The Pardoner’s Tale: Context

Here are three key 14th century events/features which would have added a certain ‘flavour’ to the response of Chaucer’s original audience

Black Death 1348-9 killed a third to a half of the population.  There were also plagues in 1361 & 1369.

The Peasants’ Revolt under Wat Tyler took place in 1381.

The church was a powerful, economic, political, social, educational moral and religious force.


The pilgrimage to the tomb of St Thomas at Canterbury is analogous to the Way: the life of man on this earth on his way to heavenly Jerusalem.  Time passing is shown via night approaching.  The outskirts of town are sinister places in history and literature: the old man has not reached the village.

The church of the period was held in low esteem: the Pope was regarded as the French king’s poodle and war broke out between rival popes in 1379.

Priests would pronounce absolution once contrition, confession and penance completed.  It was held that few would fulfil theirp enance before death and most would go to Purgatory.  A system of Indulgences was in place for charitable actions for certain number of days which would reduce time in purgatory.

Pardoners sold papal indulgences.  They did not absolve from guilt but simply released people from punishment for sin – how many claimed they could absolve (‘assoile’).  They peddled sham relics.  For pardoners, money became the proof of contrition, confession and penance.  Their duty was to collect charitable offerings for religious purposes for their religious institutions.  They were noted for lechery and gluttony, many forged documents.  Many were imposters: they lied about miracles and pretended animal bones were relics of saints.

The British museum has digitalised Margery Kempe’s autobiography, which is the first English autobiography.  Apparently it gives insights into the religious practises of the period.


Below are some language changes which affect the modern audience’s response to The Pardoner’s Tale.

The way we pronounce vowels has changed since Chaucer’s time.  The Great Vowel Shift caused vowels to be raised in a higher position in the mouth.

Inflexions, which were an characterising feature of Old English and appear strongly in Chaucer’s English, have continued to be lost.

London English gradually assumed status because of its writers and printers, its economic, social and political importance.


Finally, the printing press was invented after Chaucer’s death in 1439 by Johannes Gutenburg; William Caxton printed The Canterbury Talesin 1476.  Printing improved the availability of the Tales which were only previously available in laboriously written and therefore very expensive manuscript form.  This has changed how the text is ‘accessed’ by its audience because printing improved the availability of the Tales which had been only available in laboriously written and therefore very expensive manuscript form.

Other pages (some mine) on The Pardoner’s Tale:

Very useful Study Guide giving insights into many aspects of the text, including a commentary on the significance of phrases.


Modern English rendering 

Chaucer: The Man and his Work

The Pardoner of the Tale

The Pardoner’s Tale as Sermon (Form)

The Pardoner’s Tale Annotated Text (first few lines)

The Pardoner’s Tale: context

Modern English version

The Pardoner’s Tale: questions

The Pardoner’s Tale: the uncanny

The Pardoner’s Tale: writing style and characterisation




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