Fragment 6, lines 287–968
Summary: Introduction to the Pardoner’s Tale
The Host reacts to the Physician’s Tale, which has just been told. He is shocked at the death of the young Roman girl in the tale, and mourns the fact that her beauty ultimately caused the chain of events that led her father to kill her. Wanting to cheer up, the Host asks the Pardoner to tell the group a merrier, farcical tale. The Pardoner agrees, but will continue only after he has food and drink in his stomach. Other pilgrims interject that they would prefer to hear a moral story, and the Pardoner again agrees.
Summary: Prologue to the Pardoner’s Tale
My theme is alwey oon, and evere was—
Radix malorum est Cupiditas.
After getting a drink, the Pardoner begins his Prologue. He tells the company about his occupation—a combination of itinerant preaching and selling promises of salvation. His sermon topic always remains the same: Radix malorum est Cupiditas, or “greed is the root of all evil.” He gives a similar sermon to every congregation and then breaks out his bag of “relics”—which, he readily admits to the listening pilgrims, are fake. He will take a sheep’s bone and claim it has miraculous healing powers for all kinds of ailments. The parishioners always believe him and make their offerings to the relics, which the Pardoner quickly pockets.
The Pardoner admits that he preaches solely to get money, not to correct sin. He argues that many sermons are the product of evil intentions. By preaching, the Pardoner can get back at anyone who has offended him or his brethren. In his sermon, he always preaches about covetousness, the very vice that he himself is gripped by. His one and only interest is to fill his ever-deepening pockets. He would rather take the last penny from a widow and her starving family than give up his money, and the good cheeses, breads, and wines that such income brings him. Speaking of alcohol, he notes, he has now finished his drink of “corny ale” and is ready to begin his tale.
Summary: The Pardoner’s Tale
The Pardoner describes a group of young Flemish people who spend their time drinking and reveling, indulging in all forms of excess. After commenting on their lifestyle of debauchery, the Pardoner enters into a tirade against the vices that they practice. First and foremost is gluttony, which he identifies as the sin that first caused the fall of mankind in Eden. Next, he attacks drunkenness, which makes a man seem mad and witless. Next is gambling, the temptation that ruins men of power and wealth. Finally, he denounces swearing. He argues that it so offends God that he forbade swearing in the Second Commandment—placing it higher up on the list than homicide. After almost two hundred lines of sermonizing, the Pardoner finally returns to his story of the lecherous Flemish youngsters.
As three of these rioters sit drinking, they hear a funeral knell. One of the revelers’ servants tells the group that an old friend of theirs was slain that very night by a mysterious figure named Death. The rioters are outraged and, in their drunkenness, decide to find and kill Death to avenge their friend. Traveling down the road, they meet an old man who appears sorrowful. He says his sorrow stems from old age—he has been waiting for Death to come and take him for some time, and he has wandered all over the world. The youths, hearing the name of Death, demand to know where they can find him. The old man directs them into a grove, where he says he just left Death under an oak tree. The rioters rush to the tree, underneath which they find not Death but eight bushels of gold coins with no owner in sight.
At first, they are speechless, but, then, the slyest of the three reminds them that if they carry the gold into town in daylight, they will be taken for thieves. They must transport the gold under cover of night, and so someone must run into town to fetch bread and wine in the meantime. They draw lots, and the youngest of the three loses and runs off toward town. As soon as he is gone, the sly plotter turns to his friend and divulges his plan: when their friend returns from town, they will kill him and therefore receive greater shares of the wealth. The second rioter agrees, and they prepare their trap. Back in town, the youngest vagrant is having similar thoughts. He could easily be the richest man in town, he realizes, if he could have all the gold to himself. He goes to the apothecary and buys the strongest poison available, then puts the poison into two bottles of wine, leaving a third bottle pure for himself. He returns to the tree, but the other two rioters leap out and kill him.
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SYDNEY 12 February 2013 - 'Radix malorum est Cupiditas,' declares the Pardoner as he takes centre stage in Chaucer's epic Canterbury Tales: 'greed is the root of all evil.' The admission is a critical component of the narrative structure for the charlatan before he continues on a tour de force performance that encapsulates the very vices complained of. The audacity of the Pardoner was brought to mind in the evidence (if it could be elevated to such) of the recently departed head of investment banking at RBS, John Hourican, along with senior colleagues at the Banking Standards Commission hearings at Westminster this week.
As with the Pardoner, individually and collectively it was a bravura performance worthy of the British Academy Film and Television Awards (BAFTA), coincidentally awarded in the same week. Unfortunately the bankers were not in competition, or were entered into the wrong one. Following a standard script, the banking executives were, in turn, shocked at the crookedness involved in the manipulation of Libor; dismayed at the lack of moral restraint; and keen to differentiate between ethical bankers and amoral traders. The class system that has always informed City mores was at the fore. As the elite blamed the collusion that undermined Libor on the traders, altogether it appeared a different breed that is governed (if at all) by elastic conceptions of probity, a familiar refrain was evident.
If the bankers, ostensibly in control, were guilty of anything it was, according to Mr Hourican, 'excessive trust.' This was echoed by Johnny Cameron, Hourican's predecessor as head of investment banking. Mr Cameron, who has agreed with the Financial Services Authority not to take another senior job in the sector solemnly declared that it is impossible to impose a system of moral restraint on people with no morals. Unremarked on by either the banking executives or their questioners is that this existential question was posed by the FSA itself as early as 2009, when Hector Sants argued that it is impossible to have a system of principles-based regulation with people who have no principles.
So what, if anything have the bankers remembered? It would appear not a lot, other than self-pity and special pleading. 'I have told people who are prepared to listen that they shouldn't waste my death,' Mr Hourican told the Commission. Hourcian had resigned to take 'ultimate responsibility' for the failing exposed in the Libor rigging scandal, an issue which, for him, was not a core concern given the fact that we [presumably meaning the board and senior executives] had to deal with an existential threat to the bank.' Instead of dealing with misaligned incentives, the bank had (it was inferred himself included) exhibited 'blind faith' in the actions of traders. It was message repeated by the bank's chief executive, Stephen Hester, who will keep his job if not his bonus. The scale of the abuse, was Mr Hestor intoned, 'too readily redolent of a selfish and self-serving culture in banking which I think needs to be addressed and is exactly the reason for this commission's existence.'
Nodding to the authority of the Commission is not, however, the same as abiding by its recommendations. The scale of the crisis was such that, according to the bank's chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, no useful purpose could to be served by 'a mass series of assassinations.' Two would suffice, Mr Hourican and the hapless Mr Cameron.
Such is the level of moral fatigue that none of the major British papers (with the exception of the Telegraph) seriously focused ion critical questioning of Hourican and other senior RBS executives by the serving Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a prelate with a vested interest to expose Pardoner logic. The fact that the Irish Times did, for example, reflects as much on Mr Hourican's heritage - a former pupil at Gormanston and the National University of Ireland at Maynooth (home to the island's main Catholic seminary) and before the crash one of the highest paid Irish bankers) - as cutting sarcasm. Nonetheless, both papers have done a service in highlighting the critical question posed by the Archbishop, himself a former corporate executive.
How many whistle-blowers had come forward in advance of regulatory inquiries asked the Archbishop, to which Mr Hourican and his colleagues could provide only only answer. None. The Archbishop was incredulous. ''Why? Was there not one person anywhere who thought this is not the right way to behave? So how do you, in the future, set a culture?
The manner in which the bank staff reacted to this line of questioning speaks volumes about the malaise facing British banking. Mr Hourican cautioned that he wanted to have a culture to be one of calling people to attention rather than using a whistle-blowing channel. Having lots of whistle-blowing in a company is almost as bad,' he declared, without explaining what he meant by either statement.
Attempts to elucidate meaning became harder to ascertain as he sought to justify the unjustifiable. 'We want a culture where people hold each other to a high level of moral account,' he argued, trumpeting the fact that 1,000 graduates had been appointed, without explaining how these junior level appointments could either 'stand up and feel the anger that exists around the issue, the industry and our company,' exert control or be protected from contamination of a pervasive culture that the executive admitted they were shocked by. Ignorance is, however, a shocking abdication of reasonability. Hourican's colleague, Johnny Cameron, was asked directly how to test for the moral culture of a trading floor. His answer, as reported by The Telegraph, was instructive: 'that's straying into philosophical territory. I do think that traders have s particular approach to life and need much tighter controls.' By inference, bankers were, and remain, a different breed who could be trusted by the establishment, including the Church of England, formally represented in the Commission by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Such sophistry is as unsustainable now as it was to the Host in Chaucer's fable, who upon hearing the original Pardoner's Tale, threatened to make his manhood a relic, before being calmed by the Knight. Bankers may hope the well trodden pilgrim path will be followed again this time. I would not be so sure.