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Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, [1833], at

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The Pardoner's Tale


"Now, my good friend, Master Pardoner," said our host, "let us have from you a right merry tale full of well-conceited jests." "It shall be done," said he, "by St. Ronion. But, first, let me take a snack of cake and a draught at this ale-house." Forthwith all the gentles in the company began to cry, "No, no, let us have no ribaldry: tell us some moral thing that we may learn; some sound sense, and we will gladly listen to you." "Very well," said he, "but give me time to think of an honest tale while I take my liquor. . . . My lords and gentlemen," said he, "whenever I am about to perform duty in church, my first care is to learn by rote all I have to preach, and then to pitch my voice in a full and high key, ringing it out as round and clear as a bell. My theme is always, and ever has been the same, Radix malorum est cupiditas (Covetousness is the root of all evil) . First, I pronounce whence I have come, and then display my letters of authority from the pope. The seal of our liege lord upon my patent I display to prove my warrant, that no man, whether priest or clerk, may be so bold as to disturb me in the exercise of Christ's holy work. After this I enter upon my discourse, ever and anon mixing up with it small scraps of Latin to saffron * my preaching and steer

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men to devotion; then I draw forth my relics—crystals, clouts, and bones, the shoulder of a holy sheep enclosed in brass—and say, 'Good men and brethren, take heed to my words; if this bone be dipped in any well, and your cattle be infected with the worm, or stung, take but the water of that well and wash them, and forthwith they shall be healed: or if your sheep have the rot, let them drink one draught of the water and they shall be cured. Lay up these words of mine therefore in your hearts. If also any good man who owns cattle will, every week before cock-crow, drink a draught of that well, fasting, his store shall multiply like the flock of holy Jacob of old. Moreover, sirs, it healeth jealousy; for let a man fall into the most grievous rage, mix but his potage with that water, and he will never more suspect his wife of deceit, even though he know the truth of her fault.

"'Behold this mitten! He that will thrust his hand into this glove (if he offer a few groats or pence to holy church) shall find his corn multiply in seed time.

"'But of one thing I warn you, my brethren: if any one now before me in this congregation have committed a deadly sin, so that he dare not for shame be shrived of it; or if any woman, young or old, have been treacherous to her husband, such shall have no power to offer to my relics. But whoso is aware of such sin, let him come to me and offer up in the name of God, and I will absolve him from his crime by the authority of this bull here, granted to me by his holiness at Rome.'

"By such tricks as these, my masters, have I, year by year, made a hundred marks ever since I followed the duty of a pardoner. I stand forth in my pulpit like any

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learned clerk, and preach, as you have heard, to the ignorant multitude, using a hundred other tricks than I have already told. And all the while I stretch out my neck, east and west, becking upon the people, like a dove sitting on a barn. My hands and tongue I ply so briskly that it is a joy to see me at work. All my discourse is set against avarice and such cursedness, that I may make the hearers free in offering their pence—namely, to me; for gain is all my care, and nothing for the correction of sin: I reck not when once they are buried, although their souls be gone to the dwelling of blackness.

"For of a truth many a sermon springeth oft-time from an evil intention: some to flatter and please the hearer and by hypocrisy to advance one's own interest; some through vain glory, and others through private hate; for when I dare not in any other manner ply my discourse, then do I sting the object of attack with my tongue, and in such a way that if he have offended the brotherhood or myself, he shall not start at being defamed falsely; for though I do not call him forth by name, I take good care, by signs and other circumstances, that all his neighbours shall 'place the saddle on the right horse.' And after this fashion am I even with those who offend us, under colour of religion and an appearance of piety and truth, spitting out my venom upon them. In short, I preach of nothing but covetousness, therefore the whole burthen of my song has ever been Radix malorum est cupiditas.

"Thus, you see, I can preach against this same vice of which I myself am guilty, this avarice. Although, however, I be steeped to the lips in that sin, yet have I the wit to wean others from the same offence and bring them to

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a sore repentance. Yet is not this my principal intent, but to root out covetousness; I preach nought else.

"Furthermore, I tell them many examples of old stories long ago; for simple and ignorant people delight in old tales—they easily retain and report them again. What! do you think that while I teach and gather gold and silver by my prayers that I will myself live in wilful poverty? No, no such matter never crossed my brain; my duty is

to preach from land to land, to collect all the wealth I can for mother church; I have nought to do with labour or handicraft—I am no basket-maker—no counterfeit of the Apostles: money—money and provender will I have—aye, even from the sorriest hind, or poorest widow in the village, although her children pine for it. Wine and revelry for me! and these I get in every town.

"But to conclude, my lords and gentlemen, it is your wish to have my story. Now, having drunk a draught of corny ale, I hope to tell you one to your liking; for, though no saint myself, I can relate a moral tale, one that I sometimes deliver from the pulpit, and so, craving your silence, I thus begin.


IN Flanders, a long while ago, there was a company of young men who committed every act of riot and foolishness—drinking, dancing, playing, and throwing of the dice; night and day this was evermore their game. With abominable superfluity also they eat and drank beyond their strength, sacrificing to the devil in his own temple, the scene of their wickedness and foolishness. The oaths they uttered were great and heinous, that it was a dreadful thing to hear them swear. The body of

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The Pardoner
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The Pardoner

our blessed Lord they horribly profaned; and then each would laugh at the other's sin. Sometimes, while they were in their revelry, dancing women, young and comely; fruit-girls, singers, and harp-players, sellers of wafercake—a wanton band—would come in and minister to their gluttony and luxury. The holy writ bear me witness that gluttony and drunkenness are the foundation of all luxury.

O gluttony!—fellest curse!—first cause of our confusion!—origin of our condemnation!—till Jesus bought our redemption again with his blood. How dearly, alas! was this misdeed purchased: the whole world became corrupt through gluttony alone. For this vice were Adam our forefather and his helpmate driven out of Paradise to labour and sorrow. While he abstained he dwelt in that blest abode, and when he ate of the fruit of the forbidden tree he became an outcast to woe and pain. O gluttony! well may we beshrew thy triumph. Let a man think of the many maladies that follow upon the excess of gluttony, and he will be more measurable of his diet. Alas! the short throat, the tender mouth, cause men to labour in earth, and air, and water, from east to west, that the glutton may be served daintily with his meat and drink. Well hast thou treated this matter, Paul, our apostle. "Meats for the belly," he says, "and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them." A foul thing is it to say, but fouler is the deed when a man so drinks to excess that his throat becomes the common-sewer to this detested superfluity. The apostle also says, "Many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you,

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even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly." For what is the cook's labour—with the marrow and the spicery, the herbs and leaves, the barks and roots, but to make them go softly and sweetly through the throat, and by their delights to create a newer appetite? yet know, of a surety, that he who haunts these dainties is but dead while living in his vice.

And thou, too, O drunken man!—disfigured is thy face, sour thy breath, and foul and odious art thou to embrace. Thou fallest down like a slaughtered swine: thy tongue is lost to thee, and all thine honest care; for drunkenness is the very sepulchre of a man's wit and discretion. He is unfit to keep counsel over whom wine has dominion. Refrain, therefore, from the alluring white and red drink, and, above all, from the strong drink of them of Spain, whose country wines have crept subtly into our milder vintages of Rochelle and Bourdeaux; so that by the time a man has taken his three draughts he knows not whether he be at home in Cheap or rolling in fair Cadiz’ Bay.

Having preached to you against gluttony and drunkenness, I would also forbid you the vice of gaming. Gaming is the mother of lying, deceit, treachery, and perjury: the gambler is a blasphemer of his Maker, a destroyer of man—of his own substance, and of precious time. It is a reproof and a dishonour to be held a common gambler, and the higher his condition the more abandoned is he esteemed. In every good government, and in all wise policy, the reputation of that prince is ever held light if he be addicted to gaming. Chilon, a wise ambassador, was sent from Lacedemon to Corinth to create an alliance

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with that state; and when he arrived there he found the nobles of the place all infected with the vice of gaming: so, with the least possible delay, he stole home again to his own country, for, said he, "I will not lose my fair name or so dishonour myself as to ally you with a nation of gamblers: send out, if you deem it meet, other ambassadors, for, by my truth, I would rather die than frame for you such an alliance. Ye who have ever been glorious in honour, shall never, by any will or treaty of mine, be connected with gamesters." Such was the speech of this true philosopher. One more example and I have done. The King of Parthia, in scorn of King Demetrius, who had been a noted gambler, sent him a pair of golden dice, signifying that he held his glory and renown in no value or reputation. Our lords may find other diversion honest enough to drive the day away.

A word or two I would say upon oaths, both false and great. Swearing at all is an abomination, but false-swearing is infinitely more reprehensible. Our Lord has forbade all swearing, as we read in St. Matthew, but especially the holy Jeremiah has said, "Thou shalt swear in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness": but idle swearing is a cursed thing. The second command in the great God's table of laws is, "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." Such swearing is forbidden before the commission of homicide or any other crime. And, of a surety, I declare to you that vengeance will not depart from his house that is outrageous in oaths. For the love of Him, therefore, who died for us, forbear your oaths of any kind. And now, sirs, I will go on with my tale.

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These three rioters I spoke of, long before the first chime of early bell, were drinking together in a tavern; and as they sat, they heard a knell going before a corpse that was being carried to the grave: when one of them, calling to the tapster lad, "Go and inquire," said he, "what corpse is that just passing by, and bring us word." "Sir," said the boy, "I need not do that, for I heard two hours before you came here. He was an old companion of yours: he was carried off suddenly last night as he sat upon his bench—drunk. There came a private thief, called Death, who kills all the people in this country, and with his spear striking him to the heart, he went his way without speaking a word. He has slain a thousand people, this pestilence: and, master, before you come into his presence, I think it proper that you should beware of such an adversary. Be evermore ready to meet him. So my mother taught me."

"By St. Mary," said the tavern-keeper, "the child says true, for this year, in a great village, about a mile hence, Death has killed both man, woman, and child. I guess he must be thereabouts. He were a wise man who should be on his guard to prevent his doing him some mischief."

Then, with a frightful oath, did this rioter say, "Is there such peril in meeting with him? I vow to hunt him in every stile and street in the neighbourhood. Hearken, comrades—let us all three join hands, as sworn brethren, to seek out this traitor Death and slay him." And so, all stark mad and drunk, they staggered forth towards the village of which the taverner had spoken.

They had scarcely reached half a mile from home when, getting over a stile, they met a poor old man, who

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greeted them very meekly. "What, churl," said the proudest of the three, "do you do here clouted up, and crawling about at your age? Why don't you die?"

This old man looked him steadily in the face, and said, "Because I cannot find a man, although I were to walk to the Indies to seek him, who will change his youth for my great age; and, therefore, must I bear my age as long as it is the will of God I should do so. Death, alas! will not take my life: and thus I walk about like a restless wretch, and on the ground, which is my mother's door, early and late I knock with my staff and say to her, 'Dear mother, let me in. Behold how I dwindle in my body. Alas! when shall my weary bones have rest? With you, mother, would I change my coffin, that has long been my chamber companion, for a hair-cloth to wrap me in, and lie down in peace.' Yet will she not grant me this boon; and, therefore, pale and withered is my face. But, sirs, it is not courteous in you to offer insult to an old man, who trespasses neither in word nor deed. The holy writ has taught you that 'you shall rise before the hoary head'; and, therefore, harm not an old man now, any more than you would desire to be harmed in age, if you are allowed so long to abide. God be with you, I must go forth upon my travel."

"Nay, nay, old churl," said another of the gamblers, "by St. John we do not part so lightly. You just now spoke of that traitor 'Death,' that goes about this country killing all our friends. By my truth, tell us where he is (for I take you to be his spy), or you shall dearly abide the consequences of your refusal. I doubt not that you are leagued with him to murder us youngsters, you false thief!"

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"Sirs," said he, "if it be your pleasure to find out 'Death' turn up yon crooked path; for, upon my faith, I left him in that grove under a tree, and there he will remain for some time; neither will he attempt to hide himself in spite of all your boasting. Do you see that oak? There you will meet with him. God preserve and amend you," said this old man.

These three rioters ran off immediately till they came to the tree, and there they found a large heap of fine gold florins. They sought no longer after Death, so glad were they at the sight of these fair and bright coins. And down they sat by the precious hoard, when the worst of the three proposed that as fortune had sent them the treasure to live in mirth and jollity, they should spend it as lightly as it came. "But," said he, "if we take all this gold home to either of our houses, we shall run the chance of being taken up for thieves, and mayhap be hanged. We had, therefore, best carry it home slyly at night; and, in the meantime, let us draw lots who shall go to the next town and buy us bread and wine, while the other two stay and watch the money."

So, having drawn the lots, the youngest was doomed to go to the town. As soon as he was out of sight, one of the two said to the other, "You know that we have long been sworn brothers; now, if you listen to me, I will show how all this gold, which is to be divided among three, shall become the property of us two only." The other said he knew not how that could be, for their companion was aware that the money was with them two.

"Well," said the other, "do not betray me, and I will show you how we may bring it about. We two are

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stronger than one: when, therefore, he has sat down, you must get up and pretend to play with him, and while you are struggling as in game, I will yerk him under the ribs, and see that with your dagger you then do the same. Then all this gold will be shared between you and me, my dear friend! and we may do with it as we please." So these cursed wretches agreed to murder the third.

The youngest, as he went towards the town, cast about in his mind the beauty of the florins. "O Lord!" said he to himself, "if I could but have all this treasure to myself, not a man under heaven would be happier than I." Then did the great enemy of mankind put it into his head to buy poison with which he might despatch his two companions; and forth he went to an apothecary in the town, who sold him a confectionary, the smallest portion of which, to the amount of a corn of wheat, would strike a man dead before one could walk a mile.

Then this cursed villain went and purchased three bottles, into two of which he poured the poison, filling them all three with wine, and returned to his mates, thinking to carry away the gold himself by night.

What need I to proceed with my tale? As the two had contrived his death, so they murdered him; and afterward sat down to feast, proposing, when they had finished, to bury him out of the way. It so happened, however, that they took one of the bottles containing the poison, and no wretches suffered more dreadfully in their death than they. So ended the lives of these homicides, and their poisoner. The old man they met was—"Death."



125:* An expressive term. Saffron was used to give colour as well as flavour to confectionaries.

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