The canterbury tales, p.104
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.104

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  1280–81 The hostility between the Friar and the Summoner is a specific instance of the general antagonism between the mendicant orders and the secular clergy, who were in competition both for spiritual authority over the laity, and for the financial benefits which resulted from it (in the form of charitable payments made as an act of penance, bequests and other gifts).

  1283–4 Medieval society was regulated not only by civil law, administered by secular rulers and their agents, but also by canon law, which embodied the decrees issued by popes and other ecclesiastical authorities, and was administered by clerical courts. A summoner was an official attached to the court presided over by the archdeacon; his job was to summon defendants and witnesses, and to act as an usher when the court was in session (see nn. to GP 623 and Fri 1302, 1303–20). For a general account of ecclesiastical law and court procedures, see J. A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (London and New York, 1995).

  1285 Hostility to summoners did on occasion lead to physical violence against them; see T. Hahn and R. W. Kaeuper, SAC, 5 (1983), 67–101, esp. pp. 85–6.

  1300 maister: On the Host’s use of this title, see nn. to GP 261 and Sum 2184–8.


  Anecdotes involving companionship with the devil, and a distinction between curses which are mere verbal formulae and curses that come from the heart, are to be found in medieval collections of Latin exempla (brief stories with a moralizing point), as well as in vernacular verse narrative. For texts and translations, see SA2 I, 87–99; one of these stories is also included in Benson and Andersson, pp. 362–5. P. Nicholson (ELN, 17.2 (1979), 93–8) has drawn attention to an analogue in a sermon-anecdote summarized by G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1961), pp. 162–3. In these analogues, the devil’s companion is not a summoner, but a representative of some equally unpopular class (a peasant, a lawyer, and so on). Similarly, the insincere curses may be directed at a pig or cow, or even a child, rather than at horses, and the heartfelt curse may be issued by all the inhabitants of a village, rather than a poor woman. Only in Chaucer’s version is the devil’s companion so unperturbed by discovering his identity that he questions him at length about hell and demonic activities. The opening description of the archdeacon’s court, and further details of the summoner’s extortions, also mark out Chaucer’s tale by embedding a simple joke at the expense of an unpopular social class in a context of social satire.

  1302 erchedekene: An archdeacon ranked immediately below a bishop in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and assisted the bishop in enforcing Christian discipline in the diocese. He presided over local courts, known as rural chapters, giving summary judgements on issues not sufficiently important to be taken to the bishop’s court. ‘Much of the business of the lower courts involved enforcement of the church’s disciplinary rules concerning sexual misbehaviour, drunkenness, marital disputes, infractions of the church’s prohibition of work on Sundays and feast days, and the like. The archdeacon’s courts touched matters of personal conduct and morality in particularly intimate ways and lay people often resented this intrusion into their daily lives and domestic relationships’ (Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, p. 122). Since the archdeacon was both prosecutor and judge, the opportunities offered to him and his officers for bribery and extortion were considerable, and it appears that they were fully exploited.

  1303–20 This account of the typical offences dealt with by the archdeacon’s court, and of the corrupt practices that accompanied its workings, tallies well with the historical evidence; see the article by Hahn and Kaeuper cited in n. to Fri 1285.

  1307–8 testamentz … contractes: That is, disputes over wills and marriage contracts.

  lakke of sacramentz: Failure to participate in the sacraments of the Church, such as baptism, confession and the Eucharist. (The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had decreed that all Christians should be confessed and take the Eucharist at least once a year; cf. Pars 1027.)

  1309 usure … simonye: Usury, the lending of money at interest, was prohibited by the Church. Simony was the term applied to the practice of buying and selling ecclesiastical offices or promotions for money; it took its name from Simon Magus, who tried to buy the power of bestowing the Holy Ghost from the apostle Peter (Acts 8:9–24).

  1314 Beating was a usual punishment for offenders, but fines were imposed in addition.

  1330 The mendicant orders were under the direct authority of the pope, and thus exempt from the jurisdiction of the bishop (A. Williams, AnM, 1 (1960), 22–95, at pp. 86–7).

  1332–3 the stives: The ‘Stews’ was the name given to the string of licensed brothels in the Bankside area of Southwark, just across the river from the City of London; this area lay within the liberty of the bishop of Winchester (Carlin, Medieval Southwark, p. 211). The stews were thus outside the jurisdiction of the mayor and sheriffs of London, and subject instead to the manorial court of the bishop, acting in his capacity as territorial lord. This court would have dealt with any sexual offences that affected public order, but prostitution also came under the purview of the ecclesiastical courts; see the article on the regulation of brothels in late medieval England by R. M. Karras, Signs: Jovrnal of Women in Culture and Society, 14 (1988–9), 399–433, at pp. 406, 410–11. It is not immediately clear, therefore, why the Summoner represents himself (that is, an official of the ecclesiastical courts) as having no power over the prostitutes of the stews. Karras suggests that it may be that the bishop, who profited financially from the Southwark stews, declined to punish the women who worked there (Common Women: Prostitution and Sexuality in Medieval England (New York, 1996), p. 152, n. 62); unfortunately, records of his ecclesiastical court do not survive, so this possibility cannot be explored further. H. A. Kelly suggests that the Summoner simply means that the authority of the archidiaconal court (which he represents) is overridden by the bishop’s authority (ChauR, 31 (1996), 115–32, at pp. 125–6).

  1337 maister: See nn. to GP 261 and Sum 2184–8.

  1350 Judas carried the common purse of Christ’s twelve disciples, and stole from it (John 12:6).

  1356 The title ‘Sir’ was used of priests as well as knights, and since the rural chapter was especially interested in priests who had mistresses, they may be intended here.

  1369 dogge for the bowe: For other proverbial expressions involving this phrase, see Mch 2014 and Whiting D303.

  1380 yeman: See n. to GP 101, and, on the bow and arrows, n. to GP 117. The green clothing is appropriate both for a forester, and for the devil, who appears as a hunter dressed in green in Germanic folklore (Bächtold Stäubli, II, cols. 1182–3).

  1392–4 bailly: The term ‘bailiff’ denoted both ‘an agent of a lord, responsible to the lord or his seneschal for the management of a manor’ (MED 3), and ‘a minor officer of justice’ (MED 4); the devil supposes from the summoner’s reference to his ‘lord’ in lines 1390–91 that he is a bailiff in the first sense, and the summoner does not disabuse him of this idea, although it is the latter sense that is applicable.

  1408 wariangle: A local name for a shrike, also known as butcherbirds from their habit of impaling the insects they catch for food on a thorn, to form a ‘larder’. It was believed in the Middle Ages that the thorn became poisonous as a result (T. P. Harrison, NQ, 199 (1954), 189).

  1413 The devil was traditionally associated with the north; see the words attributed to Lucifer at Isaiah 14:13: ‘I will sit in the mountain of the covenant, in the sides of the north.’ Further evidence of this association is given by Pearsall in his note to PPl C I.110.

  1436 to hevy or to hoot: Proverbial; see Whiting H316.

  1443 Seint Jame: On St James see n. to Rv 4264.

  1475 The devil is quoting the Bible: ‘All things have their season’ (Ecclesiastes 3:1); the saying was also proverbial (Whiting T88). Cf. Cl 6, Mch 1972.

  1491 The biblical book of Job relates how Satan persuaded God to allow him to inflict a series of disasters on Job in order to test his uprightness
and faith.

  1502 St Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury 960–88, was said by his earliest hagiographer to have overcome the devil in various manifestations, notably that of a bear (see Memorials of St Dunstan, ed. W. Stubbs, Rolls series (London, 1874; repr. 1965), pp. 13–14, 26–8).

  1503 The power of the apostle Paul over demons is described in Acts 19:11–16. The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine (c. 1230–98), a highly popular collection of saints’ lives, relates similar stories of the apostles Andrew, Thomas, Peter, James the Greater, Bartholomew, and Simon and Jude; ME versions of these stories are included in the thirteenth century South English Legendary.

  1510 Phitonissa: Pythonissa is a Latin word meaning ‘sorceress’, and is used in the Latin Vulgate Bible at 1 Chronicles 10:13 of the Witch of Endor, who raised up for King Saul the spirit of the dead prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 28:7–25). The idea that this apparition was the work of the devil was often put forward in the Middle Ages (see, for example, John of Salisbury, Policraticus II.27).

  1518 University teachers gave their lectures from a chair, with their students seated on the floor around them.

  1519–20 Virgile … Dant: Vergil described Aeneas’s visit to Hell, to seek out his father’s spirit, in Book VI of the Aeneid; Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with an account of his Jovrney through Hell, under Vergil’s guidance.

  1564 Seinte Loy: According to legend, St Eligius (French Eloi) cut off a horse’s leg, replaced the shoe and then miraculously reunited it with the body. For this reason he was the patron saint of blacksmiths, carters, grooms, saddlers, and all whose work linked them with horses. See also n. to GP 120.

  1583 The summoner implies that some sexual misbehaviour is taking place. Friars in particular had the reputation of being ‘ladies’ men’; see GP 217, 234, and Mann, Estates Satire, pp. 42–3. The Friar who is telling the tale characterizes the summoner as animated by the same dislike of friars as the pilgrim Summoner.

  1595–6 The libel (libellus) was the written petition necessary to initiate proceedings in a canon law court. It named the plaintiff, defendant and judge, and described the grounds for the lawsuit alleged by the plaintiff, and the remedy sought (Brundage, Medieval Canon Law, pp. 3, 130). Both plaintiff and defendant were represented in court by a ‘procuratour’ or proctor, a legal representative who argued the case on behalf of his client, and could do so in the client’s absence (ibid., pp. 137–8).

  1604 For sample prices of everyday commodities in late four teenth century London, see Robertson, Chaucer’s London, pp. 92–5. In 1388, two large loaves of bread could be bought for 1 penny.

  1613 Seinte Anne: See n. to ML 641.

  1654 ‘Watch and pray’ is a biblical expression; see Mark 13:33, 14:38, and cf. Colossians 4:2.

  1657–60 The quotation fuses Psalm 9B (AV 10):8–9, ‘He [the wicked man] sitteth in ambush … that he may kill the innocent … he lieth in wait in secret like a lion in his den’, and 1 Peter 5:8–9, ‘be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil roams about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. Resist him, steadfast in the faith.’ A marginal gloss in El quotes the beginning of Psalm 9B:8.

  1661 Cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13.


  1675–1706 The story about the friars hidden in the devil’s tail may be a parody of medieval legends in which a monk or friar, vouchsafed a vision of heaven, laments that he sees none of his own order there; he is then shown a multitude of them beneath the Virgin Mary’s mantle, as a sign of her special favour to them (see J. V. Fleming, ChauR, 2 (1967), 95–107).


  The Summoner’s Tale has a close analogue in a thirteenth-century French fabliau called ‘The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder’ (‘Li dis de le vescie a prestre’), in which a pious priest, when on his deathbed, is urged by two Jacobin friars to revoke some of the charitable bequests he has already made, so that he may give something to their order. The priest promises to give them a precious jewel, which turns out to be his bladder (see SA, pp. 275–86; SA2 II; Benson and Andersson, pp. 344–59). Chaucer expands the early part of this story into a comic portrait of a hypocritical and greedy friar, drawing on the conventional criticisms of the mendicant orders in contemporary satire and polemic (see following notes). The friar’s long sermon on Ire is Chaucer’s own addition to the story, as is the concluding puzzle of how to divide the fart into twelve (see n. to Sum 2253–77 for possible sources of this feature). These additions are linked by a thematic interest in the status of the word, which also accounts for the choice of the fart as the burlesque legacy (see n. to Sum 2149); this interest in words, and what gives them validity, provides thematic continuity with the Friar’s Tale.

  1710 Holderness, a district to the east of the city of Hull in south-east Yorkshire, was in the fourteenth century the site of a rural deanery (The Victoria History of the County of York, vol. III, ed. W. Page (1913; repr. Folkestone and London, 1974), p. 85). The plain of Holderness ‘formerly contained many meres and marshes, but they are now drained by countless streams and dikes’ (A History of the County of York East Riding, vol. V, ed. K. J. Allinson (Oxford, 1984), p. 1). Chaucer may have known of it through Sir Peter Bukton of Holderness, if he is the person to whom Chaucer’s ‘Envoy to Bukton’ is addressed (E. P. Kuhl, PMLA, 38 (1923), 115–32). Chaucer may also have known the archdeacon of Holderness, Walter Skirlawe (ibid., pp. 123–4).

  1712 To preche: Friars had to obtain a licence to preach from the bishop (see A. Williams, SP, 57 (1960), 471, 477). They were successful and popular preachers, drawing large audiences; see H. G. Pfander, The Popular Sermon of the Medieval Friar in England (New York, 1937), and D. L. d’Avray, The Preaching of the Friars (Oxford, 1985).

  1717 trentals: A series of thirty requiem masses, which were supposed to give the soul of the departed a quicker and easier passage through Purgatory, or even to release it from Hell. According to legend, they were instituted by Pope Gregory after his dead mother appeared to him in a vision and begged him to save her from hell’s torments by this means (see the ME poem ‘Saint Gregory’s Trental’, ed. F. J. Furnivall, in Political, Religious and Love Poems, EETS o.s. 15, 2nd edn (London, 1903; repr. 1965), pp. 114–22). Trentals would be paid for by the relatives of the dead, or else by a bequest made by the dead person her/himself. The friar is anxious that the money should go to his order rather than to chantry priests (see n. to GP 507–11).

  1722 possessioners: The term was applied to monks and parish priests, whose main source of income was landed estates, which provided a regular and reasonably predictable annual yield. Friars, in contrast, lived on the fruits of their daily begging, modelling themselves (at least in theory) on the poverty of Christ and his early disciples.

  1726 The thirty requiem masses that made up a trental were, according to the St Gregory legend (see n. to Sum 1717), meant to be sung three at a time on each of the ten major feasts in the Church year; however, they could also be performed on a single occasion (English Gilds, ed. L. Toulmin Smith, EETS o.s. 40 (London, 1870), p. 8).

  1734 qui cum patre: Part of the formula used to conclude prayers and sermons (‘[Christ] who with the Father [and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest for ever and ever]’).

  1737 scrippe and tipped staf: According to the original Rule of his order, the friar should not have been carrying either. St Francis was inspired to dedicate himself to a life of evangelical poverty when he heard a reading of the biblical passage (Luke 10:1–12) which describes how Christ sent out 72 (AV 70) disciples to preach the word, and he adopted Christ’s instructions to these disciples as a model to be emulated by his followers. Sending out the disciples two by two, Christ commanded them: ‘Do not carry a bag, nor a staff, nor shoes, and salute no man by the way. Into whatsoever house you enter, first say: Peace be to this house … And in the same house, remain, eating and drinking such things as they have: for the labourer is worthy of his hire’ (4–7). See P. R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medie
val Literature (Princeton, NJ, 1986), pp. 41–54, 239–46, for a discussion of the role played by this text in the founding of the mendicant orders, and medieval criticisms of the friars for attempting to arrogate to themselves the apostolic mission. See also nn. to Sum 1770, 1973. ytukked hye: That is, with his tunic pulled up high over his belt so that it would not impede movement or get dirty.

  1740 His felawe: Modelling themselves on the 72 disciples whom Christ sent out to preach (Luke 10:1), friars travelled about in pairs; see preceding n., and W. A. Hinnebusch, The Early English Friars Preachers (Rome, 1951), p. 285.

  1741–2 peire of tables: Paper was in fairly general use in the fourteenth century, but writing of an informal or temporary nature was still often set down on small wax-coated tablets, using the pointed end of a metal stylus. Once the writing was no longer needed, or had been transferred to a more permanent form, the wax was smoothed over with the broad-bladed end of the stylus so that it could be reused. The friar’s tables are a hinged pair which would fold together and so protect the writing; their frame is of ivory (see E. M. Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography (Oxford, 1912), pp. 14–18, 37, 39).

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