Man of Law’s Tale, The

Man of Law’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1390)
   One of CHAUCER’s CANTERBURY TALES, The Man of Law’s Tale relates the story of Dame Constance, a creature of pathos whose life is a series of trials to her Christian faith, through all of which she remains steadfast and from all of which she is miraculously saved through God’s providence. Chaucer based his tale on an Anglo-Norman story by Nicholas TRIVET, but also seems clearly to have been aware of John GOWER’s version of the story in his CONFESSIO AMANTIS.
   Chaucer’s tale is divided into three parts. In part one a group of Syrian merchants are so impressed by the beautiful Constance, daughter of the Roman emperor, that they extol her virtues to their Sultan. In true COURTLY LOVE fashion, the Sultan falls in love with Constance purely through her reputation, and sues for her hand in marriage. On the condition that the Sultan agree to be baptized along with all who owe him fealty, the Emperor agrees to let his daughter marry the Syrian prince.But the Sultan’s mother, angered at her son’s betrayal of Islam, stirs up enmity toward him and his new bride.
   Through the Sultaness’s machinations, the Sultan and all his court are massacred at the banquet welcoming Constance, and she herself is set adrift on the sea in a rudderless boat. She drifts all the way to Northumbria, where she is befriended and sheltered by the constable and his wife, Hermengild, whom she converts to Christianity. But Constance spurns the advances of a lustful knight, and in retaliation he cuts Hermengild’s throat while she sleeps, leaving the knife next to Constance, thus framing her for the murder.When the king,Alla, holds court to investigate the matter, the evil knight is struck dead. Recognizing her virtue, Alla marries Constance. But when she bears a son, Maurice, in Alla’s absence, her mother-in-law Donegild sends forged letters to the king saying that Constance has borne a monster. Through Donegild’s plotting, Constance and her son are set adrift, again, in the rudderless boat. In the third part of the tale, Constance is nearly raped by a steward who comes aboard her boat, but God protects her and the villain is thrown overboard. She is ultimately rescued by a Roman senator returning from Syria, where the Romans have taken revenge for the Sultaness’s treachery. The senator brings Constance and Maurice to Rome, where Alla has come on pilgrimage as penance for killing his mother to avenge Constance. Catching sight of Maurice, Alla sees his resemblance to Constance, and the three are reunited, after which Constance is also restored to her father. She returns to Northumbria with Alla, and when he dies, returns to her father in Rome. When the emperor dies, Maurice inherits the Roman throne.
   The Man of Law’s Tale has been called a secular saint’s life, a romance with Constance as a passive romantic heroine, and also a story with clear folktale elements, particularly the motif of the “calumniated wife,” complete with not one but two wicked stepmothers. Most accurately it is probably what Derek Pearsall has called it: “an extended exemplum of God’s grace granted to patience and constant faith” (Pearsall 262). But what is most distinctive about The Man of Law’s Tale, and what sets it apart from the Trivet and Gower analogues, is its highly rhetorical style. Like his other religious tales (The PRIORESS’S TALE, The SECOND NUN’S TALE, The CLERK’S TALE), The Man of Law’s Tale is written in RHYME ROYAL stanzas, a form Chaucer seems to have equated with highly serious work. But more than that, Chaucer uses a highly emotional tone, full of apostrophes and other figures recommended by medieval rhetoricians designed to appeal to the reader’s emotions, evoke pity for his heroine, and provide moral commentary. Before her murder trial, the narrator addresses her and calls on Christ to defend her: “Allas! Custance, thou hast no champioun,” he says (Benson 1987, l. 631), except for him who died for our redemption.
   ■ Benson, Larry, et al., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.
   ■ Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.
   ■ Delaney, Sheila. “Womanliness in ‘The Man of Law’s Tale,’ ” in Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature Medieval to Modern, edited by Sheila Delany. New York: Schocken Books, 1983, 36–46.
   ■ Edwards, A. S. G. “Critical Approaches to the ‘Man of Law’s Tale.’ ” In Chaucer’s Religious Tales, edited by C. David Benson and Elizabeth Robertson, 85–94. Cambridge, U.K.: Brewer, 1990.
   ■ Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985.
   ■ Raybin, David. “Custance and History: Woman as Outsider in Chaucer’s ‘Man of Law’s Tale,’ ” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 12 (1990): 65–84.
   ■ Robertson, Elizabeth. “The ‘Elvyssh’ Power of Constance: Christian Feminism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 143–180.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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