The Pardoner’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer

This is an online version of the eBook edition that I recently produced of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale.


The Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale begins with the Host’s comments on the previous tale – The Physician’s Tale. He bemoans the fate of Virginia, and is full of pity for her fate. It seems that only a good drink will help him get over his sadness. The Host asks the Pardoner to tell the pilgrims that will cheer them up, although the more refined members of the party interject and request something more moral.

The Pardoner introduces himself to the group during the Prologue to his tale. He tells his listeners about his skill at speaking and also about how he wins money by selling relics and indulgences to the gullible. While doing this he reminds the audience of the consistent theme of his sermons: Radix malorum est cupiditas (greed is the root of all evils). It is probable that by doing this he is effectively taking his audience into his confidence, knowingly mocking those who do pay for his wares. In fact the whole Prologue is a bit like a magician showing someone the secret of their tricks, and the Pardoner is certainly guilty of gloating over his own success. His encouragement of the Host to offer him something for an indulgence or relic at the end of the Tale is thus even more insulting, as the Host interprets the Pardoner as suggesting that he is as gullible as the Pardoner’s regular dupes.

The Pardoner’s Tale itself neatly encapsulates his theme of ‘greed is the root of all evils’, but before he gets into the main narrative he goes out of his way to preach against drunkenness. This may be directed at the Host, who as we see in the Introduction of the Tale is very fond of his ale. The pardoner then goes on to also preach against gambling and swearing. The tale itself centres on three young gamblers who are told that Death is walking the land killing the people, including friends of theirs. The young men, whether actually believing in this personification of Death, or too drunk to care, set off into the countryside in pursuit of him, hoping to find him at a village where he has recently slain many people. On their way they meet an old man. At first they are suspicious of him, and they threaten him, but he assures them that he means them no harm. However, he does know where Death can be found, and points them towards a wood. They hurry towards the wood and find a chest full of gold coins. With the excitement of the treasure they forget completely about their quest to find Death. The three gamblers debate what they should do. The youngest suggests that they should wait until nightfall before they carry the gold away, and that one of them should go into town to buy bread and wine to sustain them while they wait. They draw lots to decide who this will be, and the youngest one draws the short straw. While he is gone the other two plot to kill him when he comes back so that they can each take a greater share of the treasure. Meanwhile the youngest gambler has decided to do away with both of his fellows. He buys strong poison and adds it to two of the three bottles of drink with it. Once back at the woods, his fellows swiftly do him in and then sit down to enjoy the drink that he brought. Straight away they drink the poison and they die. Thus they have found Death.

The Pardoner carries on with his sermon as if he were really preaching and encourages his audience to buy his indulgences. He suggests the Host should offer something first, at which the Host reacts angrily and threatens the Pardoner with a colourful punishment. The Knight intervenes and  in order to maintain the decorum of the group requests that the two kiss and make up, and, having done so, they ride on.

Translation Notes

Three versions of The Pardoner’s Tale are presented here. Firstly the complete text in the Middle English, then a combined Middle English and Modern English version, with Middle English and Modern English on alternating lines, and then finally a version just in Modern English.

The Modern English version is presented in verse format, and where possible rhymes have been preserved. However, a preference for making the lines of verse understandable has meant that rhymes and metres have not been preserved in some cases.

Textual notes have been provided for the Middle English version only.

Mark Lord, 2011

The Pardoner’s Tale in Middle English

The Pardoner’s Tale in Modern and Middle English

The Pardoner’s Tale in Modern English

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