The physical and eternal body

In the light of recurrent plague, short life expectancy and unsophisticated medical knowledge, death was a pervasive social reality in medieval England (see Social / political context > Death in society and culture). The brevity of physical life was echoed by the teaching of the church, that the eternal existence of a person's soul after death was of more lasting significance than the body's brief journey on earth (see Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness). So earthly life was best lived with an awareness of ongoing spiritual life beyond the grave. 

Being ready for death

It was considered vital that people were ready to face the end of their lives at any time. The church taught that if an individual hoped to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God (heaven), they must be ready to face the judgement that awaited them at the point of physical death, by being in a state of grace. This meant that they would have confessed any wrongdoing, reiterated their faith in Christ, received forgiveness for their sin from God (mediated via a priest) and thus had their soul cleansed. Any soul unprepared for death, dying with its burden of sins, would be in danger of eternal damnation

The figure of Death was frequently depicted in medieval art and literature, often warning that people who were not ready might suddenly encounter death. This is highlighted in The Tale by the boy's warning about being ‘redy to meete him'(l.392-6) Unpreparedness in the face of death is the fate of the rioters in The Pardoner's Tale

Mortality in the hands of God

According to the Bible, each human life does not ‘belong' to the individual living it, but to God, who created it, and his son, Jesus, who ‘paid' for it. The ideal Christian life was therefore one obedient to the guidance of God rather than one ruled by the self. Ironically, the Pardoner exemplifies the contrasting sinful attitude, that his lifestyle is up to him, through the many statements of self which he makes in his Prologue:

  • I wol l.153,55,160,164,
  • I wol nat / noon l.156,158,159,

The Old Man's reference to the ending of his life being according to ‘Goddes wille' (l.438) serves as a reminder that human decisions about when life should end stand in opposition to this belief in God's jurisdiction over life and death.

The taking of life

To take the ending of life into one's own hands was therefore a sin. This is obvious in the case of murder, the crime of the youths. The seriousness of death by ‘poysoun' (l.572) is highlighted by the chemist's reference to judgement, when Christians trust their souls will be saved for eternal life.

However, according to the teaching of the Church, even the efforts of the Old Man to seek his own death are wrong. This is demonstrated by the refusal of Death to take his life (l.439), as well as by Mother Nature barring him from returning to the earth (l.440-50). (The idea of humankind being made from the earth and returning to it at death comes from the earliest chapters of the BibleGenesis3:19.) 

Sin and death

At the end of his story, the Pardoner declaims a catalogue of sins which he has shown are associated with death:

  • The effect of human sin is to attack God, and (in spirit) kill Jesus all over again, as with blasphemous swearing (see Themes > Blasphemy)
  • Drunkeness takes away a person's God-given reason and disfigures his image in them, which is a kind of death
  • Being absorbed by gluttony is equivalent to being dead: dead to the life of the spirit, and potentially losing the chance of eternal life (echoing the biblical teaching of 1 Timothy 5:6)
  • Gambling is driven by avarice, which is the most obvious evil leading to death in the Pardoner's sermon, as well as in his lifestyle.

Death and materialism

The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale is part of the mocking, witty medieval tradition of writings whose aim is to turn people away from being absorbed in materialist, worldly, concerns, which could imperil their souls (unfitting them for eternal life in heaven).

This is allegorised when the three rioters follow the Old Man's directions to the location of death and instead find a huge heap of gold. This makes them forget about Death (always a dangerous attitude) and yet be ensnared by him soon after. The message is clear: when the youths are consumed by the thought of unimaginable wealth, Death is not far behind.

Another reference which highlights the link between the sin of materialism and Death is in l.514-16. Contemporary Christians might recognise that these lines echo the description of the death of Christ on the cross and the drawing of lots for possession of his coat (John 19:17-34).

Of course, the Pardoner's own materialistic lifestyle is also associated with death:

  • He is endangering his own eternal life by the pursuit of many of the sins he preaches against
  • He is jeopardizing the salvation of his hearers by encouraging them to trust that they can buy pardons and relics. Forgiveness cannot be bought and what he sells is bogus anyway.

Fruitfulness and sterility

The Medieval Church taught that people should lead fruitful lives:

  • Within marriage, they should procreate children
  • They should work hard so as to be productive for their employer
  • Their lives were to be characterised by good works which would produce eternal fruit for the kingdom of God.

To live by the opposite of these axioms was seen as being life-denying (and, ultimately, as leading to death). However, that is what the Pardoner is doing:

  • There are heavy hints of a homosexual relationship between him and the Summoner. According to medieval thinking, homosexuality was seen as a barren and irregular relationship
  • The Pardoner's effeminate body is one that will not produce fruit, or engender new life
  • He is working against God's order by putting his own financial gain first, ahead of his duty as a representative of the Church. We suspect that not all he collects makes its way back to Rouncivale hospital 
  • His life is barren of Christian good works, except that the power of his preaching may accidentally:

    ‘maken other folk to twinne
    From avarice, and soore to repente.'
  • His wicked practices deprive other people of eternal life.
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