The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer Summary and Analysis The Summoner's Prologue and Tale

Summary

After hearing the Friar's tale, the Summoner is angry and sarcastically suggests that the Friar told a well-documented story since friars and fiends are always good friends. He then recalls for the other pilgrims the story of the friar who once had a vision of hell and, while being guided through hell by an angel, never saw a single friar. The friar wondered aloud whether all friars were in a state of grace; in response, the angel asked Satan to lift up his tail. Suddenly twenty thousand friars were seen swarming around Satan's "arse." Having made his point about the friars in general, the Summoner tells another insulting story about one friar in particular.


A friar, who goes about seeking contributions, promises prayers and possible salvation in exchange for anything his parishioners will give. Once back at the convent, the friar promptly forgets to make the promised prayers. One day, the friar goes to the home of old Thomas, a rich but uneducated old man who has been ill for a long time. The friar assures Thomas that he and his brother friars have been praying for him.

When Thomas' wife enters the house, the friar kisses and fondles her. She requests that he preach to Thomas about anger because Thomas is so unpleasant. Before leaving, the wife reminds the Friar that her baby died recently. The friar pretends to know this because he and the other friars have seen the child being carried upward, and they have prayed and fasted. He gives the wife a long sermon on the virtues of fasting and sins of gluttony.

The friar then turns to Thomas and embarks upon a long sermon on the necessity of avoiding excessive wealth. He assures Thomas that the convent prays for him every night and that Thomas should donate a portion of his gold to the convent. In fact, he says that Thomas should give everything to the friars. The friar then preaches on the sin of anger and quotes many classical examples. In so doing, he makes Thomas more and more angry until Thomas finally says that he has a gift for the friar, on the condition that the friar swears to share the gift with the other friars. When the friar agrees, Thomas tells him to "reach down your hand beneath my buttocks, and there you are sure to find something I have hidden there." The friar quickly runs his hand down the cleft of the old man's buttocks, and at that moment the old man lets out an enormous fart.

Enraged and disgusted, the friar leaves Thomas and goes to see a wealthy lord, whom he tells of this insult, saying, "I wont be asked to divide what cannot be divided into equal parts." The lord's servant explains how the fart can be equally divided. The lord and his lady — everyone except the friar — thinks the servant's answer is excellent.

Analysis

In the personal conflict between the Friar and the Summoner, the Friar's attack is on the Summoner's intelligence. On the personal level, the Summoner's response makes the Friar seem a raving idiot. Getting even with the Friar for his tale of a wicked summoner, the Summoner tells of a wicked friar. The Summoner's story shows the Summoner's disdain for the pilgrim Friar and the Summoner's belief that the message the friar in the tale espouses is of a blasphemous nature, one that inverts and perverts the essence of his Christian order.

When the friar enters Thomas' house and learns that the man is dying, he sees a perfect opportunity to increase his coffers under the guise of the Church's needs. In doing so, he commits one of the most horrible sins of the Middle Ages, that of simony — using the offices of the church for one's own personal gain. Indeed, the friar should be a character of purity and good works; instead the reader sees him inverting the meaning of his order and becoming the primary source of deceit and corruption by using the church for his corrupt actions. Again, the friar's hypocrisy and simony is evident when he assures Thomas and Thomas' wife that he has prayed for the soul of their dead child and for the health of Thomas when, in fact, the reader knows intuitively that he has done no such thing.

An organizing feature of The Summoner's Tale is the ironic contrast between what the Friar advocates and what he preaches. The Friar preaches desire for higher things, but his own appetite is for food and things of this world. His sermon on fasting and gluttony is accompanied by his ordering a meal considered rather gluttonous. He preaches patience and self-control, but he himself gives way to wrath. He sermonizes on the value of the "poor in spirit" and poverty, and yet he is openly insistent that money be given to him and not other monks or friars. And while he is supposedly pure and chaste, he is overly familiar with Thomas' wife, kissing and fondling her.

The Summoner's Tale is also ripe with hypocritical paradoxes, many of which have as their base the difference between eschatology and scatology — that is, the concern for an afterlife juxtaposed with the obscenities of this earthly life. As noted earlier (see the analysis for The Miller's Tale), this theme is also treated extensively and with much more comic power in the earlier tale. Chaucer uses the fart as an ironic comment on the friar's claim that he can talk to God, and the fart, like a stroke of thunder, answers back. That the friar believes he must portion out the fart equally among the other friars shows him to be concerned more with scatology than with eschatology. It is further ironic that the lord's meat carver is the one who devises a plan to split the fart. This reinforces the notion that the friar and his order are interested more with the obscenities of an earthly life that with the occupation of saving souls, their own included.

Glossary

convent in Chaucer's time, a dwelling for any religious group of either sex.

Trentals masses sung for a soul in purgatory; this ritual usually consists of one mass a day for thirty days.

Deus hic! Latin, meaning "God be here!"

Je vous sans doute French, meaning "I tell you this without doubt."

Lazarus and Dives (Lazar and Dives) see Luke 16:19.

Moses, Elija, Aaron (Moyses, Elye, Aaron) see Exodus 30:28.

Cormeum eructavit! the opening words of Psalm 14.

Seneca Roman philosopher and writer.

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