Perhaps what is most horrifying is being unable to turn away from one’s own destruction. This theme, particularly as it applies to greed, is explored in the Pardoner’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories from fourteenth-century England by Geoffrey Chaucer, who was regarded by his earliest readers as a supremely “philosophical” poet.
The frame narrative for the Tales is that each story is being told as part of a storytelling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. Though the stories and their tellers vary widely, nothing quite prepares the reader for the Pardoner’s Tale—a story with a “moral” that questions whether it is actually possible to learn the moral, so that perhaps it is simply a dark prophecy.
For this tale, Chaucer selected a surprisingly universal story that, unbeknownst to him, originated in Buddhist India in the fourth- or third-century BCE, eventually spread through the Muslim world to Christendom, reached as far as sub-Saharan Africa, and eventually came to Hollywood, where it was retold as the classic John Huston movie starring Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The story typically involves two or more people who come upon a treasure, cannot bring themselves to divide it equally, and end up simultaneously killing each other. There is an obvious moral, which is that greed leads to conflict, which leads to death.
What is most disturbing about Chaucer’s version is that he puts this moral tale, with an obvious anti-greed message, in the mouth of a most immoral man who has, by his own admission, given his life over to greed. This is the character of the Pardoner. In medieval Catholicism, a “pardoner” was a person licensed to sell papal pardons, or “indulgences,” which were thought to save one from punishment in the afterlife. This practice, which eventually helped to provoke the Protestant Reformation, was an obvious source of various corruptions both prohibited and sanctioned by the Church.
We know little of the Pardoner prior to his tale. He has a strangely feminine appearance (like David Bowie circa Diamond Dogs, I imagine), and he was apparently impressed by the debunking approach taken by another pilgrim, the Wife of Bath (whose theme was the battle of the sexes), leading him to exclaim that he would take her for his wife. Different pilgrims ask him to tell a light-hearted or moral tale, but, perhaps inspired by the Wife of Bath, he instead announces he will tell an “honest” tale.
The Pardoner starts by openly boasting about his fraud:
For my intent is but only to win
And nothing for the correction of sin.
(All translations are my own.) In addition to skimming money off the top of his pardon business, he boasts about making a brisk trade in selling fraudulent relics, supposed bones of saints and whatnot, which were thought to possess magical healing qualities. Even as he admits to loving debauched drinking and carousing, he claims his homilies inspire people to give up their money, and that his theme is always that greed is the root of all evils:
Thus I preach against that very same vice
Which I practice, and that is avarice.
He proudly desires fine things, and says he doesn’t care whether the money comes from poor widows, even if her children should starve as a result. He is like a virus to altruism, hijacking it to his own ends.
The tale itself is set in Flanders, then one of the richest and most commercially advanced countries in Europe, and opens with three riotous men in an unhallowed tavern who are drinking, gambling, whoring, and making blasphemous oaths. The rioters hear a bell from a burial, and are told that their friend has been killed by a “thief” named “Death” who has killed many others. Taking this personification literally, the three men make an oath to kill Death.
Stepping out into the day, the three men soon come across a piteous, infinitely old man who claims that by God’s will, he cannot die, no matter how hard he tries, until he finds a young man who would exchange youth for his old age. He desires nothing more than death, but (in a bizarre inversion of the Christian afterlife) God will not let him die, so that he must endure the ever-increasing entropy of old age, crying out to his long-buried dead mother to “let me in”:
Nor Death, alas, will take away my life,
Thus I walk on through restless wretched strife.
And on the ground, which is my mother’s gate,
I knock with my staff both early and late,
And say, please mother, let me in!
Lo how I vanish, flesh, and blood, and skin!
The three rioters mock and accost him, demanding information on Death’s whereabouts. Offended, the old man points them up a crooked path toward a tree, saying Death can be found there. Under the tree, they discover a massive treasure of Florentine gold coins. They agree to split it equally, but realize if they brought it back to town, they would be taken as thieves and hung, so they resolve to wait until cover of night to bring the treasure back home. To hold them over, they decide to have one go back to town to get bread and wine (again, a bizarre inversion, this time of the Eucharist). They draw straws to see who will go, and the youngest draws the shortest, so that he heads off into town. As soon as he is gone, the remaining two resolve to kill him when he comes back, so that they may split the treasure only between themselves. Unbeknownst to them, the youngest is also making plans, and while he buys bread and three bottles of wine, he also buys deadly poison that he puts in the two bottles he will give to his fellows.
When the youngest returns to the treasure, the other two stab him. With his body lying dead on the ground, one of the killers grabs a bottle (by chance, a poisoned one), drinks in celebration, and hands it to his accomplice, who drinks as well. They both immediately die.
Wrapping up his tale, the Pardoner sermonizes as follows with what appears to be a rhetorical question that has often been interpreted, I think incorrectly, as an uncharacteristic outburst of faith:
Alas, mankind, how can it ever be,
That to your Creator, who your flesh wrought
And, with His precious heart-blood, your soul bought,
You are false and unnatural, alas?
This statement is better read in accordance with the Pardoner’s character as being a mockingly false rhetorical question, that is, an actual question. From the Pardoner's “honest” perspective, this question can only be answered by saying that human nature, viewed realistically, cannot have been made in the image of a just God. That is, the reason mankind acts so “unnatural” toward God (“unkynde,” in Chaucer’s words, which at the time literally meant unlike one’s kind) is that human nature is not at all godly.
In claiming that man is utterly ungodly, the Pardoner cannot help but imply that the Christian God does not exist, and the Church’s morality is a sham: the whole edifice of the Church is premised on a more optimistic vision of human nature, however “fallen” our condition might be. Viewed in this light, the story is a horrible joke, a greedy and self-destructive man’s weird celebration of greed leading to madness leading to death. Like the old man trapped in an eternity of entropy, the Pardoner is condemned to a purely corporeal life, because he believes there is nothing to live for except satisfying, however fleetingly, one’s own greed.
Rubbing it in to the maximum extent, the Pardoner then begins needling his fellow pilgrims to buy his relics enshrined in glass, a mocking gesture in light of the fact that he just told them these relics are all fraudulent. He particularly focuses on Harry Bailly, the London tavern-keeper who first suggested having a storytelling contest, and who has been acting as a sort of leader throughout the pilgrimage.
Harangued by the Pardoner, Harry finally snaps, and with utter seriousness threatens to cut off the Pardoner’s balls and feed them to a pig, so that they may be “enshrined in a hog’s turd.” The threat of violence, which the unmanly Pardoner is obviously not equipped to handle, finally shuts him up, and makes the other pilgrims laugh:
This Pardoner answered with not a word;
So wrathful he was, no word would he say.
Ultimately, this outcome suggests, the only check on an evil man is force or humiliation, not conscience.
Nevertheless, another pilgrim, the Knight, steps forward and asks them to reconcile, which they reluctantly do, giving each other a ceremonial kiss of peace. Why the Knight does this is not clear, but a hint is given by the Knight’s own tale, which is about the survival of ancient Homeric values into the world of chivalry, and which suggests, a bit like the Pardoner’s tale, that reality has an element of pure chaos, which is symbolized in the Knight’s tale by the God Saturn, who declaims:
‘My dear daughter Venus,’ said Saturn,
’My orbit, which is so wide in its turn,
Has more power than known by any man.
Mine is the drenching in the sea so wan;
mine is the prison of darkest black coke;
Mine is the strangling and hanging by throat;
The murmur of the churls soon rebelling,
The grumbling, and the secret poisoning;
I do vengeance and ply full correction,
While I dwell in the sign of the Lion.’
In short, perhaps the Knight felt he learned something from the Pardoner and took pity on him.
Perhaps Chaucer, who saw society nearly collapse as a six-year-old during the Black Plague, which was symbolized at the time as Death riding a horse (just like Death in the tale), learned something from the Pardoner as well. Some may say this reading of Chaucer is too dark and twisted, and not at all like the merry little rhyming simpleton he is often taken to be, but it is faithful to the view of his earliest readers that he was “philosophical,” along with the belief of his literary model, Giovanni Boccaccio (whose Decameron inspired the Tales), that a story could, if only implicitly, provide a certain philosophical truth. While I do not think Chaucer agreed with the Pardoner about God, morality, or human nature, I do believe that, like Plato with regard to Callicles in the Gorgias, Chaucer wanted to explore the Pardoner's worldview, to understand it from the inside out, and to weigh it for what it was worth. At the very least, it would seem that Chaucer had grave misgivings about the power of conscience to provide direction or instill self-control, and wanted to point toward a new, more grounded (if less comforting) view of human nature.
Dan Johnson is an attorney in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @DAJchicago.