The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis
The Man of Law's Tale
Introduction to The Man of Law’s Tale
The Host, realizing that time is moving on, reminds the pilgrims that, while lost cattle can be found, lost time never returns. Addressing the Man of Law (a lawyer, in modern terms) in a mock-legal way, the Host asks him to tell the next tale, and “stonden in this cas at my juggement” (a joke, for the Host, of course, is to judge which tale is the best).
“Host”, the Man of Law, replies, “To breke forward is nat myn entente”, and reiterating that he does not break agreements, agrees to tell the tale. But, the Man of Law continues, “I kan right now no thrifty tale seyn” (I have no suitable tale now to tell [say]), because Chaucer – excellent at metre and at coming up with clever rhymes – has already told them all in one book or another. The Man of Law then recites a little list of Chaucer’s (actual!) works so far: Ceyx and Alcione (in The Book of the Duchess), and the Legend of Good Women – noting that Chaucer has never told a tale about wicked Canacee, who sinfully had an incestuous relationship with her own brother. Nor will the Man of Law tell a tale about her either.
“I speke in prose”, the Man of Law continues, juxtaposing himself with the poet, Chaucer, and then with a good cheer begins his tale.
The Prologue of The Man of Law’s Tale
The Prologue begins by lamenting the condition of poverty; it makes a person steal, beg or borrow for money, it makes a person blame Christ, and it makes a person jealous of his neighbor. If you are poor, the Prologue continues, your brother hates you, and all your friends fly from your side. The Prologue then finally addresses “rich marchauntz”, who are always happy, because they are always rich – before the Man of Law’s personal voice seems to segue in, adding that he would be without a tale to tell, had he not heard a tale from a merchant, many years ago.
The Man of Law’s Tale
In Syria there dwelt a company of wealthy traders who made a journey to Rome. After a certain time there, they heard of the beauty of Constance, the emperor's daughter, renowned equally for her virtue, her goodness and her beauty. When they had seen her themselves, the merchants returned to Syria, and reported to the sultan, who was immediately taken with lust and wonder for Constance.
The sultan met with his advisors and told them of his intent, but they could conceive of no way that he could marry Constance, for no Christian emperor would allow his daughter to marry a Muslim. “Rather than I lese / Custance, I wol be cristned” (Rather than I lose / Constance, I will be christened) answered the sultan, and, insisting that his baronage were christened with him, the sultan set about having his court christened.
The Roman Emperor heard of the sultan’s desire, and agreed to it, organizing a huge amount of pomp and circumstance for the occasion. The day arrived for Constance to depart, and everyone prepared themselves. But Constance, overcome with sorrow, arose from bed and dressed to depart, knowing that there was no other way things could be.
It is no wonder, the narrator comments, that she wept, considering that she was being sent to a foreign country, away from her friends, to be married to someone she had never met. Constance then addressed her father, sad to leave him and go to the “Barbre nacioun” (pagan land), hoping that she would fulfill Christ’s behest, continuing
I, wrecche woman, no fors though I spille! (I am just a wretched woman, and it doesn’t matter if I die)
Wommen are born to thralldom and penance, (women are born to slavery and suffering)
And to been under mannes governance. (and to live under men’s governing)
Constance was brought to the ship, and desperately trying to put on a brave face, sailed away.
Meanwhile, the Sultan’s mother, “welle of vices” (a well of vice), who knew her son’s intention, called her counsellers to her and told them that she would rather die than renounce Mohammed’s law (and Islam). Each man swore to live and die with her, and she instructed them to be baptized as her son had ordered (“Cooold water shal nat greve us but a lite!”)
The first part of the tale ends with a damning of the Sultanesse, the “roote of iniquitee”, as the Sultan agrees to do her the honor of having the Christians to feast at her table.
The Christians arrived in Syria with a great and solemn crowd, and, after many celebrations, the time came for all of the Christian folk, along with the Sultan’s entourage, to feast at the Sultanesse’s house. The tale breaks off to mourn “sodeyn wo, that evere art successour / To worldly blisse” (sudden woe, which is always the successor of worldly bliss) before revealing that every one of the Christians and the Sultan were knifed and cut to pieces at the table. There was now in Syria no-one who had converted to Christianity – only Constance survived.
The Sultanesse’s men took Constance and put her in a ship without a rudder, bidding her to learn to sail out of Syria and back to Italy. She had a certain amount of treasure on board, and the men had supplied her with food and with clothes - and forth she sailed across the sea. Constance blessed herself and said a prayer to Christ’s cross. At this point the story breaks back to narrative again, and the Man of Law (or Chaucer) raises the question of why Constance was not also killed at the feast – answering it with another question: who saved Daniel in the lion’s den? Christian God is the answer to both.
The ship finally crashed on the shores of Northumberland. The warden of a nearby castle found Constance and gave her shelter, but she refused to reveal her identity. He and his wife, Dame Hermengyld, were pagans, but Constance soon secretly converted the wife to Christianity. In this heathen land, Christians could only practice their faith in secret. While walking on the beach, Constance, Hermengyld and her husband came upon a blind Christian, who identified her without his eyes. Although Hermengild feared that her husband would reproach her for attempting the conversion, this miracle converted him too to Christianity.
The warden was not the lord of the castle. Instead, it was Alla, the king of Northumberland. A young knight, influenced by Satan, fell in love with Constance, but she would not return her favors. In an attempt to exact revenge upon her, he broke into the bedchamber where Constance and Dame Hermengyld slept, slit Hermengyld's throat and placed the knife beside Constance. Soon after the warden came home with Alla and found his wife murdered. Taking her before King Alla, who was told all the circumstances of Constance’s arrival in Northumberland, the false knight (who killed Hermengyld) insisted that Constance had done the murder.
The people spoke out on her behalf, unable to believe that Constance had done the crime; and this provoked the king to inquire further into the circumstances of what had happened. Constance fell to her knees and prayed, looking around her for help. “Now hastily do fecche a book”, King Alla commanded, deciding that, if the knight swore on the book that Constance was responsible, he would think carefully about his decision. A book was brought, and, the knight swore on it that Constance was guilty - at that time, a hand struck him down on the neck-bone, and he fell down like a stone, both of his eyes bursting out of his face.
Witnessing this miracle, the king – “and many another in that place” – was converted to Christianity., and decided to take Constance for his wife. But, who was upset about this wedding but Donegild, the knight’s mother? She thought her heart had broken in two. In the meantime, the couple were wedded, and Constance gave birth to a boy, named Mauricius, while Alla was away in Scotland fighting. A messenger, taking the news to the king, was forestalled by the queen who insisted he stayed with her that night, and, while he was asleep, replaced his letters with forged ones. Her letters claimed that Constance’s baby was foul and wicked; and when Alla wrote back that he vowed to love the child regardless, Donegild replaced his letter with an order to banish Constance and her child from the land on the same boat from which they came.
When Alla returned home, he learned what had happened and murdered his mother for her cruelty, and for being a traitor. But Constance had already set sail, and washed up in another heathen land, where the warden's steward came on board her ship, telling her that he would be her lover whether she liked it or not. Her child cried, and Constance cried also; but the Virgin Mary came to her aid, and, in the struggle that ensued, the steward fell overboard and drowned in the sea.
Returning to Syria, the emperor of Rome had sent an army, hearing of the slaughter of Christians by the sultaness, and, having burnt, slain and avenged themselves on the heathen people, this army was now returning homeward to Rome. The senator in charge of the army met Constance in her ship, and, not knowing who she was, brought her home to Rome, where she stayed for a “longe tyme”.
King Alla, having slain his mother, had come to Rome to receive his penance and seek Christ’s forgiveness for the wickedness he had performed. The rumor spread through Rome of how Alla was to come in pilgrimage, and this senator came to do him reverence. Constance’s son went in the entourage of the senator to feast with King Alla.
The child stood at the feast, looking into the king’s face; Alla then asked the senator whose the child was. “A mooder he hath”, replied the senator, “but fader hath he noon”, and told him the story of how the child was found. Remembering Constance’s face, and seeing the resemblance in her child’s face, Alla sped from the table as soon as he could, debating with himself about the hallucination he thought he was having. But afterwards, the senator sent for Constance, and, when Alla saw his wife, he wept, because it had come true. Constance stood as dumb as a tree, stiff with emotion, when she remembered his unkindness: which he soon explained had not been of his doing. When all was explained, they kissed a hundred times, and were blissfully happy.
The Emperor had granted that King Alla could dine with him; and, as she saw her father in the street, Constance laid down at his needs, and explained to him who she was. There was such joy between the three of them that it cannot be described.
Later, Constance’s child Maurice was made Emperor by the Pope, but, the narrator reiterates, “Of Custance is my tale specially”. Constance and Alla came to England to live in joy and in peace, but sadly, only a year after they had been reunited, Death took King Alla from the world. Constance, at the very end of the tale, widowed, makes her way again to Rome, to find her father and praise God.
Epilogue to the Man of Law's Tale
“This was a thrify tale for the nones!” proclaims the Host, happy with the Man of Law’s tale, before turning to the “Parisshe Priest” to tell the next tale. The Parson then rebukes the Host for swearing blasphemously, only to be mocked in turn by the Host as a “Jankin” (a derisive name for a priest) and a “Lollard” (a heretic). The Host, announcing that the “Lollard” will do some preaching, is interrupted by the Shipman, who objects to the idea of the Parson glossing the gospel and teaching. He promises a tale which will “clynk” like a merry bell, and wake up all the company. But, the Shipman continues, there will be no philosophy or legal matters in his tale (unlike in the Man of Laws) – “ther is but litel Latyn in my mawe!” (there is only a little bit of Latin in my stomach”).
There’s another moment at the very start of the Man of Law’s Prologue, in which the boundary between fiction and reality once again seems extremely blurred: the “Geffrey Chaucer” who exists as a character on the Canterbury pilgrimage is ascribed the bibliography of the Chaucer we are reading by the Man of Law, who cites works we know that the “real” Chaucer actually wrote. Once again, the Tales pretend to a real, documentary status, as if they are dramatizing or merely reporting word for word true events, and real people – and our narrator, Chaucer, seems to elide the fictional world with the reader’s world.
The Man of Law, then, a “lawyer” is someone concerned with the laws and rules that hold in place the real world, and – at least, so the General Prologue tells us – he knows by heart all the lines of the common law: “every statu koude he pleyn by rote”. Carolyn Dinshaw, the excellent feminist critic, has written that the Man of Law is indeed “of law”, made up of law, his head filled up with laws; and moreover, she reads the tale of Constance as asserting the status quo of Chaucer’s world at the time the tale was written.
Women, Dinshaw argues, were a matter of business in the middle ages, and – particularly as the marriage of a daughter could produce a strong link between two merchants or families – children were an important financial asset. Constance, then, first appearing in the tale as a tale told by merchants, is effectively sold forth by her father; the marriage is actually dealt with as if it were a business deal. The Prologue to the tale tells us that the Man of Law even heard this tale from a merchant: and it is not a huge leap to make from the business of merchants, trading goods back and forward across the sea, to Constance, sent from Rome to Syria, to Northumberland, to another heathen land, and eventually back to Rome. Constance, in other words, serves as “goods”, saleable, valuable, and whose value, appropriately, remains constant.
Dinshaw then relates the tale as a whole to that end of the Chaucer bibliography the Man of Law recites in the prologue: the final lines where he disdains to tell a tale concerning incest. The Man of Law’s Tale is indeed full of contradictions: in Dinshaw’s words
“He promises to tell a tale in prose, for example, but instead we get a poem in rime royal. The "poverte" Prologue seems to have only the barest, most expedient relation to the Tale itself…. Most puzzling of them all is the Man of Law's specific insistence, on the one hand, that he will not tell a tale of incest, and his choice, on the other hand, of a narrative whose motivation in well-known analogues is, in fact, incest...”
(Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics, p.88)
The critic Margaret Schlauch has suggested persuasively that in all of the sources to the Man of Law’s tale, Constance’s father makes sexual demands upon his daughter, and Dinshaw wonders whether Constance might be escaping from a father with incestuous desires. What, we might ask, is the relevance of this incest theme to the idea of Constance as a mercantile pawn?
Levi-Strauss has the answer. If marriage (and the marital sex it makes permissible) is a pawn in a merchant’s transaction, and the social order is maintained through trading women and trading marriage, then forbidding incest is the best way to maintain that order. For a daughter – a father’s mercantile asset – is no longer an asset in circulation if the father sleeps with her himself. Incest breaks down the idea of a woman as something to be traded: breaks down, in short, the law.
Dinshaw’s interpretation is a fascinating one, and one which ties together the prologue and the tale, as well as some of the key notions explored about female identity in the Tales: (i) the idea of the woman as something to be traded, as merchandise, (ii) the idea of a patriarchal society keen to keep women “in circulation”, and (iii) the idea of the woman as duplicitous and evil, as presented by the two malicious mothers. What it misses, however, is the over-riding religious nature of the tale; and the good fortune visited on Constance (herself, literally a child of Rome) for maintaining her Christian faith.
Yet Constance is not simply merchandise. Chaucer’s – and the Man of Law’s tale – also keeps “Constance”, (or “a Constance”, in precisely the way that “Geffrey” is “a Chaucer”) in circulation; within the context of the tale-telling game, it uses Constance’s story as a potential avenue for profit. There is an interesting moment early in the first part of the tale when Constance is described as “pale”, as if, pre-marriage, she is white, blank, hardly visible. The tale itself dresses Constance - clothes her, and makes her palatable to an audience in order to exchange her - and remember that “text”, “textile” and “cloth” (a major piece of merchandise in the Middle Ages) have shared linguistic roots.
Perhaps part of the reason that the tale is the “Man of Law’s” and not the “Lawyer’s” is precisely to emphasize the fact that Constance, exchanged by men for profit within the tale, is also being exchanged by a Man within the tale-telling framework. The Man of Law and Chaucer, by writing Constance’s story, contribute to the way she is exchanged and re-presented as a feminine symbol within it. Writing a woman is to make her the creation of a man; an idea worth emphasizing before the next tale – the Wife of Bath’s, which takes this idea several stages further - begins.
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- The Canterbury Tales: Essays
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- The Canterbury Tales: Questions
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- The Canterbury Tales Summary
- About The Canterbury Tales
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Summary and Analysis of General Prologue
- Summary and Analysis of The Knight's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Miller's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Reeve's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Cook's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Man of Law's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Wife of Bath's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Friar's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Summoner's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Clerk's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Merchant's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Squire's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Franklin's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Physician's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Pardoner's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Shipman's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Prioress' Tale
- Summary and Analysis of Chaucer's Tale of Sir Thopas
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- Summary and Analysis of The Monk's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Nun's Priest's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Second Nun's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Canon's Yeoman's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Manciple's Tale
- Summary and Analysis of The Parson's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction
- Literature in the Middle Ages
- The Texts of the Tales
- Sources: The Roman de la rose
- Sources: The Decameron
- Sources: Fabliaux
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- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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