Pardoner’s Tale, The

Pardoner’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1395)
   The most often anthologized of CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES, The Pardoner’s Tale is a sermon on greed that contains a grim exemplum (or illustrative story) demonstrating the theme that “avarice is the root of all evil.” Ironically the Pardoner narrator—a charlatan who displays phony saints’ relics to lend credibility to his selling of indulgences, or pardons for sin—freely admits to his pilgrim audience that he is himself guilty of the very sin he preaches against.
   In a revelatory, confessional prologue similar to that of The WIFE OF BATH, the Pardoner tells his audience about the tricks he uses when preaching to get his listeners to contribute more generously to the offertory. The text of his sermon, he says, is always the same: radix malorum est cupiditas (“the root of evil is cupidity,” or greed). Thus, he brags, he preaches against the same vice of which he is himself guilty. He then delivers his sermon, which consists largely of an exemplum of three revelers— young men who spend all of their time drinking, gambling, and swearing in the local taverns of Flanders during a period of plague. When they learn that one of their comrades has been taken by Death, they swear an oath of brotherhood to track down this Death and kill him.
   As they search for Death, they come upon a mysterious old man whom they irreverently threaten and accuse of being in league with Death. They order him to show them where Death is, and the old man points down a crooked way, claiming that they will find Death under a tree at the end of that path. The three rioters follow the path, but what they find is a large treasure under the tree. They immediately stop looking for Death. The three decide to split up the gold and take it away by night, so as not to be observed. In the meantime the youngest of them is sent into town for something to eat and drink. Thinking to have the gold to himself, the young rioter poisons two of the bottles of wine that he brings back. The other two rioters have plotted to murder the youngest when he returns. This they do, and then they drink the wine, and die as well. The Pardoner concludes with a condemnation of greed and other sins, and then offers to let the Host come kiss his relics and obtain his pardon in exchange for a cash contribution. The Host vehemently rejects the offer with a coarse insult, and the Knight is forced to step in and make peace between the two before the pilgrims can move on.
   For the Pardoner’s prologue, Chaucer made use of the speech of Fals Semblant (False seeming) in the ROMAN DE LA ROSE. The exemplum is based on a folktale pattern and has analogues in ancient Buddhist, Persian, and African tales, as well as more modern retellings such as the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Chaucer’s closest analogues are two Italian short stories or novellas, but neither of these is likely to be a direct source. Scholars have written voluminously on the Pardoner and his tale. One favorite topic has been the Pardoner’s sexuality. In the GENERAL PROLOGUE, the narrator speculates that the Pardoner is “a gelding or a mare”—that is, presumably, a eunuch or a homosexual. Scholars have often been interested in the relationship of this sexuality to the Pardoner’s spiritual sterility. Another area of debate has been the identity of the strange old man in the tale—he has been identified with Death, Old Age (the harbinger of death), the vetus homo, or fallen man, discussed by St. Paul, the legendary “Wandering Jew,” or simply an old man.
   Perhaps the most debated critical problem in the text is the motivation of the Pardoner at the end of the tale:Why, after telling the pilgrims in the beginning that he is a hypocrite and a cheat, would he propose that the pilgrims come up and pay to kiss his relics at the end? Is it a joke? Part of the entertainment? Forgetfulness? Is he carried away by his own rhetoric? Is he motivated by an arrogant belief in his own ability to move his hearers even after telling them he is a fake? Or is he motivated by an unconscious (or a conscious) desire for punishment for his sins? All of these, and more, have been suggested, and there is no firm agreement.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Kittredge, George Lyman. “Chaucer’s Pardoner,” The Atlantic Monthly 72 (1893): 829–833.
   ■ McAlpine, Monica. “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters,” PMLA 95 (1980): 8–22.
   ■ Miller, Robert P. “Chaucer’s Pardoner, the Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner’s Tale,” Speculum 30 (1955): 180–189.
   ■ Patterson, Lee. “Chaucerian Confession: Penitential Literature and the Pardoner,”Medievalia et Humanistica 7 (1976): 153–173.
   ■ Pearsall, Derek. “Chaucer’s Pardoner: The Death of a Salesman,” Chaucer Review 17 (1983): 358–365.
   ■ Rowland, Beryl. “Chaucer’s Idea of the Pardoner,” Chaucer Review 14 (1979): 140–154.
   ■ Sturges, Robert S. Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse. The New Middle Ages. New York: St.Martin’s Press, 2000.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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