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 (