be allowed to tell them a ribald tale, but insists instead on “som moral thyng” - a request which the Pardoner also grants.

The Pardoner’s Prologue

Radix malorum est Cupiditas (Greed is the root of all evil)

The Pardoner begins by addressing the company, explaining to them that, when he preaches in churches, his voice booms out impressively like a bell, and his theme is always that greed is the root of all evil. First, the Pardoner says, he explains where has come from, and shows his papal bulls, indulgences, and glass cases crammed full of rags and bones, which he claims (to the congregation, at least) are holy relics with magical properties.

Then, the Pardoner invites anyone who has sinned to come and offer money to his relics, and therefore to be absolved by the Pardoner’s power. This trick, the Pardoner says, has earned him at least a hundred marks since he was made a pardoner - and when the “lewd peple” are seated, he continues to tell them false trickeries and lies. His intention, he says, is simply “for to wynne” (to profit), and “nothyng for correccioun of synne” (and nothing to do with the correction of sin); the Pardoner doesn’t care whether, after burial, his congregation’s souls go blackberry picking. Thus, the Pardoner says, he spits out his venom under the pretense of holiness, seeming holy, pious, and “trewe”. “Greed is the root of all evils”, the Pardoner quotes again, explaining that he preaches against the same vice which he himself is guilty of. Yet, although he knows he is guilty of the sin, he can still make other people turn away from it.

Next, the Pardoner tells the company how he tells his congregation “olde stories” from long ago, “for lewed peple loven tales olde”. He will not, he says, work with hands and make baskets, but get money, wool, cheese and wheat for himself, even if it is from the poorest page or poorest widow in a village. He will drink “licour of the vyne”, and have a “joly wenche” in every town. “Now hold your pees!” he shouts to the company, and begins his tale.

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).

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.

Analysis

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.