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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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How does the conversation between the Friar and the Summoner affect the portrayals of the pilgrims in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?

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In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Friar and the Summoner have a heated exchange before she begins her tale. The contrast of the tone of their speech demonstrates how very different these two characters are.

The Friar is the first one to speak when he interjects a comment after the Wife of Bath’s introduction to her tale. She tells her fellow pilgrims about how her abusive relationship with her fifth husband Jankin turned into the best of her five marriages. The Friar teases her about being long-winded as she introduces her tale.

The Frere lough, whan he hadde herd al this,
‘Now, dame,’ quod he, ‘so have I Ioye or blis,
This is a long preamble of a tale!’

Although he makes gentle fun of the Wife, he does not really ridicule her. His tone is jocular and humorous.

But the Summoner suddenly attacks the Friar in defense of the Wife. He claims the Friar is inserting himself where he does not belong and compares him to a fly buzzing around and fouling people’s meals.

And whan the Somnour herde the Frere gale,
‘Lo!’ quod the Somnour, ‘Goddes armes two!
A frere wol entremette him ever-mo.
Lo, gode men, a flye and eek a frere
Wol falle in every dish and eek matere.
What spekestow of preambulacioun?
What! amble, or trotte, or pees, or go sit doun;
Thou lettest our disport in this manere.’

The Summoner’s tone is not as humorously teasing as the Friar’s. The comparison to a fly that ruins people’s enjoyment is positively insulting, and he finishes his comment by ordering the Friar to leave.

The Friar responds, and this time his tone is a bit more challenging than the one he used with the Wife. He threatens to tell their companions stories that will ridicule Friars, making the Summoner the butt of the joke.

Ye, woltow so, sir Somnour?’ quod the Frere,
‘Now, by my feith, I shal, er that I go,
Telle of a Somnour swich a tale or two,
That alle the folk shal laughen in this place.’

Even though he is defensive, he does not equal the belligerent tone the Summoner adopts in his response.

‘Now elles, Frere, I bishrewe thy face,’
Quod this Somnour, ‘and I bishrewe me,
But if I telle tales two or thre
Of freres er I come to Sidingborne,
That I shal make thyn herte for to morne;
For wel I wool thy patience is goon.’

The Summoner also threatens to tell stories, but his anti-Friar tales will not be amusing. They will be hurtful enough to make the Friar cry. The juxtaposition of these threats contrasts the humorous nature of the Friar with the pugnacious attitude of the Summoner.

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One of Geoffrey Chaucer’s narratives in The Canterbury Tales is the Wife of Bath’s Tale.

This specific tale is worth examining, as the Wife of Bath is one of Chaucer’s most developed characters. Her prologue is twice as long as her tale, and through her, Chaucer provides significant insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages.

The Summoner and the Friar show open disdain for each other. The Friar interrupts the Wife of Bath’s prologue, and the Summoner chastises him for intruding into others' business, before he compares the Friar to a fly who spoils fun.

After that interchange, both the Friar and Summoner threaten to tell the other pilgrims embarrassing and unpleasant stories about the other.

This portrayal is significant for two reasons. First, the interruption of the pilgrim who symbolizes women during the time period is not insignificant, pointing to the fact that men believed they were more important than women.

Second, Chaucer is highly critical of the Church, and it’s significant that he portrays two religious characters in a negative light. Chaucer viewed these types of men as holy in name only while the Church granted cover for them to take advantage of laypeople.

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The fighting between the Friar and the Summoner is part of Chaucer's class satire. The two men are presented as corrupt individuals, yet they both hypocritically accuse the other of being as such. The tone of their fight is bitter and mean-spirited in the extreme, even childish. It takes the Host's intervention to get them to stop insulting one another so the Wife of Bath (whose prologue is interrupted by the Summoner, who complains about her being too long-winded) can get to her tale.

The nature of this fight mocks the dignity of these representatives of the medieval church, illustrating how these men are not as holy as they are supposed to be, given their professions. Both friars and summoners were known for taking bribes. So for the two to fight as they do is comical, given that both are poor representatives of Christian morality.

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The summoner is extremely scornful of the friar—openly so. After the friar has interrupted the Wife of Bath to complain that the prologue to her tale has gone on for too long, the summoner says that a friar will always "entremette hym"—that is, intrude into others' business. He goes on to compound this by comparing the friar to a fly which falls into people's food: like this fly, he says, the friar will always insist on involving himself in everybody's conversation. He tells the friar to "go sit doun" and stop spoiling everybody's fun.

The friar seems to feel equal disdain for the summoner: he says that before he goes anywhere, he will tell a story or two about summoners which will have everyone laughing. The summoner's response to this is particularly harsh—he says he "bishrewe[s]," or curses, the friar's face and that he will tell some horrible stories of his own about friars.

It is clear that the discussion is becoming unpleasant and heated, because the host has to interject and quiet the two quarreling men so that the Wife of Bath can continue speaking.

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There's no easy way to say this, but the Friar and the Summoner really hate each other's guts. And this mutual animosity is plain for all to see. The Friar loathes the Summoner for his greed and corruption; for his part, the Summoner thinks that the Friar is a pious hypocrite who just wants to settle scores. Both men proceed to tell tales in which they comprehensively trash each other's professions. But before they do, they engage in an unseemly squabble in which the Summoner chides the Friar for interrupting the Wife of Bath's tale, and the Friar in turn threatens to tell a tale that will cause the other pilgrims to laugh at the Summoner.

The petty bickering between the two men is indicative of Chaucer's satirical approach to depicting the medieval Church and its functionaries. A summoner was an official of the ecclesiastical, or Church courts. His job was to summon people to court to answer charges against them. These officials were notoriously corrupt and often pocketed bribes in return for dropping charges. They also frequently threatened to take people to court on trumped-up charges if they didn't pay up.

Friars also had a bad reputation. Many of them were notorious for living luxurious lifestyles that flatly contradicted the vows of poverty they'd taken. In his scabrous, bawdy tale, the Summoner tells the story of one such individual: a greedy hypocrite who ends up having to figure out a way of dividing a fart between himself and twelve other friars.

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There is a brief exchange between the Friar and the Summoner near the end of "The Wife of Bath's Prologue." Allison, the woman of Bath, has just given a lengthy account of her experiences in marriage and talked about her five husbands. Once she finishes, the Friar points out that the prologue was "a long preamble of a tale."

The Summoner responds by saying friars are always inserting themselves into situations in which they are not wanted or do not belong. He states that "a friar will evermore be meddling." The two get into a brief but angry conversation, and the Summoner threatens to tell negative stories about friars during the journey.

The whole argument seems unnecessary, but both feel insulted by the other, and things escalate quickly. The host urges the Friar and Summoner to stop fighting and let the woman of Bath tell her tale. The angry tone between the two indicate that neither character has much patience with the other and that there are stereotypes associated with friars.

Later, when Allison starts her tale, she makes critical jokes about friars, implying that they have destroyed the magic of the world around them and that they commit sexual assault. This is probably in return for the Friar's criticism of her prologue.

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