3.3 The Summoner's Tale

In his hand the Summoner holds a summons:

        A SOMONOUR was ther with us in that place,
        That hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
        For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
        . . .
        A gerland hadde he set upon his heed,
        As greet as it were for an ale-stake.
        A bokeleer hadde he maad hym of a cake.


Short Summary:

In Yorkshire, at Holdernesse, a friar making his rounds, begging from householders, calls upon old Thomas, who is very ill. The wife tells him Thomas is grouchy, and the friar preaches a sermon on the evils of anger. Then he presses Thomas for a rich gift; Thomas says he has already given all he can, but the friar persists. Finally Thomas says he will give him something only if he swears to divide it equally among the members of his convent. The friar swears to do so. Thomas tells him the treasure is by his backside; the friar reaches down and Thomas lets a fart in his hand.  The friar is so angry he cannot speak; he goes to the lord of the manor to complain, though the lord is more fascinated by the intellectual problem of dividing an indivisible. The lord's squire provides the solution: each of the twelve members of the friar's convent is to lay his nose at the end of a spoke on a wheel, with the friar seated in the middle; when he breaks wind, the fart will drift equally to each of the waiting noses.

Students reading this text for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.


Contextual Information:

The Summoner's Prologue and Tale belong to the extensive body of contemporary literature attacking the Friars, so-called "Anti-Fraternal" texts. For a good example see the Romaunt of the Rose in The Riverside Chaucer: in the confession of "Fals-Semblant," hypocrisy, who takes on the role of a mendicant friar (RomC 6135-7292, pp. 751-62). For part of the French version see: Speech of False Seeming (Fals-Semblant).

For further examples, see the texts collected in Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller, New York, 1977. Despite the bulk of such literature, there are no known exact literary sources for Chaucer's prologue and tale.

The joke in the prologue is a blasphemous perversion of a story popular among friars and other religious of the time: The Friars in Heaven

The situation of the friars described in Caesarius' tale became a common theme in contemporary art -- the Virgin depicted holding open a capacious cloak under which are clustered small figures of members of some religious order. To see an example go to the excellent site, the Web Gallery of Art or go directly to the Virgin of Mercy.

The role Chaucer assigns to Satan may also have been inspired by contemporary art: a mural in the Campo Santo in Pisa -- Francisco Triani's The Last Judgement -- depicts a similar situation, though it could easily have been suggested by oral tradition or the Romaunt of the Rose, which has the lines:

        For thou shalt for this synne dwelle
        Right in the devels ers of helle,
        But if that thou repente thee. (RomC 7575-77)

There are likewise no direct sources for the Summoner's Tale, which seems to have been entirely Chaucer's invention. Even if there were such a source it could hardly account for the brilliant characterization of the Friar, one of Chaucer's most delightfully sleazy characters.

The tale belongs to the category of "the satiric legacy," of which there are a number of examples (see notes in The Riverside Chaucer) . The Summoner's Tale is a fabliaux, but the surviving fabliaux offer almost no analogues. The only one that comes anywhere near Chaucer's tale in either action or in respect to characterization is a French fabliaux by Jacques de Baisieux: The Tale of the Priest's Bladder.

Jacques' Tale, like Chaucer's, involves the begging friars, but his hero is a clever parish priest rather than a rustic. (The parish priests -- "possessioners," the friar in The Summoner's tale calls them -- were often the enemies of the mendicants.)

However, neither in Jacques' tale nor in any of the other tales of "satiric legacy" is there any trace of the problem the squire must solve -- how to divide the legacy. As in the case of the prologue, the solution here may have been provided by contemporary art. As Janet Richardson's note in the Riverside Chaucer says: "The squire's solution seems to parody iconographic representations of the descent of the Holy Spirit to the twelve apostles at Pentecost" (p. 879, note to 2255, which see for bibliographical references). If so, the blasphemy in the final scene nicely balances with that in the prologue.

For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Summoner's Tale click here.