Archives for the month of: December, 2011

Sequitur pars secunda.

Last time, we left the Roman Emperor’s daughter Constance in the safe hands of the constable and his wife Hermengyld in Northumberland. The Man of Law made a point to tell us that Constance is speaking a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the constable. Now, if Marie de France were telling this story during the 12th century, she probably would’ve used romance convention to deal with the issue of language barriers. Her Breton lay Guigemar is the story of a knight who is sent on a quest to discover love.

Scenes of courtly love

Scenes of Courtly love on ivory mirror case (late 14th century) Musée du Louvre (Photo: Wikipedia)

Guigemar is the son of a baron. His father sends him as young boy to live in a nearby king’s court. There, Guigemar learns the ways of chivalry and when he comes of age the king dubs him a noble and presents him with arms. Guigemar goes to Flanders and fights in many battles. He soon becomes a very famous knight and his name comes to be known throughout all of France. There is, however, one peculiar thing about Guigemar: he has no romantic interest in women. Guigemar returns to Brittany and visits his parents. They are pleased to see that their son has such great success in his professional life. After hanging around his family’s castle for about a month, he feels the urge to go hunting so he summons his knights, hunters, dogs, and beaters and leaves early the next morning to chase game in the forest. When they spot the first stag, his men unleash the dogs and rapidly they run ahead in pursuit of the beast. Guigemar, meanwhile, stays behind with his squire. Soon after the sounds of the dogs fade into the distance, Guigemar and his squire notice in a thicket a white hind with antlers like a buck.

white hind

Detail from The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-1399) National Gallery, London (Photo: Wikipedia)

The squire quickly hands Guigemar his bow and arrows. Guigemar shoots the deer in the head only to have his arrow rebound, hitting his own thigh. Guigemar falls off his horse onto a thick patch of grass in such a way that he is face to face with the dying animal. The deer speaks to Guigemar telling him his destiny:

Ja mais n’aies tu medecine!Ne par herbe ne par racine,Ne par mire ne par poisunN’avras tu ja mes guarisunDe la plaie qu’as en la quisse,

De si que cele te guarisse,

Ki suferra pur tue amur

Si grant peine e si grant dolur,

Qu’unkes femme tant ne sufri;

E tu referas tant pur li,

Dunt tuit cil s’esmerveillerunt,

Ki aiment e améavrunt

U ki puis amerunt après.

Va t’en de ci! Lai m’aveir pes! (v.109-122)[1]

Puisses-tu ne jamais trouver de remède!Nulle herbe, nulle racine,Nul médecin, nulle potionNe guériront jamaisLa plaie de ta cuisse

Tant qu’une femme ne viendra par la guérir,

Une femme qui souffrira pour l’amour de toi

Plus de peines et de douleurs

Que nulle autre amoureuse.

Et toi, tu souffrirais tout autant pour elle.

Et votre amour émerveillera

Tous ceux qui aiment, qui ont aimé

Et qui aimeront

Maintenant va-t’en, laisse-moi en paix!


May you never find a cure,nor may any herb,root,or doctor or potionever heal the woundyou have in your thigh

until you are cured by a woman

who will suffer likewise for her,

so much so that

all those who are in love,

who have known love

or are yet to experience it,

will marvel at it.

Be gone from here and leave me in peace.


white hind's speech to guigemar

White hind’s speech to Guigemar from a manuscript (c.1201-1300) Bibliothèque national de France (Photo: gallica) (Quoted text above begins on the 4th line of this detail)

So begins Guigemar’s quest. He bades his squire go find the others and bring help. Now alone, Guigemar soon finds a magical and mysterious boat that is superbly constructed and lavishly decorated. Inside this boat there is a bed quilted with silk woven with gold. Guigemar rests on the bed, waking later to discover that this magical boat has unfurled its silk sail and is taking him on a voyage. He prays to God just as Constance does and is safely brought to port. He lands “below an ancient city, capital of its realm” (46) (desuz une antive cité / esteit chiés de cel regné Au pied d’une vielle cite) (v.206-07). There, Guigemar meets a noble woman who is made by her jealous husband to live in a tall marble structure. The only human contact she has besides her husband is a maiden servant and a eunuch. This structure has only two entrances: a guarded door and a garden which connects to the sea. The woman and her maiden notice the mysterious ship during one of their strolls in the garden and inside they found Guigemar sleeping. As you probably guessed, Guigemar and the lady discover that they are star-crossed lovers. A confrontation with the jealous husband occurs, they are tragically separated but reunited involving the magic boat, a knot, and a chastity belt, their romance is once again threatened by another jealous lord, Guigemar fights in a tournament, razes a castle, and the two lovers ride off into the sunset together. I can’t give you a proper telling but in Marie’s lays you can find the story of Guigemar. Her telling is much fresher in mind than mine.

Marie’s story starts and ends in Brittany during the reign of Hoël so it is in the realm of Arthurian Legend. She has her knight travel to Flanders before the episode with the deer and the story’s events return to Brittany, but the place the magical boat takes Guigemar is not in Brittany. This strange, ancient land is not properly identified. Which language does Guigemar use to communicate with the noble woman and which language does she use to communicate with everyone in Brittany when the magical boat takes her there later in the story? These are details that Marie doesn’t bother herself with in this or any of her lays. You’ll be much more likely to find details of how lavish a magical boat looks than which languages characters from foreign lands are using to converse with each other in Marie’s lays. Marie relies on romance convention to do the translating for her characters. There are so many magical elements in this story already with a talking deer and an unattended magical boat that transports our protagonists to and from Brittany and some unidentified place and time that the audience is in such suspension of disbelief that they don’t question things like which language the characters are using to speak with each other or how is it a knight can talk with a deer!

Chaucer is no stranger to using romance convention to solve language barrier issues between man and bird. Chaucer’s Squire uses it in his tale with the king’s daughter Canace’s magic decoder ring:

That on hir finger baar the queynte ryngThurgh which she understood wel every thvngThat any fowel may in his leden synAnd koude answeren hym in his ledene ageyn(II 433-36) That on her finger bore the curious ringBy which she understood whatever thingBirds in their language said, and which could teachHer how to answer in natural speech (400

Next time I’ll get back to Constance and the Man of Law’s Tale – I promise!

Explicit sequitur pars.

[1] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[2] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[3] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Ford puts a Babel fish in Arthur’s ear so he can understand the Vogan language intercom announcements. The narrator describes the Babel fish as:

“small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”[1]

Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale follows Constance from Rome all the way to Syria and Northumberland and back again – yet despite the linguistic and cultural differences found among these places, she is understood without a Babel Fish.

the queene of al Europe

Unknown female saint (Photo: Réunion des Musées Nationaux)

There are several ways medieval storytellers deal with the problem of language barriers when their tales must cover a geographical landscape as large and culturally diverse as the one in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The storyteller could suspend the audience’s disbelief by “glossing over” the problem of both potential and obvious language barriers through romance convention – that is, giving the story romance (fantasy) qualities so the audience doesn’t question the language the characters speak or by supplying a magical object like a talisman or an amulet to do the translation work for everybody. The storyteller could also rely on the main character’s ability to speak various languages and know the necessary customs for communicating with characters in distant lands. The third is simply employing the linguistic landscape of modern reality, which, despite the fantasy and miracle elements already present in the story, is the method Chaucer (or, ahem, his Man of Law) chose to use in his telling. Who cares that these events take place in the 6th century – we’re performing this production for a late 14th century English dinner party audience and there’s little demand for historical and cultural accuracy!

Heere bigynneth Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale tolde by the weye

The Man of Law’s Tale is a Canterbury Tale that starts with some Syrian merchants telling the Sultan of Syria (Sowdan of Syria) about their recent business trip to Rome and, “Amonges othere thynges, specially, Thise marchantz han hym toold of dame Custance” (I 183-84).[2] It turns out that all the merchants in Rome are talking about the Roman Emperor’s daughter, Constance, because a typical conversation between merchants in Rome went like this:

Our Emperour of Rome – God hym see!-A doghter hath that, syn the world bigan,To rekene as wel hir goodnesse as beautee,Nas nevere swich another as is shee,I prey to God in honour hire suteene, And wolde she were of al Europe the queene.(I 156-61) Our Emperor – God save his majesty! –Has such a daughter, since the world beganThere ever was another such as sheFor beauty and for goodness; she could beThe Queen of Europe with all eyes upon her.May God sustain her long in health and honour!(127)[3]

Well, upon hearing of Constance’s beauty, the Sultan gets it in his mind that he must have her as his wife. His court advisors think he’s gone mad and has not only forgotten his duty to the prophet Mohammed (God bless him and his household), but remind him that, “no Cristen prince wolde fayn / Wedden his child under oure laws sweete / That us were taught by Mahoun, oure prophete.” (I 222-24) Now, the Sultan isn’t going to let Islamic law stand in the way of having the Roman Emperor’s daughter all to himself. No, “Rather than I lese / Custance, I wol be cristned, doutelees” (I 225-26), he says. After a few exchanges of diplomatic letters, an amount of gold in unspecified quantity, and the pope’s consideration Syria finally becomes a Christian nation! This is all happening because the Roman’s Emperor’s daughter is the talk of the town? If only our modern global relations were so simple. But is it really that easy for the Sultan? Does he actually possess such great executive power over his country? Well, it turns out that his mother has a bit more political influence than he’d probably care to admit and she’s not too happy with his decision to marry the Emperor’s daughter. She calls a secret meeting with the sultan’s men:

“Lordes,” quod she, “ye knownen evirichon,How that my sone in point is for to leteThe hooly laws of oure AlKaron,Yeven by Goddes message Makomete.But oon avow to gret God I heete,The lyf shall rather out of my body sterteOr Makometes lawe out of myn herte!” (I 330-336) “My lords,” she said, “you know it to a manHow that my son is purposed to abjureThe holy teaching of our AlkoranAnd all Mahomet had from God the Pure.And to that God I here make promise sureRather to die the death than to departFrom what that Faith has written in my heart.” (132)

If I’m not mistaken, those words mean that Syria will give up Islamic rule over her dead body. She wastes no time in plotting with the Syrian nobles to feign baptism, because, after all, “Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite!” (I 352) and turn the wedding party into a gruesome bloodbath. Roman visitors and any Syrian – including her own son – interested in adopting Christian laws will meet their maker at the edge of a knife. Come the wedding day and the Sultan’s mother with her secret coalition slice everyone to bits except for Constance. They put her in a rudderless boat, push her out to sea, and “bidde hire lerne saille / Out of Surrye agaynward to Ytaille” (II 440-41). With Custance left to fare the ocean blue with lady Fortune at the helm, the sultan’s mother is Syria’s new commander and chief.

Byzantine procession

Procession of the guilds in front of the Sultan in the Hippodrome (Photo:

Constance does not leave the trip from Syria back to Italy to the whims of Fortune’s wheel. She prays to Christ’s cross to lead her to safety. With our heroine now in the hands of Christ, the Man of Law takes a moment to explain just how Constance survived the massacre in Syria. He does this by asking rhetorical questions and answering them for us. Now, we must not forget that the story’s teller is a lawyer and every strong Christian case carries at least a couple Old Testament references for convincing evidence.

“Who saved Danyel in the horrible cave…?” (II 473) and “Who kepte Jonas in the fishes mawe / Til he was spouted up at Nynyvee?” (II 486-487). “Who fedde the Egipcien Marie in the cave…?”[4] (II 500) Though each and every God-fearing pilgrim en route to Canterbury already knows the answer without these obvious clues, our narrator provides it anyway to conclude his sermon, “No wight but Crist, sanz faille / Fyve thousand folk it was as greet mervaille / Withloves five and fishes two to feede / God sente his foyson at hir grete neede” (II 501-504). Who but Christ delivers Constance to safety?

So, as you may have already guessed, Constance miraculously reaches the shore in one piece. She’s in Northumberland. The constable from a nearby castle comes down to inspect the shipwreck. He finds her a bit shaken up from her voyage and she has amnesia too. He feels pity for her and invites her to live with him and his wife Hermengyld. They are pagan, but they will soon be Constance’s first Northumbrian converts to the Christian faith.

For some reason, The Man of Law makes a point to tell us how Constance and the constable communicate: “A maner Latyn corrupt was hir speche / But algate therby was she understonde” (II 519-520). The constable isn’t fluent in this “Latyn corrupt” and Constance may also be reducing her language to a pidgin form. They are probably using a lot of hand gestures, nods, and head shaking, but nevertheless they are communicating. If Marie de France were telling this story, she probably would have used romance convention to deal with the possible problem of Constance encountering a language barrier with characters in Northumberland.

Join us next time for more of The Man of Law’s Tale with special guest Guigemar.

Explicit prima pars.

[1] Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York, 1979), 54.

[2] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[3] References to Chaucer in Modern English translation are taken from The Canterbury Tales, Trans. Nevill Cohill (New York, 1977).

[4] Mary of Egypt patron saint of penitence (

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