The Canterbury Tales: "The Pardoner’s Tale" and Death
Death is often a subject in the works of many great authors. Some personify it and address it directly, others use it as a symbol of endings or the macabre, and still others use it as a general theme throughout. Regardless of how it is used, death is a common subject. Chaucer uses this subject, as well, but skillfully weaves all three characteristics together in one short story. In “The Pardoner’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pardoner portrays death as a character, symbolism, and a theme to support his sermons about sin.
Death is used as a theme throughout “The Pardoner’s Tale.” From the beginning, death is introduced when a funeral procession carrying a corpse goes by outside the tavern. The three rioters wonder who it is, and one asks a servant, “What cors is this that passeth heer forby” (668). The boy lets them know it is the body of one of their friends, slain by Death (672-677). The sudden death of the friend shows how even a man living high on life can die suddenly. Even an entire village can be wiped out as referenced in lines 686 through 688. No one is safe from eventually dying. A further reference to death in the story is from the old man the rioters come upon while searching. He wants to die, and dramatically claims he knocks on the earth, praying, “Leeve Mooder! Leet me in!” (731), but he still lives on despite his old age. The three young men continue on, and eventually succumb to death as well. From the corpse being carried by, to the final death of the three rioters, it is obvious that death eventually comes to all. Through the Pardoner’s sermons, it seems he feels this statement is true due to the sins man allows himself to live.
The Pardoner interrupts his story with a sermon on the vices of gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and swearing. In each, he continues the theme of death by alluding to it in regards to each sin. Gluttony is a sin of over indulgence, where the Pardoner focuses on gluttony of food. The stomach and meat are referenced in the sermon, supposedly in a quote of the apostle Paul: “‘Mete unto wombe and wombe eek unto mete:/God destroyen bothe,'” (522-523) stressing that both the stomach and meat are destroyed by God. Even before they are destroyed this way, “he that haunteth swiche delices/Is deed whil that he lyveth in tho vices,” (547-548) meaning those that go to excess might as well be dead as long as they live that way. Connections to death are also made regarding drunkenness as the Pardoner tells about Attila the Hun and his death, saying he was found “Deyde in his sleepe with shame and dishonour,/Bledynge ay at his nose in dronkenesse” (579-580), so his excess of drinking led to his death. The references to death in regards to gambling and swearing are less intense, but still present by alluding to gambling being the “verray mooder” of several sins including manslaughter (591-593), and claims that “homycide” (657) is a “fruyt” (656) of swearing and false oaths. All these are warnings told by the Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales to his traveling campanions, supported by the actions of the young men in the story.
Just as the Pardoner warns of death in connection to these sins, the young men are warned repeatedly of the consequences of their actions in searching out Death. The barman tells them Death “in this contree al the peple sleeth” (676), letting them know that every killing is attributed to Death. No one in the country is excepted. The barman goes on to tell them he feels “it were necessarie/For to bewar of swich an adversarie” (681-682) and that “to been avysed greet wysdom it were,/Er that [Deeth] dide a man a dishonour” (690-691). All this is meant to encourage the rioters to be careful since Death can come to anyone, at any time, for Death is the greatest adversary and thief in all existence. This warning did not affect them, and they rode out. When they encounter the old man on the road and pester him to tell them where to find Death, he also warns them by beseeching, “God save yow” (766); he knows that since they have decided to find Death, only God can save them. Throughout this theme, Chaucer uses death also as symbolism in many ways.
Death is the end to all life, and the symbolism of death in “The Pardoner’s Tale” represents endings, as well. Death symbolizes a fear of an early death which all people share. The servant questioned about the corpse says he was taught by his mother to “beth redy for to meete hym everemoore” (683), because one must always be prepared for death since it can come at any time. The corpse is a strong reminder of that and a direct symbol of unexpected death as he was “yslayn [that nyght]./For dronke as he sat on his bench upright” (673-674), dead while partying that very night, in the prime of life. His life and his drinking end by Death. Just as death ended his life, it is also a strong symbol for the end to the men’s rioting. They leave the tavern to search out Death, just as many people will end their sinful habits when they know death will be coming soon. The difference here is the rioters are actually searching Death out instead of waiting. They end their search when they find the gold, “No lenger thanne after Deeth they soughte” (772), and forget their oath as their greed takes over. Not only does the end of their search represent the death of their oath, but they also find their own death once they end their search: “Thus ended been thise homycides two/And eek the false empoysonere also” (893-894). Death is truly a symbol of endings. Other than death being a symbol itself, there are several elements in the story that symbolize death, as well.
Objects or actions can be symbols of death, either in their significance to it or in their meanings. One direct symbol of death is the gold the rioters find under the oak tree. Not only does the old man tell them specifically they would find Death under that tree (765), but it also symbolizes greed, which the Pardoner expresses is the mother of manslaughter in his sermon on gambling, which can be considered an extension on greed for money or gold. Through this, the money is a symbol of the deaths soon coming to the three young men. The methods of death are also symbols for the sins they commit. One dies by the other two betraying and murdering him for the gold. This death is very appropriate as all three make an oath, “ech of us bicomen otheres brother” (698), to become brothers in their search for Death. When he decides to poison them so he can take all the gold for himself, he betrays his comrades. Satan considers this permission to toy with the man and make him suffer, “the feend foond hym in swich lyvynge/That he hadde leve hym to sorwe brynge” (847-848). Since he betrays in his life, he is killed by betrayal. The symbolism in the deaths of the other two is a different kind, explained by the Pardoner during his lecture on drunkenness, “For dronkenesse is verray sepulture” (558), meaning drunkenness is the true tomb. In the sermon, it is considered the true tomb of man’s wit and discretion, but in the case of the two murderers, it becomes the cause of their death. They drink the win the first had poisoned to kill them and are thus killed by their love of wine. All three of these are symbols of death by being sins that cause death in spirit in the church’s teachings, and death in body for the characters in the story. In clearly connecting the sins to death in his story, the Pardoner turns his tale into a parable encompassing all the sins he views as the most dangerous and least loved by God. Having such a strong example or symbol of how the sins and death are connected strengthens his claims in his sermons. The last symbol of death in “The Pardoner’s Tale” is the old man himself.
The old man the rioters come by in the story is a direct personification of death. He tells the young men, “I knokke with my staf bothe erly and late” (730), describing how death is everywhere at all times. He never rests, day or night. He also says, “moot I han myn age stille,/as longe tyme as it is Goddes will” (725-726), explaining that he must keep his old age for as long as it is God’s will for him to do so. Death is not in control of his own time, but merely continues on as God decrees for all time. He gives veiled references to the underworld when he claims the earth is his “moodres gate” (729). Someone doing the will of the underworld would claim the earth as his mother’s door, which is opened up when a grave is dug to bury the dead. He even threatens the young men, suggesting they might not live as long as he has with a reference of, “if that ye so longe abyde” (747). After telling about himself, he begs leave to go about his way, claiming, “I moot go thider as I have to go” (749), because regardless of what is going on, he must go where he must go to do God’s will. His speech isn’t lost completely on the young men, because they consider him connected with Death. They claim he is his spy (755) and say, “thou art oon of his assent/To sleen us yonge folk” (758-759), accusing him of being in league with Death to kill the young. The barman and servant boy had warned them that Death was a very powerful thief of lives, but they don’t listen to such warnings, and so fail to recognize the entreaty for God to save them as a warning.
In the story, death is personified as a “privee theef men clepeth Deeth” (675), known to all as a powerful and sneaky thief of lives. The barman explains to the rioters that Death is powerful enough to claim an entire town, “Bothe man and womman, child and hyne and page” (688), but the young men refuse to listen. They set out to confront Death personally, thinking to avenge their friend and the townsfolk. They make the combined oath, “we wol sleen this false traytour, Deeth!” (699), and travel to find and kill Death. If they had been told simply that their friend had died of a heart attack, instead of being killed by a sneaky thief with a spear, they would not have set out to destroy such an all powerful thief. However, personifying death into a thief called Death that steals all lives in the country gives the rioters something to pursue in their drunken state. This personification and the resulting search, gives a more solid feeling to the concept of death. When a fact is ethereal in nature, many will dismiss it as though it is as inconsequential as it is insubstantial. In characterizing death as a real character, the Pardoner is making the subject substantial and more of a real threat to his companions. More people will prepare their lives and homes for thieves than for death. Making the two one and the same forces the companions to consider the consequences of ignoring death and the possibility of the end of their lives.
By portraying death as a theme, symbolism, and as a flesh and blood character, the Pardoner strengthens his arguments made in his sermons on sin and encourages his companions to consider preparations for death and avoidance of sin more carefully. His connections in the story back up his lectures. His reasoning for this is made apparent, if they weren’t already, when he ends his story and encourages the other pilgrims to come to him to pardon their sins “for a grote” (945), or for a groat which was a fourpenny coin. He reminds them that at any moment, any one of them might fall off his or her horse and break his or her neck. With that in mind, he tells them it is a good thing he is among them since he has his relics they may kiss for blessings, and pardons signed by the Pope himself (920-922). Having just told them a story about death and the sins that could lead to death, especially greed, he asks they open their purses to absolve themselves of sin through his pardons so they may die, if they die while on the pilgrimage, with a clean soul and a clear conscience. The host does not buy in to the Pardoner’s trick, but tells him he will help him carry his relics so can “be shryned in an hogges toord” (955). Though it is an appropriate response to the Pardoner’s attempt at selling his admittedly fake artifacts, it does not give appropriate tribute to the extent of finesse shown in the tale.