|Text (Part of The Canterbury Tales)
|Late 14th Century
|Death, Mourning and Memory in Medieval Literature (YHU3345)
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of 24 stories told during a story-telling contest held by a group of pilgrims travelling together from London to Canterbury. In particular, “The Pardoner’s Tale,” coming after “The Physician’s Tale” and before “The Shipman’s Tale”, is an extended exemplum, prompted by the pilgrims’ appeal to the Pardoner for a moral tale to relieve them of their melancholia over the young maiden’s tragic death in the Physician’s tale.
The main tale told by The Pardoner is set somewhere in Flanders at an unspecified time. Three young men – drinking, gambling and blaspheming in a tavern – find themselves interrupted by a bell signalling a burial and send their servant boy along to make sense of the situation. The servant boy duly reports that their friend had been drunk when he was suddenly killed the previous night by Death, the thief who had also taken the lives of many regardless of gender and social status. Angered, the three rioters go in search of Death to avenge their friend. Along the way, they meet an Old Man whom Death refuses to slay despite his old age, and the Old Man directs them to an oak tree where Death is supposedly waiting. Finding instead gold lying at the foot of the oak tree, the three young men decide to wait until nightfall before carrying the gold back with them to avoid being mistaken as thieves. They draw straws to decide who should fetch wine and food while the other two guard the gold. The youngest draws the shortest straw and departs. Desiring for a larger share of the gold, the other two men plot to stab the youngest when he returns. The youngest, sharing the same desire, brings back wine laced with rat poison. After stabbing the youngest as planned, the remaining two young men drink to their death. Following their deaths, the Pardoner’s tale seems to serve as a warning against avarice and tavern sins.
Chaucer’s inclusion of a prologue, however, presents the Pardoner’s tale as one that provides critical insights into the English society’s socio-religious customs during his time. The Pardoner’s compulsive reiteration of his pardoning ritual and confession of his delight in profiting from his sermon attendees’ desire for absolution (possibly owing to the influence of alcohol) in the prologue effectively satirises his telling of a moral tale. The Pardoner’s attempt to profit from the pilgrims even after his proud confession of his, and by extension, the Church’s moral hypocrisy thus reasonably led to the Host’s violent threat to cut off the Pardoner’s genitals.
Beyond presenting a critical commentary on moral hypocrisy, the Host’s response also reveals the psychological reality of those living through the Black Plague. The Black Plague, otherwise known as the bubonic plague, was unexplainable during Chaucer’s time. Those fearfully living amongst the dead had popularly thought the plague to be God’s punishment for man’s sins. Like the young mens’ futile chase after the “stealthy thief” Death who has “slain a thousand during his pestilence” in the tale (line 675, 78), people living during the Black Plague were desperately attempting to grasp at Death which was everywhere and within themselves, but whose meaning nevertheless remained elusive. As such, moral tales like the Pardoner’s telling of the three young men’s sins as the cause of their premature deaths explains the ongoing excess death as punishment for their sins. To the Host, the Pardoner’s attempt to profit off the pilgrims involves the pilgrims in his blasphemous transaction such that the Host, too, “will have Christ’s curse!” – that is, be punished by death – if he were to kiss the Pardoner’s relics and pay his dues (line 946).
On a narrative level, Chaucer seems to also appeal to readers’ (yes, you and I) strange lack of sorrow when confronted with the presentation of death in excess, as a result of excessive greed, and for the furthering of excess profits. While the pilgrims had been terribly saddened by the death of a single maiden in the Physician’s tale, the Host’s response effectively signals an end to (or, the death of) the remembrance of deaths upon being reminded of his mortality. Chaucer seems to suggest, then, a mortal inability to comprehend excess(ive deaths) when such deaths are implicatory of one’s mortality – a sobering insight the almost grotesque comedy provides into our emotional struggle to comprehend excess death.
Finally, it is worth noting that the Pardoner’s tale is narratively driven by excessive desire – that is, the three young men’s avarice, the Pardoner’s desire for profit, and the pilgrims’ desire for a moral tale. These desires, when viewed through Peter Brook’s narrative lens in Narrative Desire, “creates and sustains narrative movement through the forward march of [a mutual] desire” for a conclusive end (40-41). For Brooks, this desire for a conclusive end is termed as “narrative desire” which, when fulfilled, provides readers with the desired retrospect and mastery over the event narrated. Accordingly, when this desire remains unfulfilled, the experience of an abrupt conclusion drives readers to repeat the narrative plot until their desire is fulfilled. In the case of the Pardoner’s tale, the Pardoner’s and the pilgrims’ morally opposite desires drive the narrative to a conclusion that, though fulfilling their desire to be cured of their melancholia, poses a threat to the pilgrims’ morality and mortality. While the hasty, violent end to the tale compels the pilgrims to seek for tales based on the existing socio-religious customs governing their understanding of the world, we are prompted to reread and continue our life-long meditation on the ever elusive death.
Chaucer worked on The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, and included many forms and styles to provide a detailed reflection of English society during his time. Written in a mix of prose and verse in Middle English, each line consists of 10 syllabus with alternating accents and end rhymes that would later form the basis of the heroic couplet’s syntax. The pilgrimage to Canterbury includes fictional characters from a wide range of classes and of different natures, offering insights into social relations, customs and practices of the time, including one as blasphemous and “anti-pilgrimaging” as The Pardoner (Lerer 262). Chaucer also used the pilgrimage setting to explore human relationships with the pleasures and vices of the physical world amidst spiritual inspirations. His intricate frame narrative allows for this expansive use of styles and forms to present strong individual character portraits without neglecting the pilgrims’ complex collective reality; in fact, many critics consider Chaucer’s unique frame narrative’s greatest achievement to be its ability to expertly present the relationship between pilgrims and their tales. The Canterbury Tales, however, remains arguably incomplete, and its complexity leaves more riddles yet to be solved.
Augustyn, Adam. “The Canterbury Tales.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 14 May. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales.
Beidler, Peter G. “The Plague and Chaucer’s Pardoner.” The Chaucer Review 16.3:1982, 257–269. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093795.
Benson, David C. “The Canterbury Tales: personal drama or experiments in poetic variety?” The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, pp. 127-142, Cambridge UP, doi: 10.1017/CCOL0521815568.008
Brooks, Peter. “Narrative Desire.” Style 18.3:1984, 312–327. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42946134.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Lerer, Seth. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Yale Companion to Chaucer. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
[Featured Image & Fig. 1] https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-Canterbury-Tales
CONTRIBUTED BY YAP JIA YI (’21)