The Friar's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

In 'The Friar's Tale,' the Friar tells the the story of a Summoner and a Yeoman; the latter turns out to be the devil in human form, and ultimately takes the summoner with him to hell. This tale centers around a harsh critique of the profession of summoner and the wider theme of the importance of showing caution in trusting strangers.

Plot Summary

The Friar begins by introducing a summoner, a person who summons accused sinners to the Church's court, who is on his way to summon a widow to see his boss, the archdeacon. The Friar makes it clear in his tale that he considers summoners to be corrupt and inclined to using their job to extort money from people. On his way, the summoner comes across a yeoman, who turns out to be the devil in disguise. They begin to travel together, first meeting a carter (a man driving a cart) whose cart and horses have gotten stuck. The carter curses in frustration, saying, 'The devil have all, horses, and cart, and hay.' The summoner asks the devil why he does not actually take the carter and his things, and the devil replies that the carter did not mean it literally. The summoner and the devil continue on their journey, and when they arrive at the widow's home, the summoner gives her the command to appear before the archdeacon, and ultimately asks her for a bribe. She refuses, claiming to be sinless. This argument continues, until the widow curses the summoner, insisting that the devil take him to hell. The devil asks her, 'Is this your will in earnest that ye say?', and when she affirms that it is, the devil takes the summoner with him back to hell.

Negative Commentary on Summoners

The reader does not have to dig deep in this tale to see that its focus is on the corrupt character of summoners, including the Summoner who is traveling with the group in The Canterbury Tales and is in the audience for this story. The tale opens with a description of the suspect character of summoners, and the behavior of the summoner in the tale supports this as well. The mere fact that the summoner learns that the yeoman is actually the devil and barely bats an eye before continuing to travel with him is testimony to his low character. Also, the fact that he is traveling to a widow's house in order to extort money suggests that he is without scruples and compassion.

Beware of Strangers

The summoner might at first appear to be a moral figure, as he is associated with the Church, but the Friar portrays him as immoral and without redeeming qualities. Even though the portrayal of the summoner is clearly in the extreme, it nonetheless suggests to the reader that people might not be as you'd expect them to be, and that exhibiting caution with strangers is a good idea. Similarly, when the summoner comes across the yeoman in his travels, this figure turns out not at all to be what he seems, but the devil in disguise. In each case, the actual character of the person is an extreme example, but all the better to drive home the theme that it is best to be wary of strangers.

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