THE FRIAR’S TALE
This story concerns a Summoner who is paid by a Bishop to summon sinners for
Trial before the Church Court.
This particular Summoner has a team of spies and harlots who provide him
with information concerning those living in the Parish, and the Summoner gathers this information to be used against them by the Church. The Summoner blackmails the Parishioners to prevent him revealing the
information to the Church Court.
One day when the Summoner is making his rounds to collect his money, he
meets a young Yeoman. The Yeoman asks the Summoner what his occupation is and he says that he is a Bailiff.
The Yeoman responds, “Dear brother, so am I.” The Yeoman lives in the north of the country. The two pass the time of day discussing work and they agree that they just receive enough income to cover expenses. They suggest a partnership.
After they have sealed their partnership, the Yeoman reveals that he is a
fiend from hell, but this does not unduly concern the Summoner, and will keep to their agreed partnership even although the Yeoman is the Beelzebub himself.
The pair happen upon a farmer whose cart full of hay is stuck fast in the
He is whipping the horses, and in exasperation he shouts for the Devil to take it all, cart, horse, hay and all. The Summoner urges his partner to claim the farmer’s goods, but the Devil explains that he has no power to do so because the curse was not uttered from the farmer’s heart.
The Summoner takes the Devil to a rich widow who has consistently refused to
pay the Summoner bribes.
She again refuses to pay the 12 pence ‘owed’, so the Summoner threatens to take her new frying pan instead. The widow shouts at the Summoner – the Devil take you and the frying pan. The Devil asks her if she really means these words and she replies, yes, unless the Summoner repents, but he refuses. The Summoner finds himself body and soul in hell in a special place in the Devil’s kingdom where all the Summoners reside.
The Friar ends his tale with the hope that Summoners can some day repent of
their evil doings and become good men.
The reader may perhaps wonder why the Friar has such animosity for a Church
official, (this is what a Summoner is), but you need to know the political background in order to appreciate this tale.
Friars are members of a Mendicant Order.
They rely on alms and their authority comes not from the Church, but directly from the Pope. This is different from Bishops, Deacons, Priests and Summoners, who are secular clergy and belong to the Church. There is, therefore, conflict between these two factions, hence the telling of this tale. We may suspect, therefore, that Chaucer considers that the Church has too much power and this leads to corruption.
There are also subtle comments made by the Friar in his narration, for he
has the Summoner stating that the Devil is his brother. We also observe that the Summoner lies to the Devil about his occupation, but is still happy to go along with the partnership presumably because he
thinks there may be profit in it and he will be able to use the Devil’s influence to obtain bribes from his ‘customers’
On conclusion of the Friar’s tale, the Summoner is shaking with anger, and
suggests that the reason he knows so much about the Devil, is because Friars and fiends are good friends.
He mentions the story concerning a vision that a Friar had of hell, and the
angel guiding him through hell commented that there were no Friars to be seen, but when Satan lifted up his tail, there were millions of Friars swarming around Satan’s arsehole.