The Preamble (or Prologue) to the Pardoner’s Tale

Standing in front of the inn and, presumably, still drinking his ale, the Pardoner delivers a speech to the pilgrims waiting for his main story. This is commonly called his Prologue but that term causes confusion with the portrait in the General Prologue and so it is better called his Preamble. The main question about it is why he confesses so much about his own villainy. He seems to be trying to recall a suitable story which will satisfy his listeners who have asked for something with a moral lesson and practical wisdom but the Host, who will be the judge, wants a lighter experience. He also needs to be so winning that he can ask for money afterwards.

Yet he reveals every method he has of extracting cash from his usual audience without any remorse about his cheating. It must be supposed that he wants to show how clever he is in his trade and cannot resist the temptation to attract admiration for trickery at the same time as assuming he can regain their confidence and sell them relics and pardons afterwards. Perhaps he hopes the Tale will engage them so that they will forget or possibly drink has loosened his tongue. It may be that he regards them as friends who deserve to be admitted to his inner thoughts and procedures and then suddenly switches and asks for money. He knows these people are superior in rank to his usual listeners and wants to curry favour whilst priming them to open their fat purses. The contradiction is realistic, however, as a person is capable of disclosing something about him or herself and then ignoring that fact and wanting to carry on as before. In his case he resembles a magician who shows how the rabbit comes out of the hat and still expects us to believe it is magic.

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The psychology here opens a question which may never be answered definitively but it does stem from over-weening confidence and a pressing urge, stronger because of alcohol, to show off his dexterity and prowess. Certainly, trying to solve it adds great interest to reading the Tale and to our ideas of Chaucer as narrator.

He starts by describing his attempts at developing charisma as he preaches (which is a wrong in itself as Pardoners were not supposed to preach). He takes care to use elevated speech and sound it out with gusto like a bell. We know that he has a poor voice and so this self-portrait has a comic side. All his sermons are based on the same text and he knows them all by heart and so, we assume, he is now biding his time to pick the appropriate one for the occasion. The text is “Radix malorum est cupiditas” [excessive love of money and wordly goods is the root of all evils: Letter of St Paul to Timothy 6, 10]. The irony is blatant as he is the personification of avarice, cares nothing for spiritual matters and despises and abuses those who do. It is crude hypocrisy, savagely satirised and yet the company seems to expect him to be a crook and are not unfriendly towards him. He then declares that he has come from the Court of Rome and shows his bulls [official documents with round seals from the Pope or a bishop] which may be genuine and his “patente” [his licence to operate without interference].

From then on all is fraud. He shows them in order to protect himself against clerics whom he hates and who hate him. He needs to have the upper hand over them to proceed. The next bundle contains documents which are less genuine as he is gradually giving us insight into his unscrupulous methods. After this he says his piece, adding a few Latin words to “saffron” [flavour/colour] the sermon. We guess this is all the Latin he knows although a true cleric would be well versed in the language. This is to “stire hem to devocioun”, another irony as he has no faith himself and their devotion will make them vulnerable to his tricks. We are here reminded that there is another audience, his usual victims, more gullible than we or the pilgrims are and so the confession strikes on different levels: he could never admit such deviousness to his normal clients. It is as though he expects these more intelligent people, the pilgrims, to accept him for what he is even though they have the sense to perceive his sins without being told. One explanation is that he is aware that they know his devices and so he might as well promote his skill in passing them off on others. His relics are completely bogus as anyone with a spark of insight would realise: there could not be as many bones or bits of sacred cloth in existence as the various pardoners are carrying around. A holy sheep’s shoulder bone (believed to be magical) in a brass-like metal is shown to the ignorant but, to the knowing, there is a touch of comedy in the intrigue: it is so obvious.

Now he cannot resist demonstrating his own voice as he talks to the crowd and, again, the narrative is far from simple. Chaucer is telling a story in which the Pardoner speaks to the pilgrims whilst sermonising to his normal audience. He is quoting from his own rhetoric. There are multiple frames to the discourse, resulting in irony and the possibility of mixed judgements and ambivalence. He addresses his peasants (presumably) like a witch-doctor, telling them that the bone can cure all manner of animal diseases if dipped in a well and that water be then applied to the suffering beast: he has taken the trouble to learn about such ailments and his list is thorough, including stings from a “worm” [insect or other creepy-crawly]. He is hitting the shepherds and cowmen where it hurts but, when he sums up at the end: “Taak kepe [heed] eek what I telle”, it is athough he has forgotten that he is speaking primarily to the pilgrims who have scant interest in animal pox or scab. Despite his need to maintain control and convince people, he can lose track temporarily.

After reminding the peasants of all the frightening diseases their animals might contract (little to do with religion here!), he turns his attention to the master of the house, who will have more money to give. Again he mentions in a vague way “this hooly Jew” and “oure eldres”-[ancestors] – it does not do him good to be too specific in case anyone decides to check – although when quoting authorities the speaker ought to be precise. The recipe puts a small burden on the farmer to rise early and drink this water so that his livestock will breed and, for good measure, the draught will cure jealousy. The Pardoner piles on every trick and deceit he can think of in the hope that one of them will strike home and, presumably, the method is effective as he is quite rich. Most of his listeners will be prone to an inner fear and he can play on that. It also appeals to any women present who might wish to conduct an affair without ever again incurring their husbands’ jealous frenzies. The dose, made by the wife one assumes, will work its wonders even if she has taken a few priests as lovers, clearly another side-swipe at the clergy. (In terms of the audience of pilgrims the Parson is the only decent cleric amongst them.) At this point we might consider that his motivation is to appear clever: if he is known as a swindler he might as well appear a skilful one. A mitten is now mentioned which can help mutiply grain yield provided it is bought with pennies or groats [a coin worth four pennies] The corruption is made obvious to the pilgrims who will see that money is always to the forefront of his mind even if the land-workers do not. They will also spot that he is not even talking about pardons and, in the case of the magic bone, is promising a cover-up for sin.

Next comes a subtle but well-known trick: he tells his clients that, if they have committed any serious wrong, they will not be able to buy his relics. For men he is vague but for women he specifies adultery: anyone now remaining in their place will be tacitly confessing to a shameful sin and opening themselves to gossip but those stepping forward will appear comparatively innocent (making anyone alert wonder why they need expensive pardons in the first place). He will then claim to absolve them, although only God can grant Absolution.

He claims that by this trick (it is not clear if he means by this one deceit alone or by such tricks in the plural) he has gained a hundred marks a year during his career. This is a large sum in terms of what it could buy though experts have debated exactly how much it corresponds to in modern terms; Chaucer’s own pension began at twenty marks, increased later. To appear impressive to the other pilgrims he must seem a man of substance and he goes on to describe his other supposedly admirable techniques, becoming more and more explicit about his own unscrupulousness as the Preamble proceeds. When the “lewed” [ignorant, uneducated or lay] people are seated he stretches out his neck to nod at the full range of the congregation. This suggests his neck is long, another sign of a eunuch.

His expression “peyne I me” means that he takes trouble to do this, revealing that the whole performance is just that, carefully calculated and acted out. These stratagems were not uncommon in fourteenth-century pardoners, that being the point of the satire which is widely directed, though the personal touches such as effeminacy are for him in particular. The natural image is now charming: “As dooth a dowve [dove] sittynge on a berne” but then becomes slightly ridiculous as he works his hands and tongue so “verne” [actively, eagerly] that he feels it is a wonder to see. By peaching strongly against Avarice he hopes to make them open to giving money to prove they are not greedy: it is a subtle ploy as the effects may be temporary and the money will come to him alone. Quite brazenly he admits this is his sole motive and he does not care if their sins are corrected: in fact he must hope they are not obliterated otherwise his source of income would dry up.
I reeke nevere [care not at all], whan that they be beryed,

Though that hir soules goon a-blakeberyed [wandering at large]
The rather poor rhyme here draws attention to the corruption as he declines any holy purpose in his activity, whilst excusing himself saying that many a “predicacioun” [sermon] comes from wicked intentions: currying favour (which is what he hopes to do here with the pilgrims); to get on in the world through hypocrisy (which he also expects to do here); some from proud arrogance and some out of hatred (all of which qualities he demonstrates as he despises his lay audience). If he dare not contend with some issues or a particular member of the congregation, he will merely sting him sharply with his tongue so that he cannot “asterte “escape], not mentioning his “propre” [the man’s own] name but making clear who is being addressed. Now he can spit out his poison “under hewe [form]/Of hooliness, to semen hooly and true.” Hatred, greed and hypocrisy are here combined.

Repetition as he now speaks and, presumably, in his sermons themselves, drums home the point about his main and only text: if he can make folk feel guilty about their love of money, they will yield it to him. He even admits that Avarice is his own main sin but that does not prevent him from making others deeply repent of it and, in repenting, give plenty of cash. “I preche nothynge but for coveitise” [I only preach out of covetousness] is interesting as at line 136 he has said that he preaches of nothing but covetousness: greed for wealth is the beginning and end of his enterprises.

He uses many exempla to back his points: these should be, in the strict rules of rhetoric, examples taken from Scripture or Classics and should be precise and authoritative, lending credibility and scholarly weight to the speaker. His are probably old tales used merely to satisfy the ignorant folk’s love of stories which they will remember: everything he does is for wordly goods and he now reveals how strong is his fear and hatred of poverty. He rejects labour in favour of fraud and refuses to imitate the lives of the Apostles: he wants money, wool, cheese and wheat, even if it is given by the poorest serving-boy or widow, whose children are dying of famine.

By juxtaposition, Chaucer reminds us that this scoundrel loves wine and is, at that moment, drinking and eating so that we have a clear, visual image of his hypocrisy and wickedness. It is difficult to guess what reaction he expects from the more learned pilgrims at this point, particularly when he says he wants “a joly wenche” in every town whilst clearly his desires are in another direction: he must represent himself as a good fellow despite all. Now that he has had his “corny ale” he will tell his story and is sure (“hope” probably has a stronger meaning here) that it will please them unless they are quite unreasonable: although he is a “ful vicious man” he can tell a story with a moral, which is what they asked for, as that is his professional skill. Perhaps one of his motives is flattery, by which he treats his present audience as different from and superior to his usual congregation in their sophistication so that they will applaud his tactics in duping lesser mortals.
The Pardoner’s Tale
He starts his Tale with a similar tactic: making the pilgrims feel smugly different from the lesser mortals he describes. Flemish people were thought of as hard drinkers and avaricious and the young of that country can be derided by the elders of England on a religious journey. These louts love “riot” [drunken debauchery], “hasard” [gambling], “stywes” [brothels] and inns, criticised for it by a man who has just finished his ale and would like a wench in every town. It is as though they are sacrificing to the devil by their behaviour because of its hateful excess. They indulge in hard oaths which, by swearing on various parts of Christ’s body, seem to tear Him apart again. The Pardoner is fascinated by these sins and loves to describe the dancing girls as “fetys and smal” [neat and slender] so much so that he fails to notice that, in the next part of the account, there is little wrong with fruit vendors, singers and wafer merchants who become mingled with bawds indiscriminately as the “verray develes officeres” [servants] to kindle lust and its partner gluttony. It is possible that wafer sellers sometimes acted as go-betweens but, even so, they hardly count as hardened sinners. His own prurient enjoyment has led him astray here and so he hastly sums up that “luxurie” [lechery] is connected to wine and drunkenness.

Here follow 175 lines of exempla giving backing to this assertion and delivered with unholy relish. It is an unduly long digression but does not get entirely out of hand. Examples, quotations and allusions are delivered with moral indignation mixed with barely cloaked interest in wrong doing; behind the sermon is the earlier demonstration and confession of his own hypocrisy. We will notice that the diatribe against gluttony is given by a man trying to win the prize dinner provided by the Host and that the examples of sin are far more richly detailed than those of virtue. He is determined to indulge his own love of vice but also please the pilgrims with a pretence of virtue in the ultimate moral of the story.