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The Great Dispute Between The Friar And The Sompnour


Chaucer records the painful fact that the harmony of the pilgrimage was broken on occasions by the quarrels between the Friar and the Sompnour. At one stage the latter threatened that ere they reached Sittingbourne he would make the Friar's "heart for to mourn;" but the worthy Host intervened and patched up a temporary peace. Unfortunately trouble broke out again over a very curious dispute in this way.

At one point of the journey the road lay along two sides of a square field, and some of the pilgrims persisted, in spite of trespass, in cutting across from corner to corner, as they are seen to be doing in the illustration. Now, the Friar startled the company by stating that there was no need for the trespass, since one way was exactly the same distance as the other! "On my faith, then," exclaimed the Sompnour, "thou art a very fool!" "Nay," replied the Friar, "if the company will but listen with patience, I shall presently show how that thou art the fool, for thou hast not wit enough in thy poor brain to prove that the diagonal of any square is less than two of the sides."

If the reader will refer to the diagrams that we have given, he will be able to follow the Friar's argument. If we suppose the side of the field to be 100 yards, then the distance along the two sides, A to B, and B to C, is 200 yards. He undertook to prove that the diagonal distance direct from A to C is also 200 yards. Now, if we take the diagonal path shown in Fig. 1, it is evident that we go the same distance, for every one of the eight straight portions of this path measures exactly 25 yards. Similarly in Fig. 2, the zigzag contains ten straight portions, each 20 yards long: that path is also the same length—200 yards. No matter how many steps we make in our zigzag path, the result is most certainly always the same. Thus, in Fig. 3 the steps are very small, yet the distance must be 200 yards; as is also the case in Fig. 4, and would yet be if we needed a microscope to detect the steps. In this way, the Friar argued, we may go on straightening out that zigzag path until we ultimately reach a perfectly straight line, and it therefore follows that the diagonal of a square is of exactly the same length as two of the sides.

Now, in the face of it, this must be wrong; and it is in fact absurdly so, as we can at once prove by actual measurement if we have any doubt. Yet the Sompnour could not for the life of him point out the fallacy, and so upset the Friar's reasoning. It was this that so exasperated him, and consequently, like many of us to-day when we get entangled in an argument, he utterly lost his temper and resorted to abuse. In fact, if some of the other pilgrims had not interposed the two would have undoubtedly come to blows. The reader will perhaps at once see the flaw in the Friar's argument.

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