The Friar and the Summoner:
The Monk's Tale, I argued in the preceding chapter, can be seen as an interpretation of the Inferno, which it represents as an essentially tragic vision of history, with all the ambivalence that the concept of tragedy traditionally carries with it: the inspiring spectacle of individuals striving to realize a vision of order and autonomy in the face of a knowledge that this striving is almost inevitably doomed to failure. Despite his idea of tragedy, however, the Monk's narrative, though it has moments of genuine pathos, is marked by an ironically detached manner, suggesting his own ambivalent attitude toward the world, at once of a passionate attachment and a wary distancing. His is a somewhat different persona and narrative style, in other words, from the Dantean, with its considerably greater range of emotions.
Chaucer's Friar and Summoner comment on the Inferno in a very different way from the Monk. They may be said to represent Chaucer's comic experiment with the Dantean conception of hell as a loss of soul, a form of spiritual suicide, a death-in-life. Like the residents of the Inferno, these two pilgrims are Gogolian "dead souls." Each in his way is a spectacular example of contrapasso, the concept that governs the representation of the damned in the Inferno . At the heart of this concept, to recapitulate briefly my earlier discussion, is the idea that the sin is its own punishment and that the torments of the
damned are therefore strictly self-inflicted. Defined in this way, contrapasso provides support for the theme we saw to be central to the Monk's Tale: namely, that human beings are fundamentally autonomous and so are responsible for their own weal or woe by the choices they make. The centrality of this theme in the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales marks these as true humanist epics in which the idea of a supernatural, transhuman agency actively intervening in worldly—or even in other worldly—affairs is ultimately viewed as a needless and possibly even an objectionable hypothesis. This is not to assert that either the Comedy or The Canterbury Tales presents a merely profane, or godless, universe; this says only that as theatrical epics their horizon is human, social, communal, and that the profane and the sacred are to be found within that horizon. The imagination, to be sure, constantly desires to soar beyond this horizon, but always the Poet is there to remind us that it is powerless to do so: "Here force failed my high fantasy" ("A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa," Par . XXXIII.142).
The following discussion is designed to illustrate the theme of the human horizon in the context where we might least expect it, namely, the ecclesiastical and theological one of the Friar and the Summoner, two figures locked in fierce verbal combat, so that we could imagine them temporarily escaped from one of those circles of Dante's hell where twinned residents are forever engaged in mutual recrimination. That Chaucer had the Inferno in mind when dealing with these two pilgrims seems unmistakable from direct and strategically placed allusions to the canticle in this part of the poem. Thus in the Friar's Tale the yeoman-demon tells the summoner, who wants to know about the bodies of demons:
Thou shalt herafterward, my brother deere,
Come there thee nedeth nat of me to leere,
For thou shalt, by thyn owene experience,
Konne in a chayer rede of this sentence
Bet than Virgile, while he was on lyve,
Or Dant also.
Here is a complex literary joke: having expressed his contempt for the theologians (l. 1512), the yeoman cites the poets as if they were the only significant authorities on hell, certainly the next best thing to direct personal experience, and as if they held forth on the subject
in academic lectures. The lines also foreshadow my argument about the tales of the two pilgrims, namely, that each, while undoubtedly an attack on the other, constitutes at the same time an indictment of the teller himself. Thus, though the lines quoted are addressed to a summoner, they are clearly much more appropriate to a friar. Friars were noted for their interest in abstruse theological questions, and for their association with universities as lecturers, scholars, and preachers. The reference to a professorial chair from which he might lecture is thus perfectly suited to the ambition of a friar, hardly to that of a summoner.
The second Inferno allusion occurs in the Prologue to the Summoner's Tale, where the Summoner tells of a friar who, having been shown by an angel the torments of hell (a mini-Inferno ), asks why he has seen no friars there. By way of an answer the angel leads him to Satan, who has, he says, "a tayl / Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl" (1687–88), under which there proves to be a vast nest of friars. The simile has been plausibly related to a similar one applied to Lucifer's wings at Inferno XXXIV.46, 48, so that it is mildly surprising that another Inferno allusion at the very beginning of the Summoner's Tale has not been noted, possibly because the friar is advertising his trentals, masses said for the benefit of souls in purgatory, not hell.
"Delivereth out," quod he, "anon the soules!
Ful hard it is with flesshhook or with oules
To been yclawed, or to brenne or bake."
(1729–31; my italics)
The allusion here to the torments of the barrators in cantos XXI to XXIII seems to me unmistakable. The barrators are plunged into ditches of boiling pitch and treated like so many pieces of meat by demons armed with unghia (claw) and uncino (hook) (Inf . XXII.69), who also act like cooks of an infernal Irish stew. And the allusion has exactly the same appropriateness that the mention of Dante has
in the Friar's Tale. As the crude and corrupt official in the Church's legal system, the Summoner almost seems to aspire to the status of flesh without soul and thus makes himself an obvious candidate for the fleshhooks that skewer Dante's barrators.
As the Friar and the Summoner attack and attempt to entrap each other, therefore, they also condemn themselves by their own words—and before a jury of their fellow pilgrims—in Chaucer's version of Dante's contrapasso, a rigorous application of the rule, in reading the Inferno, that what the "damned" characters say must be held against them. To demonstrate this I begin by recalling what was said in an earlier chapter about the theatrical principle in The Canterbury Tales as involving, for the reader, a shuttling back and forth between a given tale and the teller's portrait in the General Prologue. First, therefore, if we place the General Prologue portrait of the Friar alongside the Friar's Tale we discover numerous points of contact between the portrait and the summoner presented in his tale. In attacking his antagonist on the pilgrimage by means of the summoner in his tale, these parallels suggest, the Friar is in effect attacking himself.
The first and most comprehensive example (embracing all the others) is the Friar's comparison of his tale's summoner to Judas:
And right as Judas hadde purses smale,
And was a theef, right swich a theef was he;
His maister hadde but half his duetee.
Editors refer this passage to John 12.6, where we are told that Judas carried the disciples' little purses (Vulgate: loculos ), from which he stole what was put in them (Vulgate: ea quae mittebantur, portabat ). For our purposes the preceding verse is equally important; there Judas expresses his indignation that the ointment with which Mary has just anointed Jesus' feet was not sold for three hundred pence and the money given to the poor. The gospel narrative here suggests that Judas's expressed concern for the poor is a piece of hypocrisy whose implications are ultimately betrayal and murder. The Friar, whose mendicant order is ideally dedicated to evangelical poverty
and to assisting the poor and the sick, by way of the comparison convicts himself not simply of hypocrisy—by the fourteenth century, friars had become pretty well synonymous with hypocrisy—but of a hypocrisy that is in its very essence murderous and prepared to betray everyone, including (in this instance) himself!
This implied conclusion about the Friar is strikingly parallel to the treatment of friars in the Inferno . There one friar, frate Gomita, is to be found among the barrators in the eighth circle, fifth pouch (Inf . XXII.81–82); two further (Jovial) friars turn up in the next pouch of the eighth circle (Inf . XXIII.82ff.), where reside the hypocrites wearing lead-lined cloaks like the capes in which traitors were drowned at the court of Frederick II (66). Finally and climactically, there is frate Alberigo, among the traitors against guests in the ninth circle, though he has not yet "officially" died. As he explains to the Pilgrim in what amounts to a gloss on the contrapasso :
sappie che, tosto che l'anima trade
come fec' ïo, il corpo suo l'è tolto
da un demonio, che poscia il governa
mentre che 'l tempo suo tutto sia vòlto.
Ella ruina in sì fatta cisterna;
e forse pare ancor lo corpo suso
de l'ombra che di qua . . . verna.
( Inf . XXXIII.129–35)
as soon as any soul becomes a traitor,
as I was, then a demon takes its body in his power
until its years have run their course completely.
The soul falls headlong, down into this cistern;
and up above, perhaps, there still appears
the body of the shade that winters here. . . . )
The spiritual condition of Chaucer's Friar, we may conclude, is ultimately similar to that of frate Alberigo. Commentators tell us that the historical Alberigo had Manfred and his son killed at a banquet to which he had invited them. The Inferno 's Alberigo merely tells the Pilgrim:
i' son quel da le frutta del mal orto,
che qui riprendo dattero per figo.
( Inf . XXXIII.119–20)
(I am he of the fruits from the evil garden, and here I am
paid date for fig. [S])
The implication of these lines, I take it, is that Alberigo is one of those friars who knowingly corrupted the garden—the Church? European society?—in a kind of Faustian wager with the devil that they could thrive on its poisonous fruit.
Arguably, Chaucer's Friar also has his "evil garden." He begins his tale by describing an archdeacon who "was dwellynge in my contree" (1301; my italics)—echoing the statement in the General Prologue, "Ful wel biloved and famulier was he / With frankeleyns over al in his contree" (215–16; my italics). The possessive pronoun implies that the residents of the district are in effect his guests whom he, Judas- and Alberigo-fashion, betrays and (spiritually) murders.
Next, the "old wydwe, a ribibe" from whom the summoner wants to extort money by "feynynge a cause" (1377, 1378), recalls the destitute widow in the General Prologue from whom the Friar is determined to receive, by his ingratiating manner, "a ferthyng, er he wente" (255). The summoner, of course, expects to achieve his goal by threatening rather than soft-soaping his intended victim, but his confrontation with the widow turns into a complex inversion of the Friar's own method of hearing confession, as this is described in the General Prologue (ll. 221–32). For as the widow curses the summoner for his lying accusations, she is on her knees (1625) in manner of one making confession. At this point the demon-yeoman asks her whether she means what she says, and she replies by reaffirming her curse unless "he wol hym repente" (1629). "Nay, olde stot, that is nat myn entente" (1630), the summoner replies, whereupon the demon claims him as his prize: "Thou shalt with me to helle yet to-nyght" (1636)—as though he were an infernal Christ speaking to the thief crucified by his side (Luke 23.43)! The "confessional" situation has suddenly been reversed, with the summoner now in the position of the unrepentant sinner condemned by the demon (and the widow). It is, then, by his indifference to the whole
question of "entente"—whether the widow's or the demon's—that the summoner is trapped. And it is this same indifference that makes the summoner a perfect stand-in for the Friar, who, as we learn in the General Prologue, grants absolution to anyone, regardless of his "entente," willing to give money to his order (222–32). And as a further irony, it is the demon who by his concern with "entente" shows himself to be a "confessor" morally superior to the Friar.
The irony does not stop there. The language he uses, particularly when confessing his true identity to the summoner, echoes that of the Friar's portrait in the General Prologue to such an extent that he appears as a demonic version of the Friar, precisely in the manner suggested by Dante's frate Alberigo:
"Brother, " quod he, "wiltow that I thee telle?
I am a feend; my dwellyng is in helle,
And here I ryde aboute my purchasyng,
To wite wher men wol yeve me any thyng.
My purchas is th'effect of al my rente .
Looke how thou rydest for the same entente,
To wynne good, thou rekkest nevere how;
Right so fare I, for ryde wolde I now
Unto the worldes ende for a preye."
The words and lines I have italicized in this passage all have a direct connection with the Friar and his General Prologue portrait. The demon habitually refers to the summoner as "brother," and they swear brotherhood to each other (1404–5), reminding us of the meaning of the term "friar" and the fact that theirs was supposed to be a brotherhood (cf. General Prologue, l. 252b). Line 1451 is almost a quotation from the General Prologue portrait of the Friar: "His purchas was wel bettre than his rente" (256), except that once again the demon is shown to be morally superior to his pilgrim counterpart. And the line before that echoes the Friar's unceasing quest for people willing to give to the friars. That these same people are ultimately his prey (1455) is perfectly clear at this point.
In the earlier dialogue between the "yeoman" and the summoner
the same device is observable. What the yeoman tells the summoner about himself is ostensibly applicable to summoners, but the language (especially what I have italicized in the next two quotations) refers us time and again to the General Prologue portrait of the Friar and to friars in general:
I am unknowen as in this contree ;
Of thyn aqueyntance I wolde praye thee,
And eek of bretherhede . . .
Asked where his dwelling is, the yeoman replies,
Brother, . . . fer in the north contree,
Whereas I hope som tyme I shal thee see.
Er we departe, I shal thee so wel wisse
That of myn hous ne shaltow nevere mysse.
That last line may well remind us that the Friar "was the beste beggere in his hous " (252).
Next, there is a complex irony in the fact that the summoner first encounters the demon, in the guise of "a gay yeman, under a forest syde " (1380; my italics). This is the precise location where the fairies appear to the rapist-knight in the Wife of Bath's Tale (990), the fairies who, she tells us, were displaced by—the friars, themselves seducers, if not rapists, who, the Wife implies, with their official asceticism have done their utmost to banish the last vestiges of the feminine mystique from European consciousness (864–81). There is, thus, an exquisite poetic justice in the conclusion of the Friar's Tale, where the summoner is, as it were, defeated by the old and poor widow. If, as I have proposed, this summoner can be equated with the Friar himself, then the widow unwittingly exacts a kind of justice in behalf of the Wife of Bath and the old hag of her tale.
This last sentence is not altogether satisfactory, and the reason is that so far in this chapter I have done less than full justice both to Chaucer's tale-telling game and to Dante's contrapasso idea. Before proceeding to the Summoner's Tale, therefore, I will try to correct both deficiencies. First then, I suggested just now that the summoner in his tale projects the Friar's own spiritual condition. This is only
partially true, and the problem here is directly related to my incomplete account of Dante's contrapasso . Of critical importance to the latter is the rather unlikely figure of Minos, who in canto V of the Inferno is introduced as standing in the second circle, where he examines the offenses of those who enter and
giudica e manda secondo ch'avvinghia.
Dico che quando l'anima mal nata
li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa;
e quel conoscitor de le peccata
vede qual loco d'inferno è da essa;
cignesi con la coda tante volte
quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa.
(judges and assigns as his tail twines.
I mean that when the spirit born to evil
appears before him, it confesses all;
and he, the connoisseur of sin, can tell
the depth in Hell appropriate to it:
as many times as Minos wraps his tail
around himself, that marks the sinner's level.)
The crucial point here is the confession of the spirits; they know that and what they have done wrong. Contrapasso, in other words, is not just the sin but also the consciousness (however "repressed") of the sin that is the sinner's punishment.
We are not yet done with Dante's Minos, legendary king of Crete noted for his strict justice, here inexplicably turned monster with a tail. This new, monstrous Minos clearly originates from a kind of contamination of the just-king legend with the other legend of Minos the sacrilegious tyrant who annually exacted from the Athenians a tribute of seven youths, whom he sacrificed to the Minotaur, the monster, half bull, half human, at the center of his labyrinth. (This monster, incidentally, appears stretched out at the edge of the abyss above the seventh circle in the Inferno XII.11ff., reinforcing the idea of the Inferno as a—or the —labyrinth.) Without stopping to show how once again Dante deconstructs the very idea of an "actual" hell (see the preceding chapter), I merely note that Minos as monster anticipates Geryon, "that filthy effigy / of fraud" whose face "was that of a just man" (Inf . XVII.7–8, 10; my italics). The grotesque
joke, therefore, by which Minos assigns the sinners their place in the Inferno by means of the number of times he wraps his tail around his body, I interpret as signifying that before the bar of the individual and collective body, that is, at the unconscious, intuitive, prerational level, which is also that of the community, the anima mal nata, already knows in which circle of hell it belongs. In the context of The Canterbury Tales this means in the first place that the tales constitute a confession in one form or another, not merely in the explicit cases of the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, and that the audience of Canterbury pilgrims, furthermore, constitutes a collective if nonmonstrous Minos by whom tale-tellers like the Friar and the Summoner in effect ask to be judged.
The very ferocity with which these two attack each other indicates, I believe, an awareness of a lack within. They thus exemplify an ambiguity of Dante's hell that becomes evident the further down we go: the more monstrous the criminality or sinfulness, the greater the grief that the sinners seem to suffer. The supreme, enigmatic instance of this is Lucifer, discussed in the preceding chapter, but it is also fully apparent in the frate Alberigo passage, to which I have already referred. Here, too, is a cannibalistic traitor, but in the final analysis the real treason is to the self, to the divine-human image of which the sinner knows himself to be possessed. The point is unmistakable when the Pilgrim comes upon the friar in the Ptolomaea ring of the ninth circle, where he is stuck in ice, and his eyes are sealed by frozen tears, like the other traitors against guests. The exclamation with which the friar greets the Pilgrim and Virgil manifests, not the icy
indifference of the callous criminal, but, astonishingly, an enormous grief:
"O anime crudeli
tanto che data v'è l'ultima posta,
levatemi dal viso i duri veli,
sì ch'io sfoghi 'l duol che 'l cor m'impregna,
un poco, pria che 'l pianto si raggeli."
("O souls so cruel that the last station is given to
you, lift from my face the hard veils, so that, before the
weeping freezes again, I may vent a little the misery that
stuffs my heart." [S])
By the paradox of tragedy, these "hard veils" simultaneously cover and reveal the human-divine image that, I suggest, remains frate Alberigo's ultimate concern.
By a paradox belonging now as much to comedy as to tragedy, Chaucer's Friar also reminds himself as well as his audience of his own failure when he implies that the Summoner fails the test of the divine image:
And God, that maked after his ymage
Mankynde, save and gyde us, alle and some,
And leve thise somonours goode men bicome!
In condemning themselves and at the same time showing their awareness of what they are doing even as they are attacking each other, the Friar and the Summoner demonstrate that as characters they are not fixed but open-ended, capable of change. And here, then, is a reason why the reader must not confuse the characters in the tales with the pilgrims at whom they are aimed. In comparison with the pilgrims, the characters in the tales are closed, complete, emblematic in the sense of not being open to future possibilities. By the principle of "epic theater," that is, the pilgrims are set off from the characters inside the tales as the onstage audience is from the players in a play-within-a-play, and just as paradoxically, since all are equally fictive and exist on the same plane of text or stage.
With that, we are ready to turn to the Summoner's Tale, which
involves a somewhat different kind of contrapasso for its teller from that of the Friar's Tale, a self-indictment that is, furthermore, obscured by the brilliance of the tale's attack on friars and their proverbial hypocrisy. This attack takes the form of a satire on a hermeneutic principle, and an entire way of life founded on it, that is spelled out by the friar himself when he speaks to farmer Thomas sick in bed:
I have to day been at youre chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore wol I teche yow al the glose
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn—
There have I taught hem to be charitable,
And spende hir good ther it is resonable.
The hermeneutic principle of "glosyng" finds and substitutes a spiritual or metaphoric sense for the literal, on the grounds that, as St. Paul says, the "lettre sleeth" (2 Corinthians 3.6: litera enim occidit, spiritus autem vivificat). The friar is adapting to his own corrupt purposes Augustine's injunction to exegetes that whenever the literal reading of a biblical text does not promote charity, its meaning should be taken in an allegorical sense, at the same time as he cleverly perverts, or "gloses," the term charity to mean, not love of God and of neighbor, but the giving of money. Or perhaps the giving of money is "glosed" as love of God and neighbor! The point is that the friar has turned his life into a radical allegory in which there is no literal, only "spiritual," meaning. And by abolishing the literal sense, he has liberated his language from any normative basis, from any restraint there might be on pure metaphoric flight. Thus the friar achieves that nightmare of the anti-Derrideans, a linguistic usage that permits total freedom of definition and redefinition, a phantasmagoric, Alice-in-Wonderland verbal freeplay, as in his statement:
Fro Paradys first, if I shal nat lye,
Was man out chaced for his glotonye;
And chaast was man in Paradys, certeyn.
(1915–17; my italics)
The Summoner's attack on his fellow pilgrim, then, consists of a twofold demonstration. First, he shows that the fraternity's entire existence is founded on an empty verbalism, an arbitrary inscription, reinscription, and erasure of terms, that also allows the friars to pretend that there is no material reality except what words create. Second, he shows that the language they use to express religious and other concepts really has, for the most part, a literal meaning that is crassly material but which their "glosyng" enables them to ignore. The twofold demonstration culminates in the joke of farmer Thomas's "gift" and the "problem" of its proper distribution.
That the first part of the Summoner's demonstration strikes home immediately is clear from the Friar's outburst at the beginning of the tale. The Summoner has just described how friars go around in pairs to people's houses to collect alms. One of the friars makes a show of writing down on an ivory tablet the names of those who give, but as soon as they are out of the door "He planed awey the names everichon / That he biforn had writen in his tables" (1758–59). At this point the Friar breaks in with great vehemence: "Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!" (1761). The empty ritual of inscribing and erasing names is a perfect analogue of the friars' way with language, and the fact that it is this relatively trivial detail, rather than the gigantic deception of the friars' whole enterprise, that arouses the Friar's rage, shows the depths of his hypocrisy.
His reaction to the Summoner's Tale appears to negate the point I just made, for it suggests that the Friar is very close indeed to the friar of the tale, trapped as they both are inside their hypocritical masks, unable to act otherwise than they do. But in fact, as we have already seen, the pilgrim Friar maintains his dramatic mobility, whereas the Summoner's friar is a Dickensian caricature with fixed
traits, as is best illustrated perhaps by his "sermon" on anger (1981–2093), irrelevant to begin with and loaded with irrelevant exempla from which he draws laughable and immoral conclusions. This performance, a masterpiece of comic absurdity, may at the same time glance at the incoherent ranting of the Summoner when he has been drinking:
Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.
And whan that he wel dronken hadde the wyn,
Thanne wolde he speke no word but Latyn.
A fewe termes hadde he, two or thre . . .
The friar is unable to recognize, or even to experience, a physical event as such. To him it must always be something else. The crucial case in point here is farmer Thomas's fart, which the friar regards as a blasphemy, an insult to the order, an intellectual and technical problem of division and distribution—anything but just a fart. Now, by the logic of the tale—a logic we have already connected with the Inferno —the friar's refusal to acknowledge the simple physical reality of the fart has the effect of turning his entire being into—a fart. And that means in the first instance, of course, the words he uses. The point is made by the lord's squire, Jankyn, in his "gloss" on the problem posed by farmer Thomas (2243ff.). Having explained how the fart can be evenly divided among twelve friars with their noses at the ends of the twelve spokes of a cartwheel, Jankyn deals with this friar. "By cause he is a man of greet honour," he declares, this friar will receive a larger dose of sound and stink by holding his nose at the nave of the wheel:
And certeinly he hath it well disserved.
He hath to-day taught us so muchel good
With prechyng in the pulpit ther he stood,
That I may vouche sauf, I sey, for me,
He hadde the firste smel of fartes thre.
His cartwheel solution, Jankyn makes clear, is really a reenactment of the friar's preaching, which derives its inspiration, however, not from one but three farts—presumably the Trinity that rules over the friar's world. The friar's words, then, are not just flatus vocis, "noght but eyr ybroken," as the eagle in the House of Fame puts it (l. 765),
but fundamentally just flatus . And once this point has been established we can look back over the tale and discover that, just as Midas turned everything he touched into gold, so for the friar everything turns to flatulence and the problem of its proper division, distribution, and so forth. So it is with the trentals at the very beginning of the tale—one a day for thirty days, or thirty in one day?—and even more obviously, because it functions as a kind of Freudian slip, the question he poses to farmer Thomas: "What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?" (1967). And when he denounces Thomas to the lord's wife,
The false blasphemour, that charged me
To parte that wol nat departed be,
To every man yliche, with meschaunce!
he is, by another kind of Freudian slip, raising a theological question. Whether it is one involving the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, the unmistakable implication is that for the friar it all comes down to flatulence.
In his ruminations on the matter (2218–42), which follow next, the lord comes close to falling into the same trap, reducing arithmetic to a kind of flatulence and suspecting Thomas of being either a religious or a social reformer: "To every man ylike, tel me how? / It is an inpossible, it may nat be" (2230–31). But he has a growing conviction that the devil put farmer Thomas up to the whole thing:
I trowe the devel putte it in his mynde.
In ars-metrik shal ther no man fynde,
Biforn this day, of swich a question.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What, lo, my cherl, lo, yet how shrewedly
Unto my confessour to-day he spak!
I hold hym certeyn a demonyak!
Now ete youre mete, and lat the cherl go pleye;
Lat hym go hange hymself a devel weye!
The lord's words here are of course not meant seriously, but they
do tend to confirm what the Summoner's Tale has been leading up to, that the friar exists in a self-created "hell" of flatulence.
Why flatulence? Beyond the fact that we are dealing with a fabliautype joke, is there any special significance to the fart as punishment for the friar? I believe there is, and at the risk of appearing over-solemn on a humorous subject, I will explain what I think it means. Quite simply, then, to begin with, the fart is something physical emanating from the body, and as such it represents the body's revenge against the friar, whose entire existence, as we have seen, is predicated on the pretense that the body does not exist, or exists only as an instrument for achieving spiritual perfection, divinity.
At this point we must first deal with a difficulty. The Summoner's Tale, as we have seen, more or less explicitly equates words and farts. As the lord says, in the spirit of the House of Fame 's eagle, after all, "every soun, / Nis but of eir reverberacioun" (2232–33). And yet there is a very important difference between the two. To put it succinctly, one is a sign, the other not. As I said in the discussion of Geryon in chapter 3, the word or signifier is a mere sign that, despite its vocalization, lacks any real substance; it dissolves with the fulfillment of its function, though it can always be recalled and reiterated, iterability being one of its basic attributes. The fart, contrariwise, does have substance—a distinct sound and smell—and lacks the character of a mere sign precisely because it lacks iterability. It is on this point that the reader may object, since in the tale one fart is treated as identical to another: the one distributed by means of the cartwheel, in other words, is assumed to be the same as the original gift delivered under the bedcovers. As I shall argue, the Summoner does indeed hold out for some such equation of speaking and farting, but his tale with its heavy emphasis on eating (as well as the friar's repeated references to fasting) contradicts this: the "soun or savour of a fart" (2226), to borrow the lord's words once more, as anyone who has reflected on the matter will know, varies with the contents of the stomach and the person's state of health.
Significantly, there is one place where a fart does function pretty much as a "pure" sign, and that is among the demons guarding the barrators, whose leader, Barbariccia, "had made a trumpet of his ass" ("avea del cul fatto trombetta," XXI.139). I have already discussed this joke in connection with the Miller's Tale in chapter 4, and only bring it up here to reinforce the idea that the Summoner, too, has
definite "demonic" associations, and as I suggested earlier, specifically with the bolgia of the barrators.
It is time now to deal with the long-delayed contrapasso of the Summoner, but first I must at least take note of the second part of the Summoner's attack on the fraternal order, designed to deflate its intellectual and spiritual pretensions. This is his demonstration, culminating once again in the "problem" of the fart, that the terms used to express intellectual and religious concepts are really just a troping of terms that in their literal signification have an unwanted material reference. But in convicting friars of a dishonest, wholesale "glosyng" or troping, the Summoner is, as it were, slain by his own letter. By denying the possibility of metaphoric "flight" beyond the material and the experientially known, he remains trapped in an empty literalism, empty because it can only affirm and reaffirm itself; it dare not venture into the unknown. All language is thus ultimately like Latin to him, something that he can only repeat by rote:
A fewe termes hadde he, two or thre,
That he had lerned out of some decree—
No wonder is, he herde it al the day;
And eek ye knowen wel how that a jay
Kan clepen "Watte" as well as kan the pope.
But whoso koude in oother thyng hym grope,
Thanne had he spent al his philosophie;
Ay "Questio quid iuris " wolde he crie.
(General Prologue, ll. 637–46)
The lines confirm, I think, what our analysis of the tale has revealed as the trap or contrapasso the Summoner has created for himself. He is like the jay imprisoned in the cage of his reductive idea of language, and I think it is significant that the word grope occurs in this context. In the tale it is also first used as a metaphor, by the friar, who is complaining about the curates being "ful necligent and slowe / To grope tendrely a conscience / In shrift" (1816–18), only to be debunked with comic violence by the farmer:
"Now thanne, put thyn hand doun by my bak,"
Seyde this man, "and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee."
Could we ask for a better "positivist" parody of the rite of confession than this?
Comic as it undoubtedly is, the parody does also point to a problem for the Summoner. If, as I said earlier, the tales serve the pilgrims as a form of confession leading to clearer vision, this possibility would seem to be denied him. A little bit reminiscent of frate Alberigo with his "hard veils" down in the ninth circle, the Summoner can only clarify his vision by vain attempts at a literal cleansing of his face, truly a map of hell:
[He] hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake and piled berd.
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
There is, however, one character who appears in his tale literally (!) in the last minute to rescue the Summoner from his contrapasso, or at least to suggest that he too is capable of insight into his condition. I refer to the lord's squire, whose pragmatic and debunking "gloss" on the fart problem is a perfect antitype to the friar's "glosyng" and so suggests that he is in some way the Summoner's double. He is, I suggest, precisely the Summoner's comic double. His name involves a pun carefully anticipated in the friar's address to farmer Thomas during his sermon against ire:
Now, Thomas, leeve brother, leve thyn ire;
Thou shalt me fynde as just as is a squyre .
Hoold nat the develes knyf ay at thyn herte . . .
(2089–91; my italics)
The image of the squyre, or carpenter's square, neatly combines the roles of squire Jankyn as the one who comes up with the technical solution of the cartwheel and the one who represents a comic justice triumphant—though the grimmer justice meted out to the barrators may be briefly hinted at by the fact that he is also the carver (with "the develes knyf") of the lord's meat (2244)! Together with farmer
Thomas, Jankyn represents the spirit of comic tale-telling and points to the way this can transform a community, which in this case consists of the villagers, who at the end join in praise of Jankyn's and Thomas's comic speaking :
The lord, the lady, and ech man, save the frere,
Seyde that Jankyn spak, in this matere,
As well as Euclide [dide] or Ptholomee.
Touchynge the cherl, they seyde, subtiltee
And heigh wit made hym speken as he spak;
He nys no fool, ne no demonyak.
The spirit of Chaucerian tale-telling is, needless to say, also the spirit of the Comedy, and I venture to suggest that the heigh wit in the above passage is an oblique allusion to that alta fantasia of Paradiso XXXIII.142. I am slightly more diffident about suggesting that Jankyn's picture of the twelve friars ranged around the cartwheel and one at its center, recalls—once again!—the Pilgrim's final vision of nostra effige inside the circle that is one of, or for, three (Par . XXXIII.131). My diffidence, however, is diminished by the reflection that the "covent" of thirteen friars is intended to represent Christ and his twelve apostles, and by the fact that in the Paradiso the vision of the divine-human image is followed by the simile-comment:
Qual è 'l geomètra che tutto s'affige
per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova,
pensando, quel principio ond' elli indige,
tal era io a quella vista nova;
veder voleva come si convenne
l'imago al cerchio e come vi s'indova.
(As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it.)
The geometer is echoed by Euclid, most famous of all geometers, and the attempt to square the circle is reflected in the "squire" and the cartwheel. In a curiously satisfying way the Comedy 's sublime vision and the Summoner's profanely "positivistic" one do complement each other after all.