Chaucer (ca. 1390) "The Man of Law's Tale," along with its introduction and epilogue, constitute Fragment 2 of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The introduction begins with the most precise description of the date and time of events in the Tales: The narrator tells us that it is exactly 10 a.m. on the 18th of April. His method of describing the time is a highly sophisticated one involving the use of astronomical devices and tables, and the narrator's observation that at this time every tree's shadow was as long as the tree itself (ll. 7-9) comes directly from the Kalendarium of Nicholas of Lynn. Since the Kalendarium was written in 1386, we can be confident that at least the prologue to "The Man of Law's Tale" was written afterward.
Noticing that it is already 10 a.m., the Host eloquently urges the pilgrims not to waste time and suggests, with an apt and possibly ironic use of legalistic terminology, that the Man of Law tell his tale. The Man of Law, or "Sergeant of the Lawe" as identified in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (GP l. 309), acquiesces, but with the caveat that the range of tales available to him is limited since: "Chaucer, . . . / Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan . . . / as knoweth many a man. (ll. 45-52). This is an interesting self-reference that presents Chaucer as an established and well-known poet, even if he does not meet the Man of Law's standards; he is crude and immoral.
The Man of Law's criticism of Chaucer's immoral stories includes his observation that Chaucer never wrote a word about the wicked Canacee, who fell in love with her brother and bore his child. Because this story is told by John Gower (in book 3, part 1 of his
Confessio Amantis), it has been suggested that Chaucer here criticizes Gower's version of the story, and this is why Gower removed a flattering reference to Chaucer in book 8 of his Confessio Amantis, though recent research has discredited this theory. Because authors are not accountable for the perspectives of their characters, this description has been understood as a betrayal of the Man of Law's rigid moral code.
Understanding the Man of Law's character is essential to understanding his tale. His deliberate obtuseness makes his own tale that much harder to accept as a serious and instructive story. The story instead uncovers the Man of Law's own moral code, which has more to do with appearing righteous than with doing the right thing, although some recent scholarship has challenged this general view, pointing out that in the tale Chaucer asks serious questions about how evil can remain in a world created by a powerful and righteous God.
The Man of Law's tale begins with a prologue (told in rhyme royal) against poverty, which deprives a person of respect and affection, before proceeding on to the narrative. In part 1 (ll. 34-385), a company of merchants travel from Syria to Rome both to trade their wares and to find entertainments. They catch sight of Custance, the Roman emperor's daughter, whose beauty has been the talk of the Romans. After their return, the merchants tell the sultan of Syria of her beauty; he immediately falls in love with this beautiful woman and wishes to wed her. The sultan sends for his private council and tells them of his intentions. When they warn him that no Christian prince would let one of his children be allowed to marry under Muslim law, the sultan responds with a simple solution: He will convert to Christianity to have her. When word of this reaches the Roman emperor, he quickly agrees and sends Custance, who then goes "with sorwe al overcome" (l. 264) to Syria to marry the sultan. Several Romans accompany her.
The sultan's mother, whom the Man of Law calls a "welle of vices" (l. 323), hears of her son's intentions and convinces her councillors not to give up the Muslim faith or the "hooly lawes of our Alkaron [Al-Koran, or the Koran with its Arabic definite article] / Yeven by Goddes message Makomete [Mohammed]" (ll. 332-
333). She suggests they go through the Christian rituals in any case and pretend to be Christians, while she also schemes to do away with her son's Christian bride.
In the second part (ll. 386-875), the sultan's mother succeeds in killing the Roman Christians and the sultan, because "she hirself wolde al the contree lede" (l. 434). Custance is put on a rudderless boat and set adrift. Her boat carries her from the eastern Mediterranean to the Strait of Gibraltar and then continues northward all the way to Northumberland, where she is finally cast ashore. She is discovered by King Alla's constable, who with his wife Hermengild promises to care for her. They are converted from their native religion, and Custance lives pleasantly with them until Satan causes a young knight to fall in love with her, "so hoote, of foul affeccioun, / That verraily hym thoughte he sholde spille," (ll. 586-587) with a pun on spille as meaning both "ejaculate," and "die," which of course were elided medicinally anyway. Custance "wolde do no synne" (l. 590) and so rejects the knight. He is infuriated and retaliates by cutting Hermengild's throat and putting the bloody knife by Custance, and then accusing her of the murder in court. However, the knight is miraculously stricken down, inspiring the king "and many another in that place" (l. 685) to convert to Christianity.
King Alla then marries Custance, which displeases his mother, Donegild. When Alla goes to war in Scotland, Custance returns to the constable's care and bears a son who is baptized Mauricius. A messenger is sent to tell King Alla of his son's birth, but Donegild makes him drunk, steals his letters, and substitutes one with a letter which announces that Custance's baby was a monster, and she herself was a sorcerous whore. Though upset, Alla writes back insisting on mercy for Custance, whereupon Donegild again gets the messenger drunk and replaces the letter with another counterfeit ordering Custance's banishment. Custance is once again set adrift, this time with her baby "wepyng in her arm" (l. 834).
In part three (ll. 876-1162), Alla returns, discovers his mother's treachery, and kills her. This does not help Custance, who drifts at sea until her ship returns to the Mediterranean. At this point the story shifts
focus to the Roman emperor, who had learned of the slaughter of his Christian retinue in Syria and the dishonor done to his daughter, and sent his senator and other lords to Syria to exact vengeance. The senator is on his way back to Rome when he chances upon Custance's ship. He entrusts her and her son to his wife. This state of affairs remains for some time, until King Alla comes to Rome to receive penance from the pope for killing his mother.
Word spreads in Rome that Alla has arrived, and when the senator hears of this, he insists on showing the Northumbrian king reverence. Custance's son attends the feast and stares at Alla, who "hath of this child greet wonder" (l. 1016) and asks the senator who the boy is. The senator proceeds to tell the story of how he and his mother were found at sea. Alla begins to wonder if this is his son and goes with the senator to his house to see if the boy's mother is his wife. Alla and Custance are soon reunited. Then Alla invites the emperor to dinner, and Custance reveals herself and is reunited with her father. Her son is made emperor, and Custance returns to England with Alla, where she lives until his death, after which she returns to Rome to live with her father until death separates them.
This tale's genre is difficult to define, demonstrating characteristics of hagiography and romance, but conforming to neither. "The Man of Law's Tale" is also a highly rhetorical work. unlike his sources, Nicholas Trivet's chronicle written in Anglo-Norman and Gow-er's rendition of Trivet's story, Chaucer embellishes the style of his version with the ornate rhetorical figures recommended by medieval rhetoricians. The poem is particularly self-conscious, constantly referring to the storytelling with narratorial interjections (e.g., "I dar sey yow na moore," l. 273).
Thematically, the poem emphasizes that Custance's strength of faith empowers her in the face of adversity. Her passivity makes her piety more reverent; she does not respond with violence to the threats presented by the two royal mothers of the story because she entrusts her fate to God. It is her constant faith in the eyes of inconstant Fortune that allows for her eventual happy ending, although this, too, is ultimately transient, which is reinforced by the tale's final emphasis on death. Some have argued that the tale focuses on the manifestations of her belief and not the faith behind it, making it more interested in propriety than in virtue.
The tale ends with a problematic epilogue. In it, the Host praises the Man of Law's tale and accuses the Parson of being a Lollard (see Lollardism). Parallelling Custance's stolid nature, the Parson does not reply—an ambiguous response at best. Another pilgrim speaks up to insist that she or he will not hear a sermon, and offers to tell a tale lacking in philosophy, legal terminology, and Latin instead. This passage proves a challenge, since the name of the pilgrim varies in the different manuscripts, being variously named the shipman, the Summoner, the Squire, and the Wife of Bath. To make matters worse, it appears that these names were scribal or editorial inventions based on whose tale appears next in the manuscript. Even the epilogue is questionable, as it does not appear in all manuscripts.
Recent feminist scholarship has further explored the tale's obvious misogyny, displayed both in Custance's extreme passivity and silence and in the monstrosity of the mothers-in-law, both of whom further demonize themselves by desiring authority. other critics have examined Chaucer's portrayal of the Saracens, including his knowledge of the Koran. Still, this tale has not undergone the frenzy of scholarly examination that others have, and there is room for more work to be done.
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