For ther he was nat lyk a cloysterer
With a thredbare cope, as is a povre scoler,
But he was lyk a maister or a pope.
Of double worstede was his semycope,
That rounded as a belle out of the presse.
An avaricious archdeacon has in his employ a sly summoner, a thief and pimp. This summoner, out to serve a false summons on a poor widow, meets a gay yeoman, clad all in green. The summoner (ashamed of his true occupation) claims to be a bailiff; the yeoman says that he too is a bailiff. They swear to be brothers and share all that they get. The yeoman, the summoner learns, is a devil. They come upon a carter who curses his horses. Take them, says the summoner; they are ours. No, says the devil, the curse did not come from the heart. Then they come upon a poor old woman on whom the summoner tries to serve a false summons. She curses him; it comes from the heart, and the devil carries him off.
Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.
The mendicant friar is a frequent figure, often satirical, in later Middle English. See: Penn R. Szittya, "The Antifraternal Tradition in Middle English Literature," Speculum, Vol. 52, No. 2. (Apr., 1977), pp. 287-313.
The Friar's Tale is directly aimed at the Summoner, who is his professional rival (in that both prey upon the poor in the parishes), and he characterizes the Summoner in his prologue as a "rennere up and down/ With mandementz for fornicacioun" (III.1283-84). Ecclesiastical courts, Archdeacons, and Summoners were frequent objects of complaint and satire. The Scots chronicler of Lanercost (13th Century) records a joke about Archdeacons that the Friar would have appreciated: An Avaricious Archdeacon.
The Friar is a preacher and his tale employs a favorite device of preachers of the time, the exemplum. This is a brief story told to illustrate a moral point. They were a very popular form of literature and were widely disseminated in collections such as John Bromyard's Summa praedicantium. One of the most popular collections was The Dialogue of Miracles, by Caesarius of Heisterbach (d. 1240), translated by H. von E. Scott and C.C. Swinton Bland (London, 1921). Although Chaucer may well have come into contact with the exemplum he uses in the Friar's Tale through oral tradition (for such tales were widespread -- see Riverside Chaucer, p. 875), there are interesting similarities between his tale and the version which appears in Caesarius' collection: An Administrator Carried off by the Devil.
Both Caesarius' tale and Chaucer's are based on the widespread motif of the "heart-felt curse." For examples see Archer Taylor, PMLA 36, 1921, 35-59 . As might be expected, the most obvious difference between Chaucer's version and the others is the rich development of character and the exploitation of the irony inherent in the situation. The exemplum, like the fabliaux, is usually a brief and pointed tale, and it exists as much for its moral as for its narrative. As is the case of his fabliaux, Chaucer's exempla (here and in the Nun's Priest's Tale and, most notably, the Pardoner's Tale) are relatively simple tales made works of art.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Friar's Tale click here .