The Pardoner's Tale has it all—greed, gluttony, drunkenness, murder, bad guys getting what's coming to them. What's not to like? And we don't even need a pardon after reading it, because in the end, it's a morality lesson.
We're on our way from London to Canterbury, where a group of medieval pilgrims are making their way to visit the remains of Saint Thomas Becket in the hope of getting some forgiveness from sin. To pass the time, they take turns telling stories. One of them is a Pardoner, a low-level Church official who travels around selling pardons, which are just what they sound like—documents signed by the Pope or bishops granting pardon for sins. After a particularly depressing story by the Physician, the host of the Pilgrimage asks the Pardoner to tell a funny story to cheer everyone up.
Before he begins his tale, the Pardoner starts by revealing the tricks of his trade to all the pilgrims. This Pardoner, it turns out, roams all over the countryside hawking pardons and fake relics with no concern but to get money. That's all he cares about; he couldn't care less about the souls of the people who buy his pardons and relics. He'd take money from the poorest person in town if he had to.
When he finally launches into his actual tale, he describes it as one of the morality tales he preaches to encourage repentance (and increase sales). Since the Pardoner has told the pilgrims that the theme of his preaching is always greed, the better to loosen the purse strings of his audience, we can expect to hear an exemplum, or teaching story, on some variation of this theme.
And that's just what we get. Three debauched young guys, after a long night partying and gambling in a tavern, go around looking for Death, who's just killed off a friend of theirs. They run into an old man who tells them they'll find Death under yon tree. But instead of Death, they find a treasure of gold coins. Is that sweet or what? Hint: what. What we get in the Pardoner's Tale is an allegory, or story in which all the characters and events are lessons about the pitfalls of greed. It doesn't end well for the three greedy dudes.
The inspiration for the Pardoner's tale is a folk tale well known to many cultures, in which three young men set out to kill Death and come across gold instead. Chaucer may have been familiar with the story from two Italian novelle, or short stories, from a late 13th century Italian work called Il Novellino, orthe Hundred Old Tales. He also likely read Boccaccio's classic Decameron, in which many similar stories are told. Or maybe he watched The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Anyway, in all the versions of the folk tale, the treasure causes the young men to meet death in a way they weren't expecting, making the point that greed and death are intimately related, or, as the Pardoner quotes from Timothy, radix malorum est cupiditas – greed is the root of all evil. You've heard that one, we're sure.
At the start of the pilgrimage, host Harry Bailey promised to award a prize for the best story—a free dinner at his tavern. Because Chaucer never put the finishing touches on the Tales, we never know who won. Professor John Fleming, Chaucer scholar extraordinaire, wishes the poet had finished the Tales because he bets that the Pardoner would have received the coveted Harry Bailey Prize for Best Story. The tale is complex, hilarious, full of adventure, and deals with important controversies of medieval Christianity with which you can impress your friends and teachers. And the Bailey goes to…
"Buy it now, before it's too late!" "Limited-time offer!" "Don't miss this great deal!" Sound familiar? It should. In fact, you'd have to be living in a vacuum not to be bombarded daily with a multitude of messages from the modern advertising industry, each one promising products to make you happier / sexier / more popular / (insert desirable adjective here) than the next guy. And even though logically you know that money can't buy happiness, how often do you find yourself irresistibly drawn into the store, lusting after the latest styles or the gadget that's guaranteed to make your life easier? If it happens often, you're not alone, and the reason is probably because the modern advertising industry spends a lot of time and energy to make sure we buy, buy, buy. So does Chaucer's Pardoner, and what he's offering—a chance at eternal life—is like the ultimate miracle cure.
The Pardoner's exposé of his trade secrets—the emotional manipulation and dishonest techniques he uses to create a demand for his fake relics and expensive pardons—reads like a manual for Mad Men wannabes. From creating a perception of scarcity for his goods to playing upon common human emotions like fear, guilt, and shame, the Pardoner would be right at home in the modern corporate boardroom. He would definitely know how to move products off the shelves.
Of course, the Pardoner is selling salvation, something that a lot of people think ought to be available to everyone regardless of how much money they have. Kind of like with the for-profit medical, pharmaceutical, and insurance industries today, there's a lot of controversy surrounding the Church's attempt to turn something so important to people into a money-making machine via professions like the Pardoner's. Is it ethical for the Pardoner to take advantage of people's deep-seated fears about salvation vs. damnation? A lot of people thought not, and they started a little thing called the Protestant Reformation in part to stop that practice.
Sadly, religious frauds still exist today. There have been cases of unscrupulous television evangelists whose followers' generous contributions often go to buy fancy cars and homes for their religious leaders rather than food and shelter for the poor. It just goes to show that the questions and issues surrounding the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale are still relevant today and, unfortunately, probably always will be. And this just in.
Houwe to Speke Chaucer
Hints for Middle English pronunciation.
Psychologizing the Pardoner
This page contains a brief summary of the tale, along with information about and links to its probable sources. It also gives a good overview of the critical debate surrounding the Pardoner's sexual identity with links to the relevant articles.
Luminarium's Pardoner's Tale Resource Page
Luminarium's page on the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale links to other informational websites about it, as well as critical bibliographies, images, and audio files.
I Racconti di Canterbury, dir. Pier Paolo Passolini
The Pardoner's Tale is one of the eight tales covered in this extremely bawdy and irreverent take on Chaucer's work.
BBC's Modern Adaptation
In this modern adaptation of the Pardoner's Tale, three unemployed bums try to cash in on the disappearance of a local girl by pretending to take up a collection for the search.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Some people think that this 1948 movie starring Humphrey Bogart (based on a novel of the same name by B. Traven) is the most recent adaptation of the morality tale upon which the Pardoner's Tale is based.
The speech of Fals-Semblant's (or False Seeming) from the allegorical 13th Century French Roman de la Rose, by Jean de Meun, is one of Chaucer's likely sources for the Pardoner's description of his tricks of the trade.
Boccaccio's Satire of the Sale of False Relics
As Chaucer does with the Pardoner, Boccaccio satirizes the sale of false relics in his Decameron, in this case in the character of a friar named Cipollo (which means "onion" in Italian).
Anonymous Italian Novelle
The Novellino, or One Hundred Old Tales, is a collection of stories in medieval Italian widely considered the precursor to the Decameron. It contains two stories with similar plots to that of the Pardoner's Tale.
The Prologue to the Merchant's Tale of Beryn
In the mid-fifteenth century, someone with intimate knowledge of the Canterbury Tales created a version that rearranged the tales and inserted an interlude in the middle, during which the pilgrims arrive in Canterbury and the Pardoner hits on a barmaid.
This animation accompanies Baba Brinkman's version of the Pardoner's Tale from his larger project, "The Rap Canterbury Tales."
Got Hulu Plus?
Check out SNL's episode of 1/27/79, where Father Guido Sarducci discusses a trip to Mexico with the Pope and his discovery of some holy relics, including Jesus' high school graduation picture and the bill from the Last Brunch.
A quickie cartoon version of the tale.
Brilliant Pardoner Animation
Really. You gotta watch it.
The Princeton Professor and the Pardoner #2
Professor John Fleming is interviewed about the Tale.
Ellesmere Chaucer Pardoner
The image of the Pardoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript.
Leggo My Relics
Another version of our guy.
Get the Tee!
Hurry—Supplies are Limited! Salvation Guaranteed!
This Can't End Well…
A modern depiction of the murderous and stupid revelers.