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Chaucer the Forester: The Friar's Tale, Forest History, and Officialdom

Eric Weiskott

The Chaucer Review, Volume 47, Number 3, 2013, pp. 323-336 (Article)

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Chaucer the Forester: The Friars Tale,
Forest History, and Officialdom
eric weiskott

Some time between 1390 and his death in 1400, Chaucer served as a
substitute forester in North Petherton, Somerset.1 Although it probably
required little more than occasional desk work, and although it was the last
and worst-documented of Chaucers many dalliances with the administra-
tive machinery of late-fourteenth-century England, the position affirms the
persistence into the reign of Richard II of the decadent Norman royal forest
system.2 While it is uncertain whether art imitated life or vice versa in each
case, a number of Chaucers literary works mention forestry and make use of
its specialized vocabulary.3 In the Book of the Duchess, for example, the poet
employs a slew of technical terms over the course of Octavians hunt (34486).4

Thanks are due to Alastair Minnis for commenting on earlier drafts of this article.
1. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records (Oxford, 1966), 49499. See
also Russell Krauss, Chaucerian Problems: Especially the Petherton Forestership and the Question
of Thomas Chaucer, in Carleton Brown, ed., Three Chaucer Studies (New York, 1932), Part I, 1182.
2. Derek Pearsall cautions: The job was quasi-legal and very boring, and we are not to imagine
him traversing the woodland rides of Somerset, or living or probably even visiting there (The
Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography [Oxford, 1992], 224). For Chaucers social status and
employment, see Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Boston, 1989), 123; and David Carlson, Chaucers
Jobs (New York, 2004).
3. On the difficulties of establishing a chronology of Chaucers works, see Kathryn L. Lynch,
Dating Chaucer, Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 122.
4. All quotations of Chaucers works are from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson,
3rd edn. (Boston, 1987). Oliver F. Emerson, Chaucer and Medieval Hunting, Romanic Review
13 (1922): 11550, remains the authority on hunting terminology in Chaucer. On hunting in medi-
eval literature, see Marcelle Thibaux, The Stag of Love: The Chase in Medieval Literature (Ithaca,
N.Y., 1974); Anne Rooney, Hunting in Middle English Literature (Cambridge, U.K., 1993); Baudouin
van den Abeele, La Littrature Cyngtique (Turnhout, 1996); Ad Putter, The Ways and Words
of the Hunt: Notes on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Master of Game, Sir Tristrem, Pearl,
and Saint Erkenwald, Chaucer Review 40 (2006): 35485; and Anne Rooney, The Materials of

the chaucer review, vol. 47, no. 3, 2013.

Copyright 2013 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
324 The Chaucer Review

The Knights Yeoman and (as will be shown) the Friars Tales devil-yeoman
are especially important in the present connection because they are foresters,
albeit of a more practical variety than the historical Chaucer. In what follows,
it is argued that the Friars Tale, by a series of dramatic ironies, critiques the
royal forest system in which Chaucer was (or was to become) a minor offi-
cial. The first section outlines fourteenth-century English forest history and
its reception in poetry of the period; the second presents a reading of the
Friars Tale, with special attention to the figure of the devil-yeoman and the
tales satire on the royal forest and other administrative systems.

As the Crowns economic stranglehold on lands designated forest weakened
toward the end of the fourteenth century, the English nobles grew bolder in
cultivating local protocols for their woodlands, giving rise to a rich hunting
culture that would come to symbolize the British leisure class. At the same
time, the relaxing of royal forest law drove into the literary mainstream the
figure of the tricksy forest outlaw, whose popular cognomen Robin Hood
was to be the occasion for one of British literatures most successful fanta-
sies.5 In addition to the historical convenience of a forester Chaucer, then,
the thirty or so years of his literary career stand at the crossroads of the two
great moments in medieval forest history: on the one hand, the final gasps
of the Norman forest scheme; on the other, the appropriation of the hunt as
an aristocratic prerogative. The convergence of the two moments in the late
fourteenth century fostered an imagined English forestland, endlessly refash-
ioned in tales and technical literature, in which the peasant, the outlaw, the
forester, and the noble hunter meet and quarrel.6 Chaucers forests, too, for
all that they may seem a shamelessly exploited motif, provide a backdrop
to characters who act out the growing self-consciousness of the romance
Culture: The Hunts in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in Derek Brewer and Jonathan Gibson,
eds., ACompanion to the Gawain-Poet (Cambridge, U.K., 2007), 15763.
5. On the connections between forest law and Robin Hood, see A. J. Pollard, Idealising
Criminality: Robin Hood in the Fifteenth Century, in R. Horrox and Rees S. Jones, eds., Pragmatic
Utopias: Ideals and Communities, 12001630 (Cambridge, U.K., 2001), 15773; and A. J. Pollard,
Imagining Robin Hood: The Late-Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London, 2004), 2981.
6. A typology of medieval English hunting tales appears in Rooney, Hunting, 21139. On
the forest in medieval English literature more generally, see Gillian Rudd, Greenery: Ecocritical
Readings of Late Medieval English Literature (Manchester, U.K., 2007).
7. Corinne J. Saunders, The Forest of Medieval Romance: Avernus, Broceliande, Arden
(Cambridge, U.K., 1993), 162. Saunders offers a compendium of Chaucers forest scenes and
analyzes their relation to the conventions of Middle English romance (15562).
eric weiskott 325

The last quarter of the fourteenth century witnessed a series of crises in

and around the royal forest. As aristocratic as well as popular opposition to
the Norman forest system grew keener, Richard and his deputies continued to
cede forest rights to the barony in exchange for fealty, a trend that had gained
momentum since John first began large-scale strategic disafforestment with
his Great Charter of 1215.8 A tacit coalition sprang up between the Crown and
the barony with respect to hunting rights, so that by the time of the Peasants
Revolt in 1381, it was the abolition of the hunting privileges of the elite, and
not of the royal forest, which formed a part of the rebels demands.9 On a
number of occasions, the political controversy surrounding the Norman for-
est touched the historical Chaucer. John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster, for
whom Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess, upon returning from Spain
in 1389 found his dukedom split by a fierce dispute between denizens of
Yorkshire and his forest officials, over hunting rights in his forests, parks, and
chases there.10 In 1390, Chaucer was robbed of his horse and official monies
by forest vagabonds at a place in Surrey referred to in court proceedings as
le fowle ok.11 A third circumstance even more firmly implicates Chaucer in
forest history and the history of hunting literature. In assuming the North
Petherton forestership, Chaucer substituted for John of Gaunts nephew,
Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York, who would later (ca. 14061413) pen
medieval Englands most ambitious hunting treatise, The Master of Game,
a liberal Englishing of Gaston de Foixs Livre de Chasse.12 Nor was Edward

8. On popular opposition to the royal forest in the fourteenth century, see Raymond Grant, The
Royal Forests of England (Stroud, 1991), 13372. On the Great Charter and its impact on royal forest
policy, see Charles Young, The Royal Forests of Medieval England (Philadelphia, 1979), 13742.
9. Charles Petit-Dutaillis, Studies and Notes Supplementary to Stubbs Constitutional History,
2 vols. (Manchester, U.K., 1915), 2:242, 24647.
10. William Perry Marvin, Hunting Law and Ritual in Medieval English Literature (Cam-
bridge, U.K., 2006), 15859. The conflict stretched from 1387 to 1392. For the legal definitions of
parks, chases, etc., see Grant, The Royal Forests, 2734.
11. Crow and Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records, 478.
12. For Chaucers other connections to Edward of Norwich, see James McNelis, The Uncollated
Manuscripts of the Master of Game: Towards a New Edition (Ph.D. diss., University of
Washington, 1996), 4954; and Marvin, Hunting Law, 115. The most recent edition of Edwards
translation is William A. Baillie-Grohman and F. N. Baillie-Grohman, eds., The Master of Game:
The Oldest English Book on Hunting, foreword by Theodore Roosevelt (New York, 1904). Quotations
of The Master of Game are from McNelis, Uncollated Manuscripts. For Gastons treatise, see
Gunnar Tilander, ed., Gaston Phbus, Livre de Chasse (Karlshamn, 1975). There are three other
extant fourteenth- and fifteenth-century hunting manuals from England: (1) Gunnar Tilander, ed.,
La Vnerie de Twiti (Uppsala, 1956) (first quarter of fourteenth century, Anglo-Norman; fifteenth
century in English translation); (2) Rachel Hands, ed., English Hunting and Hawking in The Boke
of St. Albans (Oxford, 1975) (the second treatise, The Boke of Huntyng, exists in one manuscript
version from ca. 1400, in English); and (3) Anne Rooney, ed., Tretyse off Huntyng (Brussels, 1987)
(mid or late fifteenth century, English). For more on the manuals, see Rooney, Hunting, 711.
326 The Chaucer Review

unfamiliar with his successors literary oeuvre. In the prologue to his manual,
having humbly laid out the purpose of the work, he produces by way of an
epigraph a couplet misremembered from Chaucers prologue to the Legend
of Good Women.13
Chaucers minor role in the decline of the Norman forest administra-
tion having been delineated, the forest setting in the Friars Tale gains a new
depth. For even if it was composed before his appointment to Petherton,
Chaucers reworking of the devil-and-advocate fable engages with the con-
temporary reality of the royal forest bureaucracy that would eventually draw
him into its orbit. Neither the vaguely threatening groves of the Knights Tale,
nor the impromptu hunting zone of the Book of the Duchess, nor the flatly
wrought Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer (V 1190) imaged forth by the
Franklins Tales magician, the forest of the Friars Tale is composed to feel
more historicalif less remarkableto a contemporary audience, because
the tale takes aim at foresters as well as summoners. To be sure, Chaucers
grene-wode shawe (III 1386) owes much to the romance tradition, but the
Friar specifies at the beginning of his tale that the summoner was the wiliest
chap in Engelond (III 1322), and that the archdeacon who supervised him
was dwellynge in my contree (III 1301). Furthermore, the Friars remarks in
his Prologue and the Summoners irate interruptions make clear to the pil-
grims that the fables true target is a flesh-and-blood summoner, opening the
door for a second analogy between the Friars summoner and an historical
one. Finally, the use of technical terminology throughout the tale adds to the
impression of historicity.14
While Chaucers trajectory in the literary-critical imagination from
courtpoet to city poet has bypassed the natural world,15 recent scholarship
has turned to his bureaucratic obligations more generally,16 and for good
13. McNelis, Uncollated Manuscripts, 139, corresponding to Baillie-Grohman and Baillie-
Grohman, eds., The Master of Game, 23: by wrytyng hawyn men mynd of thing passed, for wrytyng
ys key of alle goode remembraunce. The Duke has conflated line 18 of the prologue, Thurgh whiche
that olde thinges ben in mynde, with line 25, Yloren were of remembraunce the keye.
14. For example, execucioun, fornicacioun, diffamacioun and avowtrye, jurisdic-
cioun, hauk to lure, dogge for the bowe, duetee, extorcions, purchas and rente, cariage,
of somonce . . . a bille (III 1303, 1304, 1306, 1319, 1340, 1369, 1391, 1429, 1451, 1570, 1586).
15. The dispute over Chaucers social milieu is as old as Chaucerian studies. Important recent
interventions include George Kane, Chaucer and Langland: Historical and Textual Approaches
(Berkeley, 1989); Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, 1991); Craig E. Bertolet,
Chaucers Envoys and the Poet-Diplomat, Chaucer Review 33 (1998): 6689; Andrew James
Johnston, Clerks and Courtiers: Chaucer, Late Middle English Literature, and the State Formation
Process (Heidelberg, 2001); Ardis Butterfield, ed., Chaucer and the City (Cambridge, U.K., 2006);
and Jenna Mead, Chaucer and the Subject of Bureaucracy, Exemplaria 19 (2007):3966.
16. See Brantley L. Bryant, By extorcions I lyve: Chaucers Friars Tale and Corrupt
Officials, Chaucer Review 42 (2007): 18095; Mead, Chaucer and the Subject; and Cara Hersh,
eric weiskott 327

reason: the historical Chaucer could have boasted along with the Roman de
la Roses Fals-Semblant that

Trop sai bien mes abiz changier,

Prendre lun e lautre estrangier:
Or sui chevaliers, or sui moines,
Or sui prelaz, or sui chanoines,
Or sui clers, autre eure sui prestres,
Or sui deciples, or sui maistres,
Or chastelains, or forestiers;
Briement je sui de touz mestiers.
(lines 1118794)

I know well how to change my guises, pick up one and put down
another: now Im a knight, now Im a monk, now Im a prelate, now
Im a canon, now Im a clerk, at another time Im a priest, now Im a
disciple, now Im a master, now a castellan, now a forester; in short,
I do all the jobs.17

In this extensive list of occupations, officials comprise a decided majority.

Although, of course, Chaucer did not attain to all of these professions, his
work as an esquire, a controller of customs, a clerk of works, a forester, and so
on, doubtless contributed to the panoramic view of society famously explored
in the frame narrative of the Canterbury Tales. Seven of Chaucers pilgrims
are officials in some capacity (the Friar, the Knights Yeoman, the Man of
Law, the Manciple, the Pardoner, the Reeve, and the Summoner). To some
extent, Chaucers diverse stints as a bureaucrat must have contributed to the
timeliness and complexity of the Friars Tales satire on corrupt officialdom.18

Knowledge of the Files: Subverting Bureaucratic Legibility in The Franklins Tale, Chaucer Review
43 (2009): 42854. The turn to bureaucracy was anticipated by Thomas Frederick Tout, Literature
and Learning in the English Civil Service in the Fourteenth Century, Speculum 4 (1929): 36589.
Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse: Thomas Hoccleve and the Literature of Late Medieval England
(University Park, Pa., 2001), stages a related argument for the importance of bureaucracy to
Hoccleves writings.
17. Old French text from Ernest Langlois, ed., Le Roman de la Rose par Guillaume de Lorris
et Jean de Meun, 3 vols. (Paris, 1921), 3:190.
18. For further historical context of the attack on official corruption in FrT, see Thomas
Hahn and Richard Kaeuper, Text and Context: Chaucers Friars Tale, Studies in the Age of Chaucer
5 (1983): 67101; and Bryant, By extorcions. For other versions of the fable, see Robert M. Correale,
Chaucers The Friars Tale, Lines 151112, and Les Cronicles of Nicholas Trevet, Notes and Queries 35
(1988): 29698; Saul Nathaniel Brody, The Fiend and the Summoner, Statius and Dante: APossible
Source for the Friars Tale, D 13791520, Chaucer Review 32 (1997): 17582; and Peter Nicholson,
328 The Chaucer Review

Given the importance of hunting and the royal forest in late-fourteenth-century
English political history, it should not be surprising to find two foresters among
Chaucers creations.19 The pride of place granted to the Knights Yeoman in the
General Prologue testifies to a type and a profession indispensable for a com-
plete compaignye/Of sondry folk (I 2425).20 The Yeoman is outfitted with
clothing and accoutrements proper to a gamekeeper, a private forester serving
a lord. He certainly appears to be ready for whatever the woodlands throw at
him. He wears a green coat and hood, and a brooch imprinted with an image
of St. Christopher; he carries a bow and a sheaf of peacock arrows, a bracer, a
sword, a small shield, a dagger, and a horn with a green shoulder-strap. One
is assured that his aptitude is commensurate with his gear: he looks after his
arrows yemanly (I 106), and Of wodecraft wel koude he al the usage (I 110).
The apparent approbation with which Chaucer the pilgrim pronounces these
earthy wordsyemanly, wodecraftreflects the new aristocratic asso-
ciations of venery and forest husbandry. The implication is that only a very
well-to-do knight possessed the means to retain a skilled forester to patrol his
woodlands and serve as master of game on his hunts.21 While describing in
his treatise the all-important undoing (disembowelment) of the slain deer,
Edward of Norwich distinguishes the hunters competence from that of the
woodman along similar lines and in almost identical terms:
But on at oir syde, if e lorde woll haue at dere vndone, he
at he byddeth, as byforn is seide, shuld vndone hym e moste
wodmanly and clenly at he can. And ne wondreth ou noght at
I say wodmanly, for it is a point at longeth to a wodmanes craft;
and ough it be wele fittyng to ane hunter for to kunne done it,

The Friars Tale, in Robert Correale and Mary Hamel, eds., Sources and Analogues of the
Canterbury Tales, 2 vols. (Cambridge, U.K., 2002, 2005), 1:87100.
19. Chaucers only other references to foresters appear in BD, 361, and (if it is his transla-
tion) in the Middle English Rom, 6329.
20. The term yeman designated a subordinate rank or office. See MED Online, yeman (n.), senses For its forestry connotations, see Richard Almond and A. J. Pollard, The Yeomanry of Robin
Hood and Social Terminology in Fifteenth-Century England, Past and Present 170 (2001): 5277;
and Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood, 2956.
21. Helen Cooper notes that the Yeomans knowledge of wodecraft shows him to be one of
the more practical kind of foresters, the opposite end of the spectrum from the historical Chaucer
(Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, 2nd edn. [Oxford, 1996], 37). On the Knights
Yeoman, see W. B. McColly, Chaucers Yeoman and the Rank of His Knight, Chaucer Review 20
(1985): 1427; and Kenneth J. Thompson, Chaucers Warrior Bowman: The Roles and Equipment
of the Knights Yeoman, Chaucer Review 40 (2006): 386415.
eric weiskott 329

neuerelatter it longeth more to wodmancraft an to hunters. And

erfore, as of e manere how he shuld be vndo, I passe ouere lyghtly,
for er nys no wodman ne good hunter in Englonde at ei ne can
do it wele inow, and wele bettir an I can tech hem.22
Thus the byzantine legal infrastructure governing the foresta regis and the
forestarii regis, which had reached its zenith with Henry IIs 1184 Assize of
the Forest, has been transmuted by Chaucers time into a complex aristo-
cratic craft predicated on a technical protocol. The admirable competency
exhibited by the Yeoman is yeomanry itself, the sum of the duties a forester
performed for his lord. Chaucer rounds out the description of the Yeoman
with the wry observation that A forster was he, soothly, as I gesse (I 117),
as though it needed saying. The irony detectable in this line demonstrates
the fourteenth-century foresters ready recognizability in literature, at least
in ideal terms. For if the symbolical tidiness with which the Yeoman makes
his entrance is fueled by anxieties about the practical problem of distinguish-
ing between foresters, outlaws, and locals in Englands woodlands, Chaucers
portrait shows, at the very least, how a forester ought to appear.
Aside from the ominous frenges blake that adorn his hat, the
devil-yeoman of the Friars Tale is a perfect miniature of the Knights Yeoman,
right down to his gay comportment and his arwes brighte and kene:

And happed that he saugh bifore hym ryde

A gay yeman, under a forest syde.
A bowe he bar, and arwes brighte and kene;
He hadde upon a courtepy of grene,
An hat upon his heed with frenges blake.
(III 137983)

Green trappings are stock symbols of forest-goers, and so they need not indi-
cateany specific connection between the two characters, beyond the typological
one explored below.23 While critics have noted the devils similarity to

22. McNelis, Uncollated Manuscripts, 27071, corresponding to Baillie-Grohman and

Baillie-Grohman, eds., The Master of Game, 176. Emphasis mine.
23. See Joseph Strutt, A Complete View of the Dress and Habits of the People of England, from
the Establishment of the Saxons in Britain to the Present Time, ed. J. R. Planch, 2 vols. (London,
1842; repr. 1970), 2:215.
330 The Chaucer Review

Robin Hood24 and to a hunter,25 the ensuing conversation between the yeoman
and the summoner makes clear that the devil is posing as a bailly (offi-
cial), a fact acknowledged more than once by both characters (III 1396, 1419,
142728, etc.). Clad in green and mounted, the demon most closely resembles
the type of middling forest official known as a riding forester.26 It makes
sense that a devil should impersonate an official in a tale devoted to: (1)the
proper execution of an office; (2) the temptation to embezzle; (3) lordship
and servitude; (4) economies infernal, divine, and human; and (5)the ulti-
mate justice of the social dispensation.27 Rather than providing a colorless
foil for the summoners comeuppance, the devils disguise adds its own spe-
cific layers of irony to the tales moral.28 By dressing the devil as a forestera
departure from all known sources and analoguesChaucer pits one bailly
against another, elaborating a critique of administration that subtly reshapes
the conceit of the devil-and-advocate fable.
The primary ironic effect of the devils trappings is the implicit compari-
son of foresters to devils. Read as a forester, the demon takes on the aspect of
an official supervising his domain, as he inquires after the summoners itiner-
ary with perhaps more than friendly interest: Wher rydestow, under this
grene-wode shawe?/Seyde this yeman, Wiltow fer to day? (III 138687).
At the same time, this is also Satans minister watching for his moment to
snatch away a sinner. When the devil lists for the summoners edification the
disguises available to demons (Somtyme lyk a man, or lyk an ape,/Or lyk an
angel kan I ryde or go [III 146465]), he not only intones the superficiality
of fleshly existence, but defines the contours of an administrative program.29

24. Almond and Pollard, The Yeomanry of Robin Hood, 6263; and Helen Phillips, A gay
yeman, under a forest side: The Friars Tale and the Robin Hood Tradition, in Ruth Evans, Helen
Fulton, and David Matthews, eds., Medieval Cultural Studies: Essays in Honour of Stephen Knight
(Cardiff, 2006), 12337.
25. D. W. Robertson, Jr., Why the Devil Wears Green, Modern Language Notes 69 (1954):
47072; Janette Richardson, Hunter and Prey: Functional Imagery in The Friars Tale, English
Miscellany 12 (1961): 920 (repr. in A. C. Cawley, ed., Chaucers Mind and Art [Edinburgh, 1969],
15565); and R. T. Lenaghan, The Irony of the Friars Tale, Chaucer Review 7 (1973): 28194, at
26. See Grant, The Royal Forests, 11620.
27. Phillips, A gay yeman, 133.
28. On other ironies in the tale, see Earle Birney, After his ymage: The Central Ironies of
the Friars Tale, Mediaeval Studies 21 (1959): 1735; Adrien Bonjour, Aspects of Chaucers Irony in
The Friars Tale, Essays in Criticism 11 (1961): 12127; Richard H. Passon, Entente in Chaucers
Friars Tale, Chaucer Review 2 (1968): 16671; and Lenaghan, The Irony.
29. On the devils demonological disquisition, see Pauline Aiken, Vincent of Beauvais and
the Green Yeomans Lecture on Demonology, Studies in Philology 35 (1938): 19; Birney, After his
ymage, 30; Lenaghan, The Irony; H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., No Vileyns Word: Social Context
and Performance in Chaucers Friars Tale, Chaucer Review 17 (1982): 2139, at 2528; and Gail
eric weiskott 331

The summoners downfall lies in his inability to pierce the superficial reality
by correctly identifying in the foresters garb the signposts of demonhood:
the black-fringed hat, the green gear, the residence fer in the north contree
(III 1413).30 Crucially, both levels of reality represented by the devil-yeoman
contain an administrative system (the royal forest and the administration of
heaven and hell), and the summoner worsts the green-clad stranger in both
of them, to his mortal peril. While attempting to impress a forester, the sum-
moner proves crueler than a devil.
Congruent with the irony that the summoner is crueler than a devil is the
irony that he is crueler than a forester. Foresters reputation for abuses of power
had its roots in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the heyday of the forest
regime in England. In 1279 the denizens of Somerset forest, where Chaucer
was to hold his forestership, made so bold as to bring an action against their
local forest deputies for official malfeasance.31 The form of their complaint
is similar to accounts of corrupt clerical officials in the century to follow,
and the Somerset foresters alleged abuses resemble nothing so much as the
Friars summoners purchasyng (III 1449): they leverage privileges against
their own profit, they extort on pain of frivolous litigation, they steal outright.
By the fourteenth century, the ponderous machinery of the kingdom-wide
Forest Eyre had given way to ad hoc commissions of oyer et terminer and
sporadic local perambulations to reaffirm the bounds of the forest.32 The
rapid decline of the royal forest arrangement (including the desuetude of the
forest courts in the early fourteenth century) accounts for the lack of simi-
lar formal complaints during Chaucers lifetime. As the scale of corruption
in the forest system shrank along with the royal forest itself toward the end
of the fourteenth century, the figure of the corrupt forester hardened into
a literary trope. At the same time, many other administrative systemsfor
example, the ecclesiastical courts that summoners servedwere growing in

Ivy Berlin, Speaking to the Devil: A New Context for The Friars Tale, Philological Quarterly
69 (1990):112.
30. On the association of devils with the colors green and black, see Robertson, Why the
Devil Wears Green; and Jannette Richardson, in The Riverside Chaucer, 875 (explanatory note to
lines 138083). On devils and the north, see Richardson, in The Riverside Chaucer, 876 (explanatory
note to line 1413). See also Clarence H. Miller, The Devils Bows and Arrows: Another Clue to the
Identity of the Yeoman in Chaucers Friars Tale, Chaucer Review 30 (1995): 21114.
31. G. J. Turner, ed. and trans., Select Pleas of the Forest (London, 1901), 12528. For a brief history
of the Somerset royal forest, including North Petherton, see J. Charles Cox, The Royal Forests of
England (London, 1905), 33339.
32. For oyer et terminer (to hear and determine), see Grant, The Royal Forests, 5152. For
perambulations, see Young, The Royal Forests, 13848; and Grant, 16061.
332 The Chaucer Review

power and complexity. Thus the Friars Tale juxtaposes an old problem official
with a new one, implying an analogy between the two.33
The third irony arises from the summoners incorrect assumption that a
forester must be as evil as he himself is. As the Friar explains at the beginning
of his tale, the summoners vices flourish because of his relatively unsuper-
vised position in a bureaucracy (His maister knew nat alwey what he wan
[III 1345])superadded to which, one might say, is the personal hatefulness
that sends this particular summoner to hell. But the most immediate cause of
the summoners predicament is his overestimation of the foresters corruption.
His dumbfounded reply to the devils revelation of his true identity (I wende
ye were a yeman trewely./Ye han a mannes shap as wel as I [III 145758])
signifies not only I thought you were a young man: a person, like me, but also
Ithought you were a bailiff: you look just like me. Under the first interpreta-
tion, the summoner is shocked to learn that the stranger is not of this world;
but, as critics of the tale often note, his subsequent behavior suggests that he
continues to mistake the demon for a mortal. Under the second interpretation,
he is shocked to learn that the stranger is not a corrupt official, a partner in
crime, as he had presumed. Because the devil-yeomans account of his infernal
duties so closely resembles the stereotype of the corrupt forester, the summoner
fails to grasp the superficiality of the disguise. His demonological inquiries
reveal that he understands feend (III 1448) as an exotic subgenre of the term
bailly, and his primary interest in the discussion is to glean [s]om subtiltee
(III 1420) that he can apply to his own endeavors. The first question he puts
to the yeoman (Han ye a figure thanne determinat/In helle, ther ye been in
youre estat? [III 145960]) reveals a mind working to incorporate new infor-
mation into a familiar system, to subsume demondom in the same estates
typology that comprehends summoners and foresters. Later, the devil makes
his most explicit threat on the summoners soul, and the summoner responds
with indignation at the prospect of parting ways with his newfound cohort:

For thou shalt, by thyn owene experience,

Konne in a chayer rede of this sentence
Bet than Virgile, while he was on lyve,
Or Dant also. Now lat us ryde blyve,

33. Compare Phillips: Although the summoner is, on a superficial level, mistaken in supposing
his companion is a bailiff, or that they are both similarly dedicated to extorcion, purchase and
preying on the poor, or both are yeomen (employees), at a deeper level these false perceptions point
tomoral and eschatological truths and to essential points of similarity. . . . The narrative centres on
aseries of paradoxes of simultaneous similarity and dissimilarity (A gay yeman, 129).
eric weiskott 333

For I wole holde compaignye with thee

Til it be so that thou forsake me.
Nay, quod this somonour, that shal nat bityde!
I am a yeman, knowen is ful wyde.
(III 151724)

The summoners retort communicates his stubborn eagerness to win the

foresters allegiance by reiterating his credentials (where yeman equals bailly),
and it also encapsulates his habit of confusing the generic with the specific,
whereby he manages to mistake the supernatural for the merely natural, invis-
ibilia for visibilia.34 What remains implicit here in the world of the tale, but is
made explicit to the reader by the Friars opening description of the yeoman,
is the specific office into which the devil insinuates himself. At a time when
the issue of the royal forest administration was very much on the docket,
readers would have relished the double irony that the summoner fails to allow
for the possibility of a forester less corrupt than he, and then unthinkingly
applies to himself a term for a forest official. Chaucer exploits the semantic
ambiguity of yeman to point up the summoners confusion between the for-
est system and the infernal economy, of which the devil-yeoman is a dutiful
By means of these three major ironies, the tale pits against one another
two incompatible views of officialdom. In order to maximize the contrast,
Chaucer casts the devil in an office roughly equivalent to the summoners
in its position within its administrative hierarchy. The specific choice of a
forester depends on the changing status of this office in the fourteenth cen-
tury, and concomitant changes in the literary representation of forestrythe
same circumstances that produced Robin Hood, whom Richard Almond and
A. J. Pollard identify as a sort of anti-forester.35 Robin Hood represents the
exercise of a new type of literary freedom with regard to the forest, triggered
by rapid disafforestment and the weakening of forest mandates through-
out the fourteenth century. In the Friars Tale a similar type of freedom is a
necessary precondition for the Friars attack on summoners:

To telle his harlotrye I wol nat spare;

For we been out of his correccioun.

34. On invisibilia versus visibilia in the tale, see Aiken, Vincent of Beauvais; D. W. Robertson,
Jr., A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton, 1962), 268; and Brody, The
Fiend and the Summoner, 17980.
35. Almond and Pollard, The Yeomanry of Robin Hood, passim.
334 The Chaucer Review

They han of us no jurisdiccioun,

Ne nevere shullen, terme of alle hir lyves.
(III 132831)

This is the point that so enrages the Summoner. His interruption (Peter!
so been wommen of the styves,/Quod the Somonour, yput out of oure
cure! [III 133233]) aims not only to requite the Friars charge of harlot-
rye with slander of his own, but also to confirm the protocol of his profes-
sion. By rights, a summoner ought to serve the entirety of his archdeaconry;
in practice, wommen of the styves and disreputable friars may escape his
purview. Where the Friar portrays a system impelled at all levels by greed,
the Summoner doubles down his investment in the logic of administration.
Through their verbal sparring and their back-to-back tales, the two pilgrims
engage in a debate about administration, above and beyond the question of
the moral depravity of summonerson which count, of course, they also dif-
fer vehemently.
The Summoner continues his defense of officialdom into his own tale.
The Summoners friar is above all a bad administrator who, in his greed,
perverts proper bookkeeping (He planed awey the names everichon/That
he biforn had writen in his tables [III 175859]).36 His hypocrisy is supple-
mented by his nyfles and . . . fables (III 1760), that is, subversions of official
protocoland ineffectual ones at that, for the invalid Thomas sees through
the friars bloviating and plays him a dirty trick. Like a modern citizen exas-
perated with the Department of Motor Vehicles, Thomas indicts fraternal
inefficiency alongside fraternal corruption:

I in fewe yeres,
Have spent upon diverse manere freres
Ful many a pound; yet fare I never the bet.
(III 194951)

The Summoners friar is incompetent, where the Friars summoner is viciously

effective. The formal disputation over the dividing of the fart gives the

36. The development of double-entry bookkeeping toward the end of the fourteenth century
revolutionized bureaucratic and mercantile systems. See Christopher W. Nobes, ed., The Develop-
ment of Double Entry: Selected Essays (New York, 1984); John M. Ganim, Double Entry in Chaucers
Shipmans Tale: Chaucer and Bookkeeping Before Pacioli, Chaucer Review 30 (1996): 294305; and
R. H. Parker, Accounting in Chaucers Canterbury Tales, Accounting, Auditing, and Accountability
Journal 12 (1999): 92112.
eric weiskott 335

Summoners friar a taste of his own medicine, lampooning the empty jargon
of theology that has usurped the place of expedient bureaucratic language.
By bracketing the Friars tale with arguments over administration,
Chaucer sets the stage for the contrast between the avaricious summoner
and the scrupulous forester. Although the satire inherent in the demons dis-
guise smacks of a certain nervous humor about the ambivalent role of the
fourteenth-century forest administration, the tales treatment of the office is
ultimately quite mild. The devils rueful admission that

My wages been ful streite and ful smale.

My lord is hard to me and daungerous,
And myn office is ful laborous.
(III 142628)

explains, and perhaps apologizes for, official malfeasance in the forest.

Whether or not the apology comes from the poet himselfthe Friars Tale
may well have been composed before 1390the historical Chaucer could
hardly have escaped pondering the reputation of the office he held during the
last decade of his life. When the devil goes on to inform the summoner that

therfore by extorcions I lyve.

For sothe, I take al that men wol me yive.
Algate, by sleyghte or by violence,
Fro yeer to yeer I wynne al my dispence
(III 142932),

he simultaneously voices the stereotype of the corrupt forester, and misrep-

resents his own behavior. As it turns out, the devil will need no sleyghte
or violence to dispose of the summoners soul. Indeed, in all respects
except this very statement, the demon operates with an unsettlingly honest
demeanor. His disquisition on demonology (III 14741522), not found in any
extant analogue of the tale, draws heavily on orthodox theological authori-
ties, and its tone could be described as humble.37 If one is to understand that
he has resorted to low means at other times and under other circumstances,
nevertheless his brand of corruption pales in comparison with the summon-
ers depravities. After all, in collecting the soul of an unrepentant sinner, the

37. See note 29 above. For the tone, note esp. leeve sire somonour (III 1474) and
Withouten hym [God] we have no myght, certayn (III 1487).
336 The Chaucer Review

devil performs an important duty in the divine economy, as he acknowledges:

somtyme we been Goddes instrumentz/And meenes to doon his comande-
mentz (III 148384). Just as the devils honesty highlights the summoners
depravity by contrast, so too both characters misapplication of the corrupt
forester topos destabilizes the stereotype.

Read in the context of forest history and the rise of bureaucracy in England,
the summoners morbid curiosity about demondom recapitulates a growing
contemporary fascination with officialdom, making the Friars Tale a kind
of brief speculum officiale. Within the predictable logic of the devil-and-
advocate fable, the summoners inquisitiveness leads to his damnation, while
on a metatextual view, it signals a departure from the world of good and
evil. As in the tales sources and analogues, Chaucers devil does not lower or
cackle; his respect for entente marks him as an exemplary officer. By casting
the devil as a forest official, Chaucer goes one step further than his sources
in suggesting an administrative rather than a theological moral for the tale.
The devils double instantiation as demon and yeoman invites a comparison
between divine and secular administrations, and if Chaucer seems to suggest,
or to have his Friar suggest, that clerical administration by its nature encour-
ages corruption, the obvious irony of selecting the despised royal forest as
its well-ordered opposite reveals the outlines of a much more nuanced cri-
tique of officialdom. When the devil-yeoman forcibly invites the summoner
to knowen of oure privetee (III 1637), Chaucer not only makes perfectly
clear the Friars heavy-handed point that it is in the depths of the abyss that
somonours han hir heritage (III 1641); he also raises for his audience the
narrative possibility of embarking on the Dantean journey to hell and back,
for a working knowledge of the divine and infernal privetee that takes the
form of an administration, and in whose image human organization is bound
to discover its form.

Yale University
New Haven, Connecticut