HomeLiterature Study GuidesThe Canterbury TalesThe Man Of Laws Prologue Tale And Epilogue Summary

The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | The Man of Law's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue | Summary

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Summary

Harry Bailey notes that it is now 10 o'clock in the morning and calls upon the Man of Law to tell his story, reminding him of his promise to participate in the storytelling. The Man of Law agrees, and, although he claims to only speak in "plain prose," he proceeds in rhymed verse.

Before beginning his story, the Man of Law notes that merchants have plenty of opportunity to gain wealth as well as tales and says that the tale he is about to tell was told to him by a merchant.

Part I

A company of rich merchants lived in Syria. Traveling to Rome, they learn of the Roman Emperor's daughter, Constance, who is both beautiful and good. When they tell the Syrian sultan about Constance, he falls in love with her and tells his advisers that he will die if he does not get to marry Constance. They agree that the only way to avoid his untimely death is to get her to marry him. The sultan and his peers agree to be baptized into the Catholic Church so that the wedding can take place. Constance sets sail for Syria. The sultan's mother, meanwhile, is unhappy with the thought of her son converting to Christianity. She makes a plan, pretending she wants to be baptized too.

Part II

Constance and her company arrive in Syria, and the sultan's mother welcomes them. On the day of the wedding, there is a fabulous feast. However, the sultan's mother has all of the Christians but Constance killed at the feast, including her son. Constance is put on a boat with a little food, a few clothes, and some treasure and sent on her way alone. She prays for help and comes at last to shore after three years adrift. She is found and taken in by a constable and his wife, Hermengild, a pagan couple. Constance has lost her memory, but she makes a home among them and they come to love her. She has not lost her faith, though, and, because of her presence, Hermengild and the constable are converted to Christianity.

A young knight living nearby makes advances to Constance, but she refuses him. Angry, he sneaks into their home in the middle of the night when the constable is away and kills Hermengild, leaving the bloody knife next to the sleeping Constance. The constable assumes Constance killed his wife and reports it to King Alla. Alla says that, if the knight will swear she is guilty on a book, Constance will be executed. The book they bring contains the biblical Gospels. When the knight swears on it, a hand appears and smites him, and a voice from Heaven speaks. Many who witness this convert to Christianity, including King Alla, who then marries Constance.

The king's mother is not happy about the marriage. Constance is soon pregnant and gives birth to a boy while Alla is away at war. Letters are written to Alla with the news, but his mother secretly replaces them with her own letter, which says that Constance's child was a creature from Hell. The king writes, in reply, that his wife and child should be cared for. This letter, too, is replaced by his mother with one that says Constance should be sent back to sea with the child. Constance is again set adrift.

Part III

When King Alla comes home and learns what has been done, he figures out his mother was behind the whole plot and has her killed. But he is consumed with grief.

After five years at sea, Constance and her child come near land once again. A thief climbs aboard her boat intending to rape her, but, before he can, he is swept overboard. She sets out again across the sea.

The emperor of Rome finally learns what has happened to his daughter in Syria, and he sends a senator there with a force of soldiers to slaughter those responsible. This senator meets Constance in her boat, though he does not recognize her. He brings her to his wife, who happens to be her aunt. They take her in, along with the child.

Meanwhile, King Alla begins to feel bad that he had his mother killed and decides to go to Rome to seek forgiveness from the pope. In Rome the senator who found Constance gives a feast to honor King Alla, and Constance's little boy is invited also. King Alla, seeing the boy, asks about him, and the senator tells how he was found. King Alla suspects that the boy might be his and asks to meet his mother. The whole truth comes out, and Alla and Constance are reunited. They then tell everything to the emperor, who is overjoyed.

In a year King Alla dies, and Constance goes back to live with her father. Maurice, her son, eventually becomes emperor of Rome.

After the Man of Law finishes his story, Harry Bailey compliments it and then calls on the Parson to take his turn, but the Shipman says he wants to go next instead.

Analysis

This tale is a cross between a romance, such as the Knight's tale, and the story of a saint, such as later tales about Christian martyrs. Like a romance, the story has noble characters, involves the marriage of a beautiful lady and a noble husband, and moves along a story arc of suffering and trials to eventual joy. Yet, like a saint's story, it revolves around a character who prays fervently for help, who is preserved from death by miraculous means, and whose behavior is so beyond reproach that people are continually converted and baptized around them. Even Constance's name suggests her "constant" faith that makes her such an exemplary person and Christian. To add to the saintly flavor of the story, a number of biblical heroes are alluded to: Daniel, Jonah, David, Moses, and Judith, just to name a few.

The structure of the tale is worth considering. There are several elements of the plot that mirror one another, including Constance's many voyages over the sea, the intrusion of a scheming and devilish mother-in-law, Constance's prayers for assistance, her miraculous survival on limited supplies, and the way she is twice found and taken in by an older couple.

Another notable aspect of this story is the interactions between Fortune and Providence. The medieval church taught that Fortune would eventually turn against the most "fortunate" individual and encouraged people not to dwell on earthly concerns. Yet Providence—God's personal intervention in a person's life—is revealed as being more powerful than Fortune: As Constance is first set adrift, the Man of Law exclaims, "He that is Lord of Fortune guide thy helm!" The many miracles that occur to save Constance from various terrible fates are further evidence of Providence.

Only a little more than half of the lines in this tale are devoted to narrating the story. The rest are made up of observations and comments of the narrator (the Man of Law), who represents a perspective outside of the story, and the prayers of Constance, whose perspective is within the story. The Man of Law's comments often revolve around how outside forces cause events in the lives of humans, and Constance's prayers echo this sentiment. The sheer number of lines devoted to the Man of Law's comments draw attention to him as storyteller, and his musings are full of rhetorical questions such as "and yet what matter?" and "alas, what could she say,/Out of her wits with terror and dismay?" In this way, in spite of the Man of Law's claim that he speaks in "plain prose," the story's style reflects the more ornate (and long-winded) voice associated with a man of law.

Unlike the women in the previous three tales, Constance is more saintly than sexual and bears more in common with Emily of the Knight's tale as well as to chaste women in later tales such as the Second Nun's tale. This story introduces the idea that sex is inherently unholy and that even wives must "do without" their holiness for a while in order to make love with their husbands.

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