Since human beings first started writing down stories, certain works have held people’s interest and fascination to a degree that is hard to fully understand. These stories end up being studied intensely by students and scholars for generations after they were written as people argue about what the writer really meant. One such story is “The Pardoner’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s signature work The Canterbury Tales. One of the most studied tales in the book, the relative darkness and intrigue in the story often leaves readers with more questions than answers. Why is the pardoner so terrible? Why is he so willing to tell his fellow travelers about his cheating ways? Who is the Old Man, and why does he knowingly send the three scoundrels to their deaths? Often thought of as separate questions that all require separate answers, could it be that the key to answering them is, in fact, all tied together? That Chaucer, a man fluent in the myths and ideas of his time, took the legend of the Wandering Jew and created one of the world’s first mystery stories? The actions of the pardoner and the true identity of the Old Man are easy to understand if you consider the idea that they are actually the same person: Judas Iscariot, the fabled Wandering Jew.
The actions of the pardoner and the true identity of the Old Man are easy to understand if you consider the idea that they are actually the same person: Judas Iscariot, the fabled Wandering Jew.
The legend of the Wandering Jew first appeared in the Byzantine Empire somewhere around the 4th – 7th century and was often described as a strange man appearing and claiming that he was the man in the bible who struck Jesus and who is now cursed to roam the world till the end of time (Bagatti 1). The legend made its way to England by the 13th century where it was spread further, all while the identity of the wanderer was debated upon (Anderson 12). While scholars and theologians have suggested many different names, one of the suspects of who is cursed to wander the earth forever is the infamous Judas Iscariot. The Bible states that Judas hanged himself after betraying Jesus, but many legends survive claiming that Judas survived because “the rope broke and he fell on his head, or because the Devil bent down the branch over which the rope was hung, or because…the trees themselves refused to take him, bowing their branches until they touched the ground” (Braswell 305). This idea that Judas survived is backed up in the Bible when Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (NIV Bible, Mathew. 16.35). It is easy to interpret this curse to be referring to Judas, Jesus’ soon to be betrayer. Even though there is much debate about who the Wandering Jew is, it is believable that Chaucer, being a well-educated, well-read, and influential man, heard the legend of a cursed Judas and put the character into his work.
The next obvious question, though, is how could both the pardoner and the Old Man be the same person? This ties in with the legend of the wandering Jew as well. In the middle ages, the legend was that the Wandering Jew “lives forever, but at the end of every hundred years falls into an incurable illness, and at length into a fit or ecstasy, out of which when he recovers, he returns to the same state of youth he was in when Jesus suffered, being then about 30 years of age” (Percy 236). This reverting back to his youth can easily explain why Chaucer was able to make both characters the same person. The pardoner was simply telling a fable that included himself in one of his past lives. Based on the arrogant nature of the pardoner it is not unreasonable to think that he would make himself the star of his own story.
A big part of the reason people study “The Pardoner’s Tale” so much, though, is because of the mystery of the Old Man and what he represents. Some people believe he is Death himself. Others think he is nobody, just an old man that gets over-hyped. Elizabeth Hatcher says that he “has remained as puzzling and frustrating to us as to the three rioters in the tale: no single interpretation has been accepted as ‘definitive’” (Hatcher 246). Many scholars throughout the ages, though, have made the connection with the Wandering Jew, with one critic going so far as to say that the Old Man “reminded me so vividly of the familiar legend of the Wandering Jew that I took it for granted that he was himself none other than the deathless vagabond” (Bushnell 450). The idea of the old man being the Wandering Jew has been around for ages and there is a large amount of evidence to back the idea up.
One of the main reasons scholars make this connection so much is because of the speech the Old Man gives the three revelers when they ask him why he is so old. Chaucer writes that the Old Man has traveled the world, all the way to India and back, and has found nobody to switch ages with him and “therefore moot I han myn age stille, / As longe tyme as it is Goddes wille. / Ne Deeth, allas, ne wol not my lyf” (The Pardoner’s Tale. 725-727). Chaucer is telling the reader “that the old man is rejected by death, and that death is to be found in the eight bushels of fine gold florins under the oak tree” (Bushnell 451). The Old Man makes it clear that he wishes for death, describing how he pounds the earth with his staff and begs to be let in, but death will not take him (729-733). He has been cursed to wander the Earth for as long as God (Jesus) wills it. This perfectly fits in with the legend of the Wandering Jew, a man who wishes for death but can never have it.
Another part that ties the Old Man to The Wandering Jew, and, more specifically, to Judas, is when he tells the three men where they can find death. He tells the revelers, “For in that grove I lafte hym, by my fey, / Under a tree, and there he wole abyde” (762-763). The tree in “The Pardoner’s Tale” is an oak, which, according to legend, is the same type of tree used by Judas during his attempted suicide by hanging (Braswell 306). Judas sought death at the foot of that tree centuries before, and it is under the same tree now—this time as the Old Man—that he sends these men to find both Death and death.
While the idea of the Old Man being The Wandering Jew is well known, the concept of the pardoner being both the Old Man and the Wandering Jew is not something scholars have investigated much, if at all. I personally was not able to find a single article that made this claim.
The last bit of evidence concerning the Old Man comes from another part of the legend of the Wandering Jew. Many of the early legends state that he was able to “smell out treasure” (Anderson 27). While this idea is chocked full of antisemitic stereotypes, it is still worth mentioning. Offensive to most sensible modern people, it was nonetheless part of the legend in Chaucer’s time and yet another piece of the puzzle that he may very well have included in “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Old Man, having this peculiar talent, knew that there was treasure under the tree and sent the men there, knowing full well what greed would cause the three of them to do.
While the idea of the Old Man being The Wandering Jew is well known, the concept of the pardoner being both the Old Man and the Wandering Jew is not something scholars have investigated much, if at all. I personally was not able to find a single article that made this claim. But the more research I did and the more I read the story, the more sense it made to me.
The first clue is the pardoner’s catchphrase. He tells his fellow travelers that, when he preaches, “My theme is alwey oon, and evere was– / Radix malorum est Cupiditas” (333-334). He always preaches that greed is the root of all evil. But this theme flies directly in the face of his actions and beliefs. The pardoner freely admits that he cheats people for money all the time, so it makes no sense that he would always, without fail, preach about the dangers of being greedy. It is possible that Chaucer is just using the contradiction of the pardoner not practicing what he preaches to show the hypocrisy of the church. Or it could be that the pardoner, as vile as he is, has one thing in his past that he regrets. Some great sin that he has never forgiven himself for and preaches to others to keep them from going down his same path. If he was indeed the Judas version of the Wandering Jew, then the act of betraying Jesus for a bag of silver and being condemned to wander the earth until the second coming would be a good reason to spend his days warning others about the dangers of greed.
Some of what the pardoner says during his prologue gives credit to the idea of him being the Wandering Jew as well. He talks about his past in grand sweeping descriptions, saying “Bulles of popes and of cardynales / Of patriarkes and bishops I show” (342-343). There were at least 8 popes who served during Chaucer’s life, including the antipopes during the Great Schism (papacy). However, it seems unlikely that a simple pardoner from England would have been going around meeting popes and cardinals all the time, especially given the horrible reputation that pardoners had at the time (Rice). It could just be bragging, but it could be a slip-up and the pardoner revealing that he has been around a lot longer than people think and led many different lives. Later, when defending his wicked ways, he says, “I wol noon of the apostles countrefete; / I wol have moneie, wolle, chese, and whete” (447-448). He could be simply saying that he is not going to hold himself to the standards presented in the bible. Or, could it possibly be another slip-up? Is he defending himself for betraying Jesus? Maybe he is saying that he did not want to live a chaste life like the other apostles he spent so much time around when he was still Judas and wanted instead to have some of the finer things in life. Both statements are odd coming from a simple pilgrim on his way to Canterbury, especially in a story that seems to already have so many connections to the Wandering Jew.
Another odd comment comes at the end of the story. The pardoner, back to his wicked ways, tries to sell the host some of his fake relics. The host replies, “Nay, nay! thanne have I creistes curs!” (946). The same curse that Judas received, perhaps? If the host gives in to the pardoner would he also be forced to wander the earth endlessly with no end? This could very well be Chaucer sneaking in another hint at the identity of the pardoner, repeating the curse that Jesus made towards an unknown person in the Book of Mathew.
The pardoner also describes in detail how he cheats people with fake relics and false promises. As my professor, Dr. Rice, so aptly asked, “Why would he do that?” It is a simple question but a valuable one. When looking at the pardoner as just a normal man, it does not make any sense. For a man who depends on cheating people to make his living, it would only hurt him overall to go around telling people his secrets. It would be different, however, if the man in question knew that he was going to still be around long after the rest of his group were dead. He could then tell them anything he wanted, safe in the knowledge that, even if they told other people, he would be around long after they were all dead and eventually be reborn again and nobody would know a thing about what he said on the road to Canterbury.
This does, though, bring up another wonderful question from Dr. Rice. If the pardoner did not mind telling his fellow travelers about his wicked ways, why would he not simply come out and tell them that he was Judas and the Wandering Jew? I feel the answer to that lies in the fact that he is on the pilgrimage in the first place. It is not unreasonable to think that even the vilest traitor of all time, a man condemned to immortality for killing the savior of humanity, would get lonely and bored sometimes. The pardoner is a horrible person, but he has still chosen to be around other people for a short time and listen to their stories and learn about their lives, fulfilling that basic need for human contact. With that motivation in mind, telling his fellow pilgrims that he is a wicked man is one thing; telling them he betrayed Jesus is far worse. Assuming anyone would believe him in the first place, he must have known that he would no longer be welcome to travel with the group anymore if they all knew who he really was and what he had done, depriving him of the company he craves.
As far as the pardoner’s tale goes, his story shares many of the same elements as the story of Judas. The most glaring, of course, is that the pardoner sticks to his theme of preaching about greed being the root of all evil. Greed is what led Judas to betray Jesus, and it ends up being the downfall of the three central characters in “The Pardoner’s Tale” as well.
Secondly, there is the rioters’ choice for their supper. They plan on staying with the gold and carrying it out at night, so they send the youngest of their group into town to get them all bread and wine (797). This is an obvious reference to the Biblical Last Supper, where Jesus had the disciples eat bread as the flesh of his body, and drink wine as his blood.
The most important similarity, though, is the idea of betrayal. Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, singling him out so that the Romans could arrest him and have him crucified. In the “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the men also succumb to greed and end up betraying each other, resulting in the death of their sworn brothers. Overall, the characters and a few points have been changed, but “The Pardoner’s Tale” is pretty much just a retelling of Judas’ role in the crucifixion of Jesus.
The most important similarity, though, is the idea of betrayal.
The questions surrounding “The Pardoner’s Tale” have been around for centuries, and there is no doubt that students and scholars will continue to question the story for centuries more to come. As Elizabeth Hatcher said at the start of her paper, “Interpretations of the Old Man in the Pardoner’s Tale are many and varied. The critical methods yielding these finding have been almost as varied as the interpretations themselves… all [the methods] have been trained like so many policemen’s spotlights upon the Old Man to make him divulge what Chaucer meant by him” (246).Like every other theory surrounding the identity of the Old Man and the wicked pardoner, my idea has its strengths and weaknesses. But the fun of “The Pardoner’s Tale” is, ultimately, not in understanding its every nuance and hidden secret. No, the fun of the story is in the questions we have, the mysteries of the characters, and the haunting feeling the Old Man ultimately leaves us with.
Anderson, George K. “The Beginnings of the Legend”. The Legend of the Wandering Jew, Brown UP, 1965, pp. 11-37.
Bagatti, P. B. “THE LEGEND OF THE WANDERING JEW.” Franciscan Studies, vol. 9, no. 1, 1949, pp. 1–9. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41974346. Accessed 15 Nov. 2020.
Braswell, Mary Flowers. “Chaucer’s Palimpsest: Judas Iscariot and the ‘Pardoner’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 29, no. 3, 1995, pp. 303–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25095894. Accessed 19 Nov. 2020.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” Benson, Larry D. The Riverside Chaucer. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. 193-202.
NIV Bible. Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 2007.
“Papacy.” Encyclopædia Britannica. February 18, 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020. Web. https://www.britannica.com/topic/papacy
Percy, Thomas. “The Wandering Jew.” Reliques of Ancient English Poetry .., by Thomas Percy, Leypoldt & Holt, 1867, pp. 236–239.
Rice, Allen. “The Pardoner’s Tale Analysis.” 29 September 20202, Edmond, OK. Lecture.