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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What is the moral of "The Pardoner's Tale" according to the Pardoner and Chaucer?

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In Chaucer's "The Pardoner's Tale," the Pardoner's moral is that greed is destructive. Chaucer's deeper moral, however, is to beware of hypocrites.

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While the Pardoner himself would like his listeners to draw the moral that greed leads to destruction, Chaucer implies a more subtle lesson: beware of hypocrisy.

The Pardoner's tale is about three young revelers. These young men spend their time drinking and carousing, and they become extremely indignant when they learn that Death has carried off another friend of theirs. They decide they will take their revenge on Death.

The three young men meet an old man who tells them that they can find Death under a tree just over yonder. When they arrive at the spot, however, they find eight bushels of gold coins. They decide to wait until nightfall to bring the coins into town under the cover of darkness, and one young man goes off to get food and drink. Meanwhile, the other two plot their friend's demise so they don't have to share the gold with him. He, too, decides he would like the gold all for himself and poisons the bottles of wine that he brings back. The two young men jump on their friend when he returns and kill him, but then they drink the poisoned wine and die too. Indeed, they have found Death under that tree, and their greed has led to their destruction.

But there is more to the story than that. The Pardoner himself is a greedy, plotting, dishonest scoundrel who enjoys an abundance of good food and drink, who carries around fake relics and charges people to venerate them, and who generally does the exact opposite of what he preaches. Of course, he only preaches for money anyway. He is, in essence, no different from the three young men in his tale. He is a hypocrite, and he is a man to beware of, for hypocrites may sound good, but they are just as dangerous and destructive as greed.

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The Pardoner's Tale is an interesting and telling excerpt from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The Pardoner, a member of the clergy of the Catholic church admits in his prologue that he is a dishonest and greedy man.  In fact, before he beings his tale, he says,

"But let me briefly make my purpose plain; 

I preach for nothing by for greed of gain.

And use the same old text, as bold as brass, 

Radix malorum est cupiditas."

(The root of evil is desire)

He even goes on to say that he would take money from a village widow with hungry children; however, after he acknowledges these facts, he goes on to tell a story illustrating the moral that it is dangerous to live a life led by greed. He claims this is a sermon he preaches frequently, so he is literally a man who does not practice what he preaches - a hypocrite. 

We have to wonder why Chaucer would present this moral in this way. It is possible that Chaucer is presenting a second, more layered moral - beware of hypocritical figures within the institution of the Catholic church. 

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Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Pardoner’s Tale is the discrepancy between the Pardoner’s character and the tale he tells. We tend to focus on the message of his tale, but it is the Pardoner’s immoral behavior that changes the emphasis of the moral.

Chaucer gives his reader a very unsavory description of the Pardoner. In Chaucer’s time, a pardoner was supposed to dispense “indulgences,” for contributions to the church (alms) through the use of relics (religious artifacts). These indulgences were often perceived as forgiveness for sins or a ticket out of a possible condemnation to hell. Of course, with so much money changing hands some pardoners became corrupt and took advantage of the people they were supposed to help.

The Pardoner himself admitted his own corruption, telling the pilgrims just before his tale that “I preach for nothing but for greed of gain.” He then goes on to tell the pilgrims a tale that, ironically, condemns the love of money as the root of all evil. Following the tale, the Pardoner has the temerity to actually try to solicit money from his fellow travelers:

I’ve some relics in my bale

And pardons too, as full and fine, I hope

As any in England, given me by the Pope.

If there be one among you that is willing

To have my absolution for a shilling

Devoutly given, come!

So, while it is common and correct to say that the Pardoner’s tale carries the moral that money is the root of all evil, the fact that the tale is framed by the Pardoner’s own admission of guilt and then his attempt to beguile the other travelers demonstrates another moral: Those among us who preach morality should be viewed with caution and judged more by their deeds than by their words.

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The Pardoner and Chaucer have two very different morals to their respective tales. Chaucer uses the Pardoner as a vehicle to expose the Catholic Church as corrupt. The Pardoner uses his own tale of the three rioteers to illuminate the themes that the love of money leads to death.

The Pardoner basically tells his tale to individuals who believe whole-heartedly in the truth and wisdom of the Pardoner. They revere him as a leader in the church. After hearing his moral tale denouncing greed, they are more likely to prove that they are not greedy by giving him their money. This is all part of his plan and leads us to Chaucer's moral purpose

Chaucer uses all of his religious characters to show the virtues of the local parson and the vices of the established Catholic theocracy. He believes that the Pardoner, with his manipulations and lies, is degrading the church and religion itself. Thus his message is "Beware the Pardoner."

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