The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Friar's Tale Summary

When called on, the Friar says that he will tell a tale about a summoner, in keeping with the promise he made when he briefly interrupted the Wife of Bath’s prologue. Although he claims not to want to upset the Summoner among the pilgrims, he insists that summoners in general are known for their lewd and immoral behavior. The Summoner pretends not to be bothered, but swears that he will “quit,” or repay, the Friar in turn.

The Friar’s Tale begins by describing an archdeacon who was zealous about punishing lechers and other wrongdoers. The archdeacon has a summoner who is very good at ferreting out misbehavior, probably because he does all the same bad things – things the Friar lists in detail as a way of picking on the Summoner in the group of pilgrims. The summoner in the tale, however, only chases after people who have enough money to pay the substantial fine for their misbehavior, and the summoner then pockets half of what he collects instead of giving it to the archdeacon.

One day, the summoner is traveling to deliver a summons to an old widow when he meets a yeoman (a gentleman farmer). The two travel together, sharing stories of how they make their living by committing extortion and theft, until the yeoman announces that he’s actually the Devil, and that the summoner will meet him again some day.

While they’re traveling together, the Devil and the summoner meet a carter, whose wagon is stuck in the mud. Frustrated, the carter yells, “the devil have all, both horse and cart and hay!” The summoner encourages the Devil to take the horse, cart, and hay, since this is the literal meaning of the carter’s words, but the Devil refuses, saying that while this is what the carter said, it is not what he meant. Instead, the Devil tells the carter to pray to God, and when he does, the horses pull the cart out of the mud.

The summoner and the Devil travel onward to the house of the old woman the summoner was traveling to visit when the tale began. The summoner gives the old woman notice to appear before the archdeacon, but she protests, saying that she cannot afford the fine and that she is innocent anyway. The summoner demands that she give him her new pan, to which the old woman replies that she gives the summoner’s body to the Devil. The Devil hears this and takes the summoner to hell with him.

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