Chaucer: The Summoner’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE SUMMONER’S TALE
Summoners are usually low-class characters whose job it is to bring people before the ecclesiastical court for sins such as illicit intercourse. This one on the pilgrimage is shaking with rage when the Friar finishes his tale (1665ff). The Summoner has not missed the Friar’s rhetorical blunder and is able to attack “This Frere” in particular (1672) in ad hominem fashion. Since the Friar boasted of his knowledge of hell, the Summoner takes the opportunity to explain why he is so knowledgeable. He reverses the traditional story of the recently dead friar in heaven who, when he worried that he saw no friars there, was shown that they reside under the mantle of Mary. Well, in hell, they reside elsewhere.
The image of the souls of damned friars coming out of Satan’s “ers,” swarming about like bees, and zipping back again is an image of the Friar’s narrative ploy: he hides, emerges for snipe attacks and runs around, and then hides again. The Summoner realizes his task is to expose the Friar, to smoke him out. The implicit acknowledgement is that hell isn’t someplace else, but right here exposed and defrauded for a current and immediate torment.
“God save yow alle, save this cursed Frere! / My prologe wol I ende in this manere” (1707-1708). The Summoner’s “prayer” is not sanctimonious nor insincere. He had promised to “quite” the Friar, and he has already here. He also promised to tell more than one tale against him, so now what?
In the late Middle Ages, the moneymaking organs of the Church are all in competition. The Summoner seems to have done more thinking about this than most.
As the Summoner begins by listing the violations of his tale’s friar, especially to the vow of poverty, the Canterbury Friar interrupts: “Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!” (1761) — unintentionally indicating that all the other violations are accurate. He also make clear that he assumes that this is not just a friar, but that it is he. So he does have a servant and he does beg but he doesn’t erase the names? Not perceiving anything worth interrupting previously, Hubert hangs himself again! And now the Host has abandoned the Friar and shuts him up, allowing the Summoner to “Tel forth thy tale, and spare it nat at al” (1763).
The friar makes himself right at home at the house of the ailing Thomas and holds forth with false humbleness (1789) and yet pride in his “Glosynge” (1793). He is quite kissy with Thomas’ wife and they discuss Thomas’ ire. (The Summoner may be examining his own vice here.) The wife mentions the death of their infant within the last two weeks. The friar, without missing a beat, claims to have seen this “by revelacioun” (1854) and have had the order praying and singing for the soul of the departed child. The friar’s snobbery and preoccupation with food emerges, and his penchant for bad punning (1915-1917).
In preaching to the now skeptical (doubting) Thomas, the friar asks the fatal question regarding money: “What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?” (1967). He continues preaching against Thomas’ anger though: “Withinne thyn hous ne be thou no leon; / To thy subgitz do noon oppression, / Ne make thyne aqueyntances nat to flee” (1989-1991). These excesses against the sin of ire will come back to bite the friar in the butt. The stories, though, as the Summoner may be subconsciously processing them, indicate that ire never gets at the problem and usually involves innocent victims. Shrewdness and skill are wasted in ire, and drink does no good; misery compounds. It’s a long rumination on ire, so the Summoner seems to be exploring his own anger in a self-reflection. The Summoner has already “quite” Hubert; now he may be processing his own problem.
Of course, Thomas is now livid with rage against this sanctimonious friar and offers his contribution to the friar’s order on the condition that it be evenly divided among the brethren. When the insult is delivered, the friar is enraged.
The Canterbury Friar is self-glorifying and hypocritical, in love with the sound of his own words. The link in theme between the tales is the contrast between words and intent. For the friar here in The Summoner’s Tale, the intent should be more important than the word; thus friars interpret or “glose.” The letter of the law kills (1794), and the bottom line, as it were, is given: “I seye a cherl hath doon a cherles dede” (2206). But this friar makes too much of words and ignores the low intent. He worries about the wrong thing. The woman says it was a stupid deed: forget it. But the friar is worried about the oath and the letter of the law: dividing the fart with “ars-metrike” (2222). As a Master of Arts in Divinity, he’s enraged. The real joke against the friar goes beyond the insult — it’s a matter of how he takes it. The friar here forgets to “glose” at the important moment.
A servant, the lord’s squire, solves the puzzle with a cartwheel and the friars’ noses appropriately applied to the spokes. His style of explanation mocks the lofty style and condescending speech of the Friar too. So there’s a sophisticated and intellectual joke beyond the low-brow one here. So the judgment is harsh, and no rebuttal is allowed afterwards: the squire “hath ywonne a newe gowne– / My tale is doon; we been almoost at towne” (2293-2294)