This essay discusses the fart joke that ends Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale.” It argues that the joke uses the language of medieval philosophy to satirize the work of medieval Scholastic philosophers. The essay begins by examining Chaucer’s relationship to philosophy more broadly and the scholarly controversies over Chaucer’s familiarity with this field of knowledge. It focuses on the way Chaucer uses disciplinary-specific jargon from philosophy, and from medieval logic more particularly, in “The Summoner’s Tale.” The language and content of the joke in “The Summoner’s Tale” are a burlesque play on the interests of the Merton Calculators, who used the logical thinking Scholasticism had developed in response to theological problems to investigate problems associated with natural philosophy. Chaucer’s joke reveals the way that the logical work of philosophers like Thomas Aquinas and the Merton Calculators relies on formal qualities more closely associated with literature, namely, character and narrative. In making a case that literature and logic rely on these same formal structures, Chaucer affirms literature’s capacity to present examples, concrete manifestations of philosophical or logical problems. He suggests that logic is attempting to make stories to work out problems, something that literature can do more effectively.
Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale” and the Logic of Literature
R. D. Perry is assistant professor of English and literary arts at the University of Denver. He works on medieval literature, especially in the Chaucerian tradition, and critical theory. He is currently writing two books. The first, Chaucer’s Coteries and the Making of the English Literary Tradition, looks at the way coterie poetics helps shape the English literary tradition in its incipient moments. The second, The Complete “Canterbury Tales,” argues that Chaucer inscribes an “aesthetics of incompleteness” into his most famous work and explores the way that later authors respond to that incomplete text.
R. D. Perry; Chaucer’s “Summoner’s Tale” and the Logic of Literature. Poetics Today 1 March 2020; 41 (1): 37–57. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/03335372-7974072
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