Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, "Man of Law's Introduction, Tale, and Epilogue"

Genre: Secular "saint's life."  The typical "saint's life" is a stylized biography of one of the church's martyrs, those who died for the faith confronting pagan heresy, performing miracles both before and after their deaths as confirmation of their divine status.   The "Second Nun's Tale" of St. Cecelia is a typical example.  To see the text of that tale, click here and scroll down to the Canterbury Tales link, from which you can choose 2NT.   Saints' opponents typically represent secular political power used abusively by proud, noisy pagans who are outwitted by the saints.  A colleague has described them as "a lower life form" in comparison with the saints.  The saints typically debate their persecutors and exhibit supernatural evidence of their claims to divine knowledge.  Custance, however, seems to say rather little and lets events do the talking.  Odd, for a lawyer's tale, isn't it?

Form:  After the first 98 lines of the introduction, which are in rhyming couplets, the prologue proper begins in rime royal, 7-line stanzas rhyming ababbcc.  Since this is the first stanzaic work in the CT cycle, it has been suggested that the form was adopted to add dignity to the tale's sacred content.  Note that almost all the stanzas are not enjambed, ending with full stops and functioning like verse paragraphs.   The exceptions are useful to keep track of.  The narrative, itself, is divided into three parts roughly corresponding to Custance's travel to Syria, Custance's travel to Northumberland, and Custance's travel to a "hethen castel" (rest stop?) and to Rome, all by means of rudderless boats (not a recommended mode of transport for timely navigation of the Mediterranean and the English Channel).

Characters:  Custance, daughter of the "Emperour of Rome," who is given in marriage to the "Sowdan of Surrey" (Syria), a Moslem who converts to Christianity to marry the woman whose beauty he first heard of from merchants' tales (also see the lawyer's introduction); the "Sowdanesse," his evil mother; the Constable of Northumberland and his wife, Dame Hermangyld; King Alla of Northumberland and a knight who loves Custance sinfully; a disembodied hand that smacks the knight in the head and a voice that announces his guilt; Donegild, the king's evil mother (again!); Mauricius, Custance's and Alla's child; a drunken messenger, a pagan steward with a bad sense of balance, and a kindly Roman senator and his wife.

Summary:  The girl can't be stopped.  Pagans 0 Custance 4  Without recognizable social skills, though well-dressed and doctrinally correct, Custance survives heathen treachery by the aid of miracles including the rudderless boat which always steers her safely, the disembodied hand and voice of God, and the inability of the pagan gangs to "shoot straight."

Interpretive Issues:

1)  The biggest issue for interpreters of this tale is whether it can stand as a moral answer to the issues raised by the teller, and to the issues raised by the other tales, or whether it is flawed in crucial ways that Chaucer intends us to infer from some fairly perplexing changes he has made in his sources (see various examples below).  The tale as told by John Gower is a straightforward moral fable which is proposed as an example of God's superior justice in comparison with the faultiness of Fallen human institutions.  Since the teller is the "Man of Lawe," we might expect him to address the theme of "justice," both human and divine, and take part in the debate on that topic which we've seen represented in the Knight's, Miller's, and Reeve's tales.  Once you've read the story, ask yourself what relationships the lawyer assumes between God's justice and human justice.  By what means does justice, of either sort, come about in this tale, and what does that suggest about the lawyer's beliefs?

2)  The Host's invocation of the celestial hour indicates it is now 10:00 AM, on April 18.  This prompts him to urge the Man of Lawe to tell a tale so as to lose no opportunity to advance the contest.   This passage could be compared with the start of the "General Prologue" for its location of the pilgrimage within the cosmic order of planetary revolution, the divine order of purgation from sin, and the temporal order of the pilgrimage to Canterbury.  Indeed, it is important for proponents of the "Bradshaw Shift" who seek to regularize all time and place references in the frame narrative to produce an orderly progress from London to Canterbury.  Could this also serve to introduce a new "segment" of tales like "Group I"?  If so, where would this segment end?

3)  The Man of Lawe's "literary criticism" of Chaucer's works has been used to argue that Chaucer was engaging in a quarrel with John Gower, whose Confessio Amantis contains two of the tales the lawyer says Chaucer never would tell (Tyro Apollonius and Canace: see note p. 854-6).  The lawyer's comments create a whirlwind of "cruces" or interpretive problems (singular, L. crux or "cross," the scriptorium's proofreaders' sign for a copying error).  First, Chaucer does not tell all the tales attributed to him.  Second, Gower does not include some particularly graphic details in Tyro's story to which the lawyer alludes (n. 856 re: ll. 7-89.  Third, he says "I speke in prose" (II.96) although the tale is in poetic stanzas.   The first problem could mean that Chaucer intended to include the missing tales in Legend of Good Women but never finished them; the work is a fragment.  The second may mean that the lawyer was misremembering the tale, but this suggests he has a very corrupt mind.  The third may have been produced by shifting the prose tale of "Melibee" to become Chaucer-the-Pilgrim's second tale (after the interrupted "Sir Thopas") and replacing it with "Custance," borrowed from Nicholas Trevet's Anglo-Norman chronicle (1334).  One critic has argued that this is part of a larger strategy for setting up the Squire's telling a tale about "Canacee" which he knows either the Man of Law or the Franklin will interrupt to prevent mention of incest.  For an electronic text of Gower's Confessio Amantis containing his version of "Canace" (3.143-336), "Tyro" (8.271-2028), and "Constance" (2.587-1598), click here and scroll down to the John Gower link, from which you can choose Confessio Amantis and scroll to the relevant lines.

4)  The Man of Lawe's prologue (II.99-133) paraphrases a papal bull from Pope Innocent III (12th century) in which the pope denounced poverty's ills and the accumulation of excess riches.  Perversely, the lawyer goes from dispraise of poverty to a praise of merchants with their "bagges" full of gold who "knowen al th'estaat / Of regnes" (Cf. "Goddes pryvytee").  If not for a rich merchant who told him this tale, the lawyer says, he would have no tale to tell us.  First, what does a Christian make of one who praises wealth in a parody of a papal denunciation of poverty?  Second, does the lawyer here seek to make this a "merchants' tale" rather than his own, avoiding implication in the tale-telling game's self-revelations?

5)  The merchants returning from Rome bear tales of Custance's beauty and humility, "curteisye" and "holynesse" (II.162-8).  This fills the Sultan with such passion that he and all his "chivalrie" convert to Christianity, "in destruccioun of mawmettrie, / And in encrees of Cristes lawe deere" (II.236-7).  Typically for a medieval narrator, the Man of Lawe sees Islam as a mysterious and abhorent rebellion against the true prince's law that Custance's influence overthrows.  How does she do it?  Might this be comparable to the way Arcite and Palamon react to Emelye, and if so, what kind of "saint" is Custance?

6)  Motivation in the tale often is attributed by the narrator to astrological influences, starting with the Sultan's conversion (II.190-203) and most notably in the apostrophe to Fate as "O firste moevyng!" (II.295-315).  The second clearly echoes Theseus' "First Moevere" speech, but implying that things are not always working out for the best.   In fact, it tracks Custance's downfall from that "firste moevyng" to the "Infortunat ascendent tortuous" of the planets overhead who inflluence the "Imprudent Emperour of Rome" in three parallel stanzas (II. 295, 302, 309).   The apostrophe, or address to someone or something absent, is a rhetorical strategy often used in legal rhetoric, as well as in histories.  What does it assume about the story-telling situation's contact with these unseen forces?  Also notice the more commonplace motive for Custance's sudden change of career which he alludes to but immediately obscures (II.239-45).  (Re: the "incest" theme of the Man of Lawe's introduction, see the note about the source tale of the princess exiled for refusing to marry her father, p. 857.)

7)  The "Sowdanesse" plays the first "evil pagan" in this saint's life (though Dad had been the first in the previous versions--see 857).  Her motives, however, are curiously familiar, faithfulness to their god and the vows they have sworn, for breaking of which she expects them "afterward in helle to be drawe" (II.339).  How does this affect the medieval English readers' reception of this "lower life form"?  Click here for the comparable passage in Gower's version in which she explains her motivation for this heinous act.  The lawyer then returns to the apostrophe, apparently his favorite rhetorical trope, to denounce her as "roote of iniquitee!" (II. 358) and to denounce women, so often Satan's "instrument" (II. 360-71).  Which pilgrims are going to hate this passionately?

8)  After the banquet slaughter of the Christians by the Sultanesse's "freendes," Custance is put in the first of several ships "al steerelees" (II.439).  For the Italian renaissance adaptation of this to a Petrarchan conceit, see "Passa la nave" (Rime 189) in which the "boat" of the lover's heart is steered by his "foe," the Beloved who does not pity him.  What is the allegorical significance of this image of the "voyage of life"?  For a classical source of this image, see the tale of Danae who, with her child by Zeus, Perseus, was put into the sea in a great chest that floated to safety under the god's guidance.  The lawyer denies full knowledge of how Custance escapes, however, appealing to the sanctity of God's "purveiance" (II.483).

9)  Custance' arrival in Northumberlond after three years at sea without food and drink is similarly attributed to divine intercession (II.498-504).  However, the kindness of the constable and his wife, Hermengyld, return the tale's motivation to the realm of human qualities for a while.  Custance converts Hermengyld to Christianity, and the healing of a blind Christian (one of those left from before the pagan reconquest of the islands) confirms Custance's powers to the constable, who also is converted.  The plot stalls here again until pagan wickedness motivates a knight to lust after Custance, to kill Hermengyld and to blame Custance after she has rejected him.  How does that pattern of motivation suggest earthly affairs relate to divine providence?  That is, what gets the plot moving, and what puts it in stasis?

10)  The trial of Custance and the Knight's punishment by the "hand" are typical of saints' lives in that the trial's justice depends entirely on divine intervention since the pagan court is "stacked" against the heroine.  The conversion of King Alla is not typical, however, since the pagan power figure usually has to be available to gnash his teeth in frustration at the triumph of the saint's god over the his pagan gods.   Custance's and Alla's marriage and conception of a child, which follows that strange stanza speculating on their wedding night (II.708-14) are completely atypical of the sacred biographies, however.  Here the praise of virginity which we might expect from a saint's life is replaced by a "falsely-accused queen" plot familiar to readers of Margaret Schlauch's Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens (826.2 C49HmaSs).  The queen-falsely-accused-of-monstrous-child tale type leads to a woman and child exiled which, in turn, also resembles some Breton lais, especially Emare and Lay le Freyne.  How does this sacred-secular genre fusion affect readers' response to the tales?

11)  Donegild, clearly a spiritual cousin of the "Sowdanesse," hates the new bride because she is "So strange a creature" for her son to marry (II.700).  What kind of genre motivates mortal hatred by a mother-in-law in this fashion? 

12)  The messenger bears "letters" from the queen to the king, but Donegild's version is altered to say the queen's child was "so horrible a feendly creature" that everyone is sure the mother is "an elf" (II.754).  Readers of Sir Launfal may be heard asking, "so why is her being an 'elf' a bad thing?"  Well this is the Other Side of the lore of faerie, in which the eldritch folk are demonized.  What almost certainly must be true about Custance and Alla's letter writing process if Alla will accept Donegild's letter as Custance's?

13)  In an interesting outburst, the lawyer calls Donegild "mannysh" and "feendlych spirit" (II.782-3).   The note on 861 refers you to the locus classicus in Dante, Inferno, Canto 33, where Dante-the-Pilgrim encounters the soul of Friar Alberigo, who tells Dante the murderous friar's body still walks the earth, inhabited by fiend.  Fans of underworld movies will appreciate Alberigo's dramatic flair for staging mass murders   The Friar's retaliation for his younger brother's insulting blow was to invite his brother and his brother's son to dinner where, at the Friar's call "Bring on the fruit!," assassins entered and killed his brother and nephew.  How does this relate to the thematic context of Custance's voyages?   What does the apparently insulting usage "mannysh" indicate about the lawyer's expectations--how might that gendered insult relate to Custance's character?

14)  When Custance is put in the third boat (and the second with steering problems), she prays to Mary and Jesus, and laments her son's guiltlessness.  Patricia Eberle's notes for the Riverside Chaucer point out that this passage doesn't occur in Trevet, but something similar occurs in Gower's version of this tale.   What does that tell you about the alleged "quarrel" between Chaucer and Gower, and what does it suggest about the date of the final version of the Man of Lawe's Tale?

15) After Donegild gets her comeuppance (II.894-5), five years "and moore" go by until Custance finds herself aground beneath a "hethen castel" and the object of yet another "courtly lover"'s affections.  Fortunately, the steward was unsteady on his feet and drowned, leading the lawyer to an apostrophe condemning lust (II.925-31).   What effect does the scene's brevity have upon the tale's impact?

16)  When Custance's itinerary finally brings her back to Rome, she is made a servant to a Roman senator and his wife.   This passage closely parallels Ley le Freyne, in which the unfairly exiled daughter was made a servant and whose sweet demeanor revealed her identity, and Emare, whose father recognizes in her son his long-lost daughter's "curteys" behavior.   The reunion with Alla and the Emperor's remorse "double" the plots of the shorter breton lais, but the effect is the same.  Courtly behavior serves as a token by which the mother may be recognized.  How does this contrast with the divinely-motivated plot of Custance's voyages, and what does it do to the conclusion's praise of Custance?

17)  The epilogue may be the clue to an early stage in Chaucer's conception of the CT cycle.  See the note on page 862, especially regarding the pilgrim named on line 1179 who rejects those who "gospel glosen" and says "My joly body schal a tale telle, / And I schal clynken you so mery a belle, / That I schal waken al this compaignie" (II.1185-7).   Harry has just tried to direct the next tale to the Parson (II. 1166-9) but Harry's swearing prompts the Parson to complain.  What was Harry's probable motive for wanting to follow the Man of Lawe's Tale with the Parson's, and what was Chaucer's motive for first suggesting that and then frustrating that?


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