The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Man of Law's Tale Summary

The Host then calls upon the Man of Law (or lawyer, in today’s terms) to tell his story, reminding the pilgrims that time is flying past. The Man of Law claims that, while he intends to uphold his end of the contest by telling a story, he cannot tell a good one because Chaucer has already told them all. He goes on to list a few, including the tale of Ceyx and Alcione in The Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women. He notes that Chaucer has never told the tale of Canacee, who had an incestuous affair with her brother, and states that he will not tell the tale either.

Instead, the Man of Law goes on to tell the following tale:

A group of wealthy merchants from Syria travel to Rome, where they hear about the beauty of Constance, the emperor’s daughter. Returning home to Syria, they tell their sultan about Constance’s beauty. The sultan is smitten by the tales and swears that he will marry Constance, but his advisors warn him that because Constance is a Christian princess and the sultan is Muslim, the marriage cannot be allowed. Undaunted, the sultan swears he will convert to Christianity if it means he can marry Constance.

Meanwhile, the Roman emperor hears that the sultan of Syria wishes to marry Constance, so he prepares to send her to Syria. She doesn’t want to go, but because she feels she has no other choice, she puts on a brave face and boards the ship.

In Syria, the sultan’s mother hears that her son plans to have the entire court baptized as Christians for Constance’s arrival and begins to plot against him. The first part of the tale ends with a condemnation of the sultan’s mother for her plans against Constance.

The second part of the tale begins with a feast at the home of the sultan’s mother, at which every Syrian who has converted to Christianity is killed at the dinner table. Constance is put on a ship without a rudder and abandoned to the “salte se” (salt sea). The ship eventually crashes on the shores of Northumberland, where Constance is given shelter by the warden of a local castle and his wife, Dame Hermengyld. Although both are “pagans,” Constance eventually convinces Hermengyld to convert to Christianity.

While Constance is staying at the castle, a young knight falls in love with her, but she will not return his favors. To get revenge, the knight sneaks into the bedroom Constance and Hermengyld share, slits Hermengyld’s throat, and puts the knife beside Constance, framing her for the murder.

Constance is taken before King Alla, the king of Northumberland. When the people of Northumberland insist that Constance could not have committed the crime, Alla has the young knight brought before him and forces him to swear on the Bible that Constance killed Hermengyld. The knight does swear, but as the words leave his mouth, he is struck down by an invisible hand and his eyes pop out of his skull. Convinced of her innocence, Alla decides not only to let Constance go, but to marry her. While Alla is away fighting in Scotland, Constance gives birth to their son and names him Mauricius.

However, Alla’s mother, Donegild, is determined to destroy the marriage. When Mauricius is born, she writes to Alla, telling him the child is misshapen. Alla writes back, determined to love his son anyway. Donegild replaces this letter with one that instructs that Constance and her son are to be killed. Instead, they are put on a boat and set adrift on the ocean again. By the time Alla returns from fighting in Scotland, they are gone. Thus ends part two of the tale.

As part three begins, Alla arrives home. He has Donegild put to death, but Constance and Mauricius are already gone. They wash up on the shore of another “heathen” (non-Christian) land, where the local steward comes aboard the ship and tells Constance she will be his lover whether she likes it or not. Constance cries out to the Virgin Mary for help, and the steward is washed overboard and drowned.

Meanwhile, Constance’s father has heard about the sultaness’s slaughter of the Christians in Syria, and he sent an army to Syria in revenge. On its way back to Rome, the army meets Constance in her ship, but the senator in charge does not recognize her. Instead, he takes her back to Rome, where she stays for a “long time.”

One day, Alla comes to Rome on a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness for leaving Constance and his son behind in Donegild’s mercy. The senator in charge of the army has Alla over for dinner, where he sees Mauricius. Noticing how much the child looks like his mother, Alla flees the table, certain he’s hallucinating – but when Constance enters the room, he realizes that he has actually found his lost wife and son.

The tale ends with the Man of Law noting that Mauricius was later made emperor of Rome by the pope. However, he does not dwell on this, instead stating that “my tale is of Constance specially.”

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