Summary and Analysis of The Summoner's Tale

Summary and Analysis of The Summoner's Tale

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Summary and Analysis of The Summoner's Tale (The Canterbury Tales)

Prologue to the Summoner's Tale:

The Summoner was enraged by the tale that the Friar told. He claims in response to the Friar that friars and fiends are one and the same. He tells that a friar once was brought to hell by an angel and remarked that he saw no friars there. However, Satan lifted his tail and thousands of friars came out from his ass and swarmed around hell.


The Summoner becomes insane with anger upon hearing the Friar's Tale, which, although it was told with great vitriol against summoners, had a measured manner and refrained from personal attacks. Where the Friar was intensely contemptuous yet civil, the Summoner becomes a brutish and ill-tempered barbarian. Rather than combating the image that Friar's Tale had given of his profession, the Summoner confirms the worst about the low qualities of his kind.

The Summoner's Tale:

A friar went to preach and beg in a marshy region of Yorkshire called Holderness. In his sermons he begged for donations for the church and afterward he begged for charity from the local residents. He went to the house of Thomas, a local resident who normally indulged him, and found him ill. The friar speaks of the sermon he gave and essentially orders a meal from Thomas's wife. She tells the friar that her child died not more than two weeks before. The friar claimed that he had a revelation that her child had died and entered heaven. He claims that his fellow friars had a similar vision, for they are more privy to God's messages than laymen, who live richly on earth, as compared to richly spiritually. He speaks about how, among the clergy, only friars remain impoverished and thus close to God, and tells Thomas that his illness persists because he has given so little to the church. When Thomas remarks that his wife is angry, the friar launches into a tirade about the ill effects of ire in men of high degree. He tells the tale of an angry king who sentenced a knight to death because he returned without his partner and automatically assumed that he had murdered him. When a third knight lead the condemned knight to his death, they found the knight that he had supposedly murdered. When the third knight returned to the king to have the sentenced reversed, the king sentenced all three to death: the first because he had originally declared it so, the second because he was the cause of the first's death, and the third because he did not obey the king.

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Another ireful king, Cambyses, was a drunk. When one of his knights claimed that drunkenness caused people to lose their coordination, Cambyses drew his bow and arrow and shot the knight's son to prove that he still had control of his reflexes. The friar then tells of Cyrus, the Persian king who had the river Gyndes destroyed because one of his horses' drowned in it. The friar then asks Thomas for money that should be divided among all of the monks. Thomas, annoyed by the friar's hypocrisy, told the friar that he had a gift for him that he was sitting on. When the friar reached for the 'gift,' Thomas let out a great fart. The servants of the house chased the friar out. The enraged friar found the lord of the manor and told him of the embarrassment he suffered, claiming that Thomas promised to divide his riches equally, but only gave the friar a fart. The squire of the lord of the manor said that all will be corrected: the lord of the manor will make sure that the fart will be divided among all deserving friars.


The Summoner's Tale is the third tale thus far in the Canterbury Tales to focus its narrative thrust on a single purpose of humiliation. This tale is a response to the Friar's Tale and its description of fiendish summoners, but this tale employs a far different tone to achieve its effect. The Summoner's Tale also uses a less schematic structure; the tale stands alone as a narrative, as compared to the Friar's Tale, which is significant only in the context that it attacks summoners.

The friar that is the center of this tale is a caricature like the summoner of the Friar's Tale, but this tale grants its character a collection of human foibles and mannerisms, however negative, that create a more rounded character. The friar is a relentless beggar and a leech, yet contrary to his lowly position he is arrogant and demanding. Despite his boasts that friars are the closest men to heaven because of their poverty, he demands a meal from Thomas and his wife and gives her detailed instructions about what he wants. He prefers demanding service to asking for charity. Subtle details illustrate the friar's lack of respect for others; when he arrives at Thomas' house, the friar immediately makes that house his own, pushing the family cat out of the way to get the most comfortable seat.

While the Friar's Tale gives little indication why summoners would be tolerated even with their mandate from the church, the Summoner's Tale places friars in a more realistic context. The friar of this tale is overtly well-mannered and educated, and even can feign concern for others. Where this friar oversteps his bounds is in his relentless obviousness to others' suffering. He chides Thomas and his wife for not attempting church recently, even when the reason is the recent death of their small child. He berates them with lofty tales inapplicable to their situation. The tales of men of ire are exaggerated instances of men driven to homicidal madness having nothing to do with the legitimate distress that Thomas and his wife feel.

The climax of the story in which the friar receives the 'gift' of a fart keeps the story in a strictly comedic vein, removing any pretenses of a high-minded critique on friars. The fart continues with the fixation on bodily functions prevalent in the Summoner's Tale and Prologue. The early anecdote about friars contained in Satan's ass is complemented by Thomas' gastrointestinal difficulties and the final fart given to the friar.
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