The Pardoner's Tale l.210-300: Gluttony and drunkenness

Synopsis of l.210-300

This is a famous rhetorical ‘riff' on the theme of gluttony, an extravaganza of the writer's art. This section brilliantly segues from one sort of virtuoso rhetorical writing (e.g. apostrophe) to others. It interweaves a wealth of ideas about what gluttony means, what it does to people, and how it links with other sins and follies.

Commentary on l.210-300

l.210-23 Gluttony and the Fall of Man

l.210-13 Chaucer announces the shift in topic with a bravura piece of rhetoric: a multiple invocation to gluttony, each line containing a device often called apostrophe (nothing to do with the punctuation mark):

  • This is addressed to a person, god, or personification, often beginning ‘0'.
  • All three lines also announce gluttony to be part of humanity's first sin in the Garden of Eden.

l.210 cursedness: ‘to be cursed' often means ‘to be damned' or ‘condemned'. Gluttony — eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil—led to all humanity being potentially damned.

  • In using this word, Chaucer is cleverly picking up the cluster of ideas connected with swearing too.

l.211 cause first: original sin. According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the Fall of humankind came about through their desire to eat theTree of Knowledge fruit (traditionally believed to have been an apple) of the Tree of Knowledge, seen here as a sin of gluttony.

  • Of course, gluttony was only part of the sin: it is being used here to stand rhetorically for Adam's other sins of pride and disobedience against God too.

        confusion: tends to mean ‘fall', ‘disaster' at this period. Adam and Eve's descent into sin is called the Fall of Humankind.

l.212 original: origin. Eating the ‘apple' represented disobedience to God on Adam and Eve's part. This was the first sin but also the ‘origin' of that ‘original sin' (an inborn tendency to sin) that meant that all humans were deserving of punishment when facing the judgement of God.

The text moves on to develop the theme of Adam and Eve and the effects of eating the forbidden apple.

l.213 boght us with his blood again: ‘bought us back [‘again'] with his blood (i.e. referring to the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on a cross, which Christians believe ‘paid for' the punishment their sin deserved). Redemption, which is a term that sums up what Christ achieved by his death, is from Latin and means ‘buying back'
        again: relates to the idea that humans belonged to God in the first place (because according to the Bible he made them and gave them life) and now he has ‘paid' for them once more.

l.214-15 how deere … aboght: the idea works on two levels:

  • How costly (to Christ) was the price paid to rescue humans from the effects of their sin
  • How dearly humans have continued to pay for the wrong behaviour of Adam and Eve in taking the apple (because humankind is still subject to the effects of the Fall). 

l.215 cursed: ‘damned', because the eating of the apple and the Fall of humankind meant all humanity thereafter had the propensity to sin and thus — unless they repented — incurred the danger of being consigned to hell in the afterlife.
        vileynye: bad behaviour. The word basically meant ‘behaviour like a serf' — a villein in Middle English (from which we get the idea of villain) 

l.216 Corrupt is a past participle here, not an adjective, so it means ‘corrupted'.

l.217-23 The punishment awarded Adam and Eve for disobeying God included having to:

  • Leave Eden (Paradise)
  • Need to work (labour) to get food, clothes, etc. In medieval art Adam, after the Fall of humankind, is often shown with a spade and Eve with a distaff for spinning
  • Suffer pain and death for the first time (wo and peyne) – for women, this included pain in childbith Genesis 3:16-24

l.219 it is no drede: ‘there's no doubt'. Don't doubt the truth of this, the Pardoner is saying. A common phrase.

l.222 whil: here has the sense ‘as long as'. The Pardoner is cleverly using Scripture for his own ends, claiming that, as long as Adam didn't eat anything, he stayed out of sin – where he went wrong was to be greedy!

  • Of course, it wasn't simply eating food that was wrong, but the fact that Adam and Eve had specifically been told not to eat the fruit from a particular tree, and had therefore been disobedient Genesis 2:16-17
  • However, the medieval idea that Adam committed three sins, disobedience, pride and gluttony goes back to Jerome.

l.222 deffended: forbidden. See Big ideas: Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, ‘Second Adam'

l.224-49 Excessive or over-elaborate food - bad for health and a form of gluttony

  • In the Middle Ages, people firmly believed that medical ills would follow from not being ‘mesurable', i.e. observing moderation (an important medieval moral ideal) in eating and drinking
  • There is excess and absurdity in the rhetorical devices themselves (the contrast in the picture of the whole world being ransacked to bring gourmet pleasures to the tiny throat, for example) and that element of absurdity has a moral function: it vividly suggests how absurd and unnatural sin is.

l.224 Chaucer uses apostrophe again to signal a new section of his examination of gluttony
        Pleyne: ‘lament' rather than ‘complain' at this period.

l.234-5 ‘Meats for the belly and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them', 1 Corinthians 6:13. By citing this, Chaucer cleverly segues from the theme of food to that of death. However, the Pardoner is again using a biblical quotation out of context to serve his own purposes:

  • Paul is quoting against the ‘anything goes' philosophy of some misguided Christian believers who felt God wasn't concerned with what they did with their bodies, as these were only going to decay anyway. But Paul responds by teaching that God is concerned with how people treat their bodies because he created them to be raised after death to an eternal life with him in heaven:

    ‘I have the right to do anything,' you say—but not everything is beneficial… You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.' The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. TNIV 1 Corinthians 6:12-14

l.238 white and rede: red and white wine

l.239 privee: privy, toilet. The metaphor powerfully links a glutton's throat with what goes down the toilet

l.241-5 apostel: Paul, the author of some of the letters in the New Testament addressed to the Early Church, who wrote:

For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. TNIV Philippians 3:18-19.

        of which: ‘of whom' — the enemies of God who make a god of their stomach

l.246 wombe: stomach. The word does not yet refer exclusively to the uterus, but the ‘tummy' or belly in general and particularly the stomach

        stinkyng cod: a stinking bag (the intestines)

l.247 corrupcioun: rottenness

l.248 soun: sound, i.e. burping and farting

l.249 to fynde: ‘to provide for'

l.250-60 A passage attacking gourmet food

Richard IIChaucer is satirising his contemporaries here:

  • The age of Richard II saw gourmet food become increasingly elaborate among the upper classes
  • The rising standard of living meant that middle-class people also enjoyed delicacies more often than in earlier centuries. 

The text paints mocking pictures of aspects of fashionable cuisine. Instead of eating food in its natural state, cookery involves absurd amounts of labour and turns the simple nature of the foodstuff into the appearance of something else 

l.250 A picture, as if we are watching a scene in a kitchen. The cooks are pounding (with pestle and mortar), straining (through sieves) and grinding. These are not just simple cookery methods but those used for elaborately prepared foods. Once again, there's a sense of absurdity. After all this hard work, food ends up as powder, purees, liquids, etc. (like baby food)

l.251 The absurd de-naturing of basic ingredients (to turn them into elaborate delicacies) now produces a witticism based on philosophical ideas:
        substaunce is a philosophical term for the basic / intrinsic nature of something;
        accidents are the more superficial, external attributes, like colour, for example.

        The cooks are thus transforming basic foodstuffs into colours, textures and tastes. 

The sort of changes contemporary cooks made included regularly turning ground almonds into an imitation milk, gilding dishes with real gold, adding many kinds of spices and herbs or making elaborate pastry castles.

 MassThere is also a theological analogy

  • Medieval Christians would regularly attend a service called the Mass (also known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion). During this, a piece of bread and a sip of wine is consumed to signify the sacrifice made by Jesus (his death by crucifixion) which allows believers to be reconciled with God. See Big ideas from the Bible > Last Supper, Eucharist, Communion, Mass
  • The Medieval Church developed the doctrine that although the ‘accidents' (or material properties) of the bread and wine remained unchanged as people consumed them, their intrinsic substance changed into the actual body and blood of Christ, and it was because of this that taking part in the Mass was a way of receiving God's grace

Chaucer's daring analogy is also topical: this view of the Eucharist (called the doctrine of transubstantiation) had been contested by John Wyclif.

l.252 thy: Chaucer rhetorically addresses a gourmet
        Likerous: pleasure-seeking or lecherous: his desire for fancy food resembles lust for sex

Bone marrow, photo by Simon Doggett, available through Creative Commonsl.253-4 Cooks crack open marrow bones to extract the rich and delicious — but tiny — marrow at the heart of the bone

l.255 Chaucer uses the sounds of the words to convey his meaning (the sounds g and o were pronounced at the back of the throat

l.256 The gourmet demands that his sauce shall be composed of herbs (leef), spice barks (like cinnamon) and root (like ginger). Spiced sauces were fashionable and spices were very expensive:

  • The theme of unnaturalness appears again. These spiced delicacies are needed because the gourmet's appetite is jaded. Such artificial food is not serving a simple, natural hunger. 

l.257 delyt: pleasure. The word had a more physical, sensuous feel to it than delight does today, when it is rather an ethereal word. The gourmet's sauce is going to be made, by sensuous pleasure (pleasure seems to be personified, like the cook in charge), to inspire a renewed appetite in him

l.258 The implication is that delicacies are designed in order to tempt already 

l.259-60 Being absorbed by the evils of gluttony is equivalent to being dead: dead to the life of the spirit, and potentially losing the chance of eternal life. There's an echo here of the Bible 1 Timothy 5:6: ‘But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.'
        Whil probably has the sense ‘during', common at the period and now

261-84 Drunkenness: destroying people's rationality and killer of the mind 

l.262 stryvyng: fighting: drunkenness is ‘lecherous' and also leads to aggression 

l.263 disfigured: changed from what it usually looks like, de-natured. This seems an accurate description of effects of binge drinking, but to the medieval mind was a far more profound sin:

  • In the Middle Ages, Nature was believed to be the servant of God the Creator, carrying out his ordered plan for the created world. To disorder this process due to drunkenness was to go against God's plan
  • Medieval philosophy placed reason as the highest power of a human being, part of the soul, while emotion and senses were lower. Drunkenness took away the powers of reason and therefore reduced the stature of God's Creation
  • Moreover, according to Genesis 1:26-27, God made humanity in his own image (which included giving humanity reason). Thus the ‘disfiguring' effects of drink were destroying the image of God.

l.266-7 Sampsoun: Chaucer uses the name to imitate what a very drunk person sounds like, panting and breathing through the nose. Samson was an Old Testament Israelite leader who was famous for having taken a vow to abstain from alcohol Judges 13:5, Numbers 6:2-3:

  • Chaucer's hearers would recall that Samson was also well known for meeting a terrible death, when his lover, Delilah, betrayed him into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the name hints at the connection between drunkenness and death
  • This reference introduces another passage on the themes of drunkenness and abstinence.

l.268 stiked swyn: a slaughtered pig; after having its throat cut, the pig staggers and falls. When the seven deadly sins were represented as animals, gluttony was symbolised as a pig

l.269 honeste cure: care / concern for honour. A drunk becomes irresponsible about his own honesty, which at this period usually meant ‘honour' or ‘respectability' 

l.270-1 verray sepulture: ‘indeed the grave'. A statement that pithily sums up a theme that keeps recurring: sins reduce a person to a state that is a kind of death – here, the death of the intelligence (wit) through drunkenness

l.276 Fisshestrete, Chepe: the main shopping streets of the City of London: Fish Hill Street and Cheapside.

l.275-84 Lepe: wine-growing area of Spain (Chaucer's father was a London wine merchant). Wine merchants mixed the cheaper Spanish wine with French ones

l.279 fumosite: ‘fumes'. It was believed that fumes from an alcoholic drink rose from the stomach to the brain and addled it. Once a man had had three glasses of the Spanish white, he's mentally miles away: in Spain

l.283 Rochele, Burdeux: the main places from which French wines were imported into England (La Rochelle and Bordeaux). The joke here (it's an obscure joke—it must have seemed funnier at the time) involves cheaper wine from Lepe being mixed with expensive French types. Drinkers might think what they've paid for is the dearer French wine but what's transporting them, in an alcoholic haze, is the cheaper Spanish (which the barman has substituted, while charging for the French)

285-300 Examples supporting the teaching that leaders should be abstemious

Here, the Pardoner uses two typically medieval methods of supporting an argument: 

  • Citing the Bible
  • Citing authoritative ‘examples'.

l.285 But herkneth … yow praye: After perhaps over-relishing his account of drunkenness, the Pardoner seems to realise that the gentils in his audience are restive and he needs to capture their attention again by citing the Bible 

Attilal.285-9 According to the Pardoner, the entire history of victory for God's people was due to their prayer and abstemious behaviour – this is another specious claim!

l.291 Attilla: famous fifth-century king of the Huns and a fearsome warrior. He was known to have died after drinking too much

l.296 Lamuel: Proverbs 31:4-5 advises King Lemuel that kings should not drink in case they forget to administer justice (which draws on the faculty of reason)

l.299 hem: them (the usual form in Chaucer's London English; ‘them' was the Northern form at this period)
        that han justice: who have responsibilities for administering the law


Investigating The Pardoner's Tale l.210-300

  • Collect together words which convey the physical and disgusting aspects of various sins:
    • What effect do these words have on the reader / a listening audience?
  • How might the metaphor linking a glutton's throat with what goes down the toilet work as a persuasive item of rhetoric? 
  • What do you make of the sounds in l.255? 
    • Bear in mind that the sounds g and o were pronounced at the back of the throat.
  • Create a mind-map or table showing how Chaucer's writing connects food, drink and death:
    • How powerfully does this association come across?
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