The Pardoner's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

The tale the Pardoner tells has it all: drunken idiots, murder, death, lots of gold, and divine justice. In trying to get all the gold for themselves, the characters in his story manage to lose everything.

The Pardoner's Tale

Have you ever wished divine justice (or karma) upon someone who has done you wrong? What about several someones? In The Pardoner's Tale, a few evil young men set out to find death and get what's coming to them. This lesson will focus on the Prologue and Summary of The Pardoner's Tale.

The unfinished Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a collection of stories told by pilgrims on their way to visit Canterbury in England. Before the Pardoner begins telling his tale the Physician tells his, and his sad story leaves Harry Bailey, the host of the inn where the pilgrims first met, so upset that he asks the group for a happier one. The Pardoner agrees to tell the next tale, which he promises will be happier and will have a moral to it.

The stories are told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury
The stories are told by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury.

The Pardoner's Prologue

To begin with, the Pardoner tells the other pilgrims about what he does for a living. He's a church official who travels the countryside, selling pardons (pieces of paper blessed by the pope that were used to pardon sins) and showing off fake relics. He tells the other pilgrims up-front that what he cares about is money, not saving the souls of those he preaches to.

He tells the others that he uses stories with morals to cheat people out of their money. The theme of this story and all his stories, says the Pardoner, is greed.

Summary: The Flemish Rioters

Three Flemish rioters (really not at all gentlemen, as you'll see) have just finished up a long night of drinking. This is all they ever really do, drink and gamble. Here there is a long rant by the Pardoner about the evils of money, greed, drunkenness, and gambling.

The rioters' story takes place during the time of the Black Plague, and they're still in the tavern in the morning when they see a funeral procession go by. They ask who has died, and a man in the tavern tells them it was one of their friends. When they ask who killed him, they learn from the bartender that it was Death. The men, enraged, say they will go after Death and kill him. They vow that they will love each other like brothers. The barkeep tells them that Death is in a nearby village, so the men set off.

The Search for Death

After they've traveled for a while, the three rioters find an old man near a river. They demand to know how he's gotten so old, while their friend died so young. He says he longs to die, but Death won't take him. The three drunkards think that the man must be Death's assistant or spy, and threaten him.

The man tells them that they are being rude, but he does tell them that Death is under a tree in a nearby orchard.

The men run to the orchard. They look under the tree and find bushels of gold coins. Instantly, their greed takes over and they forget all about finding Death. Now they want to figure out how they can keep all the gold. They know if they try to move it now, it will look suspicious, so they decide to wait until nighttime to move it. In the meantime they need something to eat - and some more alcohol, of course.

They draw lots to see who will head to the nearby village to get provisions. The youngest rioter draws the short straw, so he walks off to town.

Death Finds the Rioters

As soon as he is out of sight, the other two begin talking about how it would be great to have to split all this money only two ways instead of three. They decide to kill the youngest rioter as soon as he returns to them.

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