The Summoner's Tale

My lords, there is in Yorkshire, as I guess, A marshy district known as Holderness, 1710 In which a licensed friar went about To preach--also to beg, no need to doubt. Now it so happened that this friar one day Preached at a church in his accustomed way, Especially, above all other teaching, 1715 Exhorting all the people with his preaching To purchase trentals, giving, for God's sake, That holy houses men might undertake To build for services, excluding where A gift would just be squandered or where there 1720 Is no necessity of having people give-- Where clergy is endowed, that is, and live, Thank God, in wealth and plenty. "Trentals," he Declared, "from penance bring delivery For dead friends' souls, the old as well as young, 1725 All thirty masses being quickly sung-- Not meaning in a frivolous kind of way, Although a priest would sing but one a day. Get out their souls, deliver them," he'd call, "For hard it is by meathook and by awl 1730 To get a clawing, or to burn and bake. Make haste, get going at it, for Christ's sake!" And when this friar finished with his say, With qui cum patre he'd be on his way. When folks in church had given to him what 1735 They pleased, he moved on, no more rest he got. With scrip and his tipped staff, all cinctured high, In every house he'd pore about and pry While begging meal and cheese or else some corn. His comrade had a long staff tipped with horn, 1740 A pair of tablets made of ivory, And a stylus that was finely polished. He Would always write the names down, as he stood, Of all the folks who gave him something good, As if he meant to pray for them thereby. 1745 "Give us a bushel, wheat or malt or rye, A bit of cheese or, by your grace, a cake, Or what you will--we can't choose what we take; A penny for a mass, or half-a-penny, Or give a slice of pork if you have any; 1750 A smidgen of your woolen cloth, dear dame, Beloved sister--see, I write your name!-- Bacon or beef, whatever you may find." A sturdy fellow always walked behind Them as their servant, and he bore a sack 1755 To tote all they were given on his back. No sooner was this friar out the door Than he'd erase each name that just before He'd written on his tablets. All he'd do Is serve the folks with trifles, fables too. 1760 "No, Summoner, you lie!" the Friar cried. "Peace, for Christ's mother dear!" our Host replied. "Spare nothing, with your tale go right ahead." "As I may live, I shall," the Summoner said. So house by house this friar went, till he 1765 Came to one house where he was wont to be Better refreshed than at a hundred more. The owner there was sick; low off the floor Upon a couch the man bedridden lay. "Deus hic! O my dear Thomas, friend, good day!" 1770 The friar softly said with courtesy. "May God reward you, Thomas! Frequently I've fared well on your bench. With merry cheer Many a fine meal I have eaten here." Then from the bench he shooed away the cat, 1775 And after laying down his staff and hat And scrip, upon the bench sat quietly down. His comrade had gone walking into town, He and the servant, to the hostelry Where he intended for that night to be. 1780 "O my dear master," said the ailing man, "Tell me how you have been since March began. I haven't seen you this fortnight or more." "God knows," he said, "I've labored till I'm sore, Especially for sake of your salvation, 1785 So many prayers beyond all valuation-- For others too, God bless them all!--I pray. I was at mass at your church just today And gave a sermon by my humble wit Instead of all by text of Holy Writ; 1790 Because it's hard for you, as I suppose, I'll give the gloss of how my teaching goes. A glorious thing it is to gloss away; 'The letter slays,' that's what we clerics say. There I have taught them charity. They should 1795 Spend what they have where reasonable and good. And there I saw our dame--ah, where is she?" "Out yonder in the yard I think she'd be," The fellow said, "and she'll come right away." "Aye, master, welcome, by Saint John! I say, 1800 How are you?" said this woman earnestly. The friar then rose up with courtesy, And in his arms embraced her tight and narrow And kissed her sweetly, chirping like a sparrow With his lips. "Madam, I've done all right," 1805 He said, "as I'm your servant day and night, Thanks be to God who gave you soul and life! I didn't see today so fair a wife In all the church, my God in heaven save me!" "May God indeed amend all faults," said she. 1810 "You're welcome, by my faith, in any case." "Thanks, madam," said the friar, "in this place I've always found it so. But by your leave And goodness--and I pray not to aggrieve-- With Thomas I would speak in confidence. 1815 These curates show both sloth and negligence In searching for true conscience of one's shrift. In preaching is my diligence, my gift, I study Peter's words and those of Paul. I walk and fish for Christian souls, and all 1820 To Christ be yielded as his due. To spread His word is that one aim to which I'm led." "Now, by your leave, dear sir," responded she, "Chide him well, by the holy Trinity! For he is like a pismire in his ire, 1825 Although he has all that he may desire. I cover him at night and make him warm, Lay over him a leg or else an arm, Yet he groans like our boar out in the sty. No other bit of sport with him have I, 1830 For I can't please him in a single way." "O Thomas, je vous dis! Thomas, I say, This is the devil's work, to be amended! Ire is a thing that God commands be ended, And therefore I would have a word or two." 1835 "Before I go," the wife said, "what would you Like for your dinner, sir? I'll get it spread." "Madam, now je vous dis sans doute," he said, "If I had of a capon but the liver, And of your soft bread but a single sliver, 1840 And then a roasted pig's head--though for me No animal I wish killed--I would be Then having with you only homey fare. I am a man whose appetite is spare; The Bible is my spirit's food, my flesh 1845 So on the move, always so set for fresh New vigils, that my appetite's destroyed. Madam, I pray that you'll not be annoyed By what I'm telling as a friend to you. By God, I only tell it to a few." 1850 "Now, sir," she said, "one word before I go. My child is dead, it's been ten days or so; Soon after you left town the lad was dead." "His death I saw by revelation," said The friar, "at home in our dormitory. 1855 But I daresay I saw him borne to glory, Not half an hour after he had died, In that same vision--God so be my guide! So did our sacristan, our medic too, True friars fifty years, which makes them due 1860 To celebrate--thank God for all his grace!-- Their jubilee, walk singly any place. Then I arose, our whole convent as well, With tear-stained cheeks; no clattering of bell Nor other clamor, all that came from us 1865 Was but our song Te Deum laudamus, Save for a prayer I said in dedication To thank Christ Jesus for his revelation. For, sir and madam, you can trust my word, With more effect in praying we are heard 1870 (As we see more into Christ's secret things) Than folks not of the cloth, though they be kings; We live in poverty and abstinence, They live for riches, saving no expense For meat and drink and all their foul delight. 1875 All worldly lust we hold up to despite. Dives and Lazarus lived differently, And their rewards would thereby different be. Whoso would pray must also fast, be clean, Fatten his soul, and keep his body lean. 1880 As Saint Paul says, our food and clothes shall be Enough though not the best. The purity And fasting of us friars are the way That we gain Christ's acceptance when we pray. "Look, Moses fasted forty days and nights 1885 Before God in his might came from the heights To speak with him upon Mount Sinai; He fasted many a day, his stomach dry And empty, and received the law inscribed By God's own finger. You've heard, too, described 1890 Just how Elijah, before he could speak With God, our lives' physician, on the peak Of Horeb fasted long and contemplated. "Aaron, who the temple administrated, And all the other priests who took their way 1895 Into the holy temple, there to pray For all the people, service to perform, Were not allowed to drink in any form That might result in drunkenness, but there They were to watch in abstinence and prayer, 1900 Or else they'd surely die. Heed what I say. If they're not sober who for people pray, I warn you--but enough, no more of it. Lord Jesus, as it says in Holy Writ, Gave us examples, how to fast and pray. 1905 That's why we mendicants, we friars, I say, Are humble and so wed to continence, To poverty, good works, and abstinence, To persecution for all righteousness, To mercy, suffering, and holiness. 1910 So all the prayers we say, as you can see-- I mean we beggars in the friary-- Are more acceptable to God on high Than yours at your feast tables. I'll not lie To you, from Paradise it was to be 1915 That man was first chased out for gluttony, And man was chaste, for sure, in Paradise. "But listen, Thomas, to what I advise. I have no text upon it, as I guess, But I can gloss it for you nonetheless; Sweet Jesus had especially in mind 1920 Us friars when he spoke words of this kind: 'Blest be the poor in spirit.' You can see Throughout the gospel if such words agree More with us friars in what we profess 1925 Than those who wallow in what they possess. Fie on their pomp, fie on their gluttony! Their ignorance too I scorn defiantly. "They seem to me just like Jovinian, Fat as a whale and walking like a swan, 1930 As wine-filled as a bottle in the spence. Their prayer is of the greatest reverence When they for souls recite the psalm of David; Then 'Burp!' they say, 'cor meum eructavit!' Who follows Christ, his gospel, and his way, 1935 But we the humble, chaste, and poor today Who work for God's word, not who simply hear? And so just as a hawk will up and rear Into the air, the prayer soars ever higher Of every kind and chaste and busy friar 1940 Up to the ears of God. O Thomas, friend, O Thomas! as I hope to ride or wend, And by that lord they call Saint Ive, if you Were not a brother your life would be through. For in our chapel we pray day and night 1945 To Christ that he will send you health and might, Your use of limbs again to quickly bring." "God knows," said he, "I still can't feel a thing! So help me Jesus, in the last few years I've spent on every friar who appears 1950 A load of pounds, yet I'm still in this way. My goods are all but used up, safe to say. Farewell, my gold, for all of it has fled!" "O Thomas, you'd do that?" the friar said. "What need have you of any other friar? 1955 Who has the perfect doctor need inquire About what other doctors are in town? Your lack of faith is what has brought you down. Do you hold me or our convent as aid That's not enough for you, for all we've prayed? 1960 That's silly, Thomas, and not worth a bean; You're ill because in giving you're so mean. 'Ah, give that convent half-a-quarter oats! Ah, give that convent four-and-twenty groats! Ah, give that friar a penny, let him go!' 1965 That's not the way it is, no, Thomas, no! What is a farthing worth, by twelve divided? Look, everything that in itself's united Is worth more than when all its parts are scattered. No, by me, Thomas, you shall not be flattered; 1970 You'd like to have our labor all for naught, Yet God on high who all this world has wrought Says that the workman's worthy of his hire. None of your treasure, Thomas, I desire As mine; no, it's because our whole convent 1975 To pray for you is always diligent, And builds for Christ a church. O Thomas, friend, If you would be of use as you intend, On building churches you'll find, if you would, How India's Saint Thomas did much good. 1980 You lie here full of anger, full of ire, With which the devil sets your heart afire, And chide this humble innocent your wife, Who's been so meek and patient in her strife. And therefore, Thomas, promise, as you should, 1985 You won't fight with your wife, for your own good; And, by my faith, now bear this word in mind, On which concern the wise man says in kind: 'Don't make of your own house a lion's lair, Do not oppress the ones within your care, 1990 Or cause a friend to up and flee.' And, too, Thomas, this charge again I give to you: Beware of ire that in your bosom sleeps; Beware the serpent that so slyly creeps Beneath the grass to sting with subtlety. 1995 Beware, my son, and listen patiently, For twenty thousand men have lost their lives Through striving with their lovers and their wives. Now since you've such a meek and holy wife, Thomas, what need have you for causing strife? 2000 Surely no snake as cruel has yet been seen (When man treads on his tail), none half as mean As woman is when given cause for ire, As vengeance then is all that they desire. Ire is a sin among the greater seven, 2005 Abominable to God who is in heaven, And leads a fellow to his own destruction. The simplest parson here needs no instruction, He's seen how ire engenders homicide. Ire is the executioner of pride. 2010 I could, regarding ire, tell of such sorrow My tale of it would last until tomorrow. That's why I pray to God both day and night That he'll send to the ireful little might. How great a harm and pity, certainly, 2015 To set a man of ire in high degree. "One time there was an ireful potentate, Says Seneca, and, while he ruled the state, Two knights went out to ride about one day. As Fortune in the case would have her way, 2020 Only one of the knights came home, and he Was brought before the judge summarily. 'You've surely slain your fellow knight, and I Condemn you now,' the judge declared, 'to die.' Then to another knight commanded he, 2025 'Go lead him to his death, I so decree.' It happened, though, that as they headed right Toward the place where he should die, the knight Appeared again who they had thought was dead. When all their best advice had then been said, 2030 They took them both before the judge again. They told the judge, 'My lord, he hasn't slain His fellow knight, he's standing here alive.' 'You shall be dead,' the judge said, 'as I thrive, And that means all of you--one, two, and three!' 2035 And to the first knight he said, 'My decree Condemned you, you'll in any case be dead. And as for you, you too shall lose your head, For you have caused your fellow's death.' And he Then to the third knight spoke immediately: 2040 'You haven't done what I commanded you.' And so it was all three of them he slew. "Cambyses, ireful, drank beyond his might, To be a scoundrel always his delight. A lord, it happened, in his company 2045 Was virtuous, loved true morality, And one day gave Cambyses this advice: "'A lord is lost if he is prone to vice, And shameful is a drunkard's reputation, Especially if lordship is his station. 2050 Many an eye and ear are set to spy Upon a lord, he knows not where they'll pry. And so, for God's love, drink more moderately! For wine will make a man lose wretchedly His mind and the control of every limb.' 2055 "'No, the reverse you'll see,' he said to him, 'And promptly so, your own experience Will prove wine does to no one such offense. There's no wine can deprive me of my might In hand or foot, or take from me my sight.' 2060 And for despite Cambyses drank much more, A hundredfold, than he had done before. And then at once this ireful, curséd wretch Commanded that this knight's son they should fetch, And ordered that before him he should stand; 2065 And suddenly he took his bow in hand, Then back toward his ear the string he drew, And there the child he with an arrow slew. 'Now, do I have a steady hand or not?' He asked. 'Have might and mind both gone to rot? 2070 Has wine bereft my two eyes of their sight?' What can I say, what answer from the knight? His son was slain, there is no more to say. Beware, therefore, with lords how you may play. Placebo sing, and 'I shall if I can,' 2075 Unless it's to a poor and humble man. To one who's poor should men his vices tell, Not to a lord, although he go to hell. "Or look at Cyrus, Persia's king, in wrath Destroying the River Gyndes. On the path 2080 To his conquest of Babylon, a horse Of his had drowned within that river's course. For that, he made it so the river shrank Till women might wade through it bank to bank. What said he who so well can teach? 'Don't be 2085 An ireful man's companion, nor agree To walk with any madman by the way, Or you'll be sorry.' I've no more to say. "Dear brother Thomas, leave your ire behind. I'm as just as a wright's square, as you'll find. 2090 Don't keep the devil's knife held at your heart-- Your anger makes you all the more to smart-- But all of your confession to me show." The ailing man said, "By Saint Simon, no! Today my priest has shriven me for sin, 2095 I told him wholly of the shape I'm in, There's no more need to speak of it," said he, "Unless I wish in my humility." "Give me some of your gold, then, for our cloister," The friar said, "for mussel after oyster-- 2100 While other men have been at ease and filled-- Has been our food, that cloister we might build; And yet, God knows, we show for all the while Scarce pavement or foundation. Not one tile Is yet within our habitation found. 2105 For stones, by God, we now owe forty pound. "Help us, Thomas, for him who harrowed hell! For if you don't, our books we'll have to sell. And if you lack our preaching, our instruction, This world will then be headed for destruction; 2110 For whoso from this world would us bereave, As God may save me, Thomas, by your leave, Would from this world remove the very sun. For who can teach and work as we have done? It's not been briefly," he went on to tell, 2115 "But since Elijah, Elisha as well, Has much, I find, been written to record The charity of friars, thank the Lord! Now, Thomas, help, for holy charity!" And down he went at once on bended knee. 2120 This ailing man was nearly mad with ire; He would have liked to see the friar on fire For his dissembling and hypocrisy. "Whatever thing that I possess," said he, "Is that which I may give, there's nothing other. 2125 Have you not told me that I am your brother?" "Why, sure," the friar said, "trust in the same. The letter with our seal I gave our dame." "Well then," said he, "there's something I shall give Your holy convent while I yet may live. 2130 And in your hand you'll have it right away, But only on condition that you say That you'll divide it up so that, dear brother, Each friar gets as much as every other. Upon your faith you'll swear this now to me, 2135 No bickering and no dishonesty." "Upon my faith," the friar said, "I swear!" He shook the fellow's hand then to declare, "See, here's my vow, in me there'll be no lack." "Then put your hand down underneath my back," 2140 The fellow told him, "feel around behind, For underneath my rump a thing you'll find That I have hidden, kept in privity." "Ah," thought the friar, "that shall go with me!" And then he launched his hand right down the rift In hope that at the end he'd find a gift. 2145 And when this sick man felt the friar begin To grope around his orifice, right in The friar's hand the fellow let a fart. No single horse that's ever drawn a cart 2150 Has ever let a fart with such a sound. The friar, lion-mad, rose with a bound. "Ay, by God's bones! You lying churl," said he, "You've done this for despite! Just wait and see, That fart you'll pay for if I have my way!" 2155 The fellow's household, when they heard the fray, Came rushing in and chased away the friar. He went forth on his way consumed with ire And fetched his fellow, keeper of his goods. He looked just like a wild boar n the woods 2160 And gnashed his teeth, so mad the friar felt. He hurried to the manor where there dwelt An honored man for whom he'd come to be The sole confessor. Of that village he Was lord, this worthy man. In came the friar, 2165 The anger in him raging like a fire, Just as the lord sat eating at the table. To speak a word the friar was scarcely able; "God save you!" was at last all he could say. The lord looked up. "Why, benedicite! 2170 Friar John," he said, "what kind of world is this? For well I see there's something that's amiss, You look as if the woods were full of thieves. Sit down at once and tell me what aggrieves And it shall be amended if I may." 2175 "I've had," said he, "such an insult today-- May God reward you--here within your town, There's in this world no page so poor and down That something so abominable should be Done to him like in town's been done to me. 2180 But nothing brings for me more grief to bear Than that this old man with his hoary hair Has so blasphemed our holy convent too." "Now, master," said this lord, "I beg of you--" "Not master, no, but servant," said the friar, 2185 "Though I have had in school that honor, sire. God doesn't like men calling us 'Rabbi,' Not in the market nor your hall so high." "No matter," said the lord, "your grief be stated." "Today an odious wrong was perpetrated 2190 Against my order," said the friar, "and me, And so per consequens in like degree Against the Church. God soon avenge it yet!" "You know what's best to do, don't get upset, You're my confessor," said this man of worth, 2195 "You've been the salt, the savor of the earth. Your temper, sir, for God's love, try to hold And state your grief!" And so at once he told What you have heard--you know enough of that. The lady of the house had quietly sat 2200 Until she heard all of the friar's story. "Mother of God," she cried, "O maid of glory! Is there more to it? Tell me faithfully." "Madam, what do you think of it?" said he. "What do I think?" she said. "God give me speed 2205 To say, a churl has done a churlish deed! What should I say? God grant not that he thrive! His sick head's full of nonsense. I derive From this he's in some frenzied malady." "Madam, by God, I shall not lie," said he, 2210 "If I am not avenged, in every place Where I may speak or preach I'll call disgrace Upon this false blasphemer who's decided That I divide what cannot be divided And share with all. A curse on him! Mischance!" 2215 The lord sat stilly, as if in a trance, As in his mind he had this rumination: "How could this churl have such imagination And to the friar such a problem bring? I've never heard before of such a thing, 2220 The devil must have put it in his mind. In all our fundamentals could we find A question of this sort before today? Could any person demonstrate someway That every man might have an equal part, 2225 Whether in sound or savor, of a fart? That proud and madcap churl, damned be his face! Look, sirs," the lord said, "God bring him disgrace! Who's ever heard of such a thing till now? To every man alike? Then tell me how! 2230 It can't be done, no possibility. God grant that foolish churl ill-fated be! The rumbling of a fart, like every sound, Is only air reverberating round, And bit by bit it wastes itself away; 2235 And, by my faith, there is no man can say If it has been divided equally. And yet that churl, look how so cleverly He spoke of such today to my confessor! I'd say for sure a demon's his possessor! 2240 Now eat your meat and let the churl go play Or hang himself and go the devil's way!" Words of the lord's squire, his carver, on dividing the fart among twelve Now this lord's squire was standing at the table To carve his meat for him, and so was able To hear each word of all that I've related. 2245 "My lord, don't be displeased," the squire stated. "For cloth to make a gown, I'll tell, Sir Friar, So that you need not be so full of ire, How this fart could be shared in equal measure By each one of your convent, at my pleasure." 2250 "Tell," said the lord, "and you shall soon have on Your gown of cloth, by God and by Saint John!" "My lord," he said then, "when the weather's fair And there's no wind, no turbulence of air, Let's bring a cartwheel here into the hall. 2255 But count the spokes, be sure it has them all-- They number twelve by common rule. Then bring Twelve friars to me. You know my reasoning? Thirteen are in a convent, as I guess, And this confessor, by his worthiness, 2260 Completes the sum. So twelve of them shall kneel, As it shall be agreed, right by the wheel, For every friar a spoke, to which he goes And firmly at the spoke-end lays his nose. Your noble confessor shall arch his snub-- 2265 And may God save him!--right up by the hub. And then this churl, his belly stiff and taut As any tabor, hither shall be brought And set upon this wheel right off a cart, Up on the hub, then have him let a fart. 2270 And you shall see, as surely as I live, By way of proof that is demonstrative, In equal share the sound will have its stroke, The stink of it as well, right down each spoke; Save that this worthy man who's your confessor, 2275 So honorable, should not be like those lesser But rather have first fruit, and so he will. The friars have a noble custom still That says the worthiest shall first be served, And certainly this he has well deserved. 2280 Why, just today he taught us so much good, While preaching in the pulpit where he stood, That I for one would like to guarantee He had first smell of not one fart but three. Deserving, too, should be his whole convent, 2285 So well he bears himself with holy bent." The lord, the lady, all except the friar Thought Jenkin spoke so well as to inspire As much as Euclid or Ptolemy. As for the churl, he spoke with subtlety 2290 And wit, they said, he'd pulled a clever trick, He wasn't any fool or lunatic. And Jenkin's won himself a brand-new gown. My tale is done, we're almost into town.

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