The main character in the story is a summoner, a person whose job it was to inform people that they had been ordered to appear before a church court to answer charges of immorality. The summoner in the tale is corrupt and earns the bulk of his living by taking bribes, often from people who have not really been summoned to appear before the court. The summoner ultimately pays for his crimes when he encounters a demon.
"The Friar's Tale" about a dishonest summoner is immediately followed by a direct response, "The Summoner's Tale", which is about a dishonest, greedy and hypocritical friar.
There is an archdeacon who is always happy to execute people who have been found guilty of witchcraft, adultery and other sexual offenses. He is also more than willing to accept fines from people who have been accused of lesser sins, making sure that they pay him before they are sent on to the bishop.
The archdeacon is aided by a summoner who orders people to appear before the church court. Many of the accused never go to court because the summoner accepts a fine from them instead, most of the money being kept by the summoner. He works with prostitutes, using them to set traps for their customers. The prostitute and her customer both appear to be arrested by the summoner but the woman is then released and the man is forced to pay a bribe to make sure that he does not have to go to court. The summoner does not hesitate to lie to people, telling them that completely false accusations have been brought against them, simply to extort more money.
One day, the summoner is riding out in search of someone whom he can trick into paying him a bribe, when he meets a stranger dressed in greeen with hat trimmed in black. The stranger says that he has come from far away and that he is a debt collector. The summoner (because summoner was an even more despised profession than debt collector in medieval England) says that he is a debt collector too. The two agree that they should treat each other as brothers and help each other. When the summoner asks the stranger to tell him more about himself, the stranger reveals that he is really a demon and that he has come to collect things which are due to the Devil. The summoner does not appear to be greatly troubled by the revealtion but instead asks more questions about the nature of demons and Hell. The demon tells the summoner that he will soon know more about Hell than either Virgil or Dante did.
The summoner and the demon see an old man whose cartwheel has stuck in mud. The old man curses the cart, its load of hay and the horses that pull it. The summoner asks why the demon does not take the things which the old man has given up to Hell. The demon replies that the old man did not mean it. Sure enough, soon afterwards, the cart is moving again and the old man blesses his horses.
The summoner arrives at the home of a poor old woman. He knows that the old woman is not guilty of any offense but thinks that he can extort some money out of her anyaway. He tells the woman that she has been summoned to appear before the church court. When the old woman replies that she is too old and too sick to make the journey there, he says that he will accept a fine of twelve pence instead. When she says that she does not have twelve pence, the summoner says that he will accept something else, as he did before when the woman was accused of adultery, suggesting her new frying pan as a substitute. The old woman replies that she was never unfaithful to her husband and adds:
- Unto the devil rough and black of hue
- Give I thy body and my pan also
The demon asks the old woman if she meant what she said. She replies that, unless the summoner apologizes, she stands firmly by what she said. The summoner replies that he will never apologize. Consequently, he and the old woman's frying pan are taken to Hell.
The Friar ends his tale by telling his listeners to avoid the wicked behavior of the summoner and thereby avoid the Devil's traps.
- Original Middle English text of "The Friar's Tale" on Wikisource.
- Middle English text of "The Friar's Tale" with an interlinear Modern English translation on the Harvard University website.
- Modern English translation on the Florida State University website.
- Public domain audiobook of "The Friar's Tale" on YouTube.