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  • Writer's pictureFrances Stratford

Unveiling the Devil’s Poisonous Secrets In the Late Middle Ages

Updated: Apr 20

Necromancer meeting the devil
Brunetto Latini’s Li Livres dou Tresor; 1260-1299; France, S; f.1v

I am working on an upcoming historical mystery series featuring Geoffrey Chaucer as the sleuth. I set the stories in 1385 and 1386, when Chaucer was exiled from London for political reasons. The poet kept a position in government but lost his highly prized sinecure as controller of customs in the Port of London in June 1374.


During his exile in October 1385, Chaucer worked as a Warden or Justice of the Peace in Kent. This makes sense. As Joseph Hornsby argues in Was Chaucer Educated at the Inns of Court? Chaucer had training in the law and this training would have allowed him to function as an investigator and law official in the county.


That made him the perfect medieval sleuth. But where to start his investigation? 


I thought about The Canterbury Tales. The Tales are no stranger to murder, that’s for sure. But which one?


Then I realized there was no better place to start than The Pardoner’s Tale.

Mss EL 26 C 9 f 138r

That tale has a triple homicide that involved two different methods of murder and a devil. 


But how to show Chaucer figuring out two methods of murder and a demon determined to make even more trouble in the village?


Well, then I thought back to my other job as an academic. I remembered a fascinating article by Richard Ireland called Chaucer’s Toxicology. Ireland himself was a lawyer fascinated with medieval history. His work proved key to my research for the story. It included stabbing, poisoning, and a devil determined to grab souls!


Ireland’s thesis, that poisoning was a crime linked with the devil in the Middle Ages, proved vital to crafting characters, plot twists and the ultimate resolution to my first installment of the Geoffrey Chaucer series. Because I set my story during Christmas 1385, I gave it the preliminary title of “The Devil’s Advent”.


It is absolutely worth digging into Ireland’s meticulous research!



But first, here’s some background on Chaucer’s Pardoner character.


The Pardoner was a religious figure who sells indulgences and pardons for sins


The Pardoner is one of the most vividly drawn characters in Chaucer's collection. He's described as having long, greasy, yellow hair and a smooth face with no beard, which is unusual for a man of his time and profession. He's known for his high-pitched voice and flamboyant mannerisms.


Despite his occupation supposedly being one of religious piety, the Pardoner is deeply corrupt. He openly admits to deceiving people for money, using fake relics and false promises of absolution to enrich himself. He preaches against greed and avarice, yet he is the epitome of those vices himself.

Here's a good example. The Pardoner asks another Pilgrim on the way to Canterbury to buy one of his false relics. The potential buyer responds, translated into modern English "you would sell me your sh*t stained underwear and swear it was a saint's relic!"

Mss EL 26 C 9 f 143r


The Pardoner's Tale, which he tells the other pilgrims during their journey, reflects his own hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy. It's a moral tale about greed and the consequences of sin, but the Pardoner tells it solely for profit, caring little for the moral lessons it imparts.


Overall, the Pardoner is a morally bankrupt character who uses his position in the church to exploit others for personal gain. He serves as a critique of the corruption within the medieval church and the hypocrisy of those who claim to be religious authorities.



So how does a lawyer and medieval scholar like Ireland figure out that there are two types of crimes in The Pardoner’s Tale? There is a secular crime (the stabbing of the two older revelers) and the diabolical crime (the poisoning of the youngest reveler.)


Ireland begins by examining the common law of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance where, in the legal documentation of the time, lawyers, judges and accusers drew a clear link between the devil and the poisoners. The offense’s secrecy makes it more of a social danger than any overt display of homicidal violence.


Arundel MS 157, f. 5v

The classic form of poisoning, using food or drink, underscores the deceit of the poisoner’s behavior. In addition, the offense of poisoning bore a specific connotation of necromancy. Necromancy is an invocation of the devil—with all the dangers of the soul and for the body.


Ireland’s goals in the essay are:

  1. to reveal the diabolic element in The Pardoner’s Tale

  2. to discuss the use of pois

  3. to show how the Parson articulates canon law when common law may have been in some disarray

  4. to showcase Chaucer’s deep understanding of the legal distinction between murder and poisoning.


Ireland asserts that poisoning is associated with 2 of the 7 deadly sins: envy and jealousy. He then goes on to show how envy becomes anger which leads to poisoning.


From the legal sources, he discovers that the mention of poisoning as a separate homicidal offense stands out, rather than being grouped together with all the others (stabbing, beating, throwing someone off London Bridge). Indeed, in The Pardoner’s Tale, the two men who stab the third person are mentioned individually, whereas the youngest one poisons him as a separate act.


People throughout the Middle Ages considered the poisoner as a confederate of the devil and a most potent social threat.


Ireland points out that:


  • the Pardoner follows the Physician. He sees this as a juxtaposition of two antitheses—healing and poisoning.

  • The poisoning of the wine is a grotesque parody of the communion ritual

  • They proclaim that the poisoning bears the mark of diabolical inspiration (844-48).

  • The pharmacist asks God’s blessing when he sells the poison (859-860)

  • The crime Chaucer describes is exactly in keeping with legal proceedings of his time

  • Therefore, Chaucer understood the legal sources of his time

  • The poisoner, therefore, operates in a world in which his crime bears quite different connotations in relation to such matters as the causes of disease and gravity of the crime

  • The dark nature of the crime reflects not only on the poisoner but also Chaucer’s Pardoner


This makes our Pardoner seem like much more than a quack. Dangerous heresy tinges him and, according to Ireland, the Devil stands very close behind him.



Cambrai, BM, ms. 87, fol. 138r


I hope you've enjoyed this delve into the world of Geoffrey Chaucer and his colorful cast of characters. If you have any thoughts or insights to share, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


And thank you for joining me on this journey through history! If you're hungry for more tales of intrigue and adventure from the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period, don't miss out on my books Hook, Line, and Sinker and Wolfsbane: Best New England Crime Short Stories. Immerse yourself in the rich tapestry of historical fiction and experience the past like never before.


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