The Summoner'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.

'The Summoner's Tale' is about a friar who visits a sick man and tries to get him to donate money to the Church. The Summoner is responding to 'The Friar's Tale', in which summoners were portrayed badly, so he depicts friars in a negative light, too.

Plot Summary

'The Summoner's Tale' follows 'The Friar's Tale' in The Canterbury Tales, and is intended as a response to the Friar's mocking portrayal of summoners in his tale. As such, 'The Summoner's Tale' paints a vivid picture of a foolish and greedy friar.

In this tale, the friar goes door to door in the town where he had preached a sermon that morning to ask for money for the Church. He comes upon a house he has visited in the past, where he had always been treated well and given money. The friar is invited in, and finds that Thomas, the owner of the house, has taken ill. Thomas's wife cooks for the friar as Thomas and the friar talk for quite some time. The friar holds forth on a number of topics, and eventually begins to ask Thomas for money, suggesting that perhaps Thomas is ill because he has not given enough. Eventually Thomas agrees to donate to the friar, but only if the friar agrees to split the money 12 ways, which he does. Thomas asks the friar to reach behind his backside; when the friar's hand is there, Thomas farts into it. The friar is furious, and leaves Thomas's house; he asks a nobleman how he is supposed to divide a fart 12 ways, and the man's squire suggests that he use a cartwheel to spread it in 12 directions.

The Summoner tells an unflattering tale about a friar in the Canterbury Tales
Ellesmere Summoner

Relationship to the Friar's Tale

The Summoner offers this tale in response to 'The Friar's Tale,' in which the Friar provided a scathing commentary on summoners in general, essentially portraying them as being in league with the devil and going about their duties with no scruples, intent on extorting money from the innocent. Toward the beginning of 'The Friar's Tale,' the summoner in the audience announces that he will respond in kind with a tale of his own -- this is that tale. The depiction of the friar is insulting throughout, and at the end the friar is humiliated when Thomas farts on him.

Characterization of Friars

Just as the friar, in his tale, characterized summoners in a negative way, the summoner in his tale does the same to friars. He depicts friars as being overly concerned with grand living, in spite of the fact that they have taken vows of poverty. The summoner also shows friars as being long-winded and inclined to use their preaching for personal gain. Finally, the friar is shown as being concerned only with gaining money for himself, rather than for the Church.

Expensive Tastes

In the Summoner's tale, the friar approaches Thomas's home because he has been treated well there before. When he sees Thomas's wife he embraces her at length, even kissing her, which indicates that he is perhaps more comfortable with the company of women than he ought to be. When Thomas's wife asks him what he would like to eat, he replies, 'Had I not of a capon but the liver, And of your white bread not but a shiver (thin slice), And after that a roasted pigge's head, (But I would that for me no beast were dead,) Then had I with you homely suffisance. I am a man of little sustenance. My spirit hath its fost'ring in the Bible.' In this quote, we can see that, even as the friar is asking for a significant amount of food, he insists at the end that he is a man of little sustenance. This underscores that he is a hypocrite. Although he is supposed to be sustained by the Bible and God's word, he seeks satisfaction in a lavish meal.

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