The Pardoner’s Tale: writing style language and Characterisation

These notes are up for revision March 2021.  At the moment, their meaning is often far from clear.

Some features of Form Structure Language and Characterisation

The style of the Pardoner’s Prologue and tale is complex.  For instance, it is part fable, part sermon, within the illusion and mechanism of a pilgimage.  See my page The Tale as Sermon’


  • riotoures’ haste, eagerness and terse oaths, mostly practicalities, abstract words are used reductively, for instance: ‘myrthe’ becomes dissipation; and ‘grace’ becomes good luck; ‘felicitee’ becomes simply having a good time; and ‘trouthe becomes a pledge that can be broken.  They misunderstand the figurative personification of death, as a ‘privee theef’, to be literal.  All this is in sharp contrast with the old man’s calm sustained sentences, solemn reference to G-d, his reluctance and his long speech.   Further contrasts between the riotoures and the old man:
    • youth ‘us yonge folk’ & age ‘olde cherl’
    • seeking to overcome death & desiring death
    • antithetical attitudes to repentance: be ready to meet Him ‘evermoore’
    • old man has rejected the treasure presumably.
    • Old man’s contempt for the world (common medieval theme) & the pleasure seekers
    • Meekness & pride
    • Acceptance of one’s lot (and death) & those who do not accept it.
  • surly master and serving boy are contrasted

Direct and indirect speech

  • juxtaposed in apothecary scene
  • 60% dialogue in the tale
  • Riotours condemn themselves
  • Few three opinions given:
    • ‘christes blessed body they to-rente’ (381)
    • The devil had ‘leve to sorwe bringe’
    • ‘I suppose’ that Avicenna never wrote of clearer signs of poisoning (561)
    • Prejorative e.g. ‘the proudest’, ‘the worste’, ‘thise homicides two’, ‘the false empoysonere’

Climax / anticlimax

Climax of discovering treasure and anti-climactic abrupt ending to tale.

Changes of tone:

  • bluster of riotoures to furtiveness on discovering the treasure.
  • Thoughts on death evaporate on finding the treasure: cunning wariness begins
  • Curt tone to serving boy
  • Placatory weedling whenpersuading his fellow to join plot
  • Numerous oaths
  • Gratuitous insult to old man
  • Foolish indignation at possibility of being thought as having stolen treasure
  • Oath breaking
  • Conspiracy to murder

Rhetoric and poetical devices

  • Apostrophe e.g. ‘O glotonye (170)
  • IC in exclamation 210ff in high style and using repetitio, anaphora, apostrophe (same first words to lines and same syntax paralleled.  224-5, 246-7, 263ff,  607ff,
  • Polysyndeton (repetition of conjunction) (190)
  • Asyndeton (omission of conjunction (191)
  • Metaphor (230) and simile (228)
  • Periphrasis (roundabout way of saying) ‘the white and the rede (198)
  • Transferred epithet (an adjective which is ‘wrongly placed’) ‘a lecherous thing is wyn’ (221)
  • Synonyms (297)
  • Sententia: traditional wisdom
  • protheme (introduction).
  • The theme: 46 the Prologue.
  • Amplificatio: expands
  • Dilatation: exposition of the text
  • Exemplum: story anecdote: could be scatological: the rioters’ story: 217ff, 263ff, 291ff. There are a large number of exempla: e.g. Adam 217:
  • Peroration: formal recapitulation.  Peroratio: formal conclusion 576-587. usually it applies to specific circs  but here does not refer to the exemplum, specifically.
  • Closing formula: of blessing: 628-30
  • Exposition?


e.g. symbolic ‘croked way’, ‘ook’ tree (perhaps symbolises … ‘true’ English/Catholic values?).

Pace / Tension

Fast pace creates tension

  • Opening plunges us into world of Flemish revellers.
  • After the 200 line digression, the pardoner startles his audience by referring to the 3 rioters as if he has already mentioned them and we have the exemplum of utmost brevity – pared to essentials except for speech.
  • We never discoverhow the treasure got there.
  • Swearing brotherhood is instantaneous
  • The ringleader’s plan is immediately accepted and the youngest is on his way to town within 3 lines.

Slow pace

  • Stops story for 200 line digression on sins of the tavern – this creates a sense of anticipation, moving from tales of incest and murder to classical stories of virtue (from Adversus Jovinianum ofSt   Jerome).
  • Treacherous scheme against the youngest in two long speeches.
  • 515-520 why the devil put the thought in the youngest’s mind


The pardoner is shown in his prologue to be self congratulatory and complacent.  He uses the fear of damnation to line his own pockets

The pardoner has all the deadly sins: he has pride in hisperformance; he falsely defames (Prologue 87) showing envy; he is angry with Harry Bailly 629; sloth in doing nothing with his hands (prologue 116); gluttony shown via his protruding eyes and drinking (and prologue 124).  Lechery shown in e.g. his Goat-like voice (prologue 125).  Avarice is shown in his selling of pardons.  His hair and no beard suggest effeminacy, falsity, guile, sexual vanity and self love.  He comes from Rouncivale which is also a pun of mannish woman.

We know nothing of the rioters except what is essential; they are drunk; they have no sense of reality and their world is like the strange unreal world of a dream, of lich-bells (rung in front of corpse), facelesspeople and shadowypersonifications.  They are referred to as ‘the first’, ‘that oon’, and ‘that oother’.  They run from place to place.  The youngest is shown to greedily anticipate wealth by keeping a bottle free of poison to refresh himself when carrying the treasure later.

Death is the only named character and the horror of the plague is present in ‘a thousand slayn’ (351).  The plague itself was known as ‘the death’.    There is no trace of the macabre quest for Death in analogue stories.  The details such as the oak take on an indefinable significance.  The morality play Everyman, death arrests Everyman to appear before G-d and in The Pride of Life  the King prepares to fight Death:

‘Qhwar, prechistou of Dethis might

And of his maistrye?

He ne durst onis (once) with me fight

For both his eye!’

 The boy, the old man, the taverner, the apothecary are also without names.  They drift in and out mysteriously

Old man: fearless:

    • ‘gan looke in his visage’
    • knocks staff on ground (to ask mother Earth to let him in)

The apothecary has professional pride

Irony– some examples:

  • The preacher has the very sins he condemns
  • He fails to see the limitations of his success
  • He is damned whilst those he dupes will be saved
  • The serving boy by quoting his mother understands more than his master – via the orthodox doctrine of taking the sacraments and lead a virtuous life
  • Dramatic irony:
    • the riotoures do not see their inevitable damnation, which the reader does
    • ‘Deeth shal be deed’ is blasphemous because Christ died on the cross for this purpose and they are rejecting The Way to eternal life.
    • Riotoures use ‘my sworen brother’, ‘oure felawe’ and ‘my deere freend’ when they are about to break their pledge ‘to lyve and dyen ech of hem for oother’ (375).
    • Each of the riotoures is killed by a literal ‘privee theef’

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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