An introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale aimed at students sitting AQA Lit B3. This is intended as an overview and a platform to encourage further reading and research. It is not guaranteed to be “correct”!
Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The Pardoner’s Tale: A guide for AQA LITB 3 at
Slough Grammar School
This guide is targeted at students in Yr13 studying the Pardoner’s Tale for Lit B
3. In this syllabus, the General Prologue is not indicated and it will feature only
briefly in my writing. My aim is to introduce and stimulate discussion on key
elements of the Tale whilst ensuring that students are still required to
undertake significant amounts of independent research and thought. I am not
intending to offer model essays or similar responses. The text I am using is the
Oxford Student Text and any line references refer to this edition (Chaucer ed:
Croft, 2006). Further material will be published on the Slough Grammar School
VLE and on my blog: http://www.jwpblog.wordpress.com
AQA LITB 3
Students will be reading this text as part of the Elements of Gothic strand. It is
worth noting, however, that when reading this text the priority should be to
engage with the text per se, rather than being sidetracked by the notion of
Gothic implied in the title. The Gothic elements will be discussed in due
course, but the questions in Part A require a close understanding of the text
first and foremost and the titles of the essays demand a clear focus on the
named texts rather than a general discussion of Gothic elements applied to a
text in a scattergun manner.
A useful guideline should be the AQA descriptors for each mark band, outlined
below:Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
This grid has proven very useful to me when assessing essays. The descriptors
give a good guideline for basic grading. Obviously nothing is in fallible, but by
using this to attach an essay to a particular level at the outset, it has been
moderately straightforward as I have become more experienced, to place
essays in their respective bands. I particularly like the “Some understanding”
band for those essays which move between focused thought and paragraphs
Obviously when a range of marks is awarded against the AOs that reflects a
range of Bands, a best fit approach is employed. Running through the whole
process is an understanding that in awarding marks, the question has been
I think this is the area that is most frustrating and one that I shall be reinforcing
all the time next year. Many of the papers I mark simply do not make their
responses relevant to the question. Students seem to have a great deal of
knowledge about genre, historical contexts, critical theory, contexts of
authorship and so on. Sadly, these ideas seem to be used to pad out essays
rather than to help to focus the response. Thus in an essay about the potential
attractiveness of the Gothic Villain (June 2012), a student is struggling to make
a clear link between the title of the essay and paragraphs focusing, among
other things, on the industrial Revolution, James I, characters (especially
female) who are not villains.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
In fact many essays simply set out to write the essay they have e practiced and
take little notice of the thrust of the essay that is set.
This is often most noticeable in Section A where the insistence on focusing on
“elements of the Gothic” makes a focused response on the text difficult to
maintain. The key word is “elements”. No one is pretending that The
Pardoner is a Gothic text, but there are elements in the themes and motifs of
the tale which could be said to reflect those ideas which some 500 years later
will be grabbed by Gothic writers. Students must remember what the
intention of the author was and also be aware of contemporary circumstances,
such as the Black Death, which have to colour Chaucer’s writing.
I will look at character later in the discussion. At this stage the General
Prologue description should be considered.
Lines 675-715 of the General Prologue contain the physical description of the
Pardoner. Chaucer, in the voice of one of the pilgrims, paints a clear image his
hair, “as yelow as flex” hangs lankly down and s spread over his shoulders in
“colpons oon and oon”. He is vain in his clothes, trying to wear his hood “al of
the newe jet”. The sense is one of vanity and almost female attention to his
outward appearance. Certainly, The Pardoner has moved away from the
restrictions placed upon clergy at the time. The description moves on to his
bulging eyes – again, at the time such staring was considered a sign of general
licentiousness and a far cry from what was expected of the clergy. Perhaps the
most interesting line comes at 691: “I trowe he were a geldyng or a mare”.
Here Chaucer introduces the twin ideas of eunuchry and femininity. I will not
digress into a long discussion of potential homosexuality, but draw attention to
the twin descriptors. There is more here than a need to fill up a line and
students should have this at the back of their minds. The Pardoner boasts of
having a “joly wenche in every toun” (Tale 167), but this is unlikely in the light
of the description. Indeed the insistence on the padding out of his “lappe”
with his various relics suggests boasts born of an inability to partake of such Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
pleasures. The Host has no doubts about this as we read at the end of the tale
where he wishes to enshrine the Pardoner’s testicles in “an hogges toord”.
Perhaps he regrets that the Pardoner has none to treat this way, rather than
suffers from an outburst of good manners. Any student wishing to follow this
further should look at Carolyn Dinshaw’s essay: Eunuch Hermeneutics
The Prologue is not wholly critical. The Pardoner is held as a fine example of all
Pardoners. Not that this is huge praise. Pardoners had a reputation for
dishonesty and hypocrisy. Although the Pardoner is a shining example, this
may well be an example of the worst behaviour.
A final comment should be given to his voice. In the Tale we will see the
Rhetorical skills that the Pardoner obviously has in great number, but this is
somewhat undermined by having “a voys… as smal as hath a goot”. This
seems to tie in with his lack of masculinity and also links the Pardoner to the
animal associated with the Devil and with lechery.
This section is not part of the set text for examination but an awareness of
ideas such as outlined above is vital as we begin to study the Tale itself.
In common with much writing of the 14th Century, the characters of the tale
are not drawn with any suggestion of motivation or self-questioning. Often
allegorical, characters are required to illustrate ideas behind the narrative and
in this story the characters are the three Riotoures, the Old Man, The tavern
boy and the Pardoner himself.
The Riotoures, “yonge folk” who resemble modern teenagers to a remarkable
degree, are not differentiated beyond the briefest of descriptions. None have
a name and are merely the “woorst”, the “proudeste” and the “yongeste”.
Indeed there is no way of knowing whether the epithets are to be equally
shared out. This does not matter. In the story they serve the purpose of
illustrating the theme “radix malorum est cupiditas”. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The three are united by a holy oath which they immediately break when they
decide to kill not death but one another. Indeed there is a gentle irony when
“oon of hem spak thus unto that oother/Thou knowest wel thou art my
sworen brother;”(Tale 521-2) thus acknowledging the pact they have sworn
immediately before moving murder of the youngest. Not that the youngest is
any better – he plans his murders with no prompting and is at pains to ensure
that the bottles he borrows are “large bottles thre” (Tale 585) as though
ensuring the maximum quantity of poison for his deed. Indeed it is important
to the Pardoner that they have little to distinguish them from one another.
The vital thing for such an allegory is that they “types” are less clear than the
message. Overt characterisation gets in the way. The one who speaks to the
Old Man has a definite swagger and threatening bluster, but we do not know
who he is other than that he is the “proudeste”. He responds to the Old Man
roughly and with arrogance little suited to the old man’s gentle politeness and
the respect conferred by age.
The Old Man is regarded by many as something of an enigma. He is caring and
polite – he greets the Riotoures and as he departs wishes them well: “God be
with yow… God save yow… and thee amende” (Tale 463-481). The proudeste
riotour draws our attention to the fact that he is disguised in some way and
invites the Old Man to tell his tale. Chaucer sets up the irony of the fact that
the young men seek death to kill him whereas the old man longs to meet death
in order that he himself might die. This serves to increase his melancholy air as
he taps at his “mooder” earth and begs “leeve mooder, leet me in!” (Tale 445).
This prayer has such a strong simplicity that we can only pity this character
who seeks not to challenge and who moves out of the tale having pointed out
the whereabouts of Death. Students should think carefully about the Old Man
and consider Chaucer’s intentions: he may be an obvious contrast and no more
– age confers wisdom and he is challenged by the proudest rioter thus
increasing the contrast; he may represent death itself or even be death in
disguise – he seems immortal and also ensures that the teenagers die a death
that will ensure damnation and therefore possibly acts as some kind of judge
over their morals; he might be seen to represent the idea of the “wandering
Jew” – the stateless outsider who has travelled as far as “Inde” and is doomed
to continue to do so, tapping at the earth in a constant reminder of his Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
enforced immortality; he shows no fear of the youngsters and still wishes them
well. Students should consider whether there is a hint of irony here.
The tavern Boy has no great role in the story other than as a contrast to the
young men. His role is brief, but in his dialogue Chaucer allows innocence to
emerge as he talks of the contemporary scourge: the Black Death. He
introduces the idea of the dead man being drunk as he died and the character
gains sympathy by referring to his mother as he warns the youngsters to be
“redy for to meet him everemoore” (Tale 398). Even his referring to the
questioner as “maister” is calculated to suggest his youth and his innocence.
The Pardoner himself dominates his tale and he should be seen as a key
character. After Chaucer’s introduction in the General Prologue, we are ready
for vanity and arrogance. We are not disappointed. So arrogant is the
character that his prologue openly admits to the Pilgrims that he is as guilty of
the sins he is going to outline as are any of his characters. He lists his lying and
cheating with a pride that even as he subverts the teachings and ideas of the
church, leads us to find him engaging. He admits to adding “saffron” to his
goat-like speech and shows the falsehood inherent in all his relics. He is clever,
though, and we learn that he suggests the worst sins as being beyond his cure
– consequently anyone not approaching him will be suspected of these same
sins. This is market trading of the highest degree.
He is boastful throughout and is clear that although some people may be
absolved, he has only one purpose – to make money. He will preach “radix
malorum est cupiditas” from the position of being a sinner himself. Such
openness and honesty can be rather persuasive and can serve to make the
Pardoner something of an attractive rogue. He is clear in lines 161-75 that he
subverts the church and the role of the clergy. He refuses to follow the model
of the apostles and is even prepared to take “of the povereste wydwe in a
village/Al sholde hir children sterve for famyne” (Tale 164-5). Students should
read his prologue with care and note his boasts and claims. Many will return
at the end of the tale when he seems to have forgotten who his audience is.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
THE STRUCTURE OF THE TALE
The Prologue serves to outline the character of the Pardoner and ensures that
any readers are fully aware of his own greed, lust and vanity. This is no bad
thing in a sense. A man as full of sin as he can still deliver the moral tale
requested by the host, and he does not disappoint. It is interesting that none
of the Pilgrims interrupt or question him. Presumably the content of the
introduction with its repetition of the “Radix Malorum…” tag comes as no
surprise. He openly acknowledges himself to be a “ful vicious man” and
launches into his sermon after showing the congregation his false relics. These
relics are typical of the kind and the Pardoner reflects his usual audience with a
focus on natural remedies for ill animals and so on. Behind this though, there
is a constant reference to illnesses relating to gluttony and lechery. It should
also be noted that the “horrible” sins mentioned in line 93 carry a much
stronger taint than today and that the sexual sins suggested might link back to
the possible homosexuality of the Pardoner himself (McAlpine, 1997).
The Sermon is based on the use of exempla. Here we see the rhetorical
flourishes of the Pardoner in all their glory. Although clergymen were not
encouraged to develop rhetorical skills, the Pardoner is a fine orator and uses
this along with exempla drawn from the Bible and History to win over an
The Pardoner’s descriptive skill is shown in the sequence describing the drunk:
lines 265-273. He uses onomatopoeia to engage the senses with “Sampsoun,
Sampsoun” being used to mimic snoring (as well as engaging with the fate of
the Biblical character); he uses further sensory description to focus on the
“sour” breath of the drunk and again uses a simile likening the drunk to a stuck
pig to describe the drunken collapse. He is a clever enough speaker to link all
these ideas with local colour since in his development he is able to refer to the
great markets of Medieval London in Cheapside and to the idea that Attila the
Hun was only brought down by drunkenness. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
Another rhetorical device is that of exempla, and students should list each
exemplum used and note the purpose of each reference.
His exempla are largely from the Bible and more often the old rather than the
New Testament. He implies great knowledge for himself and relies and
relative ignorance eon his listeners, however. The story of Lot in the bible says
nothing about his being drunk, for example. The eating of the apple becomes
gluttony and he quotes a minor St. Paul on this same sin. His exempla serve as
allusions rather than direct textual analysis of the sacred texts and as such
raise his status in the eyes of any audience of lesser intellectuals than himself.
This is best shown in the discussion of swearing where he sues the order of the
Commandments themselves to justify swearing being a greater sin than
Heightened language, in particular apostrophe, dominates much of the
sermon. Lines 212-4 see the triplet of lines opening “O” as he cries out to his
listeners. In Line 248 this becomes the glorious triplet “O wombe, O bely, O
stinking cod!” as he again implores his audience to listen. The imagery is now
replete with sensory revulsion as surely as when the host offers to “kysse thin
olde breech” (Tale 662) which are shit stained and filthy. Students should
remember that it is Chaucer, rather than his creation, who is writing this tale.
The Tale is not really introduced until line 375. Our anticipation has been
heightened by the sermon and we are ready for what is a straightforward
allegorical tale about the sins discussed at some length. The tale is dominated
in the telling by Chaucer’s use of dialogue, serving to give character to the
types he produces. There is little or no authorial comment here, whether by
Chaucer or by the fictional storyteller.
The Pardoner’s voice is established in his sermon and now he moves his story
briskly, allowing characters to be differentiated by their speech – the boy is
innocent in contrast to the rough “Riotoures” who are again contrasted in the
language of the old man who greets them “ful mekely”. There is a brutal
energy to much of the rioters’ speech and this sense elf characters speaking
directly to the audience is an important factor when seeking to engage. Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The imagery of the sermon and tale is not used for comic effect but has the
effect of heightening the potential Gothic elements of the writing. It serves to
increase the sense of decay and rot which pervades much of the tale and will
later be seized upon by 18th and 19th century writers. Much of this is best seen
in the sermon and the exaggerated care to portray the grossness of Gluttony
(Tale 238ff). All here is distended and stinking and even the cooks “stamp”
“grind” and “knock” their food into submission.
In the tale proper the imagery is subtler – the old oak lies up a “croked wey”
(Tale 475) suggestive of the path chosen by sinners. Death is all around and
treated with a degree of informality – “privee thief” and “false traytour” serve
to reduce the figure to something manageable. That he is the ultimate victor
serves to highlight the fact that the young men are seeking to move well
beyond their boundaries in their action.
Chaucer uses metaphor widely and to good effect. Some examples are listed
above, and students should look for this use and list the effect of the choice of
language. Again the Gothic obsession with corruption is perhaps prefigured in
the references to Christ’s body being ripped apart by oaths…
One technique employed widely is Irony.
The Pardoner is asked for a moral tale, but is himself deeply immoral and
proud of the fact. This does not render him a bad teacher, but should alert us
to the layers of irony that Chaucer employs in telling this tale. Since radix
malorum est cupiditas, the Pardoner is portrayed ironically when he declares
that his “entente is nat but for to wynne” (tale 118). This ironic structure helps
to link the sermon to the tale proper and thus ensure that the audience remain
truly engaged with the moral purpose of the telling.
In lines 141-5 he is clear that he sees this irony himself and seems to
revel in his underhand nature. Irony in the tale can be found in the oath
sworn by the revellers – one of Chaucer’s “fals swering” which is the
most serious form of the sin (Tale 346)- which is immediately broken
once money has appeared (and is even referred to as a reason for the
two to gang up on the youngest!).
The revellers are enraged by death, yet, ironically, this rage immediately
dissipates when the encounter money.Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
The Old Man points out a “croked wey” that will lead to an encounter
with death. The greed of the revellers enables them to forget the clear
warning about following the sinner’s path.
The revellers want to live long and well and seek death to obtain this
wish. The old man points out their death whilst at the same time
mourning his own inability to die.
A further irony might be seen in the Conclusion of the tale. Here, after a swift
denouement, the Pardoner begins to forget himself and tries to sell to the
company. He singles out Harry Bailey, the host, as one who is in greatest need
of pardons. Bailey attacks him savagely threatening to cut off his testicles to
create a new relic. It is ironic that having delivered the precise moral tale
required, the pardoner falls foul of his own arrogance and vanity in this way.
The tale has ended swiftly because Chaucer has no need to develop the deaths
in any way. These allegorical “types” have no family to mourn them or any life
beyond that pictured. The message is the death that comes to them and the
punishment for their sins. They are not characters in the modern sense and
should not be viewed as such.
ELEMENTS OF THE GOTHIC
Handle with care! This year (2012) questions in section B that might have been
used by students who had read this text in particular were:
“Gothic writing warns of the dangers of aspiring beyond our limitations.”
How far does your reading of gothic writing support this view?
“How do you respond to the idea that gothic villains make evil seem
The obsession question, whilst interesting, might also have been approached,
though possibly through the Pardoner’s obsession with the sins he preaches
against – a tricky ask. However there is enough here to put together ideas for
the other two questions. Certainly the aspiration to kill death seems to be an
apt aspiration, as might be the willingness to kill to obtain financial reward. In
the other question, students might feel that the revellers are rarely attractive, Jonathan Peel SGS 2012
but what of the Pardoner himself? There is a genuine attraction in the
dynamic and convincing clergyman which will eventually develop into The
Monk (a Gothic novel by Matthew Gregory Lewis published in 1796). What we
see is a man who uses rhetoric and fear to raise money and ensure some form
of sexual satisfaction. His heavy use of irony can be seen as humour as he wins
over his audience, and only his ill-judged attack on Bailey causes his story to
fail. No other pilgrim seems offended. There is certainly room for discussion
Part A (2012) offered: “A sinister exploitation of people’s fears for his own
To what extent do you agree with this view of the Pardoner’s methods?
Here the need might be to focus on “sinister” and to analyse the tale as a piece
of writing. There is little need to introduce the “Gothic” as such, beyond
reference in terms of imagery or mention of the idea of the perverted
clergyman as being an element of many Gothic tales – this is a precursor to
that tradition and interesting, but the response requires a focused discussion
of the ideas enshrined in the question itself.
This should have given a brief overview of ideas and content as not intended as
finite in any way. Enjoy reading the text and be sure to explore widely on your
Chaucer ed: Croft. (2006). The Pardoner’s Tale. Oxford: OUP.
Dinshaw, C. (1997). Eunuch Hermeneutics. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer: New Casebooks (pp. 108-125).
McAlpine, M. (1997). The Pardoner’s homosexuality and how it matters. In A. a. Axiotis, Chaucer:
New casebook (pp. 36-50). Macmillan.