Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Summoner's Tale"

Genre: Probably a joke or folk tale about how to receive a humiliating gift, but no analogues survive.

Form:  Rhyming couplets.

Characters:  The Friar of Yorkshire; Thomas, a sick householder, his wife (whose child died two weeks ago) and their "menyee" of servants; the lord of the village to whose court Thomas takes his complaint, and the lord's squire who solves the problem of how to divide a fart into thirteen equal portions.

Summary:  The Friar's fundraising activities are so persistent, and his preaching so overwhelming, that the sick householder gives him a gift he can't refuse but also can't share with the other members of his order.  After a trip to court, the problem is solved.

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The Summoner's first sign that his Ire (a deadly sin) has overtaken his judgment is in the ferocity with which he attacks his target.  A typical strategy in tale-telling competitions is "doubling," doing twice what your opponent has done once.  In this instance, the Summoner tells a "tale-before-the-tale" in his Prologue.  The friar's descent to Hell and his vision parodies Dante (cf. Friar's Tale,   III.1519-20) and gives us a good example of how much more savagely this tale will attack its target as opposed to the relatively under-stated satire of summoners in the "Friar's Tale."  The answer to the friar's question produces a vision powerful enough "So was the develes ers ay in his mynde" (III.1705).  This obscene pun wonderfully illustrates the psychological power of loaded language, and doubtless serves as a precedent for having "a devil's haircut in [one's] mind."  

2)  The Yorkshire friar who is the nominal target of the Pilgrim-Summoner's satire specializes in "trentals," the requiem masses for souls in Purgatory.  Those souls bear unconfessed venal sins, not severe enough to damn them (i.e., deadly sins) but which much be purged by suffering and the prayers of those they left behind in life.  This is a profitable business because one never knows how many sins one's dead relatives took with them, and the thought of their suffering could weigh heavily on the survivors' minds.  How does this prepare us for the friar's "vision" (III.1854 ff.)?

3)  In an interruption that exactly duplicates the Summoner's interruption of "Friar's Tale" (III.1332-3), the Friar objects to a revelation of friars' strategies (III.1740-45 and 1757-61).   What is the import, for the souls of the dead, of the deed the Summoner accuses friars of doing?  How should we react to this?

4)  Upon entering the kitchen, the friar sits on a bench previously occupied by a household pet (III.1775).   What is the significance of where this animal was sitting?  If you don't know immediately, you probably haven't lived with many cats for long--ask someone who has been owned by one.  The same kind of animal also figures in "Miller's Tale" (I.3440-1), but these probably are "naturalizing details," meant to build layers of apparent reality about the scene.

5)  The friar's first words after asking after Thomas' health are to praise his own diligence in prayer for his family.  Then he praises how he teaches "al the glose. / Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn, / For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn" (III.1792-5).  Though his dispraise of the "lettre" of the holy text is accurate doctrine, his praise of "glosynge" raises a serious question about a crucial piece of Christian doctrine on biblical interpretation which can be found in 2 Corinthians 3:6.  What is the consequence of following this friar's rule?  How might this anticipate the social forces reshaping the verb "to gloss" in Chaucer's time?

6)  The friar greets the householder's wife with a wonderfully suggestive kiss (see "Shipman's Tale" for a monk who goes further), and then compliments her (III.1808-9).  How is the compliment inappropriate for a friar and for the circumstance?

7)  In response to the wife's complaint that her husband "is as angry as a pissemyre," the friar promises him a sermon on the sin of "ire" (III.1834-5).  Why is this an ironic topic for this tale's teller?

8)  The friar's concern for his diet is exaggerated with comic glee by the Summoner, especially his claim that "I am a man of litel sustenaunce ; / My spirit hath his fosteryng in the Bible" shortly before demanding good food and quickly (III.1844-5).  Then, pausing to report his miraculous vision of the child's reception into heaven, he slides over the wife's request for spiritual comfort as a result of her child's death within the previous two weeks and makes it an excuse to praise friars like himself for their sparse eating and drinking habits.  This makes friars' prayers "to the hye God moore acceptable / Than youres, with youre feestes at the table" (III.1913-4).  How do we have to read to understand the Summoner's true "entente" in these scenes, and what does that suggest about the readers' interpretive flexibility?

9)  The long-promised sermon on anger or "ire" now begins, but not without the friar's reprimanding Thomas for having given alms to friars other than those of his order (III.1948-1961).  Then the friar scolds him for giving too little since all that is given must be divided among all the friars of the order: "What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?" (III.1967).  "Ferthyng" is a pun on something about to come.  But first, it must be built up with a flow of empty words.  Consider what words are made of--air and meaning (i.e., "entente").  So when the "entente" is false (the sermon is preached only to get a dinner and tithes), what is left?  (This is discussed in a nice, terse comparison of the Friar's and Summoner's tales in the introduction (RC 11-12).  The "ire sermon"'s irony is intensified by our awareness that Thomas is growing more and more angry as the friar expostulates on his subject: "Ye lye heere ful of anger and of ire" (III.1981).  How does the friar's preaching technique increase his subject's anger?

10)  When Thomas' "gift" has been given, under the covenant that it will be divided among the twelve brothers of his order, Thomas seeks legal relief in the local lord's court.   This "court baron" usually would meet weekly or monthly to resolve disputes and award fines.  However, in this case, the lord and lady have a problem they cannot solve, even using "ars-metricke" (arithmetic, and the pun).   Jankyn, the young squire, has a solution to parting the fart in twelve equal quantities with an appropriate portion for the petitioning friar.  This involves a twelve-spoked cart wheel which will subdivide the fart equally--see the note explaining the possible religious significance of this image (RC 879).  How does this carry to its obvious conclusion the problem of empty words?

11)  How might a medieval audience have understood this tale in terms of "caritas vs. cupiditas"?

12)  Anglo-European literature of the medieval and Renaissance eras contains perhaps more fart-based works than the modern student might imagine.  For a Renaissance English example, consult this link to a related series of poems from the Stuart era: "The Parliament Fart" and its variants (manuscript circulation poem ca. 1607) historical background on the poem; click here to read the poem, itself This is the title of a later work inspired (ahem) by the same subject: The benefit of farting explain'd: or, the fundament-all cause of the distempers incident to the fair-sex, enquired into. Proving posteriori most of the dis-ordures in-tail'd upon them, are owning to flatulencies not seasonably vented. Written in Spanish by Don Fartinando Puff-indorst, professor of bombast in the University of Crackow. And translated into English at the request, and for the use, of the Lady Damp-fart of Her-fart-shire. By Obadiah Fizzle, Groom of the Stool to the Princess of Arsimini in Sardinia. Long-Fart: (Longford in Ireland), printed by Simon Bumbubbard, at the sign of the Wind-Mill opposite Twattling-Street, 1722 (ESTC entry for one of 15 editions of 1722).  How do farts and farting relate to the utterances from our other end that usually are the topics of literature?  Deconstruction can be very useful in determining why this particular form of subversive discourse is helpful to those who would destabilize a dominant discourse of friars or of Members of Parliament.  Think about "putting into play" certain "foundational texts" considered "out of play," or even "taboo to mention" by the dominant ideologies.

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