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"By Extorcions I Lyve": Chaucer's Friar's Tale and Corrupt Officials

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 42, Number 2, 2007
pp. 180-195 | 10.1353/cr.2007.0025

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Chaucer's Friar's Tale tells us more about the poet's own experience as a bureaucrat than its origin as a sermon exemplum and its grotesquely satirical aspects might suggest. The tale engages with a fourteenth-century discussion of the psychology and accountability of the intermediary officials who administrated royal, ecclesiastical, and manorial systems of justice and finance. The tale's lengthy initial description of the archdiaconal court is informed by this contemporary preoccupation, exploring the connections between the summoner and the institution he serves. The subsequent depiction of shoptalk between the tale's protagonist and his demonic interlocutor ventriloquizes an interpretation of corruption present in contemporary discourse, which excuses officials by attributing their extortionate behavior to the systems they serve—an interpretation that the tale calls into question. The tale's examination of the work of officials, an addition original to Chaucer's treatment, likely owes much to the poet's own experience of the pressures of officialdom and his sensitivity to the way that officials were accused or excused in political discussion.

The exploration of officials in the tale is especially notable since it disrupts the flow of an otherwise well-aimed verbal assault. The Friar makes it clear that he will use his entry in the tale-telling contest to expose the Summoner's villainy, continuing a malicious exchange between the two that began in their asides to the Wife of Bath's Prologue and will culminate in the spectacularly scatological climax of the Summoner's Tale. His choice of tale is well suited to this purpose; drawn from sermon exempla, the Friar's story tells of a despicably corrupt summoner whose unrepentant greed earns him the punishments of hell. But the tale does not move particularly swiftly towards the summoner's comeuppance. The story begins with a lengthy description of its protagonist's role in the archdeacon's court, placing his crimes in a larger context of institutional corruption. The tale then narrates a long conversation between the summoner and the demonic bailiff that reveals the pressures and obligations of their offices. This lengthy "institutional prelude" takes up almost two-thirds of the tale's length to detail the summoner's position and character before the exemplary narrative kicks into gear. H. Marshall Leicester has claimed that this "unusual" emphasis on the "initial stages" of the story allows the Friar to showcase his intellectual and social superiority to his opponent, but by examining the tale in the light of contemporary debates about officials, we can more fully round out our understanding of its curious bureaucratic digressions.

Both the ecclesiastical post of summoner and the middling positions Chaucer filled were seen together, along with other more prominent offices such as sheriff and escheator, as especially prone to corruption. Thomas Hahn and Richard W. Kaeuper have definitively treated the Friar's Tale's connections to criticism of ecclesiastical summoners, the agents of the archdiaconal court who administrated its discipline of day-to-day morality. Hahn and Kaeuper note that the activities of the summoner in the tale closely match contemporary complaints about the rapacity of church courts, but they conclude their contextualization by noting that the Friar's Tale should also be understood within "an even broader context of contemporary criticism."

The "broader context," to which Hahn and Kaeuper point, is the intense interest in official corruption of all kinds during this period, an interest that has left its traces in numerous satirical poems, parliamentary petitions, and legal enactments. This discourse regularly targets a particular set of "problem officials": among them royal administrators such as sheriffs, escheators, and coroners, but also the low-level ecclesiastical officers in charge of the day-to-day observation of lay morals, especially the archdeacon's court and its summoners. Certainly, some criticisms of high-level ecclesiastics or religious orders are framed within specifically bounded genres that have little to do with the concern over corrupt officials in general—the satirical description of orders of monks dedicated to unrestrained gluttony comes to mind. But summoners and other low-level church court officials appear regularly in legal and poetic texts along with the other usual suspects. The records of Edward III's 1341...

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