The Man of Law's Tale
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The Man of Law's Tale

The Sergeant of Law

The Man of Law's Tale is the fifth of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, written around 1387. John Gower's "Tale of Constance" in Confessio Amantis tells the same story and may have been a source for Chaucer.[1]Nicholas Trivet's Les chronicles was a source for both authors.[2]

Wurtele provides a detailed compilation of the differences between Trivet's Chronicle and the poems of Gower and Chaucer.[3]:56-82 Gower strove for vividness and shortened the tale in places. Chaucer expanded the tale and emphasizes the holiness of Constance and how she was favoured by heaven.

Hagiographic motifs are most abundant in Chaucer's version, e.g. "the miracles God works though Custance and the way she is miraculously fed while at sea".[22] Wurtele observes that Chaucer makes frequent use of the adjective "hooly" but Gower never uses this word.[3]:64-65


(References here are to line numbers in both Man of Law's Tale (MLT) and Confessio Amantis(CA).)

Constance (Custance in Chaucer) is the daughter of the emperor in Rome. Syrian merchants report her great beauty to the Sultan. A marriage contract is negotiated by her father which requires the Sultan and his subjects to convert to Christianity.MLT[4]:134-245 or CA[5]:II.587-639

The Sultan's mother, enraged that her son would turn his back on Islam, connives to prevent this by massacring her son and the wedding party and having Constance set adrift on the sea. MLT[4]:386-504 or CA[5]:II.665-715 Her adventures and trials continue after she is shipwrecked on the Northumberland coast. The validity of her Christian faith is proved by two miracles. Her companion Hermengyld heals a blind man.MLT[4]:547-574 or CA[5]:II.759-775 A wicked knight who wishes to seduce Constance murders Hermengyld and attempts to frame Constance using the bloody dagger. He perjures himself and is mysteriously struck dead. MLT[4]:582-686 or CA[5]:II.792-885 Northumberland is a nominally pagan country where the King, Alla (based on Chaucer's understanding of the historical Ælla of Deira[6]) converted to Christianity after learning of the two miracles. Alla's evil mother intercepts and falsifies letters between the Alla and his constable, which results in Constance's being banished. MLT[4]:386-875 or CA[5]:II.665-1036

Constance is forced to go to sea again and encounters one final antagonist. She runs aground in Spain; a would-be rapist (Thelous in CA) boards her ship but mysteriously falls overboard. MLT[4]:911-945 or CA[5]:II.1090-1122 She is found by a Senator of Rome. He is returning from a mission to Barberie (Syria) where he revenged the slaughter of Christians by the Sultan's mother. MLT[4]:953ff or CA[5]:II.1179ff The Senator takes Constance (and her child) back to Italy to serve as a household servant. King Alla, still heartbroken over the loss of Constance, goes to Rome on a pilgrimage, and fortunately finds Constance. In the end the couple return to Northumberland. Alla dies a year later, and the baby boy becomes the King. MLT[4]:876-1147 or CA[5]:II.1077-1612

Character of the Man of Law

The Man of Law may have been based upon a real character. Two candidates are Thomas Pynchbek and Gower. Pynchbek "served as a justice of assize between 1376 and 1388 and was known for his acquisition of land, as well as for his learning; in 1388, as chief baron of the Exchequer, he signed a writ for GC's arrest in a case of debt".[7][8]:124 Accepting the latter requires accepting the debatable claim that Gower was practiced a lawyer.[9] Yeager asserts that Gower had a "lawyerly habit of mind" but there is no evidence that he received formal training in the law. Chaucer himself is another candidate.[10] Yet another view is taken by David who sees the Man of Law as "a representative of the self-appointed poetry critics with whom Chaucer disagreed.[11]:219

Man of Law as Narrator


The Man of Law (referred to here as 'A Sergeant of the Lawe') is a judicious and dignified man, or, at least, he seems so because of his wise words. He is a judge in the court of assizes (civil procedures), by letter of appointment from the king, and has many goods and robes. He can draw up a legal document, the narrator tells us, and "no wight pinchen at his writing". The Man of Law rides in informal, silk-adorned clothes. GP :311-330 The Host addresses the Man of Law with more respect than he does the Miller and the Reeve.[4]:33-38 The Man of Law's response to the host includes "behest is debt" which is a quotation from Justinian.[12]:499

Whatever the identity of the narrator, his knowledge of literature is erratic. Some of the Chaucerian works have not been 'published' which suggests he is part of Chaucer's literary circle. He confuses the Muses with the Pierides.[4]:92 Antiochus did not throw his daughter to the ground. The most debated passage in the Introduction is:

But certeinly no word ne writeth he
Of thilke wikke [wicked] ensample of Canacee,
That loved hir owene brother synfully -
Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy! -
Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius,
How that the cursed kyng Antiochus
Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede,
That is so horrible a tale for to rede,
Whan he hir threw upon the pavement.[4]:77-83

Gower retold these two stories in Confessio. David observes that MLT is placed after somewhat immoral tales told by the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook.[11]:220 After Gower became aware of this passage, the Epilogue of Confessio was altered to remove praise of Chaucer. The three common interpretations are:

  • Gower was offended by this criticism and deliberately excised the praise of Chaucer which appears in the first recension of CA.[5]:8.2941
  • Macaulay argues the excision was an editing error, which was corrected in a subsequent recension of Confessio.[13]:xxviii
  • Fisher took the view that "moral Gower" was offended by the immoral tales found in the Canterbury Tales.[14]:286ff


The narrator of the tale is less materialistic than the Sergeant of the Introduction (the description of the merchants' wealth is an exception [15]:157). "The tale, on the other hand, quite clearly reveals its narrator to be a devotee of justice in some ideal order, rather than a legal technician grown wealthy through sharp practices."[12]:501 The events of the tale are the crimes discussed in Bracton's De legibus. "Simply from this point of view, and with respect to both style and substance, the received story as an aggregation of incidents is well suit for retelling by a Sergeant of the Law."[12]:509 "Tortuous"MLT:302 an astrological term may be confused with "tortious" which is a legal term.[12]:504Apostrophe is used in several places.[16]:584 Another marked stylistic trait is his use of those rhetorical questions which punctuate with the regularity of a refrain the two passages ([4]:470-594and [4]:932-945) emphasizing at some length the dangers that beset Constance when she is at the sultaness' feast, when she is drifting from Syria to Northumberland, and when the second miscreant assaults her.[16]:585

Some scholars disagree with the arguments given above. Spearing downplays the notion that the narration is the voice of a lawyer.[17]Pearsall found nothing specific to a lawyer other than the response to the Host in the Introduction.[18]


The tale is based on a story within the Chronicles of Nicholas Trivet[2] but the major theme in the tale, of an exiled princess uncorrupted by her suffering, was common in the literature of the time.[19]:24-25 Her tale is also told in John Gower's Confessio Amantis, and both are similar to the verse Romance Emaré, and the cycle is generally known as the "Constance" cycle.[19]:24-25 The oldest known variant of this particular type is Vitae duorum Offarum.[19]:23 More distantly related forms of the persecuted heroine include Le Bone Florence of Rome, and Griselda.[20] An incident where Constance is framed for murder by a bloody dagger appears to be a direct borrowing from Crescentia.[21]


Sequence with other tales

The Tale is the first in Fragment 2. Fragment 1 contains tales told by the Knight, Miller, Reeve and Cook. The various manuscripts of the Tales differ in the sequence of the Tales. 35 manuscripts contain the Man of Law's epilogue, while 22 others (including the Ellesmere Manuscript) do not.[22] In the epilogue, the host invites the Parson to speak next, but the Parson is interrupted before he can begin and a different speaker tells the next tale. In the various manuscripts, the interrupter is Summoner, the Squire, or the Shipman,[22] but it is the Shipman whose character best matches the rude remarks (although the mention of his "joly body" sounds closer to something the Wife of Bath might say). What this probably shows is that Chaucer had not fixed his overall plan. There are also hints, with his claim he will talk in prose despite rhyming throughout, that the Man of Law originally told the Tale of Melibee before he was assigned Custance's tale late in the composition of the tales.[11]:217

See also


  1. ^ Peter Nicholson (1991). "Chaucer Borrows from Gower: The Source of the Man of Law's Tale". In Robert F. Yeager (ed.). Chaucer & Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange. English Literary Studies.
  2. ^ a b P. O. Bäckström (1845). Svenska Folkböcker (in Swedish). I. Stockholm. p. 221ff.
  3. ^ a b Douglas James Wurtele (1968). Chaucer's Man of Law and Clerk as Rhetoricians (PhD). McGill University.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Geoffrey Chaucer. "Canterbury Tales" (PDF).
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i
  6. ^ Rossignol, Rosalyn. 2006. Critical companion to Chaucer: a literary reference to his life and work. New York: Facts on File, 169.
  7. ^ John Matthews Manly (1926). Some New Light on Chaucer. New York: Henry Holt. pp. 131-57.
  8. ^ Benjamin Willem Lindeboom (2007). Venus' Owne Clerk: Chaucer's Debt to the Confessio Amantis. Rodopi. ISBN 978-9042021501.
  9. ^ John H. Fisher (1964). John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814701492.:55
  10. ^ R.F. Yeager (2015). "John Gower's Poetry and the 'Lawyerly Habit of Mind'". Theorizing Legal Personhood in Late Medieval England. Brill Academic Pub. ISBN 978-9004280410.
  11. ^ a b c Alfred David (May 1967). "The Man of Law vs. Chaucer: A Case in Poetics". PMLA. 82 (2): 217-225. doi:10.2307/461291. JSTOR 461291.
  12. ^ a b c d Joseph E.Grennan (October 1985). "Chaucer's Man of Law and the Constancy of Justice". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 84 (4): 498-514.
  13. ^ Macaulay, G.C. (1900). "Introduction". The English Works of John Gower Vol I. Early English Text Society.
  14. ^ John H. Fisher (1964). John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0814701492.
  15. ^ Chauncey Wood (1967). "Chaucer's Man of Law as Interpreter". Traditio. Cambridge University Press. 23: 149-190. doi:10.1017/S036215290000876X.
  16. ^ a b Edward A. Block (June 1953). "Originality, Controlling Purpose, and Craftsmanship in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale". PMLA. 68 (3): 572-616. doi:10.2307/459871. JSTOR 459871.
  17. ^ A. C. Spearing (Summer 2001). "Narrative Voice: The Case of Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale"". New Literary History. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 32 (3).
  18. ^ Derek Pearsall, ed. (1985). The Canterbury Tales. p. 257.
  19. ^ a b c Laura A. Hibbard, Medieval Romance in England New York Burt Franklin,1963
  20. ^ Carol Falvo Heffernan, Le Bone Florence of Rome, p 3 ISBN 0-7190-0647-3 OCLC 422642874
  21. ^ Margaret Schlauch (1969). Chaucer's Constance and Accused Queens. New York: Gordian Press. p. 75.
  22. ^ a b Carolyn Dinshaw (1989). Chaucer's Sexual Poetics. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 240. ISBN 9780299122744.

External links

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