Flawed Means of Grace: Liturgy in The Pardoner’s Tale
November 3, 2016

Out of all the characters in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Pardoner has been called the “one lost soul.” The pious Parson, who closes out the collection of tales with a sermon on the seven deadly sins and how a sinner can absolve himself of them, connects the journey to Canterbury with “that perfect glorious pilgrimage / That is called Jerusalem celestial” (Parson’s Tale, ll. 50-51). Combined with Chaucer’s famous retraction at the end of the book, which reads like a last will and testament, the Parson’s comment suggests that the pilgrimage, along with the entire collection of stories, can be read as a symbol of the journey every man and woman must take through life. It begins with new life (General Prologue, ll.1-8) and ends with a final judgment (the Parson’s tale), followed, hopefully, by absolution through repentance and grace.

The Pardoner, on the other hand, the “one lost soul,” asks for no forgiveness for his sins, even though he fully admits that he is taking advantage of people left and right. Despite granting pardon to people in every town so that they can enter Heaven (as long as they pay up), he says that he has no idea what happens to the soul after death. For all he knows or cares, the souls go blackberry picking (Pardoner’s Prologue, l. 406). He is rampantly unrepentant, so repulsively hypocritical that the garrulous Host says that he’d rather cut off the Pardoner’s testicles and enshrine them in a hog’s turd than kiss one of his so-called holy relics.

It’s striking, then, that the Pardoner’s tale is so strong a warning against the unrepentant sinner. As we’ll see, the three revelers in his tale go through all the rites of worship in their quest to kill Death. Normally, these rites would prepare them to meet Death, but in their case, the inverted liturgy deadens their senses and arouses their lusts. It is their doom.

The Pardoner starts his tale with a short sermon against three sins of appetite – gluttony, gambling, and blasphemy – and announces that his moral will be the same one he always uses: Radix malorum est cupiditas (Greed is the root of all evil). The story itself begins with three drunkards sitting in a tavern just before the hour of prime, which is the first of the liturgical hours, when worshipers would usually hear a church bell calling them to prayer. Instead of a church bell, the three revelers hear the clink of a bell announcing that a corpse is going to his grave. In his prologue, the Pardoner says that he makes sure that his voice rings out “as round as goes a bell” (Pardoner’s Prologue, l. 331) when he preaches. The bell is a signal to the worshipers that they must sit up and pay attention because the service has begun.

The three drunkards do pay attention, but only to ask whose body is being carried to the grave. A boy tells them that it is a friend of theirs, who was slain last night as he sat upon his bench. Throughout the tale, bad things take place at night; it’s the time of secrecy, forgetfulness, and death. The bench not only brings to mind a tavern bench, but possibly a church pew or a place for someone to kneel to receive communion. The boy also says this man’s heart was “smote in two” (l. 677). The heart is mentioned three other times in the tale, once when the revelers are casting lots to see who will go to town to buy them bread and wine (l. 795), and once when the one who drew the short straw dwells on how he would spend the treasure if it were all his (l. 838). These first three hearts figure nicely with the three sins the Pardoner warns against in the preamble to his tale: drunkenness (l. 677), gambling (l. 795), and blasphemy (l. 838 – a prayer of greed). The fourth time “heart” is used is in reference to Christ’s “heart-blood” (l. 902), which alone can absolve these sins.

The innkeeper and the child both agree that one must be prepared for Death, implying that the meeting is inevitable. The rioters, with many an oath, announce that they will slay Death before nightfall. They clasp hands and declare themselves brothers, in a parody of Christian community. Instead of living as the body of Christ (see Romans 12:5), they tear Christ’s body apart with their oaths (l. 709). They promise to live and die together, then head toward the village where Death was last seen.

The Christian liturgy is in part a reenactment of death and resurrection. In it, the worshiper declares himself a sinner, is absolved of his guilt, receives the word through a preacher, and partakes in communion, which signifies Jesus’ body and blood and commemorates the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his death. As the tavern keeper and the boy well know, part of life is a preparation for death. In distorting the liturgy of worship, the three drunkards don’t receive the means of grace as they should, and suffer for it.

The three revelers meet an old man along the road, who adopts the role of a minister. He begins with a blessing: “God see you” (l. 715) – a blessing to the righteous (Numbers 6:23-26) and a curse to the wicked (Psalm 10:11). He looks upon their faces (l. 720), and then gives a little sermonette, which is a mashup of Leviticus 19, the Golden Rule, and the Fifth Commandment. He looks for Death, he says, wanting to return to his mother Earth, but it’s God’s will for him to persist in life (l. 726). His flesh, blood, and skin are all vanishing, so he’s nothing but bones. He searches for “grace” and can’t find any (l. 737).

The use of “grace” is important here. The word is used four times in the poem, arranged in a roughly chiastic form. The first rioter wishes “sorry grace” upon the old man (l. 717), which later the narrator attributes to the third rioter as he rejoins his companions (l. 876). The old man says that the Earth will not do him the grace of taking him (l. 737), and the worst of the rioters says that finding the gold is “so fair a grace” (l. 783). To drive the point home, the first two times grace is used, it’s rhymed with “face.” The second two times, it’s rhymed with “place.” First, the worst reveler appropriates the old man’s words for himself, and then the narrator uses the villain’s words to the old man back against him. Grace is exchanged – the drunkard does receive “grace” from the old man – but not in a way that brings life.

The old man points them to a “crooked way” that leads them to a grove where they will find Death under a tree, in plain sight. The tree should remind us of the crucifixion (see 1 Peter 2:24), under which the Roman soldiers gambled for Christ’s robe. Like any good minister, the old man directs them to the cross, to life via death. It’s up to them to receive the grace through repentance.

Under the tree, they find eight bushels of gold. Eight is the Biblical number of circumcision and baptism (Leviticus 12:3, Luke 2:21, Philippians 3:5), which is transformed in the life of Christ into the number of the resurrection (on the eighth day) and, by extension, Christ’s second coming at the end of history. Yet again, what should be a means of grace and a path to life (eight treasures at the foot of the cross) becomes an instrument of Death.

In the liturgical service, the preaching of the word precedes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The rioters know this as well as anyone, and the “worst of them” speaks to his fellows, calling them “brethren” and commenting on the grace that has befallen them. He suggests that they wait till nightfall – when they pledged to slay Death – and carry the gold away. In the meantime, they will partake of bread and wine. The parody of the Last Supper thickens when the rioter tells his fellows that the one who is sent to town “will not tarry / when it is night” (ll. 799-800), recalling Jesus’ words to Judas after the Passover meal (“What you do, do quickly”), followed by John’s narratorial comment: “And it was night” (John 13:27 & 13:30).

As soon as one of the drunkards leaves to buy bread and wine, the other two plot to kill him when he returns. They will pretend to wrestle with him, as though playing, and stab him in the sides when his guard is down. The sent one, however, decides he wants to keep the treasure for himself, and visits an apothecary, from whom he buys rat poison to mix in with the wine.

Rejecting grace after grace, the three revelers ultimately bring judgment down upon their own heads. Hidden in the apothecary’s warning to the youngest when he buys poison is Paul’s warning to the Corinthian church: “For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body” (1 Cor. 11:30). The three sinners do find Death, as all do, but in rejecting the absolution that they could have had if they had repented, their Death is not the peaceful rest the old man longs for. They die in agony and all three lie under the tree unburied, a dark parody of Christ and the two thieves on either side (Matthew 27:38).

By his own admission, the Pardoner works for personal, monetary gain, not for the salvation of souls. How, then, can this tale be said to be a tale of grace, if the Pardoner himself is in the same boat as the three rioters? Does the flawed storyteller ruin the efficacy of his tale?

The beginnings of an answer lie in Chaucer’s retraction, when he announces that he revokes all “the tales of Canterbury, the ones at least that incline toward sin” (Parson’s Tale, l. 1085). Chaucer is fully aware that he is himself a flawed storyteller, a teacher almost as hypocritical as the Pardoner. If a hypocrite can show people the way to salvation, then there must be hope for Chaucer himself to edify with his flawed writings, “through the benign grace of him that is king of kings and priest over all priests, that bought us with the precious blood of his heart” (Parson’s Tale, l. 1090). Through repentance, a sinful man may see his deeds transformed and his imperfect stories turned into means of grace. As in the Pardoner’s Tale, forgiveness is offered to us time and time again, if only we have ears to hear.

Christian Leithart is a graduate student in English at Villanova University.

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