In the “General Prologue,” Chaucer describes the Summoner. He has a ‘fire-red face cherubim’s face’ that is pimpled and disfigured. He is a lecherous man whose hair is falling out, and the mere sight of him brings fear into the hearts of children. He is a drinker of strong wines, and he is a bit of a rascal. His trickery and mischievousness mirrors the character of the summoner in “The Friar’s Tale.”
Summoners were the enforcers of the ecclesiastical courts of Christendom. Naturally, their offices were prone to corruption, with threats of excommunication in exchange for bribery and profit.
The Summoner, now enraged at the “Friar’s Tale,” offers a brief prologue of an imagined dream between the Friar and an angel who takes him down to hell. Upon arrival, the angel shows the Friar a swarm of friars, all emerging from Satan’s “ers” (or “arse”), just as bees swarm out of a hive. This is the true ‘natural heritage’ of friars.
His tale is equally as vulgar. It takes place in East Yorkshire in Holderness (a coastal region that was once marshy but was drained in the Middle Ages). A beggar, or rather a friar, goes about preaching and begging for money, food, and supplies from church-goers, but he serves the people with ‘tricks and falsehoods’ -here, the Friar interjects and accuses the Summoner of lying (notably he did not interrupt during the part about begging, only when he is accused of trickery).
At any rate, the friar in the Summoner’s story goes to the house of Thomas, a well-known charitable giver to the friar. Thomas is ill at his home. This friar begs for a meal from Thomas’s wife, and she shares that they lost a child, so the friar claims he had a vision that their child is now in heaven, but he scolds Thomas, claiming his illness is a result of giving so little to the church. When Thomas gets upset at the incessant friar’s begging, the friar tells an odd story about a knight who returns to his castle, but is condemned to death by the king who believes the knight killed his comrade. Nevertheless, his comrade arrives but the king, oddly, still orders their deaths. Then we hear about another king, a drunk named Cambises (recall Herodotus’s depiction of an insane Cambyses in his Histories). Oddly, the drunk Cambises then shoots an arrow, accidentally killing a knight’s son. Then the friar tells another story about Cyrus, the great Persian emperor, as the river Gyndes is destroyed by a horse belonging to Cyrus which drowns in the river. The friar offers odd stories that somehow relate to his request for funding from Thomas.
Needless to say, Thomas grows upset and he tells the friar that he (Thomas) is sitting upon a gift for the friar. Now the tale degenerates further into degradation. When the friar reaches behind Thomas, he lets out a fart and the friar swears vengeance, but he is chased away by Thomas’s servants. The tale ends on a ridiculous note with the friar approaching a wealthy magistrate about re-dealing Thomas a cartwheel of flatulence because it can be dealt with equally. The lord’s servant suggests that it can be divided equally. Every person, save for the friar, praises the servant -even suggesting he speaks as well as Euclid or Ptolemy (interestingly his name is Jankyn, the same name as the fifth husband as described by the Wife of Bath in her autobiographical prologue).
On the surface level, the Summoner attacks the Friar for his practice of beggery. On a much deeper level, we see a desire for truth revealed in the conflict between the Friar and the Summoner -both want their stations in life to be accurately represented, even in meager stories that are only intended to “amuse.” Thus, accurate representation in art is a kind of mirror held up to nature, as Aristotle claims in the Poetics. People hold wholly fabricated stories to a certain standard of truth (i.e. verisimilitude). Perhaps Chaucer has revealed himself to be an Aristotelian, even in silly, vulgar tales like the “Summoner’s Tale.”
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than that in any other modern edition.