Charity Refused and Curses Uttered in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale–By Jennifer Culver

Few Chaucerian scholars explore the widow of the Friar’s Tale when discussing Chaucer’s female characters.[1] Even fewer texts examine Chaucer’s view of the developing social concept of witchcraft or the stereotype of the widow as a hag or witch figure. In this paper I will first illustrate how the widow from the Friar’s Tale closely resembles the hag figure of the witch and analyze her representation through the model of charity refused. Then I will demonstrate how the character of the summoner in the Friar’s Tale is given power through a modified curse, only to squander it because of his spiritually degenerate state. Ultimately, I conclude that Chaucer’s early portrayal of a cursing hag represents a transitional figure and portrays a glimpse of a stereotype that is to come, an image of the hag that will raise questions about “trouthe” and agency in the Early Modern Period.

Widow as Witch

Witchcraft, seen in this time period and for some time to come as “the attribution of misfortune to occult human agency,”[2] was considered Christian heresy by church authorities since the early Middle Ages, but was not necessarily seen this way by the popular folk, who continued to blend folk practices with Christian ideas well into the Middle Ages despite sermons and other treatises denouncing such “superstitious practice.”[3] Beliefs in the power and nature of practices considered magical shifted throughout the medieval period for a variety of reasons, including changes to political, economic, social and religious conditions throughout the centuries.[4] In the late fourteenth century when Chaucer wrote the Friar’s Tale, church authorities tried to dissuade their flock from the practice of superstition by claiming it was “worthless” and “illusory.”[5] Based on this this argument, words, be it a curse or other kind of charm for positive magic, did not seem to carry much weight. Yet, the transition from the late medieval to the Early Modern period brought an increased fear of not only magic but also of the figure of the witch and her words.[6] In contrast to the continental concept of witchcraft that presumed there was an element of organization meant to undermine societal structures and that witches had extensive relationships with the Devil, the majority of the early perceptions of witchcraft in England dealt with maleficia, or bad actions against another person. The first statute making witchcraft a felony in England was in 1542[7] which focused on acts deemed harmful to the community, such as causing bodily harm, that could be redressed if the witch forfeited all of her goods and her land.[8] Usually, however, prosecutions did not appear unless the accused had a negative reputation in the community, such as being a disagreeable neighbor.[9] Prior to this statute and during Chaucer’s day, the ecclesiastical court heard most of the accusations of witchcraft,[10] which creates an ideal opportunity for the Friar’s Tale’s summoner, an officer of such a court, to act against the poor widow.

In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale,[11] the summoner targets a widow on the outskirts of town who fits what will later become the stereotype of a woman accused of witchcraft. From 1300-1500, over two-thirds of those accused of witchcraft were women, with more being unmarried women and most of the unmarried women being widows.[12] Before this stereotype took hold, it drew on beliefs, anxieties, and stereotypes that already existed in Chaucer’s time. In the Friar’s Tale, Chaucer presents an early form of this stereotype with an old, poor widow who resorts to cursing her blackmailer when it is clear there is no legal or political recourse for her. As a widow, she did not have a man to keep her “reigned in,” so she would have been considered problematic because she existed outside the political and legal framework of society. All she has left to her are her words.

The widow believes in the power of words, as shown by her intercessory pleadings: “Crist Jesu, kyng of kynges, / So wisly helpe me, as I ne may,” (III.1590-91) and “Now, lady Seinte Marie / So wisly help me out of care and synne.” (III.1604-05),[13] Yet, her words fail her because her request for charity is refused. She is caught in a manipulative situation created by a man who represents the ecclesiastical system she has just implored with no success. While she may not see the summoner as an inspired man of God, he does represent her Church. It may be when her entreaties both to the heavens and to the summoner are refused, that the audience realizes even her words, her last recourse against the injustice she faces, are not potent. The widow from the Friar’s Tale is, in fact, powerless.

This widow represents a very real powerless class of women in Chaucer’s day. More prevalent after times of war and plague, widows were often the most dependent on support from neighbors and many were characterized as a “scold” or woman with a vicious tongue who were prone to insults and curses. Because a widow had neither father nor husband to represent her and keep her within the expected norms of society, the widow was also a feared figure and the cause of anxiety for some in her community.[14] The Friar’s widow is already geographically marginalized, as she is “somewhat out of towne,” (III.1571) and described as uncharitable, as the summoner states that she “hadde almost as life to lese hir nekke / As for to yeve a penny of hir good,” (III.1574-75). The summoner also characterizes her as “wood,” (III.1576), a term that can imply mental instability, but admits to the fiend that he cannot actually find a true vice from her and must resort to blackmail. This mixed presentation of the widow, uncharitable yet without true vice, suggests that virtue can exist outside the normative bounds of society. The summoner then knocks on the door and calls her a hag or “virytrate,” (III.1582). The widow’s initial hospitality and warmth, which is certainly not returned, also depicts her as more virtuous than the summoner in the eyes of the reader. She certainly does not appear to expect to be facing charges by a summoner. Being accused of cursing was a significant charge leveled mostly against older women like the Friar’s widow. The widow suddenly faces charges in an ecclesiastical court that suggest she needs to be reconciled with her Church.[15]

Before turning to the Friar’s Tale, it may be helpful to clarify the perceptions of magic and cursing in Chaucer’s day. Magic, hereby defined as an actor attempting to manipulate change in the natural world through his or her own efforts, and religion are currently understood as separate entities. That was not necessarily the case in the Middle Ages. The lines were often blurred and the medieval church weakened the boundaries between charms and prayers and even promoted the idea of gaining virtue and remaining in a holy state of mind through the repetition of certain “holy” words.[16] Chaucer was writing in an age when changes in religious ideas were prevalent, creating questions about several theological issues regarding the presence of miracles in contemporary times and use of medieval “magic,” such as holy water for healing, bells to dispel a storm, and wearing scripture as a talisman against danger.[17] In the Middle Ages, some magic in the form of curses were even sanctioned by the Church as retribution against immoral behavior such as ignoring the content of papal letters, not paying tithes, stealing books, and violating charters. Not everyone in England, however, agreed with this practice. Some debated it and argued that cursing was blasphemous because it, in effect, commanded God to do something.[18] By denying any claim the Church could make to wield supernatural power, some people discounted current events cited as miracles, which would seem to include effective curses, and stated that the time for miracles was when the Church was new and forming, but the faith had already been established and miracles were no longer necessary to keep people faithful.[19] In popular culture, some forms of cursing were considered effective against actions such as theft during the Middle Ages and continued up until the nineteenth century.[20] Curses were considered most effective when they came from justified anger, which arose mainly from the poor in the form of the Beggar’s Curse, a “fateful malediction upon those who refused alms.”[21] Chaucer does not note the emotion of the widow when she utters the curse the first or second time, so as a reader, one cannot measure whether there was “ire,” “rancour,” or desperation in her voice, seen as part of the problem with cursing from the Parson’s Tale, which states that cursing:

[…]comth of irous herte. Malisoun generally may be seyd every maner power or harm. Swich cursynge bireveth man fro the regne of God, as seith Seint Paul./ And ofte tyme swich cursynge wrongfully retorneth again to hym that curseth, as a bryd that retroneth again to his owene nest. /And over alle thyngmen oghten eschewe to cursen hire children and yeven to the devel hire engendrure, as ferforth as in hem is. Certes, it is greet peril and greet synne.” (X.619-621).

Popular sentiment conveyed the notion that the curses of the poor carried with them a sense of divine moral retribution if charity had been refused to them. Even though the summoner has already admitted to his companion that the widow has not cursed anyone, the charge of cursing is an appropriate trumped charge for the widow. Curses would have been her last resort when treated by an unkind world, and emerge from frustration and a feeling of helplessness against a system and community that no longer holds dear the idea of charity and community obligation.[22]

The late medieval period in England was also a period of sweeping change that aroused social anxiety. There were periodic outbreaks of plague and other epidemics, bad harvests, and beginnings of mercantilism that would lead to agricultural capitalism in the Early Modern period. Such dramatic changes produced a great deal of anxiety in society. Not surprisingly, the majority of the accusations of witchcraft came from the smaller communities which were the most exacerbated from the pervasive changes.[23] The aforementioned changes, the beginnings of mercantilism and the change in attitude toward charity would all contribute to the shift from affirming curses as a form of sanctioned recourse after a display of uncharitable behavior to condemning curses acts of diabolical witchcraft. Prosecutions against magic increased in Europe during the fourteenth century. Most often women who fit the image of the hag (alone, elderly, and marginalized)were the target of persecution.[24] Accusations of cursing typically originated from “below,” from the townspeople, in England and not from authorities. Neighbors reported against neighbors and, when tensions ran high, even accused the innocent of witchcraft for real or imagined occurrences.[25] In times when anxiety ran high, neighbors suspected their neighbors and saw curses and possible acts of malice in even the slightest of actions.

In such a time of turmoil, a reputation for cursing could result in an accusation of witchcraft against the hag or widow. Indeed, the list of types of maleficia of witchcraft that would have been prosecuted in an ecclesiastical court, like the one the summoner threatens to send the widow to, included cursing. Chaucer includes witchcraft in the list of possible punishable ecclesiastical offenses in the beginning of this tale (III. 1305). The fake charge is presented as an “instance” case, a case brought to the ecclesiastical court by a plaintiff instead of one originating from the judge himself, because the widow asks for a written claim when she says, “May I nat axe a libel,” (III.1595).[26]

However, before the widow employs any curse against the summoner, lest she enact what she has been accused of, the widow begs for charity from the summoner, as she is “poure and oold,” (III.1608) and a “wrecche,” (III.1069). Designating herself as a “wrecche” further reflects the widow’s outcast state. Even she sees herself as not a part of her community, but an exile. The word “wrecche” also has connotations of being driven out or banished, which may imply that the widow has been sent to her marginalized state instead of merely finding herself there as a result of poor circumstances.[27] The Anglo-Saxon word, “wrecche” implies a wretched state, a condition a man could find himself in, for example, if he had failed to serve his lord. Chaucer’s widow lost some of the ties to her community at the death of her husband, leaving her marginalized and unable to perform in a productive way to the greater community. While the summoner clearly displayed knowledge of the widow, citing her lack of vice earlier, it is not made clear whether or not the widow knows the summoner and his materialistic tendencies. Asking for charity from a member of the ecclesiastical court reflects her desperate state and begins to set into motion the events leading to the summoner’s demise.

When the summoner refuses her request of charity, the widow is provoked to curse him at the end of the tale. The refusal of charity, as noted above, was a common reason for a widow to make a curse. Chaucer portrays in this exchange what was becoming a more common conflict between neighbors. With a growing sense of private property and unsure line of which charity should come from neighbors and which should come from the community at large, tensions arising from requests for charity would become more prevalent. In the Early Modern period, the refused widow would typically be accused of witchcraft because some curse would be uttered as a response to the denial. The widow would also be said to have a “vicious tongue” and be “full of rancour.”[28] These similarities allow us to see Chaucer’s cursing widow as an early example of stereotype for the woman who would later be called “witch,” as she is already depicted as a hag.

This “charity refused” model has been tracked through accusations from the late Middle Ages into the Early Modern period, particularly in Essex, noting how many of the women were first refused something small from her accuser. Accusations of witchcraft and belief in witches actually fortified the tradition of charity because neighbors feared refusing a poor widow for fear of injury to themselves, their families, and/or their animals. Some women used this fear to their advantage as the last line of defense for sheer survival. As early as 1454 Dorothy Hindremstein was almost burned at the stake with her other standing before her because her neighbors in Lucerne believed she cursed them after some perceived slight to her or her family. According to court testimony, Hindremstein would encourage this notion, with reports from witnesses claiming Hindremstein would say that people would not forget their offense against her.[29] If any illness or malady would occur soon after such an encounter, families would be inclined to consider themselves cursed. Such accusations occurred in England as well. The Lancaster trials of 1612 included reports that some villagers felt no one was safe from Elizabeth Southernes (also known as ‘Old Demdike’)whenever someone gave her family “any occasion of offense or denied them any thing they stood need of.”[30] During Jacobean times, Elizabeth Fletcher was noted as one who “had so powerful a hand … that none of them refused to do anything she required.”[31] Accusations stemming from refused charity charted throughout the period revolved around an accused woman much like Chaucer’s widow as the figure begging for charity, usually for something small like a bit of food.

This refusal of charity from the poor person at the door, according to Macfarlane, whether it be for an agreed upon amount or for a bit of butter, milk or bread would result in subsequent guilt from their refusal to help based on the teachings of the Church. The Church was not alone in advocating charity. The seventeenth-century witchcraft skeptic Thomas Ady stated: “When overtaken by a disaster, we should not ask ourselves ‘What old man or woman was last at my door, that I may hang him or her for a witch?’… We should rather say, ‘Because I did not relieve a poor body that was lately at my door but gave him harsh and bitter words, […] God hath laid this affliction on me.”[32] Moving from feelings of guilt for failing to live up to Christian standards into an accusation of witchcraft against a begging widow would have required the accuser to progress through a series of emotions. After guilt, according to Macfarlane, anger arises in the accuser. This anger stems directly from the accuser being made to feel guilty for refusing charity. The anger intensifies, forcing the accuser to act against the beggar, which results in an accusation of witchcraft. The accusation then gives power to the accuser by turning the tables on a situation and making the victim look as if she is to blame. The accuser now becomes the victim in this cycle, gaining sympathy from her community and validating her place within society.[33] Often those accused of witchcraft would utter some sort of curse words after being refused, but there is no evidence that most of them believed these curses to have any potency. Instead, the curse reflects the helplessness and frustration the poor found in a changing world.

When the Friar’s widow makes her first curse, saying to the summoner, “Unto the devel, blak and rough of hewe, / Yeve I thy body and my panne also!” (III. 1622-24), the reader is left to wonder if she is pleading for divine judgment, calling up the power of age and wisdom to damn the summoner on her own merit, or following what will be the formulaic process in the description of witchcraft trials of resorting to allowing the devil to help her out of a helpless situation. She does not appear to be claiming powers of witchcraft. Instead, Chaucer’s widow appears to be speaking out of frustration originating from a false accusation with no hope for recourse. Her previous intercessions would imply that the widow sees herself as able to ask for divine aid, but not capable of creating her own assistance in a magical way. With the fiend in literal presence and asking for clarification, one could see Chaucer hinting to later and popular demonological ideas about curses, as some believed that successful curses reflected a witch in league with the Devil.[34] As the more pious of the characters, the widow might have had a better chance of recognizing the fiend, but if she does, she does not address him, referring to the “devel” in third person each time.

The Summoner and his Spirituality

Chaucer’s choice of a summoner to be the companion to the fiend and create distress for the widow is unique and breaks from the previous narrative pattern of secular companions for the fiend in the tales.[35] By placing a religious figure in such a context, Chaucer invites discussion on the role of the Church and its authority figures in a world when people, particularly in the popular culture, could condemn another person to death with venomous words. By having the character be a summoner, Chaucer intensifies the widow’s isolation, as it appears that not only has an anonymous neighbor accused her, but that now the ecclesiastical court has taken an interest.

In Chaucer’s tale, the summoner feels no guilt for refusing the charity, which is one of the many signs displayed of his spiritual degeneration. Signs of the summoner’s poor spiritual state exist throughout the tale and produce another topic that will later be more intimately tied to witchcraft: demonology. The Friar’s Tale, as an exemplum, is meant to not only teach about charity for the poor, but also about the many wiles of demons. The extensive dialogue between the summoner and the fiend, particularly about demons, is not found in the other devil-advocate tales.[36] Within the context of this dialogue between summoner and fiend, Chaucer develops the summoner character more fully as someone who is spiritually lacking, and sets up him up as a foil to the more spiritual widow who will follow, thus enhancing the irony.

When comparing the summoner’s exchange with the fiend with exchanges with the devil or other demons from literature, one can see another chance the Friar (and Chaucer) takes to undermine the spirituality of the summoner. Despite clues, the summoner cannot recognize his traveling companion. Instead of asking the yeoman’s origin and name, as more moral characters such as saints in hagiographical texts do, the summoner asks partial questions, and more out of the motivation for more profit than for being concerned about the state of his soul.[37] As a member of the clergy, he should have been able to recognize the fiend, but instead he tries to identify more with the demon by claiming he has the same occupation as the fiend (III.1392). The summoner’s questions continue to reflect his spiritually poor state. He remains preoccupied with worldly and physical concerns, such as the nature of the fiend’s shapeshifting and possible material gain, instead of trying to find out the intent of the fiend.[38] By highlighting the summoner’s spiritual ignorance, this tale subtly becomes a revelation of demonic action so the reader can be wiser than the summoner by learning to be wary of the tricks of the devil.

Making an oath with the fiend in the beginning immediately cues to the reader that the summoner is not spiritually centered. During this time period, an oath was a solemn undertaking with social and legal ramifications and carried supernatural weight.[39] In one sense, the summoner has no place taking an oath with the yeoman, fiend or no, because he already is placed within a rigid oath system. Chaucer’s placement of the oath between the two figures reflects more changes in the social and economic world of his time. Loyalties were shifting from a top-down system to one with more horizontal leanings that valued loyalty to one’s own social group.[40] One evolving change was that a person could enter into temporary contractual agreements with another for monetary gains between two parties that would, at times, supersede other obligations laid out in a feudal sense.[41] The summoner in the Friar’s Taledisplays a variety of loyalties, each seeming fluid depending on his immediate needs. He is not only a part of an archdeacon’s court, but also leading a network of spies and now in the agreement with the fiend. The reader would know to be wary of any relationship with a demon, but the summoner appears to think that he can handle his end of the bargain and is, in some way, equal to the fiend.[42]

By inserting the Church into the discourse through the presence of the summoner and the sincere religious pleas for intercession from the widow, Chaucer has created another avenue for commentary on the current Church. The positions of the Friar and summoner were late additions to the Church, as opposed to roles such as the parson, and both positions were created primarily to help the Church obtain funds.[43] Chaucer had harsh words for his pilgrim the summoner in General Prologue as well, describing the summoner as a “gentil harlot” (I.647) who would gladly share “his concubyn” in exchange for wine (I.650). He also punished people in the “purse” if he thought the purse was where the man’s soul lived (I.656-657) and threatened excommunication in between exclamations of Latin while drunk. With this picture of a summoner already in the reader’s mind, it is not hard to believe that the Friar’s summoner could also be corrupt enough to try to bribe a poor widow.

After the widow curses the summoner the first time he refuses to give her aid, she is asked for clarification by the demon. The widow then modifies her curse, saying, “The devel…so fecche hym er he deye, / And panne and al, but he wol hym repente!” (III. 1628-1630), she places the fate of the summoner in his own hands, giving him the chance to determine his fate. Scholars note that Chaucer seems to support the idea that curses and other forms of magic should not be a part of the contemporary Church. Most of his true miracles occur in times long ago and far away, versus the contemporary “miracles” being false and typically employed for material gain.[44] While popular belief throughout the late medieval and Early Modern period attributed the efficacy of curses to divine justice or the aid of the devil through some pact,[45] Chaucer’s contemporary Church and devil in the Friar’s Tale is portrayed as powerless because the individual is depicted as having the power to save or damn himself. Even if the nature and degree of efficacy of the widow’s curse was questionable to Chaucer’s readers, the words of the widow’s curse, hoping to display her helplessness, do not move her blackmailer. He clearly holds no belief in any type of miracle that would send him to hell.

“Trouthe” and Agency

Although the clues the summoner missed regarding the identity of the fiend, the fiend still attempts to show the summoner the consequences of oaths with the episode with the carter. The fiend attempts to teach the summoner about the “trouthe” of intent, versus literal speech. The summoner has already been given the chance to go back on the agreement with the fiend, once the fiend exposes his true identity, but refuses, saying:

that shal nat bityde.
I am a yeman knowen is ful wyde;
My trouthe wol I holde, as in this cas.
For though thou were the devel Sathanus,
My trouthe wol I holde to thee my brother,
As I am sworn – and ech of us til oother –

For be trewe brother in this cas, (III.1523-1529).

When the carter is presented, the fiend displays a deeper understanding of words and intent than the summoner appears to have. The three inconsistent oaths made by the summoner, particularly the last one in which he says, “ther Jesu Crist yow blesse, / And al his handwerk, both moore and lesse!” (III. 1561-62) show that the carter does not actually want anyone or anything to have the fiend, “fecce, body and bones, / As ferfothly as evere were ye foled,” (III.1544-45) but was speaking serious words in a casual way to relate a feeling of frustration over a difficult situation. The “trouthe” of the matter is that the carter never wanted to condemn anything, but the summoner was willing to move quickly with the literal meaning of his words, regardless of intent, because it would lead to material gain for him and his fiendish friend.

In the Friar’s Tale, the “trouthe” is degraded, as is the female role, because it conveys the summoner’s stupidity in thinking he must keep an agreement he made with a fiend.[46] Compared to the previous Wife’s tale, the reader sees a sharp decline from the Wife’s loathly lady revealing a deeper “trouthe” concerning “gentilesse.” The idea of “trouthe” both tales can agree upon is that “trouthe” comes from within, be it an understanding of honor or a missed opportunity for charity to others and then redemption.[47] The summoner consistently chooses the “trouthe” of materialism and promised material gain over the “trouthe” advocated by the Church. Since he has no problem blackmailing for material gain, he certainly will have no problem denying a poor woman charity. If he has no problem with either of those actions, he cannot see why he needs redemption. Unlike the knight from the Wife’s Tale, the summoner does not learn a deeper “trouthe,” even when it is pointed out to him.

The tale departs from the formula for “charity refused” further in the Friar’s Tale, when the summoner does not accuse the hag of witchcraft, but of past adultery, which she also denies (III.1616). The original charge of cursing is not repeated and instead the summoner brings out another fabricated accusation, one that is equally hard to prove but not in the model of charity refused. In response this new accusation the widow falls to her knees and curses the summoner and the pan he offers to take to cover the debt to give both “unto the devel,” (III.1622). Falling on one’s knees was one indication of making a formal curse,[48] and Chaucer may have placed the widow in this position for a couple of reasons. One reason may be literal, so that the audience can envision her going through the physical motions of creating an actual curse. A contemporary reader familiar with the physical ritual of cursing could have read this and believed that the widow felt she had the power to curse the summoner who has wronged her. Another reason may be more symbolic, so that the audience coulud perceive her as a helpless victim. At this point, it is ambiguous whether or not the widow truly intends to damn the summoner. When the carter spoke out of frustration, the fiend waited for the difficult instance to pass and the carter righted the situation himself with his later words. Here, the widow is given the chance to renounce her words, but chooses only to modify them. It appears from the previous examples and the fiend’s previous words that, “It is nat his entente,” (III.1556) that the widow truly wishes the summoner to be damned.

When the widow repeats her intent for the fiend (III.1638-29), she modifies the curse to include the possible repentance on the part of the summoner. Literally, the widow is showing her true sense of faith. She is not aligning herself with the Devil to accomplish this end, as so many after her will be accused of doing,[49] but instead she is asking for a sense of divine judgment in the intercessory form that was so commonly sought in the Middle Ages. Her appeal to divine justice produces irony in a text, as justice appears to come from the mouth of a marginalized woman instead of from the archdeacon’s court.[50] The widow has already appealed to other saints to intercede in this impossible situation, and with the caveat for repentance, she creates a way for the summoner to take away the consequences of her words. If the devil truly will take the summoner, the widow understands it to be a manifestation of God’s will and not by the power of her own doing.

Chaucer uses the figures of the widow, summoner and fiend to raise questions about authority and agency within the Friar’s Tale. The choice of genre of the tale, an exemplum or exemplary tale with an overt moral, a genre once reserved only for clergy, to question clergy intensifies the irony of the narrative, as it seems to give the power of redemption in the hands of a lay person, not a representative of the Church.[51] Yet Chaucer deftly seems to move the power from the lay figure of the women to God as she modifies her curse to include the possibility of redemption. When the summoner chooses not to repent, thinking he is choosing to pursue the material gain over some later supernatural benefit, Chaucer creates more irony for the situation, as the summoner’s choice actually has more supernatural ramifications than he realizes.[52] With the presence of the fiend inside the tale, the fulfillment of the curse is not only inevitable, as some have noted, but predictable, forcing not only the summoner but the fiend to act within a Christian context and medieval understanding of the importance of repentance. Repentance must be individual, not institutional,[53] and Chaucer shows in the exemplum the literal fear of damnation for acts not repented for when chances are given.

More importantly, however, Chaucer’s move in this modified curse is stripping even more power from the widow. By giving the summoner the chance to repent, the widow has actually given him the chance to condemn himself or save himself; she is out of the equation.[54] She relinquishes her agency to the summoner, and, in a larger sense, to God. This relinquishment of her agency happens voluntarily and without a reflection on the part of the widow. Had she not modified the curse and instead held to her original curse with the proper cursing posture and even justified motive, the widow’s belief in the power of her own agency would have been apparent. With the modified curse, her original words appear to be more out of desperation than volition, which strips them of power. This is not Lancaster’s Elizabeth Fletcher mentioned earlier, a woman whom few dared refuse for fear of a malicious retaliation,[55] it is a poor widow who has given away any power her words might have contained. It is the summoner who damns himself, and with the chance of repentance, Chaucer removes the fearful possibility of a cursing hag and instead moves the discussion to the idea that all can find redemption through repentance.[56]


The Friar’s hag has the deceptive appearance of what will become the stereotypical witch. She is a widow, poor, and on the outskirts of town. She is even accused of cursing, a crime leading to being labeled a witch. When refused charity, she curses the uncharitable, in this case the summoner. The issue of agency creates the difference from the Friar’s widow and the later Early Modern witch figure that would later become the target of anxiety throughout the country. The later stereotype of the witch promoted the image of a woman who uses her agency to harm others or to ally with the Devil to inflict harm to others. The Friar’s widow does not harm others but instead modifies her curse, giving the agency of damnation to the summoner. She is not feared by the summoner, nor should she be when she relinquishes her agency, placing Chaucer’s early view of the hag-witch and the issue of charity refused in the context of individual choice and chances for redemption.

Chaucer’s presentation of an early example of the conflict that arises from a charity refused scenario appears to foreshadow a model that will envelop England in the late medieval and Renaissance periods in response to social, economic, and religious changes that forge a completely different outlook on charity between neighbors. The female figure most likely to be accused of witchcraft after being refused charity, the hag, is included in Chaucer’s model. The Friar’s widow foreshadows the stereotype perfectly in her appearance and by her predicament, but not in her ability. By contrast, Chaucer presents a world in which the individual, not a witch or fiend or other figure, has the agency and power to save or damn himself. While she may resemble the popular hag/witch image that is to come, Chaucer does not reduce her to that. Instead she is depicted as a character that inspires pity not prejudice, which was consistent with the late fourteenth century mindset. Therefore, Chaucer’s widow serves as a transitional figure, sharing almost every characteristic of the later “witch” figure except the power behind her words to do ill, if that was what she sincerely intended to do with her curse at all. As England moved into the fifteenth century, attitudes about curses and other forms of magic changed. By then, magic was seen as real and dangerous.[57] With the shift in attitude about magic came an increased anxiety about its prominence. Karen Jolly posits one reason for this may be the increased literacy rate, particularly among the laity.[58] These new lay readers showed an interest in spiritual matters, including manuals describing divination techniques, albeit Christian ones and stories about magic.[59] According to Jolly, because more people could disseminate stories about magic, and spread the stories more quickly, an increased perception of the danger regarding magic arose, making any crisis appear a possible act of witchcraft.[60] Stores and rumors depicting a hag’s curse producing loss of cattle or disease would only perpetuate the tension. As the Middle Ages moved to a close, reformers continued to try to attack superstitious practice in any form and “purge” Christianity of false beliefs and heretical practice.[61] The helpless widow transitions into the witch during an influential increase in the belief in the dangerous power of words, in a fear of demons corrupting marginalized women, and in social anxiety due to drastic changes in religious, social and economic practices. If Chaucer’s widow inspires the medieval ideal of pity, the witch she becomes propagates the Early Modern propensity for fear and persecution.

Jennifer Culver is working toward a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas. She received a Master’s in Literature from the University of North Texas. Her Master’s Thesis argued that the “valkyrie” figure has a greater prominence of in Anglo-Saxon literature than previously acknowledged. Her main interests are folklore, mythic representations, and medieval literature.

Creative Commons Licence
Charity Refused and Curses Uttered in Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale by Jennifer Culver is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Texts such as Priscilla Martin’s Chaucer’s Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990) have no mention of the widow or the tale at all.
  2. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p.519. Thomas details the magical practices and purposes for magic, then explores how changes in religion, society, economics and law caused a lessening belief in magical practices and, for a time, accusations of witchcraft.
  3. Karen Jolly’s “Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, and Practices” in Bengt Ankarloo and Stuart Clark’s Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.7.
  4. Ibid., p.13. Jolly classifies the medieval opinions regarding magic into three periods. These are the conversion period, from roughly 300-311, the twelfth century, and the period of social and political dislocation which starts around 1350 (before Chaucer’s writing).
  5. Ibid., p.24.
  6. Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.192.
  7. Thomas, p.525. This statute was repealed in 1547. A new statute was passed in 1563, which was repealed in 1604. The final statute, the only one indicating any pact with the Devil, was created in 1604 and not repealed until 1736.
  8. Ibid., p.543.
  9. Kieckhefer, p.192.
  10. Thomas, p.548. Thomas takes pains to note that while the “machinery” was available for prosecution, relatively few charges were raised in the Middle Ages. It is not until later that any type of “craze” strikes England.
  11. For readers not familiar with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Friar’s Tale can be summarized in five main sections. In the first section, lines 1301-1374 in the third part of the Ellesmere manuscript, the friar introduces his main character as a very corrupt summoner. This summoner works for an archdeacon in an ecclesiastical court and carries out a variety of scandalous practices, including thieving, pimping, and fooling the poor into giving him money. In fact, the friar’s description of the summoner was so negative that while the summoner is traveling to Canterbury he is interrupted and objected to continuously. Once the summoner has been introduced, the second section, lines 1375-1537, depicts the summoner on his way to to cheat a poor widow when he meets a yeoman. The summoner is aware of the poor reputation of his trade and therefore introduces himself as a bailiff. When the yeoman announces that he is also a bailiff, the two agree to make a pact of brotherhood. After the pact, the summoner professes himself to be a man without conscience or morals. Because of this, it should come to no surprise for the reader that the summoner desires to maintain his pact even after the yeoman admits that he is, in fact, a demon sent from hell. Both happily agree to travel together and share in all they collect. The third section begins when the pair first encounters a man struggling to get his cart through mud in lines 1538-1570. After getting nowhere with his car, the driver curses at his horses, telling them to move or the devil could take them. This statement intrigues the summoner, and he tells the fiend/yeoman that this was a prime situation to exploit. The demon, however, advises the summoner to wait. He explains to the summoner that intent behind words are important, and that he can tell the driver spoke out of anger not intent. Sure enough, once the horses move the cart through the mud, the driver blesses them for their industry. This encounter provides foreshadowing for the fourth section, the encounter with the widow. When the summoner reaches and speaks to the widow in lines 1571-1644, the conversation does not go as planned. When the widow opens her door to the summoner, she is surprised to be accused of cursing. She asks for aid and asserts that she has no knowledge of making any such remark. The reader knows that the widow is speaking the truth because the summoner has admitted that this is a trumped-up charge for his own material gain. When she asks for assistance, the summoner offers to take a bribe. The widow is unable to pay the sum, so she curses the summoner for his lack of charity. This time the demon is intrigued, and he asks her for clarification of her intent. The widow then states that she wants the devil to take the summoner if he will not repent. The summoner scoffs, stating he will not repent for any action. Because of this, the demon takes the summoner to hell. The Friar concludes his tale in the fifth section, lines 1645-1644, by asking the pilgrim audience to pay for grace so that Jesus can be their champion over any temptation. He also entreats them to pray for all summoners to repent their evil ways.
  12. Alan Anderson and Raymond Gordon’s “Witchcraft and the Status of Women – The Case of England” The British Journal of Sociology 29 (1978): 171-184 detail the causes and stereotypes involved in the concept of “witch” in England, which differed greatly than on the continent.
  13. Quotations are from The Complete Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. John F. Fisher and Mark Allen (Boston: Thompson Wadsworth, 2006).
  14. Brian Levack, The Witch Hunt in Early Modern Europe (New York: Pearson, 2006), pp.155-56. While Levack focuses on the Early Modern period, he does detail some of the conditions and events in the culture before this period that led to the time of the witch hunts.
  15. Mary Flowers Braswell, Chaucer’s Legal Fiction: Reading the Records (London: Associated University Presses, 2001), p.46. Braswell explores Chaucer’s treatment of the law in his texts, including the Friar’s Tale.
  16. Thomas, p.47.
  17. Archer Taylor’s “The Devil and the Advocate,” PMLA 36 (1921): 35-59 covers the analogues of devil and advocate tales, but some work has been since revised and updated. Gail Berlin’s “Speaking to the Devil: A New Context for the Friar’s Tale,” Philological Quarterly 69 (1990): 1-12 explores the tale in comparison to the analogues of devil-advocate tales, but also as a parody of hagiography
  18. Ibid., pp.599-600. Thomas also notes that cursing was said to be effective for the poor because of the allusion to the Old Testament passage that God listens to the cries of the widows and afflicted.
  19. William Kamowski’s “Chaucer and Wyclif: God’s Miracles Against the Clergy’s Magic,” The Chaucer Review 37 (2002): 5-25 outlines Lollard’s writings and then compares them to thematic and rhetorical motifs in Chaucer’s work.
  20. Thomas, p.604.
  21. Ibid., pp.602-4.
  22. Ibid., p.607.
  23. Levack, p.136.
  24. Kieckhefer, p.193.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Braswell, p.104. Braswell goes on to state that the summoner’s actions show the epidemic proportion of extortion during this period of time.
  27. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1983), p.64 details the complex meaning of the word “wrecca,” a word seen to describe outcasts, such as the widow in theFriar’s Tale or the exile of the Old English elegy “The Wanderer,” but also heroes who separate themselves from the community for the purposes of earning a name for himself or seeking revenge. Chaucer’s word choice contains much depth.
  28. Alan Macfarlane, Witchcraft in Tudor and Stewart England (London: Routledge, 1999), p.151.
  29. Kieckhefer, p.192.
  30. Thomas, p.675.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Ibid., p.674. Thomas quotes Ady from his published work debunking witchcraft.
  33. Macfarlane, p.174.
  34. Ibid., p.611.
  35. The previous tales involving traveling with fiends from other writers do not have the companions of the fiend in a religious role, but instead a secular one such as a judge, see Ibid., p.146.
  36. Taylor, pp.55-59.
  37. Berlin, pp.6-7.
  38. Ibid., p.8.
  39. Daniel Kline’s “’Myne by right’: Oath Making and Intent in The Friar’s Tale,” Philological Quarterly 77 (1998): 271-293 details the process of oath taking during Chaucer’s time period and how it is reflected in the tale.
  40. Kline, p.273.
  41. Ibid.
  42. Ibid., p.280.
  43. Larry Scanlon, Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p.148.
  44. Ibid., p.11.
  45. Thomas, p.611. Thomas later spells out the Elizabethan formula, in which the Devil is said in confessions and tracts to appear to the woman making a curse out of frustration and offering to bring the curse intuition in return for her service in the Devil’s Army.
  46. Penn Szittya’s “The Green Yeoman as Loathly Lady: The Friar’s Parody of the Wife of Bath’s Tale,” PMLA 90 (1975): 386-94 establishes several parallels in the text, indicating that in style the Friar is “quiting” the Wife as much as the summoner.
  47. Kline, p.391.
  48. Thomas, p.605.
  49. Jolly, p.49. As the late medieval period continues, more people believe that the power to curse derives from demons.
  50. Scanlon, p.149.
  51. Scanlon, p.149.
  52. Ibid., p.154.
  53. Ibid., p.155.
  54. Ibid., p.153.
  55. Thomas, p.675.
  56. Scanlon, p.155.
  57. Jolly, p.24.
  58. Ibid., p.25.
  59. Ibid., pp.25-26.
  60. Ibid.
  61. Kieckhefer, pp.186-187.


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