"The root of all evil is money." Because this phrase has been repeated so many times throughout history, one can fail to realize the truth in this timeless statement. Whether applied to the corrupt clergy of Geoffrey Chaucer's time, selling indulgences, or the corrupt televangelists of today, auctioning off salvation to those who can afford it, this truth never seems to lose its validity. In Chaucer's famous work The Canterbury Tales, he points out many inherent flaws of human nature, all of which still apply today. Many things have changed since the fourteenth century, but humanity's ability to act foolish is not one of them. Perhaps the best example of this is illustrated in "The Pardoner's Tale." His account of three rioters who set out to conquer Death and instead deliver it upon each other, as well as the prologue which precedes the tale, reveal the truthfulness of the aforementioned statement as it applies to humanity in general and the Pardoner himself.
Before he even begins his tale, the Pardoner delivers a sort of disclaimer, informing the pilgrims of his practices within the church.
The Pardoner was an expert at exploiting parishioners' guilt for his financial gain. He sold them various "relics" that supposedly cured ailments ranging from sick cattle to jealousy. And if the relics didn't seem to work, it was obviously because of the sinful man or woman who purchased them, and no fault of the Pardoner. He had a few lines he would routinely say to his potential customers;
"Good men and women, here's a word of
If there is anyone in the church this morning
Guilty of sin, so far beyond expression
Horrible, that he dare not make confession,
Or any woman, whether young or old,
That's cuckolded her husband, be she told
That such as she shall have no power or grace
To offer to my relics in this place."
And this practice proved quite successful for the Pardoner, as he later states, proclaiming, "That trick's been worth a hundred marks a year". By extolling his ability to profit from deception and fear, the Pardoner offers himself as a clear example of the phrase he himself was fond of quoting, Radix malorum est cupiditas, or "The root of evil is money". He then proceeds to prove his point with his tale of three rioters and their search for Death.
"The Pardoner's Tale" is an exemplum, or a story that teaches a lesson. In telling his story, the Pardoner sets out to prove the truthfulness of his statement of money being the root of evil. The story definitely accomplishes this, as does the Pardoner's account of his own occupation. The pardoner tells a story of three young rioters who, having learned that a friend recently succumbed to the plague, seek to find, and kill, Death. However, during the course of their quest, they meet an untimely demise due to a pile of gold found under a tree. The Pardoner manages to weave in the seven deadly sins throughout the story, all leading back to the gold. Because of their desire for the wealth, the rioters betray and ultimately destroy each other, thus proving the Pardoner's statement as being true. He states that
"...these two murderers received their due
So did the treacherous young poisoner too."
The moral of the tale is obvious: be wary of money, because it can, or perhaps will, cause irrational or evil actions. The irony of this section of The Canterbury Tales is the fact that, while the Pardoner's tale proves to be an exemplum, the brief account he gives of himself produces the exact same effect.
The Pardoner works within the church, yet he lives a decidedly liberated, or even sinful, life, which he freely admits. While chastising church-goers for leading sinful lives in order to persuade them to believe in his false relics, he brags about "drinking the liquor of the grape", and keeping "a jolly wench in every town". Indeed he introduces his tale with the rather open statement
"For though I am a wholly viscous man
Don't think I can't tell moral tales. I can!"
And, true to character, when he is through with his tale condemning the evils of money and praising the virtues of righteousness, he immediately tries to push his worthless relics onto the pilgrims. And to further the hypocrisy, he tries to persuade them to purchase papal pardons which can "be renewed every town or so". He again attempts to gain from their fears, by saying that they may be thrown off of their horse at any time, and therefore should purchase one of his pardons to ensure salvation in the afterlife. The host immediately points out the idiocy of the Pardoner's attempts by saying,
"You'll have me kissing your old breeches too
And swear they were the relic of a saint..."
Indeed, things appear to be getting quite tense until the Knight intervenes and the journey continues.
The pardoner's character is further outlined in the "Prologue" , when the writer states that,
"With these relics, any time he found
Some poor up-country parson to astound
In one short day, in money down, he drew
More than the parson in a month or two,".
Also in the "Prologue", his appearance is described in very unflattering terms. Chaucer states that he "had hair as yellow as wax...In driblets fell his locks behind his head...Thinly...like rat-tails". The use of the word rat, as well as the general tone of the description, paints a picture of the Pardoner as corrupt and slimy from the very beginning. This image is carried on throughout, and proven several times over in his tale and preceding speech.
Geoffrey Chaucer does a great job of pointing out flaws of human nature, as well as the hypocrisy that lies in religion to this day. He shows in several ways that money is indeed the root of evil. In addition to the obvious message of "The Pardoner's Tale", Chaucer also paints a vivid picture of the Pardoner's character and uses this to further reinforce his point. By examining both "The Pardoner's Tale" and the Pardoner himself, it isn't hard to see that the statement continues to ring true just as it did 500 years ago: The root of evil is money.
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