The Pardoner in the Pardoner’s Tale talks about death in the opening of the tale. Within the first two hundred and fifty lines of the tale death is personified as a traitor who robs man of his heart.

The tale opens with an account of young people in Flanders wasting their time in taverns drinking, dancing, and gambling. The Pardoner emphasizes that those who drink excessively and swear are the enemies of Christ’s cross, "Of which the end is deeth."[1] The Pardoner is showing that people who do not spend their time preparing for the more afterlife in heaven are allowing their souls to die a final death of eternal damnation.

The opening of the Pardoner’s tale proves that death is imminent and emphasizes that he (death) can take you at any time. An example of this is seen at the opening of the tale in which a group of dissolute people are sitting in a tavern at 6 a.m.. All of a sudden they hear a hand bell ringing, realizing that the bell signifies a funeral procession, they rush out to the street to see who has died. The corpse is being carried to his grave. One of the men from the tavern asks the boy carrying the body for the name of the corpse. The boy replies that the deceased is an old friend of the inquirer. The boy goes on to explain that the deceased was killed that night as he sat in a drunken stupor on a park bench when a privy thief came upon him and stuck a spear through his heart. This thief, otherwise mentioned as a traitor, is death personified. It is then explained in lines 679-684 that, "He [death] hath a thousand slayn this pestilence./ And, maister, er ye come in his presence, / Me thynketh that it were necessarie/ For to be war of swich an adversarie./ Beth redy for to meete hym evermore;/ Thus taughte me my dame; I ys namoore. "[2].

The tale refers to death as the person responsible for slaughtering one thousand by his hand during the plague (line 670). The three men from the bar are determined to challenge death because he has taken away their friends. In their humorous and selfish endeavor to get revenge with death, they actually do death's job for him by killing each other over a pot of gold.

The Pardoner’s Tale is a reminder that death is inevitable. Death is personified as a thief who pierces the heart of his victims. This was an iconographic image of death throughout the middle ages and later. One example can be found in the Ymage of Deth panels the vicar of Stanford, Henry Williams, had done upon his death in 1501. In the panel, death as a skeleton points his bow and arrow at the heart of the vicar. The inscription calls for prayers for the vicar’s soul, presumably stolen by death.

 

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[1] Baugh, Albert, ed. Chaucer's Major Poetry, (Englewood Cliffs, 1963), p.494.

[2] Baugh, p. 496.