Analyzing "The Friar's Tale" and "The Summoner's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

Updated on May 7, 2018
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Luke has worked as a middle school English teacher since 2012.

Synopsis of The Canterbury Tales

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, twenty-nine pilgrims of 14th Century Medieval England gather together for a journey of a life time. During their pilgrimage, each traveler tells a tale. The first tale is told by the Knight. He tells a valiant tale of love and honor, and suggests at the problematic chivalric ideals of the time. In the tale, there is a fraternal conflict between two men of the same estate over what they deem to be love, but what is in fact a lust for possession. From the very first tale, Chaucer and the pilgrims begin to show that the ideals and beliefs of Medieval England are in a constant state of flux. The old feudal system is giving way to a modern mercantile system, and the old ideals are up for new interpretations.

As the stories progress, the characters must face the implications of not only their individual selves and estates, but also of the tale they just told. After the Knight’s tale, each tale told demoralizes and satirizes the previous estate. It seems that the pilgrims are not learning from each other’s tales, but are regressing back into a state of childhood: poking fun at others to build up their own estate or simply just for the pure enjoyment of watching the others squirm in their seats. In either case, the tales progressively get more personal to the individuals within the estates, and the pilgrims get increasingly more apprehensive with each tale told.

As the tension grows with each tale told, the satirical attacks move away from the outer portrayal of the estates and become more individualized. Following the high classed tale of the Knightly estate is the Miller and the Reeve. An analysis of the Miller’s Tale describes the degradation of the Knight’s chivalric values and ideas of honor and marriage, while the Reeve responds in anger to the Miller’s tale. As each tale regresses, the new emerging mercantile class seems to be idealizing those who are crooked and cheaters, thus straying ever further from any disputable idea of sharing knowledge or wisdom. As each character misuses their opportunity to be the educational exemplar, the estates become more defensive and intense in their attacks, none wanting to seem inferior to the next.

When the tales turn towards the Friar and the Summoner, they take on a completely new form of satirical fabliau. While many of the tales in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales attack the separate social estates of the pilgrims, the Friar and Summoner attack within a civil estate. Since both separately represent the clergy, their tales make for an epic battle based upon religion. In their seemingly advanced holy attacks within the clerical estates, both use the religious information they hold to demoralize and demonize the other. As animosity between the two builds, tension grows amongst the other pilgrims and makes everyone a bit uneasy. What follows is a verbal holy war.


Tension and Animosity Within the Estates

Before the Friar even gets to his tale, the Summoner and he get in an argument during “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” As the Wife nears her actual tale, the Friar chimes in saying, “This is a long preamble of a tale” (831)! Instantly, the Summoner retaliates on the Wife’s behalf stating that, “A frere wol entremette him everemo” (834)! After the Host settles the argument down, all begin to listen to the Wife’s tale once again. However, it is very likely that during this time the Friar and the Summoner are staring each other down, eye to eye, Bible to Bible, ready to engage in a verbal fisticuffs as soon as the Wife concludes.

The Friar begins his tale after the Wife’s. Because both the Friar and the Summoner take roles within the clergy, the Friar must attack something aside from his own estate. In response to the previously built-up animosity and the already clerical clash between these two men and their jobs, the Friar decides to begin attacking the Summoner as an individual. After the little skirmish between the Summoner and himself, the Friar instantly takes part in degrading all that the Summoner is and does. The Friar, knowing that it would be unholy to use the summoner job as a means for self-gratification, states that, “A somnour is a renner up and doun / With mandements for fornicacioun” (1284-1285).

At this point, everyone must have been on the edge of their seats, because up until now everyone had just satirized an estate. Had the Friar gone too far? The Host believed so and responded as such. “A, sire, ye sholde be hende / And curteys, as a man of your estaat, / In companye we wol have no debaat. / Telleth your tale, and lat the Somnour be” (1286-1289). However, the Summoner seems pleased at the Friar’s objectively insulting remarks. The Summoner sits back waiting for the Friar to make a fool of himself, and responds that he will simply repay him for whatever is said.


The Friar's Tale

In his tale, the Friar continues to demoralize and demonize the Summoner as an individual. He states that the Summoner uses his position for debauchery and relates him to Judas as a “theef” and cheater. He says that the Summoner uses his power of excommunication to belittle those who are poor just as Judas had. “He coude somne, on peyne of Cristes curs, / And they were gladde for to fille his purs” (1347-1348). Finally, as the Friar tells that the Summoner was tricked by a “yeman,” he attempts to dumb down the Summoner’s summoning position and question his authenticity as a God-like figure. This correlation between the Summoner and a demon not only attacked the Summoner as a person within the clerical estate, but also questions if one can have a holy soul of salvation while still relating with demons.

The Friar’s final attack reflects exactly who the Friar really is. Just as the Summoner had planned, he sat back and let the Friar make an unknowing fool of himself. Even though the Friar had clearly and successfully hit some of the Summoner’s softer religious spots, he did it in relation to his own personal life. In the next tale, the Summoner uses the Friars tale to completely demoralize and demonize the Friar. The Friar had spoken of unholy summoners, cheating, and devils all with a background of Biblical context. At this point, the degradation of the tales is put into the Summoner’s tale-telling hands. In the beginning, he quod that he would repay the Friar for all that was said; now it was his turn.


The Summoner's Tale

Just as he promised, the Summoner’s tale quickly begins by degrading and demonizing the Friar when he says, “Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder” (1674). Since it had already been established that these two men would battle the individual within the clerical estate, the Summoner uses their religious backgrounds to further his initial blow to the Friar. He first portrays how the Friar believes he can do no wrong because he is a frere, but then he quickly utilizes the Friar’s previous juxtaposition with demonic entities. “‘Now, sire,’ quod he, ‘han freres swich a grace / That noon of hem shal come to this place? / ‘Yis,’ quod this angel, ‘many a millioun!’ / And unto Sathanas he ledde him doun” (1683-1686). As the Summoner uses the Friars own satire against him, he shows just how crafty summoners really are. I am sure the Friar’s face began to turn red as he realized the sophisticated trap he had just fallen into.

As the Summoner continues his religious attack on the Friar, he becomes increasingly devious. He relates freres as men only worthy enough to dwell in the devils arse. The Summoner continues his attack on the Friar through Biblical allusions and insulting references. The Summoner tells a tale of a frere who tries collecting from a sick man who has no money. He portrays the Friar as so greedy, that he will take absolutely anything to fulfill his collector’s position. In one significant case, the frere even collects a man’s fart so that he and the other freres can bathe in other men’s wealth.

For the Summoner’s final satirical attack upon the Friar, he depicts freres as men who will take anything from the sick and the poor, even a fart. “And whan this syke man felte this frere / Aboute his tuwel grope there and here, / Amidde his hand he leet the frere a fart” (2147-2149). To further the religious and satirical humor, the Summoner not only makes it so the frere keeps the fart, he tells his tale in a way that this single frere attempts to share the fart with the rest of his covent. As the Summoner objectively tells his tell through a Biblical standpoint, he states that the frere’s covent is “thrittene, as I gesse” (2259). The twelve members of the covent plus the single frere represent the Biblical apostles. The Summoner does not necessarily mean that the freres are representations of Jesus and his apostles, but perhaps he is, just as the rest of the tales before him have, using what he knows and turning it from a positive to a negative. So, in this instance, the covent would not be the apostles, but perhaps a type of anti-apostles.


Clerical Clash

In either case, the Summoner concludes with the disgusting estate of the Friar. By use of “ars-metryke,” the freres devise a plan so, “That every man sholde have yliche his part / As of the soun or savour of a fart” (2225-2226). The main frere decides to take a cartwheel with twelve spokes “whan that the wader is fair,” (2253) and divide the fart up evenly among the rest of the covent. Here, the Friar is depicted as a man with such great “honour,” which is of course a satire of what the Friar truly deserves: that the most he deserves in life is the deep smell of a man’s fart.

In conclusion, because the Friar and the Summoner reside within the same estate, they must resort to a more personal satire, almost like a clerical civil war. In both tales, the teller uses their Biblical knowledge to demoralize and demonize his opponent. The Friar attempts to take the match by brute verbal force, but ultimately loses to the Summoner’s witty and carefully satirized remarks.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 JourneyHolm


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      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR


        6 months ago

        My name is Luke Holm. I'm a middle school teacher and have degrees in English, Philosophy, and Education.

      • profile image


        6 months ago

        How do I cite this

      • Luke Holm profile imageAUTHOR


        16 months ago

        Jay C, thank you for your comment and feedback. I think that if land is holy, then probably all land is holy (being a manifestation of spirit, rather than a physical plane). Also, I would love for someone to rewrite these tales. It takes SOOO long to get through one. My annotations are ridiculous.

      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        16 months ago from Houston, TX USA

        This is a brilliant analysis of the Tale. I suggest someone rewrite it in modern English so we can better understand it.

        Here are some observations.

        1. There is no Holy Land, so the Pilgrimage is in vain. Land is not alive and therefore cannot form the idea of holiness. People are alive and can be more or less holy. Holiness is the Projection of a Person. People should Not fight over land.

        2. Knights fight and kill people for different reasons... all in vain. No one should do violence against another. Modern Peace Officers are trained to use the Least amount of Force to arrest a person. We should train ourselves to leave the idea of Warrior and move to the idea of Peace Officer.

        That is enough for now.


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