8. THE FRIAR’S TALE
Although this worthy limiter, the Friar, 1265
Had all the while been glowering with ire
At the Summoner, to this juncture he
Had said naught to him for propriety.
But finally the Friar said to the Wife,
“My lady, God give you a right good life! 1270
For I must tell you, here you’ve come to touch
On weighty questions scholars argue much.
You’ve said a lot and very well, I say.
But as we’re riding here, dame, on our way,
We need to speak of nothing but in game; 1275
Let’s leave the authorities, in God’s name,
To preaching clerics and their studies too.
Now if this group would like, what I shall do
Is tell you of a summoner for game;
You know, pardie, that by the very name 1280
About a summoner there’s no good to say.
(May none among you take offense, I pray.)
A summoner is one who runs around
With writs for fornication where it’s found,
And gets a beating at each village side.” 1285
“Ah, sir, you should be kind,” our Host replied,
“And courteous, considering your station.
Here in this group we’ll have no altercation;
Tell your tale and let the Summoner be.”
“No,” said the Summoner, “let him say to me 1290
What he may please. When it’s my turn I’ll note
And pay him back, by God, for every groat.
I’ll tell him how so great an honor, sir,
It is to be a flattering limiter;
I’ll also tell of many another crime 1295
That needn’t be recounted at this time.
About his job for sure I’ll tell him much.”
Our Host said, “Hold your peace! No more of such!”
And to the Friar after that he said,
“Now with your tale, dear master, go ahead.” 1300
The Friar’s Tale
In my part of the land there used to be
An archdeacon, a man of high degree,
Who’d execute with bold determination
The punishment for acts of fornication,
Of pandering, also of sorcery, 1305
Of defamation and adultery,
Of errant churchmen, of false testaments
And contracts and of lack of sacraments,
Of usury and simony also.
To lechers, though, for sure the greatest woe 1310
He dealt, they’d have to sing when they were caught.
Small tithers, too, to foulest shame he brought
If any parson made complaint of them.
No sort of fine was overlooked by him.
For meager tithe, for too small offering, 1315
He made the people piteously to sing.
Before the bishop caught them with his hook,
Their names were down in this archdeacon’s book.
So he possessed by way of jurisdiction
The power to correct them with affliction. 1320
He had a summoner ready at hand,
No slyer boy in England, for a band
Of spies the fellow craftily maintained
To let him know where something might be gained.
One lecher he’d abide, or two or more, 1325
If they could lead the way to twenty-four.
This summoner was as mad as a hare,
Yet none of his rascality I’ll spare,
For we’re beyond the reach of his correction.
They’ve no rule over friars, no direction, 1330
Nor will they ever have their whole lives through–“
“By Peter! so are women of a stew,”
The Summoner exclaimed, “beyond our care!”
“Peace now! Misfortune to you, I declare!”
Then said our Host. “Now let him tell his tale. 1335
I pray, continue, though the Summoner rail,
And, my dear master, leave out nothing, sir.”
This false thief (said the Friar), this summoner,
Always had bawds at hand to do his stalking;
Like to the lure in England used in hawking, 1340
To him they brought all secrets they’d accrue;
The relationship they had was nothing new.
They were his agents, working on the sly,
And he was greatly profiting thereby
(His master didn’t always know the take). 1345
Without a legal summons many a rake
He’d summon, and, when threatened with Christ’s curse,
Each would be more than glad to fill his purse
And hold a feast, with lots of ale to swill.
As Judas had a little purse to fill 1350
And was a thief, that’s just what he was too;
His master got but half what he was due.
He was, if in my praise I’m not to skimp,
A thief, also a summoner and pimp.
And he had wenches in his retinue 1355
By whom–be it Sir Robert or Sir Hugh
Or any Jack or Ralph they lured to bed–
Into his ear all dutifully was said.
Each wench and he were of a single mind:
He’d fetch a summons (counterfeit in kind) 1360
To summon both offenders to the bench,
Then fleece the man while setting free the wench.
“My friend, I shall, for your sake,” he would say,
“Strike her out of the record all the way;
In this case there’s no need to be dismayed. 1365
I am your friend and I can be of aid.”
He knew for certain more on being bribed
Than in two years could ever be described.
No archer’s hound in all this world can tell
An injured from a healthy deer as well 1370
As knew this summoner a crafty lecher,
A paramour, or an adulterer;
For therein lay the bulk of what he earned,
And that’s where his intent was fully turned.
It so befell that on a certain day 1375
This summoner, forever after prey,
Rode out to summon some old widowed hag
Whom he could rob, false summons in his bag.
It happened that he saw before him ride
A carefree yeoman by a forest side. 1380
Bearing a bow, with arrows bright and keen,
This yeoman wore a short coat, colored green,
And had a black-fringed hat upon his head.
“Hail and well met, sir!” the summoner said.
“Welcome to you and every man who’s good! 1385
Where are you riding under this green wood?”
The yeoman asked. “Do you have far to go?”
The summoner replied by saying, “No,
Right here close by. The reason I have come
Is that I might collect a certain sum 1390
That’s overdue and to my lord is pledged.”
“You are a bailiff, then?” “Yes,” he alleged.
He didn’t dare to put himself to shame
With “I’m a summoner,” by the very name.
“Depardieux,” said the yeoman, “my dear brother, 1395
You are a bailiff and I am another.
As I’m a stranger in this region, pray
Let us become acquainted if we may
And be sworn brothers too if you agree.
My chest holds gold and silver; if it be 1400
That you should ever come into our shire,
All shall be yours, as much as you desire.”
“In faith,” the summoner said, “my thanks to you!”
At once their hands were joined, as the two
Swore to be brothers till their dying day. 1405
Then sociably they rode upon their way.
This summoner, as full of idle words
As full of venom are the butcher-birds,
And always asking this and that, said, “Tell
Me now, dear brother, where it is you dwell, 1410
If looking for you I should ever ride.”
To which the yeoman quietly replied:
“In the north country, brother, far away,
And I shall hope to see you there someday.
Before we part, I’ll tell you in detail 1415
About my house, you’ll know it without fail.”
“Now, brother,” said the summoner, “I pray,
Teach to me, as we’re riding on our way
(Since you’re a bailiff just the same as me),
Some craftiness, instruct me faithfully 1420
How in my office I the most may win;
And do not spare for conscience or for sin,
But as a brother tell me what you do.”
“Dear brother,” he replied, “I swear to you
That I shall tell a truthful tale. Too small 1425
Have been my wages, not enough at all;
My lord is hard, he’s difficult to please,
My office is but labor without ease,
And so it’s by extortion that I live.
It’s true, for I take all that men will give. 1430
Each year by sleight if not by violence
I take in all I need for my expense,
And that’s the truth as best I know to tell.”
The summoner said, “That’s what I do as well.
God knows, I won’t spare anything they’ve got 1435
Unless it be too heavy or too hot.
What I can get, however stealthily,
On that no bit of conscience bothers me;
But for extortion I’d not be alive,
And for such ruses never will I shrive, 1440
No bleeding heart or conscience have I got.
As for father-confessors, curse the lot.
How good, by God and by Saint James, that we
Have met! Dear brother, tell your name to me,”
The summoner said. This yeoman all the while 1445
Had growing on his face a little smile.
“Brother,” he said, “your wish is that I tell?
I am a fiend, my dwelling is in hell.
And here I ride about soliciting
To see if men will give me anything. 1450
What I pick up is what I earn, the sum.
And see how for the same intent you’ve come:
To profit well, not ever caring how.
I do the same, for I would ride right now
To this world’s end if there I’d find some prey.” 1455
“Ah, benedicite! what’s that you say?”
The summoner said. “I truly figured you
A yeoman. You’ve a man’s shape as I do.
Do you have a definite form as well
When you are back in Hades where you dwell?” 1460
“No, surely not,” said he, “there we have none.
But when it pleases us, we take us one
(Or make it seem to you we have a shape),
Sometimes one like a man, sometimes an ape,
Or like an angel I can walk or ride. 1465
It is no wonder, this which I confide;
A lousy juggler fools you, and, pardie,
My craft is more than his will ever be.”
The summoner asked, “Why is your wandering done
In many shapes and not always in one?” 1470
He answered, “We take on such shapes as may
Allow us best to capture all our prey.”
“What makes you go to all this labor, though?”
“Dear summoner, the reasons why it’s so
Are many,” said the fiend. “But all in time; 1475
The day is short, it’s after nine, and I’m
Still looking for my first gain of the day.
My aim’s to get some earnings, if I may,
And not to give away all that’s at hand.
You wouldn’t have the wits to understand, 1480
Brother of mine, were I to let you know.
But as you ask me why we labor so,
We sometimes serve as God’s own instruments,
The means by which his will he implements
When he desires, in dealing with his creatures, 1485
In diverse ways with divers forms and features.
Without him we’ve no might, of that no doubt,
When he opposes what we’d bring about.
At our request we sometimes have a leave
Only the body, not the soul, to grieve, 1490
As witness Job, how we tormented him.
Sometimes we’ve power over both of them
(That is to say, body and soul as well),
And sometimes we have leave to come from hell
To bring to someone’s soul alone unrest, 1495
Not to the body. All is for the best.
Whenever one withstands all our temptation,
That stand becomes a cause for his salvation,
Although it isn’t our intent or thought
That he be saved–we’d rather he be caught. 1500
We’re servants, too, of man; as an example
The archbishop Saint Dunstan should be ample.
To the apostles I was servant too.”
“Yet tell me,” said the summoner, “if true:
Do you make your new bodies always so, 1505
Out of the elements?” The fiend said, “No,
Sometimes it’s only some form of disguise;
Dead bodies we may enter that arise
To speak with all the reason and as well
As to the Endor witch spoke Samuel. 1510
(And yet some men will say it wasn’t he;
I have no use for your theology.)
But I’ll warn you of this, I do not jape:
You’ll know in any case our form and shape,
For later, my dear brother, you will be 1515
Where you will have no need to learn from me;
Experience shall give you your own chair
To lecture better on this whole affair
Than Virgil did right up until he died,
Or Dante too. Now quickly let us ride, 1520
For gladly I will keep you company
Until the time you’d be forsaking me.”
“No, that won’t be!” the summoner replied.
“I am a yeoman, known both far and wide;
I’ll always keep my word, as I do now. 1525
Were you the devil Satan, yet my vow
I’d keep that I have made to you my brother;
For we have sworn, each of us to the other,
To be true brothers, that’s the sworn condition
As we both go about our acquisition. 1530
So take your part of what to you they give
And I’ll take mine, that both of us may live;
And if one of us has more than the other,
Let him be true and share it with his brother.”
“I grant it, by my faith,” the devil said. 1535
And with that word upon their way they sped.
Just as they reached the town that on his ride
Had been the summoner’s object, they espied
A cart on which there was a load of hay.
The carter strove to drive it on its way 1540
But it was bogged too deeply in the mire;
He lashed, cried like a madman in his ire,
“Hie, Brock! Hie, Scot! You’re stymied by the stones?
The fiend fetch you,” he said, “body and bones,
As certainly as ever you were foaled, 1545
For all you’ve made me suffer, woe untold!
The devil take all–horses, cart, and hay!”
The summoner said, “Here we’ll have some play.”
He neared the fiend, casual to appear,
And privately he whispered in his ear: 1550
“My brother, listen, by your faith! Hear what
The carter has to say? Take what he’s got,
Seize it at once, he’s given it to you–
Both cart and hay, and his three horses too.”
“No,” said the fiend, “God knows, in no event. 1555
For trust me well, that wasn’t his intent.
Ask him yourself, if you are doubting me,
Or wait but for a while and you will see.”
The carter whacked his horses’ rumps, and all
Forward began, with that, to lean and haul. 1560
“Hie now!” said he. “By Jesus be you blest,
You and his handiwork, from least to best!
That was a hardy pull, my dappled boy!
I pray you’re saved by God and by Saint Loy!
Out of the slough, pardie, my cart’s been led!” 1565
“See, brother,” said the devil, “what I said?
You are a witness to the fact, dear brother,
The fellow said one thing but thought another.
Let’s carry on our journey as we rode,
For there is nothing here that I am owed.” 1570
When they had gone a short way out of town,
The summoner informed him, voice down,
“Here, brother, dwells a crone, a whining fiddle,
Who’d rather lose her neck than give a little,
A single penny, of her goods. I’ll gain 1575
Twelve pence at least, although she go insane,
Or have her summoned–though, God knows, admitted,
I don’t know of one wrong that she’s committed.
But since here in this land you fail to earn
Enough for your expense, watch me and learn.” 1580
The summoner knocked at the widow’s gate.
“Come out, old hag,” he said, “don’t make me wait!
Some friar or priest is with you, I would say.”
“Who knocks?” the wife asked. “Benedicite!
God save you, dear sir, what is your kind will?” 1585
The summoner replied, “I’ve here a bill
Of summons. See tomorrow that you be,
On pain of curse, at the archdeacon’s knee
To answer to the court for certain things.”
“Now, Lord,” said she, “Christ Jesus, King of kings, 1590
In wisdom help me, I’m in such a way.
For I’ve been sick, and that for many a day;
I cannot go so far,” she said, “or ride
Or I’ll be dead, such pain is in my side.
May I not ask a copy, sir, that I 1595
Might send someone in my name to reply
To what it is they bring accusing me?”
“Yes,” said the summoner, “pay now–let’s see–
Twelve pence to me, and you I shall acquit.
My profit from it’s just a little bit; 1600
My master gets the most, it isn’t me.
Come bring it now, let me ride hastily.
Give me twelve pence, I may no longer tarry.”
“Twelve pence!” she said. “Dear Lady now, Saint Mary,
In wisdom lead me out of care and sin! 1605
Although this whole wide world were I to win,
I’d not have twelve pence in my whole household.
You’re well aware that I am poor and old;
For this poor wretch please show some charity.”
“No, may the fiend come fetch me,” answered he, 1610
“If I’ll excuse you, though you up and die!”
“Alas!” she said, “no guilt, God knows, have I.”
“Pay me,” said he, “or by the sweet Saint Anne,
I’ll take away with me your brand-new pan
For debt you’ve owed me for so long a time. 1615
When you made your husband a cuckold, I’m
The one who paid the fine, your penalty.”
“You lie, by my salvation!” then said she.
“For never I as widow or as wife
Was summoned to your court in all my life, 1620
And never with my body was untrue.
Now may the devil, black, rough-hided too,
Take both your body and that pan from me!”
And when the devil heard her curse as she
Was kneeling there, he spoke as you shall hear: 1625
“Now tell me, Mabel, my own mother dear,
Is this your real desire, what you have said?”
She said, “The devil fetch him ere he’s dead,
And pan and all, if he does not repent!”
“No, you old cow, it isn’t my intent,” 1630
The summoner said, “to have regret or rue
About whatever I may get from you.
Would that your old chemise, each thread, I had!”
“Now, brother,” said the devil, “don’t be mad;
Your body and this pan are mine by right. 1635
To hell is where you’ll go with me tonight,
Where you’ll be more into our privity
Than any master of divinity.”
This foul fiend grabbed him, no more words were spent;
Body and soul he with the devil went 1640
To where their due these summoners all find.
May God, who in his image made mankind,
Now be our guide and save us, all and some,
And grant these summoners good men become!
My lords, I could have told you (said the Friar), 1645
Had I the leisure now, about the fire
As spoken of by Christ, by Paul and John
And other holy doctors, many a one;
About such pains your hearts would really shudder,
Though they are worse than any tongue may utter, 1650
Were I to have a thousand years to tell
The pains down in that cursed house of hell.
But to protect us from that cursed place,
Be watchful, and pray Jesus by his grace
Keep us from Satan, from temptation’s snare. 1655
Heed this word and example, and beware:
“The lion ever sits in wait, to slay
The innocent by any means he may.”
Have your hearts ever ready to elude
The devil, lest he bind in servitude. 1660
He may not tempt you, lords, beyond your might,
For Christ will be your champion and knight.
And pray these summoners of all they’ve wrought
Repent, ere by the devil they are caught!