|TITLE:||Chaucer's Summoner's Tale: Flatulence, Blasphemy, and the Emperor's Clothes|
|SOURCE:||Studies in Philology 104 no4 455-70 Fall 2007|
CRITICAL assessment of The Summoner's Tale has changed markedly in the last thirty years. Up to the 1970s it was generally treated as a fabliau, because of the fart, and as a witty but scurrilous product of the Friar-Summoner conflict -- a product and reflection of the characters with restricted moral or satiric import. With Alan Levitan's article,(FN1) identifying it as a species of antifraternal satiric exemplum, commentators learned in biblical exegesis and theology have amplified and reaffirmed his observations, seeing it as a "learned" comedy replete with biblical and figural allusion,(FN2) its principal focus being the Pentecostal parody of the division of the fart at the end of the work. In the 1990s, cultural historians and successors of the exegetical tradition have expanded even further the inferred range of Chaucer's reference to include visual representations of the wheel image,(FN3) religious and scientific allusion,(FN4) analogies with later religious drama, and the "possibility" of an undeclared Lollard approach on the part of Chaucer, not the Summoner.(FN5) The result is the production of a very "learned" comedy that far surpasses the scope of the "dramatic" character of the teller, a comedy thickly charged with biblical, exegetical, allegorical, figural, and visual allusions to material ranging from the twelfth century to the early sixteenth century.(FN6) Thanks to this critical outpouring, the first part of the work, the literalist representation of the corrupt friar and even the climax of this part, the "gift" of the fart, has largely been ignored. Instead, most of the learned commentary has concentrated on the proposed scheme to divide the fart at the end of the tale, with the conclusion that this material reaffirms the final image as Pentecostal parody and interprets the parody itself as restricted to satire of the Franciscans -- as, in effect, an inverse satire in which the exposure of the corruption of the earthly world points to the perfection of the heavenly world, with Chaucer being "associated" loosely with Lollard views on the use of images of sacred text.(FN7) Basically, The Summoner's Tale has been transformed from scatological but tolerant fabliau issuing in humor(FN8) -- the continuing view of secular humanists -- to a complex, learned, and possibly theological figural exemplum. Chaucer the naughty has become Chaucer the theologically radical but pious.
To some extent, the evolution and conflict of these positions is generated by differences in critical assumptions that refocus attention paid to the final section (the fart division) and to the art of the whole narrative: early "literalists" simply accept the end as a witty comeuppance of the fabliau and comic tradition, whereas "religious" commentators assume the presence of "doctrine" and the need to elucidate the kernel of "Truth" in the husk of the literal. The first approach is processive, the other end-directed and selective -- a familiar conflict in readings of Chaucer. Both approaches have much to offer and are not completely irreconcilable, though a seamless union is unlikely. Both also, to a large extent, avoid confronting fully the possible implications of the parody of the Pentecost and other parodies earlier in the text, either by implied reference to the "presence of the absent"(FN9) or by confining meaning to the dramatic position of the Summoner, a character of low repute and no "authority." Like the assessment of some of its predecessors and of its linked tale, The Friar's Tale, The Summoner's Tale's evaluation has been limited by its classification as a fabliau that becomes an exemplum of fraternal corruption, and the development of the exegetical analysis of the Pentecostal image has seemed to dignify what it largely ignores, that is, the first part of the work. Recent commentary has revealed that the Tale is much richer than earlier "dramatic" critics had realized but has also virtually separated this richness from the whole narrative and the teller. This Tale is, in fact, not a hidden allegory in which the literalis can be discarded for the nut of meaning but is instead a narrative of multiple facets, a narrative that exploits the characteristics and structures of fabliau to move the genre from simple sexual morality to potentially more dangerous or provocative implications, while at the same time limiting the danger or provocation by confining it within these structures.
Like most fabliaux, and very many of Boccaccio's comic tales, The Summoner's Tale has a two-part structure: the first part climaxes in the "trick" through which sexual or, in this case, other gratification is achieved, and the second part renders poetic justice, usually by some sort of witty stratagem of the "biter-bit" form.(FN10) Though still loosely grouped with Chaucer's fabliaux by critics, The Summoner's Tale very rapidly alters the expectations of the genre: a fart, no matter how strategic, does not make a fabliau, and here the Friar who, like Friar John in The Shipment's Tale or Nicholas in The Miller's Tale, would be initially successful in a conventional fabliau becomes the "victim" of a witty stratagem. That is, the traditional structure is maintained, but the outcome is reversed. Though from Arnold Williams onwards critics concerned mainly with content and the moral target have, much like the Nun's Priest, tended to reduce the tale to yet another personification-satire or exemplum,(FN11) it is worth remembering that both Huberd of the General Prologue and the Friar of this Tale are not mere caricature but are created in considerable individualizing detail and shown in equally palpable detailed context: they are walking, talking, humanized representations of corruption operating in a fairly "realist" ordinary world, not narrow personifications inhabiting only an abstract moral space. For the most part, even in The Simonie and Piers Plowman, antimendicant satire takes the form of direct and generalized accusation. In Le Roman de la Rose, which could easily have supplied Chaucer with as much traditional ammunition and models as the antifraternal works usually referred to by commentators, False Seeming directly reveals the corrupt practices of friars and how they outwit and usurp parish priests:
I may assoile and I may shryve, That no prelate may lette me,
So have I prechid, and eke shriven, So have I take, so have me yiven, Thurgh her foly, husbonde and wyf, That I lede right a joly lyf, Thurgh symplesse of the prelacye.(FN12) For whanne I see beggers quaking, Naked on myxnes al stynkyng For hunger crie, and eke for care, I entremete not of her fare.
I sey, and swere hym ful rape, That riche men han more tecches Of synne than han pore wrecches, And han of counsel more mister, And therefore I wole drawe hem ner.
But I, that were my simple cloth, Robbe both robbed and robbours And gile giled and gilours.
I wole no lyf but ese and pees, And wynne gold to spend also.
To wynnen is alwey myn entente; My purchace is bettir than my rente.
False Seeming's confessional is vigorously rendered but also static, tending to remain on the plane of abstraction despite the appearance of a few general examples. In this it is typical of antifraternal literature. Chaucer's Huberd and the Friar in the Tale are clearly based on the type of the corrupt cleric and are not the rounded characters of the nineteenth-century realist novel tradition. However, they are not, except for the Summoner's condemnation in his Prologue, directly named as cheats. The Tale itself begins in a neutral tone, not with clinical analysis of the friar but with a description of him going about his usual business as part of an individualized community. Our first glimpse of him presents a detailed but satirically traditional picture of him inciting people to "give" by his stress on penance (not unlike the Parson) and the physical torments of hell, and scurrying round the village, filling his sack with whatever goods or money he can persuade people to part with in return for his prayers. Though dramatic and quite detailed, the friar's description is a portrait of a trade, not an individual; but it is effective in placing Vice in a recognizable body and place, which direct, abstract delineation usually fails to do. However, when he enters the house of bedridden Thomas, his speech and actions both indirectly demonstrate his high quality as a trickster and, because of their specificity, give him substantial imaginative presence. He is glib, quick to assert his personal concern ("laboured I have ful soore. / And specially for thy savacion" [1784-85]), and quick-witted enough to cover up his ignorance of the child's death by claiming a vision of it "born to blisse" (1857). He is eloquent in his exposition of the authority of the begging order (1870-1947) and, above all, ambivalently "courteous." When he first addresses Thomas, he speaks "curteisly and softe" (1771), and when the wife enters,
The frere ariseth up ful curteisly, And hire embraceth in his armes narwe, And kiste hire sweete, and chirketh as a sparwe.
The difference between the friar's socially "courteous" speech and the sexual resonances of a "courteous/courtly" embrace are pointed to by reference to the sparrow, a common image of indiscriminate sexual union even today, and become blatant in his assertion that he never saw anyone as beautiful in church that day. Later, he passes from flirtatious commentary to praise of the wife's cooking. In speech and manipulation of personal relationships, especially with women, he is an evocative paradigm of the "social" priest, making himself pleasing to all so that the wife may hint heavily at her sexual frustration and the friar may mildly scold Thomas, warning him against the sin of anger. At this point, he is, like John in The Shipment's Tale,(FN13) whose real nature we do not recognize in the actual world until it is too late, the smooth, pleasant, persuasive face of clerical hypocrisy and deceit, no grotesque monster whom even an idiot would identify. This is, of course, the difference between Chaucer and most of the antifraternal satirists: where they directly identify and excoriate, he embodies the vice in the deceptive and familiar exterior in which we encounter it daily. It is worth noting that the friar's access to Thomas and gifts comes through his exploitation of the wife, through his "courting" of her. In terms of the narrative, this might seem simply to be a detail of plot, but, of course, it echoes statements made by Boccaccio,(FN14) Chaucer's occasional model, and, given the general satiric thrust of the Tale, may point to the fact that then as now the piety of women is a major pillar of the church, whose officers frequently abuse it.
There is, therefore, in the presentation of the friar a degree of specificity and individuality that makes him more than a narrow personification. However, as in fabliau, the vivification of the abstract Type is achieved not by random detail but by the elaboration of the Vice, and this in turn ties in with the unfolding of action and satiric purpose. When the friar has reproved Thomas for the sin of anger, he then turns to praise the wife's food, which links him to the traditional images of sensual, materialistic clergy. This is followed with heavy irony by his justification of the begging orders which lays emphasis on poverty and abstinence:
Whoso wol preye, he moot faste and be clene, And fatte his soule, and make his body lene.
The clennesse and the fastynge of us freres Maketh that Crist accepteth oure preyeres.
The friar then delivers an extremely lengthy, exemplary sermon on the vice of Ire (Anger) that finds echoes in The Parson's Tale, an even lengthier sermon. The friar's sermon is designed to turn the sick Thomas from his irritation at the demands of "diverse mannere freres" (1950). In situ, this attack on Ire seems no more than yet another demonstration of the selfserving eloquence of the friar; but, of course, it is heavy with dramatic irony since, when the friar receives the "gift" of the fart, his immediate response is violent anger:
And forth he gooth, with a ful angry cheere, And fette his felawe, ther as lay his stoor. He looketh as it were a wilde boor; He grynte with his teeth, so was he wrooth.
His "wrooth" also leads him to appeal to the lord of the manor and, of course, to his second humiliation.
The first, and lengthiest, part of the tale, then, is a mixture of fabliau ribaldry and the comedy of the "biter-bit," with a satiric exposure of fraternal corruption that is Horatian rather than Juvenalian in tone. Laughter rather than outrage is the obvious response; and none of the exposures of the friar's corruption requires any special knowledge or learned exegetical analysis, since, even today, it is commonly assumed that clerics should he good -- concerned for men's souls, not for money. However, the gift of the fart introduces a less traditional element to this comic satire, and it is, ironically, the friar who notices it by his claim that the gift of the fart is blasphemy:
... this olde cherl with lokkes hoore Blasphemed hath oure hooly convent eke.
It is this claim that motivates the division of the fart and the almost exclusive concentration of scholarly commentary on the parody of the Pentecost. The "gift" of the fart has usually been viewed literally, that is, as the stratagem or "beffa" that punishes the friar and provides the motivation for the second part, which is considered to carry the main moral and religious meaning of the Tale and to generalize the satire from the individual to his whole Order. Only one commentator, Ian Lancashire,(FN15) has paid detailed attention to the potential symbolic and figural implications of the "gift" scene itself, which is, of course, pivotal in the structure of the narrative. Lancashire links Thomas, the donor of the fart, figurally with Moses and Elijah, just as the friar asserts his Order's affinity to these prophets, who are figurally connected to Pentecostal images:
Lo, Moyses fourty dayes and fourty nyght Fasted, er that the heighe God of might Spak with hym in the mountayne of Synay
and Elije, wel ye witen, In mount Oreb, er he hadde any speche With hye God, that is oure lyves leche, He fasted longe and was in contemplaunce.
And therefore may ye se that oure preyeres-I speke of us, we mendynantz, we freres-Been to the hye God moore acceptable Than yours.
Lancashire argues that in the first part of the interview, involving the pre-gift negotiations, the friar twice behaves hypocritically: first toward Thomas, like Moses placating God's wrath, and then toward the wife, like an Elijah saving the Zaropath widow's child. Lancashire's most important observation is that Thomas's instruction to Friar John to grope near his rear parts and be given a "gift" is a parody of God's revelation of his back parts to Moses: "And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a cliff of the rock, and I will cover thee with my hand while I pass by: And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen" (Exodus, 33:18-23).(FN16) The parallel is, of course, more situational than verbal, since the possible echo in "and down his hand he launcheth to the clifte / In hope for to fynde there a yifte" (2145-46) exists only in the English Bible, not in the Latin Vulgate. There is, therefore, some justification for John's claim that "blasphemy" has been committed. It may also be worth remembering that while the wife appears to accept the friar's words and actions, her husband is clearly skeptical of his claims and acts to reject them, humorously. His being named Thomas is clearly not accidental, given the later invocation of the apostles. Like most figural/ exegetical/biblical commentators, Lancashire is finally uncomfortable with the idea that the Tale may not simply be antifraternal satire but may also be deliberately blasphemous: that is, the nature of the scene of the "gift," while being aimed at the discomfiture of the friar, also drops on the audience's plate a parallel between the gift of the fart and God's gift of the commandments to Moses and, consequently, points to ecclesiastical and moral claims to authority based on the Old Testament narrative, which have been asserted by a now discredited cleric. Of course, the recognition of this burlesque parallel depends on a knowledge of the figural relationships between Moses and Pentecost, particularly illustrations such as those in the Biblia Pauperum, depicting "Pentecost typologically in a triptych between Moses receiving the Sinai tablets, and Elijah, this time sacrificing on Mount Carmel."(FN17) It is, therefore, less straightforwardly biblical than Lancashire claims. However, the allusion is retrospectively strengthened by the later parody of the windy descent of the Holy Spirit to the apostles that, as Penn R. Szittya notes, is further enhanced if considered in the old Latin version used by St. Cyprian, which in place of the Vulgate's "tanquam advenientis spiritus vehementis" reads "quasi ferretur flatus vehemens."(FN18) Oddly enough, the parallel is more obvious in the King James Bible: "And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting" (Acts 2:22). The "flatus / wind / flatulence" wordplay is inescapable.
The stratagem for the division of the fart in the second, final section of the Tale, fulfills the umbra of the gift of the fart. If we accept the allusion to God's back parts and Moses's figural relationship to Pentecost, then the blasphemous potential of the parody of Pentecost becomes more than a simple, slightly shocking, inappropriate parallelism. Thomas's "gift" parallels God's gift to Moses of a vision of his back parts, which is followed by the gift of the tablets and the Laws, and this parallel is then linked, through the plot and the friar's assertion of blasphemy, to the descent of the Holy Spirit. That is, there is a cleverly structured narrative that by parodies and figuralism puts into burlesque play both the foundation of the moral Law of the Church and the concept of apostolic authority, both of which have been invoked by the friar in his claim to spiritual supremacy -- a claim that occurs in two places. The first is a preface to his attempt to persuade Thomas of the superiority of his and his chapter's prayers:
Oure orisons been moore effectueel, And moore we seen of Cristes secree thynges, Than burel folk, although they weren kynges.
Less directly, the second is in his charges to the lord of the manor that Thomas, in tricking him, has blasphemed -- "Blasphemed hath our hooly covent eke" -- and, by extension, done injury to the whole Church:
"Sire," quod this frere, "an odious meschief This day bityd is to myn ordre and me, And so, per consequens, to ech degree Of hooly chirche -- God amende it soone!"
Literally, the friar is merely casuistically linking his outrage to blasphemy against the whole ecclesiastical structure to gain revenge, but his argument directly points to the potential implications of the story in which he operates, particularly if key elements of that story have figural resonances.
In the second part of the Tale, the "poetic" justice of the division of the fart deepens the blasphemous potential of the action. As Fiona Somerset points out, "the lord's response has the effect of translating Thomas's insult into a scholastic problem":(FN19)
How hadde this cherl ymaginacioun To shewe swich a probleme to the frere? Nevere erst er now herde I of swich mateere. I trow the devel putte it in his mynde. In ars-metrike shal ther no man fynde, Biforn this day, of swich a question.
Somerset explains that "the lord's curiosity about Thomas's answer has at least turned it into a problem posed in terms of the lord's knowledge of natural science."(FN20) The lord then shifts the "meaning" of Thomas's gift from a religious problem to a secular one, implicitly rejecting the friar's interpretation and, thus, rejecting the friar's authority. However, the squire's "ars-metrical" solution turns the division of the fart, a problem of physics, back into a blasphemy of considerable scope by its use of the twelve-spoked circle.
Theologically learned cultural historians have posited literary and visual analogies that reaffirm Levitan's initial observation that this image imitates medieval representations of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.(FN21) Others have suggested that the wheel also evokes the concept of the Wheel of False Religion and may even echo "a small but vexing problem from the natural sciences of how one correctly divides the winds."(FN22) For the most part, the cultural history commentators, from Levitan onwards, have agreed that the parody of Pentecost is specifically related to the Franciscans. According to Szittya, "The joke hinges on something external to the tale: a historical connection of the friars and Pentecost. This association would have been a necessary one if the medieval reader was to recognize the parody, and if the parody was to have any point within the tale other than mindless ridicule of the friar."(FN23)
There is a considerable amount of special pleading built into Szittya's argument. Everything obviously hinges on the imagined reader. For the joke posited by Levitan, Szittya, and others, we need (a) a reader who knows that the Franciscans are associated with Pentecost in a way not attributed to other mendicant orders; (b) identification of the friar as a Franciscan before the cartwheel episode; or (c) a retrospective assumption after the cartwheel proposal that the friar must be a Franciscan. Though Szittya and Glending Olson have noted connections of the fraternal orders with Pentecost, and, in Olson's case, the broad range of Pentecostal references and images in the Middle Ages, neither of them cites any considerable body of commonly accessible material that associates Pentecost specifically or exclusively with Franciscans. John V. Fleming's earlier position that the antifraternal satire is not specific either to one friar or to one order but is instead general is better supported both in traditional antifraternal satire and by the conspicuous absence in Chaucer of specificity about the friar's order.(FN24)
If, in fact, the audience recognized the asserted connections between Franciscans and Pentecost, the wit of the ending would be even more poetically just. However, this asserted connection seems mainly to be used by commentators as a way of avoiding the rather obvious, broader significance of the blasphemous division of the fart, what Szittya calls "mindless ridicule," namely that if the twelve friars receiving the second fart from Thomas parody the twelve apostles awaiting the descent of the Holy Spirit, then what precisely is being parodied? Is it the claims of the Franciscans to be especially connected to Pentecost and, therefore, to apostolic "authority"? Or is this episode, more broadly, a satire of the image of Pentecost itself or even of the idea of Pentecost? Is it indeed possible, without the special arguments of exegesis, to separate satire of the order from an implicit questioning of the parodied image that is used to satirize the fraternal order? For critics of an exegetical persuasion (i.e., most of the commentators on the Pentecostal parody in the last thirty years), the answer is, of course, "yes." In a variety of ways, their view is that satire and parody of religious institutions, biblical references, and images work by inversion to reaffirm the ideal which has been violated by human corruption. Jay Rudd agrees, noting that "In his purely materialistic life of the flesh and his overriding sin of ire (which directly opposes the Holy Spirit), Friar John displays by contrast what it means to be a true spiritual heir of the blessing of Abraham."(FN25)
Though we have here the beginning perception that the model of the parody may itself be part of the target of the satire, for the most part, commentary on the ending of the Tale treats the parody of Pentecost as the actual ending. What Szittya calls the "antifraternal theology" in the Tale has almost universally isolated the Pentecostal parody from the "gift" of the fart,(FN26) from the friar's operation throughout society and within Thomas's house, and from the friar's claims to religious authority and "secree" vision. It has also isolated the Pentecostal parody from its "agent," the Squire, and its context, the judgment of the lord of the manor. With the exception of Derek Pearsall, the majority of critical commentary on the Tale in the last thirty years has characterized it almost entirely in terms of its possible allusions to traditions of Pentecost and anti-Franciscan satire, silently divorced from the rest of the narrative, the teller, and perhaps even the author. The effect, intentional or accidental, is to remove the Pentecostal parody from its place in the whole narrative, dividing it as well from questions of authorial intent and possible reception. The Pentecostal parody, however, is the climax of a series of progressively interrelated actions of a comic-satiric nature: the "realist" portrayal of the friar "at his trade"; the wit and ingenuity of the "gift" of the fart to the friar and his chapter, with its loose burlesque of God's gifts to Moses and the Israelites; the long disquisition of John to establish the "authority" of the friars to a supreme vision of God's will, invoked in his plea to the "authority" of the lord of the manor; and the implied comic action of the "division of the fart" through the application of secular science, rather than ecclesiastical authority. Two key events, one from the Old Testament and another from the New, both figurally linked by Moses and representative of much of the authority of the church in matters moral and spiritual, are linked by narrative intention, their relation to ecclesiastical, apostolic authority outlined by and in the friar. This whole structure of "authority" is windily dispersed by a great, "vehemens" human wind. The outrageous nature of these parodic events leaves inescapable the fact that "authoritative" biblical events, the revelations of God to Moses and the descent of the Holy Spirit, have been likened to a great fart.
While critics in the 1950s and 1960s have been able to escape the troubling potential of the situation by attributing everything to the teller, who is seen as a dramatic character quite separate from his creator, the exegetical commentators have invested their large store of allusions in the author, partly to establish Chaucer's religious knowledge and, ultimately, his piety: "The iconographic parodies and biblical learning in the tale have usually been imputed to Chaucer rather than to the Summoner, who has small Latin indeed."(FN27) Though Chaucer's personal responsibility is thus acknowledged and its potential sacrilege escaped by positing an audience as learned in religious allusions as the author and as versed in exegetical interpretation (i.e., not the pilgrims or the "lewed"), the Pentecostal parody is still separated from the full text of the ending: "What finally matters is less that Thomas and Jankin in action perversely mimic God's design in history than that they do not live as faithful Christians."(FN28)
The most recent and capacious consideration of the Pentecostal parody at the end of the tale allows for slightly broader but still limited range of satire: "I think the parody also invites, by its audacious fusion of the spiritual and the scatological, reflection on the art of representing Pentecost itself."(FN29) Olson here confines the satire to medieval visual representation of the Pentecost abjuring contemplation of the possibility of extension to the biblical image itself. His tentative, much-hedged-about suggestion is that the "Lollar" in the wind is really Chaucer (he takes no refuge in attribution to the Summoner), insisting "at the very least the final scene of The Summoner's Tale reminds us that the meaning of authoritative images is not controllable,"(FN30) which neatly gets Chaucer off the hook and allows the critic to avoid the postmodern sin of positivism.
It is worth noting that an element of the Tale as a whole text, not as a series of isolated iconographic emblems, is usually omitted from critical commentary, except by Linda Georgianna and Fiona Somerset.(FN31) What both draw attention to, to serve rather different theses, is that at the very end of the Tale Friar John's claim to authority has been rejected by the lord of the manor through the secular "ars-metrical" solution of the wheel. As Somerset notes, "the friar finds himself subject to a series of lay determinations that progressively accomplish a vernacular translation in the fullest sense: stage by stage they define his response as 'lewed', while endowing the 'lewed' churl's utterance [i.e., Thomas's] with ecclesiastical authority."(FN32) By siding with Thomas and resolving the problem through the application of the lay knowledge of the squire, rather than through appeals to theology or ecclesiastical dogma, the lord of the manor ends the tale on the supremacy of secular authority.(FN33) The narrative does not escape into some pious Christian assertion, and it is a long way away in composition from The Parson's Tale, that contested authorial escape clause.(FN34) Somerset goes on to assert that Chaucer has "translated" clerical authority even further than the Wycliffites, "right off the edge,"(FN35) and transferred clerical authority entirely to its lay challengers:
The lord, the lady, and ech man, save the frere, Seyde that Jankyn spak, in this matere, As wel 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 Summoner's Tale is, then, a much richer and more controversial work than most commentary has allowed. It begins as fraternal satire, but not of a personified stick figure; instead of False Seeming or one of Boccaccio's caricatures, we follow a rounded Friar John, socially smooth though corrupt in action, in a "realistically" realized world. He is revealed, but not by confessional monologue like the Pardoner, as the subject of Horatian rather than Juvenalian satiric comedy. With the stratagem of the "gift" of the fart, the narrative is transformed to the vigorous ribaldry of fabliau, the humor of the witty discomfiture of the exploitive cleric and the "biter-bit" motif. The subsequent events fulfil the typical double-climax structure of fabliau and satire in Chaucer and Boccaccio with here the unique feature of the would-be "biter" being "bit" twice. And, as in most fabliaux, we end on laughter and, notably, in the social secular world, as in all of Chaucer's fabliaux, not in the pious ending of exemplum. In addition, partially integrated with the theme of antifraternal satire and also with the fabliau world of violating taboos, we have outrageous, blasphemous parodies or burlesques of crucial biblical events that both satirize friars and put into skeptical play some of the foundations of ecclesiastical claims to temporal and spiritual authority. Only an ostrich, or someone dedicated to the proposition that the "literal" has to be completely discarded in pursuit of the "truth," could fail to see that the parodies of Moses's vision of God and of the descent of the Holy Spirit are clearly blasphemous. Of course, all this is in the voice of the Summoner -- though most critics since the 1960s agree that the matter goes well beyond the capacities of the supposed teller. Though Chaucer, a court official who survived three rulers with his head intact and his pensions paid, has technically protected himself, like his mentor Boccaccio, by devolving responsibility for the text to layers of accountability -- the Summoner, the narrator, and finally his own disclaimer and the suitably tidy Parson's Tale -- it is extraordinarily na"ive to divorce the narrative completely from its creator. Chaucer created the Summoner and gave him this tale with its blasphemous parodies; it was not produced entirely by a Derridian machine of literary-cultural production. To the questions, not put by the exegetical commentators or cultural historians, "Is Chaucer subverting the apostolic claims of the Church, not just corrupt friars?" and "Is the Summoner Chaucer's little boy who sees that the emperor has no clothes?", there can be no decisive answer given the author and the period. But we can be sure that this Tale, though it may "dissolve in humour," as Pearsall notes,(FN36) has gone considerably beyond the usual fabliau and satirical level of outraging sexual taboos to provocatively raise a potentially dangerous question about the foundations of ecclesiastical claims to "authority" -- a question that is not confined to theology, but directly relates to biblical narrative.
John Finlayson Cambridge, England
1 Alan Levitan, "The Parody of Pentecost in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale," University of Toronto Quarterly 40 (1971): 236-46.
2 Perm R. Szittya, "The Friar as False Apostle: Antifraternal Exegesis and The Summoner's Tale," Studies in Philology 71 (1974):19-46.
3 V. A. Kolve, "Chaucer's Wheel of False Religion: Theology and Obscenity in The Summoner's Tale," in The Center and Its Compass: Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor John Leyerle, ed. Robert A. Taylor et al., Studies in Medieval Culture 33 (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, 1993), 265-96.
4 Phillip Pulsiano, "The Twelve-Spoked Wheel of the Summoner's Tale," Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 382-89.
5 Glending Olson, "The End of The Summoner's Tale and the Uses of Pentecost," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 21 (1999): 209-45.
6 Ibid., 225, 235.
7 Ibid., 240-44.
8 Derek Pearsall, "The Canterbury Tales II: Comedy," in The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 140-41.
9 In Parody in the Middle Ages: The Latin Tradition, Martha Bayless argues that parody is very varied, but "rather than being restricted to a form of textual commentary, parody was pressed to the service of larger social issues" ( [Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996], 5). Her principal conclusion is that as humor and religion occur in a variety of configurations in medieval culture, it is the context of those configurations that controls the purpose of the parody. According to her reading, the subversion latent in humor can only be defused by unambiguously didactic aims. From this perspective, parody's supposed failure to subvert its model is generally untrue for the period, even of parodies of religious texts and institutions. See 186, 208, 211.
10 See my article, "Art and Morality in Chaucer's Friar's Tale and the Decameron," Neophilologus 89 (2005): 141-43.
11 Williams, "Chaucer and the Friars," Speculum 28 (1953): 499-513.
12 Chaucer's Romaunt of the Rose, in The Riverside Chancer, 3rd ed., gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 6364-81. All subsequent quotations from Chaucer are to this edition and will be cited parenthetically within the text.
13 See my article, "Chaucer's Shipman's Tale, Boccaccio, and the 'Civilizing' of Fabliau," Chaucer Review 36 (2002): 339, 342, 349.
14 Ibid., 337-38.
15 Ian Lancashire, "Moses, Elijah and the Back Parts of God: Satiric Scatology in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale," Mosaic 14, no. 3 (1981): 17-30.
16 "Cumque transibit gloria mea, ponam te in foramine petrae, et protegam: tottamque manum meam, et videbis posteria mea" (Vulgate, cited in Lancashire, "Moses, Elijah and the Back Parts of God," 29 n. 20).
17 Lancashire, "Moses, Elijah and the Back Parts of God," 19 n. 13.
18 Szittya, "The Friar as False Apostle," 23.
19 Fiona Somerset, "'As just as is a squyre': The Politics of 'Lewed Translacion' in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 21 (1999): 206.
21 Olson, "The End of the Summoner's Tale," 210-11.
22 See, for instance, Kolve's "Chaucer's Wheel of False Religion" and Pulsiano's "The Twelve-Spoked Wheel," 382.
23 Szittya, "The Friar as False Apostle," 27.
24 John V. Fleming, "The Antifraternalism of the Summoner's Tale," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 65 (1966): 688-700.
25 Jay Ruud, "'My Spirit Hath His Fostryng in the Bible': The Summoner's Tale and the Holy Spirit," in Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in "The Canterbury Tales," ed. Susanna Fein, David Raybin and Peter Braeger, Studies in Medieval Culture 29 (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, 1991), 141.
26 Szittya, "The Friar as False Apostle," 21 and 46.
27 Olson, "The End of the Summoner's Tale," 244.
28 Lancashire, "Moses, Elijah and the Back Parts of God," 28. Even the Bakhtinian approach of James Andreas absolves Chaucer from any "serious" questioning: "only the official form high Christian ritual and dogma have assumed has here been offended. The prank and its multiple parodies are perfectly consistent with the words of the Magnificat" ("'Newe Science' from 'Olde Bokes': A Bakhtinian Approach to the Summoner's Tale," Chaucer Review 25 : 148). A detailed rejection of the Bakhtinian approach may be found in Bayless, Parody in the Middle Ages, 178-91.
29 Olson, "The End of the Summoner's Tale," 240.
30 Ibid., 244.
31 Linda Georgianna, "Lords, Churls, and Friars: The Return of Social Order in The Summoner's Tale," in Rebels and Rivals, ed. Fein, Raybin, Braeger, 149-72, esp. n. 25; Somerset, "'As just as is a squyre,'" 204-6.
32 Somerset, "'As just as is a squyre,'" 204.
33 Georgianna, "Lords, Churls, and Friars," 169-70.
34 Though the Baldwin theory of the Parson's Tale as the moral key to the Canterbury Tales has been generally discarded (The Unity of the Canterbury Tales [Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955]), many commentators still allude to it as Chaucer's barely disguised voice. Others regard the Parson's "authority" as strictly limited. See my article, "The Satiric Mode and the Parson's Tale," Chaucer Review 6 (1971): 94-116; Helen Cooper, The Structure of the Canterbury Tales (London: Duckworth, 1983), 200-204; Benson, gen. ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 995; and Judith Ferster, "Chaucer's Parson and the 'Idiosyncracies of Fiction,'" in Closure in the Canterbury Tales: The Role of "The Parson's Tale," ed. David Raybin and Linda Holley (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University Press, 2000), 115-50.