Chaucer conveys the idea and consequences of avarice in a variety of ways.

A statement of intent

AvariceAvarice is the most clearly stated theme in the text. The opening section of the Pardoner's narrative is framed by two statements of his dominant topic: Radix malorum est cupiditas, The love of money is the root of evil. This comes from the Bible, from Paul's first letter giving advice to a young Christian leader, Timothy 1 Timothy 6:10. It is, of course, ironic that the Pardoner preaches on this particular quotation, given that

  • He blatantly repeats in l.136 and 145:

    I preche [of] nothing but for coveityse

i.e. that satisfying his own materialism is the only thing that motivates his preaching

  • He hopes to make money out of his current audience.

The Christian context

Contemporary medieval Christian thinking and ethics strongly disapproved of wealth and the pursuit of worldly pleasure: 

  • The word cupiditas (cupidity in English) means ‘desire' and in particular desire for worldly things 
  • The opposite of this – caritas (love of God and desire for godly things) - is what the Bible says humans should really be filled with.

This attitude was based on the example of Jesus and his followers found in the New Testament, who lived in poverty, taking humble manual jobs for simple sustenance so that they could devote themselves to the important news of telling people about the kingdom of God. The principles of simplicity, poverty and manual labour were enshrined in the rules of many religious orders, which were a dominant force in medieval society. They were also upheld by those wishing to reform the church, such as John Wyclif.

Avarice was seen as a curse, because it took people's attention away from the things that would actually save them for eternal life in heaven. The Pardoner himself calls materialism ‘swich cursedness' l.112. In the light of that and his overt desire to take his hearers' money, Chaucer is presenting the Pardoner himself as being worthy of condemnation (when judged by God) for the sin of avarice.


The Pardoner talks openly of making money, subverting the idea of genuine Christian donations to the charitable work of the church (an ‘offre in Goddes name' l.98) into a scam to fund himself. Chaucer's memorable rhyming of ‘wynne' (to make money) and ‘synne' (l.115-16) neatly encapsulates the theme.

There are frequent references to money and goods in The Pardoner's Prologue:

  • ‘pens', ‘grotes', ‘an hundred mark', ‘winne gold and silver', ‘moneye', ‘wolle' (an important trading commodity), ‘coveityse', ‘avaryce', etc.

The attractiveness of wealth is reinforced by the presentation of the treasure found by the rioters on The Tale (l.482-7):

  • ‘florins fine of gold, y-coined rounde … so faire and brighte', a ‘precious hoord.'

and desire for the ‘tresor' quickly overpowers the youths. 

The Pardoner seems to echo his characters' lust for wealth, calling for an offering of:

‘nobles or sterlinges, / Or elles silver brooches, spoones, ringes.' (l.619-20)

The final cluster of money references comes at the end of his ‘preaching demonstration' when, seemingly without realising the impact his tale has had, he encourages the pilgrims to ‘offren … nobles or pens' or, for the Host, ‘a grote'.

The root of all evil

In keeping with the biblical text from which the Pardoner preaches, avarice is presented as a sin that inspires other wrongdoing. Chaucer illustrates how the desire for money leads:

  • In the Pardoner, to forgery and lying, extortion, abuse of trust, lust
  • In the youths, to gambling, blasphemy, disrespect, duplicity, murder, drunkenness

The Host expresses society's reaction to such blatant avarice (himself provoked to the sins of anger, blasphemy and lewdness) and it is clear that there is a terrifying eternal consequence for the youths (and, by implication, the Pardoner as well).

A contemporary problem

Chaucer's treatment of avarice reflects a wider condemnation of the medieval Church. Through the Pardoner's activities, he highlights three contemporary concerns. 

The wealth of the Church

The Pardoner isn't a priest, monk or friar, only a church official. However, Chaucer is using his lust for money to typify the kind of materialism that contemporary critics condemned generally in the Medieval Church. For an institution that was meant to reflect the teachings of Christ, there was widespread disgust at:

  • The great wealth accumulated by the Church by the fourteenth century
  • The elements of worldliness and avarice exhibited by some churchmen.

Chaucer's Pardoner is a figure who serves as a focus for that disapproval.

Clerical abuses

Chaucer's Pardoner is employed by a hospital to raise donations. However, he is presented as aiming to make money for himself. The abuse of charitable giving for gain, both by individuals and ecclesiastical institutions, caused great anger and was a common theme for condemnation and satire in Chaucer's period. It was a frequent complaint of church reformers that whereas the Church ought to be concerned about people's sins, very often its officials were only concerned to make money.

The Pardoner makes no apology for his behaviour, but glories in it, the neat ending of l.114 conveying his glee at his own trickery. In fact, so ‘normal' does his abuse of office seem, that he does not understand why the Host reacts as he does. He is steeped in the general corruption associated with the Church.

Buying forgiveness

The most serious aspect of the Pardoner's avarice is that, according to medieval doctrine (see Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness), it jeopardizes people's chance of eternal life. This is spelt out in The Tale, with its implications for the narrator himself.

The Pardoner is encouraging people to believe that buying relics or indulgences will bring them salvation, regardless of whether they repent or not. Meanwhile, he pockets the proceeds. However, his claims that anyone on his list will be admitted into heaven and that he can absolve them from their sins (l.625), merely by the payment of money, are false.

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