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The Summoner's Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Geoffrey Chaucer was a celebrated English poet who was born between 1340 and 1344 and died in 1400. The Canterbury Tales are the most famous and celebrated of his poems.

The Canterbury Tales are a collection of poetry written by Chaucer at some point between 1387 and 1400. The tales collectively tell the story of a group of pilgrims as they travel to Canterbury on a pilgrimage. To make the journey more interesting, they decide to hold a storytelling competition. The winner is to be determined upon return from Canterbury, but since Chaucer never finished the tales, the reader never finds out who that is. The tales inform us about both the people telling them and the type of person they describe, giving us a glance at society in Chaucer's time, which we can compare to our own.

The Summoner

Of the entire group of pilgrims, the Summoner seems to be the least attractive both spiritually and physically. From a description in the general prologue of the Canterbury tales, we read of him as being covered in 'whelkes' and 'knobbes' which no medical agent can dry up, giving good reason for children to be afraid of how he looks. The cause of this disfiguration is attributed to a disease called alopecia that was supposedly brought about by drinking too much red wine, eating garlic and onions and indulging in sexual license.

The Summoner's behaviour is of a sort with his appearance; he is a drunk and it is known that for a quart of wine as a bribe he will withhold his report on a man who is keeping a mistress, as he does himself. In connection with this view, the narrator inserts a personal comment:

But wel I woot he lyed right in dede;
of cursyng oghte ech gilty man him drede
for curs wol slee right as assoillyng savith,
and also war hym of a significavit1.
(659 - 662)

The Tale

The Summoner's Tale revolves around a Friar John. The tale follows this Friar around his normal daily business, presumably the standard for other friars at the time. The central conflict of the tale arises when the friar visits Thomas, a man on his deathbed, and requests payment in exchange for Thomas being forgiven his sins. Thomas agrees to pay on condition that Friar John distributes the payment equally with the other friars of his convent. Instead of a payment of money however, the friar is given something else: a fart. Aggrieved at this, Friar John goes to complain to the lord, who judges that the payment was fair, and then quibbles over how to distribute the air among the other friars. The lord's squire finally settles the problem by suggesting that Friar John and 12 other friars crouch around a wagon wheel while Thomas provides the payment from the axle hole.

Literary Criticism


The Summoner's tale is told as a rival to the friar's tale that precedes it: the Friar's tale insults the Summoner; the Summoner therefore deals with the Friar in kind. This has precedence in the opening fragment when the Miller and the Reeve also produce tales as a result of rivalry.

The rivalry between the Summoner and the Friar becomes openly apparent as the summoner ends his tale with this message:

God save yow alle, save this cursed Frere, my tale wol i ende in this manere.

The Summoner's tale has many similarities to the Wife of Bath's tale and the Friar's tale. In the Friar's tale, a Summoner takes up company with a devil and is eventually carried off to hell. In the Wife of Bath's tale, an old hag helps a knight answer a riddle thus saving his life, and then requests that he marry her as reward.

The Summoner's tale parallels the Friar's tale: the Summoner in the Friar's tale is damned; the friar in the Summoner's tale is publicly humiliated. (No doubt he will also be damned later for his lack of spirituality, but the purpose of this tale is to show immediate retribution.)

The Friar's story also picks up plot motifs from the Wife of Bath's tale. Like Friar John, The Wife of Bath is an expert at creating a gloss - a false, highly subjective view of reality, which is changed to suit the purpose of the storyteller. The Wife of Bath deals with the theme of the battle between authority and experience, as the Summoner does with Thomas and the Friar. The Wife of Bath's fifth husband's name - 'Jankyn' - is also the name given to the squire in the Summoner's tale.

The Gift

Thomas's gift refutes verbal authority by demonstration rather than by words alone. More sensitive readers may find his method disgusting in the extreme, but those who look further into the meaning of the gift should be able to see that it is entirely reasonable: the Friar is not doing his job of spiritually enlightening people. The medieval world of the word - text, gloss, narrative, moral, authority - is reduced to foul air. Friar John speaks a good deal in the initial section. His style of speech is unctuous, greasy, oily, hypocritical, filled with spiritual allusion and designed for everyone's improvement but his own. This can be compared to his manner of speech after Thomas's gift: he is flat, like a punctured balloon; he becomes virtually silent; and his tone towards the lord is less oily and more down-to-earth. His elegant French phrases designed to impress peasants are redundant in the lord's presence. His earlier speech patterns are shown to be false; they were only used to confuse and trick people, but such tricks would never work against the lord with his higher degree of education.

Language Usage

Friar John speaks in generalisations and in abstraction; his speech is full of words such as 'reasonable', 'diligence', 'suffissaunce', 'effectual', 'righteousness', 'confusion'. Language like this is used to colour our impression of Friar John:

And fro the bench he droof awey the cat (1175)

Here, Friar John demonstrates that he, like all friars, loves the cosiest seat. This contradicts the romantic view of friars as silent and humble, yet is more believable.

The friar's method of greeting Thomas's wife is damning not in what is made explicit but what is implicit:

The Friar ariseth up ful curteisly,
and hire embraceth in his armes narwe,
and kiste her sweete, and chirketh as a sparwe
with his lippes
(1802 - 1805)

This is a damning description of the friar because his courtesy does not belong to the world of the sacred, but to the world of the common man. The noun 'sparwe' means sparrow, and has connotations of lewdness and sexual excess. Words such as 'embraceth', 'armes narwe' (narrow, or tight), 'kiste hire sweete', 'chirketh' and 'lippes' belong more to the world of sexual attraction than they do to the world of spiritual consolation - not what you would expect from a man who had taken a vow of chastity.


Syntax plays an important part in Chaucer's work, for example the syntax of 'and....and' indicates a movement from speech to narrative sections. However, syntax also indicates Friar John's habit of trying to impress through rhetorical elaboration. For example:

A, yif2 that covent half a quarter otes!
A, yif that covent foure and twenty grotes!
A, yif that frere a peny, and lat hym go!
(1963 - 1965)

His syntax and choice of metaphor is pretentious and suitably punished at the end as he unconsciously anticipates the end of the tale:

'Nay, nay Thomas, it may no thyng be so!
What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?
Lo, ech thyng that is oned in himselve
is moore strong than when it is toscatered3
(1967 - 1970)

However, his pretentiousness is countered by animal imagery found in all Fabliaux4.

Here in the Summoner's Tale are found the literal 'cat' and a proverbial 'sparrow'. A 'carthorse' and a 'wild boar' all act to counter The Friar's self glorification, as they were used to show common and often dirty animals in Chaucer's days.

'But well I knew he lied
Every man should fear a curse
For curses kill as shrivings bring salvation
And he should also beware of excommunication.'
2Translation: give.3Translation: divided.4Fabliaux were comic stories written in northeast France during the 1200s. Chaucer borrowed many of his ideas from these tales.

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