The Summoner in The Canterbury Tales: Description & Character Analysis

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  • 0:04 The Summoner
  • 1:04 Questionable Behavior
  • 2:11 The Summoner's Attitude
  • 3:09 What These…
  • 4:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The description of the Summoner's character and person as told by Chaucer in ''The Canterbury Tales'' reveals an individual who is not physically attractive externally, but demonstrates that he is just as ugly internally.

The Summoner

First impressions are important. They set the stage for future interactions. Unfortunately, one's physical appearance plays a part in this initial impression. When the reader first meets the Summoner, a description of his face merely hints at the type of person he is. His face is red in color, while 'covered with carbuncles.' His face is covered with these sores, and there is no cure for the blemish. It gives him a somewhat frightening appearance.

The Summoner adds to his miserable physical appearance through his taste in food. He has a 'great love of garlic, onions, leeks,/Also for drinking strong wine.' Both garlic and onions will leave a strong smell on his breath. When he speaks with anyone, the smell emanating from his breath would likely push people further away from him. Add in his affection for wine, and it likely adds intoxication to the list of negative attributes. It turns out that when the Summoner does get drunk on wine, he 'would speak no language but Latin.' Now his behavior is affected.

Questionable Behavior

As a Summoner, acting on behalf of the judicial committee of the church, one would expect his behavior to be held to a higher standard. Unfortunately for this Summoner, when he is drunk on wine yet still performing his duties, he is known for allowing 'a scallywag to keep his concubine'. So instead of enforcing moral code of conduct as instructed by the church, for some wine he's willing to look the other way. Even worse, the Summoner would 'dip his wick, too, very much sub rosa.' He not only looks the other way, but takes part in the same immoral activity.

Since part of the Summoner's job is to confront people regarding their behavioral infractions and attempt to collect past dues or missed tithings, he holds a lot of power over people. He knows how much power he possesses, and he uses it against the people. Instead of the possibility of excommunication, he would indicate that their 'purse must pay the penalty.' In other words, the offending party can offer a bribe to the Summoner, and this will forgive their transgression. Based on these descriptions, the Summoner's behavior is just as immoral, if not more so, than the people he goes after.

The Summoner's Attitude

It would seem that the Summoner acts in accordance with his needs. If you pay his fine or provide him wine, he's willing to overlook any sort of infraction, as well as partake in committing an offence or two. For the most part, he seems to be 'a most engaging rascal. . . as good a fellow as you'd hope to find.' The Summoner seems to be of good nature and understands that people need to have fun. The Summoner still has a job to do, and he makes attempts to complete his tasks appropriately, but he does take offense when people insinuate that his profession is crooked.

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