The Man of Law's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna Wilkerson earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience, and designed the Dance Program curriculum for College of Central Florida. Dr. Wilkerson has a published poetry collection entitled Odd Remains, published in the UK in 2013.

In Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales', the Man of Law (lawyer) professes that he is a plain-spoken man who will not use rhyme. He then tells the tragic tale of the Lady Constance, who exemplifies the ideals of female humility and patience.

The Man of Law

In the General Prologue to Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, the Man of Law is described as experienced and knowledgeable, as well as discreet. What this actually means is that he has used his knowledge of the law to accumulate wealth. Little is said here to give a clue to the character's personality or manner, so the reader must wait to find out more when this man takes his turn at storytelling.

The Prologue to the Tale

The morning is passing on the road to Canterbury, and the host turns to the Man of Law to take his turn and tell a gripping tale. The Man of Law protests that he is not good with rhyme, though his tale is actually told in Rime Royal, a complex rhyme and stanza scheme Chaucer used in other works. He also claims that Chaucer himself has already written all the best stories. Most likely he is simply making excuses in the guise of false modesty.

At any rate, he finally proceeds to tell the following tale.

The Tale of Constance

Dame Constance, the aptly named daughter of the Roman Emperor in this tale, is desired as a bride by the Sultan of Syria. Her beauty has so enchanted the young Sultan that he is even willing to convert to Christianity to marry her. Though Constance is understandably terrified at this drastic change in circumstances, she follows her father's will and travels to the Sultan's home in Syria.

The Sultan's mother, angered by her son's abandoning of his Muslim faith, vows to pretend to accept the marriage until the wedding feast. At that moment, she plans to kill her new daughter-in-law and all Christians accompanying her, including her own son.

Danger to Constance
Syrian Muslim Women

At the wedding feast, this plot is carried out. Constance herself escapes death, and is cast to sea alone to finally land in Northumbria. She keeps her Christian faith a secret from the pagan locals. The unfortunate young outcast is taken in by a constable and his wife, Hermengild, who soon convert to Christianity. At this point in the story, we can already see a strong theme at play: the unshakable faith of Constance, who Chaucer uses to represent the ideal in female attitude.

A young knight, lusting after Constance, kills Hermengild and puts the murder weapon in bed with Constance. This seems like a rather random crime - and not a good way to win a young girl's heart! Chaucer, through the Man of Law, explains that the knight was spurred not only by lust but by Satan himself.

Spurred by Satan
Spurred by Satan

Constance is brought before the king, Alla, who sentences her to death on the condition that the knight will swear his innocence. The moment the knight does so he falls down dead, as a heavenly voice declares the innocence of our heroine. King Alla and his court are so impressed that they all become Christians on the spot. As these stories often go, Constance and the king are soon married.

While the king is away at war, Constance has a baby boy. Yet another mother-in-law interferes, writing her son that the baby is deformed. Though the king writes back that he will accept his son, this letter is intercepted and replaced with a false letter ordering the child's death. At this, Constance sails away with her child.

An army from Rome comes upon Constance and her son at sea, but when she is returned to Rome she has no memory of what happened.

King Alla searches for his missing family, finally arriving in Rome. At this point, the story seems to have a happy ending: the three are reunited and return home. Alas, within a year, Constance is a widow.

Themes and Connections

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this tale for the modern reader is the division and tension between Christian and Muslim characters. Christian/Muslim relations featured strongly in the Crusades carried out by European knights to preserve Christian holy sites from Muslim occupation. In return, Muslim crusaders attempted to retain these sites in the Middle East and dispel the Christian invaders.

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