THE MAN OF LAW’S TALE
She is a devout Christian woman whose faith is constantly tested.
The Sultan of Syria
This young ruler’s life is ruled by the love of a woman, Constance.
He is the King of Northumberland who marries Constance.
She is the malicious mother of King Alla, who contrives to split up her son’s marriage.
A group of merchants from Syria travel to Rome to see if there are any opportunities for trade.
During their visit, they hear about Constance, the Emperor’s daughter who is described as the perfect woman, being full of grace, beauty, goodness and chastity.
When the merchants return to Syria, they tell the young Syrian Sultan about
Lady Constance and he immediately is enthralled by the description of her.
He is determined to make her his wife. His counselors advise that she will not marry a Muslim, so rather than lose Constance, he will be baptized a Christian, and so will all his subjects.
The marriage is arranged, and Lady Constance makes a sad farewell to her
The Sultan’s mother will not give up her old Religion for the sake of this
foreign girl, and she devises a plan to thwart her son’s happiness.
Lady Constance is greeted with great ceremony and the wedding is a great
celebration with a dazzling array of visiting dignitaries.
During the banquet, the mother’s troops sweep into the banquet hall and kill all the Christians, including the young Sultan. Lady Constance is spared, but she is set adrift on the sea.
Her ship is at the will of the currents, and after a considerable length of
time is beached in Northumberland, England, a Pagan land. She is found by the Constable and his wife who care for her.
Constance still keeps her faith in Jesus Christ and soon Hermengild, the Constable’s wife, is converted to Christianity, and so too is the Constable.
One night Satan enters and murders Hermengild, and leaves the murder weapon
in Constance’s bed. Accused of the murder, she is taken by the Constable to King Alla. The King sentences her to death, but the women of the Court wail, pleading for Constance to be spared.
Satan, disguised as a Knight, accuses Constance of the murder and at that
moment he is stricken dead, and a voice is heard saying that the King has unjustly judged a disciple of Christ. The whole Court is converted to Christianity, except Donegild, the mother of the King.
The King and Constance fall in love and are married.
Whilst the King is away fighting the Scots, Constance gives birth to a beautiful son. Constance writes to her husband, but Donegild intercepts and changes the message, saying that the child is disfigured. The King replies that it is God’s will, but again this letter is intercepted, and Donegild writes that the King wishes the son to be destroyed. Constance leaves in a ship for home.
King Alla returns and discovers the evil perpetrated by Donegild and has her
put to death.
Back in Rome, the Emperor sends an army to Syria to avenge the death of the
Christians. On their way back from Syria, they discover Constance in her small boat, but she has lost her memory, and they do not recognize her.
Alla decides to make a Pilgrimage to Rome to seek penance for the evil done
to Constance by his mother.
He happens to see a child whose face strongly resembles that of Constance. He asks a Senator concerning the circumstances regarding the child, and he learns where Constance is living. There is a happy reunion and the Emperor is also glad to have his daughter back.
Alla and Constance return to Northumberland, but unfortunately the King dies
a year later. Constance’s son returns to Rome to become Emperor.
The main theme of this story is Constance’s unshakeable faith in
Christianity, hence her name.
The moral is that the good Christian must always be true to his faith.
Constance suffers poverty, sorrow, defeat and also prosperity, happiness and victory, but through all these stages, her faith remains constant. She epitomizes all the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the reader is impressed with her humility.
It is her faith that keeps her going when she is faced with one improbable
situation and then another, and then another.
The actual circumstances in the story seem ridiculous, but they are
secondary to the main theme.
There is a clear message here for the Medieval Christian – that although their lives may be governed by Lords, Kings and the Clergy; the way in which they lead their lives should be governed by Jesus Christ.
It is also curious why Chaucer has the Man of Law declare that he is not a
poet, yet the story is told in seven line stanzas with a clear rhythmic scheme. It is the same scheme adopted by Chaucer in his famous ‘Troilus and Criseyde’.
We have seen earlier that the host is keen for the Pilgrims to tell their
stories, but the Wife of Bath indulges herself in a long preamble concerning her five marriages.
She states that her life is governed by the experiences she has had, and not
by any authority.
She wishes to rebuff the suggestion that she is sinful because she has had five husbands. She is merely taking on the Biblical instruction to increase and multiply. She also likens herself to the morals of Solomon who had many wives, and also quotes from St. Paul, saying that it is better to marry than to burn.
She also advises that sex organs were devised not just for functional
purposes, but for pleasure as well.
The Wife’s first three husbands were older than her, but good, and rich.
She would often scold them whenever they accused her of being extravagant with their money, spending it on fine clothes, gold and jewellery. She knew her husbands were rich, but they always pleaded poverty. They also tried to stop her visiting her numerous women friends. One of her husbands thought she was being unfaithful, but she was always true to her husbands while they were alive. She was frustrated with the fact that just as she obtained mastery over one of her husbands, they would go and die on her.
Her fourth husband was different from the first three, and he had a
mistress, which offended her because she was in her prime.
She decided to get her revenge by making him think she was being unfaithful. He too died, and her last husband was a young Clerk who was half her age. This marriage was a marriage of love and not for wealth. However, the young Clerk spent all his time reading books and he collected books, which showed women in an unfavorable light.
One night she had had enough of this treatment and she hit him over the head
with one of his books and he fell into the fire.
He jumped up and hit the Wife of Bath, and she fell to the floor and pretended to be dead. He was so upset that he promised her anything if she would live. This is how she gained control over her last husband.
The prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale is actually longer than her tale.
Chaucer uses it to justify the five marriages that the Wife of Bath entered into.
The clear suggestion is that what women most desire is to have complete
control over their husbands.
There are also additional comments concerning the chastity of women.
It was widely thought in Medieval England that a life of chastity would bring the person closer to God. The Wife of Bath’s reaction to this is that if women remained virgins, there would nobody left to give birth to more virgins.
It is evident that the Wife of Bath enjoyed sex, and another point she is
making is that sex should be enjoyed, not tolerated by women.
Chaucer is making quite revolutionary points for these times,
hinting that women should not be submissive in sexual matters.