illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Friar’s Tale Summary

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The Friar’s Prologue

The Friar praises the Wife’s story and her explanations. He then says that he will now relate a funny tale about a summoner. No good ever comes of them, he notes. The Host warns him to be courteous and leave the Summoner alone, and the Summoner vows to pay back the Friar’s tale in full when it is his turn.

The Friar’s Tale

The tale begins with an archdeacon who harshly punishes wrongdoing in his area, physically chastising people unless they can pay a fine. He has a summoner, a clever fellow who uses a network of spies to increase his own profits. He would let a few people off the hook if they would turn in others. This summoner is also a pimp who is ready to catch those who come to his prostitutes, insisting that they fill his purse to escape the archdeacon’s court. In this way, he makes a large income.

One day, the summoner decides to harass a widow and insist that she pay him a bribe. Along the way, he means a yeoman. They exchange greetings, and the summoner claims to be a bailiff like the stranger. He does not want to say who he really is. The two swear their brotherhood, and the summoner asks the yeoman for some of his tricks of business. The two discuss their various misdeeds, and the summoner remarks that he himself has no compassion or conscience.

The yeoman then admits that he is a devil in disguise, searching the world for prey. The summoner is not even frightened, but he marvels that the fiend can take a human shape. The demon assures him that he can take any shape, for he is crafty, and he shifts according to his prey. God allows demons to tempt people sometimes in body, sometimes in soul, sometimes in both according to his will. God can then use that temptation toward people’s salvation in spite of the demons’ will. The summoner continues to ask questions, and the demon assures him that soon he will know all.

As they enter a town, they see a man whose cart is stuck. The carter curses the horses, but the demon explains that he does not really mean what he says. The demon can do nothing with him. The carter finally gets his cart to move, and he then blesses the horses, showing that his cursing meant nothing.

The two then move on to the widow’s house, and the summoner begins to harass her. He falsely accuses her even as she insists upon her innocence and pleads illness. He insists that she give him twelve pence to clear her name, but she does not have so much money. The widow says that the summoner is lying, for she has never been accused of anything, and she curses him. The demon asks if she means what she says, and she replies that she does unless the summoner repents. The summoner will not do that, and the demon carries him off body and soul.

The Friar ends his tale with a word of warning against the devil and his temptations and asserts that all must pray for summoners to repent lest they all be seized by demons.

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