The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale synopses and commentary

What is a text?

Why do critics today so often call books ‘texts'?

Is it just a fancy name for ‘book' or ‘play' or ‘poem' or ‘novel'? Not entirely.

Using the word ‘text', which means something woven (like ‘textile'), points to what happens when we read – that is, that we absorb a whole combination of impressions. It is not just a question of words on the page and their literal message. Our brains take in a lot of other ‘messages' as we read (if we are reading from a page some of these will be visual). These include:

  • Aspects of the historical, social and cultural background
  • Links we sense that reach out from one bit of the book to others in its structure
  • The meanings we absorb from design and style. 

A ‘text' also exists within the great network or multiple networks of its own culture and assumptions. 

That's the reason we need to know something of the surrounding assumptions in order to read any text from a past or unknown culture. Without it, we will not have a full experience of the text or understand everything that's going on in it.

From critical reading to critical judgement or argument

For an example of what it means to read a text beyond its mere words, let's explore the idea that one of the things the Old Man probably symbolises is Death.

Reacting to the words in the text, we may decide:

  • The Old Man is benign, calm, courteous
  • The young hooligans are stupid (they don't recognise the term ‘Death'). 

We need to go further, and form an idea about this reading:

  • If the Old Man symbolises Death, then death is being presented as something that is actually a benign and sensible concept for humans to bear in mind about their lives. Everyone is mortal
  • The hooligans' stupidity thus reflects the idea that ignoring that fact about human mortality is a stupid approach. 

Notes about the text

Glosses and lineation

The following material assumes that students will study The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale with the aid of a printed edition with glosses. Therefore only some particularly difficult or interesting words, phrases and constructions are explained here.

Unfortunately different editions use different line numbering systems. We hope the numbers used here will correspond to most editions likely to be used today by A and AS Level students. Most easily you can use the online edition here and accessible from each section of guide commentary.

Story and framework

The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale are part of Chaucer's large story collection, The Canterbury Tales. This was written between the late 1380s and 1400, when Chaucer died. There are also two so-called ‘Link' passages: one before them (lines 1-40), another after The Pardoner's Tale (607-80).

Chaucer's tales are quite often connected by such Link passages. These depict the pilgrim story-tellers conversing and often arguing among themselves, as they ride on their way to Canterbury. The pilgrims are like built-in readers of each other's tales. The Links therefore function as fictional comments and judgements on the tales (often voicing distinctly peculiar reactions!). They are a device both to amuse us, the real-life readers, and to prompt us to form our own judgements about the tales: what each is about and how it should be interpreted. 

It is also common for Chaucer's fictional story-tellers to introduce their tales by prologues


The complete text that is being studied here can be divided into four parts.

  1. A Link (l.1-40), which first gives the Host's reactions to the previous tragic tale, then shows the Host's invitation to the Pardoner to tell the next one. This is followed by an alarmed request from some of the pilgrims that he will not tell them something disgraceful but ‘som moral thyng'. So the link gives us mixed messages about the nature of the next tale.
  2. The Pardoner's Prologue (l.41-174), a satirical portrait, couched in the first-person narrative, of how this unscrupulous trickster makes money out of selling false relics and preaching sermons that persuade people to make large donations to him. It is a type of literature called the dramatic monologue: a self-revealing speech by a fictional character.

    The Prologue twice states the biblical precept, Radix malorum est cupiditas: The love of money is the root of evil. This is a central underlying theme of the exposé in both The Prologue and The Tale - of how evil results from love of money in the Pardoner and in the three young men.
  3. The Pardoner's Tale (l.175- 657), a powerfully dark and witty tale, like a fable, about death and evil. It is an example of a kind of medieval literature and art which centres on death and its moral implications for Christians. Death is presented in ways which will persuade people to think more about the next world than this one. More important is the need to repent of sin and receive God's forgiveness, than to focus all their attention on money and the concerns of this world. The central idea is that materialism in general, and greed for money in particular, constitute the real death: the one that destroys human morals and human souls.
  4. Another Link passage (l.658-680), where the Pardoner addresses the pilgrims, reverting at first to the preaching style of his Prologue. He tries to sell them his relics and pardons. The Host refuses angrily, with an outburst of scatological abuse. The Knight intervenes to restore harmony, so that the pilgrims can continue on their journey cheerfully.

A fifth text needs to be studied in relation to the four above, the portrait of the Pardoner in the The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, where the fictional pilgrims are described. See Characterisation > The Pardoner

Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.