Lordynges, ther is in Yorkshire, as I gesse – Ladies and gentlemen, there is in Yorkshire, I think, a flat and marshy district called Holderness where a mendicant friar had his patch and went about spreading the gospel, and begging as well I have no doubt. It happened once that this friar had just preached in a church and had tried to stir and cajole the congregation into recognising the importance of conducting religious services for the souls of the dead. He stressed the importance of giving money, not to support clergymen who already live in some comfort, thank God – and where it will be wasted, he thought, and is not needed – but so that churches and chapels could be built for the express purpose of singing Masses in order to alleviate the suffering of souls in purgatory and to speed their progress towards Eternal Bliss.
‘Trentals,’ he said – for this is what these services are called – ‘lessen the suffering of those who were once your friends, the old as well as the young, when they are sung conscientiously and with speed. With all due respect, a priest only performs one Mass a day. Let the souls escape their suffering! It is hard to endure the assault of flesh hooks and drills! It is terrifying to be burnt and roasted! Give quickly, for Christ’s sake.’
When this friar had finished, he blessed the congregation and went away, when the people had given him all that they wanted to. He walked along the lanes without pause, with his begging satchel and his walking stick, prying and snooping into every house, begging for some cheese, a little flour or some bread. His brother friar had a walking stick tipped with horn, a pair of ivory tablets and a polished writing stylus and wrote down the names of everyone who gave, there and then, so that he could pray for them – he said.
‘Give us a bushel of wheat, malt or rye, a nice cake or a piece of cheese, or anything you like, it is up to you. A halfpenny or a Mass-penny, or some jellied pork, if you have any, or a small piece of woollen cloth, dear lady. Look, my brother is writing down your name – bacon or beef will do – or anything you can find.
A strong young servant boy always followed behind them both, carrying a sack on his back, and whatever they were given went into it. And as soon as they were out of the door, this other friar erased all the names he’d written on the wax; they’d just been bullshitting and taking the piss...
‘No, you're lying!’ exclaimed the friar.
‘Quiet! For Christ’s dear Mother!' shouted our host. 'Summoner, tell us your tale and don’t hold anything back.’
‘Don't you worry on that score! I don't intend to pull any punches,’ said the summoner. 'This friar went from house to house until he came to a place where he had received a great deal of support and generosity in the past, more than at a hundred other places. The man who lived in this house was lying ill inside, confined to his bed.
‘God be with you,’ greeted the friar, gently and courteously. ‘Thomas, how are you? May God reward you, for I’ve often received some fine things from this table of yours; I’ve eaten many a merry meal here!’ He shooed a cat away from the bench, laid his hat, staff and satchel down on it and then lowered himself down onto it as well. Meanwhile, his brother friar and their boy had gone off on foot towards the town, to the tavern where they intended to spend the night.
‘My dear Master,’ said the sick man. ‘How has it been with you since I last saw you at the beginning of March? I haven’t seen you for a fortnight or more.’
‘I have been hard at work,’ replied the friar, ‘and especially on your behalf, praying for your salvation; and for that of our other friends as well, God bless them all. I was at your own parish church today for Mass and gave a sermon, as far as my simple skills would allow. You won't hear me just repeating words from the Bible, though, for it is couched in allegory and requires exegesis, so I summarise and explain. Glosses are a wonderful thing. “A little knowledge is dangerous,” as we clerics say. I mean, incomplete understanding. I taught the congregation to be charitable and to spend their money where it will do the greatest good. I saw your wife there – ah, where is she?’
‘She’s outside in the yard, I think. She’ll be in soon.’
‘Hey! Master! You are welcome, by Saint John! How are you?’ asked his wife, entering the kitchen.
‘The friar got to his feet courteously, gave her a hug and made kissing sounds with his lips like a chirping sparrow as he displayed his affection.
‘Very well, my dear, from seeing you,’ he replied, ‘as might be expected from someone who is your servant in every way. God must be thanked for putting you on this Earth. I couldn’t see a prettier wife than you, anywhere in the church today.’
‘Yes, may God correct all our faults, Sir, you are always welcome.’
‘Thank you. I know that you mean it. But by your leave, and with your goodwill, I must ask that you don’t take it amiss if I speak with Thomas alone for a moment. These curates are not always as diligent as they might be when taking confession. I have studied the words of Saint Peter and Saint Paul and I am adept at trawling through a man’s soul in order to give Jesus Christ as many repentant sinners as possible, when the end comes. My only ambition is to spread his holy word.’
‘I’ll let you get on with it then. But if you don’t mind me saying so, give him some grief! By Saint Trinity, he’s as angry as an ant, although he wants for nothing. Although I cuddle up to him at night to keep him warm, and comfort him with my leg or an arm, all he does is squeal like the boar out in our pigsty. I know I have no hope of getting anything more than a cuddle! There’s no pleasing him.’
‘Oh Thomas, Thomas, this is the devil’s work and it must stop! Anger is a thing that God has forbidden and I shall have to say a few words to you about it in a moment.’
‘Before I go, Sir, what would you like to eat? I’ll prepare it now.’
‘Do you have a little chicken liver and a slither of your soft bread? After that, perhaps a roasted pig’s head – although for God’s sake don’t kill the animal for my sake. But then I would be replete with homely fare. I don’t need much to keep me going. My spirit finds most of its sustenance in the Bible. I am so used to long vigils and meditations that my stomach is quite destroyed. Please forgive me for taking you into my confidence like this. I don’t say it to everybody.
‘Just one other thing before I go. Sir, my child died a fortnight ago, soon after the last time you were here...’
‘I saw your little boy’s death in a vision, as I was in our dormitory,’ said the friar. ‘I dare say it was only half an hour after his passing away, when I saw his little soul carried up to heaven. So did our sexton and our brother who looks after the infirmary. They have each been respected friars for fifty years now and they are able to walk about alone, so generous is God’s grace. I got up, and so did the rest of us, and with the tears trickling down my cheeks, without any noise, or any bells ringing, we sang a Te Deum and I said a prayer to Christ in thanks for this marvellous vision.
‘And Madam, Sir, trust me when I tell you that our prayers carry more weight with God than those of other people. We see more clearly into his private truths than any common folk, or even kings. We live in poverty and abstinence while ordinary people live in wealth and in the consumption of food and drink and in the pleasures of the flesh. But we hold all bodily urges in contempt. Moneybags and Lazarus lived completely different lives, the one in great wealth and the other in great poverty, as Luke tells us in his gospel, and as a result of this they went to different places when they died. He who would pray to greatest effect must fast and be clean, keep his body thin and his soul correspondingly fat. We do as the Apostle instructed, our food and clothes are sufficient, although they are not of the best. It is because of this fasting and our cleanness that Christ listens to us more than to anybody else.
‘Didn’t Moses fast for forty days and forty nights in the mountains of Sinai before God would speak to him? With an empty stomach he received the laws that were written by the finger of God! Elijah as well, as you know, on Mount Horeb, before he had any discourse with God the Saviour, fasted and spent long nights in contemplation. Aaron, the high priest of the temple, and all the other priests – when they went into the temple to pray for the people and do service to God, did not drink anything which might make them intoxicated but lay in prayer and abstinence, for fear of death. Take heed of that! Unless those who pray for the people are sober, beware what I say; but no more. Enough. Jesus in the gospels gave us an example of prayer and fasting. Therefore we mendicants, we innocent friars, are wedded to poverty and moderation, to charity, humility and abstinence, to weeping, pity and cleanness, and to persecution for our true beliefs. And because of this you can see that our prayers – I mean the prayers of we mendicants, we friars – are more acceptable to God than are yours, with your feasts at the table.
'In all truth, man was first chased out of Paradise for the sin of gluttony, although he had been chaste when he was in there. But listen, Thomas – I can’t think of the exact words that our sweet Lord Jesus used, but to paraphrase, he had friars in mind when he said: “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit.” Look through all the four gospels and tell me whether there is more virtue in our pledge, or in that of those people who like to wallow in material wealth. I defy their ostentation and their overeating! For their coarseness, I defy them! They are like Jovinianus who argued against asceticism – as fat as a whale, waddling from side to side like a swan, as full of wine as a bottle in the cellar, their prayers are full of reverence when they recite the psalms of David for a man’s soul: 'The lord is my shepherd, I’ll want for nothing – burp!' Who else but we can be said to follow the true teachings of Christ? – we who have made a vow of poverty and don’t just listen to his words but follow them precisely.
'So therefore, Thomas, just as a hawk soars up into the air, so the prayers of we charitable, chaste and busy friars soar up to God’s own two ears. Thomas, by Saint Ives, if you weren’t one of our brethren, you would be in great peril. We pray day and night in our chapel for Christ to send you health and strength, so that you might get better as swiftly as possible.’
‘I wouldn’t have guessed it,’ replied Thomas. ‘A fat lot of good it seems to be doing me! Over the years I must have given pounds to friars of one persuasion or another, and I’ve never felt much benefit from it. I’ve spent almost everything I have. Farewell my gold! It’s all gone.’
‘Oh Thomas, other friars? Why have you done this? What need was there for you to seek other friars? Why should a man who has the best and most perfect physician seek out others in the town?
'Thomas, your inconstancy is the reason for this failure. Do you believe that my prayers and those of my brothers have been insufficient? Thomas, this joke isn’t funny at all. You’ve obviously spent your money in the wrong way – you haven’t given us enough. “Ah, give that convent half a quarter of oats. Ah, give that other convent eight shillings in silver. Give that friar a penny and then let him go away.” No, Thomas, it doesn’t work like that. What use is a farthing divided into twelve? Lo, things are always much stronger when they are whole than when they are broken up and scattered about. Thomas, I feel in no mood to complement you. You have tried to get our labour for nothing. God on high, who created this world, has said that a workman is worth his wages. Thomas, I have no desire for your money on my own account, but our entire convent is continually praying for you, and working to further Christ’s Church. The building of churches is necessary; if you are interested, you can read the life of Saint Thomas of India to see that this is the truth. You lie here, full of an anger which the devil must have ignited within you, and take it out on your poor, innocent, meek and patient wife. Thomas, believe me please, it’s best if you don’t argue like this with your wife. Carry this thought away with you, concerning this matter, lo! The words of the wise: “Don’t be a lion in your own house. Don’t oppress those over whom you have power. Don’t drive your friends away.” In addition, I would say to you Thomas: watch out for she who rests her head on your chest at night, and the snake that creeps through the long grass and strikes without warning. Beware, and listen patiently when I tell you that twenty thousand men have lost their lives through conflict with their wives.
'Since you have such a meek and loving wife, why do you give her grief? There is no snake, even when its tail is trodden on, that is as cruel and fierce as an angry woman. A woman will focus her mind utterly upon vengeance. Anger is one of the seven deadly sins, God finds it abominable; anger will often destroy a man. Every common individual, or untutored surrogate-rector even, will tell you that anger can lead to murder. Anger blindly carries out the foolish wishes of pride. I could say so much about it that I could be here until tomorrow morning. But I pray day and night that an angry man may find no strength in God. It is a foolish thing, and certainly one to be pitied, when an angry man is placed in a position of great power.
‘On this theme I could tell you that there was once an angry monarch, as Seneca tells us. During his reign, two knights rode out and as fortune had it, one of them returned and the other didn’t. The knight who had returned was hauled before the monarch. “You have killed your companion,' the monarch shouted, 'and I sentence you to death.” Then to another knight he said: “I order you to take him away and kill him.” But it chanced, as they were taking this knight to a place of execution, the other knight who was supposed to have been killed suddenly appeared, alive and well. They thought that the best course of action was to bring both these knights back before their lord so he could see them both for himself. They did so and said: “Lord, this knight can’t have killed his companion for here they both are, standing before you, in perfect health.”
‘The monarch replied: “I ordered you to kill him and he shall die! And so shall you, and you! All three of you,” and turning to the first knight, he said: “I sentenced you to death, so you must die.” Turning to the second knight: “Because you are going to be the cause of your companion’s death, I sentence you to be beheaded as well.” Then to the third knight: “You failed to carry out my command, for which the penalty is death.” So he had all three of them executed.
'Cambyses was a drunkard and delighted in doing bad things. He was an angry man. Once, one of his men, who loved virtue and morality, spoke to him in confidence and said: “A cruel and vicious lord will not last very long. Drunkenness is a dreadful thing to see in anybody and especially in a monarch. There can be many an ear and many an eye directed upon a ruler, whose close attention he may not have noticed. For God’s love, drink more moderately! Too much wine causes a man to lose all control over his limbs, and over his mind.”
‘Cambyses replied: “I shall prove to you exactly the reverse. Wine has none of these effects. No wine can deprive me of the use of my limbs, nor of my eyesight.” Then out of spite, he drank a hundred times more than he was used to doing, and straight away, this angry wretch had this knight’s son brought before him. Suddenly, he picked up his bow, loaded it, pulled the string up to his ear and killed the child with the arrow, there and then. “Is there anything wrong with my hands?” he asked. “Is there anything wrong with my eyesight? Has my mind ceased to function, or my strength gone?”
'What could the knight say? His son had just been killed in front of his very eyes. Beware, therefore, how you deal with monarchs. Sing Placebo if you can and I certainly shall, unless I am dealing with a poor man; a poor man should be made aware of his shortcomings but not a lord, even if he is destined for hell because of them.
'Lo! That angry Persian Cyrus destroyed the River Gyndes because, when he went to capture Babylon, one of his horses drowned in it. He made that river become so small that women could wade across it. What did an eminent wise man once say? “Don’t walk around with a lunatic and don't make friends with an angry man.”
'What more can I say Thomas? My dear friend, leave your anger behind and you will find me as reasonable as any man. Stop holding the devil’s knife to your heart. Your anger is hurting you. Confess everything to me.’
‘I’ve confessed already today to my curate,' exclaimed this sick man. 'I’ve told him everything. There’s no need to go over it all again.’
‘Give me some of your gold, then, to put towards building our cloister. We’ve been living on many a tiny portion of winkles and whelks while others have been dining in luxury, in order to have the building work progress. Yet God knows, we’ve hardly finished the foundations yet, and there isn’t a single paving slab laid on the walkways! By God, we owe forty pounds for the stone! Thomas, by he who released the innocent from hell, help us. Otherwise we’ll have to sell all our books. And without our preaching, the world will be destroyed! One might just as well remove the sun from the sky, dear Thomas, for who else can work and teach as we do? We are well established. We’ve been in existence since the time of Elijah and Elisha – records prove it, and may the Lord be thanked for it. Thomas, help us, for Saint Charity!’ The friar went down on one knee.
This sick man was almost beside himself with rage. He would quite happily have seen the friar burst into flames for all his lies! ‘I can only give you what is truly mine to give,’ he said. ‘But you say that I'm one of your brethren?’
‘Most certainly, Thomas. I’ve given your wife a letter with our seal, proclaiming you as a lay brother.’
‘Alright then, I shall give you something for your holy convent while I’m still alive. You shall feel it in your hand very shortly. But I give it on condition that you must divide it equally between your brothers so that each of you shall receive as much as the other. You must swear this on your honour.’
‘I swear it upon my faith!’ cried the friar, and took Thomas’s hand in his own. ‘Here is my hand on it.’
‘Alright. Put your hand down my back and feel around as far as you can,’ said Thomas. ‘You should be able to find something between my buttocks that I’ve kept hidden from you for a while.’
‘Ah,’ thought the friar, ‘my luck seems to be in!’ and he thrust his hand down into the cleft between the man’s buttocks, hoping to find a gift of some sort. When this sick man felt the friar’s hand rummaging around his arsehole, he let out a huge fart. There is no carthorse that could have produced such a large and stinking raspberry. The friar jumped back in anger.
‘You dishonest churl! By God’s bones you did that on purpose! You’ll pay for that fart!’
Thomas’s household heard the uproar, came running in and chased the friar away. The friar went angrily after his companion and soon caught up with him and his sack of winnings. He looked like an angry lion, a wild boar gnashing his teeth, he was incandescent with rage. With a determined step he marched quickly over to the courtyard of a manor where an honourable man lived whose confession he was accustomed to hearing. This worthy man was the lord of the village. The friar arrived and stood before this gentleman, still burning with rage; he couldn’t utter a sound for a few moments. The manorial lord was sitting down at his meal. Then the friar managed to say: ‘God be with you.’
The lord stared back at him and said: ‘God bless you too. Friar John! What in the world is the matter? I can see that something’s wrong. You look as though you’ve discovered a wood full of thieves. Come and sit down, and tell me what the problem is. If I can fix it, I will.’
‘I have been grossly insulted. God have mercy on you, but down in your village – there is no knave or rascal who would not be aghast at the abuse I have just had to suffer there. And yet, worse even than the indignity and the personal insult I have had to endure from a wretch with long, grey hair, I had to listen to him blaspheming against our convent.’
‘Come now learned Master, steady on.’
‘No, I’m not a learned Master, I’m a servant, although that accolade was awarded to me at university. God doesn’t like us to assume the title “Rabbi”, neither in the market nor in your spacious hall.’
‘No matter, just tell me your grievance.’
‘Sir, a stinking trick was played upon me today, both upon me and upon my order, and therefore, as a consequence, upon every level of Holy Church as well, may God send swift vengeance for it!'
‘Sir, you know what to do. Calm down, for you’re my confessor, you’re the salt of the earth and its delightful smells, so have patience, and with patience, tell me calmly what has happened.’
The friar told the lord everything, as you’ve already heard, there’s no need to repeat it.
The lady of the house sat perfectly still as the friar told his story, then she exclaimed: ‘By God’s blissful, Virgin Mother! Is there anything else? Be truthful.’
‘Madam, how do you mean?’
‘How do I mean? For goodness sake, I mean, a common fellow has done what common fellows do. What more can I say? May God punish him for it but his illness has probably unhinged him a little, or maybe he’s delirious.’
‘Madam, no, by God, I’m not going to let this matter rest. I shall have my revenge upon him in one way or another. I’ll slander him, I'll speak out against him in every sermon I give – this false blasphemer who compels me to divide into thirteen equal parts that which may not be divided.’
The lord sat staring into space, as though he could hardly believe his ears, and the thought rolled about in his mind that it must be a very intelligent labourer who is able to pose such a deep and worrying scholastic problem to a friar. He’d never heard of it before – he thought. The devil must have planted it in his mind. In all arithmetic and geometry, from the constellations of the stars to the constitutions of the human body, he had never heard such a question posed. How can it be arranged that thirteen people will each receive an equal measure of the sound and smell of a fart?
‘Lo, sirs!’ said this lord, gruffly. ‘Whoever heard of such a thing? Divided equally? Tell me how! It’s impossible, it can’t be done. Hey, devious labourer, may God send you grief! The rumbling of a fart, and in fact of every sound there is, is nothing but reverberating air that vibrates and dampens little by little. No one, by my reckoning, can devise a way of judging whether it has been divided equally or not. Lo! This churl may be uneducated but he has spoken cunningly to my confessor today. He must be in league with the devil. Now enjoy your meal and let this labourer go hang himself. To the devil with him!’
It happened that the lord’s squire, a young man, was standing beside the table carving the roast meat, closely enough to overhear what was being said. ‘My lord,’ he said. ‘Please don’t take offense, but if you were to offer me a fine cloth that is able to be made into a gown, I could tell you, Sir friar, how this fart could be divided equally between all of those in your convent and your anger quelled, if I wanted to.’
‘Speak up, let’s hear it then,’ replied the lord, ‘and you shall have your gown-cloth, by God and Saint John!’
‘Then my lord, when the weather is fine, without any breeze of any sort to disturb the air, bring a cartwheel into this hall and make sure that it has all its spokes on. There should be twelve spokes on a cartwheel. Then bring me twelve friars. Do you know why? Because thirteen makes up a convent, I think, and this confessor here, for his worthiness, shall make the thirteenth. Let them all kneel down and each put his nose to the end of one of the spokes. Your noble confessor, God save him, shall lie on his back with his nose beneath the hub. Then this churl, when his belly is so full of wind that it’s as taught as a drum, shall be brought in, made to crouch down over the hub of the cartwheel and let out an almighty fart. You will see, I swear upon my life – it will be well demonstrated, I promise – that the sound will travel equally down each of the spokes to the very end, and the stink of it will as well.
‘This worthy man, your confessor, because he a man of such great honour, shall have the first fruit so to speak, which will be fitting, because it is still the practice amongst these friars that the worthiest of them shall be served first. He certainly well deserves it, I have to say, having heard his sermon in the church today and all his teaching. I would give him the first smell of at least three farts! So would all his other brothers I should think, he bears himself so well and so devoutly.’
Everybody in the hall, the lord, his wife and all who were there, except for the friar, thought that this solution of Jankin’s was a wonderful idea and worthy of Euclid, or the astronomical brilliance of Ptolemy. Regarding the churl, they all agreed that cunning and a flash of inspiration had made him speak as he had – he was no fool and no demon either. And Jankin got a new gown out of it. That’s the end. It’s almost time to stop in this town, now, for some refreshment.
Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Summoner's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2017