The Pardoner's Tale - l.175-194

Overview: The impact of evil

The introductory section of The Pardoner's Tale (and following, down to l.373) is mostly devoted to the typical topics of the Pardoner's sermons, rather than his actual story. Throughout the extravagant rhetoric, the theme of death - in many different senses - runs like a thread. The Pardoner starts a catalogue of sins which result in different forms of death:

  • Either the effect of sin is to attack God, and (in spirit) kill Jesus all over again, as with blasphemous swearing
  • Or sins absorb people into the material world and thus kill their souls (unfitting them for eternal life in heaven)
  • Wrong behaviour is also shown to produce destructive and disordered social consequences and deprive people — especially in the case of drunkenness — of their (God-given) intelligence. 

A virtuous alternative

Underlying this approach to sin is the Christian belief that one's life and talents are a gift from God and therefore have to be used well, not squandered. This ‘stewardship' of human life involves not wasting food, one's intelligence, etc., but using such gifts for good. There is also a typically medieval admiration for a poor and simple lifestyle and for control in human behaviour, as opposed to excess, a lack of self-control and disorder.

Overview: Literary devices used

Chaucer uses a variety of words and verbal structures to help his audience gain an understanding of what he is trying to convey. Particular features include:

  • Examples, especially those invoking the authority of the Bible
  • Apostrophe - a term for the rhetorical device of addressing gods, people or personifications: ‘O glotonye…!' This suddenly brings an air of excitement and drama into a speech
  • Aphorisms - statements couched in a form that makes them come across as universal truths: ‘A capitayn sholde lyve in sobrenesse'
  • Clever use of imagery (metaphors and similes)
  • Direct address to his audience, which wakes us up and commands attention
  • Varying rhythm and rhyme from what is expected, either for surprise or emphasis of an idea.

Story and message

The opening sections of The Tale also illustrate Chaucer's device of interweaving the story with comments that relate to ethical issues. For example, the vices foregrounded in this section - swearing on Christ's body, lechery and gluttony - are presented as linked. This implies that there is a whole sinful way of living, rather than just individual acts of wrongdoing, and this lifestyle is essentially directed towards death, not life.

Synopsis of l.175 – 194

First, the Pardoner introduces his main characters, a gang of three youths, and establishes their immoral behaviour. The concept of the seven deadly sins (or at least some of them) runs through the text, as we are told about the three young men. Their sinful lifestyle will be a springboard for comments about the evils of each sin. For further information, see Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness

Commentary on l.175 – 194

l.175 whilom: once upon a time

l.176 haunteden: originally to inhabit, but can also mean ‘inhabiting' habits: ‘whose habitual lifestyle was folly':

  • The –en ending was an old plural verb ending, already optional in the language of Chaucer's time and destined to die out by the sixteenth century.

l.177 riot: uncontrolled behaviour, excess
        hazard: gambling

  • The Church's disapproval came from the fact that gambling was bad stewardship of the money God might give a person. It also tempted people into other sins as well, some of which were linked to places where gambling happened, for example, drinking in taverns.

Gyternel.177 stywes: brothels

l.178 gyterne: medieval form of guitar 

l.180 over hir might: too much, beyond what they can manage

l.181 devel: it was already common for moralists to call taverns the Devil's temples:

  • The idea Chaucer addresses is that sins please the Devil and illustrate his domination over the people who do wrong. So willfully sinning is like offering sacrifices in honour of the Devil. This strand in the ideas in Chaucer's text is picked up again at 192-3.

l.184 othes: oaths

l.186 totere: tear to pieces:

  • The Middle Ages regularly regarded the Jews as being the killers of Jesus, disregarding the facts that:
    • a) Jesus was Jewish
    • b) Gentiles were also involved in bringing about his death. 

This attitude provoked the virtually automatic anti-semitism of the period.

l.187 Hem thoughte: a verbal construction that means ‘it seemed to them'.

l.189-1 Poor young women employed in street jobs (performing or selling) are regarded as being as good as prostitutes in the eyes of the youths / Pardoner. 
        Tombesteres: female performers, street gymnasts.

l.190 Fetys and small: daintily made (in body) and slender. Small originally meant ‘thin': not little in all respects as it does today
        frutesteres: street fruit sellers

l.191 waferes: street vendors of hot wafers
        Baudes: procurers for prostitutes. Wafer-sellers also had a reputation of putting men in touch with girls


Investigating l.175–194

  • List any emotive words or phrasing that conveys disapproval and horror of the young men's lifestyle.
  • How far are any of their sins presented not just as antisocial, disorderly or wicked, but (to the medieval mind) as anti-God?
  • How does Chaucer's writing bring lechery and gluttony together, even before l.193-4, which states their connection as explicit (and is an aphorism)?
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