Chaucer: The Friar’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE FRIAR’S TALE
This Fragment D group of tales is intricately organized and organic, with reactions contained within the drama of the tales.
During their interruption of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the Friar seemed good-natured but unctuous while the Summoner acted like a rage-aholic. Now that she is finished with her tale, the Friar is patronizing: “Ye han heer touched … / In scole-matere greet difficultee” (1271-1272); and he condescendingly advises her to leave preaching to the clerical authorities (1276f). He’s simultaneously and indirectly addressing the Summoner with this too — obliquely pointing out that the Summoner is not real clergy. The Friar is proud of his “scole-matere,” high-brow in sensibilities, reacting to issues of authority and experience in the Wife’s tale rather than the issue of marriage, of course. Friars, it should be remembered, can manipulate authority: they can “glose” the text as they like. (See Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer 317-331.)
The Friar announces that he will tell a tale to show that summoners are no good, but he is attacking the generic summoner, or the office of summoner. The Host faux politely appeals to the Friar’s overblown notion of himself as “curteys” (1287) and recommends no debate, but the Summoner tells him to bring it on. He’ll “shal hym quiten every grot” (1292).
The Host seems to offer protection, shutting the Summoner up and saying sweetly to the Friar, “Tel forth youre tale, leeve maister deere” (1300).
The Friar attacks the office of summoner instead of the man, and he hides behind his own office, saying that the summoner “han of us no jurisdiccioun” (1330). Before long the Summoner interrupts in a rage, but the Host stifles him and instigates the Friar further: “Ne spareth nat, myn owene maister deere” (1337). And he doesn’t.
The summoner of this tale works for an “erchedeken” and has “bawdes” as informants. He’s on the take, and he’s a parasite. This summoner meets up with a yeoman near the forest whose green clothing ought to be a folktale clue to this fellow’s supernatural origins, as is his coming from “fer in the north contree” (1413). The summoner acknowledges that he’s a “bailly” instead of having to confess to the “filthe and shame” of the title of summoner, and the yeoman claims to be a bailiff also — one who collects revenues and administers justice for a lord of an estate. The yeoman declares them “brothers.” They chat about their practices before the yeoman admits he is “a feend; my dwellyng is in helle” (1448).
The fiend explains much about taking various earthly shapes and about the nature of his work. The stupid summoner here never understands the implications about his sworn brotherhood with the demon, and for a while becomes a straight-man for the fiend, through which the Friar shows off his theological knowledge. But the dramatic irony is that the Friar identifies himself with the fiend, who becomes his spokesperson. It’s a rhetorical mistake. Devils have more honor, apparently, speakng straightforwardly and learnedly. The fiend even tries to pretend to be an instrument of salvation, which, on the Friar’s part, is a sanctimonious self-deception. The irony created by the Friar works against him, and the Summoner will successfully deconstruct his tale. It’s a trap — the Friar knows too much about demonology and his own theological subtleties are what the Summoner will hang him with.
The fiend finally concludes his blab, telling the summoner that he’ll eventually learn all this material concerning demons and hell “by thyn owene experience” (1517). The two come upon a carter stuck in the mud, cursing his horses, cart, and hay. The summoner is exuberant, but the fiend notes that “It is nat his entente” (1556). Indeed, when unstuck he blesses all. We’re supposed to consider not just the words but the intent (1569). (Similarly though, the summoner will damn himself, but was the intent there?)
The summoner announces he’ll oppress an old poor woman for twelve pence. She pleads with him, but he declares, “Nay thanne … the foule feend me fecche / If I th’excuse” (1610-1611) and he wants her new pan as payment for an old trumped-up sin. She too curses the summoner, along with her pan(1622-1623), but it’s heartfelt this time. The demon claims what is now his: the pan and the soul of the summoner.
The Friar should have stopped here, but he delays the Summoner’s response with declarations that he could have told a lot worse tale about summoners — he was actually merciful in the telling. The Friar implies that he’s on the side of the innocent (1656ff) and adds a prayer that’s not sincere about summoners repenting in time (1663-1664). Irony and wrath have no place in prayer and indeed are impediments; so again, consider the implications of words vs. intent. With this fake prayer, the Friar indirectly advises the Summoner not to attack, but since the final prayer is really a curse, the sanctimony inevitably will bring on the worst.