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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE FRIAR'S TALE

The Friar offers a tale about a summoner, his professional enemy since summoners were members of the secular clergy and he, a friar, was a member of the regular clergy, outside the secular clergy's jurisdiction. The Host asks the Friar not to insult the Summoner but the Summoner promises to repay him.


The tale is a medieval version of spies, double agents and blackmail, just as popular with Chaucer's audience as thrillers are with us today. A corrupt young summoner, whose job is to bring people into church court for religious offenses, has a network of stoolpigeons and prostitutes to spy on people and lure them into sin. He then extorts bribes from his victims to keep their slates clean. On his way to take money from an old woman, he meets a man as sleazy as himself, with whom he joins in partnership. The stranger-who has exactly the same characteristics as the summoner and even looks like him-admits he's a devil. The summoner, suddenly and ironically honorable, sticks to their pact. We learn that the devil can't damn anyone unless the curse is truly meant, so when the old woman cries, "the Devil take you," the fiend asks if she means it. She does, unless the summoner repents, which he won't, so he is instantly whisked off to hell. The point, says the Friar, is that summoners should become honest men.

The tale is similar to the Pardoner's Tale in being a lesson of sorts. The character of the sex-and-tavern loving Friar, whom Chaucer pretends to admire in the Prologue, is matched by the hypocritical character in his story, who, like the Friar, can't see that certain low-life characteristics apply to him. The joke is as much on the Friar as it is on the Summoner.

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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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