Archives for posts with tag: Constance

Sequitur pars quinta.

When King Alla returns to his castle he is surprised to see that his wife and child are nowhere to be found. He asks the constable where they are. The constable is confused and shows King Alla the letter he received with orders in his name:

“Lord, as ye commanded me

Up peyne of deeth, so I have done, certain.” (884-85)

With this, the messenger is tortured until he tells, “plat and pleyn, Fro nyght to nyght, in what place he had leyn” (886-887).

Chaucer’s Man of Law doesn’t tell us which form of torture King Alla used to get the messenger to talk, but the messenger may have been dunked in the ducking-stool. Pictured is Ollie Dee being dunked after being charged with burglary in Toyland (Babes in Toyland / March of the Wooden Soldiers) (image: copyright 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

King Alla discovers the disturbing truth that his own mother forged the letters that called for Constance to be pushed out to sea in a boat without oars. He finds her guilty of treason and we can only guess that she is swiftly put to death, because all Chaucer’s Man of Law says about the matter is,“thus endeth olde Donegild, with mischance!”

Now, Constance, who is once again faring the sea in a rudderless vessel, finally reaches the safety of land. And just when you’d think she’d find repose, it turns out she’s landed just below “an hethen castel.” The steward of the castle comes down to see who has arrived and when he realizes it’s a woman, he tries to have her against her will right then and there. As baby Maurice cries, Constance struggles with the assailant until he is thrown overboard and drowns. The Virgin Mary somehow comes to Constance’s aid, “But blisful Marie heelp hire right anon” (920). We are not told precisely how the power of Mary is manifest through Constance except by Christian miracle. The Man of Law supports this argument with Old Testament Scripture by asking the audience how this weak woman had the strength to defend herself against this renegade:

“How may this wayke woman han this strengthe

Hire to defende again this renegat?” (932-33)

He reminds us that in the Bible, Goliath was a giant warrior, yet young David defeated him in battle. As if presenting evidence for a case in a court of law, his second piece of “evidence” is even stronger and more relevant because it deals specifically with a woman defeating a wicked and powerful man. He references Judith who slew the general Holefernes, ending the Assyrian occupation in her land.

Judith holds the head of Holofernes – 1493 illustration from Nuremberg Chronicle (Morse Library, Beloit College) (image: http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg)

Remember that the Man of Law did this earlier in the tale when he told the audience how Constance survived the wedding massacre in Syria and was delivered safely to the Northumbrian shore. The miracles that deliver Constance from heathen treachery are comparable to other well-known saint characters in the Christian canon such as Jonah who survived the whale, Mary the Egyptian who survived alone in the desert wilderness, and, of course, Christ who fed the many with five loaves of bread and two fish. By doing this, The Man of Law provides evidence to prove that miracles occur because of Christ’s divine intervention and that, more importantly, the ones he cites are no different in significance to the miracles that save his story’s heroine. In a sense, he’s defending the legitimacy of Constance’s sainthood, however, Constance’s sainthood isn’t exactly on trial in this story.

While the Man of Law’s references may be meant to demonstrate his bookishness and familiarity with “Christian” law, their inclusion may not only call for lay people to read Scripture, but assume that the layperson appreciates these stories as much as he does. His delivery of the “evidence” to support his argument is entertaining. They are presented in a tone that may be perfectly read on both serious and lighthearted levels, providing the perfect balance of “sentence” (moral insight) and “solace” (pleasure).[1]

Though the references are traditionally accepted Christian miracles, they also provide us an interesting glimpse into 14th century English religious worldview. The Man of Law’s evocation of miracles from the Christian tradition in this tale is very similar to what folklorists call “sympathetic magic.” The concept behind sympathetic magic is based on “like influences like” and the notion “that the image of Christ or [another saint] overcoming [an] affliction [helps] the afflicted person overcome it as well.”[2] By using the images of David defeating Goliath and Judith slaying Holofernes, the audience understands how Constance would have the power through sympathetic magic to overcome her assailant in the boat just as an image of Jonah surviving the whale would help her survive the sea in a rudderless boat.

So back in the water Constance goes, floating every which way, “dryvynge ay / Somtyme west, and sometime north and south / And somtyme est, ful many a wery day.” (948-49)

Leaving Constance in the water again with the protective images of Christian heroes, the narrator turns back to the Roman Emperor. Once The Emperor hears of the wedding massacre that occurred at the Sultan’s palace, he sends his senator with ships over to Syria to pay them vengeance for their evil acts. The Sultan’s palace is burned to the ground and everyone is slain. On their way back to Rome, the senator’s fleet runs into Constance. They don’t know that the woman with the child is the Emperor’s daughter and either does she, as she still suffers from amnesia. When they return to Rome she lives with the senator and his wife just like she lived with the constable and his wife in Northumberland. The senator’s wife is actually Constance’s aunt, but none of them recognize each other.

Back the story goes to King Alla who feels compelled to go to Rome and give the Emperor his allegiance and to request forgiveness for his wicked works. Off he goes to Rome where he receives a welcome fit for a Christian king.

King Alla traveling to Rome and being able to communicate with everyone there reminds me to return to the question from the first post on Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale about how medieval storytellers deal with language barriers. Remember how Chaucer’s Man of Law has Constance speak a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the characters in Northumberland? Though the story is set in the 6th century, Chaucer may have used the linguistic landscape of 14th century Western Europe. Susan E. Phillips points out in “Chaucer’s Language Lessons” that a colloquial Latin was used as a lingua franca among merchants in late medieval Europe and that Chaucer’s characters’ use of this language in his Man of Law’s Tale suggests that multilingualism was not limited to the aristocratic class and that his use of this colloquial Latin in the story shows some of the linguistic changes that were occurring in late 14th century England.[3] Morris Bishop, as well, noted that during the High Middle Ages as the new culture in Western Europe became more cosmopolitan, “its common language [was] the easy, unpretentious Latin of the time.”[4]

Phillips also reminds us that in the 14th century the vulgar or common Latin was becoming vernacular Italian.[5] It would make sense for members of the royal court to understand colloquial Latin/Italian for the purpose of negotiating trades with merchants. The Man of Law, for example, learned the tale of Constance from a merchant and he shares this with the audience before beginning the story:

Nere that a marchant, goon is many a yeere

Me taught a tale, which that ye shal here (132-33)

The Man of Law, however, does not restrict this ability to communicate in Latin to characters in direct contact with members of the royal court. As we recall when Constance, the Constable, and Hermengyld were walking along beach, they came upon the “blinde Britoun.” Up until this point in the story, all characters in contact with Constance had been either members of the court or characters whose profession or post required frequent interaction with members of the court. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrim characters (the “audience” of the tale within the tale) don’t need to suspend their disbelief to accept that even characters from outside of the court can communicate using this colloquial Latin because the “pilgrims and their characters pick up foreign languages from their professional and personal lives rather than through formal education.”[6]

Chaucer may have “picked up” bits of foreign languages in this way as well. Peter Ackroyd, in his Chaucer biography, points out that Chaucer’s childhood home in London was several hundred yards from an area by the riverside where a community of Genoese merchants lived.[7] Though Chaucer may have studied Latin grammar of Donatus formally, Ackroyd notes that “it has been suggested that Chaucer’s knowledge of Italian sprang from such early contacts” with the merchant colonies in London.[8] Chaucer shows us that the merchants spread their linguistic currency with the noble class, but he is also interested in the parts tradesmen and the common man play in developing national language.

“The Man of Lawe – Of Dame Custance” – from added table of contents to a 15th century English manuscript of Canterbury Tales EL 26 C 09 commonly known as “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Though most Chaucer tales blur the lines of contemporary storytelling styles, the Man of Law’s Tale is usually categorized as a secular saint’s life.[9] By choosing the style of a secular saint’s life, Chaucer could have employed xenoglossia both to deal with a possible language barrier issue and to demonstrate to the audience that Constance fits the description of a saint according to the literary styles of his day. Xenoglossia, the “sudden, miraculous ability to speak, understand, or be understood in… a foreign language previously unknown to the recipient… is described in a number of late medieval vitae and visionary texts.”[10] If Chaucer used xenoglossia to have Constance communicate with characters from other countries, he did it in a subtle manner because he doesn’t point it out. He could have said, “Lo and behold, by some great miracle, our Saint Constance could be understood!” Instead, he says something along of the lines of, “she spoke using a bit of pidgin Latin, but nevertheless, she was understood.” Christine Cooper argues that Chaucer puts Constance is an ambiguous xenoglossic situation[11].

If Chaucer used xenglossia in Man of Law’s Tale, it was likely to make his opinion on the position of the Latin language in 14th century English society ambiguous to protect him from making a divisive political statement. Chaucer mentions the Lollard movement[12] several times in the Canterbury Tales. If Chaucer is using language to provide commentary on either the common Englishman’s proficiency in Latin, the degree to which Latin is a common tongue among all Christian nations, or, if it isn’t whether or not Scripture should be translated into the emerging common tongue of England, English, then he is doing so with great subtlety and ambiguity. If the use of Latin in the story provides us Chaucer’s position on the state of the Catholic church’s role in England, he recapitulates at the end of the story with the most popular reference to Lollardy in the Canterbury Tales. Right after the tale ends, Jankin the Parson admonishes the Host for profanity in his exclamatory use of “Goddes bones” to which the Host replies, “O Jankin, be ye there? / I smelle a Lollere in the wynd.” (1172-73). The Host is the forum moderator of the Canterbury Tales, if you will, and his response to the Parson taking offense to his language suggests that Lollards can be staunch conservatives, and not necessarily liberators for the liberally leaning Englishman who feels persecuted in some way by Catholic Rome. Perhaps Chaucer’s joke about “those crazy conservative Lollards” was inserted as a way of protecting himself from making a statement about a saint coming to town and speaking a language that everyone understood. How shall we take the humor of that outburst?

Illustration of the Man of Law from the beginning of the Man of Law’s Tale in the “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Now, something important to consider is when Chaucer was writing. “Latin is the dominant language in literature surviving from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”[13] and Chaucer wrote during the end of the 14th century. By linguistic landscape, I’m not suggesting that everyone in 14th century England was conversationally proficient in Latin. I mean that the political and cultural landscape of the story has a 14th century flavor to it and the way language is used is part of the dynamics of the setting. Chaucer changes the political geography in his telling of Trevet’s story. Chaucer “makes the Imperial family Roman, whereas Trevet began his account by describing them specifically as Byzantine (“Capadoce”) – Tiberius Constanitus.”[14]

To be historically accurate, Rome was under Byzantine rule during the 6th century, yet, Chaucer uses 14th century geography. Taking a story that occurred in the past and putting it in a modern and contemporary setting was common practice in medieval literature. The geography isn’t the only detail, it’s also the culture, the language. Chaucer points out that Latin is being spoken, yet the Scripture that appears in the story is written in a local language. Chaucer is very specific that it is not a Latin Scripture but a version in the Welsh language – “A Britoun book, written with Evanguiles” (666) – which suddenly looks like the Welsh biblical translation cited in the Prologue of the Wycliffe Bible.” (124)[15] Could this be a way of Chaucer implying that Scripture should be translated into English – the emerging common language of 14th century England?

There is also a proto-Protestant tone to the story. The Man of Law, though not a church official is, in a sense, delivering a sermon. In fact, the entire Canterbury Tales shows a cross-section of 14th century English society demonstrating diverse Christian faith as one collaborative movement, warts and all. Is Chaucer calling for political religious reforms in 14th century England? Chaucer suggests that a land can become Christian on its own terms by retaining its own language, because throughout the subsequent process of Christianization, Constance’s offer of the true faith does not require the imposition of the Latin language upon the newly converted English.[16] Northumberland in the Man of Law’s Tale is an “early English kingdom [that] manages to become Christian while remaining – in Chaucer’s account – resolutely independent as an English homeland free of any foreign military, political, or linguistic domination.”[17]

Constance converts England to Christianity using a back to basics evangelical style that smacks of Jesus “prechynge the gospel of the kingdom” in Judea.[18] Both Constance and Jesus have Church authority in their respective stories by virtue of their lineage: Jesus from Abraham and King David and Constance from her father, the Roman Emperor. As Jesus comes “not to vndo the lawe, but to fulfille”[19], Constance brings Christianity to Northumberland “without submission to the authority of Rome and imposition of the Latin language.”[20] This idea of the diffusion of Christianity without clerical control was not a new idea in England at the time Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale was written.

The English crown along with some radicals like John Wycliffe didn’t see eye to eye with the Pope on the issue of taxation and there was a growing sentiment in England that The Bible should be taught in the vernacular. A proto-Protestant movement called Lollardy was so popular in England at the time that “you might hardly see two people in the street, but one of them would be a follower of Wyclif.”[21] Let’s not forget that Chaucer’s Man of Law’s tale was written and probably first performed in England during the reign of Richard II. He was “the first king since the Norman Conquest of wholly English parentage” and “the language generally spoken at Richard’s court was English.”[22] It was also a “breakthrough in the writing of English”[23] that saw the translation into the English vernacular of “highly learned argumentative Latin material”[24] and the sudden flourishing of national literature in the English vernacular. If “highly argumentative Latin material” was being translated into English, why couldn’t the Latin Vulgate Bible be translated as well? More importantly, if Latin was so widely spoken in England in Chaucer’s time as the story implies, why would translating The Bible into English make a difference anyway? Though the setting is 6th century England, Chaucer wants his audience to compare this fantasy revisionist story of England’s conversion to Christianity with the moral and political issues of their own 14th century contemporary society.

Well, there is more to the tale of Constance, “But of my tale make an ende I shal / The day goth faste, I wol no lenger lette” (1116-17)[25]. So let me summarize: Alla sees young Maurice as a page in the Roman Emperor’s court and is instantly reminded of Constance. He asks the Senator who the child is and the Senator tells him how he found him and his mother alone in a small boat in the middle of the sea. King Alla visits the Senator at his house and is reunited with Constance. King Alla and Constance return to Northumberland to rule King Alla’s land. Maurice later becomes the Roman Emperor. After King Alla dies, Constance returns to Rome. More details and a better telling in the old Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, you’ll find because “I bere it noght in mynde.” (11127)

Heere endeth the tale of the Man of Lawe tolde by the weye.


[1] Kate Narveson’s translation of Chaucer’s “best sentence and moost solaas” – the judging criteria for the Canterbury Tale-telling competition. http://reason.luther.edu/english/faculty/narveson_kate/ Accessed 06/10/2012

[2] Kathleen Stokker. Foreword. The Black Books of Elverum (Lakeville: Galde, 2010), xiv.

[3] Susan E. Phillips, “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” The Chaucer Review 46.1&2 (2011): 52,59.

[4] Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (Boston, 1987), 257.

[5] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 58.

[6] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 40.

[7] Peter Ackroyd, Chaucer (New York, 2005), 4.

[8] Ackroyd, Chaucer, 15.

[9] Arnold Sanders,Chaucer Seminar: Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, “Man of Law’s Introduction, Tale, and Epilogue” http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng330/chaucerman_of_laws_tale.htm accessed 6/24/2012

[10] “Translating Custance.”

[11] Christine Cooper, “’But algates therby she was understone’: Translating Custance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Talehttp://www.thefreelibrary.com/%27But+algates+therby+was+she+understonde%27%3a+translating+Custance+in…-a0142923837 accessed 5/6/2012.

[13] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Harmondsworth, 1964), 13.

[14] John M. Bowers, “Colonialsim, Latinity, and Resistance,” in Fein and Raybin, eds., Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches 46 (University Park, 2011), 126.

[15] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[16] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[17] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 127.

[18] John Wycliffe. Matthew 4:23 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

[19] John Wycliffe, trans. Matthew 4:18.

[20] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 122.

[21] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 67.

[22] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 36.

[23] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 45.

[24] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 86.

Sequitur pars quarta.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today in Philadelphia (image: instagram.com)

Since today is Saint Patrick’s today, I was reminded of the Celtic Tale The Children of Lir.[1] I thought of this story because the enchantment that turned Lir’s four children into swans ended soon after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Thinking of this story then turned my attention (I’ll explain how later) to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale – which, of course, reminded me that I have really neglected tolde by the weye in recent months… So, remember we left Constance in a newly Christian Northumbria? King Alla took her as his queen. It seemed like happily ever didn’t it? But it was not – at least not yet. Everyone in King Alla’s land was overjoyed that Constance was their new queen and they were having a grand old time at the wedding feast. Well, everyone, that is, except one person – King Alla’s mother Donegild:

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

The kynges mooder, ful of tirannye? (II 694-96)

Queen Grimhilde, stepmother of Snow White from Walt Disney’s Snow White (image: pentopaper.wordpress.com, copyright 1937 Walt Disney Pictures)

King Alla’s mother was not happy about her son’s marriage to Constance. This was no ordinary case of the mother who needed a little time to warm up to her new daughter-in-law. Her despiteful disapproval of their union is strikingly similar to the Sultan’s mother’s hatred of Constance earlier in the tale. In the way the Sultan’s mother knew that Constance was the reason the Sultan was giving up Islam to take her as his bride, King Alla’s mother saw Constance as a foreign threat to their way of life as well:

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

So strange a creature unto his make (II 699-700)

She bided her time, though, waiting for the perfect moment to take her vengeance upon Constance. Time passed and a war started with the Scots. King Alla entrusted Constance in the care of the Constable and a bishop and he left to fight the Scots. Constance soon gave birth to their little prince. The infant was christened Maurice and the Constable wrote a letter to the King announcing the birth. He chose a messenger and sent him off to deliver the joyous news. The messenger first passed by the Queen mother Donegild’s house to share the exciting news with her. She suggested to the messenger that he rest for the night at her house and deliver the letter to the King the next day. The messenger, knowing there would be fine food and drink at Donegild’s house, stayed for the evening. He drunk himself silly with ale and wine and soon passed out. As he slept like a swine Donegild exchanged his letter for a forged one.

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

The messenger left the next morning to deliver the letter to the King. The counterfeit letter told of a horrible demon child born out of the depths of hell. It also informed the king that Constance was really an elf and that the only reason why everyone loved her in the first place is because she was an evil sorceress who had everyone under her spell. Now that everyone in the castle knows the truth about the wicked Constance, they shun her and her savage spawn.

King Alla was terribly grieved by the letter but replied requesting that everyone show Christian charity to Constance and the child. He made it clear that no action should be taken against them until his return to the castle. As he sealed the letter tears burst from his eyes. He returned to battle and those Scots really took a beating that day.

The messenger sped off for the castle but instead of delivering the letter directly to the Constable, he went first again to the Queen Mother’s court. Just where does this messenger’s allegiance lie – in his King or the drink? She again entertained him with food and wine and exchanged his letter once more for a forged one.

When the Constable received the letter he was horrified by its contents. It told him that under penalty of death by hanging he must not let Constance and the demon child stay in the castle. He was ordered to put her and the infant back in the very boat from which Constance washed ashore and push them out to tide. The Constable couldn’t believe that God could let such horrible things happen in the world to pious people, but he followed the King’s orders.

The Irish folktale The Children of Lir shares a few elements with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The protagonists are loved by everyone except an evil mother figure who is bent on their destruction, these same protagonists must face dangerous waters on their own, and, finally, the events of the tale occur at the time the country is converting to Christianity. There are plenty more similarities but this post is too long already and I need to make it to market and back by sunset.

Children of Lir is set at the Hill of the White field, which today the Irish call County Armagh. There once were four kings, Bov the Red, Midir the Proud, Angus of the Bird, and Lir, father of the sea-god Manannan. They were all descendents of the goddess Dana. One day everyone in the land decided that among these great kings, one must be chosen to rule over everyone. Bov the Red was chosen. Lir was not pleased with this decision because he felt that he should be the king. Bov the Red allowed Lir to rule his own land and there was no ill will between them. One day, Lir’s wife died. Bov sent Lir his condolences and words of friendship. He also offered him the choice of his three foster daughters for a new wife. Lir accepted Bov’s offer and went to his hall to choose his new bride. The names of Bov’s foster daughters were Aev, Eva, and Alva. They were all beautiful and Lir decided upon Aev who, being the eldest, he thought would be the most wise.

Lir and Aev lived happily together and had twins, a girl named Finola and a boy named Aed. A couple of years passed and Aev once again gave birth to twins – this time to two boys, Fiachra and Conn. Each year the children visited King Bov’s Hall. Everyone at both King Bov’s Hall and King Lir’s Hall loved the four children and wherever they were, everyone was joyous.

One day, Queen Aev passed away. King Lir was devasted. King Bov heard of the tragedy and offered his foster-daughter Eva as King Lir’s new wife. King Lir accepted Eva as his new wife. Eva was initially happy in King Lir’s hall, however, after about a year she grew very jealous of the children. It seemed to her that everyone, including her own husband, loved them much more dearly than they did her. She feigned a terrible sickness and stayed in her chamber for several weeks. She thought the solitude would help, but the time spent alone obsessing over the problem only worsened her jealousy of the children of Lir. One day, she found a solution to the problem. She emerged from the her room and suggested to King Lir that she take the children to visit King Bov.

Along the way she stopped by Lake Darva. She ordered her servants to murder the four children and though this order came from the Queen they could not obey it.  Queen Eva took matters into her own hands and made to kill the children herself, but she could not bring herself to murder them either. The Queen, instead, gathered the children and brought them down to the lake. She bade them remove their clothes and bathe in the lake. As they swam in the lake she pulled a wooden wand from her robe. The wand was inscribed with runes she had carved into it while she was going mad in her room. She muttered an incantation and suddenly the four children were magically transformed into white swans.

She left the children as swans in the lake and made for King Bov’s hall. King Bov was happy to see that his daughter and glad to see she had recovered from his illness but he was surprised to see her arrive without the children. Queen Eva told King Bov that King Lir no longer trusted him and that he could never see the children again. King Bov was upset by this news and sent King Lir a letter requesting an explanation. King Lir, upon receiving the message and, learning that the children did not make it to Lough Derg to visit King Bov, he feared for their lives.

King Lir discovers the fate of his children at Lake Darva (image: wikipedia)

He immediately made his way to Lough Derg and as he passed by Lake Darva the four swans called out to him. Though they were swans, they could still be heard and understood by the people of Dana. He discovered the fate of his children. Now, I’m not going to talk of the chaff or stalk that makes tales so long as corn, but the children remained in swan form until someone from the North married someone from the South – which in itself could be another Irish fairy tale! But I can tell you this: before they changed back into their human forms, they spent three hundred years in Lake Darva, another three hundred years in the dangerous and stormy sea of Moyle, and yet another three hundred years on the Isle of Glora. Now, while they were on the Isle of Glora, Saint Patrick came and brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Well, since the Children of Lir survived as swans for three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle, something tells me that Constance and Maurice will not be swallowed up by the sea…

Explicit quarta pars.


[1] My telling of The Children of Lir is adapted and embellished from Barbara Leonie Picard’s version which can be found in Celtic Tales (New York: Criterion, 1964).

Sequitur pars tercia.

Well, the magic boat that Guigemar saw docked in the creek really must have been a sight to see. Marie’s description of the vessel’s superb construction gives it a futuristic quality:

Defors e dedenz fu peiee,Nulls huem n’i pout trover jointure. (v.154-155) Calfaté en dehors et en dedans Sans qu’on puisse voir la moindrejointure (v.154-155) caulked inside and out in such a way that it was impossible to detect any joints.(45)
Clinker-built medieval ship

Clinker-built medieval ship (image: wikipedia)

Well, futuristic compared to the clinker-built ship of Marie’s time whose “hull was formed of overlapping oak planks, joined with iron rivets and sealed with a caulking of tarred animal hair.”[1] The smooth look of this vessel must have seemed to Marie’s 12th century audience as fantastic as a spaceship.

David boarding an extraterrestrial spacecraft in Disney’s Flight of the Navigator (image: http://www.coolhd.org, copyright 1986 Walt Disney Pictures)

Meanwhile, back in Northumberland, Constance is still living with the constable and his wife Hermengyld. The constable, his wife, and all of their neighbors are pagan. The region has a Christian past, but the Christians who once lived there fled to a community in Wales. Though no Christian still living in Northumberland dares to openly practice their faith for fear of persecution, Constance prays to Jesus. Constance’s prayers are answered and, by God’s grace, Lady Hermengyld takes to her guest’s way of worship and converts to Christianity.

So, on a nice and sunny summer day, Constance, the constable, and Hermengyld go out for a stroll by the seaside. It turns out that there are three Christians living in the area who practice their faith in secrecy. One of these Christians is an old Briton man who is blind with “eyen faste yshette.” The old and hunched fellow crosses Constance, the constable, and Hermengyld on the road. The old man miraculously regains his sight and exclaims, “In the name of Crist! … Dame Hermengyld, yif me my sighte again!”

This frightens Hermengyld because her husband doesn’t know she’s a Christian woman yet. And not only is she a Christian woman, but she’s a Christian woman capable of performing miracles. It’s her husband’s job as constable of his region to uphold King Alla’s law – and the practice of Christianity in Northumberland is punishable by death! The constable is astonished by this sight and asks everyone what the heck is happening, “What amounteth al this fare?” To which Constance replies, “Sire, it is Cristes might, that helpeth folk out of the feendes snare.” Needless to say, this was enough to convert the constable to Christianity right then and there.

Though the constable serves King Alla, he keeps the secret of Constance’s Christian faith. The scene of the walk on the sunny day, a blind old man having his sight restored, and the constable’s conversion to Christianity and his new dilemma of having to serve two lords probably reminds Chaucer’s Man of Law’s pilgrim audience of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount:

lucerna corporis est oculus si fuerit oculus tuus simplex totum corpus tuum lucidum erit si autem oculus tuus nequam fuerit totum corpus tuum tenebrosum erit si ergo lumen quod in te est tenebrae sunt tenebrae quantae erunt nemo potest duobus dominis servire aut enim unum odio habebit et alterum diliget aut unum sustinebit et alterum contemnet non potestis Deo servire et mamonae[2] The lantern of thi bodi is thin iƺes; if thin iƺe be simple, al thi bodi shal be liƺtful; but if if thin iƺe be weiward, al thi bodi shal be derk. If thane the liƺt that is in thee be derknessis, how grete schulen thilk derknessis be? No man may serue tweyn lordis, for ethir he schal hate the toon, and loue the tother; ethir he shal susteyne the toon, and dispise the tothir. Ʒe moun not serue God and richessis.[3] The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be! No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.[4]

And moving on, how else does Chaucer’s Man of Law advance the plot than with Satan himself who “evere us waiteth to bigile?” It turns out that a young knight living in the town craves Constance with a “foul affeccioun.” Now of course Constance rejects the knight’s sin-soaked advances because as we all well know, she “wolde do no synne, by no weye.”

Since this lusty bachelor can’t have her, he doesn’t think that anyone else should either, so he plots to ruin our poor and pious Constance. One night when the constable is away the knight creeps into Hermengyld’s chamber. He ruthlessly slits Hermengyld’s throat and leaves the bloody knife by Constance. When the constable returns, he’s with King Alla, and they discover Hermengyld “despitously yslayn” and they find the “blody knyf” near Constance.

When King Alla sees her face, he wonders how she could possibly be responsible for such a gruesome act. He looks to the constable who tells the King all about how Constance was discovered. The King looks into her pretty face and his heart fills with pity for her. Nonetheless, King Alla immediately summons a trial. Constance prays to God, reminding him that he, through Daniel, saved Susanna[5] when she was falsely accused of adultery.

The knight appears at the trial and announces that he’s prepared to give a testimony proving that Constance murdered Lady Hermengyld. King Alla orders that a book brought for the knight to swear upon so he can give his testimony:

“Now hastily do fecche a book,” quod he,

“And if this knight wol swern how that she

This woman slow, yet wol we us avyse

Whom that we wole that shal been oure justice.” (II 662-65)

At the very moment the knight swears on the book – which curiously happens to be a version of the Gospels written in Welsh – a hand smites him on the back of his neck so hard that he falls to the ground and his eyes burst out of their sockets. A thundering voice from above admonishes the crowd for defaming an innocent daughter of the holy church in the King’s presence:

“Thou hast desclaundred, giltelees,

The doghter of hooly chirche in heigh presence;

Thus hastou doon, and yet holde I my pees!” (II 674-76)

God

God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail copyright 1974 Python (Monty) Pictures / Sony Pictures image: http://www.rottentomatoes.com

Constance receives an introduction similar to the one Jesus received when he was baptized by John the Baptist, “and loo! a vois fro heuenes, seiyinge, This is my louyd sone, in which Y haue plesid to me.”

Everyone repents for falsely accusing Constance and converts to Christianity on the spot. Northumberland becomes a Christian nation just like that and King Alla takes Constance as his queen.

Explicit tercia pars.


[1] Benjamin Merkle, The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred The Great (Nashville, 2009), 15.

[2] Matthew 6:22-24 in Latin Vulgate Bible from http://drbo.org/lvb/chapter/47006.htm

[3] Wyclif, John. Matthew 6:22-24 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

[4] Matthew 6:22-24 in Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible from http://www.drbo.org/chapter/47006.htm

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: wn.com)

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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_of_Egypt)

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