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Shmoopers, meet Custance.
Yeah, she's got kind of an unfortunate name. But that's fitting. Because she's pretty much the unluckiest person in Chaucer's world.
"The Man of Law's Tale," found in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the story of a virtuous Roman Christian woman named Custance. When married off into a community of pagans, she undergoes just about every kind of adversity possible at the hands of two evil mothers-in-law. Her lot in life is pretty much the worst.
Despite being twice cast out in a rudderless boat into the open ocean, and twice washing up on foreign shores unprotected, Custance survives with her virtue intact. She even manages to convert the king of Northumberland and his household to Christianity in the process. So there's that.
Allow Shmoop to explain.
"The Man of Law's Tale" has a motif that's pretty common in medieval literature. It's all about a virtuous princess whose great faith allows her to keep her virtue intact, despite terrible adversity. The romance Emaré, another medieval tale, has a fairly similar plot. In both stories, the heroine ends up in a rudderless boat.
Which sounds weird, right? But general literary consensus theorizes that those rudderless boats are symbols meant emphasize their heroines' helplessness at the hands of God and fate (no rudder? That's cool—God can steer). These tales of virtuous heroines owe a great debt to the saint's life genre. In both types of story a person must remain steadfast in their faith despite great tests at the hands of jerky pagan persecutors. The virtuous heroine tales replace the role of holy saint with a secular (non-religous) character, but it's all part and parcel of the same religious narrative.
See, that's the thing about these Canterbury Tales. We can read 'em for their content, sure, but we can't ever escape their context. Their steeped in historical and literary tradition. And "The Man of Law's Tale" is no exception. For example, the second part of the tale is set in Northumbria, a part of ancient Britain. This setting provides an opportunity for the tale to mythologize (or "make a myth out of") its own cultural history.
In fact, the character of King Alla may be based on the Anglo-Saxon King Offa, who was ruler of the kingdom of Mercia from 757 until 796. Although Offa was already a Christian when he ascended to power, other early Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity when they married Christian women from already-Christian kingdoms.
In fact, the new Christian church in Britain counted on these ladies to spread the faith. And the figure of the Anglo-Saxon queen who causes her husband's conversion became a celebrated part of the history of Christianity in Britain. Which, is it turns out, is probably the kind of figure Custance's character is based on. Nifty, no?
And then there's the whole world religions thing. Another really famous feature of "The Man of Law's Tale" is its depiction of Islam in the kingdom of Babylon. That's definitely worth a shout-out here.
Some medieval Christians had actual contact with Muslims, because of the crusades and the booming trade with the Orient. Most, however, did not. Many Christians only knew Muslims through tales like this one, which usually didn't present Islam very accurately. For a person living in a world in which pretty much everyone practices Christianity, a Muslim represented the ultimate "other." Someone so different was almost incomprehensible.
Some medieval scholars think that the reason the marriage and conversion in Babylon fail, while the conversion of Northumbria succeeds, is that, according to the "Tale," the Muslims are just too different, so to speak. to be successful Christians. The Northumbrians, on the other hand, well, they may be pagan, but they are British. And that'll do.
Because when you've got the blues, it's always nice to read about someone whose lot in life is ten times worse than yours.
Today, that person is Custance. Throughout Chaucer's "The Man of Law's Tale," Custance—the star of the show—suffers pretty much every terrible hardship in The Book of Terrible Hardships. She's got woes stacked on struggles piled on injustices on top of Big Fat Bummers. Her life is the pits.
What makes Custance's story so appealing is the fact that she doesn't throw her hands up in the hair, cry "Woe is me!" and give up. She keeps going. Enduring. Straight up truckin'. And in a world filled with whiners, haters, and give-uppers, that's to be admired, don't you think?
See, we think "The Man of Law's Tale" matters not because it's a key player in the Canterbury Tales (although that's a part of it), and not because it represents a pivotal moment in Medieval literature (but there's some of that, too). What really makes this one count is the fact that it gives us an enduring example of a chick who just won't quit.
Girl power? Yes, please.
Light It Up, Luminarium
Luminarium's guide to "The Man of Law's Tale" collects links to various resources for study of the tale, including online editions, bibliographies, and university web pages devoted to it. In a word: jackpot.
Harvard University Man of Law Page
This page, a link from Harvard University's website devoted to the Canterbury Tales in its entirety, provides a brief summary of the tale as well as information about and links to Chaucer's likely sources. The folks from Harvard can always be relied on in a pinch.
Professor Jane Zatta's Man of Law Page
Professor Jane Zatta's webpage on the Man of Law discusses the significance and history of the rudderless boat motif in medieval literature as well as exploring some of Chaucer's likely sources for the tale. Get that tweed ready.
Goucher College Man of Law Page
Put your thinking cap on. Professor Arnie Sanders provides basic information about the "Tale" as well as an in-depth "interpretive issues" section that helps students explores specific aspects of the tale in more detail.
BBC's Modern Adaptation of "The Man of Law's Tale"
Check out part of a BBC series that adapts several of the Canterbury Tales into modern settings. This adaptation has Custance as a Nigerian refugee who lands off the coast of Britain in a small boat. A British couple takes her in, but when she rejects the advances of a man at her church, trouble ensues.
"Tale of Constance" from Gower's Confessio Amantis
One of Chaucer's contemporaries, John Gower also tells the story of Constance in his sprawling Confessio Amantis. Both men used the same source, a story from Nicholas Trivet's Chronicle.
"Emaré" is a romance that shares many similarities to the "Tale of Constance"; it's one of the original "exiled queens" romances. This version likely pre-dates Chaucer's version by about a century, although it was not written down in a manuscript until after Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales.
Don't mind if we do. Here's the full version of the modern BBC adaptation of the text.
Canterbury Tales on Librivox
They've got all the tales, and some bonus extras.
Just try reading this text.
Interesting choice of headdress.