Geoffrey Chaucer. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales. Circa 1387.
“The Pardoner’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a grisly little moral tale, perfect for Halloween, that we are told is intended to illustrate the grim truth of the maxim, “Radix malorum est cupiditas” or “The love of money is the root of evil.” It is referenced quite often as evidence of the way literature feels about money. But stories are not mathematical equations, and the things they say they will accomplish are not always the things they really want to accomplish. This is particularly true of Chaucer’s set of tales—told by remarkably unreliable storytellers, for a variety of complex reasons, to a fairly unpredictable audience. So when the Pardoner is urged to tell “some moral thing” and promises to provide a tale that will illustrate the wickedness of avarice, we should be cautious about assuming that we know what will happen next.
It is true that the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale” is a classic example of greed gone wrong. After a long introduction in which the Pardoner (a layman who sells pardons or indulgences to sinners) excoriates the sins of drunkenness, gluttony, and gambling, he begins to tell the tale of three young men who indulge in all these vices—plus a few more just for fun. They are sitting and drinking in a tavern one day when they hear a bell announce a funeral procession in the street. Finding out that the deceased is an old drinking and gambling companion, they vow to take their revenge on Death.
The three friends wander out into the street and come across an old man who tells them that if they are seeking Death, he can help them find him. He sends them to look for Death under an old oak tree. They find the tree, and underneath it they find eight bushels of gold coins. Distracted by their newfound wealth, they put their plans to wreak vengeance on hold and decide to wait until nighttime and carry the treasure home under cover of darkness. One of the three is sent into town to bring food and wine to sustain the group until then.
The two friends who remain guarding the gold rapidly decide to kill the third friend for his share of the coins. He, meanwhile, is poisoning their bottles of wine for exactly the same reason. When he returns with the bread and wine, they kill him. Celebrating their success with healthy swigs of the wine he brought, they fall dead as well.
The moral lesson could hardly be clearer: Sin leads to sin. And the love of money leads to the worst sins of all.
The tricky thing about this apparently transparent little tale is the person who tells it. Chaucer’s Pardoner is not a particularly reliable moral guide. In fact, he’s a fraud, a con artist, and a blasphemer. In “The Pardoner’s Prologue,” before the tale, he tells his audience all about it quite plainly. He begins by describing the false holy relics he carries with him to display and to use to solicit donations, and notes that:
By this fraud have I won me, year by year,
A hundred marks, since I've been pardoner.
I stand up like a scholar in pulpit,
And when the ignorant people all do sit,
I preach, as you have heard me say before,
And tell a hundred false japes, less or more.
I am at pains, then, to stretch forth my neck,
And east and west upon the folk I beck,
As does a dove that's sitting on a barn.
With hands and swift tongue, then, do I so yarn
That it's a joy to see my busyness.
Of avarice and of all such wickedness
Is all my preaching, thus to make them free
With offered pence, the which pence come to me.
For my intent is only pence to win,
And not at all for punishment of sin.*
In other words, the Pardoner is dishonest, immoral, and driven by the same sin he preaches against. Indeed, he is worse than just avaricious. Because his job is to sell real indulgences and provide sinners with an honest opportunity to repent and be saved, his fraudulence damns the souls of those who trust him to assist in their salvation. He is at least as murderous as the three men in his tale, if not more so.
The Pardoner insists that “though I am myself a vicious man,/Yet I would tell a moral tale, and can.” But surely we cannot be meant to take his story at face value, knowing what we know of him. Indeed, the moment his tale is told he swings into his old sales pitch, trying to persuade his audience to overlook what he has told them about his false relics and his personal avarice, trying to sell them a lying salvation as well. We are not allowed, for a minute, to forget the vile lying huckster he really is.
So is “The Pardoner’s Tale” really about “Radix malorum est cupiditas”? Yes and no. Certainly the tale that is told has that as its moral. But that particular tale, told by that particular teller, may well serve more as a cautionary tale about trusting in clerics and their promises of salvation, than as a warning about the dangers of wealth.
*For ease of reading, I’ve cited a modern translation of Chaucer here.