The Canterbury Tales: The Summoner

Elin Acuna & John Hawkins: Character Analysis

A summoner is someone the medieval church hires to call people before the ecclesiastical court for their spiritual crimes such as adultery or heresy.

Like many of the pilgrims, the Summoner's physical appearance is kind of cringe-inducing (General Prologue 642 - 646). His face is covered in sores and other countenance hapless atrocities that no ointment can heal (General Prologue 647 - 651) and his narrow eyes are covered by fierce, bushy eyebrows (General Prologue 643 - 645). He most likely got the facial issues like the suppurating blotches on his cheeks from being constantly obstinate and / or he deserved it. So hideous is his face, in fact, that children are afraid of it. (General Prologue 646) On top of that, the Summoner likes to consume smelly vegetables like onions, garlic, and leeks, so his breath is probably egregious. (General Prologue 652). With the Summoner, we do NOT have a case of an ugly exterior cloaking a beautiful soul. Instead, this guy is lecherous, dishonest, and generally unethical (General Prologue 654, 671 & 672, 683 & 684). He also drinks to excess, and when he's drunk he's very unpleasant to be around, yelling like he's "wood," or crazy, and trying to demonstrate his learning by spouting out the few words of Latin he knows (General Prologue 653 - 655). Like the Monk, the Summoner is disdainful of the church's teachings, brushing aside people's fear of excommunication with the knowledge that you can always pay a bribe to get out of it (General Prologue 673 - 680). And who do you think benefits the most from those bribes? Yeah, probably the Summoner himself. He is ever ready to forgo excommunicating a sinner if he is sure of a hefty bribe and proclaims that purse is the "archdeacon’s hell". This means that the punishment is to the sinner’s purse rather than to his soul. Beyond taking bribes, we also suspect the Summoner of seducing young girls and not only does he have them all in his confidence, but "ful prively a finch eek coude he pul" (General Prologue 654 [Old-English General Prologue]), an expression that can means to trick, but also to seduce a young girl.

With the Summoner's portrait we have a critique not only of his individual character, but also of the situation that has created him. Although the Summoner's conviction that one can avoid excommunication by paying a bribe is morally reprehensible, it may also have been true. Historians also think that summoners were not paid enough money by the church to really make a living; thus, they may have had to depend upon bribery to get by.

Chaucer reserves his maximum acrimony for the Summoner and the Pardoner (I'll let the group with the Pardoner explain him). The Summoner’s main function was to summon sinners before the ecclesiastical courts for justice. It is extremely ironic for a corrupt Summoner who is himself guilty of committing sins, to bring sinners to justice. His repulsive physical appearance is an indicator of his diseased soul. Chaucer strongly condemns the Summoner’s acceptance of bribes and the philosophy that the purse is the archdeacon’s hell, which implies that the only punishment is to the purse of the sinner. There is a consistent strain of moral disgust, outrage and loathing throughout the Summoner’s portrait. The Canterbury Tales thus constitutes a passionate attack on the decadence and corruption of the medieval church. Chaucer exposes the evils attacking the very root of Christianity. Chaucer’s portrait of the ideal Parson, indicates his desire for reform and revitalize Christianity.

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