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man of law's tale

7 november 2023

Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" seems an entirely solemn work, devoid of the snarky levity that I can't help but detect in his "Knight's Tale".

The "Man of Law's Tale" is one of pious patience in the face of misfortune. Custance, daughter of the Roman Emperor, is betrothed to the Sultan of Surrye. At first I imagined some potentate sitting on a throne in Guildford, but Chaucer apparently means Syria. The Sultan himself is an OK guy in the tale's terms; he agrees to convert to Christianity in order to marry Custance. But his mother objects.

My sone in point is for to lete
The holy lawes of oure Alkaron,
Yeven by Goddes message Makomete.

What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe
But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,
And afterward in helle to be drawe …?
In isolation, those are interestingly relativist lines. One can imagine them, mutatis mutandis, being spoken by a medieval Christian warning against apostasy. But the Sultan's mom quickly loses the moral high ground. At the wedding feast, she has them "al tohewe and stiked at the bord," including her own son.

But somehow, mom spares Custance – or, explains the Man of Law, Christ saves her. Custance sets out on a series of journeys on shipboard, miraculously sustained by Jesus for years at a time. She actually does get to England, where she marries a king named Alla and then runs afoul of his mother too. Then it's back on a boat and back eventually to Rome, where she is at great long last reunited with Alla. Their son becomes Emperor in turn.

Custance isn't much of a character. The story is akin to the Clerk's tale of the patient Griselda, but without the more energetic nastiness that Chaucer borrows there from Boccaccio. Custance just literally drifts from peril to succor to peril to succor to triumph. The tale offers a kind of mean-spirited, gloating tone about its God and his omnipotence. I am misreading it in a very modern way here, but it's 600 years too late for me to recover any identification with the attitudes it expresses.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Man of Law's Tale." In The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. John H. Fisher. New York: Holt, 1977. 82-102. PR 1851 .F5