At the end of the wife of Bath's narration, the Friar wonders whether such heavy academic problems concerning authority and the scriptures shouldn't be left to the proper authorities and offers to tell a tale about a summoner. The Host admonishes the Friar to tell something else, but the Summoner interrupts and says that, if the Friar tells an uncomplimentary tale about a summoner, he will in turn tell an uncomplimentary tale about a friar. The tale the Friar tells is, indeed, uncomplimentary.
An archdeacon (a church official who presided over church courts) uses a crew of spies, including whores, to seek out information about the people living in the parish. With the derogatory information in hand, the archdeacon calls upon the sinners and miscreants and squeezes exorbitant tribute from them so that their names do not appear among those doing evil.
In the employ of the Archdeacon is a summoner who makes his rounds blackmailing the rich and the poor alike. One day, the summoner meets a debonair young yeoman. Discovering that they are both bailiffs, the two men swear to be brothers to their dying day. They each reveal the underhanded means they use to extort money from their victims and agree to enter into a partnership. After exchanging further information, the summoner inquires about the yeoman's name. The yeoman reveals that he is "a fiend, my dwelling is in hell." The summoner says that he made a bargain to join forces with the yeoman, and even if the yeoman is really a fiend, he (the summoner) will honor his word. The two seal the bargain and begin their journey.
The summoner and the demon come upon a farmer whose cart is stuck in the mud. In exasperation, the farmer shouts for the devil to take all — cart, horse, hay, everything. The summoner urges the fiend to do as he is bid, but the fiend explains that, because the curse was not uttered from the heart and in sincerity, he has no power to do so. Later, they go to the home of a rich widow who refuses to pay the summoner's bribes. Again the summoner demands his money; again the woman refuses. When the summoner threatens to take her new frying pan, she cries, "The devil take you and the frying pan." The fiend asks whether she means these words, and she says she does, unless the summoner repents. The summoner refuses, and the fiend drags the summoner off to hell, where all summoners have very special places. The Friar ends his tale by hoping that summoners can someday repent and become good men.
The Friar's Tale and the next one, The Summoner's Tale, belong together as a unit because the Friar tells an uncomplimentary tale about a corrupt summoner, and the Summoner, in his turn, tells an uncomplimentary tale about a corrupt friar. The reader should remember that in spite of the personal animosity between the Friar and the Summoner, the greater quarrel is about the importance and validity of their respective professions.
Although The Friar's Tale is elegantly simple — partly because of the Friar's intellectual simplicity — the tale has its enriching subtleties. For example, Chaucer plays on the medieval word "rebekke," a type of stringed fiddle-like instrument, and "rebekke," slang for "old woman." The word also puns on the biblical name Rebecca (wife of Isaac and mother to Jacob), whose sacred water vessel in the biblical story is reflected in The Friar's Tale by a comically brown cooking pan. Another literary technique is a type of reversal in that the summoner and the demon ride out seeking "prey" with the pun on "pray." The central irony in the tale, of course, is that the foxy summoner out-foxes himself and becomes the "prey" of the demon.
The Friar's Tale is connected to The Wife of Bath's Tale in that the Wife discusses the problem of authority (that is, the husband or the wife), and the Friar deals with the relative authority in terms of the church and demons. In The Wife of Bath's Tale, authority is given over to a woman — a violation of medieval sense of hierarchy. The Friar continues the theme of authority by first describing the evil machinations of his superior, the archdeacon to whom the summoner is supposedly a "vassal." The summoner, in turn, has his own servants and spies in the form of whores and thieves. Likewise, the demon falls into a hierarchy in that he is assigned by a higher power the responsibility of capturing his prey, the soul of the summoner. Then in the episode of the farmer and his cart of hay, the reader learns that the authority of the demon is limited.
usury (usure) charging interest on money lent, a practice forbidden by canon law.
simony (symonye) the sin of using the church for personal financial gain, a frequent violation.
lechery (lecchours) excessive sexual indulgence.
Archbishop Dunstan (924-988) an archbishop of Canterbury who was later canonized.
Virgil, Dante (Virgile, Dant) Virgil has a description of hell in his Aeneid, and Dante has the elaborate, complicated Inferno. The fiend tells the Summoner that he will be better able to describe hell after seeing it than did the two poets.