The Pardoner's Tale l.373-422: The rioters hear of death

Synopsis of l.373-422: The rioters hear of death

Three young men drinking early in the day hear a funeral bell tolling. A young lad tells them that the victim is an old friend of theirs, killed (while drunk) by Death, who has taken the lives of everyone in a nearby village. Despite warnings by the lad and taverner, the three young men vow to avenge their friend's death by murdering his killer, the ‘thief' Death. Drunk and cursing, they set out to catch him.

Commentary on l.373-422: The rioters hear of death

l.374 prime: six a.m. Medieval monks divided their days and nights according to the regular round of services during each twenty-four hours. Prime was one of the morning services. But these terms were used by everyone to denote times of day:

  • Clearly the ‘ryotoures' (hooligans) are already drinking in the tavern very early, but the reference to the bell for the service also brings in a reminder of the right way of living, honouring God.

l.376 belle: another Christian bell, the bell that was tolled as a corpse was borne to the grave

l.378 knave: boy, a serving boy

l.391 this pestilence: Chaucer's audience would have clear memories of the effect of the plague known as the Black Death, earlier in the century 

l.392-6 On the literal level, the boy's final words are just a practical warning about being prepared to encounter a dangerous thief. Of course, there is a symbolic moral message as well

l.404-19 It is demonstrated at some length that the rioters are stupid. On a realistic level, this is not plausible. However, Chaucer is creating a situation which portrays a moral teaching and human reality, that humans have little idea of what it means to encounter death

l.417-21 Chaucer combines one sin (drunkenness) with another (serious blasphemy).


Investigating l.372-422 

  • Chaucer seeks to create mystery here and writes obliquely (i.e. not directly or literally)
    • Pick out those phrases or elements which demonstrate this
  • What do you feel to be the effect of Chaucer having the boy make the speech about death as a thief (382-396)
  • What message is Chaucer representing symbolically in l.392-6?
  • What useful message is symbolized by the idea of death coming unannounced, like a thief?
  • What effects do you think the taverner's words (l. 397-403) might have on the rioters if they had been more thoughtful? 
  • Once more one sin is combined with others (l.417-21):
    • How do ‘great oaths' relate to the larger theme of death in the tale?
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