The term character can be applied in several ways. It can mean either a physical being, or to their total pattern of behavior. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one is used to complement the other. He often uses certain physical characteristics to dictate exactly how the person is going to act*. This is most evident in the Summoner’s Tale. The Summoner is ugly, with a scary face, but also turns out to have a very ugly personality, between his job, attitudes, and values, which come out through his physical descriptions.**.Chaucer’s use of physical characteristics is most obvious in the Summoner’s Tale.
The Summoner is a scary sight, but not only because he looks so hideous. He also has a hideous job- a summoner is a kind of religious bounty hunter. He seeks down people that need to do their penances and make sure they do them. He is described as having acne so bad “no quicksilver, lead ointment, tartar creams,/ no brimstone, no boracic, so it seems,/ could make a salve… to cure his whelks of knobby white.” So, when people saw him coming, they would already be repulsed simply by his physical image. However, if they knew who he was, they would also be afraid that he was coming to get them. So, he is scary in more than one way.
His behavior is as ugly as his face. “Questio quid juris was his tag.” The Latin phrase questio quid juris means “the question is, what is the point in law?” He is supposed to be upholding the Church’s law, but was known to turn his back (for a fee). Finally, he was an extortionist, with a heart as black as his beard. He would learn people’s secrets and then tell them he would tell the Church. They would pay him to keep his mouth shut. Sometimes he even set them up with a girl for wine.
Chaucer’s image of the Summoner with “his face on fire” helps describe his fiery attitudes, even though it directly refers to his facial features. He is prone to drunken rages, often spouting Latin phrases and arguing with people. In fact, his whole tale is told because he was mad at the Friar for insulting him. He is very argumentative, and vulgar. He tells a crude story about the afterlife of Friars, in revenge for the Friar’s Tale, as way of prologue into his tale. Even his tale is about a greedy Friar, who is so desperate he looks beneath a sick man’s buttocks for something “hidden there for secrecy.” Upon receiving a loud fart, he is shocked, but what else can he have expected? According to the Summoner, Friars are greedy and stupid, a very immature attempt to gain revenge on the Friar, demonstrating how vindictive he is.
Finally, he does not believe in the traditional values of medieval Christianity, although he is supposed to be one of its proponents. He is described as having a “garland set upon his head,” leading the reader into believing he is a homosexual. He allows men to commit sins, like adultery, without punishment as long as they paid him. Usually he took his payments in the form of wine, but also accepted cash. “Why he’d allow -just for a quart of wine- / any good lad to keep a concubine/ a twelvemonth!” He was very corrupt, a common theme in Chaucer’s clergy. By accepting bribes to keep his mouth shut, he was essentially blackmailing the men of the community, instead of telling someone like he was supposed to. As his description says he “Sang deep seconds to [the Pardoner’s] song,” a love song.
He has a deep voice, and is singing harmony to the Pardoner, suggesting their relationship is more than business related. Homosexuality was almost a sin in the Middle Ages, but for one who was supposed to make other pay for their sins he had a propensity for disregarding them. “As he pleased the man could bring duress/ on any young fellow in the diocese/ he knew their secrets, they did what he said.” He held them in fear of being cursed, and leave them no hope for salvation, by dangling their sins over their heads. So they must do as he says. A Medieval man is not supposed to cause others harm, but try to help them. In fact, his job was to try to save them by making sure they atoned for their sins and gained entry into heaven. So even by the nature of his job, he isn’t holding to traditional values.
In conclusion, Chaucer effectively sketched the character of the Summoner, using physical traits to attempt to analyze the underlying traits of the character. The reader can become very familiar with who he is (liar, drinker, extortionist) simply by the way Chaucer describes him physically (ugly, large pimples and boils on his face), even though the image is backed up by the character’s own actions (drinking, letting young men commit adultery and other sins).