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The Canterbury Tales | The Summoner's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

The Summoner, incensed by the Friar's disrespect, tells an unflattering story about all the friars in Hell who live inside Satan's "arse." This story serves as a prologue to his longer story:

A certain friar will sing prayers to help release souls from Purgatory in exchange for money and food. He tells people that even prayers "quickly sung" can do the trick. However, the friar rarely follows through despite his promises. He writes down the names of those he promises to pay for with an elegant pen and then promptly erases them from his tablets. (At this point in the Summoner's story, the Friar protests angrily, but the Host silences him.) One day he visits the house of a sick man named Thomas, hoping for a good meal, and boasts about his regular prayers. He also greets Thomas's wife, embracing and kissing her. She tells him that Thomas is irritable and hard to please and reveals that her baby died two weeks before. The friar tells her he already knows this news because by divine revelation he and the other friars had seen the child being taken up into Heaven. He says that the friars are able to experience these revelations because they regularly fast and pray.

He continues to talk at length about how poor, humble, and chaste friars are, and then says he and the friars have been praying constantly for Thomas. Thomas says that all the praying has not done much good, and, although he's given a good deal of money to various friars, he is still unwell. The friar replies that he and his friars would do a better job and that Thomas should give them the money instead.

Then he chastises Thomas for being angry with his wife, giving several examples of bad things that happen because of the sin of anger. He again asks for a donation. Thomas tells him he does have a donation, which the friars should divide equally among themselves, but he has hidden it beneath his buttocks. The friar reaches into Thomas's pants to find the gift, and Thomas lets loose a loud fart. The friar runs off, furious, and tells the story of Thomas's rude behavior to a lord and his lady, who are very puzzled about how it would be possible to divide a fart into equal parts. The lord's squire comes up with a solution to the puzzle, which seems good to everyone but the friar.

Analysis

Like the Reeve and the Miller, the Summoner and the Friar are rivals in a game of insulting stories. Their quarrel bleeds into the Summoner's story in more ways than one: It determines the main character and the way that character is described, because clearly the Summoner wants to tell the most insulting story he can about friars. (He cannot even limit himself to one insulting story!) Like the pilgrim Friar, the story's friar is a limiter—a preacher who goes from place to place within a set area, preaching and begging. Also, the Friar's angry outburst mirrors Thomas's anger problem, which leads to a sermon on the consequences of the sin of anger. The Summoner seems to be using his story not just to insult the Friar but also to chastise him for his anger.

The friar in this tale is the very picture of a con man. It was common at the time for people to pay for spiritual services such as pardoning sins, praying for health, and helping their loved ones get into Heaven more quickly. The church condoned such practices, which all too easily lent themselves to fraud and abuse. The friar makes quite a show of the services he provides: He makes outrageous promises and fails to perform the prayers that people have paid for. He enjoys abundant food and money; he even has a servant who follows him around carrying all of the donations "on his back."

The friar also has something in common with the Pardoner: both are given to the same sin they preach against. The Pardoner, who often preaches against avarice, is a very greedy man. The friar in this tale asserts that gluttony is the main sin for which Adam had to leave Eden, yet he is gluttonous himself, often taking payment in meals and sacks of food.

The puzzle that concludes this tale is ridiculous, and the way that the lord, his lady, and the squire all seriously consider how one might divide a fart 13 ways makes it all the funnier. Rather than dismissing the fart as a rude joke and nothing more, they ponder how this "contribution" might be divided equally according to the terms agreed upon by the friar ("I swear it by my faith!").

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