GeoffreyChaucer’s poem, The Canterbury Tales,examines the traditionally held beliefs and actions of people living in theMiddle Ages. In the poem, Chaucer frequently makes references to the Devil,God, and various other supernatural beings, such as Fortune and a multitude of otherdeities from ancient Greece and Rome. These higher powers frequently becomeeither characters themselves or holy asides depending on the tale eachcharacter 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 ofindividuals living in the time of Chaucer. The Friar, one of the characters ona religious pilgrimage in Chaucer’s poem, regales his audience with a talesurrounding a summoner and a devil masking as a yeoman who form an unlikelybrotherhood based on being deceitful to others. What makes the devil an interesting additionto the “Friar’s Tale” is his disguise to the summoner and what his trueintentions reveal, both in the plot and about medieval culture, as the storymoves forward.
Earlyin the tale, the Friar talks relentlessly about the evil deeds of a summoner. Hetalks about the summoner’s character as being “a slyer boye nas noon inEnglelond” (“The Friar’s Tale” 1322). The summoner, in this tale at least, isvery crooked and “hadde his espialle” to direct him to where he can make themost profit in the streets (“The Friar’s Tale” 1323). The Friar paints a ratherhorrid picture of summoners in general, but I think he sets up this summoner tobe particularly wicked, terrible, and morally wrong to compare who could beworse in the tale – the summoner or his “brother”, the fiend.Aftera short description of the terrible summoner who warps his own job description,the Friar introduces another character in his narrative – the fiend.
With thedescription of the new addition, Chaucer expertly executes imagery that goesover 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’sTale” 1379-1383).Thisyeoman, to a modern scholar with no comprehension or understanding of medievalfolklore or history, could easily mistake this new character for ahappy-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 makinganother Robin Hood reference with his characterization of the Yeoman in theGeneral Prologue, this yeoman is a different sort of man based on what peoplein medieval England understood about men of this description (“The GeneralPrologue”). Withmodern readers convinced this new comer is a Robin Hood stand-in prancing hisway over to the summoner, perhaps to be taken advantage of since the Friar hasnow 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 andarrows were well-known” (Miller). Chaucer seems to be dropping huge breadcrumbsfor his readership to follow in recognizing the yeoman’s true identity andintentions. Along with the yeoman’s green garments, this yeoman also has a hatwith “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 oftensymbolize villain colors in many Disney films. Perhaps even more ominously toChaucer’s readership, beyond the black and green color swatch, is when thesummoner asks him where his “dwelling” is and the yeoman replies: Brother,” quod he, “fer in the northcontree, / Whereas I hope some tyme I shal theesee. / Er we departe, I shal thee so welwise / That of myn hous ne shaltow neveremysse (“The Friar’s Tale” 1413-1416).Withthis quote, Chaucer is again dropping a major hint towards the yeoman’smysterious identity.
Contemporaries in Chaucer’s day had a strong foundationrooted in religious faith and “it was commonplace that the devil dwelt in thenorth, primarily because of Isaiah 13:14 and Jeremiah 6:1” (Miller). SinceChaucer’s readership would have picked up on the huge plot device of using ayeoman disguised as a devil, they would have found this tale quite humorousthat the morally and religiously obtuse summoner misses all the clues leadingtowards his demise. This “feend” masking as yeomanactually uses the disguise to his advantage (“The Friar’s Tale 1448). As statedpreviously, 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 adevil looking for souls to snatch would have traps and tricks up his sleeve atall times to snatch unsuspecting victims, such as the summoner, but this deviluses a bow and arrow to literally use as tools “of temptation in which heshoots at his human prey” (Miller). Furthermore, to mask his identity whilestill unveiling himself at the same time, the devil plays himself off assomeone 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 tobe “sworne bretheren til they deye” which is ironic because a devil can neverdie (“The Friar’s Tale” 1405). This simple, but effective, trick is as old astime itself.
Byhaving the fiend seem likeable and trustworthy, the summoner has fallen intothe oldest trap a devil could play on someone – seeing as how a devil’s mainpurpose is to bring sinners down to hell and will devise any way to master thatobjective. Even when the fiend reveals himself and gives the summoner anopportunity to repent his sins, both in life and against the widow he was goingto trick, “the devil himself, a “summoner” in God’s service, carries thesummoner…to hell, under condemnation of a judge higher than the archdeaconhimself” (McIlhaney 179). For an individual who makes a living making people’slives miserable, and turning a profit doing so, “the summoner fails torecognize that he is the man whogives himself to the devil” when he made that unbreakable brotherly vow (McIlhaney179).
Chaucer’sfiend, unlike many demonic representations, presents a new look at how devilsoperate in the world. While he does maintain the more “devilish” aspects of hisprofession, 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 methodoccasionally serves a happier purpose” (Raybin 97). Chaucer is essentiallysaying in “The Friar’s Tale” that devils are doing God’s work by being “Goddesinstruments / And meenes to doon his comandementz” (1483-1484).
God is the onein charge, not Satan or any other demons. God employs the damned and gives themlife to take away the individuals who choose to live a life of sin rather thanto give their lives to God. The fiend even tells the summoner “Whan hewithstandeth oure temptacioun, / It is a cause of his savacion” (“The Friar’s Tale”1497-1498). David Raybin states, “When it comes to salvation, each personpossesses the power to choose, such that each individual will is capable ofdetermining its own fate” (99).
He goes on further to state that “what thedeity wills for the individual human is free will” to choose between damnationand eternal salvation and that “a devil may act only against those whowillingly accept his offerings” (Raybin 99). This idea that God controls andemploys demons is an interesting concept that is not widely known to modernaudiences. It almost seems blasphemous to say that God is the one who contractsout demons to snatch souls, but the main idea that Chaucer is trying toreiterate by creating this holy contract between the divine and the damned isthat the choice between one or the other lies completely in the hands of theindividual.
The choice is never taken from someone, but it is always offered. GeoffreyChaucer’s “The Friar’s Tale” examines the traditionally held Christian andfolkloric beliefs of individuals living in medieval England. In the tale, a devil, through imagery andaction, finds an easy opportunity to claim the soul of a summoner. Chaucer’suse of common lore regarding the devil gives modern readers a glimpse into theminds and beliefs of individuals living in the period.
From black hat tobrotherly bond, the devil cleverly disguises himself and unveils himself to thesummoner 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 culturalidea that God is the one at work in all things, good and evil, but that thechoice to repent lies solely on the individual rather than based on communityservice, tithing, or any other physical act of atoning for a sin. One can easilyget lost in the humor of “The Friar’s Tale” but a closer analysis on the hints Chaucerleaves his audience provides a deeper appreciation for his storytelling as wellas his cultural awareness of his readership.