The Friar’s Tale


Once on a time there dwelt in my country
An archdeacon, a man of high degree,
Who boldly executed the Church’s frown
In punishment of fornication known,
And of witchcraft and of all known bawdry,
And defamation and adultery
Of church-wardens, and of fake testaments
And contracts, and the lack of sacraments,
And still of many another kind of crime
Which need not be recounted at this time,
And usury and simony also.
But unto lechers gave he greatest woe;
They should lament if they were apprehended;
And payers of short tithes to shame descended.
If anyone informed of such, ’twas plain
He’d not escape pecuniary pain.
For all short tithes and for small offering
He made folk pitifully to howl and sing.
For ere the bishop caught them with his crook,
They were already in the archdeacon’s book.
Then had he, by his competent jurisdiction,
Power to punish them by such infliction.
He had a summoner ready to his hand,
A slyer rogue was not in all England;
For cunningly he’d espionage to trail
And bring reports of all that might avail.
He could protect of lechers one or two
To learn of four and twenty more, mark you.
For though this man were wild as is a hare,
To tell his evil deeds I will not spare;
For we are out of his reach of infliction;
They have of us no competent jurisdiction,
Nor ever shall for term of all their lives.
“Peter! So are the women of the dives,”
The summoner said, “likewise beyond my cure!”
“Peace, with mischance and with misadventure!”
Thus spoke our host, “and let him tell his tale.
Now tell it on, despite the summoner’s wail,
Nor spare in anything, my master dear.”
This false thief, then, this summoner (said the friar)
Had always panders ready to his hand,
For any hawk to lure in all England,
Who told him all the scandal that they knew;
For their acquaintances were nothing new.
They were all his informers privily;
And he took to himself great gain thereby;
His master knew not how his profits ran.
Without an order, and an ignorant man,
Yet would he summon, on pain of Christ’s curse,
Those who were glad enough to fill his purse
And feast him greatly at the taverns all.
And just as Judas had his purses small
And was a thief, just such a thief was he.
His master got but half of every fee.
He was, if I’m to give him proper laud,
A thief, and more, a summoner, and a bawd.
He’d even wenches in his retinue,
And whether ’twere Sir Robert, or Sir Hugh,
Or Jack, or Ralph, or whosoever ’twere
That lay with them, they told it in his ear;
Thus were the wench and he in partnership.
And he would forge a summons from his scrip,
And summon to the chapter-house those two
And fleece the man and let the harlot go.
Then would he say: “My friend, and for your sake,
Her name from our blacklist will I now take;
Trouble no more for what this may entail;
I am your friend in all where ’twill avail.”
He knew more ways to fleece and blackmail you
Than could be told in one year or in two.
For in this world’s no dog trained to the bow
That can a hurt deer from a sound one know
Better than this man knew a sly lecher,
Or fornicator, or adulterer.
And since this was the fruit of all his rent,
Therefore on it he fixed his whole intent.
And so befell that once upon a day
This summoner, ever lurking for his prey,
Rode out to summon a widow, an old rip,
Feigning a cause, for her he planned to strip.
It happened that he saw before him ride
A yeoman gay along a forest’s side.
A bow he bore, and arrows bright and keen;
He wore a short coat of the Lincoln green,
And hat upon his head, with fringes black.
“Sir,” said the summoner, “hail and well met, Jack!”
“Welcome,” said he, “and every comrade good!
Whither do you ride under this greenwood?”
Said this yeoman, “Will you go far today?”
This summoner replied to him with: “Nay,
Hard by this place,” said he, “’tis my intent
To ride, sir, to collect a bit of rent
Pertaining to my lord’s temporality.”
“And are you then a bailiff?”
“Aye,” said he.
He dared not, no, for very filth and shame,
Say that he was a summoner, for the name.
“In God’s name,” said this yeoman then, “dear brother,
You are a bailiff and I am another.
I am a stranger in these parts, you see;
Of your acquaintance I’d be glad,” said he,
“And of your brotherhood, if ’tis welcome.
I’ve gold and silver in my chest at home.
And if you chance to come into our shire,
All shall be yours, just as you may desire.”
“Many thanks,” said this summoner, “by my faith!”
And they struck hands and made their solemn oath
To be sworn brothers till their dying day.
Gossiping then they rode upon their way.
This summoner, who was as full of words
As full of malice are these butcher birds,
And ever enquiring after everything,
“Brother,” asked he, “where now is your dwelling,
If some day I should wish your side to reach?”
This yeoman answered him in gentle speech,
“Brother,” said he, “far in the north country,
Where, as I hope, some day you’ll come to me.
Before we part I will direct you so
You’ll never miss it when that way you go.”
“Now, brother,” said this summoner, “I pray
You’ll teach me, while we ride along our way,
Since that you are a bailiff, as am I,
A trick or two, and tell me faithfully
How, in my office, I may most coin win;
And spare not for nice conscience, nor for sin,
But as my brother tell your arts to me.”
“Now by my truth, dear brother,” then said he,
If I am to relate a faithful tale,
My wages are right scanty, and but small.
My lord is harsh to me and niggardly,
My job is most laborious, you see;
And therefore by extortion do I live.
Forsooth, I take all that these men will give;
By any means, by trick or violence,
From year to year I win me my expense.
I can no better tell you faithfully.”
“Now truly,” said this summoner, “so do I.
I never spare to take a thing, God wot,
Unless it be too heavy or too hot.
What I get for myself, and privately,
No kind of conscience for such things have I.
But for extortion, I could not well live,
Nor of such japes will I confession give.
Stomach nor any conscience have I, none;
A curse on father-confessors, every one.
Well are we met, by God and by Saint James!
But, my dear brother, tell your name or names.”
Thus said the summoner, and in meanwhile
The yeoman just a little began to smile.
“Brother,” said he, “and will you that I tell?
I am a fiend, my dwelling is in Hell.
But here I ride about in hope of gain
And that some little gift I may obtain.
My only income is what so is sent.
I see you ride with much the same intent
To win some wealth, you never care just how;
Even so do I, for I would ride, right now,
Unto the world’s end, all to get my prey.”
“Ah,” cried he, “ben’cite! What do you say?
I took you for a yeoman certainly.
You have a human shape as well as I;
Have you a figure then determinate
In Hell, where you are in your proper state?”
“Nay,” said he, “there of figure we have none;
But when it pleases us we can take one,
Or else we make you think we have a shape,
Sometimes like man, or sometimes like an ape;
Or like an angel can I seem, you know.
It is no wondrous thing that this is so;
A lousy juggler can deceive, you see,
And by gad, I have yet more craft than he.”
“Why,” asked the summoner, “ride you then, or go,
In sundry shapes, and not in one, you know?”
“Because,” said he, “we will such figures make
As render likely that our prey we’ll take.”
“What causes you to have all this labour?”
“Full many a cause, my dear sir summoner,”
Replied the fiend, “but each thing has its time.
The day is short, and it is now past prime,
And yet have I won not a thing this day.
I will attend to winning, if I may,
And not our different notions to declare.
For, brother mine, your wits are all too bare
To understand, though I told mine fully.
But since you ask me why thus labour we-
Well, sometimes we are God’s own instruments
And means to do His orders and intents,
When so He pleases, upon all His creatures,
In divers ways and shapes, and divers features.
Without Him we’ve no power, ’tis certain,
If He be pleased to stand against our train.
And sometimes, at our instance, have we leave
Only the body, not the soul, to grieve;
As witness job, to whom we gave such woe.
And sometimes have we power of both, you know,
That is to say, of soul and body too.
And sometimes we’re allowed to search and do
That to a man which gives his soul unrest,
And not his body, and all is for the best.
And when one does withstand all our temptation,
It is the thing that gives his soul salvation;
Albeit that it was not our intent
He should be saved; we’d have him impotent.
And sometimes we are servants unto man,
As to that old archbishop, Saint Dunstan,
And to the apostles servant once was I.”
“Yet tell me,” said the summoner, “faithfully,
Make you yourselves new bodies thus alway
Of elements?”
The fiend replied thus: “Nay.
Sometimes we feign them, sometimes we arise
In bodies that are dead, in sundry wise,
And speak as reasonably and fair and well
As to the witch at En-dor Samuel.
And yet some men maintain it was not he;
I do not care for your theology.
But of one thing I warn, nor will I jape,
You shall in all ways learn our proper shape;
You shall hereafter come, my brother dear,
Where you’ll not need to ask of me, as here.
For you shall, of your own experience,
In a red chair have much more evidence
Than Virgil ever did while yet alive,
Or ever Dante; now let’s swiftly drive.
For I will hold with you my company
Till it shall come to pass you part from me.”
“Nay,” said the other, “that shall not betide;
“I am a bailiff, known both far and wide;
My promise will I keep in this one case.
For though you were the devil Sathanas,
My troth will I preserve to my dear brother,
As I have sworn, and each of us to other,
That we will be true brothers in this case;
And let us both about our business pace.
Take your own part, of what men will you give,
And I will mine; and thus may we both live.
And if that either of us gets more than other,
Let him be true and share it with his brother.”
“Agreed, then,” said the devil, “by my fay.”
And with that word they rode upon their way.
As they drew near the town- it happened so-
To which this summoner had planned to go,
They saw a cart that loaded was with hay,
The which a carter drove along the way.
Deep was the mire; for which the cart now stood.
The carter whipped and cried as madman would,
“Hi, Badger, Scot! What care you for the stones?
The Fiend,” he cried, “take body of you and bones,
As utterly as ever you were foaled!
More trouble you’ve caused me than can be told!
Devil take all, the horses, cart, and hay!”
This summoner thought, “Here shall be played a play.”
And near the fiend he drew, as naught were there,
And unobserved he whispered in his ear:
“Listen, my brother, listen, by your faith;
Hear you not what the carter says in wrath?
Take all, at once, for he has given you
Both hay and cart, and this three horses too.”
“Nay,” said the devil, “God knows, never a bit.
It is not his intention, trust to it.
Ask him yourself, if you believe not me,
Or else withhold a while, and you shall see.”
This carter stroked his nags upon the croup,
And they began in collars low to stoop.
“Hi now!” cried he, “May Jesus Christ you bless
And all His creatures, greater, aye and less!
That was well pulled, old horse, my own grey boy!
I pray God save you, and good Saint Eloy!
Now is my cart out of the slough, by gad!”
“Lo, brother,” said the fiend, “what said I, lad?
Here may you see, my very own dear brother,
The peasant said one thing, but thought another.
Let us go forth upon our travellers’ way;
Here win I nothing I can take today.”
When they had come a little out of town,
This summoner whispered, to his brother drawn,
“Brother,” said he, “here lives an ancient crone
Who’d quite as gladly lose her neck as own
She must give up a penny, good or bad.
But I’ll have twelvepence, though it drive her mad
Or I will summon her to our office;
And yet God knows I know of her no vice.
But since you cannot, in this strange country,
Make your expenses, here take note of me.”
This summoner knocked on the widow’s gate.
“Come out,” cried he, “you old she-reprobate!
I think you’ve got some friar or priest there, eh?”
“Who knocks then?” said the widow. “Ben’cite!
God save you, master, what is your sweet will?”
“I have,” said he, “a summons here, a bill;
On pain of excommunication be
Tomorrow morn at the archdeacon’s knee
To answer to the court for certain things.”
“Now, lord,” said she, “Christ Jesus, King of kings,
So truly keep me as I cannot; nay,
I have been sick, and that for many a day.
I cannot walk so far,” said she, “nor ride,
Save I were dead, such aches are in my side.
Will you not give a writ, sir summoner,
And let my proctor for me there appear
To meet this charge, whatever it may be?”
“Yes,” said this summoner, “pay anon- let’s see-
Twelvepence to me, and I’ll have you acquitted.
Small profit there for me, be it admitted;
My master gets the profit, and not I.
Come then, and let me ride on, speedily;
Give me twelvepence, I may no longer tarry.”
“Twelvepence!” cried she, “Our Lady Holy Mary
So truly keep me out of care and sin,
And though thereby I should the wide world win,
I have not twelvepence in my house all told.
You know right well that I am poor and old;
Show mercy unto me, a poor old wretch!”
“Nay, then,” said he, “the foul Fiend may me fetch
If I excuse you, though your life be spilt!”
“Alas!” cried she, “God knows I have no guilt!”
“Pay me,” he cried, “or by the sweet Saint Anne
I’ll take away with me your brand-new pan
For debt that you have owed to me of old,
When you did make your husband a cuckold;
I paid at home that fine to save citation.”
“You lie,” she cried then, “by my own salvation!
Never was I, till now, widow or wife,
Summoned unto your court in all my life;
Nor ever of my body was I untrue!
Unto the Devil rough and black of hue
Give I your body and my pan also!”
And when the devil heard her cursing so
Upon her knees, he said to her just here:
“Now, Mabely, my own old mother dear,
Is this your will, in earnest, that you say?”
“The Devil,” said she, “take him alive today,
And pan and all, unless he will repent!”
“Nay, you old heifer, it’s not my intent,”
The summoner said, “for pardon now to sue
Because of aught that I have had from you;
I would I had your smock and all your clo’es.”
“Nay, brother,” said the devil, “easy goes;
Your body and this pan are mine by right.
And you shall come to Hell with me tonight,
Where you shall learn more of our privity
Than any doctor of divinity.”
And with that word this foul fiend to him bent;
Body and soul he with the devil went
Where summoners have their rightful heritage.
And God, Who made after His own image
Mankind, now save and guide us, all and some;
And grant that summoners good men become!
Masters, I could have told you, said this friar,
Were I not pestered by this summoner dire,
After the texts of Christ and Paul and John,
And of our other doctors, many a one,
Such torments that your hearts would shake with dread,
Albeit by no tongue can half be said,
Although I might a thousand winters tell,
Of pains in that same cursed house of Hell.
But all to keep us from that horrid place,
Watch, and pray Jesus for His holy grace,
And so reject the tempter Sathanas.
Hearken this word, be warned by this one case;
The lion lies in wait by night and day
To slay the innocent, if he but may.
Dispose your hearts in grace, that you withstand
The Fiend, who’d make you thrall among his band.
He cannot tempt more than beyond your might;
For Christ will be your champion and knight.
And pray that all these summoners repent
Of their misdeeds, before the Fiend torment.

Dan Moorhouse

Dan Moorhouse graduated in History and Politics and has since undertaken postgraduate studies in Medieval History and Education. Dan is a member of the Royal Historical Society and has previously been a member of the Historical Association’s Secondary Education Committee. Dan’s early publishing was in the Secondary School History Education field. This included co-authoring the Becta Award shortlisted Dynamic Learning: Medicine Through Time series for Hodder Murray and contributing to the Bafta Award winning Smallpox Through Time documentary series by A former teacher, Dan now concentrates on research and writing, predominantly in Medieval English history. Books by Dan Moorhouse On this day in the Wars of the Roses On this day in the Hundred Years War

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