1845 depiction of the Summoner by an anonymous artist.

"The Summoner's Tale" (Middle English: "The Sumpnours Tale") is a crudely humorous short story in verse from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It immediately follows "The Friar's Tale" and is a direct response to that story. The Friar's Tale is based around the character of a dishonest summoner.[1] "The Summoner's Tale" is based around the character of a dishonest, greedy and hypocritical friar.

The Friar who is the story's protagonist visits a sick man called Thomas who has shown him a great deal of generosity in the past. He hopes to receive another generous gift from Thomas. However, the gift which Thomas gives the Friar turns out to be a nasty surprise. What is worse for the Friar, before receiving the gift, he had promised to divide it equally among the other friars at his monastery, not realizing that he was about to receive something both unpleasant and intangible.



After having listened to "The Friar's Tale" about a corrupt summoner who is carried off to Hell by a demon, the Summoner is extremely angry. He agrees that friars know a lot about Hell, saying that friars and demons are never far apart.

Jensky kodex satan prodava odpustky

Early 16th century depiction of Satan from a Central European manuscript.

The Summoner goes on to describe a friar's vision of Hell. In a dream, a friar is taken to Hell by an angel. He sees a great many people from many different backgrounds suffering torment but does not see a single friar. He asks the angel if friars are so fortunate and so blessed that none of them ever go to Hell. The angel responds tells him that is far from the truth, there are thousands of friars in Hell but they are all hidden. He shows Satan to the friar and points out that the Devil has a broad tail which covers his bottom. The angel asks Satan to lift up his tail. When he does so, thousands of friars come out of the Devil's rear end, like bees coming out of a hive. They fly around Hell before going back where they came from. The friar wakes up, feeling troubled about the fate which awaits him and those of his kind.

As a conclusion to his prologue, the Summoner says that he hopes that none of his listeners will suffer such a horrible fate, with the exception of the Friar who told the previous tale.


In Holderness in Yorkshire, a wandering friar called Friar John preaches and begs.[2] He routinely promises to say masses to help release the souls of people's departed loved ones from Purgatory, in exchange for generous gifts of money, food and clothes. He travels with two assistants. The first assistant takes the donations of food and clothes and puts them in a sack. The second assistant writes down the names of the people who donated so that the appropriate masses can be said for their families. As soon as they have left the donors' homes, their names are erased and the prayers are never said.

One day, his two assistants having gone off on their own, Friar John goes to the home of Thomas, a man who has shown him a great deal of generosity in the past. Thomas has been very ill and confined to bed for several years. Friar John tells Thomas that he is only still alive because of the prayers that he and the other friars at his monastery have said for him. Thomas complains that his health has not improved in spite of giving a donation to every friar who came to see him. Friar John is shocked to hear that Thomas has been giving money to other friars, He tells Thomas that shows a lack of faith in Friar John and his monastery and no doubt explains why he has not recovered.

Medieval Priest, Friar, or Monk (1)

A medieval friar, 1861 illustration by Paul Mercuri.

Thomas' wife tells Friar John that Thomas has often been groaning with anger. Friar John reminds Thomas that anger is one of the Seven Deadly Sins and tells him several tales of anger and its terrible consequences. Thomas responds that he has already made a full confession of his sins to the priest but Friar John says that he should make a gift to the monastery as well. Thomas says that he will give a gift to Friar John but only if he promises to divide into equally with his fellow friars. Friar John puts his hand into Thomas' bed, where the gift is supposed to be hidden, at which point Thomas passes wind into Friar John's hand.

Friar John is furious. He leaves Thomas' house and goes to the manor of the local lord. The lord sees that Friar John is angry and asks the reason why. After Friar John tells him, the lord points out that Friar John's biggest problem is how to equally divide something made of air and sound which quickly disappears. Jankin, one of the lord's servants, says that he knows how the gas can be divided among Friar John and the other twelve friars from his monastery. He tells Friar John that he should get a large cartwheel with twelve spokes. Thomas should lie in the center of the wheel with Friar John standing next to him. The other twelve friars should lie at the end of each spoke. When Thomas passes wind again, the other twelve friars will receive an equal share of the smell. Since he did the most work in order to get the gift, Friar John will deservedly receive a greater share of the stink than the other twelve friars. Apart from Friar John, everyone present finds this very funny and Jankin is given new clothes as a reward for his wit.


The ninth and penultimate segment of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1972 Italian movie I Racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales) is based on "The Summoner's Tale" and its prologue.[3] In the film, "The Summoner's Tale" itself is reduced to Thomas telling the friar that he has a gift for him before breaking wind into his hand. This is followed by a longer section, inspired by the story's prologue, in which the same friar is taken on a lengthy tour of Hell.


  1. In medieval England, a summoner was someone who was tasked with informing people that they had to go to a church court to answer charges of immorality. In "The Friar's Tale", the Summoner is highly corrupt. He makes most of his living from bribes and often falsely tells people that they have been summoned to a church court simply to extort money or other property from them.
  2. Unlike monks, friars spend most of their time not in monasteries but in the wider community. They often travel around fairly large areas and rely on charitable donations for their living.
  3. Other segments of the film are based on the "General Prologue", "The Merchant's Tale", "The Friar's Tale", "The Cook's Tale", "The Miller's Tale", "The Wife of Bath's Prologue", "The Reeve's Tale" and "The Pardoner's Tale". The segment based on "The Summoner's Tale' and its prologue is followed by a brief epilogue which shows the pilgrims arriving in Canterbury and Geoffrey Chaucer completing the writing of The Canterbury Tales.

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