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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What abuses does Chaucer show in "The Pardoner's Tale" to critique the corrupt churchman in The Canterbury Tales?

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Geoffrey Chaucer does not openly criticize specific servants of the Church in this tale (i.e., the Pardoner, the Friar and the Monk). His censorship of those who disserve the people in the Church's name is found in reading between the lines. Through the Prologue, we are given insights into the hearts of the people on this pilgrimage. Chaucer keeps his sense of humor as he describes each, and while he shares the tale each member tells. Each tale casts a clearer light on each character, though those like the Pardoner miss the irony between his/her life and the message of his/her tale.

The Pardoner in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a fraud. His job is to sell pardons to country folk to raise money for the church. Poor and uneducated, they scrape their "pennies" together to buy forgiveness for their sins. Chaucer observes, however, that the Pardoner's wallet is full of stolen pardons ("hot"). Ideally, he can sell the pardons and keep the money for himself.

His wallet lay before him in his lap

Bretfull of pardons, come from Rome all hot. (686-687)

The Pardoner also sells fake relics to naive parsons—to be displayed and prayed over in church. The Pardoner has a pillowcase that he says is the Virgin Mary's veil:

For in his mail he had a pillowber

Which that he saidè was Our Lady's veil. (694-695)

He has a piece of cloth that he claims is part of the sail of the boat on which Peter sailed with Christ, when Christ walked on water.

He said he had a gobbet of the sail

That Saintè Peter had when that he went

Upon the sea, till Jesus Christ him hent. (695-697)

The relics are is the Pardoner—he does not care for the welfare of the people—as charged by the medieval Roman Catholic Church—but his own purse.

It is ironic, then, that the tale the Pardoner tells has to do with greed, for greed is what drives the Pardoner! His story is rather humorous—but realistic.

Three men are drinking—it's about 9:00 a.m. (They may not have been home since the evening before.) As is the custom, as a casket passes, a bell is rung in its wake. They ask a serving boy who died, discovering that it is one of their drinking buddies. Death (personified here) has "killed" him. 

“Yea, by God’s arms!” exclaimed this roisterer...

I’ll seek him in the road and in the street,

As I now vow to God’s own noble bones!

Hear, comrades, we’re of one mind, as each owns;

Let each of us hold up his hand to other

And each of us become the other’s brother,

And we three will go slay this traitor Death... (91, 93-98)

The three swear to be brothers, as they vow to avenge their friend's death. On the way, they meet an old man (perhaps he is Death) and are verbally abusive of him, demanding to know where Death is. He directs them to the top of nearby hill...where they find a cache of gold.

Their dead friend is forgotten as each tries to find a way to get the gold without sharing with his "brothers." Two send the third away to get food and wine. One schemes to kill the third...

And here is gold, and that in great plenty,

That’s to be parted here among us three.

Nevertheless, if I can shape it so 

That it be parted only by us two (198-201)

Meantime, the third notes that with the gold...

There is no man who lives beneath the throne

Of God that should be then so merry as I.” (229-230)

So, he poisons the wine to kill the other two.

In the end, the two stab the third, then drink his poisoned wine and die. It is their greed that kills them all.

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