Medieval literary conventions and The Pardoner's Prologue

Chaucer's intentions

The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale are intended to be amusing and Chaucer includes vivid exchanges and speeches, as well as a dramatic tale. However, their intention is also serious. The Prologue is a satire, dramatically exposing the accusation that some branches of the Church peddle false relics, play on empty superstitions and use these simply to make money. 


Chaucer, like many other authors in all periods, prefaces many of his tales with prologues. These are introductions of various kinds to the material in the tale. A prologue may take the form of:

  • Information about the background or the source (some of the tales are taken from earlier texts)
  • An elegant passage on a theme relevant to the tale
  • A prayer.

The Pardoner and the Wife of Bath

The Pardoner's Prologue is far longer than the average prologue in The Canterbury Tales. The only other prologue as long is that of the Wife of Bath. Chaucer designs each of these as a sort of confession by a first-person speaker, revealing attitudes and behaviour which is, from several points of view, questionable:

  • The Wife is presented as a woman who is both disobedient to her husbands and prepared to get what she wants out of them financially. This was the opposite of contemporary expectations that wives were obedient and that, during marriage, all the money — hers as well as his — was at the husband's disposal
  • The Pardoner's Prologue exposes his methods of preaching in such a way that he makes people part with their money because they believe in the power of alleged relics which are complete fakes.

Both the Wife and Pardoner represent groups about whom there was much satire in the Middle Ages: women and clerics:

  • Anti-feminist satires often presented women as disobedient, too talkative, rebellious, lustful and prone to evil. Marriage, therefore, was a state which men would do well to avoid!
  • Anticlerical satires (satires against the clergy) often focused on the alleged financial abuses of the Church. 


Satire is mockery that has a moral purpose. It shows up folly and wickedness by wit and caricature. As a literary form, satire is not just comedy and not just an attack on evil or folly. Ever since classical times, it has claimed to have a moral aim. Thus, satire is a didactic form with social and moral purpose.

Anticlerical satire

The Links and The Prologue are typical of a long-established tradition of savage mockery of faults in the contemporary Church. The most common targets are financial abuses. In The Pardoner's Prologue and the second Link, after the tale ends, the target of Chaucer's satire is particularly the sale of ‘pardons' or indulgences. The Prologue also satirises the exploitation, for money, of credulous people's reverence for holy relics (usually of saints, but in this satire, they include a sheep's bone).

The Pardoner's Prologue illustrates real-life evils being attacked and exposed by the creation of fantastically, grotesquely, exaggerated versions of them. For example, no-one would really go as far as trying to palm off a sheep's bone as a miracle-working relic.

A reflection on everyday behaviour

In laughing at these outrageous absurdities, Chaucer's audience also recognises that to pass off superstition as spiritually profound in their own lives is just as illogical. The absurd grotesqueness of the Pardoner becomes a clever pointer to the empty pretence that is corrupting some areas of the Church. Chaucer is exposing the way in which some churchmen encouraged people to put their trust in relics and pardons, instead of in a true repentance for sins and a real resolve to try to live better, spoken of in the Bible. The corruption that is going on is made to seem absurd and grotesque as well as harmful.


Satire often uses irony. A very clear ironical element here is that the Pardoner likes to preach on the theme that ‘money is the root of all evil (Love of)', while himself being motivated entirely by the love of money in his deceptions and exploitations.

A hypocritical narrator

One of the Pardoner's vices is hypocrisy: evil hidden under an appearance of virtue. The Pardoner's Prologue is particularly clever in that it is voiced by the hypocrite himself. The device of using the first-person voice seems to show us inside the evil doer; it is an exposé conducted, as it were, by himself. The effect is to add a wittily captured boastfulness to behaviour that would otherwise be considered shameful. Such first-person exposés by a fictional character are often found in medieval satire and drama, and are part of a literary tradition:

  • The Pardoner's Prologue resembles a speech in the popular thirteenth-century French poem The Romance of the Rose, by a character representing the vice of hypocrisy. The character is called ‘Pope-holiness' (a word meaning ‘hypocrisy') and he describes his various deceptions. Chaucer and many of his audience would therefore be familiar with this sort of self-revealing rogue in literature.

A clever paradox

The paradox within The Pardoner's Prologue is that the character's apparent revelations about his own sins come across as an ironical kind of confession. It's ironical because true confession is the last thing he's encouraging people to do! His scam is one which undermines the Church's system of confession to a priest. Yet Chaucer presents this in a piece of writing that itself sounds confessional (though also, perhaps, boastful).

The tone of the text is quite intriguing. It works best if you don't expect it to be a plausible kind of speech such as a real person might give. Chaucer was living before absolute realism of that kind was considered desirable in literature. His text can take on a number of different tones without difficulty because he—and his audience—are not restrained by the expectations of a later age that all literature does is to mimic how people behave. Thus, the irony of the confessional tone here is possible.


Today we expect authors to create ‘characters' who appear consistent and believable. But a medieval writer can just use a ‘voice' more freely, without necessarily producing a consistent impression. It does not always help to look for motives or a personality behind the voice.

Chaucer's effects in this Prologue are different:

  • Itemising some of the tricks such men play, so that they can be recognised for what they are
  • Making people despise and condemn both such tricks and the greed behind them
  • The device of making such a rogue confess, shamelessly, also has the effect of removing any dignity from such superstitious scams. 

Because Chaucer is not writing in the hyper-realistic style we are used to in the novel, he provides little background detail except what is needed for the plot or which carries significance, including symbolic significance. It was far easier for writers to use characters' speeches and actions to do things such as convey ideas symbolically or satirically. Art did not have to be tied to the shackles of what would be plausible in ordinary life.


Sermons would have been heard every week by Chaucer's church-going audience, and so be a very familiar format. The medieval sermon was central in teaching Christians about:

  • Their faith
  • The Bible
  • Christian doctrines and practices
  • Saints
  • Morality. 

They were of enormous importance in a society in which most people had little or no ability to read and little access to books even if they were literate. In addition, few people knew enough Latin to read the Bible for themselves. 

Sermons aroused interest and good preachers were appreciated, both for their skills in presentation and for the content of what they taught. A sermon from a lively or controversial preacher would be a popular, thought-provoking occasion. Sermons were preached on many topics but always took their starting point from what is called the ‘text' or ‘theme', in the form of a short statement from the Bible.

The text of the Pardoner's sermon

The Pardoner's favourite theme — the text he always used at the start of his own sermons - was ‘money is the root of all evil (love of)'. This comes from Paul's letter to a younger Christian leader, Timothy, in the New Testament 1 Timothy 6:10.

  • Like many aspects of Chaucer's text, this theme is itself ironic. The preacher who preaches only because of his desire for money, always preaches on the text that ‘The love of money is the root of all evil'! The Pardoner uses his sermons in order to gain the money that he himself so wickedly lusts after
  • In lines 426-31, the Pardoner says that in his sermons he goes on to preach against the sin of avarice, utterly aware that this is the very sin he commits himself 
  • Ironically, although his aim is selfish gain (covetousness), the Pardoner can actually lead others to repent of their own avarice i.e. he accidentally fulfils the priest's usual aim in preaching on these themes. 

Typical sermon elements in The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

Chaucer uses familiar aspects of contemporary sermons:

  • Medieval preachers often included stories in their sermons, to illustrate points. The Pardoner's Tale could be seen as a very long and elaborate version of the kind of story often included in a sermon
  • These stories were called exempla. The word means ‘examples' and has this specialised meaning (tales illustrating moral points) when used about sermon stories. The singular form is exemplum
  • The Pardoner's Prologue includes the statement that his practice is to include ‘ensamples many oon' — many an exemplum — and says this is because uneducated people love ‘tales olde' (437). 

The Pardoner's Tale is like an exemplum, though much longer than the real ones were. It is a highly elaborate version of the sort of story that sermons used as illustrations of Christian truths. Here, it is teaching about the spiritual and moral dangers of avarice, conveying moral lessons in an amusing way. It is a fable-like illustration of:

  • The idea that love of money is the root of all evil (here, causing triple murder)
  • The wider truth that being absorbed in materialism as an attitude to life is actually a form of death.
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