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Models of Ministry: Re-reading Chaucer's Friar's Tale
by D. Michael Kramp
Web posted at 10:59 AM on 3/11/96 from 38.salc.wsu.edu.
continue to study Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales, they afford relatively
little scholarship to the Friar's Tale .1 In the almost thirty years since
the publication of Richard H. Passon's influential semiotic reading, "'Entente'
in Chaucer's Friar's Tale," scholars have approached the tale in two
primary manners: (1) from an analysis of the friar's story as a comic satire
within the frame of his historical feud with the secular summoner-pilgrim;
and (2) by utilizing Passon's theoretical apparatus to locate more moments
of semiotic ambiguity and tension.2 V.A. Kolve's "'Man in the Middle':
Art and Religion in Chaucer's Friar's Tale" altered notably the critical
analysis of the friar's narrative by attempting to discuss it as a unified
story with its own independent integrity.3 While the Friar's Tale clearly
contains numerous instances of semiotic uncertainty, and is easily interpreted
as one part of a sardonic dialogue between the Medieval seculars and mendicants,
it is also a complete moment within The Canterbury Tales. The friar's brief
narration of a corrupt summoner's encounter with a yeoman-fiend offers two
distinct models of ministerial service. By presenting the summoner and the
fiend as servants, the condensed poem displays the similarities between
these two characters, while revealing the devil's superior role as a humble
The Friar's Tale initially introduces the employer of the immoral summoner.
Chaucer4 describes this archdeacon as "a man of heigh degree, / That
boldely dide execucioun / In punysshynge" (1303-1305). As an administrator
of the ecclesiastical court, he maintains control over individual's restitution
for religious and socially unacceptable crimes. T.W. Craik indicates that
the poet ultimately "approaches the summoner's moral character through
that of his employer" (101). The most prominent feature of the portrait
of the archdeacon is the use of his power to punish "insufficient"
church tithes (1312). The poet concludes that "For smale tithes and
for smal offrynge / He made the peple pitously to synge, / For er the bisshop
caughte hem with his hook, / They weren in the erchedeknes book" (1315-1318).
Thomas Hahn and Richard W. Kaeuper suggest that "Deference to the archdeacon
was appropriate, for so awesome was his power" (72). Morton Bloomfield
succinctly summarizes the vices of the archdeacon: blackmailing, friendship
with the prostitutes of the towns in his jurisdiction, lechery, and the
acceptance of bribes (287). By beginning with a sketch of the sinister superior
of the corrupt and inane summoner, Chaucer provides a helpful context for
the protagonist's role and manners as a minister.
The poem's incipient description of the summoner emphasizes both his immoral
character and his perverted conception of ministry. Julian N. Wasserman
asserts that "By definition, his function as a summoner is to act as
a mediator between the laity and the ecclesiastical court" (78). However,
his portrait in the poem quickly disparages both the credibility of this
mediation and his status as a minister. The friar immediately notes that
"A slyer boye nas noon in Engelond; / For subtilly he hadde his espiaille"
(1322-1323). The summoner is at once a Machiavellian individual and an employer
of spies. Through his professional role as a deliverer of ecclesiastical
summonses and the use of his cadre of informers, "He took hymself a
greet profit therby; / His maister knew nat alwey what he wan" (1344-1345).
Craik argues that the true ridicule embedded in his portrait is not the
performance of his professional employment, but the corruption of his duties
(101). The friar concisely defines him as "A theef, and eek a somnour,
and a baude" (1354). His illegitimate dispersion of summonses and collection
of fines/bribes emphasize his mercenary nature. Wasserman concludes that
by inventing or fabricating summonses, the summoner abuses his role as an
employee of the ecclesiastical court (78). This initial portrait displays
him as a selfish solicitor of money who neglects the interest of his superior
while reflecting his rapacious attitude, rather than a dutiful or effective
Chaucer complements his depiction of the avaricious summoner by accentuating
his improper conception of ministry. Although the archdeacon governs the
activity of the ecclesiastic court which the summoner serves, the immoral
servant has established his own system of uncovering lewd secrets and rumors
of supposed church crimes. The poet indicates that the summoner "Hadde
alwey bawdes redy to his hond, / As any hauk to lure in Engelond,/ That
tolde hym al the secree that they knewe" (1339-1341). He creates an
organization outside the boundaries of the ecclesiastical court--ultimately
employing the service of others--rather than serving the interest of his
master. Moreover, by comparing the summoner to a hawk, Chaucer stresses
his role as a merciless hunter. Hahn and Kaeuper insist that he is "a
predator more ruthless and vicious than his companion . . . a scavenger
who instinctively preys upon the infirm in society and exploits the shortcomings
of its members" (93). 5 Through his covert formation of a system of
collecting rumors and extracting fines, coupled with the poet's use of the
imagery of a rapacious hawk, the tale illustrates the summoner's conceptual
perversion of ministry.
Following the poet's satiric depiction of the summoner, the brief narrative
begins. When the avaricious servant of the ecclesiastical court encounters
the yeoman-fiend, he quickly inquires of his skills and techniques as a
"bailly" (1396). After disclosing his northern place of habitation,6
the fiend elaborates on the nature of his employer. He relates: "My
lord is hard to me and daungerous, / And myn office is ful laborous, / And
therfore by extorcions I lyve. / For sothe, I take al that men wol me yive"
(1427-1430). Hahn and Kaeuper suggest that the devil is "perfectly
straightforward" with his companion. He describes the difficulty of
his employment and acknowledges that he must use extortion and violence
in his duties (94). Moreover, following the fiend's disclosure of his actual
identity, he informs the summoner that "somtyme we been Goddes instrumentz
/ And meenes to doon his comandementz" (1483-1484). His status as a
ministerial servant becomes complicated because of his multiple "employers."
He finally declares that "somtyme be we servant unto man" (1501).
Birney argues that the devil's duty to God operates as a salvific hope for
humanity, while his obedience to man ironically reminds us of the proper
mediating role of the summoner (96-97). Hahn and Kaeuper conclude that the
"demon acknowledges his own subservience to God and the existence of
a principle of good in the world" (94).7 The fiend's elongated discussion
of his many superiors emphasizes both his formidable task as a servant and
his appropriate understanding of ministry as selfless service.
Chaucer's portrait of the demon continually stresses his servitude and his
honesty. He openly admits to his status as a resident of hell as well as
his occasional need to utilize violence, but he never attempts to dupe the
summoner into his final fate. R.T. Lenaghan suggests that the tale illustrates
how "no one falls victim to the devil except of his own free will"
(286). While the corrupt member of the ecclesiastical court seeks information
on improving his manipulative skills (1421), his companion remains an honest
observer and promises an empirical education (1517-1520). Prior to the two
simple dramatic scenes of this story, the poet identifies both the avaricious
and immoral quality of the former and the humble and obedient nature of
the latter. Lenaghan concludes that the tale "sets forth the nature
and mission of fiends in such a way as to justify and at the same time explain
the practical workings of the fiend's successful wynnyng of the summoner"
(285). The devil is ultimately victorious in this narrative not by deceiving
his companion, but because of his sustained fastidious ministry.
Two brief encounters follow the lengthy discourse on demonology which reveal
the stupidity and selfishness of the summoner and the "admirable"
service of the fiend: the observation of a frustrated and immobilized carter,
and the summoner's unjust attempt to coerce an innocent widow. When the
employee of the court notices the troubled carter cursing his horses, he
suggests: "Heere shal we have a pley" (1548). Passon indicates
that the summoner's true intention ("entente") is "to gain
financially through immoral means," while the indisposed carter intends
only to encourage his horses to free themselves (168). Although the satirized
summoner does not uncover the sincere meaning of the carter's words, the
fiend acknowledges, "God woot, never a deel! / It is nat his entente,
trust me weel" (1555-1556). The summoner's attitude and proposed actions
concerning the carter illustrate the complete neglect of his role as a ministerial
servant. However, the devil realizes that his ministry demands that he must
serve the requests of his employers--including humanity--rather than deceive
the "recipients" of his service. Wasserman indicates that the
fiend tacitly informs his companion that ministry involves an understanding
of the relationship between "thought and speech; that is the abstract
idea and its expression in the phenomenal world" (79). She concludes
that the devil "serves as an instrument for speaking the truths which
seem beyond the wily summoner's immediate grasp" (79). In a parody
of the actual duties of a summoner, the fiend becomes a mediator between
the human world of physicality and the spiritual realm.
After the summoner's "disappointing" encounter with the carter,
he becomes anxious to display his manipulating skill to the devil. He declares:
"But for thou kanst nat, as in this contree, / Wynne thy cost, taak
heer ensample of me" (1579-1580). He confronts the innocent widow and
informs her: "I have of somonce here a bille; / Up peyne of cursyng"
(1586-1587). H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. suggests that the corrupt employee
of the ecclesiastical court begins his assault under the pretense that he
is simply performing his professional duties, but he quickly becomes savage
and openly slanderous. Moreover, Leicester argues that the summoner appears
notably satirized because he already knows of the elderly woman's innocence
(31). He initially affects the role of a servant by indicating that "My
maister hath the profit and nat I," but later attempts to force the
widow to submit to his coercion or relinquish "thy newe panne / For
dette which thou owest me of old" (1614-1615). In a strange turn of
events, the summoner exposes the absurdity of his attitude toward his role
as a minister of the ecclesiastical court by threatening to take the woman's
cooking pan, a clearly physical item, in place of her penance for a "spiritual
crime." Rather than serving as a mediator between the secular and spiritual
realms, he becomes completely engrossed with worldly gain.8
When the summoner fails to extract payment from the innocent woman, she
curses him by exclaiming, "Unto the devel blak and rough of hewe /
Yeve I thy body and my panne also!" (1622-1623). The devil hears the
widow's harsh words and asks, "Is this youre wyl in ernest that ye
seye?" (1627). Again, the fiend displays his desire to fulfill his
role as a minister by securing the intended meaning of the woman.9 She replies:
"The devel so fecche hym er he deye, / And panne and al, but he wol
hym repente!" (1628-1629). Although this final encounter begins with
the summoner's attempt to coerce the widow into "repenting" for
her "guilt," it closes with a surprising opportunity for the corrupt
employee of the court to resist eternal damnation. However, the ridiculed
summoner tersely responds: "that is nat myn entente, / for to repente
me / For any thyng that I have had of thee" (1630-1632). The fiend
has verified the intentions of his companion, and as a proper ministerial
servant, he fulfills his duties. He informs the summoner that "Thou
shalt with me to helle yet tonyght,/ Where thou shalt knowen of oure privetee/
Moore than a maister of dyvynytee" (1636-1638). In a closing ironic
moment of the tale, the devil finally offers to provide his attendant with
all the details of the skills and techniques of his trade.
This final scene of the Friar's Tale serves to accentuate the proper ministerial
servitude of the fiend, while overtly emphasizing the selfish pursuit of
worldly gain by the summoner. Lenaghan indicates that the devil succeeds
in this brief story not because he controls or manipulates his companion,
but because he serves (286). He concludes that the fiend's intention "is
spiritual, and in serving his master well, he is the model of a good bailiff
and an effective contrast with the summoner" (293). Moreover, Bloomfield
argues that the devil remains dutiful to all of his superiors, while "the
summoner changes masters, both evil, when he crosses the threshold"
(290). While many critics have viewed this tale as a satire against the
ecclesiastical court because it equates the summoner with the devil, the
story ultimately reveals the fiend's superior status as a ministerial servant.
The friar experiences some difficulty in concluding his brief tale. After
the devil takes the summoner to hell, the pilgrim augments nearly thirty
lines to his narration. He closes with a prayer that humans may resist the
temptation of the devil. He entreats that "He may nat tempte yow over
youre myght,/ For Crist wol be youre champion and knyght" (1661-1662).
The friar's reassurance that Christ will serve as the champion of humanity
recalls Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant: "Behold, my servant
shall deal prudently" (Isaiah 52:13). The honest and humble ministerial
service of the fiend reveals the hypocrisy of the summoner's activity and
provides an exemplum of dutiful ministry. While the summoner abandons his
role as a mediator between the secular realm of humanity and the spiritual
domain, the devil serves as a model for selfless mediating service and mortal
Berlin, Gail Ivy. "Speaking to the Devil: A New Context for the Friar's
Tale." Philological Quarterly 69 (1990): 1-12.
Birney, Earle. Essays on Chaucerian Irony. Toronto: University of Toronto
Bloomfield, Morton W. "The Friar's Tale as a Liminal Tale." The
Chaucer Review 17 (1983): 286-291.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Friar's Tale." The Riverside Chaucer.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 122-128.
Craik, T.W. The Comic Tales of Chaucer. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1964.
Donaldson, E. Talbot. "Chaucer the Pilgrim." Chaucer Criticism.
vol. 1. Eds. Richard Schoeck and Jerome Taylor. Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1960. 1-13.
Edwards, A.S.G. "Friar's Tale, D 1489: 'At Oure Prayere.'" The
Chaucer Review 28 (1993): 146-147.
Hahn, Thomas and Richard W. Kaeuper. "Text and Context: Chaucer's Friar's
Tale." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 5 (1983): 67-102.
Harwood, Britton J. "Chaucer on 'Speche': House of Fame, the Friar's
Tale, and the Summoner's Tale." The Chaucer Review. 26 (1992): 343-249.
Havely, N.R. Introduction. The Friar's, Summoner's and Pardoner's Tales
from The Canterbury Tales. By Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Holmes & Meier
Kolve, V.A. "'Man in the Middle': Art and Religion in Chaucer's Friar's
Tale." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12 (1990): 5-46.
Leicester, H. Marshall. "'No Vileyns Word': Social Context and Performance
in Chaucer's Friar's Tale." The Chaucer Review 17 (1982): 21-37.
________. "The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury
Tales." PMLA 95 (1980): 213-224.
Lenaghan, R.T. "The Irony of the Friar's Tale." The Chaucer Review
7 (1973): 281-294.
Miller, Clarence H. "The Devil's Bow and Arrows: Another Clue to the
Identity of the Yeoman in Chaucer's Friar's Tale." The Chaucer Review
30 (1995): 211-214.
Passon, Richard H. "'Entente' in Chaucer's Friar's Tale." The
Chaucer Reveiw. 2 (1968): 166-171.
Richardson, Janette. "Hunter and Prey: Functional Imagery in the Friar's
Tale." EM 12 (1961): 9-20.
Wasserman, Julian N. "The Ideal and the Actual: The Philosophical Unity
of Canterbury Tales, MS. Group III." Allegorica 7 (1982): 65-87.
Williams, Arnold. "Chaucer and the Friars." Chaucer Criticism.
Eds. Richard Schoeck and Jerome Taylor. vol. 1. Notre Dame: University of
Notre Dame Press, 1960. 63-83.
Williams, David. "From Grammar's Pan to Logic's Fire: Intentionality
and Chaucer's Friar's Tale." Literature and Ethics: Essays Presented
to A.E. Malloch. Eds. Gary Wihl and David Williams. Kingston: McGill-Queen's
University Press, 1988.
1For a discussion of the notable lack of scholarly work done on the Friars
Tale, see Earle Birney's Essays on Chaucerian Irony and T.W. Craik's The
Comic Tales of Chaucer.
2Although Passon's piece is clearly dated, contemporary critics continue
to cite his scholarship. He argues that the reader's understanding of the
poem must revolve around the malleable meanng of "entente." For
examples of readings of the tale which emphasize its relation to the Summoner's
Tale and the historical debate between seculars and mendicants, see Gail
Ivy Berlin's "Speaking to the Devil: A New Context for the Friar's
Tale.," Thomas Hahn's and Richard W. Kaeuper's "Text and Context:
Chaucer's Friar's Tale," H. Marshall Leicester's "'No Vileyns
Word': Social Context and Performance in Chaucer's Friar's Tale," and
R.T. Lenaghan's "The Irony of the Friar's Tale." For examples
of linguistic/semiotic readings of the tale, see A.S.G. Edward's "Friar's
Tale, D 1489: 'At Oure Prayere,'" Britton J. Harwood's "Chaucer
on 'Speche': House of Fame, the Friar's Tale, and the Summoner's Tale,"
Clarence H. Miller's "The Devil's Bow and Arrows: Another Clue to the
Identity to the Identity of the Yeoman in Chaucer's Friar's Tale,"Julian
N. Wasserman's "The Ideal and the Actual: The Philosophical Unity of
Canterbury Tales, MS. Group III," and David Williams's "From Grammar's
Pan to Logic's Fire: Intentionality and Chaucer's Friar's Tale."
3Kolve's article was originally presented as the Biennial Chaucer Lecture
in 1988. He suggests that the Friar's Tale can and should be read as a religious
poem which illustrates the tension in the mortal world between religious
and civic duties.
4While there is considerable debate about the voice of Chaucer the poet
amidst the many voices of the pilgrims, I will use Chaucer (as the author
of the entire Canterbury Tales) and the friar (as the fictional composer
of his tale) interchangeably. For a helpful discussions of the question
of authorial voice in The Canterbury Tales, see E. Talbot Donaldson's "Chaucer
the Pilgrim," and Marshall Leicester's "The Art of Impersonation:
A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales."
5For an extended discussion of the use of hunting imagery in the tale, see
Janette Richardson's, "Hunter and Prey: Functional Imagery in the Friar's
6Hahn and Kaeuper provide an extensive discussion of the folkloric tradition
which places the location of the devil's dwelling in the north.
7Hahn and Kaeuper also provide an enlightening discussion of the history
of St. Dunstan's supposed ability to control devils.
8David Williams's "From Grammar's Pan to Logic's Fire: Intentionality
and Chaucer's Friar's Tale" offers an extensive discussion of the philosophical
elements of physicality and spirituality involved in this satiric scene.
9Gail Ivy Berlin's "Speaking to the Devil: A New Context for the Friar's
Tale" presents a detailed textual discussion of Chaucer's grammatical
usage throughout this scene. She argues that the fiend is carefully and
humbly attempting to locate the accurate meaning of the widow's words.
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