In “The Canterbury Tales” of Geoffrey Chaucer, a number of people were making a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas A. Becket. Ax they traveled, they diverted one another by telling stories..
Two of these pilgrims were a friar and a summoner. They did not like each other. So the summoner told a scurrilous tale about a friar, and the friar threw some mud at the summoner in the tale that I am about to summarize. A summoner is a functionary who tells people that they are supposed to appear in court.
Since I do not have access to the tale in the original Middle English, the summary is based on a modern English translation by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook.
A certain archdeacon was very strict. He meted out severe punishments to gross offenders, such as sorcerers, adulterers, and false witnesses. Even if someone did not pay all his tithes, he was summoned to appear before the archdeacon.
The archdeacon had a crafty summoner who maintained a band of spies, some of whom were questionable characters. He would not summon a lecher to court if he would serve as an informer and deliver twenty-four sinners into his clutches.
To explain why he could freely expose the evils of the summoner, the friar mentioned that summoners had no jurisdiction over friars. So a summoner could not haul him into court under some false pretext.
The summoner interrupted the friar at this point. He said that harlots were also outside of his jurisdiction. He was implying that friars were as bad as harlots.
The host, who served as a sort of moderator, told the summoner to be quiet and let the friar tell his tale.
The friar pointed out that the summoner made a tidy profit from the reports made by his disreputable spies. Some of his girls would seduce people and then inform the summoner. The summoner then would profit from the fine that the sinner had to pay.
Like Judas, the summoner was a thief. His master received only half the money that he should have received because the summoner kept it for himself. Sometimes he issued a counterfeit summons that his master had never made. Then he could scare a sinner into giving him a lot of money.
One day, the summoner, equipped with a false summons, was riding to an old widow’s house to extort some money from her. On the way, he met a yeoman.
The summoner was ashamed to tell the yeoman that he was a summoner, so he pretended to be a bailiff and said that he was going to collect some overdue rent.
The yeoman said that he was also a bailiff and suggested that they become sworn brothers. He claimed to have a lot of gold and silver in his chest and promised to give it to the summoner if he would come to his house. The summoner quickly agreed to become the sworn brother of the generous yeoman.
The two talked as they rode on. The yeoman admitted that he lived by extortion. His wages were too small. The summoner said that he followed the same practice.
The summoner then asked the yeoman what his name was. The yeoman replied that he was a fiend and his dwelling was in hell. Like the summoner, he was trying to gain some earnings. He complained that he had not yet gained anything that day. (Undoubtedly, he was trying to gain human souls for the kingdom of darkness.)
The summoner was surprised that the fiend looked like a man. The fiend replied that he could assume a variety of shapes. If he wished, he could take the form of an ape or even an angel.
The summoner told the fiend that they were sworn brothers, and he would keep his bargain even if the yeoman were Satan himself. He suggested that they each take whatever he could gain, and if one got more than the other, he would share with his brother.
As they rode on, they saw a cart of hay that was stuck in the mud. When the horses could not pull it out, the carter said: “The devil take all – horses, cart, and hay!”
The summoner urged the fiend to take possession of these commodities, since the carter was giving them to him. The fiend said that he could not take them because the carter did not mean what he said. He told the summoner that he would realize this if he observed the carter for a while longer.
The fiend proved to be correct. When the horses successfully pulled the cart out of the mire, the carter blessed them in the name of Jesus and praised their valiant efforts.
When they arrived at the widow’s house, the summoner told his companion that she was stingy. However, he was determined to get some of her money. He would summon her to the archdeacon’s court if she refused to pay. The summoner admitted, however, that the widow had not done anything wrong, as far as he knew.
The summoner knocked at the door. He said that he had a document summoning her to the archdeacon’s court. If she failed to appear, she would be excommunicated. (The summons was counterfeit, of course.)
The widow said that she was sick. She would die if she had to make the journey. She asked if someone else could go to court and answer for her.
The summoner offered to acquit her if she paid him twelve pence. He claimed that he would not profit much. Most of the money would go to the archdeacon.
The widow said that she did not have twelve pence in her house. She asked the summoner to show mercy.
The summoner replied: “No, may the fiend fetch me if I excuse you, though you up and die!”
When the widow pointed out that she had not done anything wrong, the summoner accused her of immorality. He told her to pay him, or he would take her brand new pan. He claimed that she owed him money because he had paid her fine on a previous occasion when she was summoned to the archdeacon’s court because of an immoral act that she had committed.
The indignant woman called him a liar. She had never been unfaithful with her body, nor had she ever been summoned to the archdeacon’s court before. She expressed the wish that the devil may take him and the pan as well.
Hearing these words, the fiend asked if she really meant what she said. The widow said that she wanted the devil to fetch him before he was dead and take the pan as well, but she added the words “if he does not repent.”
The summoner said that he would never regret taking anything from her. He wished that he had all her possessions.
In a kindly fashion, the fiend told his sworn brother that he and the pan were now his rightful possessions. He assured the summoner that when they entered the regions of hell, the summoner would know more about infernal affairs than any master of divinity. The foul fiend then took the summoner to hell, body and soul.
The friar spoke a few words about the horrors of hell and urged his listeners to ask Jesus to protect them from that accursed place. He concluded his tale with a charitable wish that these summoners repent before they are caught.
“The Friar’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer; translated by Ronald L. Ecker and Eugene J. Crook