Belly Speech

  • Mary Hayes
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Like The Friar’s Tale, The Summoner’s Tale explores the relationship between profane speakers and sacred speech and thus investigates the power of the clerical voice.1 Despite the fact that Chaucer was living in a religious culture characterized by pastoral care efforts to improve the efficacy of preaching and confession, he also witnessed a foreclosure of lay involvement in the liturgy. As we learn from Wyclif, the Mass’s rituals were becoming more complicated; lay people’s voiced roles during the liturgy were taken over by clerks; and lay devotional missals stressed the importance of lay people remaining silent during the service. More so than The Friar’s Tale, The Summoner’s Tale investigates the exclusion of the laity from the Mass. The tale itself has a loosely liturgical framework: Friar John’s lengthy sermon is followed by Thomas’s pseudo-Eucharistic offering. In The Summoner’s Tale, it is as if the lay people, so improved by the pastoral care efforts that, wittingly or not, galvanized the power of the clerical voice, are themselves so empowered that they not only subvert clerical authority but also prove the value of lay speech.


Divine Revelation Private Mass Canterbury Tale Demonic Possession Depraved Performance 
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  1. 1.
    For a succinct account of how criticism of the tale has changed over the last 30 years, see John Finlayson, “Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale: Flatulence, Blasphemy, and the Emperor’s New Clothes,” Studies in Philology 104 (2007): 455–70, esp. 455–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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© Mary Hayes 2011

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  • Mary Hayes

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