The Host was overcome by the Physician's distressing tale involving a lying
rascal and a crooked judge. He laments that the girl's incredible beauty
was the cause of her miserable end. He tells the Physician in a medical
language that he almost had a heart attack by this sorrowful tale and
demands a really cheerful tale from the Pardoner. The Pardoner agreed
to do so after having a refreshing drink at the alehouse nearby. However
the genteel folk of the company fearful that the Pardoner would tell a
filthy tale, demanded a moralistic tale. The Pardoner agrees.
In the Prologue the Pardoner explains the methods that he employs in his sermons.
He always starts with the text "Radix malorum est cupiditas"
i.e. "Love of money is the root of all evil". He then shows
his official certificates; his license, and adds spice and color to his
sermon by saying a few words in Latin. This also serves to inspire devotion
among the people. He next displays his fake relics such as the shoulder
bone of Jacob's sheep that could cure sick cattle and also cure jealousy
in men. He also shows his mitten that would bring prosperity to its owner
once he parts with money to buy it. The Pardoner then warns the people
that he will not sell his relics to sinners and only good people can be
absolved by making an offering to him. He admits that this is the way
in which he has earned a100 marks in a year. He says that he preaches
from a pulpit like a priest only against avarice and thus induces people
to give cash freely to him. He bluntly admits that profit is his only
motive and he doesn't care a straw about rebuking sinners. He candidly
acknowledges that while he preaches against all kinds of sin, he himself
indulges in various vices and begs from the poor to make a fine living.
He knows that while he himself is guilty, he knows how to preach against
avarice and make people repent. The Pardoner says that although he is
a vicious fellow he can tell a tale with a moral and bids the pilgrims
The Prologue shows that the Pardoner is fully conscious of his own immorality. He frankly confesses that while he preaches against all kinds of sins, he himself indulges in various vices. In short his actions do not accord with his words.
The Pardoner attempts to gain the sympathy of his audience through his Prologue by revealing the tricks of his trade and acknowledging his own villainy.
It must be said that the Pardoner's confession never loses interest. It is
evident that the Pardoner derives immense pleasure from his role as a
preacher. He is proud of his oratory skills whereby he can hold an entire
congregation under his sway and extract money from them. He describes
his method of preaching to demonstrate its power - how he speaks loudly,
shows his certificates and speaks a little Latin to impress the congregation.
He readily confesses that the text in his preaching is always Radix malorum
est'. He always preaches against avarice only to satisfy his own avarice.
He then shows the assembled people his spurious relics. The Pardoner is
amused at the thought that his sermons unintentionally inspire devotion
There was once a group of three debauched men in Flanders who whiled away their entire time in gambling, drinking, dancing, and visiting brothels. The Pardoner then digresses to castigate gluttony and says that lechery springs from wine. He reminds the pilgrims that Lot had unknowingly committed incest because he was drunk. A drunk Herod had ordered the innocent John the Baptist to be killed. Gluttony had caused the first transgression and the fall of mankind. He then quotes St. Paul's injunction against excessive eating and assails cooks who give a better appetite by their exquisite dishes. The Pardoner then attacks wine as the cause of lechery and alludes to the story of Samson who revealed his secret because he was drunk. He also mentions several Biblical examples to strengthen his point that drinking destroys a man's wit, judgment and discretion. Gambling is his next target of attack since it engenders perjuries, manslaughter, and blasphemies and is moreover a waste of time and money. He then relates various historical incidents denouncing gambling. He rounds off his digression by castigating swearing, blasphemy and perjury.
The Pardoner then returns to his story of the three debauched men. One night they were drinking in a tavern when they heard the clinking of a hand bell which meant that a corpse was being carried to the grave. One of the men asked his servant to find out whose corpse it was. The servant replied that he already knew and that the dead man was an old friend of theirs who had been suddenly killed last night by a sneaky thief named Death, who was killing everybody in a nearby plague ridden village. The three debauchees then pledged to seek out Death and kill him. In a drunken rage they then set off in the direction of the plague ridden village.
When they had traveled about half a mile they met a poor old man. One of the
debauchees insultingly remarked about his advanced age. The man replied
that he was cursed to roam around the earth in search of someone who would
exchange his youth for old age and that even Death refused to take his
life. The three men thereupon suspected that the old man was in league
with Death and demanded to know where they could find Death. The old man
said that he had last seen Death under an oak tree round the bend of the
lane. The three men rushed to the spot and to their surprise found eight
bushels of gold coins. They were extremely happy at their stroke of luck
and resolved to keep the gold for themselves. But they decided to move
the treasure at night to avoid being accused of robbery. They drew straws
to decide who would go to the town to buy food provisions and wine for
them while the other two would guard the gold. The youngest of the men
drew the shortest straw and set off towards the town. As soon as he had
gone the other two conspired to kill him when he returned and divide his
share amongst them. In the meanwhile the youngest man also grew greedy
and desired to keep the entire treasure for himself. He thus bought a
strong rat poison and three bottles of wine. He mixed the poison in two
bottles and kept the third one clean. When he returned to the spot, the
other two men killed him and then sat down to drink their wine that had
been poisoned. They also died on the spot. Thus all of them died through
trickery and treachery born of their greed. The Pardoner ends his story
by castigating wickedness, greed, gambling, lechery and lust. He tells
the pilgrims to desist from avarice and displays his pardons that can
save their souls. He promises to put down their names on his prayer roll
and absolve them by his holy power. He calls upon them to buy his relics
and pardons and immediately get absolution. He suggests that the Host
who is the most sinful should make his offering first. The Host grew extremely
angry at this suggestion and hinted that the Pardoner was a eunuch. The
Pardoner grew so angry that he didn't say a single word in response. The
worthy Knight then resolved the quarrel and restored normalcy and the
party of pilgrims rode on their way.
The Pardoner's Tale is an exemplum used by preachers to dissuade people from falling into vices. The Pardoner reveals excellent oratory skills in his narrative. His tale moreover fulfills all the standard criteria of a good short story.
The Pardoner's physical appearance is revolting. He is a beardless man with a thin goat-like voice. Moreover he has waxy yellow hair, which hang from his head like strands of flax. He rides dischevelee' and his hood is in his bag. He sings a repulsive song about love along with the Summoner. Chaucer suggests in the "General Prologue" that the Pardoner is a eunuch. Yet he is able to hold his audience captive. The fact that this corrupt Pardoner tells a moral tale is itself ironic.
The Pardoner's Tale moralizes that the three debauchees brought death upon themselves by their avarice. The tale's agenda is against avarice. The riotous living and dissolute habits of the three men are only incidental sins. The Pardoner's central point of concern is avarice and denounces greed as the root of all evil.
However it is possible to see the three debauchees as projections of the Pardoner's own twisted personality. Like the three men of his story the Pardoner is self-deluded. The tale reflects his own inner turmoil and its tragic outcome is a forewarning of his own future end. The Pardoner however does not pay attention to this fact. As the greed of the debauchees resulted in their death, the Pardoner's avarice will result in his spiritual death.
The Pardoner is thus not only physically impotent but also spiritually impotent. He cannot see what is most apparent.
The Old man in the story has been the object of much interpretation. Critics have seen him variously as a mystic figure or even a symbol of death. However the old man represents age. He is in contrast with the boy at the tavern who represents youth. The old man symbolizes experience. He expresses an intense longing for death but cannot find release. The old man appears suddenly and also disappears suddenly. He tricks the debauchees by sending them up a crooked path that has ominous implications of the fall of mankind. In the case of the Pardoner who is a hypocrite, the old man is a symbol of hypocrisy as he deceives the three rogues who ultimately meet with their death.
Chaucer was a master of irony. The Pardoner's Tale is an excellent example of his irony. It is ironical that the Pardoner does not get the point of his own story.
The way the Pardoner ends his story is appropriate to his character. He tells
the pilgrims to buy relics and pardons from him and absolve themselves
of their sins. He further says that it is their good fortune that he is
present among them for the salvation of their souls. This is a cheeky
challenge to the pilgrims since they know his true colors. Moreover the
Pardoner addresses the Host and asks him to lead his gang of pilgrims
by setting the example himself. This angers the Host who humiliates the
Pardoner by his cruel taunts about his sexual impotency and violation
of his monastic vows. The Pardoner's angry silence can only be interpreted
as an acceptance of defeat.