illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Pardoner’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 10, 2022.

The Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale

The Host starts to swear when the Physician finishes his tale. He is cut to the heart by the innocent girl’s fate and reflects on how the gifts of nature can lead to suffering and death. The Host then prays for the Physician and his patients. He says that he personally needs either some medicine or some strong ale to get him over this sad story. A merry tale might work as well, and he calls on the Pardoner to tell one at once. The Pardoner, too, would like a drink and a cake, and the other members of the company ask for a moral story from him.

The Pardoner’s Prologue

The Pardoner begins with an explanation of his job. He always preaches on the same theme, he says, that greed stands as the root of all evil. He has papal bulls and letters from his lord to show his legitimacy and protect him, and he comes equipped with a whole collection of relics. They are fake, of course, merely stones and animal bones, but he tells good stories about them and claims curative properties for them. And the people believe him and pay money for his services. All people must do to conquer their sins is confess them and pay the Pardoner. Then he will absolve them.

The Pardoner continues by scorning the ignorant people he has fooled with his false stories. He is a greedy man who cares nothing for souls, only for his own profit. He fully admits to his hypocrisy and says that he preaches only out of his greed. Yet he can preach a convincing sermon nonetheless, condemning avarice and calling his hearers to repent even though he never does. He gets plenty of money and other goods in his profession, and he refuses to beg or live in poverty or work with his hands. He cares not a bit for the poor people he swindles, for he is a “ful vicious man” who can still tell a fully moral tale.

The Pardoner’s Tale

A group of young men in Flanders spend all their time in debauchery, drinking, gambling, and going to prostitutes. All they do is in excess, and they serve the devil in their lecherous ways. The Pardoner breaks off his tale to remind his hearers of the evils of drink, using the biblical Lot as an example and offering the wisdom of Seneca. He also speaks against gluttony, claiming that it was the original sin of Adam.

The Pardoner cries out against these sins, claiming that they lead to death. Indeed, drunkenness disfigures a man body and soul and makes him ridiculous. He provides other examples like Attila and then moves on to condemn gambling as a deceitful practice, telling the story of an ambassador who went to Corinth only to find the rulers playing at dice. He refused to even meet with them. Swearing, too, the Pardoner continues, is a horrible thing, and people should not take God’s name in vain.

The tale finally resumes with three of the young men sitting in a tavern. They hear a funeral bell and learn that one of their friends has died. Death has struck again, and the young men determine that they will get even with Death. They will slay him.

The young men set out on their mission and meet an old man whom they identify as a spy of Death. The old man would actually welcome Death, but he tells the young man that if they go look under a certain tree, they will encounter...

(This entire section contains 816 words.)

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Death. What they find, though, is a treasure in gold coins.

Thrilled, the young men claim the coins as their own, but they cannot move them until night, for otherwise someone will think they have stolen this treasure. They send the youngest to go to town for food and drink. While in town, the youngest gets to thinking that if he should happen to do away with his two companions, the treasure would be all his. In the meantime, the other two are plotting the death of their youngest companion.

The youngest poisons two bottles of wine (keeping a third clear for himself), but his fellows slay him when he returns to the tree. Then they drink the poisoned wine and die as well. Indeed, they have all now encountered Death.

The Pardoner ends his tale with an invitation to the company to look upon his relics, pay his price, and receive absolution for their sins. Life is uncertain, after all, and they could die at any moment. The Host, he says, should go first, but the Host announces that he will certainly not kiss the Pardoner’s old underwear or any other of his false relics, much less pay the old fraud any money. The Knight makes peace between them.


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