"The Summoner's Tale" and Proverbs 21.14

Thomas RandANQ. Lexington: Spring 2004.Vol. 17, Iss. 2;  pg. 18, 3 pgs






Abstract (Document Summary)

Rand examines Jay Ruud's "The Summoner's Tale" and the quoted Proverbs 21.14. He comments that in "The Summoner's Tale," the friar's false rhetoric result is seen in a comic loss of control as his words rebound on him with hilarious irony.

Full Text (1081   words)

Copyright HELDREF PUBLICATIONS Spring 2004

Readers of "The Summoner's Tale" long have recognized that the revenge Thomas takes on the greedy Friar John is anticipated by a verbal cue he hears in the friar's question: "What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve? / Lo, ech thyng that is oned in himselve / Is moore strong than whan it is toscatered" (lines 1967-69). Thomas turns the unintended pun back on the friar with his gift of the farthing/farting, and the squire Jankyn solves the attendant problem in "ars-mctrike" by explaining how to part it into twelve equal shares (2222). In the midst of his sermon on the dangers of ire, however, Friar John utters a less obvious verbal cue that nonetheless significantly enriches the irony of Thomas's gift of wind.

Anger figures prominently in the tale. Alleging that her husband's illness has made him "angry as a pissemyre" (1825), Thomas's wife urges Friar John: "Chideth hym weel" (1824). The friar obliges with a windy sermon on the dangers of ire. Predictably, his words have the opposite of their intended effect. Thomas's anger slowly grows as the friar pontificates until, pushed beyond endurance by a request for gold, "This sike man wax wel ny wood for ire" (2121). The friar's sermon consists of a flood of proverbial wisdom beginning with the admonition to Thomas: "ber this word awey now, by thy feith; / Touchynge swich thyng, lo, what the wise seith" (1987-88). The sermon concludes with a reference to the author of Proverbs himself, Solomon:

Lo, what seyde he that so wel teche kan?

"Ne be no felawe to an irous man,

Ne with no wood man walke by the weye,

Lest thee repente;" I wol no ferther seye. (2085-88)

Friar John is quoting Proverbs 22.24-25: "Make no friendship with an angry man; and with a furious man thou shall not go."1 Thus, on the simplest level, Thomas's gift is an appropriate reward for the hypocritical friar who ignores Solomon's advice.

But the friar's invocation of the wisdom of Solomon also serves as a cue that may remind the reader of another wise saying of Solomon on the subject of anger, one that when called to mind brings further ironies to light. As Jay Ruud has argued, the true angry man of the tale is Friar John.2 It is thus wonderfully ironic that Friar John's words should again backfire as they do in the unintended pun on farthing/farting when Thomas deals with the angry friar by following the advice Proverbs 21.14: "A gift in secret pacifieth anger: and a reward in the bosom, strong wrath." Literally, Thomas's gift is a reward for Friar John's labor and also is secret, "A thyng," as Thomas says, "that I have hyd in pryvetee" (2143). By an ironic twist, the recipient of Thomas's gift is not pacified but enraged and thus exposed for the child of wrath that he is. In a corresponding reversal, it is the giver rather than the recipient whose righteous anger is assuaged.3 Viewed in the context of Proverbs 21.14, the fart not only gains further comic point because it follows from Friar John's own instructions to Thomas to heed Solomon's advice, but because, in a fine bit of poetic justice, the one who twists scripture to serve his own ends finds himself on the receiving end of a dubiously applied proverbial text.4

Furthermore, a gift given in secret rather than openly has the power to dissipate anger because the recipient need not humble himself by publicly acknowledging the gift. Somehow, even though Friar John's "spirit hath his fostryng in the Bible" (1845), he fails to grasp this wisdom, just as he fails to understand the import of the gift itself. By making it public to the lord and his household, he opens himself to greater humiliation, which in turn further inflames his anger. he makes the "gift in secret" a public joke only he fails to understand.

It may be objected that Thomas lacks the sophistication to have consciously applied Proverbs 21.14 in the manner that I have suggested, and no doubt the "subtiltee / And heigh wit" (2290-91) that Jankyn ascribes to Thomas ultimately belong to the author who stands at several removes behind the narrative. Friar John comes to grief not because Thomas is a man of superior learning and intelligence, but because he puts himself at cross purposes with the larger universe of moral and spiritual verities operating in Chaucer's tale. In "The Summoner's Tale," we see the friar's false rhetoric result in a comic loss of control as his words rebound on him with hilarious irony.



1. As noted in The Riverside Chaucer 878.

2. Ruud points out that Friar John's several sins in the tale, including lying, uncharitable chiding, swearing of oaths, and desiring vengeance, are all, according to "The Parson's Tale," the fruits of ire and that when one measures "Friar John's behavior by the Parson's statements about ire, one sees that this sin dominates his character" (141-42).

3. "The Parson's Tale" identifies two kinds of anger: "The goode Ire is by jalousie of goodnesse, murgh which a man is wrooth with wikkednesse. [. . .] Another Ire is ful wikked, that comth of felonie of herte avysed and cast biforn, with wikked wil to do vengeance, and therto his resoun consenteth; and soothly this is deedly synne" (538, 542). In ridding himself of Friar John, Thomas exercises the former. Thomas's gift, of course, engenders the latter as Friar John cries, "Thou shalt abye this fart, if that I may!" (2155).

4. Proverbs 21.14 is the type of covert, deeply veiled allusion that Chauncey Wood calls the biblical quark: "the biblical allusion to a verse or story that is not named where it is used, not named elsewhere in Chaucer, not quoted or misquoted, but which nevertheless when called to our attention transforms the literary text by a kind of catalytic magic and adds spiritual meaning to what seems at first reading only physical description" (305).






Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton, 1987.

Ruud, Jay. "'My Spirit Hath his Fostryng in the Bible': The Summoner's Tale and the Holy Spirit." Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Susanna Greer Fein et al. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Inst., 1991. 125-48.

Wood, Chauncey. "Artistic Intention and Chaucer's Uses of Scriptural Allusion." University of Ottawa Quarterly 53 (1983): 297-308.




[Author Affiliation]


Western Oregon University