Aristotelian Mimesis: The Conflict Between the Friar and the Summoner

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.” At the time, summoners were the enforcers of the ecclesiastical courts of Christendom. Naturally, their offices were prone to corruption as they doled out 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, a story about a 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 as others thus far. 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 man. On this day, Thomas is ill at his home but that does not stop the friar as he begs for a meal from Thomas’s wife, and she shares that they recently 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 the 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. Because there is no discernible connection

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 distributed 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, 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 reveals 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. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Thoughts on Andromache

It has been suggested that Euripides is obsessed with character, but that he is indifferent to plot. Each one of his tragedies might be said to be a character study into the pure hopelessness faced by human beings.

The Andromache is an unusual play for a number of reasons. The unnamed Scholiast, a latter Byzantine, reports that the play was not presented at Athens, and may have instead been presented at Argos as part of Athenian propaganda campaign. Who is the central character of the play? The title would suggest Andromache, wife of the slain Hector of Troy. However, two-thirds of the way through the tragedy, Andromache disappears and the story concludes with a tragedy that has befallen Peleus, father of Achilles. Like, Euripides’s Hecuba the tragedy takes place following the events of the Trojan War.

“Andromache Mourning Hector” by Jacques-Louis David in 1783

Background: Andromache was the wife of Hector of Troy. Hector was the fiercest warrior of Troy, matched only by Achilles of the Greeks. He is eventually slain by Achilles in battle, as told in Homer’s Iliad. When the city of Troy is sacked, all are either killed or enslaved. The children of Hector and Andromache are thrown off the walls of Troy for fear of exacting revenge against the Greeks one day. Andromache is enslaved by Achilles’s son, Neoptolemus, and she is taken back to his island to live, along with his grandfather Peleus. Years later, Andromache has a child with Neoptolemus and he later marries a woman, Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen.

The play begins with Andromache lamenting her status in life. Neoptolemus has taken a new wife, Hermione, and she is extremely jealous of Andromache. She plots to kill either Andromache or her young son. Andromache pleads at the altar of Thetis, goddess and mother of Achilles. She has hidden her son away, but a nurse arrives to warn her that Menelaus knows the location of her son. She seeks the help of Peleus, grandfather of Neoptolemus. The elderly Peleus arrives and prevents Menelaus from killing the child. Suddenly, however, Orestes arrives and he has killed Neoptolemus. Orestes carries away Hermione. An attendant appears and tells Peleus that his chain has died out with the death of his grandson, Neoptolemus. The play ends with a surprise appearance from Thetis to Neoptolemus.

Unlike Hecuba, the Andromache is far more patriotic to the city of Athens. At the height of the Peloponnesian War, the portrayal of Menelaus, and therefore Sparta, was no doubt falling upon audiences with approval, as Athens was sorely losing its ascendance.

For this reading I used the Deborah Roberts translation.