Archives for posts with tag: medieval storytelling

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:, 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 from Monty Python and the Holy Grail copyright 1974 Python (Monty) Pictures / Sony Pictures image:

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

[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

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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