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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE MAN OF LAW'S TALE

Seeing that the day is almost a quarter over, the Host urges the Man of Law to tell a story, but the lawyer claims Chaucer already has covered all the best subjects in his poems (is Chaucer self-advertising here?). Nonetheless, the Man of Law prefaces his tale with a tirade against poverty, praising rich merchants who make and hoard their money.

The tale, taken from an earlier fourteenth-century historian named Nicholas Trivet, is about Constance, the almost unbelievably long-suffering daughter of the Roman Emperor. She becomes engaged to the Sultan of Syria, a Muslim who vows to convert himself and his subjects to Christianity in order to marry Constance. It is an arranged marriage (the custom among royal families almost to this day), and Constance accepts it with great patience. The Sultan's mother, angry at her son's rejection of Islam, plans to have all the Christians murdered, including the Sultan, at the wedding feast. Constance is sent adrift on the sea.


She lands in Northumberland in England, and she is taken in by a constable and his wife, both pagans. Constance converts them to Christianity but a knight sent by Satan kills the wife and plants the murder on Constance. He is mysteriously struck dead when he testifies against her, and the pagan king, Alla, is converted by the miracle and marries Constance. Again an evil royal mother intervenes to have their child killed, so Constance and her son return to the sea. They end up in Rome, eventually reunited with King Alla. Constance is also reunited with her father the Emperor.

The tale is punctuated with commentary by the Man of Law, which helps us see the tale is partly intended as an allegory. Constance personifies the virtues of patience, loyalty ("constance") and acceptance of God's will despite incredible suffering. The allegory form, extremely popular in Chaucer's day, exaggerates Constance's virtues and her misfortunes to make a moral point about aspiring toward Christian perfection.

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