The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Pardoner's Tale Summary

After the violence of the Physician’s Tale, the pilgrims demand that the Pardoner tell them a “moral” tale, not a violent or lewd one. The Pardoner obliges by, essentially, preaching on the phrase “radix malorum est Cupiditas” (cupidity is the root of all evil).

In Flanders, there were three rioters who did nothing but commit various sins all day, including drunkenness, which the Pardoner preaches against at length. One night while getting drunk and playing dice in a tavern, the three men glance outside to see a group of men carrying a corpse to its burial. They learn that the corpse was an old man whose heart was broken in two by a secret thief called Death. The three rioters make a vow amongst themselves to find Death and kill him.

Not far into their quest, the three men meet an old man at a turnstile and ask him why he is still alive. The old man says he is still alive because he has not found any young men who will trade places with him, and that although he has knocked on the earth to let him in, it won’t. One of the rioters asks, even more rudely, where Death is, and the old man tells them they can find Death up the crooked way and underneath an oak tree.

The three men go to the tree and find eight bushels of gold coins under it. The worst of the three argues that the money is theirs because Fortune gave it to them, but that they can’t carry it back to town without being branded as thieves. Therefore, he suggests they draw lots to see who runs back to town for bread and wine while the other two guard the treasure. They draw lots, and the youngest of them is sent to town.

No sooner does he leave than the other two plot to kill the youngest on his return and split his share of the gold between them. Meanwhile, the youngest reaches town, realizes he needs to protect himself against the other two rioters, and buys some poison. He also buys three wine bottles. He poisons two of the wine bottles and keeps the third for himself to drink from.

When the youngest returns, however, the other two drunkards set on him and kill him. They then sit down to drink the wine, drink from the poisoned bottles, and die. The tale ends with a short sermon asking God to forgive the sins of good men.

Just then, the Pardoner “remembers” that he can issue pardons to the other pilgrims if they pay him, and he asks them to kiss a “relic” he is carrying. The Host tells him it’s not a relic, but a dried turd painted to look like one, which angers the Pardoner. The Knight steps in to make peace between the two men.