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The Canterbury Tales: The Man of Law's Tale

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The story of Custance was an exceedingly popular narrative in the high and late Middle Ages. The earliest known version is Nicholas Trevet's "De la noble femme Custance" as it appears in his Les Chroniques, and it served as the main source for both Chaucer's and Gower's versions of the tale. Chaucer's version is the one explored in detail here, as it provides several sustained allusions to crusading.


The Man of Law's Tale (MLT) begins with a Saracen sultan falling in love with Custance—a fair Christian maiden and the Emperor of Rome's daughter— by hearing about her from a group of Syrian merchants. Custance is eventually betrothed to the Sultan once he promises that he and his court will convert to Christianity. Though deeply unhappy with her betrothal, Custance consents to the match. In the meantime, the Sultan's mother—furious over her son's betrayal of their faith—vows to avenge and defend her religion. Custance eventually arrives in Syria, and wedding celebrations ensue; they culminate in a lavish feast at the Sultaness' palace. Once the guests are assembled, she orders all of the Christians (including the converts and her own son) to be killed.

Custance, the sole survivor of the massacre, is placed in a rudderless boat and set out to sea. She eventually arrives in Northumberland and is taken in by the warden of a local castle and his wife, Dame Hermengyld. They are pagans, but Custance converts the wife and, in time, the husband as well; Custance puts herself at risk by doing this, however, because Christians are not allowed to worship in public in this realm. Eventually, a young knight falls in love with Custance but grows quickly vengeful when she rejects his advances. He kills Hermengyld while she and Custance are sleeping, and places the knife next to Custance to make it look as though she had committed the murder. As a result, Custance is put on trial before Alla, the king of Northumberland. The young knight accuses her of murder, but the local people come to her defense, saying that she would never have committed such a crime. The king orders the accusing knight to swear on a book (an act that mimics a Christian's swearing on a Bible) that Custance committed the murder. He dies instantly upon making his claim. After witnessing this miracle, the king and the spectators convert to Christianity. Alla decides to marry Custance, which angers his mother Donegild greatly. Custance eventually gives birth to a boy, named Mauricius, while Alla is away, and Donegild sends a false letter about the birth telling her son that the child was born deformed. Alla professes his enduring love for his wife and child in another letter, but Donegild replaces it with one containing orders for Custance and Mauricius' banishment, and they are summarily placed back in Custance's rudderless boat and sent back to sea.

When he returns and finds his wife and child missing, Alla murders his mother for her treachery. Custance, in the meantime, washes ashore in another heathen land and is nearly raped by the warden of the local castle; the Virgin Mary comes to her aid, however, and saves her. During this time, the Emperor of Rome sends an army to Syria, to avenge the erstwhile Christian massacre. The army, led by a senator, finds Custance and her son on their return journey and brings them back to Rome. In the meantime, Alla makes his way to Rome on pilgrimage to do penance for the killing of his mother. He is eventually reunited with Custance and Mauricius; Custance is also reunited with her father, the Emperor. The tale comes to a close by telling of the family's return to England, Alla's untimely death, and the eventual instatement of Mauricius as the Emperor of Rome.


Unlike The Monk's Tale or the description of the Knight in the General Prologue, The Man of Law's Tale (MLT) lacks references to particular crusaders or crusading campaigns. As Susan Schibanoff observes, however, the tale marks "Chaucer's sole textual confrontation with medieval Christianity's strongest religious rival, Islam, and it contains his only reference to the prophet Muhammad and to the Qur'an" (249). The tale is, as a result, indelibly tied to the matter of crusading, and has garnered significant critical attention as a result. According to Schibanoff, the Man of Law attempts to unify his immediate, Christian audience; he diverts attention, she argues, from "potentially explosive class rivalry" by presenting his audience with "another world, another time, ultimately with the Other" (249). The themes of religious conquest, conversion, and extermination—ones that feature prominently in crusades romances—thus become a response to and a solution for local conflicts.

One of the most salient gestures to crusading lies, perhaps surprinsigly, in the figure of Custance herself. As Geraldine Heng argues, Custance epitomizes crusading fervor, her story pointing to the "dream of religious conversion—European domination by cultural means" (190).  Her femininity, Heng observes, enables Custance to "war for Christ" in more peaceable, and ultimately more effective, ways by story's end: There should be little doubt that what Constance accomplishes in her story is the enactment of a successful crusade, cultural-style, feminine-style. The hagiographic aura of the Constance romances, moreover, makes her feminized crusade over into a kind of sexual martyrdom for Constance, a martyrdom . . . [appended to the] martyrdom won by crusaders themselves, who are also, like Constance, travelers from their homelands suffering trauma, privation, and distress, in the service of God . . . We see that Constance's prospective union with the Sultan has achieved what a century and a half of crusades, after the loss of Jerusalem to Saladin, had conclusively failed to do: effect the successful transfer of the Holy City to Christendom [at least in Trevet's version], and purchase a workable peace . . . Where large armies of men—kings, knights, barons, militant pilgrims of every class—have historically floundered, in waging war, a beautiful woman succeeds, wagering her sexuality, in cultural fantasy. (Heng, 189-90) Siobhan Bly Calkin, however, suggests that MLT brings the enterprise of crusading into question. Arguing that MLT's composition was inspired by the rhetoric of crusade found in fourteenth-century recovery treatises, Calkin observes that the tale—like the treatises—openly admits and explores the potential failings of prior crusades as much even as it advocates for new ones (1-3). In contrast to Heng's argument, Calkin argues that Custance's journey to Syria fails as a crusade because it springs out of human, mercantile desires rather than Divine ordinance (11-14). The text, in her formulation, also deemphasizes the importance of converting Saracens by noting the lack of actual proselytizing that occurs while Custance lives in Syria; this absence of preaching, she argues, directly corresponds with the "lack of interest in missionary efforts demonstrated by most fourteenth-century crusade treatises" (9). Added to which, the entire voyage to Syria ends in disaster, with all Christians—saving Custance—slaughtered by the scheming Sultaness. Unlike Trevet's version, Jerusalem is never handed over to the Christians as a result of the union, and the annihilation of the Christians signals a clear failure on their part to establish a permanent ideological and territorial hold in the Levant.  Furthermore, Celia Lewis observes that the crusade-in-miniature initiated by the Romans against the Sultaness resembles the Alexandrian Crusade (given the latter's brevity and its inability to secure a permanent Christian holding in the East). The two campaigns are—in the end—strikingly divergent. While the ideology of crusading did hinge in some ways on the notion of warring to avenge God, the revenge that inspires the crusade in MLT centers on a single, pagan ruler's slaughtering of defenseless Christians. In sum, the war against the Sultaness and her followers was simply a campaign to enact temporal vengeance—no attempts are made to settle and reclaim sanctified Christian territory; rather the Romans aim simply to destroy those who had destroyed Christian lives.

And yet, in spite of these clear destabilizations of crusading motifs, certain glorifications of the crusading ideal still occur in the tale. As Calkin observes, Custance's wanderings in the rudderless ship can be viewed as emblematic of a crusader's willingness "to accept God's will" and to "venture oneself in a hazardous expedition, usually by sea, with no clear material incentive, and absolutely no guarantee of success or even of survival" (20; 18). This exclusive reliance on the will of God "articulates a vision of heroism" also seen and advocated for in sermons that called for crusade (Calking 21). Moreover, if Custance is read as Heng advocates, or even as as a representative of the Church in all of its conversionary power, then the motivations driving the aforementioned Roman campaign and that of a crusade seem to merge and overlap. For in waging a war to avenge Custance's supposed death, the Christian soldiers are, in a sense, warring for their faith.

The uncomfortable similarities between Muslims and Christians in the tale, however, do question the utility of crusading enterprises. Carolyn Dinshaw, for instance, explores the limitations of the Man of Law's crusading vision by pointing to the instability of the conversations that take place in the tale. She argues that the failures of crusading campaigns inform the vexed and uncertain portrayal of religious conversion in MLT:

is there a difference between a real converted Saracen and a fake one, if each shares exactly the same ugly narratorial fate? . . . Both real and fake converts end up dead in horrid acts of bloodletting. . . . That blood is the remainder, unconverted and materially resistant, of the converted Saracens, something where the imprint of Christianity didn't take. The narratorial indifference to their death clues us into this. (26)
Celia Lewis also comments on this instability, observing that despite the hopes for conversion and conquest that are alive in the text, MLT ultimately "signals what for Chaucer's readers must have been a troubling awareness: neither through violence nor through more peaceful means of invasion will Islam be conquered" (354). The tale can be seen, then, as one that simultaneously endorses and destabilizes a vision of crusade and conversionary conquest. This dynamic becomes clear in an examination of the threat that each religion poses to the other in the tale. In MLT, Custance becomes "not simply a missionary pawn of the Church . . . . [but] a tool for the stated goal of Islam's obliteration"; in this version, after all, Sultan and his entire court are converted (Lewis, 368). It is this mass conversion that elicits the wrath of the Sultaness, specifically because of the threat it poses to her people's faith.  The Sultaness' devotion to Islam mirrors Custance's devotion to her faith, and Lewis argues that Chaucer ultimately forges points of comparison between Islam and Christendom by drawing out their similarities: "monotheism, rationality, and a colonizing or imperialist impulse" in order to "problematize the crusading ideal reflected by the Knight" (Lewis, 368-69, 372). Both Christians and Saracens, she argues, are loyal to their faith and are, as a result, willing to kill scores of people in its defense. This further complicates the tale's treatment of crusading themes, for, as Calkin observes, Chaucer reveals—in this juxtaposition of faiths—the "Christian failure to plan for Saracen opposition to the imposition of Christianity," a failure glimpsed in many of the recovery treatises circulating in the late fourteenth century (9-11).

In the end, this multi-faceted treatement of crusader ideology makes The Man of Law's Tale one of the most enigmatic and captivating texts in this survey. Combining both criticism and praise for certain aspects of martial piety, the tale invites its audience to consider the fraught nature of these kinds of campaigns and conversionary impulses, even as it attempts to praise them.

Calkin, Siobhan Bly. "The Man of Law's Tale and Crusade." In Medieval Latin and Middle English Literature. Eds. Christopher Cannon and Maura Nolan. Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. 1-24.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. "Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer's Texts and Their Readers." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 19-41.

Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Lewis, Celia M. "History, Mission, and Crusade in the Canterbury Tales." Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Literary Criticism 42 (2008): 353-382.

Lynch, Kathryn L. "Storytelling, Exchange, Constancy: East and West in Chaucer's 'Man of Law's Tale.'" The Chaucer Review 33 (1999): 409-422.

Schibanoff, Susan. "Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminisim, and Heresy in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale." Exemplaria 8 (1996): 59-96.