The Man of Law’s Tale is an episodic story of “Custance” (or Constance) that can trace its literary origins to the Anglo chronicles of Nicholas Trivet, as well as in the poetry of John Gower. In his tale, The Man of Law presents the group with a more noble tale than the bawdy stories from both the Miller and the Reeve. The Man of Law agrees with the Knight to an extent, as both men’s tales reaffirm “joy after woe” and defend the virtues of Western Civilization, however whereas “The Knight’s Tale” delivers a classically-rooted narrative of love and chivalry which is set in ancient Athens, “The Man of Law’s Tale” presents an early pre-modern Christian story about a pitiable yet saintly woman who has been wronged and sent away from her home in Rome to marry a Sultan in Syria, only for him to be murdered by his own mother. Custance, our saintly protagonist, is then cast adrift in a boat that leads her from Northumberland, to Spain, and eventually back to Rome. Though she is a long-suffering princess, Custance endures it all for the sake of her noble Christian faith and the belief that “Joy after Woe govern us in his grace.” The tale is like a picaresque adventure, only unlike Don Quixote or Gulliver’s Travels, Custance is a somber, noble, and more dignified main character who endures various episodes of great suffering only to find joy at the end of her woes. She is a somewhat wooden character whom the Man of Law offers as the perfect figure of early Christian womanliness. His tale is a life-affirming story that echoes the Knight’s in many ways, while also drawing swords with the Knight’s lack of Christian ethos. In his tale, the Man of Law reaffirms contemporary traditions and divisions between East and West, Christian and Muslim, Pagan and Faithful, Peace and War, and Good and Evil.
The Man of Law is a promise-keeper. He holds oaths as sacred and he is willing to suffer for the sake of joy. He is a Christian, and pities those in poverty most of all. In marriage, he advises spouses to be of the same religion, and to be wary of their mother-in-laws. He is a believer in ‘miracles and wonders’ as they are evidence of divine promises kept. Justice, to the Man of Law, is a man who pays his debts and fulfills his contractual obligations.
In Chaucer’s “General Prologue” the ‘Sergeant of the Lawe’ is described as a prudent and wise attorney who spends much of his time with other attorneys at St. Paul’s in London. He exudes great dignity and honor, and he is a successful investor in land as well as a near perfect writer. He is austere, to say the least, and gives the impression of being very busy. Both the Host and the Narrator have great admiration for the Man of Law, and Chaucer spends little time discussing his garb, because the Man of Law is a conceptual, abstract man. He wears a colored coat and a silk belt.
The introduction to the “Man of Law’s Tale” begins with the Host noticing the close of day on April 18th. He cites Seneca in remembering that time is a great thief, and he calls upon the “man of lawe” to tell a tale. The man of law, abiding by his promise, agrees to tell a new tale because ‘a promise is debt’ and he is nothing if not a debt-keeper. Amusingly, Chaucer breaks the fourth-wall with the Man of Law, who hopes to tell a new tale never told by Chaucer before, even though Chaucer is ‘ignorant of meters and rhyming’ and has told of ‘lovers up and down, more than Ovid made mention of.’ The Man of Law lists a variety of classical mythological stories that Chaucer has already written about:
Ceyx and Alcyone, the ancient Greek spouses who incurred the wrath of Zeus by impiously referring to each other as “Zeus” and “Hera” (Chaucer wrote about this tale in “The Book of the Duchess,” his earliest known surviving complete poetic work).
Pyramus and Thisbe, the ancient Greek lovers who shared a wall in Babylon, but their family’s rivalry forbid them from being together. They whisper their secret love to one another through a hole in the wall and arrange for a secret trist outside of town under a mulberry bush, However, when Thisbe arrives she sees a lioness with a bloody mouth so flees in fear leaving behind her veil. Pyramus arrives soon after to find her veil and a trail of blood, so he kills himself by falling on his sword, splattering the mulberry bush red. When Thisbe finds out, she does the same. This is the story of why the mulberry bush leaves are red (Ovid wrote about this story, and Chaucer reworked it in the 1380s in his “The Legend of Good Women”).
Chaucer also wrote of Dido and Aenaeus (in allusion to Virgil), as well as Demophon, ancient Greek king who marries Phyllis en route to the Trojan War; and Deianire, wife of Heracles and unwitting killer of her husband (see Euripides The Women of Trachis); and Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and betrothed to Orestes as a girl, but whom Menelaus promised to Achilles to send to his son Neoptolemus in Phthia after the end of the war. Eventually she married Orestes. The Man of Law goes on to cite many other classical stories: Ariadne, Hypsipyle, Leander, Hero, Helen, Briseis, Laodamia, Medea and Jason, Hypermnestra, Penelope, Alcestis, Canace, Apollonius, Antiochus. He amusingly ends his high-minded introduction by concluding that all these stories are ‘not worth a bean’ and that he will tell something completely different.
After the close of his introduction, The Man of Law delivers a prologue: a lament about poverty before he begins his tale, and a reminder not to blame Christ for suffering. The Man of Law mentions that a merchant once taught him this tale.
His tale is about a Syrian merchant company that learns of a renowned beauty: Lady Custance, daughter of the emperor of Rome. The Sultan of Syria regularly hosts these Syrian merchants when they return home from business. After hearing of Custance’s noble qualities he orchestrates to have her brought to Syria. They discuss magic and deception, eventually arriving at marriage, but there is a flaw: Custance is Christian and he is Muslim. So the Sultan decides to christen his whole house and become a Christian. Custance painstakingly marries him, and lamentably he is sent away to Syria, a foreign land.
Consider Chaucer’s beautifully crafted lines about the sultan’s lament for not possessing his lover:
“Paraventure in thilke large book
Perhaps in that large book
Which that men clepe the hevene ywriten was
Which men call the heaven was written
With sterres, whan that he his birthe took,
In stars, when he was born,
That he for love sholde han his deeth, allas!
That he because of love should have his death, alas!
For in the sterres, clerer than is glas,
For in the stars, clearer than is glass,
Is writen, God woot, whoso koude it rede,
Is written, God knows, whoever could read it,
The deeth of every man, withouten drede.
The death of every man, without doubt.
In sterres, many a wynter therbiforn,
In stars, many a winter before then,
Was writen the deeth of Ector, Achilles,
Was written the death of Hector, Achilles,
Of Pompei, Julius, er they were born;
Of Pompey, Julius, before they were born;
The strif of Thebes; and of Ercules,
The strife of Thebes; and of Hercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The deeth; but mennes wittes ben so dulle
The death; but men’s wits are so dull
That no wight kan wel rede it atte fulle.
That no person can well interpret it fully” (190-203)
During Custance’s marriage celebration to the Sultan, his mother becomes angry about his conversion to Christianity. During the wedding feast she hatches a plan to massacre her son and all his newly Christened compatriots. She only spares Custance, whom she sets adrift in a boat loaded with treasure sailing for the Strait of Gibraltar. At this point in the story, the religious imagery turns exclusively toward Christianity as Custance looks to the cross of Jesus to guide her to safety. Custance washes ashore in Northumberland.
At this time, Northumberland is a pagan land, and Custance converts her caretakers to Christianity. However, two miraculous events occur: the wife of Custance’s rescuer, Hermengyld, heals a blind person; and an evil Knight murders Hermengyld (out of a sick and lustful desire for Custance) and he tries to frame Custance. The evil knight is then suddenly struck dead when he swears upon holy books, attesting to Custance’s guilt. Based on these two miraculous events, the regional king “Alla” (based on Chaucer’s knowledge of Ælla, the first known Anglican king of Daella), decides to convert to Christianity and they are married. Custance gives birth to a son. However, Alla’s evil mother, Donegild, does not approve of his conversion (a parallel mother-in-law to the Sultan of Syria’s mother) so she fabricates letters between Custance and Alla, while he is away at war. Horrified at these messages, Custance again sails away with their son. Upon learning of this loss, Alla has his mother executed.
Custance returns to her boat and sails away, landing in Spain. She narrowly avoids an abusive man, until she is rescued by a Roman Senator sailing for Rome en route from “Barbary” (Syria). He was avenging the Sultan’s murderous mother at the behest of Custance’s father. Later, King Alla, lamenting the loss of Custance, goes on pilgrimage to Rome and he miraculously reunites with his wife and child. Custance and Alla return to Northumberland, but he dies shortly thereafter. Custance then returns to Rome where, upon the death of her father, her son, Maurice, becomes the future emperor of Rome.
The Host concludes by praising the tale and asking the Parson to ‘preach’ a story to the group next.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.