The introduction of Death

Death imagery is introduced with the tolling of the hearse bell as a recent corpse is borne to the grave. This simple bell highlights the sombre reality that people in the Middle Ages knew well after successive waves of plague – death was never far away.

A figure of menace

In the section l.376-422, Death is personified as:

  • A murderer – the rioters' friend was ‘y-slayn' as Death's ‘spere' ‘smoot his herte atwo' (l.389)
  • A ‘theef' who steals young lives
  • Sly and silent l.390
  • A fearsome adversary for whom one should be ready at all times l.394-5
  • A ‘false traytour' who betrays the apparent permanence of youth and vigour (l.411)

He is a figure of menace whom the rioters want to kill for their own security.

Natural death

To the young men, death can never be welcome. The reverse is true for the Old Man who actively seeks an end to his life. The imagery here aligns death with the natural processes of Mother Nature, where what is shrivelled and decayed (as the Old Man describes himself) is able to be laid to rest in the earth. The man presents this as an act of ‘grace' (l.449). Yet Death has refused to take the man's life and Mother Nature has barred him from returning to the earth. (The idea of humankind being made from the earth and returning to it at death comes from the earliest chapters of the BibleGenesis3:19.)

Death's victory

Ultimately, The Tale demonstrates that Death cannot be ‘slayn' by humans. Despite the threats of vengeance by the youths, Death is subject only to ‘Goddes wille' (l.438). The young men end up as ‘slayn' (l.593) or ‘empoison[ed]'.

The youths' ends are the ones that they themselves plotted and therefore reviled by the Pardoner as the most wicked of sinful actions. The Pardoner's apostrophes at the end of his story start by deploring ‘traitours homicide' as the sin damned above all others (l.608).

However, the way that The Tale has been presented makes it appear that the rioters have actually been Death's unwitting agents, like puppets who have moved to another's bidding. Death has had his way and humans should be warned.

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