In Flanders, there were three young men who loved to amuse themselves by singing, reveling, and drinking. The Pardoner launches into a long criticism about their sinful lives, citing many Biblical examples as support. First, he denounces their gluttony, which he says caused the fall of Man. He next decries their drunkenness, which makes men witless and lecherous. He then denounces their gambling: dice, he says, are the mothers of lies. The Pardoner criticizes the swearing of false oaths, saying that cursing and perjury are wretched.
Although the Pardoner himself hardly leads a spotless life, he bashes the protagonists of his tale for their sinful ways, spelling out all the various reasons why gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and cursing are so terrible. He himself is a hypocrite, but he uses his Tale as a moral example.
Finally, after his long tirade, the Pardoner returns to the three young rioters, who are drinking at a tavern when they hear the bell signaling the sound of a passing coffin. A servant tells them that the dead man was a friend of the revelers who had been stabbed in the night by a thief called Death. The revelers declare that they will seek and slay this false traitor Death. They pledge to be true to each other as brothers in this quest.
The revelers’ belief that they can slay Death himself demonstrates their extreme hubris. Rather than mourning their friend, they rashly seek their own glory. Although they here pledge that they will be brothers in their quest, as the story progresses it doesn't take much to dissolve their own bond. "Rioters" was a term for rambunctious young men.
The revelers meet an old man in rags who says that he must wander the earth restlessly because Death will not take his life. He makes a move to leave, but the rioters demand that he tell them where they can find Death. The old man says that he has just left Death a moment ago sitting under an oak tree. The youths run down the crooked path to the tree, where they find not Death but eight bushels of gold.
The old man in rags is a typical character in a parable, a prophet-like figure who gives the travelers information that turns out to be dangerous. Instead of the figure of Death that they expect to find, the three revelers find bushels of gold that ultimately lead them to their deaths through their greed.
The worst of the rioters speaks first, saying that this is their lucky day, but if they take the treasure down to the town by daylight, they will be accused as thieves, and therefore they must wait for nightfall to move the gold. He proposes that they draw straws, and whichever one gets the short straw must go to town to get food and drink so they can wait out the day.
The revelers immediately decide to keep the treasure for themselves rather than try to find out if it belongs to anyone, and this first greedy action sets off a chain reaction of escalating greed.
The youngest draws the short straw and leaves. While he is away, the other two rioters plot to kill the third when he returns so that the two of them will each get a bigger share of the treasure. Meanwhile, the youngest decides to poison the other two revelers so that he can keep all the money for himself. He goes to an apothecary, buys the strongest poison available, and pours it into two bottles, keeping a third clean for himself.
A third of the treasure is not enough for the rioters: even though the third will make each of them far richer than he was before, they each immediately see ways to become richer still. The bonds of brotherhood that they swore to each other disappear in the face of their greed.
When the youngest reveler returns, the two others slay him. Then, celebrating, they drink the poisoned wine. Thus, all three of the revelers die. Everyone must therefore beware sins, says the Pardoner, especially greed, which is the root of all evils.
All of the rioters meet their demise due to their gluttonous, avaricious ways, giving the Pardoner the chance to remind the listeners (and reader) yet again that greed is the root of all evils.
The Pardoner shows his relics and pardons to the pilgrims and asks for contributions, even though he has just admitted that they are all fakes. The Pardoner first offers his relics to the Host, as the man “moost envoluped in synne,” and the Host reacts violently to the suggestion. The Knight must step in to resolve the conflict, telling the Host and the Pardoner to kiss and make up.
At the end of the Pardoner’s Tale, the Pardoner practices the exact opposite of what he preaches: although he has just argued that greed is the root of all evils and that lying is terrible, he himself attempts to swindle the company, and the Knight must restore the social order. The pardoner is a complicated character—the morals spouting and yet gleefully immoral man of the church. And as such it speaks volumes about the church that such a man would be associated with it.