Disingenuous Authorial Intent in The Pardoner’s Tale

The Host interjects and laments the death of Virginia from the previous tale, the “Physician’s Tale” -the Host agrees that Virginia’s death was a grotesque tragedy, not unlike the classical story of Iphigenia, but her death is not a heroic martyrdom. He makes mention of a recurring theme throughout the tale: “that yiftes [gifts] of Fortune and of Nature been cause of deeth [death] to many a creature” (295-296). In Virginia’s case, Nature afforded her great beauty which ultimately leads to her death. The Host calls the tale “pitiful” and wishes success to the Physician in his other medical endeavors. Then the Host begs the Pardoner for a “merry tale” because his heart hurts with pity and is in need of “mirth.” Both the Host and the Pardoner swear to do so by “Saint Ronyon” or Saint Ronan –the name is perhaps a reference to a 7th century Scottish hermit, or a variety of other Christian saints of the same name.


In the “General Prologue” the Pardoner is described as originating from “Rouncivale,” a well-known hospital in London that was known for its illicit fundraising practices, perhaps not unlike the Pardoner in his selling of indulgences. He is a friend and companion of the Summoner. The Pardoner is a loud man with golden hair, glaring eyes, and a smooth face. Chaucer suspects he may be a “geldyng” (referring to castrated horses, perhaps implying the Pardoner a eunuch) or a “mare” which some have speculated may mean asexual or homosexual. He carries with him various relics which he claims are authentic. He uses these relics to gain riches throughout the countryside, making a fool of people by means of ‘flattery and tricks.’ The Pardoner knows how to sing a song boldly and loudly, especially if there is a reward of silver at the other end. Already, in the “General Prologue” we are led to doubt the authority of the Pardoner.

At any rate, the group has arrived beneath the sign of a tavern along the road. The Pardoner decides to start drinking while telling his tale, while the group demands he at least tell an edifying story:

“Telle us som moral thyng, that we may leere
Som wit, and thanne wol we gladly heere” (325-326).

The Pardoner begins with a prologue by quoting Paul’s Epistle to Timothy, chapter 6:

Radix malorum est Cupiditas
“The root of all evil is cupidity (excess or greed)”

The Pardoner preaches against the same evil that he practices – avarice. He knows and admits that he is a “vicious” man -and without apology. Despite being an evil, greedy man the Pardoner claims he can still offer a moral tale. Aristotle’s Rhetoric makes an important observation: audiences evaluate a speech or a written work based on the personal credibility of its author -can we trust the authority of this Pardoner? To what extent are poets and their poetry inseparable? Regardless, the Pardoner takes a big drink of ale and begins his tale (poor people love an old tale that they can remember, as is noted in the text).

The setting of “The Pardoner’s Tale” is in Flanders (in Belgium). Three young lecherous and evil men, or “rioters,” commit various sins –gluttony, drinking, gambling (“dicing”), and swearing (“false oath”). The Pardoner offers an extensive diatribe against each of these four sins, citing various historical and Biblical authorities.

The tale officially begins with the three young men sitting in a tavern. They hear a bell ring as a corpse is being led to its grave. It turns out to be a friend of the rioters. They vow to seek out Death and exact vengeance upon him. So, in a drunken rage they flee the tavern and come upon an old man who has been asking Death to take him away for a long time. He tells them to find a certain oak tree where Death typically resides. When the trio arrives at the oak tree they find gold, and decide to abandon their quest for Death in favor of riches. They sleep at the tree and draw lots for one of the three to go fetch wine back in the city. The two remaining rioters plot to kill the other and take the gold, while he also plots against them with rat poison. The rioter retrieving wine returns and he is killed by his compatriots, and the other two eat his poisoned rations and libations. They both die a slow and painful death.

Thus ends the “Pardoner’s Tale.”

Seeming to forget his place, the Pardoner begins offering pardons to the pilgrims in exchange for gold, silver, wool, and other valuables. He beckons the Host to come forth first to offer riches and kiss his relics. The Host threatens the Pardoner in kind, he threatens to cut off the Pardoner’s testicles and enshrine them in a hog’s turd! At the close of the tale, the Knight enters and asks for harmony so that the group may “laughe and pleye” again.

The “Pardoner’s Tale” brings to light the importance of the author behind a tale. Intentionality is crucial, especially with respect to a fable, or a morality tale. Reading (or listening to a story) begs the audience to inquire into the author’s intent. Like the Friar before him, the Pardoner is not a noble man. The Pardoner is an unrepentant sinner who preaches honor and justice for others, but who is only too proud of his own greed. Consequently his exemplum (moral anecdote) is rendered meaningless. Additionally, the “Pardoner’s Tale” fails to meet the Host’s initial request for a merry tale. He also fails by his own standards of sin as outlined in his story: the Pardoner does not fulfill his oath by ‘Saint Ronan’ at the outset, he displays greed when asking for riches from the group at the close of his tale, and he also admits to gluttony while drinking (presumably excessively) while delivering his tale.

Like the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is a hedonist. He takes whatever he wants. However, the Wife of Bath hopes to find mutual love with an equal, or at least a mere gratifier. The Pardoner, in contrast, does not even seem to believe in justice. The only reason he tells a story is to gain further riches for himself. His story is ancillary to his moral character. We have yet to see a fable in The Canterbury Tales that successfully addresses some of the deeper themes discussed in earlier tales –a just and true compact, a happy marriage, the nature of love and lust– all within the context of an exploration into the nature of poetics according to classical standards, including both form and content.

The digression of the “Physician’s Tale” and the “Pardoner’s Tale” comes from the “Franklin’s Tale” wherein the idea of self-interested tricks are used to gain what a man truly wants (recall that Aeruelius employs a deceptive illusion to move all of the rocks of Brittany in order to gain the hand of Dorigen, his unrequited lover). Thus, the “Physician’s Tale” explores the injustice of even a judicial leader (Apius) using tricks to gain his unrequited lover in accord with the law (Virginia) -trickery is never acceptable even when following the law; and also the “Pardoner’s Tale” addresses the evil inherent in all tricksters who kill each other over riches, but we know this tale to be disingenuous because the Pardoner is a false teacher.

For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

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