The Friar’s Tale

animals and “The Friar’s Tale”

karl steel



1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 3 The expected place to begin a study of medieval animals and The Canterbury Tales would be with a tale that features animals as characters: the talking crow of the “Manciple’s Tale,” the wily fox and learned chickens of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” or the lovelorn bird of the “Squire’s Tale.” An equally expected way to talk about these and Chaucer’s other animals — the Prioress’s pets, the cat to which the Wife of Bath compares herself, or the many martial animal comparisons of the “Knight’s Tale” or their parodies in “Sir Thopas” — would be to understand these animals in relation to medieval programs of animal symbolism.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 2 This symbolism is laid out in fables and in the medieval genre of the bestiary, each of which were repeated, excerpted, and alluded to in sermons, church art, manuscript illustrations, proverbs, and so on. Fables are short, moral, fictional narratives, often featuring talking animals that tend to embody fixed character traits. At least because they were key to early childhood education, fables would have been known to any educated medieval person: all would have been familiar with tales of meek sheep, stupid wolves, and greedy (or noble) lions. Bestiaries were encyclopedias that first described the natural history of animals, as it was known to medieval tradition (for example, lions were said to grow feverish if a human saw them, but could recover their health by eating a monkey), and then interpreted the animals’ behavior as symbolizing Christian doctrine or morality. Fables and bestiaries furnish a ready-made, straightforward, and authentically medieval framework for understanding what the tales’ various animals might mean.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The limitations of this kind of interpretation is not only that it often presumes The Canterbury Tales can do nothing but simply reproduce already existing symbolic codes. It is also that it also presumes a binary distinction between animals and humans. This split reproduces one of the main ideas of medieval (and indeed modern) thinking, namely, that among living, mortal things, only humans were thought to have immortal souls, language, and free will, and that therefore (in an astonishing logical leap) animals could legitimately be used for by humans for whatever purpose: for food, labor, or, for that matter, literary interpretation.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 But medieval thought about nonhuman animals could be far more complex than any traditional symbolic program or binary arrangement. Notably, medieval French, English, or Latin — the main languages of fourteenth-century England — possessed no single word that functioned exactly like the modern English or French word “animal.” The Latin “animal,” from the noun “anima” (soul), could simply mean “living thing,” and therefore could include humans. Rather than simply dividing humans from animals, England’s medieval languages tended to divide animals between domestic or wild, reserving separate categories for fish and for small, swarming things, like insects. Notably, too, despite their name, the bestiaries sometimes included humans (and stones as well), while fable collections often included stories of peasants conversing with beasts, a sign that medieval literature could consider some humans less than human than others. Chaucer’s works and own life furnish two examples of the opposite tendency: Chaucer’s Prioress feeds her pet dogs white bread and roast meat (I.146), without much obvious concern for the poor humans whom most would think better deserve her charity, while during England’s wars with France, the young Chaucer was ransomed for considerably less money than the captured warhorse of his countryman Robert de Clinton (Crow and Olson 1966, 24).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 2 The intermingling of animals and humans was far more obvious in the Middle Ages than it is, for example, in twenty-first century industrialized cities. Even paintings of heaven would sometimes feature small animals, like rabbits and birds, as if no paradise worth the name could be imagined without the company of small animals (for example, Giovanni di Paolo’s 1445 Paradise). More mundanely, in Chaucer’s London, wandering pigs were garbage disposals, nuisances, and dangers (as grimly recalled in the reference in the Knight’s Tale’s to the “sowe [that] freten the child right in the cradel,” I.2019); dogs were indispensable to hunters (a chief entertainment both of aristocrats and of London’s elite (Orme 1992, 135)); humans did not just use, but relied on, the labor of oxen or horses for agriculture; and by and large, medieval literature required animal death, as medieval copies of Chaucer’s works tend to be written on parchment, animal skin treated to be flexible, smooth, durable, and thin.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Attention to the variety of possible categories, emotional ties, and symbolic uses humans make of nonhumans is one of the duties of a field called “critical animal studies.” In particular, this field complicates cultural distinctions between humans and other animals. Like many other kinds of cultural studies, critical animal studies understands a supposedly natural division — in this case, human and animal — as an always shifting relation produced by more or less conscious cultural labor. Critical animal studies do not erase the line between human and nonhuman, but rather, in the terms of one of its most notable voices, engages in a “limitrophic” investigation, that is, to study how limits work conceptually, how they vary, and how they are undermined by their always inadequate and contradictory logics (Derrida 2008, 29). At their best, the cultural study of medieval animals preserves the complexity of human/nonhuman relationships in their interdependencies, their cruelty, and their love. It treats the categories of the human and animal as open questions rather than settled answers.


7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The Friar’s Tale is directed at the Summoner, one of the Friar’s fellow pilgrims, his jurisdictional rival for correcting the sins of Christians. Employed by archdeacon, who is himself employed by a bishop, the summoner, this man at the bottom, has the job of summoning sinners to the church court to pay fines. Like his immediate employer, he concentrates on sexual offenses: to keep his revenues high, he himself employs prostitutes, who inform on their customers, whereupon the summoner extorts bribes to let them go. As he heads out to accuse a poor widow of adultery, he meets a man dressed all in green, like a forester. He and the man fall into conversation, and, after the stranger entices the summoner to visit his country with offers of gold and silver, the summoner and his fellow traveler swear an oath of brotherhood. As it turns out, the stranger is a devil, and his country, of course, Hell, and he, like the summoner, complains about his job. The summoner’s only response to learning the truth is to demand a quick lesson in demonology, and to insist that, as sworn brothers, they split their winnings equally. They soon encounter a carter with an overloaded cart, who damns his own horses in frustration. When the summoner encourages the devil to take his due, the devil demurs, insisting that the man had not been sincere. Then they find the widow, who, after suffering the summoner’s increasingly rude demands for money, finally damns him to hell. The devil leaps at the chance: when he asks the widow to confirm her sincere intention, her response is an enthusiastic yes, so the devil takes the summoner down to hell. The friar finishes this short tale with a professional, preacherly flourish, briefly warning the assembled pilgrims about the dangers of the devil.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 The only nonhuman animals of much importance in this tale are the carter’s three horses: cursed when the wagon they pull is stuck briefly in a deep-rutted road, they are praised just as suddenly when they yank it free. The carter’s anger further connects him to his horses. A traditional medieval image portrayed the relation between body and soul as that of horse to rider: falling prey to appetite, or strong emotion, like anger — which “reveth hym the quiete of his herte, and subverteth his soule” (Parson’s Tale X.563-4) — was like losing control of the “horse,” and therefore of one’s human self-mastery. It is no wonder, then, that the devil resists the summoner’s encouragement to take the carter and his goods down to hell. It is not simply that the carter does not really mean it when he damns his horse. It is that he seems so wrapped up in his immediate circumstances, so intent on his business of getting the cart from one place to another, that it may be hard to differentiate him from his actions. He seems to have no power of reflection, and therefore none of the rational distance from his own actions that would grant him moral responsibility. Indeed, if his oaths, both of them, are mere emotional expressions, without the reasonable action of the will, then we can no longer be certain that the possession of spoken language neatly divides humans from animals: the paradox of exclamations — unreasonable language — may well be worth investigating further. While V. A. Kolve understands the Carter as emblematically human (Kolve 2009, 82) — attended by forces that that might damn or save him, while he unwittingly goes about his business — this very unwittingness, viewed differently, might make him seem more horse than human.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 This characterization is almost right, but it must do more to question the comfortable opinions of powerful people, certain that they would be far more rational than a mere carter. The philosopher Jacques Derrida observed that one key way to reconsider the differences philosophy has made between animals and humans is not to discover how animals have abilities that philosopher has traditionally believed to be unique to humans, but to ask “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man…what he refuses the animal” (Derrida 2008, 135). Medieval philosophers and church doctrine routinely argued that animals had no free choice, and that humans did, and that this was why we alone among mortal life could sin or do good, and be rewarded accordingly. To put this in the terms of Derrida’s critique, humans have traditionally thought that animals can only react to things, while humans possess free will, and therefore can really respond, acting and thinking freely through deliberation, evaluation, and choice.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The Friar’s Tale makes such an easy distinction between reaction and response impossible, and therefore confounds any easy distinction between nonhuman compulsion and human freedom of choice. For example, the tale’s summoner is wicked simply because the story requires that he be so; but if he is sincere when he complains to the devil about his working conditions, he is also wicked because his employer, the archdeacon of the cathedral, does not pay him enough. As he explains (or justifies himself), “therfore by extorcions I lyve” (III.1429). The truly responsible party may be the archdeacon himself; or the bishop above him; or perhaps it is the summoner’s own position as summoner: after all, by never giving him his own name, the tale implies no summoner could ever possibly make an honest living. Responsibility may be distributed throughout a network of causes and agents (a money economy, the needs of the story, and so on), none of them quite fully responsible, none of them quite fully explained by mere one-to-one cause and effect relation, or, to put this in the terms of medieval scholastic philosophy, of a relationship of mover to moved (for two quite different views of intention and responsibility in this tale, compare Passon 1968 to Bryant 2007).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 As for the devil, although he intends to damn people to hell by tempting them to sin, he explains, “somtyme we been Goddes instrumentz” (III.1483): for withstanding temptation can be “a cause of…savacioun” (III.1498). Then as now, the word “instruments” referred primarily to tools, implements generally thought to have no agency of their own. The devil’s green costume further hints at an uncertain responsibility. He is dressed as a yeoman, recalling the Yeoman of the General Prologue, an employee of the powerful Knight and Squire, a pilgrim who gets no tale of his own; he is also dressed like an agent of the forest law, and therefore represents a distrusted, and, by Chaucer’s day, nebulous authority, or perhaps even like the forest bandits who robbed Chaucer and horse and money in 1390, at the very period when Chaucer himself was a forest bureaucrat (for more, see Weiskott 2013); or the devil in green even resembles a fairy, a figure of magic and wonder, and, as the Wife of Bath explains, the former denizens of the woods, at least before the friars and their blessings spread themselves everywhere. Determining this devil’s true jurisdiction, and therefore his responsibility, is no easy matter.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 1 The last key figure for reconsidering these problems is the widow, Mabely (a character who, notably for this tale, has a name). When the summoner tries bilking her out of her little store of money, she kneels and throws his threat of excommunication back at him, and at her pan too, which the summoner had also demanded. The problem of money and social power again arises here: the summoner thought her poverty makes her an easy mark, while this very poverty may be why her initial politeness collapses so quickly into anger. Her supposed personal intention cannot easily be distinguished from her social class. The devil asks her whether it is her “wyl in ernest” (III.1627) that the summoner be damned, and then surprisingly asks the summoner if he plans to show the widow any mercy. This last request suggests that the widow’s sincerity has force only if the summoner joins her in it. If a sincere damnation requires a kind of partnership between the target and the cursor, the question of moral choice and responsibility can no longer center exclusively on just one person (for further discussion that rightly stresses Mabely’s importance to the narrative, see Blamires 2006, 186).

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2 The tale’s focus on characters in thrall to systems far more powerful than they are complicates any straightforward attempt to make them fully responsible for their actions or even their thoughts. Having a “wyl” fully “in ernest” with one’s intention would seem to require far more fundamental freedom of action than any of these characters possess, given their entanglement within a corrupt ecclesiastical economy, bonds of private oaths and God’s divine justice (see Kline 1998), or a poverty to which women were particularly susceptible. Free will has been traditionally thought to be a requirement for being fully human: but who, if anyone, in the Friar’s Tale has it?


14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Jacques Derrida’s The Animal that Therefore I am is a foundational book in the academic field of “critical animal studies.” It is thrilling, often fun to read, but also often daunting: it assumes the reader will be familiar with decades of Derrida’s earlier work, as well as with a set of figures of European philosophy — chiefly Jacques Lacan, Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, and Emmanuel Levinas — on whom Derrida commented throughout his career. Most scholars who have built on Derrida’s thoughts on animals have tended to concentrate only on his first chapter.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 Medieval cultural studies of animals initially tended to concentrate on animal symbolism (for example, Beryl Rowland’s Animals with Human Faces); several decades ago, Joyce Salisbury’s The Beast Within demonstrated that medieval Christian doctrine, literature, dietary, and archaeological evidence could be discussed together, showing that animal studies need not just be an out-of-the-way subset of medieval studies; medieval studies joined the conversation with contemporary critical animal philosophy not long afterward, with books by Dorothy Yamamoto, Susan Crane, and me. Some medievalists, like Sarah Kay and Bruce Holsinger, have provided write my book review for me practice extensively about the philosophical and cultural implications of medieval literature largely being preserved on the skins of dead animals. Chaucer scholars have also contributed to all these discussions: the anthology Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts is a good place to find other critical conversations you might join, as is the “Animalia” cluster of short essays in the 2012 issue of Studies in the Age of Chaucer. These studies might encourage you to read outside The Canterbury Tales to look at Chaucer’s attention to animals in his other works: the dog that joins the mourning nobleman in The Book of the Duchess, the wise, talking eagle of The House of Fame, and the debating birds of his Parliament of Fowles: given the prominence of animals in many of Chaucer’s other poetry, The Canterbury Tales seems almost shockingly devoted to merely human narratives. Finally, a short poem like Chaucer’s “Former Age,” about the poor but virtuous culture of the earliest humans, might lead you to examine medieval thinking about vegetarianism.


  1. 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 2
  2. Why do so many adjectives for violence — “brutality,” “ferocity,” and “bestial” — come from Latin words having to do with animals? Can an animal be “bestial”? Is it praise or an insult when the Knight compares the fighting noblemen of his tale to savage beasts (I.1656-8)? Are certain genders, professions, or classes praised for being “brutal” and others not?
  3. The animals of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” are educated and chatty, while the tale’s poor humans, mostly women, seem to have no language at all, but instead only howl and shout (VII.3375-3401): why is this? Not many versions of this story of the fox and the credulous rooster include humans as characters. Why do you suppose Chaucer added them?
  4. Consider how the division of human and animal intersects and amplifies gender divisions and hierarchies. You might start by observing how animal references — ferrets, wool, ponies — cluster around Alisoun’s portrait in The Miller’s Tale (I.3233-70). Does this suggest that she is somehow more “natural” than the tale’s conniving scholars? Does it suggest that the Miller mistakenly perceives her as more “natural” or more “domestic” (as these are mostly domestic animals)?
  5. Who if anyone has free will, that supposedly defining human trait, in the Clerk’s Tale? Griselda may be bound to obey her husband because of her class and gender, while Walter’s compulsion to test his wife is likened to the cruel sport of bear-baiting: some people, once they have an intention, keep to it “right as they were bounden to that stake” (IV.704). Consider how both characters are simultaneously responsible for their actions and compelled by forces outside their control.
  6. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari once observed that “a racehorse is more different from a workhorse than a workhorse is from an ox” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 257). In The Summoner’s Tale, Cyrus the Persian mourns his horse by destroying a river (III.2078-82); the noble Canacee in The Squire’s Tale thinks a falcon worthy of her conversation and pity (V.409-670); but the carter’s horse merits none of this noble attention. How do animals not simply represent “nature” but also class? You might pay attention, for example, to the different kinds of horses the pilgrims ride in the General Prologue, and compare this to the social status of various breeds of domestic animals in the present.
  7. The Canterbury Tales has several cats: Alison of Bath and one of her husbands both compare her to a sleek cat, proud of its appearance (III.348-55); a greedy friar brushes one off a bench in The Summoner’s Tale (III.1775); and a hole in a door, big enough for a cat to creep through, is key to the plot of The Miller’s Tale (I.3339-441). A former generation of critics tended to say that Chaucer was interested only in textual animals, while many modern historians still tend to claim that medieval people kept animals only for practical uses, and never as pets: but Chaucer’s cats suggest both his regard for real animals, and his amused awareness of the way that certain small domestic animals claim space as their own. What are the particular ways that cats interest Chaucer, and what does this have to do, for example, with modern cat memes?

Suggested Reading

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages.” Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern England, ed. Barbara Hanawalt and Lisa Kiser. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008, 39-62.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Crane, Susan. Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Haraway, Donna. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Kiser, Lisa. “Margery Kempe and the Animalization of Christ: Animal Cruelty in Late Medieval England.” Studies in Philology 106.3 (2009): 299-315.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Oliver, Kelly. Animal Lessons: How they teach us to be Human. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Steel, Karl. How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2011.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Yamamoto, Dorothy. The Boundaries of the Human in Medieval English Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Works Cited

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Blamires, Alcuin. Chaucer, Ethics, and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Bryant, Brantley L. “” By Extorcions I Lyve”: Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale and Corrupt Officials.” The Chaucer Review 42.2 (2007): 180-195.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Crow, Martin and Claire C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life Records: From Materials Compiled by John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, with the Assistance of Lillian Redstone and Others. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Derrida, Jacques. The Animal that Therefore I am. Edited by Marie-Louise Mallet. Translated by David Wills. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Kline, Daniel T. “” Myne by right”: Oath making and intent in The Friar’s Tale.” Philological Quarterly 77.3 (1998): 271-93.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Kolve, V.A. Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II. Stanford University Press, 2009.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Orme, Nicholas. “Medieval Hunting: Fact and Fancy.” In Chaucer’s England: Literature in Historical Context, ed. Barbara Hanawalt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), 133-53.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Passon, Richard H. “Entente in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale.” The Chaucer Review (1968): 166-171.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Weiskott, Eric. “Chaucer the Forester: The Friar’s Tale, Forest History, and Officialdom.” The Chaucer Review 47.3 (2013): 323-336.

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