In his prologue, the Friar is called a “beggar” with a “scowling face at the Summoner.” In the “General Prologue” the Friar is characterized as a “wantowne” and “merye” man who dwells within an assigned region. He has a white neck like a ‘lily flower,’ and he knows great dalliance and fair speech. He is also a profit-minded beggar (like the begging friars described in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”), and in traveling the countryside this Friar knows the taverns and innkeepers, as well as the lechers and harlots. He has a slight lisp, dons expensive clothes, and his name is Huberd.
He responds to the Wife of Bath by praising her tale for raising certain “academic” issues, but that these tales on the road to Canterbury should be of ‘pleasant matters’ (or “game”). Ironically, he proceeds to tell an amusing, albeit unpleasant story attacking summoners. In some ways it mirrors Aristophanes’s The Frogs (which portrays Dionysus in disguise). The Friar claims that authoritative texts are best left to the churches and the universities -he condescendingly explains this to the Wife of Bath whom he views as anything but an authority. He endeavors to tell an amusing tale about a summoner, even though he claims that no good may actually be said of a summoner. Therefore his tale will contain nothing good. The Host asks the Friar not to start an argument, but the Summoner interjects and allows for the Friar’s Tale to proceed (the Summoner plans to respond to the Friar later).
The “Friar’s Tale” takes place in his own country (we are unclear where this might be). It is about an archdeacon who deals punishments for transgressions against the law, with a particular focus on lechery. He brings many people to justice, forcing many to pay for their crimes, and he has a summoner -“a slyer boye nas noon in Engelond” (1322). Here, the Friar claims summoners have no jurisdiction over our lives, which causes a brief spat with the Summoner. At any rate, the tale continues: the summoner in the tale is a thief, a briber, and he steals from many people under false pretenses to enrich himself.
One day, the summoner visits an old widow seeking a bribe when he meets a yeoman along the way and they become friends. They swear lifelong friendship and pleasantries with one another, and we soon discover that this yeoman is the devil in disguise. The summoner swears himself to the devil. The two men ride along together, discussing the finer points of their respective trades. They come upon a cart-man whose horses are stuck, he shouts out ‘devil may take them!’ The greedy summoner asks the devil why he does not claim the cart-man’s horses, but the devil says it was not the man’s ‘entente’ or intention. So they depart with the summoner promising to fare better (i.e. gain more profit for himself). The devil comes to light as more of a respectful gentleman than the summoner.
They arrive at the widow’s home and the summoner fabricates judicial claims against her, demanding a bribe, however she swears at him, damning him to hell. The devil notes that her “entente” is true, so he takes the summoner down to hell, thus concluding the brief tale. Ironically, the devil is the hero of the story, bringing the summoner to justice. I suppose even the devil can be good, if only he has the right intentions.
Politically, the “Friar’s Tale” presents one man, an anonymous archdeacon who silently fills the place of Theseus from the “Knight’s Tale.” He is the boss of the summoner in the tale, and a capable judicial officer. The archdeacon represents the church, which is superior to the summoner, thus the friar elevates himself over the summoner. The idea of profit runs deep in “The Friar’s Tale” as is trust, which is an underlying theme worthy of consideration throughout The Canterbury Tales (such as in the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale”). There is no mention of marriage in “The Friar’s Tale,” however the unique partnership between the summoner and the devil forms a friendly compact, such that a bond of trust ensues. The bond of ‘brotherhood’ that occurs in “The Friar’s Tale” beckons us to question whether or not we have found the true and just partnership among the varying tales from Chaucer’s pilgrims thus far.
The word “entente,” or “intent,” occurs frequently throughout the tale, highlighting the importance of a man’s intentions when committing good or evil acts. Whereas the Wife of Bath is something of a hedonist, taking whatever she desires, the Friar brings to light the need to consider her true intentions. Her desire is for power and personal gain, not unlike the summoner in the “Friar’s Tale,” and no just partnership can come about from dishonest intentions. Perhaps the Friar is a beggar, but is his intent for personal gain? His tale would suggest not, for even the devil is more selfless than a summoner in “The Friar’s Tale.”
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.