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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

The Friarís Tale: Prologue

During the Wife of Bathís Tale the Friar had kept on giving black looks at the Summoner and had only restrained himself from swearing for the sake of good manners. Now when the Wife of Bathís the ended the Friar told her that she had touched upon a difficult academic problem that should best be left to schools of learning and sermonizers since their purpose was entertainment. He then offers to tell a story about a Summoner. However the Host reprimands him from taking revenge of the Summoner and tells him to tell another tale. However the Summoner interposes and asks the Friar to say what ever he wishes since he too has a tale about a lying limiter (i.e. a Friar).


The Friarís Tale

Summary


There once lived a corrupt Summoner who worked for a very strict archdeacon. This Summoner had a secret network of private spies, that even included pimps and harlots, who acted as his informers. They would provide the Summoner with incriminating evidence against the parishioners thereby enabling him to fleece them. The poor parishioners would quite willingly fill the Summonerís purse to avoid being excommunicated. The Summoner was extremely skilled at finding adulterers, concubines and whoremongers since his income depended on it.

One day the Summoner set out with the intention of delivering a false summons to a poor old widow on some trumped-up charges. One his way, he met a jolly Yeoman who carried the trademark bow and arrows and wore a short green coat and a black fringed hat. The Summoner pretended to be a bailiff and told the Yeoman that he had set out to collect rent. The Yeoman greeted the Summoner as a fellow brother since he was also a bailiff and the two of them became friends.

As they rode on together the Yeoman said that he lived far in the northern country. Their conversation soon turned to their occupations and the Summoner asked the Yeoman some way to make profits. He told the Yeoman not to hold back anything for the sake of conscience or fear of sin. However the Yeoman replied that his wages were very low as his master was very tight-fisted. By hook or by crook he barely managed to subsist. The Summoner said that his position was the same as the Yeomanís and proposed that they should enter into a fellowship. He then asked the Yeoman his name who revealed that he was actually a fiend and lived in hell.

The Summoner was surprised at this revelation since he had really taken him for a Yeoman since he had a human form. He asks the fiend about his ability to transform himself into any shape. The fiend explains that he can assume any form that he liked but the process was too complicated for the Summoner to understand. The Summoner decides to work with the Yeoman even after learning his true identity and both set off towards the village.

On their way just at the entrance of the village they saw a man whose cart laden with hay was hopelessly stuck in the mud. He whipped his horses but the cart refused to come unstuck. The man then started cursing his horses in frustration and hoped that the Devil would take his hay, cart and his three horses as well. The Summoner urged the fiend to take the horses and the cart of hay but the fiend replied that the man didnít sincerely mean it from his heart. Soon enough the horses pulled the cart free from the mud and their master blessed them. The Summoner and the fiend then rode on to the house of an old widow against whom the Summoner had fabricated false charges to extract some money. When they arrived at the widowís door the Summoner delivered her a summons to appear before the archdeacon to answer the charge against her. The widow replied that she would not be able to go since she was unwell and asked for a copy of the summons so that her lawyer could reply to the charges against her. The Summoner then told her to pay him twelve pence to ignore the matter. However the widow refused to do so. When the Summoner continued to threaten her the poor widow she wishes that he be damned, and carried away body and soul to hell. The fiend asks her whether she sincerely wishes that the Summoner be damned, she said that unless he repented then and there, she really wanted him to go to hell. The Summoner scoffed at the idea of repentance and the fiend was only too glad to fulfil the widowís curse and carried him off to Hell. The Friar ends his tale by wishing that hell is the heritage of Summoners and prays that they mend their ways before the devil gets them.

Notes

At the end of the Wife of Bathís Tale a quarrel erupted between the Friar and the Summoner. Both proceed to tell a tale against the other. Friars and Summoners were always competing against each other. The Friars held direct authority from the Pope while the Summoners came under the jurisdiction of the archdeacons and bishops. Since Friars were not under the dominion of bishops they were immune from Summoners. It is common knowledge that neither Friars nor Summoners were liked by the people and were condemned for their corrupt practices. The Friar harbors a professional hatred against the Summoner and thus attacks him through his tale.

The Friar skillfully attacks the Summoner and shows him in alliance with the devil himself. Further the Summoner comes off the worse when compared to the devil. The Friar shows that devils have a better code of honor and integrity. The devil/ fiend is perceptive enough to realize that the Carterís curse against his horses isnít heartfelt. But he readily accepts the widowís sincere curse that the Summoner be damned. When the Summoner refuses to repent the devil promptly carries off the Summoner to hell. Thus the Friar satirizes the Summoner through his tale. The high point of ironic sarcasm is reached when the Summoner thinks that the Yeoman (devil) looks similar enough to be his brother in trade. Even after learning the Yeomanís true identity the Summoner continues his partnership with him. The author here makes an indirect comment on the Summoner's character and also on his character.


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