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The Pardoner's Tale

Fourteenth century Middle English
Geoffrey Chaucer

Huntington Library, San Marino, California MS EL 26 C 9, the Ellesmere Manuscript
British Library, Harley MS 7334, and many other manuscripts and printed editions

From The Canterbury Tales

The Pardoner’s tale begins with a rip-roaring lampoon of all the wiles, deceptions and outright lies peddled by a man who gives sermons in churches and sells indulgences obtained from the Papal Court in Rome. In his tale, three drunken rogues stagger out of a tavern to look for the rascal Death – perhaps the Black Death – and are guided in his direction by a white-haired old man who is looking, not with fear and hope towards an eternal bliss in heaven, but to exchange his old age for a young man’s youth. He hasn’t been able to do this yet, however, and much to his chagrin, despite knocking on his mother’s gate, the soil, crying: “let me in!” And hence his extreme age, he explains.

This tale from the Pardoner follows the tale from the Physician in all versions of the sequence, and is another of Geoffrey’s Canterbury Tales – a collection of short stories each recounted from the mouth of a pilgrim on the way to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral.

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The Pardoner's Tale


'Lordings,' quod he, 'in chirches whan I preche, I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche, and ringe it out as round as gooth a belle – My most esteemed fellow travellers,' called out the pardoner. 'When I preach in churches I try my best to cry my words out with clarity and resonance, like a peel of bells, for I know them all by heart and it is good to sound authoritative. And it helps to speak on only one subject. Mine is radix malorum est cupiditas, which is to say, money is the root of all evil.

'Here is a glove.' I will shout. 'Can you all see it? Put your hand inside this glove and the yield of your wheat and oats will soar, wherever it has been sown; so long as you have paid me a penny for this privilege.'

I will tell everybody where I have come from, and set out all my papal indulgences and show off my seal of authority, so that nobody will have the courage to interfere with me. And after this, I will deliver my address, drawing attention to all the papal bulls that I have, the signatures of cardinals, of bishops and even patriarchs of the Church in the east. I speak a few words of Latin, just to impress everybody and to encourage thoughts of devotion. Then I produce some bones and other relics, encased in glass. Everyone recognises them for what they are – or at least, for what they believe them to be!

I bring out a brass shoulder blade that contains within it the relics of a sheep that once belonged to an Old Testament prophet. ‘You fine men,’ I will say. ‘Listen to this. Pay attention now. Quiet! If any of your cattle or sheep has a worm infestation, take this shoulder bone and wash it in a spring or a well, then lead the animal to the water, or bring the water to the animal, wash its tongue and it will be cured. It will treat scab as well, and other ailments, just as long as the sheep drinks the water. And take note of this: if the good fellow who owns the livestock rises once every week before the first cock crow and takes nothing to break his fast but a cupful of this same water, then his animals will all thrive and increase, and his vegetables and barley also. And good sirs, it also heals jealousy. Take note ladies, if a man is plunged into a marital rage, a cupful of the water in his soup will cure him of all mistrust towards his wife, even though he knows what you‘re up to and it might involve two or three priests!

'But good men and women,' I will say. 'I must warn you, if anyone in this church has done anything so awful that you dare not confess it to a priest, or if any woman, young or old, has been unfaithful to her husband, you will not be able to offer money for my relics. But if anybody finds themselves free from the burdens of such sin – and please remember that I am able to give absolution for them by the authority of the papal bulls granted to me – then you may come up and offer to me as much money as you like, in God's name.'

By this trick I can make a hundred marks a year! I stand like a clergyman in the pulpit and when all the common folk have sat down I speak to them in the way I have just described, and I use a hundred other tricks besides these. I lean forwards, peering down at them, looking from left to right and nodding like a dove on a barn roof. My tongue and my hands work so quickly together it must be a joy to see me perform! And all that I preach is a warning against greed, the greed for money, and only so that they will hand all their pennies over to me! My only purpose is to gain their wealth. I have no interest in correcting their sins. I don't care what happens to them when they die. Their souls can go blackberrying for all I care!

Of course, the sermons of many priests and clerics have a motive beyond what is apparent; some go to great lengths to flatter a congregation, others deliver a sermon intended to help with the speaker’s advancement, although it may involve a large measure of hypocrisy, or to flatter themselves, or to instill hate – and speaking of which, if the circumstances require it I can sting a man like an angry wasp with my tongue. He will not escape false defamation if he has done any injury to me or my colleagues. For although I will not name him, nobody will be in any doubt who I mean! This is how I deal with those who cross me. I spit out poison disguised as holiness, with an innocent look.

But I come to the point quickly and my text is always the same. The wickedness of greed. Radix malorum est cupiditas. Money is the root of all evil. And in this I preach against that very sin that I openly practice myself! But so what! I make other people divest themselves of their money and repent their own greed. Do you think, if I am able to preach and win gold and silver for the things that I say, that I should rather choose to live in poverty? Such a thought has never entered my head. My intention is to acquire their cash.

I address congregations far and wide and no manual labour for me! You will not find me trying to scratch a living by weaving baskets. I will emulate none of the apostles by embracing poverty. I shall have money, wool, cheese and wheat, even if I have to get it from the poorest youth or the most destitute widow in a village, a woman whose children are already starving. I will drink wine and have a jolly wench in every town. I give to these people excerpts from old stories, for the common folk love old stories; they remember them and tell them again to each other when I have gone. And listen, my fellow travellers, you wish me to tell you a tale. Now that I have finished this pint of good ale, I hope I may be able to deliver something for you that you will like, for though I may be a nasty piece of work, I can tell a moral tale if I want to, and here is one that I often repeat for a fee. So be quiet and I will begin.

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There was once a group of young people in Flanders who were determined to misspend their youth: riotous living, games of chance, taverns and public baths, their lives were one long round of pleasure. Day and night they would dance to the music of harps and lutes, play at dice and eat and drink far more than was good for them. Their oaths were so outrageous and their swearing so damnable that it was horrible to have to listen to it. They tore our Lord's body to shreds, and laughed at each other's debauchery.

Look, in come the topless dancers! They move like acrobats, leaning lasciviously over tables. Following them are fruit sellers, harpists singing to their own accompaniment, sellers of Turkish delight, sellers of other delights as well, prostitutes – officers of the very devil himself – brought in to kindle and ignite the flames of lechery, which is the bed-companion of gluttony. Holy Scripture tells us that wine and drunkenness lead inevitably to fornication. Remember how the drunken Lot, unwittingly and against all nature, lay one night with his two daughters; he was so drunk that he didn't know what he was doing. Herod, if anyone cares to research it, gave his authority to bring in the head of John the Baptist when he was utterly inebriated at a feast. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca adds a word: 'I can find no difference,' he says, 'between a madman and a drunkard, except that a drunkard will sober up again in the morning.'

Oh cursed gluttony! Original cause of our downfall. How dearly we paid for this, our original sin, until Christ redeemed us with his blood. While Adam fasted he was allowed to remain in Paradise, but when he ate the forbidden fruit he was expelled into misery and pain. Oh gluttony, what good cause we have to complain of you. If a man knew how many illnesses result from overeating, he would moderate his diet. But alas! Dainty throats and discerning taste buds cause men everywhere to labour in earth, air and water to fetch for a glutton his food and drink. Oh Saint Paul, you have touched upon this matter so fittingly: 'Put food into a belly and turn a belly into food. Each destroyed through the other, by God's will.' Alas, a man makes a lavatory of his throat by pouring too much down it! Oh stomach! Oh belly! Oh stinking fish! Full of shit! Belching and farting! What labour it is to satisfy you, and what a cost. How these cooks press and strain and mince and grind to turn raw foodstuffs into exotic creations for your educated palate. They break bones to get at the marrow, wasting nothing, bark and root and every spice shall enter the sauce to delight a discriminating gullet and to stimulate an appetite that should already be satisfied.

Wine is as bad. Drunkenness is worse! Oh drunken man, your complexion is like a sponge, foul is your embrace – your breath stinks! Whoever has yielded to the bottle can keep no secrets, for sure, so lay off the wine – and especially that awful stuff you can buy in Cheapside and Fish Street which they mix with Spanish brandy so that when you breath in its bouquet and drink three glasses of it you may think that you are in Beaune or Bordeaux but you are really only an inch away from the gutter. You fall down like a slaughtered pig, you cannot speak and you certainly have no mind for what you should hold most dear. Drunkenness is the graveyard of right-thinking and discretion.

Listen, my good people. One more thing before I start my tale. All the glorious acts, all the victories that in the Old Testament were brought about by God, they were all done in abstinence and prayer. Look at the Bible if you don't believe me. Attila the Hun, that great conqueror, died in his sleep in shame and dishonour, bleeding from the nose through the great quantity of alcohol that he had consumed.

And lay off gambling as well. Gambling is the mother of dishonesty. It incites deceit, false promises, blasphemy and manslaughter. It is a disgrace to become a gambler, as well as a waste of possessions and of time. The higher a man climbs, the further he will fall if he begins to make bets and to chance his arm. Stilbo, a wise Spartan ambassador, was sent to Corinth once in order to forge an alliance between those two ancient Greek states, but when he arrived he found all the aristocracy playing at dice. At the first opportunity, he crept out of that city and went back home to Sparta, where he reported: 'I shall not risk the safety of my country with such losers. Send someone else, for I would rather be slain than be responsible for linking Sparta into such an insecure bond. Such a glorious nation as ours should not ally itself with a bunch of chancers!'

The king of Parthia sent a pair of golden dice to King Demetrius as a silent rebuke. Men of authority should find other things to do, and honest things, if they need to pass the time.

Old books treat also upon the subject of gambling's bedfellow, by which I mean oaths and blasphemies. Swearing is an abominable thing. 'By God's precious heart! By God's nails! By the blood of Christ! By the phial at Hales Abbey! My number is seven, yours are five and three, and by God's arms, if you cheat, I shall stab you through the heart with this dagger!' This is what we hear when dice are being thrown. Swearing, cursing, anger, deceit, murder even. For the love of Christ, leave your oaths behind! And now to my tale.

One morning, long before any bell had rung the hour of nine o'clock, these three unruly young men were settled in a tavern with a beer in front of them. And as they sat, they heard a little bell tinkling; it was coming from the head of a funeral cortege that was carrying a body to the grave. One of them called over the boy who was his servant and said: 'Go and ask whose body that is, and make sure you get the name right.'

'Sir,' replied the boy, 'there is no need for me to do this. I learned two hours ago, before you arrived, that it is an old friend of yours. He died suddenly in the tavern last night, sitting drunk at his bench. In sneaked a silent criminal called Death who murders everyone around here; he gave him a massive heart attack and left again without a word. Death has killed a thousand people during this current pestilence. Sir, I think it would be wise for you to know a little about such an adversary before you come into his presence. My mother taught me always to be ready to meet with him.'

'By Mary the mother of Christ,' said the reveller, 'this child is right! There is a village only a little over a mile away where he has killed everybody – man, woman and child! I reckon he must live there. We'd better avoid the place.'

'By God's arms!' replied his friend. 'Avoid the place? I vow that I shall seek him out, in any way that I can. Listen, my friends. We are as one. Let each of us hold up his hand to the other and swear brotherhood. Then we shall be able to kill this traitor Death. He who has slain so many shall die himself, by God's dignity! And by nightfall!'

They each made their promises to stand by the other, each to die for his two friends if necessary, and then they got up unsteadily, already drunk, and set off for this deserted village, swearing many a grisly oath and tearing Christ's body to pieces. 'Death shall be slain! – if we can catch up with him,' they cried.

When they had barely gone half a mile, as they were about to cross a stile, they met with an old man dressed in rags. He greeted them with humble courtesy: 'My noble young men,' he said, 'may you gaze happily upon God.'

'What?' replied the proudest of these unruly fellows. 'Rustic fellow with rude manners to match, why are you all wrapped up except for your face and why have you lived for so long?'

The old man looked straight back into his eyes and replied: 'For I am unable yet to find a man, though I might walk from here to India looking for one, neither in the countryside nor in any city, who will exchange his youth for my age; and therefore I must hold on to my years for a little while longer. For as long as God wishes, alas. Death will not take my life. So I walk like a helpless wretch, and on the ground, which is my mother's entrance, I knock with my stick from morning until evening, calling: "Dear mother, let me in! Lo, see how emaciated I am? Alas, when shall my body be at rest? Mother, I would willingly exchange the wooden coffin that has been waiting in my bedroom such a long time now for a mere scrap of a ragged winding sheet to be wrapped in." But she will not grant me this mercy, and so my face is as you see it, pale and shrivelled.

'But sirs, you should treat the elderly with respect, unless they have disgraced themselves. You may read for yourselves in holy writ: "Courtesy should be shown to an old man with white hair." So I advise you to do as little harm to an old man now as you would like a younger man to do harm to you when you are old, if you live that long. May God be with you. I must continue on my journey.'

'No, old labourer, by God, you do not escape so lightly, by Saint John!' said another of the three, standing in his way. 'You spoke just now of our enemy Death. He has killed all our friends in these parts and, upon my word, I believe you are one of his spies! Tell us where he is or, by God and the Holy Sacrament, you shall pay dearly for it. I bet you are in league with him. You are out to kill us young folk, you despicable old villain!

'Sirs!' the old man replied in exasperation. 'Very well. If you are so eager to find Death, turn along this path that winds up into the woods over there; I saw him beneath a tree, by my faith. See that oak? That's where he is now. Now may God, who redeemed mankind on the cross, save you and correct you!'

The three young men ran until they came to the tree, and there they found a whole heap of gold, nearly eight bushels of freshly-minted florins. All thoughts of pursuing Death evaporated in a moment. Each of them was so elated that he sat down beside this precious hoard and the most devious amongst them said: 'Brothers, listen carefully, for despite the idle life that we lead together, I am not devoid of wisdom. Fortune has given us this treasure so that we may continue to pass our days in pleasure and entertainment, and we shall quickly find good ways of spending it, yes, by God's precious dignity! Who could have thought, when the sun arose this morning, that by noon we would be this rich! If only we could carry this gold to my house – or to yours, or yours,' he quickly corrected himself – 'but in all honesty, it cannot be done. Not while it is light. We would be accused of being thieves and be hanged for transporting our own property! So we must carry this treasure by night, as carefully and as secretly as we can. I propose that we draw straws and the one who gets the shortest shall run quickly back to the town and buy some bread and some wine. Say nothing to anybody. Don't mention the gold. The other two shall stay here and guard it. And if the first returns quickly enough, as soon as it is dark we will take this treasure to a safe place.'

Then this disreputable character – for his intentions were not in any way charitable – produced some cut straws in his fist and asked the others to draw one each. It fell to the youngest to set off for the town.

As soon as he was gone, this schemer said to his remaining companion: 'You know that you are my sworn brother so let me tell you something that might be to your benefit. You are well aware that our young friend has gone back to the town, and here is the gold beside us – and so much of it to be divided into three. Or perhaps only into two, if we can work it that way. Am I not being a good friend to you?'

The other answered: 'How can we do it? He knows that the gold is here.'

'If you can keep a secret,' replied the first, 'I will tell you what I have in mind.'

'I promise not to breathe a word.'

'Then you know that there are two of us, and two of us will be stronger than one. Do you get my drift? When he gets back, wait until he is sitting down, then look as though you want a playful wrestle. I will plunge the point of my sword deep into the side of his body while you hold him in a friendly grip. And make sure that you use your dagger as well, afterwards. Then we can indulge every fantasy we have ever had, and play at dice for as long as we like.'

So these two villains are agreed. The third shall be killed. But the youngest, the one who is going into town, cannot help but roll the bright golden coins around in his thoughts as he walks along, gazing with his mind's eye upon their freshly minted beauty.

'Oh Lord,' he said to himself, 'if it were possible for me to have all this treasure to myself, no one in the world would lead such a merry life as I! And into his head came the thought, prompted no doubt by the devil, of strong poison. And without any compunction whatsoever, this idea so firmly implanted itself in the young man's mind that when he arrived in town, without any hesitation he went straight to an apothecary and asked for a toxin to destroy some rats. And there was also a polecat on his land, he said, that was killing all his chickens. He needed to rid himself of some vermin. Yes. Vermin.

The apothecary answered: 'I can give you something that, so save my soul, there is no creature in this world that having eaten or drunk just a small amount of it will not soon be dead. Just a morsel the size of a grain of wheat will be enough. Yes, die it shall, and in less time than it takes to walk a mile, it is such a strong and virulent poison.'

This cursed young man put the substance into a box and ran into the next street to a man who could fill three large bottles full of wine. He discretely put the poison into two of the bottles and kept the third one clean for himself, for he fully intended to be working hard that night, carrying the gold out of the wood. When the three bottles were filled with wine, he hurried back to where the other two were waiting for him.

What need is there to say any more? You know what they all intended to do, and they wasted no time in doing it. When the youngest was dead, the principal conspirator turned to his partner in crime and said: 'Now let us sit and drink, and enjoy ourselves. We can bury him later.' Reaching for one of the bottles that contained the poison, he took a long swig out of it and passed it to the other. And I don't suppose that there is a passage in any of Avicenna's books of Persian medicine that describes such wondrous fits and agonies as these two wretches had to endure before their end. Oh cursed sin! Treacherous homicide! Oh wickedness! Oh gluttony! Lechery, betting – you vile blasphemers of Christ! Alas mankind, how can it be that through licentious arrogance and habit you swear great oaths to your creator who made you and redeemed you? Good men, may God forgive you your trespasses and steer you away from the sin of greed. My holy pardon will wash you all clean, for a fee. Gold coins of any description will do, silver brooches, spoons, rings. Bow you head beneath this holy pardon, signed by the Pope. Come up, wives, and offer me your wool. I shall enter your names here on the roll, and presto! – into the bliss of heaven you shall go when you die. If you offer cash to me I shall make you as clean and as pure as you were on the day you were born.

'You see? This is how I preach. And may Jesus Christ grant you his pardon as well.

'But wait! There is something I have forgotten to say. In my bag I have relics and papal indulgences as good as any pardoner in England, given to me by the Holy Father in Rome. If any of you fellow pilgrims on this road to Canterbury feel inclined, through the strength of your devotion, to offer to me anything in return for absolution, come over to me now and kneel so that you may humbly receive God's forgiveness. Or better still, keep offering me money as we go along and receive a fresh pardon at every town we come to. It is such a privilege for you to be riding along with a fully-provisioned pardoner, for there is no knowing what hazards might lie ahead. Perhaps one of you may fall off his horse and break his neck! See what an insurance it is to be riding through the countryside with me? And I suggest that our host should be the first to approach, for he seems to me to be the most caked in sin. Come over, Sir host! Be the first to offer! You can kiss all my relics, every single one of them, and only for the cost of a groat. See how generous I am? Unbuckle your purse!'

'You must be joking!' exclaimed the host. 'I would have Christ's curse if I did. Not on your life! You would swear that your old breeches were a relic of some saint when all the time the impression of your arse was on them! By the cross of Saint Elaine, I wish I had your testicles in my hand rather than your relics. I'd cut them off and carry them around in a bucket of pig shit!'

The pardoner said nothing. He was so angry he could not speak. The knight spoke up when he saw that everyone was laughing.

'No more of this! Enough!' he cried. 'Sir pardoner, be of good cheer, quell your anger. Come over here and let us continue our journey as merrily as before. And you, Sir host, whom I hold most dear, give the pardoner a kiss.'

They made friends again, and the company rode onwards.

Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2016