Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493
The Friar says it is time to speak of "gayer things" and volunteers to tell a tale he knows about a summoner. He adds that everyone knows how hated summoners are. The Host is afraid the Friar will upset the pilgrim Summoner, but the pilgrim Summoner says that he will shortly pay the Friar back. The Friar begins.
An archdeacon kept in his employ a summoner who had no rival for finding sinners. The man kept a network of spies to help him discover wrongdoers. He often pretended that he had charges against an individual, but if that person would compensate him, the charges would be "dismissed." By extorting money in this manner, the summoner grew rich; he shared only a little of what he collected with the archdeacon.
One day, as the rogue was on his way to charge an old widow, he meets a vigorous yeoman on the road to whom he takes an instant liking. This yeoman is a bailiff, the summoner's civil counterpart. When their conversation reveals their mutual dishonesty, lack of conscience, and love of gold, the summoner and the bailiff pledge eternal brotherhood.
Later in the trip, the summoner asks the bailiff's name and learns that he is a fiend, a devil who can alter his shape at will. He explains that he sometimes does the devil's work and sometimes inflicts God's punishments. The yeoman/demon gives the summoner a chance to forsake him, but the summoner renews his oath to be a faithful brother.
The two hear a carter stuck in the mud curse his animals to hell. The summoner wonders why the fiend does not immediately take the man up on his curse, but he soon learns that not all prayers to the devil are sincere.
When the two approach the old widow and the summoner attempts to extort money from her, she curses him sincerely. The fiend immediately grabs the summoner and takes him to hell. The Friar ends his tale promising a similar fate to all summoners.
Discussion and Analysis
The Friar insults the Summoner, continuing the feud the two began earlier. He then uses his tale to intensify the insult. In his tale are all the elements of the fabliau: the plot unfolds scene by scene; it turns on trickery; and the ease with which a stupid man is outsmarted. The Friar's Tale also has elements of the exemplum, a perfect story of terrible behavior with a moral ending.
This story of the summoner meeting the devil is found in earlier Latin and German versions and had also been told in English. This problem with an exploitive clergy was an ancient one, and it is somewhat ironic that while the story is intended to condemn the Summoner, it actually condemns all extortioners, many of whom were friars. Nevertheless, the theme is unmistakable: the relationship between avarice and the devil is extremely close and will land its practitioners in hell very quickly.
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