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The Canterbury Tales: The Devil in Chaucer's Friar's Tale and Summoner's Prologue


As a storytelling competition between a diverse hodge-podge of characters from many different walks of life, The Canterbury Tales abound with covert jabs, overt insults, and a general atmosphere of constant one-upmanship. Perhaps nowhere is this adversarial dynamic more clearly expressed than in the interactions between the Friar and the Summoner. While most other characters seem to limit their initiation of personal attacks to the bounds of their own prologues, the animosity between these two clergymen is not so easily contained. Their first spat intrudes upon the end of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, before either one is called upon to tell a tale. It concludes with Harry Bailly calling for “Pees!” (850) after the genial Friar declares that “I shal… / Telle of a somonour swich a tale or two / That alle the folk shal laughen in this place” (841-3) and the Summoner bitterly retorting that “I [shall] telle tales two or thre / Of freres… / That I shal make thyn herte for to morne” (846-8). Later, as each in turn makes good on his promise, the other interrupts to protest, forcing Harry Bailly to call again for “Pees!” each time so that the stories can continue (1334, 1762). The quite possibly bewildered reader is left to wonder: Exactly what is it that makes the conflict between Friar and Summoner so much more explosive than the disagreements between other pilgrims?

At first glance, it may seem that the intensity of the churchmen’s mutual abhorrence is rooted in their starkly contrasting characters. While the Friar is at least superficially a pleasant fellow, of a “merye” nature (208) with “nekke whit… as the flour-de-lys” (238), the grotesque Summoner possesses a heavily pimpled, “fyr-reed” countenance, the likes of which tends to frighten children (624-8). However, in spite of their divergent appearances, the critical consensus seems to be that the Friar and the Summoner actually have a lot in common. Both greedy, lecherous frauds, they are—as Janette Richardson contends—“superficially antithetical yet profoundly similar” (229), or in short, “moral equals” (277). Thus, as Richard Neuse writes, their attempts to discredit each other also ironically serve as inadvertent indictments of their own behavior (203). R.T. Lenaghan’s interpretation of “The Friar’s Tale” concurs with this assertion, even suggesting that this self-incrimination is so obvious that it has led to “a general paucity of comment on the [Friar’s] tale” and rendered “the comment that does occur… largely harmonious (281). It would therefore seem that the acrimony between the Friar and the Summoner stems not from extreme difference, but extreme similarity. Each hypocritically accuses the other of sins that are actually also his own.

Both Richardson and Lenaghan make excellent cases for this view. Richardson points both to the aforementioned similarities between the Friar and Summoner’s characters and to the similarities between each narrator and his protagonist. According to her article, “Friar and Summoner, The Art of Balance,” the Friar’s summoner is possessed of a charm and sociability more suited to him that to his rival, the Summoner. He also shares with the smooth-talking Friar a certain vanity and a smug certainty of his ability to manipulate victims to his advantage. It is these characteristics, as well as the greed that he shares with the Friar as much as the Summoner, that eventually lead to his damnation. Similarly, the Summoner’s friar is condemned to humiliation not merely by the greed and manipulation he shares with his pilgrim counterpart, but also by a “wrath and vindictiveness” he shares with his narrator (233-4). Finally, as both Richardson and Lenaghan indicate, just as both protagonists are finally condemned by their own words—the summoner when he foolishly exclaims “the foule feend me fecche” (1610) and the friar when he approaches his sovereign to secure retribution for Thomas’s insult (Richardson 231)—the two bickering pilgrims are also condemned by their own words as they use their tales to attack each other for shared sins and ironically project their own faults onto characters who are meant to represent their rivals but actually also serve as reflections of themselves. As Richardson concludes, “What ultimately results from the carefully balanced duologue is not a victory for either teller but two subtle and ironic self-condemnations which exemplify what seems to have been intrinsic to Chaucer’s moral vision—absolute justice, judgment verified by the condemned” (235-6).

Thorough as their analyses are, one aspect of the ironic “duologue” that Richardson and Lenaghan leave largely untouched is each man’s apparently widely divergent portrayal of demonic forces. The closest either comes to addressing them is Lenaghan’s statement towards the conclusion of his article that “When churchmen like these come together with a devil, the devil is the only one you can trust. It is surely Chaucer’s final irony that the only major voice left uncompromised at the end of the [Friar’s] tale is the fiend’s” (293). While the fiend’s comparatively fair and honest behavior certainly does serve to emphasize the guilt of the morally bankrupt, blackmailing summoner—and therefore the actual Summoner whose sins he is meant to reflect—there is perhaps another, even more damning irony to be found in the characterizations of the Friar’s fiend and the Summoner’s devil: Perhaps even more than the protagonists of each tale, the two devils bear a strong resemblance to the pilgrims who created them.

Like the Friar and the Summoner, the devils portrayed in the two tales initially seem quite fundamentally different. Where the Friar’s fiend is sociable, civilized, and human in appearance, the Summoner’s devil is mute and monstrous. Additionally, while the Friar’s fiend seems to lay a subtle trap for his quarry, the Summoner’s devil is a totally passive figure, a mere container for sinners whose only real role in the action is to obediently lift his tail when an angel commands, allowing for the “swarm” of friars to exit and reenter his “ers” seemingly of their own accord before he then drops his tail back into its former position (1689-99). However, for all their apparent contrast, the two devils are, just like the bickering clergymen who speak of them, “superficially antithetical yet profoundly similar,” both in their resemblance of their narrators and in their larger function in this part of The Canterbury Tales.

In “The Friar’s Tale,” the fiend shares the same qualities with his narrator that Richardson claims the summoner does. Like the Friar, both are sociable—or even downright charming in comparison with the actual Summoner the Friar means to insult. In fact, the fiend is far more like the Friar in this regard than the Friar’s summoner. The Prologue states that the Friar “kan / So muchel of daliaunce and fair langage” (210-1) and is “Curteis” in his manner (250). The same language is used to describe both the fiend and summoner, who “In dalliance… ryden forth and pleye” (1404). The two form an apparently friendly and amiable bond, with the fiend immediately referring to the summoner as “deere brother” (1395), comparing professional experiences with him, and even providing a short demonology lesson on request (1461-1522). The fiend’s pleasant demeanor, however, extends beyond that of the summoner, and appears to have different motivations. While the summoner’s friendly interest in his new companion appears to be genuine (He responds to the revelation that his “broother” is a devil with a fascinated “benedicite! What say ye? / I wende ye were a yeman trewely,” followed by a flurry of questions about the life and work of demons [1456-60, 1469-73, 1504-6].), the fiend—like the Friar—seems to employ his pleasant demeanor not just when he is feeling genuinely sociable, but when he sees an advantage to be had from charming another person. The summoner, in contrast, bullies his victims in order to gain an advantage. We see this in their totally different attitudes toward the “cartere” (1542) and the widow Mabely. While the summoner urges the demon to “Hent… anon” the carter’s horses at the first sign that it may be possible (1553) and afterwards boasts that he ought to “taak heer ensample of me” as he tries to extort “twelf pens” from Mabely through unrelenting threats (1574-8), the fiend’s methods are far subtler. Once he has cursed the summoner, he simply asks her “Now, Mabely, myn owene mooder deere, / Is this you're wyl in ernest that ye seye?” (1626-7), winning with kind inquiry both the summoner’s body and the pan he had attempted to claim as reward for his aggression and fraud. Here, we are reminded of a strikingly similar description of the Friar’s own pleasant wheedling as described in the General Prologue: “For thogh a wydwe hadde noght a sho, / So plesaunt was his ‘In principio,’ / Yet wolde he have a ferthyng, er he wente” (254-5). In a tale meant to expose the evils of the Summoner and of summoners in general, it is fascinating that it is the Friar’s actions which are almost perfectly mirrored in his portrayal of the devil. Chaucer may even be playfully alluding to this fact shortly after the end of “The Friar’s Tale” when he has the admittedly biased Summoner nastily comment in his Prologue that “Freres and feendes been but lyte asonder” (1674).

Similar to the Friar’s fiend, the Summoner’s Sathanas appears to be far more reflective of the Summoner than of his rival. Although his participation in the Summoner’s performance is much more limited than the involvement of the fiend in “The Friar’s Tale,” and we are thus not exposed to his vices in the same way, the main feature we do observe about this devil is similar to the Summoner’s most notable feature as highlighted in the prologue: He is physically repugnant, even diseased. Though he does not receive a full blazon, we are told he has a beastly broad “tayl” and an “ers” infested with an insect-like “swarm” of sinners, whose apparently willing passage out and back into the anus has the appearance both of incontinence and sodomy (1687-1699). While the Summoner’s nether regions are thankfully never described to us, his “saucefleem” face with “scalled browes blake and piled berd,” incurable by any known medication (625-33) is similarly sickly and grotesque. Additionally, his penchant for “garleek, onions, and eek lekes” implies foul odors almost as strongly as does the exposure and incontinence of the Devil’s lower parts (634).

If these similarities are not conspicuous enough, infernal imagery is also interspersed throughout the Summoner’s physical description. His countenance is “fyr-reed” (624), he is “hoot… and lecherous,” and “brymstoon” cannot cure his pimpled skin (629). In what is perhaps another infernal image, the Summoner’s consumption of “wyn, reed as blood” has what could be considered the appearance of predation about it (635). While a medieval audience would undoubtedly find the association of wine with blood more evocative of the sacrament than the hint of vampirism which might be connoted to the modern reader, there is nothing holy about the Summoner’s drinking habits, which lead him to “speke and crie as he were wood” and to self-importantly bluster in Latin, in spite of possessing only a very limited understanding of the language (636-46). Absent of the spirit of Christ, the image of drinking blood and uttering sacred language although ignorant of its meaning seems to imply rapacity rather than holiness, along with spiritual bankruptcy veiled by a false pretense of faith. This interpretation is consistent with his behavior as a false servant of the church, preying on its followers for profit rather than helping to facilitate justice and repentance, and it draws a parallel between the Summoner’s metaphorical predation and Sathanas’s more literal consumption of the damned friars.

Finally, the focus on the Devil’s anus also perhaps draws attention to another implied characteristic of the Summoner. Travelling with the “gentil Pardoner” (669), the most heavily queered of the pilgrims, whom Chaucer believes to be perhaps “a geldying or a mare” (691), the Summoner’s sexuality is brought into question. Any tension over the subject is only pressed by his constant focus on the anal, both in his Prologue and his tale. Perhaps the Summoner, along with the Devil, is to be interpreted as a sodomite. Such a characterization might even explain the diseased appearance of both Summoner and his Satan; the former’s face is marked by veneral disease, just as the latter’s “ers” is infested with it. This is consistent with Jill Mann’s statement that attribution of the Summoner’s affliction to lechery is a commonplace in scholarly commentary (138).

In addition to resembling each of their narrators individually, the two devils also resemble them as a pair, by possessing a similar relationship of deep fundamental likeness in spite of pronounced superficial differences. Although the Friar’s devil, like the Friar himself, depends on social pleasantry to achieve his desired ends, whereas Sathanas does not even speak, both are bound to operate on essentially the same principles. They are, as explained in the Friar’s fiend’s demonology lecture, “Goddes instrumentz / And meenes to doon his commandementz… / Withouten hym we have no myght” (1484-7). Although it would be careless to assume that this understanding of a demons’ agency is necessarily universal in medieval literature, or even that it should be uncritically applied to demons in the other Canterbury Tales as Chaucer’s assumed position, the fiend’s statement is perfectly upheld by the actions of the Devil in the Summoner’s Prologue—perhaps even more clearly than it is by the Friar’s fiend himself. The mute Satan does nothing (except, perhaps, for dropping his tail again after the reentrance of the friars) without the explicit command of an angel, who orders him to “Hold up thy tayl, thou Sathanas!” (110) Not only is it shown that godly creatures such as the angel may travel in Hell without any fear for their safety, but they are also granted the power to command even the greatest of demons and expect unquestioning obedience in return. Even beyond this, the entire purpose of the friar’s journey into hell and the revelation of the contents of Sathanas’s nether orifice seems likely to be an attempt to terrify him into changing his ways and attaining salvation. Accordingly, it is on a similar note that the Summoner concludes his prologue, asking that “God save yow alle, save this cursed Frere!” Just as the Friar’s devil suggests that sometimes demonic “temptacion… / is a cause of [a man’s] savacion,” here Hell and devils are apparently used not to an evil end, but to frighten a sinner into reform. Although, like the Friar and Summoner, the two demons are entirely different in appearance and demeanor, they are also profoundly similar in what is perhaps a more important respect, the heaven-ordained rules under which they must operate and the divine purpose that they serve.

It is this similar role played by the two devils that best helps to illuminate the message ultimately conveyed by the conflict between the Friar and the Summoner and to make sense of their extreme conflict in spite of the similarity of their sins. The truly impotent position of both demons as mere “instrumentz” of God is reflective of larger trends in late medieval representations of the Devil. According to Jeffrey Russell, “The most important development of the Devil in literary art occurred in the vernacular poetry of the later Middle Ages.” Of the “vast” number of late medieval poets treating diabolical subjects, he cites Dante Alighieri and William Langland as the most important, stating that each portrays Satan as “a negative center” in his work (215-6). As Russell explains, in The Divine Comedy, Dante’s “physical cosmos is a metaphor of the real, ethical cosmos,” constructed like Ptolemy’s model, “in a series of concentric spheres.” In Dante’s vision, heaven is located in the outermost sphere, beyond the earth, planets, and stars; hell is located at the center of the earth, and at the very center of hell is Satan (216-7). According to this conception of the universe, Russell writes:

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When we are filled with our true human nature, which is made in the image of God and buoyed by the action of the Holy Spirit within us, we rise naturally up toward God, we spread out, widen our vision, open ourselves to light, truth, and love, with wide vistas in fresh air, clean, beautiful, and true… But when we are diverted by illusion and false pleasure, we are weighed down by sin and stupidity, and we sink downward and inward away from God, ever more narrowly confined and stuffy, our eyes gummed shut and our vision turned within ourselves, drawn down, heavy, closed off from reality, bound by ourselves to ourselves, shut in and shut off, shrouded in darkness and sightlessness, angry, hating, and isolated. (217)

Fitting this ideology, Dante’s Devil, much like the Summoner’s, “is more pathetic and repulsive than terrifying… [He is] intended… to be empty, foolish, and contemptible, a futile contrast to God’s energy” (225). While acknowledging that Langland’s Piers Plowman is “Different in style, conception, and viewpoint” from Dante’s Comedy (234), Russell suggests that the two works share in a belief “that the way to salvation [is] through love more than intellect” (233). Therefore, when it comes to potential victimization by the Devil, “The choice is ours… Lucifer is ever watchful and active, but his works can take shape only when summoned or welcomed by individual human beings” (235).

This is exactly the ideology portrayed in the tales of Chaucer’s Friar and Summoner. The two demons, having “no myght" without God (1487), are only able to harm those “individual human beings” who “summon” or “welcome” them—and that only when done sincerely. Only after the Friar’s summoner swears brotherhood with the fiend (1404-5), continues in his company after learning of his true identity, maintains that he will not “forsake” him (1522-1534), insists that “the foule feend me fecche / If I th’excuse” (1610-1), and finally persists, stating that “that is nat myn entente… / for to repente” (1630-1) does the fiend finally claim his soul, along with the widow’s pan, an object also freely and—at least avowedly—earnestly offered by its owner (1622-9). In contrast, the insincerely cursing carter and his horses remain unharmed (1542-70). This last detail may be an even stronger indicator of the tale’s subscription to the new late medieval concept of infernal impotence than it initially appears, since it stands in direct opposition to an earlier folk tradition that “One must never call upon Satan in irritation or anger, for he may answer the call” (Russell 77). In stories cited by Jeffrey Russell, the Devil pays no heed to the “entente” of his victims as the Friar’s fiend does. In one, “A man irritated by his whining little daughter exclaims that he wishes the Devil would carry her off; he does.” In another, “An innkeeper vowing ‘May the Devil take me if this be not true’ wish[es] that he had held his tongue” (77). “The Friar’s Tale” appears to respond to this tradition, revising it to show that the Devil has no power unless a human heart grants it to him. By the same token, we never see the Summoner’s Sathanas forcing or even coaxing the friars into their inglorious abode; instead, the damned clergymen “swarm” out and “thurghout helle,” seemingly of their own volition and then “comen agayn,” creeping back “in his ers… everychon” (1692-8), also apparently of their own accord. Seemingly more willing participants than even the Devil in this flurry of action, they require no order from the angel, either for their exit or reentry. In this last image, the punishment of the damned is not only the result of willingly going with the Devil; it consists of willingly continuing to do so.

Russell also briefly analyzes both “The Friar’s Tale” and the Summoner’s Prologue, concurring somewhat with the above conclusions regarding the centrality of human will by stating that in the former, “the poet’s attention is fixed as usual on human greed and folly,” while in the latter “the poet’s attention is on the friars, not the demons” (243). In short, according to Russell, “Chaucer [has] shifted the center of moral action away from the cosmic struggle between God and the Devil and toward the struggle between good and evil in the human soul (244). However, in concluding this, he also states that the Devil’s role is important only metaphorically and that Chaucer lacks interest in “mock[ing] the inverted values of the infernal world” (242-3). Here, his treatment of the stories may be a little dismissive. Rather than bypassing Chaucer’s treatment of demons and hell as merely metaphorical, with much to say about human nature but little to contribute with regards to the nature of “the infernal world,” it may be wise to turn to Richard Neuse’s belief that “Chaucer’s Friar and Summoner… represent Chaucer’s comic experiment with the Dantean conception of hell as a loss of soul, a form of spiritual suicide, a death-in-life” and that the Friar and the Summoner “Each in his way is a spectacular example of contrapasso… the idea that the sin is its own punishment and that the torments of the damned are therefore strictly self-inflicted” (201-2).

In light of Neuse’s statement, it seems reasonable to suggest that, in addition to demonic forces being used to shed light on “human greed and folly” as Russell suggests, the human characters of the Friar and Summoner are used to illuminate the nature of sin and damnation. Not only do the Friar’s summoner and the Summoner’s friars inflict the torments of their own damnation upon themselves; within the larger narrative of the storytelling contest, the self-incriminating Friar and Summoner do the same. As Richardson and Lenaghan have pointed out, the dislike of each man for the other is ironic, given the deep similarity of their moral flaws, and therefore, in condemning each other, they inadvertently also condemn themselves. Beyond even this, in the course of their performances, each actually ends up painting a devil in his own image and thereby passing severest judgment on himself in the presence of an audience of listeners who are quite possibly struck by the clear corruption of both narrators and the hypocrisy of their behavior. While this self-incrimination is a fantastic illustration of the instrumental role of human beings in determining their own salvation or damnation, it is also a perfect illustration of contrapasso, an idea central to the Dantean conception of hell. Rather than concerning himself solely with human agency and removing any literal conception of hell and devils from consideration, Chaucer seems to engage with a new vision of hell which emerged with Dante and Langland in the late Middle Ages. Far from removing literal hell or devils from the picture entirely, this vision explains hell as a state of self-defeating futility and devils as creatures bound to a futile existence, unable to actually perpetrate any crime against God’s will or against an unwilling, faithful person. In this way, poets like Dante, Langland, and Chaucer seem to have laid the groundwork for perhaps the most famous literary portrayal of hell and damnation, Milton’s Paradise Lost, whose Satan memorably summarizes the idea of contrapasso by declaring that“Myself am hell” (75). Because a sinner creates his or her own punishment, the Friar and the Summoner bring about their own judgment in this world, perhaps a decent indication of what is to come in the next.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000. Print.

Mann, Jill. Chaucer and the Medieval Estates Satire. London: Cambridge UP, 1973. Print.

Lenaghan, R.T. “The Irony of ‘The Friar’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review 7.4 (1973): 281-94. JSTOR. Web. 15 April 2012.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Ed. Barbara Lewalski. Oxford: Blackwell, 2007. Print.

Neuse, Richard. “The Friar and the Summoner: Chaucerian Contrapasso.” Chaucer’s Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. 201-20. Print.

Richardson, Janette. “Friar and Summoner: The Art of Balance.” The Chaucer Review 9.3 (1975): 227-36. JSTOR. Web. 15 April 2012.

Russell, Jeffrey. Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages. London: Cornell UP, 1984. Print.

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