The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Friar's Tale Analysis

The pattern of one tale-teller reciprocating or “quitting” another that was established in the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales continues here, between the Friar and the Summoner. Both friars and summoners were stock literary characters in the Middle Ages, known for being greedy, illmannered, and sexually promiscuous. However, while the Reeve’s Tale gives its miller a name to separate him from all other millers, the Friar’s Tale simply refers to the summoner as a summoner, indicating that the Friar doesn’t see a difference between this summoner or any other: in his eyes, they are all equally bad.

Of course, the summoner in the tale does little to change the tale-teller’s, or the listeners’, view of summoners. When the summoner meets the Devil, he is neither scared nor shocked; instead, he treats the Devil almost as a colleague. At times the summoner even seems to be impressed.

Twice in the tale, a character makes a statement that grants the Devil control over something if the Devil interprets the statement literally. The first time, the carter states in a moment of frustration that the Devil should take his cart, horse, and hay. The second time, the old woman says that she gives the summoner to the Devil. In both cases, it is clear that the Devil has the power to act on the words; whether or not he does so is his choice. This is consistent with the legal understanding of contract in medieval England. Unlike today, when the intent behind a person’s words can matter a great deal when it comes to their legal effect, medieval courts were less interested in a person’s intent than in the content of the words themselves. The Friar’s Tale, then, provides a caution against watching what you say, since words have power.

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