The General Prologue - The Summoner

A summoner was with us in that place,
Who had a fiery-red, cherubic face,
For eczema he had; his eyes were narrow.
As hot he was, and lecherous, as a sparrow;
With black and scabby brows and scanty beard,(5)
He had a face that little children feared.
There was no mercury, sulphur, or litharge,
No borax, ceruse, tartar could discharge,
Nor ointment that could cleanse enough, or bite,
To free him of his boils and pimples white,(10)
Nor of the bosses resting on his cheeks.
Well loved he garlic, onions, aye and leeks,
And drinking of strong wine as red as blood.
Then would he talk and shout as madman would.
And when a deal of wine he’d poured within,(15)
Then would he utter no word save Latin.
Some phrases had he learned, say two or three,
Which he had garnered out of some decree;
No wonder, for he’d heard it all the day;
And all you know right well that even a jay(20)
Can call out “Wat” as well as can the pope.
But when, for aught else, into him you’d grope,
’Twas found he’d spent his whole philosophy;
Just “Questio quid juris” would he cry.
He was a noble rascal, and a kind;(25)
A better comrade ’twould be hard to find.
Why, he would suffer, for a quart of wine,
Some good fellow to have his concubine
A twelve-month, and excuse him to the full
(Between ourselves, though, he could pluck a gull).(30)

Footnotes

  1. In latin this means, “I question which law applies in this situation?” This question is presented as the summoner's philosophy. The summoner's "philosophy" demonstrates a type of ignorance towards the law that he enforces. This presentation of the summoner seems to mock the ecclesiastical court since the institution employs someone who is both lecherous and ignorant of the church law.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Latin was the language of learned men and the only language spoken in the church in Chaucer's time. Speaking Latin was a sign of distinction that signified holiness or learning. However, the summoner here only speaks it when he is drunk and only knows a few phrases in Latin. In this way, the summoner's use of Latin both parodies its social importance and demonstrates the summoner's lack of education and status.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. In the 1300s, the Catholic Church would hire a summoner to call sinners before an ecclesiastic court. These spiritual crimes could be anything from adultery to heresy, and generally courts would excommunicate those found guilty.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. Cherubs are winged beings like angels common in Christian art and iconography. Cherubs have traditionally been depicted as babies or infants with round, rosy cheeks, hence the description of the Summoner as having a red "cherubic" face. In this case it's not a reference to the Summoner's holiness but rather a description of his skin condition.

    — Sinead, Owl Eyes Contributor