ENGL 330 / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales VII:
The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale (PT)
[page numbers in NA refer to 8th ed., 2006]

You are responsible for the following Middle English passages: PT 30-174 (from the Introduction and Prologue); PT 175-199, 210-224, 259-271, 301-314, 341-359, 373-390, 404-600, 616-630 (from the Tale); PT 631-667 (from the Epilogue).  (Click here for instructions on preparing an ENGL 330 ORAL PRESENTATION.)

Don't forget to look for and NOTE references to gentilesse (gentil) and trouthe (trewe) as you read.

Review the depiction of the Pardoner within the General Prologue. Why does Chaucer provide the Pardoner with such a long individual prologue, a literary confession comparable only to that of the Wife of Bath? How does the Pardoner's individual prologue add to our understanding of the Pardoner in particular or of Chaucer's attitudes toward the Church in general? How are we meant to react to him and to his candor?

While some critics view the Pardoner as "the only lost soul on the Pilgrimage," others argue that he is in fact better than many of his fellow travellers because he is not a hypocrite -- at least in so far as he freely acknowledges his own avarice and is quite blunt about his lack of religious faith. Which assessment do you find more convincing? Be sure to find specific statements to back up your position. (You may want to consider the General Prologue portrait and the Epilogue to the Pardoner's Tale as well as the Pardoner's Introduction, Prologue and Tale.)

Note that the Tale as a whole is presented as the sort of sermon the Pardoner uses to convince naïve church-goers to part with their hard-earned money and material wealth. He begins by preaching against what one might call the "tavern vices" -- lechery, gluttony, gambling and drinking (note that he himself is initially more interested in eating and drinking than in telling his tale, and that the other pilgrims suspect he will tell a tale of "ribaldry" -- i.e. lecherous behavior -- see PT 30-40, 168). After this initial "sermon," he moves in for the kill, offering the story of the three "rioters" -- i.e. young men who are also guilty of the "tavern" vices (note that we first encounter them within a tavern) -- as an exemplum, a short narrative offered as an example illustrating the main theme of a sermon (see PT 147-149). This theme is summarized in the Latin phrase "Radix malorum est cupiditas" (the root of all evil is greed). Note the Pardoner's various statements concerning greed (including repeated use of the Latin phrase). Since he is quite blunt about the fact that he himself is motivated by greed, what do we make of a) his candor and b) his message?

Consider the implications of the exemplum, the story of three revellers who meet death under a tree. What is the function of the mysterious old man whom they encounter? Who/what might he represent? Are his words true? What causes the "rioters" to destroy one another? What is the implication about the cause of their death, and how is it connected to the Pardoner's favorite theme?

The Pardoner himself contends that the validity of his message is not affected by the hypocrisy of the messenger (PT 171-173). Do you agree? What is implied about the trustworthiness of language, or its potential to be turned to evil purposes? What are the implications for storytelling in general? If language can be used to deceive as well as to enlighten and delight (recall the criteria on which the pilgrims' stories are to be judged: "best sentence and most solas," GP 800), what are the implications for those who engage in story-telling? Are certain responsibilities implied for those who choose language as their craft? Or is the implication that writers don't have any particular responsibility toward their audience, since the words themselves are "guiltless" regardless of the use to which they are put? Could the Pardoner be seen as a cautionary example meant to remind a poet such as Chaucer of the ways in which skill at story-telling can be misused?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2007 

Click here to review Chaucer's poems "Gentilesse" and "Truth"

Click here for Background to the Canterbury Tales

Click here for Study Questions for the General Prologue

Click here for Study Questions for the Knight's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Miller's Tale

Click here for the ENGL 252 guide to The Miller's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Franklin's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Nun's Priest's Tale

Click here for Instructions on Preparing the ENGL 330 ORAL PRESENTATION

Return to ENGL 330 homepage
Return to ENGL 512 homepage
Return to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching Page
Return to Dr. Schwartz's homepage
Send me mail!