The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer/Pardoner’s Tale

The Pardoner's Tale

WHILOM in Flanders there was a company of young folk, that amidst riot and gambling gave themselves up to folly in the stews and taverns, where to harps, lutes and citterns day and night they danced and played at dice, and therewithal ate and drank to sad excess. In this cursed wise with abominable debauchery did they sacrifice to the devil in his temple, and made use of oaths so huge and damnable that it was grisly to hear them swear. Our Lord's blessed body they dismembered as though they thought the Jews had rended him not enough, and each laughed at the sins of the others. And right anon come girl-tumblers slender and comely, young wenches selling fruit, singers with harps, bawds and wafer-sellers, which be the very devil's officers for kindling and blowing the fire of luxury, which is next door to gluttony. For I take the holy writ to my witness that in wine and drunkenness is lust.

Lo! drunken Lot! Lo! Herod (whosoever will observe the story), when he was replete of wine at his feast, gave command right at his own table that the Baptist John, full guiltless, be slain. Seneca saith eke a good word; he saith he can see no difference betwixt a man that is out of his mind and a man that is drunk, save that madness in a rogue persevereth longer than doth drunkenness. O cursed gluttony! O first cause of our fall! O origin of our damnation, till Christ redeemed us with his blood. Lo! to speak short, how dearly bought was that cursed sin. For the sake of gluttony all this world was corrupt. Adam our father and eke his wife, there is no doubt, were for that sin driven from Paradise to labour and to woe; for while Adam fasted, as I have read, he was in Paradise; and when he ate the forbidden fruit of the tree, he was straightway cast out to woe and suffering. O gluttony, well ought we to complain of thee! Oh, if a man wist how many maladies follow from gluttonous excess, sitting at his table, he would be the more temperate of his diet. Alas! short throat and delicate mouth causeth—east and west and south and north, in earth, in air, in water—that men must grunt and sweat to get dainty meat and drink for a glutton! Well canst thou treat, O Paul, of this matter. "Meat unto belly and belly unto meat; God shall destroy both," as saith Paulus.

Alas! by my fay, it is a foul thing to speak this word and the act is fouler, when a man so drinketh of the white and red that of his throat he maketh a sewer through that cursed superfluity. The apostle, full sorrowful, saith, weeping, "There walk many of which I have told you, I say it now weeping with piteous voice, of which, sith they be enemies of the cross of Christ, the end is death; belly is their god." O paunch! O belly! O vile sack! how great labour and cost is it to provide for thee! These cooks, how they stamp and strain and grind and turn substance into accident to fulfil all thy luxurious desire. Out of hard bones they knock the marrow, for they cast naught away that may go through the gullet soft and sweet. For the glutton's pleasure, his sauce shall be made of spicery, of leaf and bark and root to whet him a new appetite. But certes he that resorteth to such delights is dead while he liveth in those vices.

A lustful thing is wine, and drunkenness is full of striving and misery. O drunken man, disfigured is thy countenance, sour is thy breath, foul art thou to embrace, and the sound through thy drunken nose seemeth as though thou aye saidest, "Samsoun, Samsoun," and yet Samson, God wot, drank never wine. Thou fallest as it were a stuck hog. Thy tongue is lost and all thy heed of honour, for drunkenness is the very sepulchre of man's discretion and wit. He in whom drink hath domination in very truth can keep no counsel. Now keep you from the white and the red, especially from the white wine of Lepe, that is for sale in Cheapside or Fish Street. This wine of Spain creepeth subtly into other wines growing near, of which such fumosity ariseth that when a man hath drunken three draughts and weeneth he be at home in Cheapside, he is in Spain, not at Rochelle or at Bordeaux, but right at the town of Lepe, and then he will say, "Samsoun, Samsoun."

But, lordings, I beseech you hearken one word, that all of the sovereign acts of victory in the Old Testament I dare say were done through God himself, that is all-powerful, in abstinence and prayer. Look in the Bible and there ye may learn it. Lo! Attila, the great conqueror, died shamefully in his sleep, bleeding aye at his nose in drunkenness. A captain should live soberly. And more than this, consider with diligence what was commanded to Lamuel—not Samuel, I say, but Lamuel; read the Bible and find it expressly set down concerning wine-giving to them that have the administering of justice. No more of this, for it is sufficient.

And now that I have spoken of gluttony, I will forbid you hazardry. Hazard is the very mother of lies and deceit and cursed forswearings, blasphemy of Christ, manslaughter and also waste of wealth and of time; and furthermore it is a reproach and dishonourable to be held a common gambler. And ever the higher he is of estate the more abandoned do men deem him. If a prince pursueth hazardry, he is by common judgment held the less in reputation in any matter of policy or governance. Stilbon, a wise embassador, was sent in great pomp to Corinth from Lacedæmon to make an alliance with them. And when he came, it happened that he found all the greatest of that land playing at hazard. For which, as soon as might be, he stole home again to his own land and said, "There I will not lose my name, nor will I take upon me dishonour so great as to ally you unto gamblers. Send other wise embassadors, for by my truth I would liefer be dead than ally you with gamblers, for with such ye, that be so glorious in honour, shall not ally you, by my will or treaty." Thus said this wise philosopher. Witness eke, as the book saith, on the king of Parthia that sent in scorn to the king Demetrius a pair of golden dice, for before that he had practised hazard, and for the sake of it he held his glory or fame at no value or estimation. Lords may find other honourable kinds of pastime enow to drive time away.

Now I will speak a word or two of false and great oaths, as old books discourse on them. Great swearing is an abominable thing, and false swearing is yet more blameworthy. The high God forbade swearing at all; witness on Matthew, but in especial the holy Jeremy saith of swearing, "Thou shalt say thine oaths sooth and not lie, and swear in judgment and eke in righteousness." But idle swearing is cursed sin. Behold in the first table of high God's glorious commandments how his second behest is this: "Take not my name in vain." Lo! he forbiddeth such swearing earlier than homicide or than many a cursed thing. I say that in order it standeth thus; this know they that know his behests, how that this is the second behest of God. And furthermore I will tell thee flat that vengeance shall not depart from the house of him that is too outrageous of his oaths. "By God's precious heart and cross, by the blood of Christ that is in the abbey at Hailes, seven is my chance, thine is cinque and trey! By God's arms, if thou play falsely this dagger shall go through thy heart." This is the fruit that cometh of the two spotted dice-bones: ire, forswearing, homicide, falseness. Now for love of Christ that died for us, leave your oaths, both small and great. But now, sirs, I will tell forth my tale.

These three revellers of whom I speak, long ere any bell had rung for prime, had set them down to their cups in a tavern; and as they sat, they heard a bell clink before a corpse that was being carried to his grave. Thereat one of them gan call to the inn-boy, "Off with thee," quoth he, "and ask what corpse this is that passes by; and look thou report his name aright."

"Sir," quoth this boy, "it needeth never a whit to ask. It was told me two hours ere ye came here. Pardee, he was an old fellow of yours; and he was slain to-night of a sudden, dead drunk, as he sat on a bench. There came a stealthy thief—men call him Death—that slayeth all the people in this countryside, and he smote him with his spear through the heart, and went his way without more words. He hath slain, in this pestilence, a thousand; and master, ere ye come before him, methinketh it were needful for to beware of such an adversary. 'Be ready for to meet him ever and aye.' Thus my dame taught me; I say no more."

"By Saint Marie!" said the tavern-keeper, "the child saith sooth, for he hath slain this year, a mile hence in a great village, both man and woman, child, page and hind. I trow his habitation be there. To be wary were great wisdom in a man, lest this Death do him a dishonour."

The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer - The three Rogues search in the woods for Death.jpg

The three Rogues search in the woods for Death≈

"Yea, God's arms!" quoth the reveller, "is it then such peril for to meet him? I make a-vow to God's noble bones, I shall seek him highway and by-way. Hark, fellows; we three be of one mind. Let each of us hold up his hand and let us become sworn brethren among ourselves and we will slay this false traitor Death. He that slayeth so many—by God's dignity!— he shall be slain, ere it be night."

So together these three have plighted their troths to live and die for one another like brethren born, and in this rage, up they start all drunk, and forth they go toward that village of which the tavern-keeper had spoken, and with many a grisly oath have they rended Christ's blessed body, and sworn that Death shall be dead, if they may catch him.

When now they had gone half a mile or less, there met with them—right as they were about to step over a stile—an old poor man. This old man greeted them full meekly and said thus: "Now, lords, God you save." The proudest of these three revellers answered, "What, churl! The devil take thee! Why art thou all muffled save thy face? Why livest thou so long in great age?"

The old man looked him in the face and said thus: "Because I cannot find a man, yea though I walked to India, neither in town nor in city, that would exchange his youth for mine age. And therefore I must still keep mine age, for as long time as it is God's will. Neither will Death alas! neither will he have my life. Thus walk I like a restless caitiff; and on the ground, which is my mother's gate, both morn and eve I knock with my staff, and say: 'Dear mother, let me in! See how I wither, flesh and skin and blood. Alas! when shall my bones be at peace? Mother, I would exchange my chest with you, that hath been in my chamber long time; yea, even for a shroud of hair-cloth to wrap me.' Yet she will not do me that favour; wherefore my face is so pale and withered. But, sirs, it is not courtesy in you to speak in churlish wise to an old man, unless he have trespassed in word or act. Ye may yourselves read in holy writ: 'In presence of an old man, whose head is hoar, ye shall arise.' Wherefore I counsel you do unto an old man no harm now more than ye would that men did to you in your old age, if ye tarry so long in this life. God be with you, whether ye walk or ride. Now must I go whither I have to go."

"Nay, old churl, that shalt thou not, by God!" answered then the second gambler. "By Saint John! thou partest not so lightly. Thou spakest right now of that traitor Death, that slayeth all our friends in these parts. By my troth, as thou art his spy, tell us where he is, or thou shalt rue it, by God and the holy sacrament! For soothly thou art leagued with him to slay us young folk, thou false thief."

"Now, sirs," quoth he, "if you would so fain find Death, turn up this crooked path, for by my fay I left him in yonder grove under a tree and there he will tarry; nay, not even for your boast will he hide himself. See ye that oak? Right there ye shall find him. God, that redeemed mankind, save you and amend you!"

Thus spake this old man. And all the revellers hasted till they came to that tree and there they found coined in fine round gold well nigh an eight bushel, as seemed to them, of florins. No longer then they sought after Death, for the florins were so bright and fair to see, and each was so glad of the sight, that down they sat by the precious hoard. The worst of them he spake the first: "Brethren," quoth he, "hearken what I say. Though I jest and make merry, yet my wisdom is great. This treasure hath fortune given unto us, to live our lives in jollity and mirth, and as lightly as it cometh so will we spend it. Eh, God's precious dignity! who had weened to-day that we should have so fair a grace? But now if this gold were but carried home to my house—or, if ye like, to yours—for well ye wot all this gold is ours, then were we in high felicity. But truly it may not be by day. Men would say that we were sturdy thieves, and would have us hanged for our own treasure. Nay, this treasure must be carried by night as wisely and as slily as may be. Wherefore I counsel that we draw cuts amongst us, and let see where the cut will fall; and he that draweth the cut shall run with blithe heart—and that full fast to the town, and bring us bread and wine by stealth; and two of us shall guard this treasure craftily and well; and if he tarry not we will, when it is night, carry this treasure wheresoever with one consent it seemeth best to us."

Thereat one of them brought the cuts held in his fist, and bade them draw and watch where the cut would fall; and it fell upon the youngest; and forth he went anon towards the town. And even as soon as he was gone, the one of them spake thus to his fellow:

"Thou knowest well that thou art my brother, and I will tell thee somewhat to thy profit. Thou wotst well that our fellow is gone; and here is gold, and that a great sum, that shall be divided amongst us three. Natheless if I could so contrive that it were divided betwixt us two, had I not done thee a friendly turn?"

The other answered: "I wot not how that may be; he wot how that we twain have the gold. What shall we do? What shall we say to him?"

"Shall it be secret?" said the first rogue. "I will tell thee then in few words what we shall do, and I will bring it about."

"I make thee my vow," quoth the other, "by my truth, that I will not betray thee."

"Now," quoth the first, "thou wotst well that we be twain, and two of us shall be stronger than one. Watch when he shall be set down, and right anon rise up as though thou wouldst scuffle with him; and whiles that thou strugglest with him as in sport, I shall rive him through his two sides, and thou, with thy dagger, look thou do the same; and then shall all this gold be divided, my dear friend, betwixt me and thee. Then may we both fulfil all our pleasures, and play at dice right as we list." And thus be these two rogues accorded to slay the third, as ye have heard me tell.

The youngest—he that went to the village—full oft he rolleth up and down in his heart the beauty of those bright, new florins. "O Lord," quoth he, "if so I might have all this treasure to myself, there is no man that liveth under the throne of God should live so merry as I!" And at last the fiend, our foe, put it into his thought that he should buy poison, with which to slay his two companions. For the fiend had found him in such bad living that he had leave to bring him to perdition; for this rogue's design was utterly this, to slay his fellows both and never to repent.

No longer then he delayeth, but forth he goeth into the town unto an apothecary, and prayed him that he would sell him poison wherewith he might kill his rats; and eke in his yard there was a polecat, that (as he said) had slaughtered his capons; and fain, if he might, would he avenge him on the vermin that despoiled him by night. The apothecary answered: "Here thou shalt have a thing, and so may God save my soul! there is never a creature in all this world that shall eat or drink of this mixture, even the amount of a corn of wheat, but he shall yield up his life anon. Yea, die he shall, and that in less time than thou wilt go a mile at a walk; so strong and so violent is this poison."

This cursed reveller hath taken into his hand the poison in a box; and thereupon he ran unto a man in the next street and borrowed of him three large bottles; and into two poured he his poison. The third he kept clean for his own drink; for all that night he planned to toil in carrying away of the gold from that place. And when this reveller, sorrow betide him—had filled his three great bottles with wine, he repaireth to his fellows.

What needeth to discourse more of this? For even as they had devised his death at the first, right so have they slain him; and that speedily.

And when this was done, thus spake one of them: "Now let us sit and drink and make joy, and afterward we will bury his body." And with that word it happed him perchance that he took the bottle wherein the poison was, and drank of it and gave his fellow also to drink, for which right anon they died both the two.

But certes I suppose that Avicenna wrote never in any canon or any chapter more wondrous signs of empoisoning than had these two wretches before their end.

Thus be ended these homicides and eke the false empoisoner.


O cursed sin, full of cursedness! O wickedness! O traitor's homicide! O gluttony, lust and gambling! O thou blasphemer of Christ, with churlish tongue and monstrous oaths born of evil usage and pride! Alas, mankind! how may it befall that to thy Creator who made thee and bought thee with his precious heart's blood, thou art so unkind and so false, alas!

Now, good men, God forgive you your trespasses and keep you from the sin of avarice. Mine holy pardon may heal you all, if so be ye offer nobles, or sterlings, or else silver brooches, rings or spoons. Bow your heads under this holy bull! Here anon in my roll I enter your name. Into heaven's bliss shall ye go! You that will offer I will absolve by my high power as clean and pure as ye were born. Come up, ye wives! offer ye of your wool.—Lo, sirs, such is my sermon ; and may Jesu Christ, that is our soul's leech, grant you his pardon, for that is best, I will not deceive you.

But, sirs, one word that I forgot in my tale. Here in my bag I have relics and pardons as fair as hath any man in England, which were given me by the pope's own hand. If any of you will offer with devoutness and have my absolution, come forth anon and kneel here, and meekly receive my pardon; or else take your pardons as ye ride all new and fresh at every town's end; but look that ye alway offer anew nobles and pence that be sound and good. To every wight that is here it is an honour that ye may have a pardoner sufficient to assoil you, in whatsoever adventure may befall you in the country as ye ride. Perchance one or two may fall down from his horse and break his neck in two. Look what a security it is for all of you that I am fallen into your fellowship to assoil you high and low, when the soul shall pass from the body. I counsel that our host here shall be the first, for he is most enveloped in sin. Come forth now, sir host, and offer first, and thou shalt kiss the relics, yea each and all, for a groat. Unbuckle thy wallet."

"Nay, nay," quoth he, "may I have Christ's curse if I do! Let be; I will not, say I. Thou wouldst make me kiss thine old hosen, and swear that they were the relics of a saint, were they never so filthy."

This pardoner was so wroth that he answered never a word.

"Now," quoth our host, "I will sport no longer with thee, nor with none other angry man." But right anon, when he saw that all the people laughed, spake the worthy Knight: "No more of this, for it is enough. Sir Pardoner, be glad and look merry. And ye, sir host, that be dear to me, I pray you that ye kiss the Pardoner. And Pardoner, I pray thee draw nearer, and let us laugh and sport as we did before." Anon they kissed and rode their way.

Here is ended the Pardoner's Tale.