Geoffrey worse in the tale – the summoner

Geoffrey
Chaucer’s poem, The Canterbury Tales,
examines the traditionally held beliefs and actions of people living in the
Middle Ages. In the poem, Chaucer frequently makes references to the Devil,
God, and various other supernatural beings, such as Fortune and a multitude of other
deities from ancient Greece and Rome. These higher powers frequently become
either characters themselves or holy asides depending on the tale each
character on the pilgrimage relays. It can be safe to say that a higher power,
be it monotheistic or polytheistic, was present in the everyday lives of
individuals living in the time of Chaucer. The Friar, one of the characters on
a religious pilgrimage in Chaucer’s poem, regales his audience with a tale
surrounding a summoner and a devil masking as a yeoman who form an unlikely
brotherhood based on being deceitful to others.  What makes the devil an interesting addition
to the “Friar’s Tale” is his disguise to the summoner and what his true
intentions reveal, both in the plot and about medieval culture, as the story
moves forward.

Early
in the tale, the Friar talks relentlessly about the evil deeds of a summoner. He
talks about the summoner’s character as being “a slyer boye nas noon in
Englelond” (“The Friar’s Tale” 1322). The summoner, in this tale at least, is
very crooked and “hadde his espialle” to direct him to where he can make the
most profit in the streets (“The Friar’s Tale” 1323). The Friar paints a rather
horrid picture of summoners in general, but I think he sets up this summoner to
be particularly wicked, terrible, and morally wrong to compare who could be
worse in the tale – the summoner or his “brother”, the fiend.

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After
a short description of the terrible summoner who warps his own job description,
the Friar introduces another character in his narrative – the fiend. With the
description of the new addition, Chaucer expertly executes imagery that goes
over the head of the modern-day reader:

And happed that he saugh bifore hym ryde /

A gay yemen, under a forest syde. /

A Bowe he bar, and arwes brighte and kene; /

He hadde upon a courtepy of grene, /

An hat upon his heed with frenges blake (“The Friar’s
Tale” 1379-1383).

This
yeoman, to a modern scholar with no comprehension or understanding of medieval
folklore or history, could easily mistake this new character for a
happy-go-lucky Robin Hood caricature. After all, this yeoman is wearing green,
has a bow and arrow, and has a black hat. While Chaucer is famous for making
another Robin Hood reference with his characterization of the Yeoman in the
General Prologue, this yeoman is a different sort of man based on what people
in medieval England understood about men of this description (“The General
Prologue”).

With
modern readers convinced this new comer is a Robin Hood stand-in prancing his
way over to the summoner, perhaps to be taken advantage of since the Friar has
now revealed the summoner’s evil motives, contemporaries of Chaucer would
“identify him not only as a yeoman but also as a devil, for the devil’s bow and
arrows were well-known” (Miller). Chaucer seems to be dropping huge breadcrumbs
for his readership to follow in recognizing the yeoman’s true identity and
intentions. Along with the yeoman’s green garments, this yeoman also has a hat
with “frenges blake” which indicates the potential for evil (“The Friar’s Tale”
1383). It is not very often good characters wear black and green, which often
symbolize villain colors in many Disney films. Perhaps even more ominously to
Chaucer’s readership, beyond the black and green color swatch, is when the
summoner asks him where his “dwelling” is and the yeoman replies:

            Brother,” quod he, “fer in the north
contree, /

            Whereas I hope some tyme I shal thee
see. /

            Er we departe, I shal thee so wel
wise /

            That of myn hous ne shaltow nevere
mysse (“The Friar’s Tale” 1413-1416).

With
this quote, Chaucer is again dropping a major hint towards the yeoman’s
mysterious identity. Contemporaries in Chaucer’s day had a strong foundation
rooted in religious faith and “it was commonplace that the devil dwelt in the
north, primarily because of Isaiah 13:14 and Jeremiah 6:1” (Miller). Since
Chaucer’s readership would have picked up on the huge plot device of using a
yeoman disguised as a devil, they would have found this tale quite humorous
that the morally and religiously obtuse summoner misses all the clues leading
towards his demise.

            This “feend” masking as yeoman
actually uses the disguise to his advantage (“The Friar’s Tale 1448). As stated
previously, his diabolical character includes in his repertoire “a bowe he bar,
and arwes brighte and kene” (“The Friar’s Tale” 1381). One would think that a
devil looking for souls to snatch would have traps and tricks up his sleeve at
all times to snatch unsuspecting victims, such as the summoner, but this devil
uses a bow and arrow to literally use as tools “of temptation in which he
shoots at his human prey” (Miller). Furthermore, to mask his identity while
still unveiling himself at the same time, the devil plays himself off as
someone nice and willing to form a bond with the summoner at the drop of a hat.
Unsuspicious, the summoner literally makes a deal with a devil by pledging to
be “sworne bretheren til they deye” which is ironic because a devil can never
die (“The Friar’s Tale” 1405). This simple, but effective, trick is as old as
time itself.

By
having the fiend seem likeable and trustworthy, the summoner has fallen into
the oldest trap a devil could play on someone – seeing as how a devil’s main
purpose is to bring sinners down to hell and will devise any way to master that
objective. Even when the fiend reveals himself and gives the summoner an
opportunity to repent his sins, both in life and against the widow he was going
to trick, “the devil himself, a “summoner” in God’s service, carries the
summoner…to hell, under condemnation of a judge higher than the archdeacon
himself” (McIlhaney 179). For an individual who makes a living making people’s
lives miserable, and turning a profit doing so, “the summoner fails to
recognize that he is the man who
gives himself to the devil” when he made that unbreakable brotherly vow (McIlhaney
179).

Chaucer’s
fiend, unlike many demonic representations, presents a new look at how devils
operate in the world. While he does maintain the more “devilish” aspects of his
profession, such as taking sinners to hell and tricking people, this
“self-proclaimed “feend” argues directly for the divine usefulness of devils,
advancing…that though a devil’s own goals might be perverse,…his method
occasionally serves a happier purpose” (Raybin 97). Chaucer is essentially
saying in “The Friar’s Tale” that devils are doing God’s work by being “Goddes
instruments / And meenes to doon his comandementz” (1483-1484). God is the one
in charge, not Satan or any other demons. God employs the damned and gives them
life to take away the individuals who choose to live a life of sin rather than
to give their lives to God. The fiend even tells the summoner “Whan he
withstandeth oure temptacioun, / It is a cause of his savacion” (“The Friar’s Tale”
1497-1498). David Raybin states, “When it comes to salvation, each person
possesses the power to choose, such that each individual will is capable of
determining its own fate” (99). He goes on further to state that “what the
deity wills for the individual human is free will” to choose between damnation
and eternal salvation and that “a devil may act only against those who
willingly accept his offerings” (Raybin 99). This idea that God controls and
employs demons is an interesting concept that is not widely known to modern
audiences. It almost seems blasphemous to say that God is the one who contracts
out demons to snatch souls, but the main idea that Chaucer is trying to
reiterate by creating this holy contract between the divine and the damned is
that the choice between one or the other lies completely in the hands of the
individual. The choice is never taken from someone, but it is always offered.

Geoffrey
Chaucer’s “The Friar’s Tale” examines the traditionally held Christian and
folkloric beliefs of individuals living in medieval England.  In the tale, a devil, through imagery and
action, finds an easy opportunity to claim the soul of a summoner. Chaucer’s
use of common lore regarding the devil gives modern readers a glimpse into the
minds and beliefs of individuals living in the period. From black hat to
brotherly bond, the devil cleverly disguises himself and unveils himself to the
summoner who is completely clueless that he is about to be eternally damned.
“The Friar’s Tale” and the devil character regaled in it, unveil a cultural
idea that God is the one at work in all things, good and evil, but that the
choice to repent lies solely on the individual rather than based on community
service, tithing, or any other physical act of atoning for a sin. One can easily
get lost in the humor of “The Friar’s Tale” but a closer analysis on the hints Chaucer
leaves his audience provides a deeper appreciation for his storytelling as well
as his cultural awareness of his readership.