Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Friar's Tale"

Genre: The content resembles a folk tale of the sort usually called "the heartfelt curse."  It was used in religious services as an exemplum or teaching story whose significance could be explicated in the following sermon.  A version close to Chaucer survived in a sermon summarized in Gerald Owst's Literature and the Pulpit, 162-3.  Folk tales, of course, rarely have "character development" like this tale's.

Form:  Rhyming couplets.

Characters:  The Summoner and the "erchedeken" he served, the "gay yeman" dressed in green, a carter and a widow.

Summary:  The Summoner thinks he has met a kindred spirit in the "bailly," and they swear brotherhood.  Though the "bailly" tells him he is a fiend from hell seeking souls, the Summoner is so impressed with his "brother"'s skill that he pursues more and more knowledge of hell.  He learns, to his misfortune, that the fiends must take those things sent to them by the heartfelt cursing of a Christian.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The "Friar's Prologue" shows us yet another quarrel among members of an estate, in this case the minor clergy and their servants.  Friars and summoners both circulated freely among the folk, and therefore they had plenty of opportunity of becoming "rusted" (or "shitten") as the Pilgrim-Parson would say (I.500, 504).  Because the friars collected tithes and the summoners were arresting people who might expect to be fined, both routinely had their hands on more money than the average medieval churchman, and (surprise!) some of it stuck there.  How do the Hoost's words to the Friar suggest that he has learned a bit more about this tale-telling contest than he did at the outset?  Note, also, that the Friar offers to "telle a game" about a summoner rather than "prechyng" of "auctoritees" (III.1275, 1279, 1277).  How does that respond to the interruption of the Wife of Bath's Prologue?  How might a medieval audience have understood this tale in terms of "caritas vs. cupiditas"?

2)  Since this tale follows the pattern of a well-known folk tale, the Friar's tale-telling strategy has to depend on capturing the characters of his "erchedeken,' "summoner" and "feende" as economically and tellingly as possible.  How does he set up their habitual interests?  You also might speculate on how this tale would sound if delivered with the affected lisp of Huberd, the Pilgrim-Friar (I.264)!

3)  In such a condensed form, one must read very carefully.  Even in the brief introduction, some bizarre contradictions emerge.  I offer two as examples.  Though "A slyer boye nas noon in Engelond," because of the summoner's network of spies, he doesn't know there's a demon making the rounds.  How might this relate to his inability to take suitable precautions when he actually meets the fiend?  When the Friar brags that summoners "han of us no jurisdiccioun" because errant friars were judged by their orders' superiors rather than the archbishop's court, the Summoner interrupts to compare their "immunity" to that of "wommen of the styves" (III.1330, 1332).  The gloss tells you that these brothels (Early ModE. "stewes") were licensed by the archbishop (n. 123).  Compare the description of the "erchedeken" (esp. III.1310) and do the math.  (Also, consider the import of the "alway" in line 1345 and "but half his duetee" in line 1352--so much of the time, the summoner's take on his grift is known to the Archbishop.)

4)  The Summoner's network of "bawdes" inform on their customers in return for his informal protection (since they work outside the archbishop's licensed brothels), and this strategy makes the customers ready to bribe him "right as Judas hadde purses smale" (III.1350).   Why allude to this apostle at this point?  (The loathing of informers was particularly strong among medieval christians and among Catholics after the Reformation, the latter case arising because of their liability to arrest for practicing their religion.)  How is an informer like a tale-teller?

5)  The Friar's use of stereotypic names in lines 1356-7 might seem casual, but remember the three estates.   To whom, exactly, does this member of the clergy send a coded warning here?

6)  When explaining the skill with which the Summoner detects lechers, adulterers, and lovers, the Friar refers to hunting dogs' training in discerning the wounded prey from other deer.  An untrained dog, happening on a group of deer, might follow any animal as long as it fled and thus would lead the archer away from the deer he had wounded.  What does the introduction of this "hunting" motif have to do with what follows immediately after?

7)  For the uninitiated, who have never heard this type of tale before and don't identify the "gay yeman"'s true nature, the Friar has provided clues.  His quick oath of brotherhood with the Summoner is, perhaps, a bit too subtle for all but insiders, but check the note on his dwelling "fer in the north contree / Whereas I hope som tyme I shal [the Summoner] see" (III.1413-14).  In other versions of this kind of tale, the victim (a corrupt reeve, sheriff, etc.) often doesn't realize with whom he's speaking until the denouement.  However, in this tale, the "punch line" is delivered early (III.1447-50).  This is an old comic strategy by which master story-tellers announce their superior skills--"I'll make you laugh even after you've already heard the punchline."  How does the Summoner react to the news he's been talking to a fiend, and how does this further fill-out his character?  (Readers of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus will find very interesting similarities between the Summoner's and mage's behaviors here.)

8)  Amid the "fiend-lore" this interview produces, we learn something very interesting about the nature of evil spirits and their relation to God's Providence, the mechanism by which God's will expresses itself in worldly events (III.1482-1503).   This news, in addition to making an ironic comparison between the fiend's current errand and the summoner's mission, might have stimulated a predictable response in a good Christian.  What does the Summoner ask at that moment (III.1504 ff.)? 

9)  The fiend's answer to the Summoner's question produces the clearest warning yet of what's going to happen, at least for readers of Dante, but the Summoner again responds to the wrong part of the message (re: the possibility he would "forsake" the fiend).  How does the oath he then swears pervert important medieval institutions, and how might it relate to the tale-telling contest, itself?

10)  The carter's cursing of his horses, which are stuck in the mud, raises the question of "his entente" (III.1556).  How do we detect "entente" in those with whom we speak, and what kinds of things can disrupt that detection?  What's wrong with the summoner's "entente"-detector and how might that relate to 8 and 9, above?

11)  The Summoner's call to the widow to "be / Tomorn bifore the erchedeknes knee" is a beautifully terse summation of the "typical summons" that forms part of the system of vice that this type of tale inveighs against.  How does the widow's speech emphasize her piety against the Summoner's rapacious greed?

12)  As the widow's resistance stiffens, the Summoner's outrage leads him to some incautious speech (III.1610 and 1613).   This is answered by a similar formula used by the widow that precipitates the tale's end (III.1618 and 1623-4).  Why doesn't the fiend take the Summoner at l. 1610?  How does the curse at 1623-4 suddenly awaken the Summoner's "entente"-detector and how does that alter his rhetorical stance?

13)  The curse is couched in language that allows the Summoner to escape damnation if he will do something--readers of Faustus, what is it, and why doesn't the Summoner do it?  (III.1629 and 1631-3)

14)  The Friar ends his tale with a miniature sermon urging all to beware Hell, to seek Jesus' protection from tempting fiends, and to "Disposeth youre hertes to withstonde / The feend, that yow wolde make thral and bonde" (III.1659-60).  What are the deadly sins and how might they enslave and bind one?  Have we seen any characters imprisoned by them recently?   And what might that have to do with the first three lines of the "Summoner's Prologue"? 

15) Also, this is not terribly bad advice for a medieval Christian--could the Friar be serving a moral purpose in his sermonic scourging of the Summoner, even if the Friar is, himself, a sinful man?  This was a problem that worried medieval Christians, too.  In its classic expression, it usually takes the form of "if your confession is heard by a priest who is, himself, in a state of mortal sin, is the confession valid?"  How does that construct the problem of tale-telling vs. the problem of tale-hearing and tale-interpretation?  Can one "hear sinfully" even as one can "speak sinfully"?  Can one hear sinful speech in a sacred way and, beyond merely escaping harm, be saved by it?

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