Death in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’

The Canterbury Tales were a series of stories written in the late 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400). They were told by travelers of diverse backgrounds on their way to Canterbury. The 13th tale, ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, concerned three drunken men who swore  an oath to find and kill death after seeing someone they knew die. On their quest they encountered an old man who directed them to where death was residing. When they came to the place, they instead found a large quantity of gold and jewels. The oath was dissolved, and the men killed each other over the riches. The old man who showed them the place was most definitely death himself.

This story was told by a corrupt pardoner (someone who sells indulgences), and was a call to buy what he had to offer. He said in the prologue to his story “Out come the pence, and specifically for myself, for my exclusive purpose is to win and not at all to castigate their sin”, and “But let me briefly make my purpose plain; I preach for nothing but for greed of gain”. He said that this story was a moral one, and that he had often used it to seal a deal in the past. The drunken men were examples of sinners, and their fate was meant to strike fear into the hearts of potential customers.

The old man which they encountered said that he was unable to die, and then he directed them to where death was. He did not lie to them when he set them on the path to the gold, he was telling the truth. The riches were not death in themselves, they were the means by which death took hold of them. The old man was death, and the riches they encountered were agents of death. This story shows how even through great determination (albeit drunken raving determination), death will always win. The purpose of this tale was not to show this, however. It was to scare his audience into buying his product.

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