Undergrad Wednesdays – Fart Jokes: “The Summoner’s Tale” and the Timelessness of Crass Humor

 [This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]
The fart scene in Step Brothers.

In films today, one of the simplest yet effective means of eliciting laughter is a fart. The Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles features a scene with cowboys farting around a campfire after consuming beans. In “Step Brothers,” one character unleashes a long, loud fart during a job interview. Another example of fart humor in modern cinema is the dinner scene in “The Nutty Professor,” starring Eddie Murphy. Murphy plays several members of the Klump family who humorously pass gas at their dinner table. However, long before the advent of cinema, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, one of the collection’s more humorous works is told by the Summoner, who also uses a fart for comedic effect. By examining Chaucer’s use of a fart and the “Summoner’s Tale’s” discussion of how to divide a fart into twelve parts, we can begin to understand why fart jokes continue to make us laugh when used in cinema today.

In The Summoner’s Tale, a friar goes to the house of an ailing man, Thomas, to ask for a donation. He explains to Thomas that he will become better if he donates more, to which Thomas replies that he already donates plenty to the other friars who come to visit. The friar then attempts to manipulate Thomas, as friars and clergy were wont to do in Chaucer’s time, by giving him a sermon about the dangers of anger, before asking him again for a donation. Thomas replies that he can have a donation if he agrees to divide it equally amongst the other friars at the convent. When the friar agrees, Thomas has him reach around to his rear end, then unleashes a monstrous fart into the friar’s hands. The friar then goes to the lord of the village and explains the ordeal. The lord’s squire offers a solution for dividing a fart evenly: place each friar around a wheel, each at the end of one of the twelve spokes. Then, allow a fart to be released at the center of the wheel. The smell will then travel evenly along each spoke and to the nose of each friar.

The Summoner’s Tale can help reveal what it is about farts that continues to make us laugh at them in today’s films. One important element of The Summoner’s Tale is the repulsiveness of the fart. Prior to the release of the fart, Chaucer uses some graphic details to drive home the disgusting nature of what is about to happen: “And doun his hand he launcheth to the clifte, / In hope for to fynde there a yifte. / And whan this sike man felte this frere / Aboute his tuwel grope there and heere, / Amydde his hand he leet the frere a fart” (III, 2145-2149). The imagery of the friar reaching around Thomas’s anus alerts the reader that something of a foul nature is approaching in the narrative. The word “grope” also carries crass connotation, which, when associated with a friar, could produce a comedic effect. Another important detail is that the friar is hoping to find a gift as he reaches around. The fart is an insult in this situation, and it is humorous because of its rudeness. The friar expects money or something of value, and instead receives an obnoxious, odorous gas.

Similarly, farts in movies receive laughter partially because of their disgusting nature. The inappropriateness of a loud and odorous gas during something as important in our society as a job interview is enough to strike audiences as ridiculous. In the film “Step Brothers,” John C. Reilly’s character releases a noisy, prolonged fart in the middle of a job interview (McKay, Step Brothers). In modern society, a reasonable human would not expect such an obnoxious fart to come during such an important moment, just as the friar would not expect a fart when he believes he is about to receive a gift.

Chaucer goes beyond the use of a single fart for humor in The Summoner’s Tale. After the friar angrily takes his leave of Thomas, a squire explains a way in which a fart could be divided equally and shared amongst the friars of the convent, as Thomas intended. The squire explains that the spokes of a wheel can divide a fart so that each friar along the side of the wheel receives the same amount of gas: “By preeve which that is demonstratif / That equally the soun of it wol wende / And eke the stynk unto the spokes ende” (III, 2272-2274). This elaborate plan for the distribution of something as base as a fart most likely struck Chaucer’s audience as humorous. The idea of such a well-planned, complex method for mathematically distributing something being applied to a fart is so ridiculous that it is funny. Similarly, elaborate musings about flatulence entertain us in movies today. In the film “I Love You, Man,” Jason Segel’s character is very perceptive of when someone else is passing gas. His extreme observational skills relating to a man passing gas make for a humorous moment in the film (Hamburg, I Love You, Man).

Michael Doherty
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Brooks, Mel, director. Blazing Saddles. 1974.

Chaucer, Geoffrey, -1400.The Summoner’s Tale IIIfrom The Canterbury Tales.Ontario: Boenig& Taylor, 2012. Print.

Chitwood, Adam. “Exclusive: Will Ferrell Talks STEP BROTHERS 2 and Political Comedy SOUTHERN RIVALS with Zach Galifianakis.” Collider, 3 May 2011, collider.com/willferrell-interview-step-brothers-2-southern-rivals/.

Hamburg, John, director. I Love You, Man. 2009.

McKay, Adam, director. Step Brothers. 2008.

Shadyac, Tom, director. The Nutty Professor. 1996

“The Canterbury Tales: The Legacy Today (The Summoner’s Tale).” The (Pop) Culture   Medievalist, 9 Nov. 2017, neomedievalism.info/2017/11/10/the-canterbury-tales-the     legacy-today-the-summoners-tale/.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Medieval Summoners and Modern Business Ethics

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The Summoner in “The Friar’s Tale” in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is an example of a religious figure who abuses his power and leads a secretly sinful life. The Summoner ultimately makes a deal with the devil that ends with his descent into hell. The point of the tale is to paint summoners in an unflattering light and reveal their hypocrisy. Summoners wouldn’t have been very popular figures in the Middle Ages due to the fact that they got people in trouble for committing sins. This tale has multiple implications for the modern day, especially as it relates to modern day business ethics.

In the illustration of a summoner below, from the illustrations in the Ellesmere manuscript, the summoner looks shifty, slightly hunched and carrying a coin purse that hints at his greed. Even his horse looks sinister, seeming almost cat-like in its posture and holding its head low instead of proudly. This illustration very much aligns with the behavior of the Summoner in The Friar’s Tale.

The tale itself describes how the Summoner uses spies saying, “as any hauk to lure in Engelond,/ That told hym al the secree that they knewe./ For hire aqueyntance was nat come of/ newe./ They weren hise approwours prively (lines 1340-1343),/” which means that the Summoner uses these spies to gather information on citizens. The tale then describes how he uses these secrets to blackmail these people saying, “He took hymself a greet profit therby./… He koude somne on peyne of Cristes curs./ And they were glade for to fille his purs (line 1344, lines 1347-1348).” This line describes how the Summoner uses these secrets, not to promote good and lessen sin, as you would think would be the role of a religious figure, but to “fille his purs” and profit at the expense of others. A lesson in business ethics that can be taken from this moment in the tale is the performance of immoral acts under the guise of morality. The company Healthgen grappled with this issue as one of its senior managers, Filip Kowalski, made a donation to a client’s private foundation. The question surrounding this transaction was whether it was charity or bribery. The description of the case on Harvard Business School’s publishing website states, “After a natural disaster, Healthgen- at the request of the director- donated products to help during the crises. After Healthgen wins an important contract, the media alleges that the donation was made to secure support of the regional health director. Were the efforts to boost company sales and support public health a donation or a bribe?” Although Healthgen probably had better and less damaging intentions than the Summoner in the tale, the Summoner was using his religious duty as a means to gather money by blackmailing and spying, doing “good works” by catching sinners through nefarious means. Healthgen was donating to charity while simultaneously gaining unfair advantages on competition. Therefore, The Friar’s Tale is relevant to today in that it has lessons wrapped into it, such as associating with reputable institutions and not having ulterior motives when doing good works, a subject similar to the one Zach Prephan deals with in his discussion of the Pardoner and  modern day Wall Street.

Later in the tale, after the Summoner enters into a business deal with the devil, he is eventually taken straight to Hell. The devil states, “Thy body and this panne been myne by right./ Thou shalt with me to Helle yet tonyght,/…And with that word this foule feend hym hente./ Body and soule he with the devel wente (lines 1635-1636, lines 1639-1641).” Here, although the devil only laid claim to the Summoner’s body, the Summoner also gave his soul to Hell by participating in immoral acts. This warning not to participate in unethical business transactions with unethical parties has contemporary relevance. The business Chiquita Brands learned this when they paid off terrorists to protect employees in Colombia. A description of the case on Harvard Business School’s Publishing website states, “The Justice Department began an investigation, focusing on the role and conduct of Chiquita and some of its officers in this criminal activity. Subsequently, Chiquita entered into a plea agreement that gave them the dubious distinction of being the first major U.S. company ever convicted of dealing with terrorists, and resulted in a fine of US $25 million and other penalties.” Although this case was complicated as it was dealing with the safety of its employees in a foreign and politically turbulent zone, Chiquita still suffered damage from its association with “devils,” or immoral individuals.

The Summoner in The Friar’s Tale is ultimately a warning against living a monetarily motivated life at any cost, which will inevitably lead to sin, poor decisions, and a downfall. The Summoner’s immoral business practices led to an unfortunate fate, much like many businesses today that suffer for their poor ethical decisions. Ultimately, The Friar’s Tale is a commentary on the hypocritical life of the Summoner and is meant to expose what is believed to be the nature of summoners in general.

Molly Murphy
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales . Edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, second ed., Broadview Editions, 2012. 

Soltes, Eugene, and Brian Tilley. “Charity or Bribery.” Harvard Business School Publishing, Harvard Business School, 13 Dec. 2017, cb.hbsp.harvard.edu/cbmp/product/118052-PDF-ENG.

“The Summoner on Horseback.” Alamy, 1343, Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library, http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-geoffrey-chaucer-s-canterbury-tales-the-summoner-on-horseback-english-83358508.html.

Teagarden, Mary B., and Andreas Schotter. “Blood Bananas: Chiquita in Colombia.” Harvard Business School Publishing, Harvard Business School, 11 Nov. 2010, Chiquita