Pardoner's Tale

1-3 Does it seem appropriate to expect "mirth or japes" from a Pardoner? Does it surprise you that the Pardoner agrees? "bel ami" = French for "sweetheart"

4-5 They are obviously riding by a tavern at this point. When you think of cake, don't think of chocolate layer cake. He must mean something much more substantial (and sugar was very expensive), and, after all, the Summoner is carrying a large cake while riding a horse!

6-11 The nobility obviously has reservations about the kind of story they think the Pardoner is capable of telling. Interesting, isn't it, that he is just as willing to tell either kind of tale (he obviously has a store of both kinds at hand). Note the incongruity (look it up) in the last line.


All the headings are editorial (as are all titles). In the manuscripts that come down to us, we simply have continuous text. Donald R. Howard is responsible for headings and layout (including the "Radix malorum...").

1-4 The Pardoner is going to begin by telling us about his skills as a preacher--a kind of behind-the-scenes look at a great performer (and who doesn't want to hear that?). In fact the "story" proper doesn't start until line 332. On the other hand, much as you might like stories, the rest isn't just trimming. The Pardoner's Tale is the whole thing--the Pardoner's performance before the other pilgrims. It certainly is a performance, a tour de force (look it up). Don't waste your attention waiting for the "story" (though Chaucer probably intended the delay to have that effect) and meanwhile ignoring the "sermonizing" of the Pardoner. Pay close attention to what he is doing (how he is manipulating his audience) throughout. Pay particular attention to the fact that, like a modern preacher/performer, he sounds fairly cynical about the gullibility of his audience and gives you an insider's awareness of the tricks involved in manipulating them.

5-6 Every sermon takes a passage from the bible as its text. Keep a close eye on this text; relate it in the first instance to his disclosures about his relics made in his portrait in the Prologue.

25-48 Doesn't this sound more like superstition or magic (for financial gain) that miracles wrought by faith?

49-60 What is the point of denying access to his relics to some of the people?

63 A clerk (cleric) is a learned man ("clergy" means "learning"). Almost all learning came through the church (though Oxford and Cambridge were in operation by this time). The fact that he stands "like a clerk" implies that he did not complete his clerical training. [For the modern meanings, remember that learning includes literacy. You couldn't work in a job that required reading and writing unless you were educated, and that mean education in the church schools. Anyone who worked at such a job, then, came to be called a clerk. Hence our terms "clerk" and "clerical."]

72-94 This sums up the Pardoner's intention and approach. You ought to be shocked at this level of self-revelation. He as much as says, "I sin on purpose and don't care a fig for the consequences" (i.e., Hell). A complete cynic, he doesn't even care that people will go to Hell because they thought they had had their sins forgiven when they hadn't.

99-100 What do you make of this?

109-10 A good definition of a naive and unsophisticated reader.

117 St. Paul was said to be a basket maker.

125 Aha! And what do you make of this??

128 corny ale: ale ("beer" without hops) made of "corn," which is to say, grain.

131-33 He obviously has the gentles in mind here.

The Pardoner's Tale

135 Get out your map of modern Europe. Flanders is the north western half of present-day Belgium. The English in the Middle Ages were known for the quality and quantity of the wool they produced. It was sent (along with flax to make linen) to Belgium where the expert weavers (known all over Europe and patronized by the cream of society) lived. Most surviving tapestries from the late Middle Ages were made in Flanders. You may remember that the Wife of Bath was such a good weaver that she "surpassed those weavers of Ypres and of Ghent" (General Prologue, lines 447-48), both cities in Flanders. In the late Middle Ages, some Flemish weavers were settled in England, where they taught their skills to the English, so that England itself became a competitor, at least in the home market.
So there was plenty of traffic between England and Flanders, much of it on business. Whether the general reputation of the Flemish has anything to do with the Pardoner's "ribalds," I can't say, but the Dutch (next country to the north, and speaking the same language, when they weren't all speaking French) were certainly known as great drinkers--hence the term "Dutch courage" for strong drink.

136-54 A good way to begin a sermon is with a lively scene of debauchery. Count the sins. Pay special attention to 144-48, where he condemns cursing. It has been said that the worst sins among the Protestants involve sex, but the worst sins among the Catholics involve blasphemy. [N.B.: The Catholic Church was the only, universal church in the Middle Ages; Protestantism hadn't been born. The modern Catholic church is similar but different from it.] We take cursing very lightly (listen to the atheists and maybe even Jews among you use "Jesus Christ" as an oath), but medieval man did not. Shakespeare also records "zounds!": God's wounds.
It was perfectly standard to blame the Jews for Christ's death (who else would have put hime to death? He was a Jew, for heaven's sake!).

155-331 Here the Pardoner embarks on denunciations of a series of deadly sins, with biblical examples and vivid descriptions. Don't just skip over it. Enjoy the Pardoner's performance. He has told you that he doesn't mean a word of it (and you know he likes his drop of "corny ale"!). Study his technique as he moves the minds and souls of his audience with his great rhetorical skill.

156 Drunkenness (gluttony) and lechery were always paired in the Middle Ages. Think about it: you want to sleep with a woman? you start by taking her out to dinner and ordering wine (or the 90s student equivalent).

164-69 After citing biblical examples, the Pardoner turns to secular, classical authorities, like the Roman author Seneca.

182-4 How do you like an apple as an example of gluttony?

189-92 "The short throat, the tender mouth"--a great line to remember when you want to refer to a self-indulgent friend. He's talking about our balance of trade problems: instead of eating our own corn, we insist on tea from China, soy sauce from Japan, olive oil from Spain, etc.

209-20 He comes down particularly on those who eat sophisticated foods. Why? Well, you know that his favorite song is the offertory. Does that help?

222-31 One of his preacher's tricks is to paint pictures that disgust us. The worse the picture, the stronger the appeal to reform. But he also knows that people just love piquant (look it up) stories. A good sermon always contains good stories.

235-44 He is talking about falsely labelled wines. Spanish wine "creeps subtlely" into wine that is supposed to be from Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, remember?). Why does he say "Sampson! Sampson!"?

261-62 This division of his sermon into parts may sound mechanical to us, but his audience would have expected such a laying-out of its structure. Why is gambling a sin?

323-27 And why is swearing a sin? Perjury, anger, dishonesty, and murder derive from it. Why is it seen as a source of further sin?

332 This part of his "demonstration" over, here he speaks directly to his fellow pilgrims ("sires" = gentlemen).

333 You think people on this campus start drinking early!

346 Fordrunk: note that for- in an intensifying prefix. You'll run into it a lot (forweary = exhausted; forlost = completely and utterly lost; etc.).

358-61 This "pestilence" is the Black Death (bubonic plague), which hit England for the first time in 1348 and, by some accounts, wiped out a third of the population of the country.
Note the danger of mistaking a metaphor for reality. We do it all the time.

369-77 What do you think of the value of this oath of brotherhood?

380 This sentiment is not an uncommon one (we will encounter it in a famous sonnet by John Donne). Though it seems like a riddle and a contradiction (that's what makes it attractive), it is true--under what circumstances?

384 What is a stile? (...he found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile...)

387 Note the difference between the Old Man's greeting and the oaths of the revelers.

389 carl = churl (look it up).
The Old Man is one of the mysteries of medieval literature. There have been as many "interpretations" of him as there are people to interpret. What do you think of him?
Some have seen in him an otherworldly figure (good or evil); others simply see a dignified old man. Certainly his first response (393-98) is as likely to be irony from the mouth of a man who has lived long as some statement about a miraculous exchange, and he does seem to be a Christian.

401 Much has been made of "my mother's gate," but we still speak of mother earth. What do you think? I have known aged people who feel that, though they have nothing to live for, they cannot die, so this speech doesn't seem odd to me.

427-31 Why do you think the "other hasardour" accuses the Old Man of being Death's spy or one of his followers?

432-37 "this crooked way"--wonderful, isn't it? Here's the crux. What in fact is the Old Man doing? What does he know? Who is he? --or is he just an old man who, perhaps, knows nothing?

438-39 His farewell wish certainly sounds honest and pious.

444-47 Avarice.

450 "I'm really smart/shrewd, even though I joke around a lot."

451-52 Fortune? Ah, the lottery!

459 gold = happiness, right?

460-63 Night is symbolic as well as useful.

465 Hasardry (gambling). (Remember the end of the GP?)

476 By chance? Really?

480 Isn't brotherhood convenient?

495 By my truth [trawthe]. . .

499 Which sin is this?

505, 512-15 The neverending myth.

516 Suddenly we are reminded that we are in the middle of a sermon.

535 Remember that "corn" means "grain," so a "corn of wheat" is a grain of wheat. (The English call "corn" "maize"; "corn" still means "grain" in England today. Remember that for the rest of your reading this semester.)

549 ...into the wine. Is the preacher making a point about drink, or what?

551-53 If this were a modern story, this scene would take up fifty lines. Think about it. In Greek drama, the violence always takes place off stage. The thrill of violence for its own sake is a modern sickness.

555-56 Callousness.

560, 563-65 Ditto, note to 551-53.

567-71 The final apostrophe (look it up in your dictionary of literary terms) is followed by the application of the lesson to the Pardoner's fictional audience in 572-73.

576-90 Here he is addressing that same fictional audience, i.e., this is still a part of his "demonstration" sermon.

591-612 Here, however, he turns to the other pilgrims, and it is here that the real "problem" of the Pardoner becomes apparent. What does he think he is doing? What sort of response does he expect (if even the obtuse narrator knows he's toting pigs' bones)?

613-17 Here he makes a gross miscalculation. Why? How can such a shrewd judge of people as the Pardoner make such a mistake? Is he kidding? Does he really think he can pull it off? Is he out to embarrass the Host (who is, after all, the judge of the storytelling contest)? Is he carried away by his own rhetoric, and does he start believing his own words--or confuse his fictional audience with his real one?

618-27 He has picked on the wrong man--but why is the Host so vehement? He didn't seem hostile when the tale began, did he? What is he feeling so threatened by?

640 The Knight is (appropriately) the peacemaker, and the two do make up, but what exactly has happened?

Before you leave this tale, give some thought to the character of the Pardoner. He is one of the most complex characters Chaucer drew. Intelligent and talented but bitterly cynical, he seems filled with despair, contempt, and anger. Sexual innuendo plays around his description, but none of it seems very clear. I don't think it helps much to settle for "he's gay." What do you think?

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