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October 18, 2013

Chaucer: Another Round of Farts

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As our Canterbury pilgrims move along the road the friar and the summoner get into a pissing match with each other by telling a story about the other’s profession. Since there seem to be friars and summoners all over the place, I’ll start with a few guidelines: The Pissing Friar and the Pissing Summoner are the pilgrims. The lower case friar and summoner are the ones in the stories. Also, in case you don’t already know: a friar goes out into the world as opposed to a monk who stays in the monastery. (I actually got that from an episode of Inspector Lewis.) A summoner is like a sheriff for the church. Summoners were known to threaten people with made-up offenses and squeeze them for money the church never saw, not that the church deserved it either.

The Pissing Friar tells this tale: a summoner is on his way to extort money from an old woman when he meets a cheerful young man who says he is a bailiff. The two get to chatting about the similarities of their jobs and swear an oath of brotherhood. The summoner becomes quite expansive about himself and his deceptive practices. The young man reveals that he is actually a demon, which the summoner does not apparently take seriously. The two come upon a carter whose cart is stuck in the mud and they hear him say,

“The devel have al, bothe hors and cart and hey.” (The devil have all, both horse and cart, and hay).

The summoner elbows his new friend and asks him why, since he’s a demon nudge nudge, he doesn’t take the carter to hell, but the demon replies,

“It is nat his entente.” (He didn’t mean it; it’s not a real oath.)

When they arrive at the old woman’s house, the summoner in his grandiosity not only fabricates a charge and demands a bribe; he demands her new frying pan to complete an old bribe against a previously fabricated charge of adultery. Here’s her response:

“The devel,” quod she, “so fecche hym er he deye,
And panne and al, but he wol hym repente.
(The devil fetch him, pan and all, unless he takes it back)

The summoner elbows the demon again. But the demon pronounces that the old woman meant exactly what she said. And he swoops the summoner to hell, frying pan and all.

That is The Pissing Friar’s Tale. The Pissing Summoner is incensed. He jumps right into retaliation. In his prologue, instead of introducing himself as many of the other pilgrims do, he enters into hostilities against The Pissing Friar. He tells a joke about a friar who visits hell and doesn’t notice any friars around the place. He asks his angel guide if this is because friars are under such grace that they don’t end up in hell. The angel says not at all, there are millions of friars in hell. He asks Satan to hold up his gigantic tale. Satan obliges.

Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve
Twenty thousand frères in a route,
And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute.
(out of the devil’s ass twenty thousand friars swarmed about throughout hell.

Before The Pissing Friar has time to recover from his hissy fit over the joke, The Pissing Summoner launches right into his tale:

A friar who goes about the countryside preaching and extorting indulgences comes to the house of Thomas, one of his usual victims, and finds him ill and his wife grieving the loss of a two week old baby. The friar—like so many who can’t handle genuine emotion– immediately starts talking about himself. He knows all about the baby’s death because he saw it in a revelation as soon as it happened. Continuing on in this most relevant vein, the grandiose gasbag pontificates about friars being holy because they live in poverty. He drones into a boring sermon about God knows what because I skipped that part. Actually I believe it was about the sin of anger. Whatever it was, I’ve heard it before.

He tells Thomas he is sick because he hasn’t given enough money to the church. Thomas tells the friar that he will give him something if he promises to share it with all the other friars and monks at the “hooly covent.” The holy friar solemnly promises.

Now thane, put in thyn hand doun by my back. . .
and grope wel bihynde.
Benethe my buttok ther shaltow fynde
A thing that I hyd in pryvetee.
(Put your hand down my back and grope behind and beneath my buttocks and you’ll find something I have privately hidden)

Panting in anticipation, the friar cops a feel.

And whan this sike mana felte this frère
Aboute his tuwel grope hthere and here,
Amydde his hand he leet the frère a fart—
Ther nys no capul drawynge in a cart
That might have lete a fart of swich a soun.
(and when the sick man felt the friar groping around his anus, he let a fart into his hand. No cart horse could have let such a resounding fart.)

The friar commits the sin of anger all the way up to the Great House where he complains to the lord of the manor about the way he has been treated. What happens next is,to me, the funniest part of the story because this friar could have exploded into the living room of the house in which I grew up. The lady of the manor/my mother was outraged at Thomas’ treatment of the holy man. But the lord/my father sat reflecting for a long time.

Finally he mused, “How could one fart be divided amongst the other friars in the “hooly covent?” His squire/also my father came up with the solution: Get a cartwheel with twelve spokes. Have twelve friars kneel at the end of each spoke with their noses pulled up and touching the spoke-end. Then have Thomas, fart-ready, squat in the middle of the wheel and let ‘er rip.

That equally the soun of it wol wende,
And eke the stynk, unto the spokes ende. . .
(equally the sound and the stink will go down to the ends of the spokes.)

Chaucer doesn’t indicate who wins the pissing match. But no matter, we never see such interdepartmental squabbling in the church today. All the world loves a good fart, whether the world admits it or not. Especially during a church service.

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