Chaucer’s 22 Canterbury Tales consist of a variety of stories, purportedly told by piligrims on their way to the shrine of St. Thomas á Beckett, who was murdered in 1170 in Canterbury cathedral. Many stories deal with sexual adventures and deceit and almost all contain obsceneties. The Pardoner’s tale is to some extent an exception in that its theme is greed and money. In medieval times a pardoner collected money for charitable purposes from churchgoers. He was endowed by the Pope with the authority to reward donors with some temporal remission of sins or punishment and to issue indulgences (Abrams, 1993, p. 164). Pardoners often cheated and took part of this money for themselves.
The Pardoner’s tale consists of two parts: a prologue and a story. In the prologue he says that he always preaches against greed, quoting from the Latin Bible (1 Timothy 6 verse 10) Radix mallorum est cupiditas: the root of all evil is greed or avarice. At the same time he deceives his listeners as he pockets their money himself, and extracts as much as possible by making them afraid of God’s wrath and showing them false relics. The story he then tells is about three brothers who eventually kill each other when each of them plots to keep a treasure of gold for himself instead of sharing it with his brothers. In sum, finding the treasure invokes greed and so leads to death (“The Canterbury Tales Summary”, n.d.). It might be meant to be humurous, but at the same time it is wry on several accounts. What arguments can be put forward to support this claim?
The Pardoner’s tale indeed seems wry on several accounts. First, in the prologue he unashamedly admits that he is and does what he preaches against. A stronger form of corruption and deceit can hardly be imagined. Second, the point of the story he tells about the three brothers clearly shows that greed, as the radix (the root), does indeed lead to mallorum, the ultimate evil, i.e. death. Even so, the Pardoner does not heed the warning he so eloquently tells his own hearers. On the contrary, he boasts about his cunning in how he persuades parishioners to hand over vast amounts of money to him, as a pardoner. Effectively he is doing what the story he tells denounces. Thirdly, he does not even pretend to believe what he tells people and the means by which he beguiles them. Fourth, the suggestion the tale evokes is that he is not a unique exception to a rule. It casts aspersions on the whole Church, clergy, and faith as such. As he represents part of the Church the tale makes clear that the system is rotten from the core and from within, rather than just attacked by and tarnished from the outside. Finally, that a tale and a theme like this is put forward in a contest to entertain pilgrims to a shrine of saint makes it a specimen of wry humour, even without taking into account the previous considerations. As such it contributes to one of the overarching themes of the Canterbury Tales, that the religious system as a whole is in moral decline. That this is seen as a source of entertainment and a laughing matter, then and now, does not make it any less wry, or sad.
- The Canterbury Tales Summary. (n.d.). Sparknotes. Retrieved from https://www.sparknotes.com/lit/canterbury/summary/
- Abrams, M.H. (1993). The Norton Anthology of English literature, volume 1. London: W.W. Norton & Company.