The Pardoner's Tale l.423-479: The rioters meet an Old Man

Synopsis of l. 423-479

The three youths encounter an Old Man whose advanced years they jeer at. The Old Man replies that he doesn't choose to be old and advises them that they should respect the elderly. He makes to leave but one rioter – here called a ‘hasardour' or gambler – roughly detains him, accusing him of being Death's spy, seeking out young folk for Death to kill. He threatens the Old Man (with further blasphemy), demanding to know where Death may be found. The Old Man then gives them directions.

Commentary on l.423-479

l.429 carl: bloke, mate. A slang word
        With sorry grace ‘bad luck!'

l.430 artow forwrapped save: are you (art thou) completely wrapped up except for…

l.435-50 The Old Man's speech is full of mysteries:

  • He has tried unsuccessfully to find a young man who will swap his youth for the Old Man's years 
  • Death has refused to take the man's life
  • 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). 

Chaucer is not directly teaching but inviting the reader to puzzle out individually what truths about life, death, and wise attitudes to them, might be contained here

l.434 Ynde: India. The suggestion is something like ‘nowhere on the face of the earth':

  • Authors have ways of signalling to readers that something beyond the literal is being presented, inviting us to adjust the level at which we are reading. Here the scene becomes one full of mysterious and presumably symbolic details which are open to interpretation
  • Chaucer's audience may well have remembered being taught the following verse from the last book of the Bible, Revelation 9:6:
    ‘And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.'

l.437 moot I han: must I have (i.e. keep)

l.438 Goddes wille: Chaucer reminds his audience that human decisions about when life should end stand in opposition to the Christian belief in God's jurisdiction over life and death

l.440 kaitif: wretch

l.444 vanysshe he is dwindling away, his flesh shrinking with age

l.446 cheste: a chest full of clothes and valuables in his private room (chamber). The Old Man wants to swap his material wealth for a shroud – it is of no value

  • Once again, the themes of death and money come together. 

l.448 heyre clout: a cloth made of horsehair:

  • This would have been very scratchy and therefore horsehair underwear was sometimes worn by people who wanted to ignore or humble their fleshly desires (as did Thomas Becket). The aim of this was to concentrate on the soul rather than the body's needs and earthly pleasures 
  • Here, the cloth mentioned is clearly also envisaged as a winding sheet for a dead body. But its associations with penitence and mortifying the flesh bring extra resonances into the passage.

l.449 do that grace: grant me that gift

l.450 welked: wrinkled, shriveled:

  • Chaucer makes the theme of Nature run through his poetry. Here, although the age for natural death has arrived, the man cannot die.

l.454-73 The Old Man chides the men for their rudeness, reminding them of biblical instructions to honour older people 

l.451-2 curteisie … vileyneye: Originally ‘the behaviour of the court' and ‘the behaviour of a serf', but by this period they mean ‘civilised, polite behaviour' (a bit stronger then mere ‘courtesy' today) and ‘ill-bred, rude' 

l.453 trespasse in word or elles in deede: the Old Man's words echo the language associated with Christian worship, from the Lord's Prayer:

  • Eng. forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us
  • Lat. dimitte nobis debita nostra, sicut et nos dimittimus debitoribus nostris

and (the English translation of) the confession familiar to Chaucer's audience from the service of prime on Sundays:

  • Eng. I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed
  • Lat. quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo et opere

l.454-9 The Old Man quotes Leviticus 19:32 and Proverbs 23:22 (‘Despise no man for being old', here interpreted as ‘treat the elderly as you want to be treated once you are old'). Chaucer's audience would also be very familiar with the fifth of the Ten Commandments - ‘Honour thy father and thy mother' (Exodus 20:12). 

l.455 hoor upon his heed: white-haired (a word that remains in Modern English in the term ‘hoar frost')

l.460,62 The Old Man ends with the kind of blessing a priest might use at the end of a church service, which makes the blasphemous response of the second rioter all the more shocking

l.464 by Seint John: the rioter swears by John, one of Jesus' closest Apostles 

l.469 by the hooly sacrament: the rioter swears by the wafer or bread used to represent the body of Christ in the service of Mass (also known as the Eucharist or Holy Communion)

l.472 if that yow be so leef: ‘if you are so eager' 

l.478-9 The Old Man again ends with a priest-like blessing, reminding the youths (as does Chaucer his audience) that because God redeemed (boughte again) humankind, the offer of salvation (God save yow) and moral/spiritual improvement (yow amende) is still available to the rioters

A mysterious passage

In the previous section, the rioters were puzzled by the description of death. Now the reader, too, is puzzled by who or what the Old Man is. Chaucer expects us to read beyond the literal and think about what it means when the rioters set out to find Death but first find an Old Man. What is his relation to Death, we wonder, and why is he also associated with the language of the church?

For further information on the Old Man, see Characterisation > The Old Man


Investigating l.423-479

  • Compare in detail the greeting given by the Old Man to the rioters and their response:
  • How would you interpret l. 440?
    • What can be meant - what is it that cannot die?
  • Pick out other details about the Old Man which give him an ‘other-worldly' quality
  • On l. 430 we are told the response is made by the ‘proudeste of thise riotoures'
    • What is the effect of that detail?
    • Where else does Chaucer present the riotors as proud and how does that shape your attitude to them?
    • Is there anything in what is happening here to explain why pride is regarded as the worst of the seven deadly sins?
  • The phrase ‘gan looke in his visage' (l. 434) gives the impression that the Old Man stared at the youth intently:
    • What are the effects of this way of responding to the rioter's question?
  • It is possible to interpret the Old Man as Death:
    • Do you agree or do you think that he should be interpreted in another way?
    • Could the figure have several potential meanings simultaneously?
  • How do you react to Chaucer's inclusion of the word ‘croked' in l. 473?
  • What themes does Chaucer's wording of the Old Man's farewell introduce?
    • What is the effect for the reader?
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