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Cat, Capon, and Pig in The Summoner’s Tale

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 319-324 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0034

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For literary animals, the star turns, we might say, have long been figurative—the lion as king, the faithful turtledove—rather than literal—the cat as mouser, the pig as pork. Our analytical sensibilities thrill to the animal tropes, to distinguishing the metalepsis of the sacrificial lamb from the symbolic presence of the devil in the fox.1 Scholarship can too easily come to see literary animals only as figures for human concerns. Chaucer’s poetry often deploys animals to figurative ends, but occasionally his works also evoke an animal’s physical presence on the narrative scene. In The Summoner’s Tale, two moments of concrete representation assign narrative significance to cohabitation with animals and even ponder an ethical dimension of cross-species relationship.

In the first of these moments, Friar John shoos a housecat off the bench of his bedridden host in order to make room for his own posterior and his several accessories. The briefly evoked housecat differs from the more characteristic deployment of animals in The Summoner’s Tale. In this more familiar strategy, animals figure the gross embodiment of human-kind and the dichotomous relation of human body to eternal soul—the body always pulling away from virtue and threatening the soul’s health. Following this familiar teaching, the intercessory prayers of friars have a special effectiveness because “We lyve in poverte and in abstinence, / And burell folk in richesse and despence / Of mete and drynke, and in hir foul delit.”2 In a diegesis Bakhtin would have appreciated, the precise opposite of abstinent prayer is a sick man’s fart, a supremely animal act: “Ther nys no capul, drawynge in a cart, / That myghte have lete a fart of swich a soun” (III.2150–51). Just as bestial as this physical excess is imperfect faith: the friar imagines laymen and Jerome’s adversary Jovinian waddling and belching as they pray, “Fat as a whale, and walkynge as a swan . . . Lo, ‘buf!’ they seye, ‘cor meum eructavit!’ ” (III.1930, 1934). And the squire who works out the partition of the sick man’s fart calls it a fair exchange for the friar’s dissembling sermon that morning. According to the Summoner, Friar John’s and all friars’ base pleasures corrupt their spirituality so completely that they are to spend eternity lodged under the devil’s huge tail. The carthorse, whale, swan, and devil are repulsive in their oversized physicality; they figure an opposition between embodiment and virtue that the sick man Thomas illustrates as fully as the friar. In his illness, says his wife, he is as angry as a biting ant and he groans “lyk oure boor, lyth in oure sty” (III.1825, 1829).

On this ugly scene of humankind’s subjection to physicality, the cat driven from the bench has a contrasting referential status: it works on conception by remaining a literal creature rather than a figure for human embodiment. Two more such creatures, capon and pig, are invoked as the friar orders his dinner. Cat, capon, and pig are all caught in the tale’s net of references to the incompatibility of bodily and spiritual well-being, but all three also remain important as cohabitants in domestic space. When the friar arrives at Thomas’s house,

Deus hic!” quod he, “O Thomas, freend, good day!”
Seyde this frere, curteisly and softe.
“Thomas,” quod he, “God yelde you! Ful ofte
Have I upon this bench faren ful weel;
Heere have I eten many a myrie meel.”
And fro the bench he droof awey the cat,
And leyde adoun his potente and his hat,
And eek his scrippe, and sette hym softe adoun.


The thanks of this frequent guest veer toward presumptuousness as he invokes merry meals of the past and settles down comfortably (in three clauses no less) next to his suffering bedridden host. Several small disturbances to Thomas’s domestic space—the fleeing cat, the setting down of hat, staff, and scrip, the settling in, the expectation of a meal—are preliminary to the friar’s speeches of “false dissymulacioun” (III.2123). But the fleeing cat is different from the scene’s other moving parts; the cat exceeds bench...

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