Good vs. Evil in “The Friars Tale”Society has always judged a person on his level of morality. This level of judgment has been evident since the immoral acts of Adam and Eve were committed. Some of these acts are dishonesty, adultery, and ignorance. “The Friar’s Tale” makes these moral issues clear through various characters. The summoner and the Devil both show dishonesty, abuse of power, and mercilessness. In this short story, Chaucer illustrates the theme of immorality and how it affects the character of all the persons in the tale.
.Characters display dishonesty in “The Friar’s Tale”. The summoner steals the money that he collects from peasants. Chaucer illustrates this act of immorality when he says,
“Now trulyso do I. I never spare to take a thing, knows God, unless it be too heavy or too hot. What I get for myself, and privately, no kind of conscience for such things have I”.
The summoner is being dishonest to the people that he collects from by not telling him that he keeps the money. The summoner admits to the Devil that he steals. The summoner also says that he has no conscience. Therefore he can not be kept from evil.
Bowden addresses the summoner’s immorality when he states,
“Fact and fiction both condemn him as especially licentious and dishonest. He also mentions how Gower writes of him as pretending to be poor but, in actuality, as being as rich as a king”
Stealing is immoral, and Bowden reinforces that the summoner is immoral and steals beyond need. He is also being dishonest to his Archdeacon by not giving him the collections. The devil persuade the summoner into committing immoral acts. He makes the summoner believe that he himself is a thief as well. We see this happen when the devil says,
“My wages are right scanty, and but small. My lord is harsh to me and niggardly, my job is most laborious, you see; and therefore by extortion do I live”
Hallissy agrees when he states,
“When Geoffrey comments that the friar likes the company of such people better than that of lepers and beggarssuch worldly values are inappropriate in a follower of Christ”.
By hanging out with those of higher status, the friar proves that he is not carrying out his vows. Hallissy suggests that the summoner, who should be a model for the community, is immoral. He agrees with Chaucer when he acknowledges the immoral ways of the characters in “The Friar’s Tale”. Even after the devil reveals his true identity to the summoner when he says, “I am a demon” (184), the summoner does not change his ways and thus continues to steal. The old woman manipulates words when speaking with the summoner. Chaucer shows these words when the summoner whispered to his brother,
“here lives an ancient crone who’d quite as gladly lose her neck as own she must give up a penny, good or bad. But I’ll have twelve pence, though it drive her mad or I will summon her to our office”
Chaucer is saying that the old crone is selfish and stingy with her money. She says that she does not have twelve pence when she knows that she could sell her house and pay the tax. Paying taxes to her king is her duty and by not doing everything she can to fulfill this duty is wrong.
Characters in “The Friar’s Tale” abuse the powers that they have. The Devil abuses his power when he states,
“And with that word this foul fiend to him bent; body and soul he with the devil went where summoners have their rightful heritage”
He chooses to bring the summoner to eternal damnation out his spite, meaning that the devil is truly evil. Therefore, he takes advantage of his power, and does God’s job by deciding the pure from the impure mortals when he damns the summoner to hell. The removal of the unclean souls from earth is not his activity in which to take part.
The summoner also abuses his power when he collects money from the tax payers. He uses his level of power to extract money from the penniless. The summoner takes advantage of those who are not as smart as he. He knows that he can get away with stealing from the peasants so he does. The summoner illustrates this abuse when he says,
“Twelve pence to me, and I’ll have you acquitted. Small profit there for me, be it admitted; my master gets the profit, and not I. Come then, and let me ride on, speedily; Give me twelve pence, I may no longer tarry”
The summoner knows that the citizens are at his will and will do anything that he requests of them. When he overcharges them he abuses his power, and he is able to do this because he is at a higher intellectual level than they. Ames agrees with Chaucer when he states that,
“This Judas’ made a great profit by black mail. Without telling his superior, the archdeacon, without showing a warrant, he threatened with excommunication uneducated men who filled his purse to silence him”
Hallissy backs Chaucer’s views when he says,
” The Friar is a member of a religious order; like them, he is supposed to be committed to poverty, chastity, and obedience; like them, he violates his vows”
The friar is displayed as being an immoral person. Since the friar is telling the story, this ultimately means that his characters are immoral as well.
Characters in “The Friar’s Tale” are unmerciful throughout the poem. The summoner shows a lack of mercy towards the old crone. He makes this lack of mercy evident when he says,
“Nay, then’ said he, the foul fiend may me/ Fetch if I excuse you, though your life be split'”
By cursing the crone to a damned life, he proves that he does not bend his immoral acts. He is strong in his ways of immorality and demands the correct amount of money from the woman. After seeing that she will not pay, he then wishes the devil to take her immediately. Bowden concurs when he says,
“If the summoner finds anywhere some “good fellow” who is sinning, he will teach him to have no awe of the “ercedehenes curse” unless his soul is in his purse”
The summoner shows no mercy towards the people who have committed sins. Instead he bears down on them until he pays him. Another example arrives when the devil shows no mercy towards the summoner. The devil illustrates this lack of compassion when he states,
“your body and this pan are mine by right./ And you shall come to Hell with me tonight,/ Where you shall learn more of our privity / Than any doctor of divinity.'”
The devil does not allow the summoner to have a second chance. He feels that the summoner will never change and therefore loses all hope of the summoner being reborn. The devil makes it a point to be unforgiving to the summoner because he is at the depths of hell and wants another human being to empathize with him.
Baum reiterates Chaucer’s opinion by pointing out,
” Why, asks this summoner do you assume different shapes? Because, replied the devil, we choose the form most suitable for our prey”
The Devil is unmerciful towards the souls that he condemns. He uses his lack of mercy to ride his attained souls to the depths of hell. He does not have to send the souls to satan but decides to anyway.
Society judges a person upon their level of morality. This level of conduct existed when the first sin was committed. The summoner showed that he practiced dishonesty, mercilessness, and power abuse. Not only did he practice these wrongdoings but he also had no conscience about them. As long as he received whatever he wanted to benefit his life, he didn’t care how he had to get it, whether it be to steal, lie, or trick fellow man. The Devil also exhibited dishonesty, mercilessness, and power abuse. Expressing these immoralities do nothing to affect the Devils character because they are what he represents. If he had a conscience about doing those things then he would not be the Devil. The theme of immorality is apparent in “The Friar’s Tale” and clearly affects the characters in the tale.
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Baum, Paul F. “Chaucer, A Critical Appreciation”. The Explicator 46 (1958): 4-6.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views: Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Bowden, Muriel. “A Reader’s Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer” Speculum: A Journal of Medieval Studies 76 (1964): 55-57.
Gray, Douglas. The Oxford Companion To Chaucer. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Hallissy, Margaret. “A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”. The Chaucer Review
30 (1995): 32-33.