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The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Summoner's Tale

Prologue to the Summoner's Tale

The Summoner was enraged by the tale that the Friar told, quaking in anger. Since, he says, you have all listened to the Friar lie, please do listen to my tale. The Summoner claims that friars and fiends are one and the same. He tells a short anecdote in his prologue. One day, a friar was brought to hell and led up and down by angel, and was surprised to see no friars there. Are friars so graceful, he asked, that they never come to hell? The angel told him that many millions of friars came to hell, and led him directly to Satan. Satan had a tail as broad as a sailing ship, and the angel called to Satan to lift up his tail. Satan did, and twenty thousand friars swarmed out of his arse like bees from a hive.

The Summoner's Tale

A friar went to preach and beg in a marshy region of Yorkshire called Holderness. In his sermons he begged for donations for the church and afterward he begged for charity from the local residents. The Friar interrupts, calling the Summoner a liar, but is silenced by the Host.

Along went this friar, house by house, until he came to the house of Thomas, a local resident who normally indulged him, and found him ill. The friar spoke of the sermon he had given that day, commenting on the excellent way he had glossed the biblical text (and making the famous comment that “Glosynge is a glorious thyng”) - and essentially ordered a meal from Thomas's wife.

She told the friar that her child died not more than two weeks before. The friar claimed that he had a revelation that her child had died and entered heaven. He claimed that his fellow friars had a similar vision, for they are more privy to God's messages than laymen, who live richly on earth, as opposed to spiritual riches. The friar claimed that, among the clergy, only friars remain impoverished and thus are closest to God; and told Thomas that his illness persists because he had given so little to the church.

Thomas claimed that he had indeed given “ful many a pound” to various friars, but never fared the better for it. The friar, characteristically, is irritated that Thomas is not giving all of his money solely to him, and points out to him that a “ferthyng” (a farthing) is not worth anything if split into twelve. Continuing to lecture Thomas, the friar began a long sermon against anger (“ire”), telling the tale of an angry king who sentenced a knight to death , because, as he returned without his partner, the king automatically assumed that the knight had murdered him. When a third knight took the condemned knight to his death, they found the knight that he had supposedly murdered. When they returned to the king to have the sentenced reversed, the king sentenced all three to death: the first because he had originally declared it so, the second because he was the cause of the first's death, and the third because he did not obey the king.

Another ireful king, Cambises, was a drunk. When one of his knights claimed that drunkenness caused people to lose their coordination, Cambyses drew his bow and arrow and shot the knight's son to prove that he still had control of his reflexes. The friar then told of Cyrus, the Persian king who had the river Gyndes destroyed because one of his horses had drowned in it.

At the close of this sermon, the friar asked Thomas for money to build the brothers’ cloister. Thomas, annoyed by the friar's hypocrisy, told the friar that he had a gift for him that he was sitting on, but that he would only receive it if he promised to split it up equally between each of the friars.

The friar readily agreed, and put his hand down behind Thomas’ back, groping round – and Thomas let out a fart louder than a horse could make. The friar became immediately angry, and promised to repay Thomas for his fart, but, before he could, the servants of the house chased the friar out.

The enraged friar found the lord of the village and told him of the embarrassment he suffered, angrily wondering how he was supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord’s squire spoke up with a suggestion, in return for a “gowne-clooth” from his master: take a cartwheel, and tell each of twelve friars to lay his nose at the end of a spoke. Then the friar of the tale could sit in the centre of the wheel and fart, and each of the spokes would carry the smell along to the rim – and therefore, divide it up between each of the friars.

Analysis

Chaucer carefully shows us the Summoner, quaking with anger, after hearing the Friar’s Tale, and those pious readers who might have thought that the Friar’s Tale veered close to the line of blasphemous sin would likely have been straight out offended by the Summoner’s. It is a bilious, aggressive tale which does not even consider pulling its punches, and the Friar’s contempt is roundly “quyt” with a full-on, unrelenting attack from the Summoner.

Anality is a key ingredient in the tale, potentially a reference to the possible interpretation of the General Prologue which argues that the Summoner and Pardoner are engaged in a homosexual relationship. Regardless of whether this reading is accepted, the prologue begins with a journey into the devil’s arse, and the tale finds its resolution with the division of a fart, first from Thomas’ arse, and then from the friar’s.

This journey from arse to arse is only one of several ways in which the Summoner’s Tale mechanically closes in on itself, in precisely the way that the friar within it manages to bring about his own humiliation. There is a neat irony in the way that the friar, after a lengthy lecture about anger management and doing away with “ire” (anger) then becomes absolutely furious, looking as if he were “a wilde boor”. The structure of the tale has a “quitting”-like circularity to it.

This circularity also features in individual words: The Summoner’s Tale operates on a series of clever puns. At the end of the tale, the division of the fart is a challenge, the lord remarks, in “ars-metrike” – in the art of measurement, but, as Seth Lerer, points out, a challenge too in the metrics of the arse. Moreover, Jankin’s vision of the friars gathered at the spokes of a huge wheel is actually a parody of the Pentecost: the day where the twelve apostles receive the Holy Spirit as Christ ascends to heaven. It is, one might suggest, a reworking of religion entirely appropriate to the piety of the friar (and even the Summoner!) in question.

The most significant pun, however, is the most interesting. The friar in the tale berates Thomas, telling him that a “ferthyng” (a farthing coin) is not worth anything split into twelve; and, then, of course, he is paid for the tales he then tells with a farting, which he must split into twelve. The two words were likely homonyms in Middle English, and the punning extends the idea of quitting – which structures this tale and the Friar’s as a pair – down into the fabric of the tale itself.

Yet there is another question, which raises a serious point. Is religious advice actually worth people’s money? Is the Summoner (or the Friar, or any of the pilgrims) actually telling the company anything which could be valued more highly than a fart? Perhaps Chaucer, aware of the level of potential offense contained within his tale, poses its key question deliberately to those inclined to take it too seriously: isn’t tale telling, like farting, just a lot of hot air?

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