Summoner’s Tale, The


Summoner’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1390)
   The Summoner’s Tale is the most scatological of CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES. Fittingly attributed to the pilgrim Summoner, the most physically disgusting of the pilgrims described in the GENERAL PROLOGUE, the Summoner’s Tale is presented as the Summoner’s revenge on the pilgrim Friar, who has just told a tale critical of Summoners (officers whose job was to summon offenders to ecclesiastical courts). The tale has no known analogues and was probably Chaucer’s own invention. Because of its contemporary setting, bourgeois characters, and comic emphasis on trickery, the tale has often been called a FABLIAU, but it lacks the focus on sexual escapades generally characteristic of that genre. Chiefly the tale is a satire of the greed and hypocrisy of friars.
   The tale begins with an anecdote in which a friar, visiting hell, is shown the final resting place of all friars in Satan’s hindquarters—a perversion of a popular tale in which the Virgin reveals the heavenly home of friars to be under her protective skirts. Then begins the tale proper, in which a Yorkshire friar, begging from door to door, calls at the household of the bedridden old Thomas, whose wife tells the friar how bad-tempered her ill husband is. The friar preaches an impromptu sermon against anger, and then asks Thomas for a financial contribution. Despite Thomas’s protestations that he has given all he can, the friar continues pressing him, until Thomas promises to give him a rich gift if he will swear to share it equally among his 12 convent brothers. The friar agrees, and Thomas tells him to reach down under his backside where the treasure is hidden. When the friar does so, Thomas farts in his hand.
   The friar storms out of Thomas’s house and angrily complains to the local lord. Rather than focus on punishing Thomas, the lord becomes fascinated with the arithmetic or “ars-metrike” problem of how to divide the fart 12 ways. His squire suggests that the 12 friars assemble around a cartwheel, with their noses at the ends of the spokes. The complaining friar may be in the center, at the hub of the wheel. Thomas may then be invited to sit on the hub of the wheel and break wind, so that the fart will travel along the spokes of the wheel and be distributed evenly to the waiting friars. The squire is handsomely rewarded for his ingenuity, and the friar is silenced. Scholarly interest in the tale has often looked at the characterization of the friar, who is the epitome of con man, hypocrite, glutton, and false comforter. He says he can’t eat a bite but orders a gourmet meal; he was absent when the couple’s child died but claims to have had a vision of him in heaven; and he condemns the very sin he is most guilty of himself. Biblical and iconographic allusions have also interested scholars, particularly the image of the wheel and its relation to Pentecost, as well as allusions to the Abraham story and other biblical events. These elements suggest a serious satirical intent for the tale, despite its surface coarseness.
   Bibliography
   ■ Fleming, John V. “Anticlerical Satire as Theological Essay: Chaucer’s ‘Summoner’s Tale,’ ” Thalia 6, no. 1 (1983): 5–22.
   ■ Olsen, Glending. “The End of The Summoner’s Tale and the Uses of Pentecost,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 21 (1999): 209–245.
   ■ Ruud, Jay. “ ‘My Spirit Hath His Fostering in the Bible’: The Summoner’s Tale and the Holy Spirit,” in Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in The Canterbury Tales, edited by Susanna Greer Fein, David Raybin, and Peter C. Braeger. Studies in Medieval Culture, 29.Kalamazoo,Mich.:Medieval Institute Publications, 1991, 125–148.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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