The Summoner's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

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 Summoner's Tale in Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' is a lesson about anger and a diatribe against the friars. The Summoner has no love for friars, and takes this opportunity to present his opinion to the travelling group.

What is a Summoner?

Summoners, in the time of the 'The Canterbury Tales', were much like process servers are today. They delivered summons to parties who have been accused by the church of committing a violation. The summons called for them to appear before the church tribunal to explain their actions and receive their punishment. Because of their duties, summoners are accused of being corrupt, creating false accusations to extort money from citizens. The summoner makes no mention of his profession in his story. Instead, he attacks the reputation of the friars, who were members of one of a number of Catholic orders.

The summoner's prologue to his dad leaves no doubt in the reader's mind how he feels about friars. He tells a short anecdote about a friar who went to Hell and saw no friars about. He concluded that this means they are good and saintly. An angel from Heaven explains that this is not the case. They go to Satan and watch 'A troop of twenty thousand friars drove/Out of the devil's arse'. Not only do the friars reside in Hell, but they reside in perhaps the most inglorious place possible. The summoner's tale continues with this theme.

The Friar's Plea

The summoner starts his tale with a friar, whom he calls a limiter. A limiter is a friar who has permission, or a license, to beg for money, food, etc. After his sermon at church, this friar went from house to house to beg. He comes across a house which had been generous from time to time. When he knocks, the woman of the home invites him in, but tells the friar that her husband is sick, and that they recently lost their newborn son. The friar tells her that their son is in heaven, as it came to him in a revelation. She then mentions her husband.

He has been sick for some time, and no amount of money given to friars has made him well. The friar tells the man that it is better to give all to one (him) rather than divide it into twelve pieces. Also, having heard from the wife that this sick man is always angry, the friar tells him three stories about the dangers of anger. The three stories reveal that one should not act in anger, as it will result in further harm to others and oneself. Having grown angry at the lies and greed of the friar, the sick man tells him that he will give him something.

The Friar's Reward

The friar is expecting gold for the new monastery. The man tells the friar that he must share what he gives in twelve equal pieces. He then instructs the friar to take his hand and place it beneath his buttocks in order to find the treasure he has hidden. Once his hand is there, hoping for some latent treasure, the sick man passes gas 'no carthorse that ever drew a cart/Ever let out a fart as thunderous'. For obvious reasons, this did not go over well with the friar, who is escorted from the home. He storms off furiously to the home of a lord.

He tells his story to the lord and his wife. The wife becomes equally upset over the disgusting joke played on the friar. The lord doesn't seem to be upset over this, or concerned with the friar's need for vengeance. Instead, he seems puzzled at how the sick man could pull this joke off, and then how one would divide up the gaseous emission into twelve equal parts. Not finding a suitable answer, he brushes the matter aside and ushers them off to eat.

A Reasonable Solution to the Friar's Conundrum

The summoner doesn't let the story end there. He needs to prick the pride of the friars just a bit more, so he has the lord's squire provide an explanation as to how flatulence could be shared with twelve individuals in a reasonably equal distribution. As luck would have it, both the friar and the lord are intrigued over this possible solution, so much that the friar is willing to award the squire 'a bit of cloth to make a gown'.

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