The Canterbury Tales

Summary and Analysis of The Friar's Tale

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Prologue to the Friar's Tale

The Friar commends the Wife of Bath for her tale, and then says, in line with his promise between the Wife’s Prologue and Tale, that he will tell a tale about a summoner. He does not wish to offend the Summoner who travels with them, but insists that summoners are known for fornication and lewd behavior. The Summoner, on the surface at least, does not take offense, but does indicate that he will “quit” the Friar in turn. The job of a summoner, to which the Friar objects, is to issue summons from the church against sinners who, under penalty of excommunication, pay indulgences for their sins to the church, a sum which illicit summoners often pocket. The Host quiets the argument down, and the Friar’s Tale begins.

The Friar's Tale

The Friar's Tale tells of an archdeacon who boldly carried out the Church's laws against fornication, witchcraft and lechery. Lechers received the greatest punishment, forced to pay significant tithes to the church. The archdeacon had a summoner who was quite adept at discovering lechers, even though he himself was immoral. Friars, the Friar says, are out of the jurisdiction of summoners, and at this point, the Summoner interrupts the Friar's Tale, disagreeing. The Host allows the Friar to continue his tale, and he immediately continues to attack summoners.

The summoner of the Friar’s Tale would only summon those who had enough money to pay the church, and would take half the charge himself: he was a thief, and a bawd, enlisting the help of prostitutes who would reveal their customers to the summoner in exchange for their own safety (and offer of sexual services).

One day, the summoner was traveling to issue a summons to an old widow, when he met a yeoman on the way, dressed in a green jacket. The summoner claimed to be a bailiff, knowing that his actual profession was so detested. The yeoman offered hospitality to the summoner. The two travelled together, and the summoner asked where the yeoman lived, intending to later rob him of the gold and silver he claimed to possess. The summoner asks the yeoman how he makes money at his job, and the yeoman admits that he lives by extortion and theft; and the summoner admits that he does the same.

The two reveal to each other their villainy, until the yeoman finally declares that he is a fiend whose dwelling is in hell. The summoner asks the yeoman (the devil) why he has a human shape, and he replies that he assumes one whenever on earth. The summoner asks him why he is on earth, receiving the reply that sometimes devils are God's instruments. The devil claims that the summoner will meet him again someday and have better evidence of hell than Dante or Virgil. The summoner suggests that the two continue on their way and go about their business, each taking their share.

On their travels they found a carter whose wagon, loaded with hay, was stuck in the mud. “The devel have al, bothe hors and cart and hey!” cursed the carter, and the summoner, taking the carter literally, implored the devil to take all of the carter's belongings. The devil comments that, although that is what he is literally saying, that is not what the carter means: “the carl spak oo thing, but he thoghte another”. On the devil’s encouragement, the carter prays to God, and, lo and behold, the horses pull the wagon from the mud.

The summoner suggests that they visit the widow he was originally visiting. On arriving, the summoner gives her a notice to appear before the archdeacon on the penalty of excommunication, but she claims that she is sick and cannot travel there. She asks if she can pay the summoner to represent her to the archdeacon, and he demands twelve pence, a sum that she thinks is too great, for, she claims, she is guiltless of sin. The summoner then demands her new pan from her, claiming that he paid her fine for making her husband a cuckold (an accusation which she expressly denies). She curses the summoner, saying that she gives his body to the devil. The devil hears this and tells the summoner that he shall be in hell tonight. Upon these words, the summoner and the devil disappeared into hell, the realm where summoners truly belong.

Analysis:

The pattern of reciprocity and “quitting”, as seen in the Miller’s and Reeve’s tale in the First Fragment, is reintroduced with the Friar’s and Summoner’s tale. These two would likely be, to Chaucer’s readers, easily recognizable characters, and the rapacious clergyman was very much a stock figure for Middle English readers and listeners.

The Friar's Tale, like the Reeve's Tale, seems to exist for a single purpose: the humiliation and degradation of members of a certain profession. The Tale begins by exposing the means by which summoners blackmail and extort persons, but does not attack the church system that allows this to happen, but rather the men who represent this system and exploit these workings of the church. Yet the Friar's Tale surpasses the Reeve's Tale in its vitriol for its main character. While Symkyn, the immoral miller of the Reeve's tale, is hardly an exemplary character and exists only for ridicule, he at least is given a proper name that separates him from his profession. The main character of the Friar's Tale is an impersonal representation of all summoners and the fate they deserve.

The comic twist to the Friar's Tale is that, when he meets the devil, the summoner is neither shocked nor overcome with fear. Rather, the summoner regards the devil as a curious colleague, and is almost impressed. In fact, the narrator too seems to hold a higher opinion of the devil than of the summoner. When the devil leaves the summoner, the devil tells him that they shall hold company together until he forsakes him. This may be a chance for redemption that the devil offers the summoner , just before he visits the old crone, but he does not take it.

Of course, as well as preaching against hypocrisy, the Friar’s Tale turns it into a plot feature. How can we know, the tale asks, who we meet on the road: a yeoman or a devil? A religious, pious summoner, or a downright crook? Moreover, there is nothing very ambiguous about the ending to the tale: the summoner is taken to hell. A metaphorical hell, like the furnace of Gervase the smith in the Miller’s Tale, is a far more distant representation, but when the summoner disappears, with Satan, it is simply, unmetaphorically, to hell. What in the Miller’s tale was comedy, when stated literally by the Friar, starts to look a little like blasphemy, and one wonders how easily Chaucer’s original readers would have related to it.

Penn R. Szittya has written, in his essay “The Green Yeoman as Loathly Lady: The Friar’s Parody of the Wife of Bath’s Tale”, that the Friar’s Tale might actually be a parody of the Wife of Bath’s tale. Szittya notes such pertinent details as the appearance of the Friar riding “under a forest syde” - in precisely the same phrase that the Wife uses in her tale - and argues that the Wife’s fairytale forest, and the Friar’s real one in some way elide. It is difficult however to be entirely persuaded by Szittya’s argument, and see the Friar’s tale as a closer relation to the Wife’s than it is to the Summoner’s.

Simply put, the Friar's tale is also a reminder to watch what you wish for, and not to speak without thinking. The devil, it seems, takes words literally - and whether you mean them or not, can decide to act upon them as he pleases, as long as they have been uttered (note the way the widow's curse is made reality by the devil as the tale resolves). As Chaucer's Tales look perilously close to potential blasphemy, the Friar's Tale's warning that anything said can be used against the sayer seems doubly pertinent; and the issue of blasphemy in the Tales, present here, runs right through the work to Chaucer's final Retraction.