Chaucer: The Pardoner’s Tale

Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University


The archetype behind the Pardoner is Faus Semblant (False-Seeming) from the Jean de Meun section of Roman de la Rose: “a professional hypocrite who pretends to a holiness that he possesses not at all. By way of making an apology for his way of life, False-Seeming explains, with the utmost candor and the greatest pride in his own cleverness, the various guises his hypocrisy assumes. This situation, in which a hypocrite attempts to justify himself by revealing the full truth, provides Chaucer with the essential framework for the Pardoner’s prologue” (Donaldson 1091). Chaucer’s Pardoner sermonizes in a confessional self-destruction. The Pardoner is also a grotesquery, marginalized to the periphery in manuscript decoration. He’s dreadful, vital, and fascinating. For us, he’s his own worst enemy and has psychological problems.


The Host has much to say about the lousy Physician’s Tale, ostensibly agreeing with the Physician’s reductivism by ranting against the false judge and the churl and lamenting the death of “thiis sely mayde” (292). He praises the Physician and the instruments of his profession, showing off but bungling in his grasp of medical vocabulary.

The Host turns to the Pardoner, calling him “beel amy” (318) so we know he is socially typed as effeminate. Notice the Pardoner echoing “By Seint Ronyon” (310, 320), either mocking the Host or trying to show that he can be as manly. The Pardoner complies with the request for a tale but suggests they stop at an alehouse for it. The “gentils” fear his tale, expecting “ribaudye” (323-324); he is alienated already. He agrees to tell a moral tale, “but I moot thynke / Upon som honest thyng while that I drynke” (327-328).


The Pardoner will offer a sermon as a performance, part of a process-analysis under the rubric “present company excepted” in which he takes the pilgrims into his confidence. He claims that although his theme is always “Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (334, 426), he nevertheless, ironically, is obsessed with appropriating money (like the Wife’s obsession with authority and the book), and doesn’t care about the remission of sins (403-404). He explains how he uses his “gaude[s]” (389) to manipulate “lewed peple” (392). Without his usual audience the soliloquy is self-destructive, and maybe self-hypnotic. (Thomas Garbaty used to read 435-455 with an effective growing insanity, suggesting that the Pardoner loses emotional and intellectual self-control, snapping out of his own nightmarish world only at the last lines of the Prologue.) He says that although he is “a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (459-460). So in any case the telling is set up as a hollow ritual.

Aware of his isolation, the Pardoner’s attempts to rejoin society are misguided, partly due to his insensitivity. He attempts to join here by proving his superiority. He has to be intellectual to survive, but this may have turned into egomania. He scorns his usual low-class audience and thinks this more educated group will share his opinion. So it’s a demonstration of his typical con — how he manages to survive and manipulate audiences, but it involves his moving back and forth between apparent audiences.


The tale is an exemplum on avarice. (Exempla are stories that illustrate a theme in preaching, usually found in collections.) The setting is dramatic this time, taking place in a tavern to set the innate hypocrisy here (470). Although avarice is the focus, the Pardoner includes drunkenness, gluttony, swearing, gambling, and maybe other sins; his choices probably depend on which sins “can be made to sound most exciting” (Donaldson 1093). The Pardoner has a detailed knowledge of low life. He does not euphemize sin: it’s truly nasty here. He seems to have control over the sequencing of the other sins he incorporates too. But is he talking about gluttony? Or something else?

O wombe! O bely! O stynkyng cod,
Fulfilled of dong and of corrupcioun!
At either ende of thee foul is the soun.
How greet labour and cost is thee to fynde!
Thise cookes, how they stampe, and streyne, and grynde,
And turnen substaunce into accident
To fulfille al thy likerous talent!
Out of the harde bones knokke they
The mary, for they caste noght awey
That may go thurgh the golet softe and swoote.
Of spicerie of leef, and bark, and roote
Shal been his sauce ymaked by delit,
To make hym yet a newer appetit.


After the diatribes on gluttony and gambling and false swearing, the tale proper begins with three “riotoures” (661) drinking in a tavern. It’s a macabre and sterile tale and there are no women involved. The rioters see a corpse being carried by and inquire about it, finding out that “Deeth” is responsible. The literal-minded revellers naïvely decide to slay Deeth (the personifying process preventing them from seeing other kinds of death). On their mission, they encounter a creepy ancient man — a restelees kaityf (728) — knocking on the ground with his staff asking his mother to let him in (729f). He sends them to an oak tree, where they find bushels of coins. They decide that one of them should go get supplies from the town, and the lot falls to the youngest. While he’s gone, the two others plot to murder him for his share of the loot. But in town the youngest buys poison for two of the three bottles he brings back. The two do kill him and celebrate with the drinks. They die, and the exemplum ends with brutal abruptness in a split second (888). It’s great pacing for effective shock and uneasiness.

The teller inhabits whom in the tale? The revellers are composite. Naïve idealistic arrogance is seen through the filter of bitterness. The old man? Old age? Death? Good or evil?

There may be Old Testament and New Testament allusions. Do we have a perverse Trinity in the three revellers? Other scriptural echoes abound. And we hear this tale in the first place at a bar with “both drynke and … a cake” (322).

Consider also Shakespeare’s Apothecary in Romeo and Juliet.


There’s no formal separation from the tale here, since the Pardoner goes right into further self-parody? or more of the con? Is he still addressing his usual church audience? The abrupt shift is disorienting (915). Kittredge says the Pardoner is not totally lost, and he stresses a look at the pronouns (916-918).

It’s not the church audience entirely (919ff), but it is a repetition of the church speech though. What has happened? He tries to ingratiate himself but alienates himself instead? Does he become disoriented in his own rhetoric? Does he undergo a kind of self-hypnosis and is shocked out of it? Are his intentions misunderstood when he tries to incorporate “some moral thyng” and “japes”?

The fake relics function as an extension of the Pardoner himself. Is he selling relics as a misguided way to include himself? Is he drunk? Was this all a game and he misjudged that the audience was laughing with him all along? Does he despise this audience too?

Whom is the joke against? Against the Host to ingratiate himself to the others?

Whatever his reasons — avarice, good-fellowship, humor — he concludes his sermon with an offer to sell his pardon to the pilgrims even after all he has told about his own fraudulence. Ironically he picks the worst possible victim, that rough, manly man who might be supposed to have a natural antipathy for the unmasculine Pardoner. (Donaldson 1093)

The Host misreacts. It’s a disaster and a bad call on the Pardoner’s part when the Host is pulled in against his will. The Host offers an angry knee-jerk reaction, not at all joking now, metaphorically cutting off the Pardoner’s tongue. The Pardoner never reacts and is effectively shut up; we won’t hear from him again. The pilgrims laugh (961) — nervously? They’re reacting to what? The Knight smoothes out the social surface and the homosexual tensions are diffused with a kiss of friendship.