In Geoffrey Chaucer’s book, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer inserts a collection of stories he puts in the mouth of various travelers going south for a pilgrimage. One of these tales was “The Pardoner’s Tale” A Pardoner is someone who grants indulgences to others.
The Pardoner told a story of three men who lived a riotous life of drinking, swearing, and gambling. As they were drinking in a tavern, a corpse was carried by. One of the three rioters sent his servant to see who had died, but the servant said that there was no need, because he had already been told that it was an old friend of his master. The servant said that a certain thief named Death had killed the man with a spear as he was sitting drunk there on a bench and left without another word. The servant said that Death had killed many people in the countryside and that it was important to be wary of him. The owner of the tavern corroborated his story and said that Death had killed all the people in a village not far away, and said that he thought Death lived there.
The rioter said that Death was probably not that difficult to kill said that he would find Death and kill him. He got together with the other two rioters and they swore that each would become the others brother. In a drunken fury, the three men went to the village the tavern-owner had spoken of.
When they had gone a little way, they met an old man and a poor man. The old man was completely wrapped up in cloth, except for his face. They two men greeted them, but the proudest of the three insulted the old man and asked him why he was wrapped in cloth and why he lived so long. The old man said that it was because no one would exchange his youth for his age, and that he could not die, but he wanted to. He tried to move on, but the three men would not let him go. They told him that he was a spy of Death, and that he would pay if he did not tell them where Death was. The old man said that he left death under a tree in a nearby grove under an oak.
The three men went to the grove, and found eight bushels of gold florins. They were so excited about the treasure that they forgot about their search for Death and sat by the gold. They decided to secretly bring the gold to their homes by night, and drew straws to see which of the three would go to town and buy wine and bread for them. The youngest was chosen, and he went to town immediately.
The two other men conspired against the youngest man and planned to kill him. Their plan was to kill him with daggers and split the money among themselves. They swore not to betray each other and prepared for the assassination The youngest one likewise decided to get all the gold by killing the other two by putting poison in the wine. When the youngest man returned, the other two murdered him with daggers, and then sat down to eat. When they drank the wine, they died of the poison. They had searched for death, and they had found it.
The question is, who was the old man? Was he death? I do not believe that Chaucer intended the old man to represent death, because the old man’s claim that no one would exchange youth for his age makes little sense, because that would eliminate death. The old man also wanted to die, which doesn’t fit the concept of death much either. The old man was trying to move on rather than trying to convince the three men of the gold under the tree. If death was as ruthless as was reported, he probably would not have hesitated to lead them to the gold, and thus their death. The old man was also at risk in the hands of the three men, and the story obviously was pointing to the fact that you can’t kill death.