The Summoner’s Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on January 20, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 561

The pilgrim Summoner is so enraged at the condemnation of the Friar that he immediately tells an evil little joke about an angel touring a friar around hell. When the visiting friar comments that he sees no friars in hell, the angel takes him directly to Satan, who reveals 20,000...

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The pilgrim Summoner is so enraged at the condemnation of the Friar that he immediately tells an evil little joke about an angel touring a friar around hell. When the visiting friar comments that he sees no friars in hell, the angel takes him directly to Satan, who reveals 20,000 friars hiding in his ass, the idea being that Satan and friars are extremely close. He then tells his tale.

There was once a very greedy friar who was licensed to beg and preach in a particular district. He would pretend to have his scribe record all the names of those who donated so that his monastery could pray for them, but the names were erased as soon as he was out of sight.

On the day this story takes place, the friar calls on one of his most generous benefactors, whom he finds full of anger and very ill. The friar pretends concern and swears that he and all his brother friars have been praying for Thomas to recover. He delivers a hypocritical sermon on the great virtue in fasting, interpreting the scriptures to suit his purposes, in order to persuade Thomas to make another large donation.

The furious Thomas remarks that he cannot understand why his health has not improved with all the money he has donated for prayers (which he seems to suspect have never been offered). In reply, the friar delivers a second sermon on the terrible fate which befell famous kings who were wrathful and angry. The friar concludes by urging Thomas to give generously to the dear, poor monks who have prayed for him.

Thomas appears to agree. He says he will give the monastery something very special which he has hidden in his rectum. He instructs the friar to reach under his buttocks to retrieve the treasure. When the greedy, avaricious friar complies, Thomas expels gas loudly into the friar’s hand and tells him to take that benefice and divide it with his fellow monks.

The infuriated Friar John rushes to the lord of the village for retribution. But the nobleman is so fascinated with the problem of how the fart could possibly be divided into even parts that he totally ignores the problem of retribution.

The tale is concluded with the squire’s serving boy offering a solution to the division problem for the price of a new suit. The insult is never addressed, Thomas goes unpunished, and the pageboy gets a new suit.

Analysis

In his prologue, the Summoner comments immediately on the close relationship between avarice and the devil by telling a wicked joke. His tale, which follows, continues the insult in the form of a fabliau. It turns on trickery, deception, and the ease with which the evil man, in this case the friar of the story, is outwitted. Unlike the other fabliaux in the Tales, however, “The Summoner’s Tale” is truly base and obscene, revealing the Summoner to be of a prurient nature.

There appear to be no models for this story; it is presented rather as a parody of sincere religious stories which preachers used in those days to teach their listeners moral lessons. By the end of this particular story, friendly professional rivalry between the Summoner and the Friar has degenerated into open quarreling through stories in which each man has damned his opponent to hell.

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