Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: the Man of Law's Tale Themes

By Chaucer, Geoffrey

  • Suffering

    The star of suffering in "The Man of Law's Tale," is definitely Custance. But she never whines, complains, or bemoans her fate. Why not? Because she trusts in God, that's why not.

    Custance is like a character from the medieval saint's life genre, in which a Christian holy person successfully endures horrible trials because of their faith in God. Throughout her trials, Custance draws strength from her thoughts of Christ and Mary, using their shared suffering to both align herself with them and find significance in her own.

    And finally, there's nothing that seems to excite our narrator more than people's tears and woe: multiple cry-fests become occasions for a demonstration of his extremely hyperbolic, or exaggerated, style. He feels that suffering is inevitable: pain and woe always follow happy times, so we'd better keep suffering in mind even as we celebrate.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How does Custance suffer in the course of the Tale? Which instance of suffering do you think is the worst?
    2. What do we learn about Custance's character through the way she handles suffering?
    3. Based upon the philosophy the narrator expresses in the tale, what explanation might he give for why suffering happens?
    4. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" align Custance's suffering with Mary's and Christ's? What might be its reasons for doing so? What connection does Custance see between herself and these figures?

    Chew on This

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays its characters as helpless to save themselves from suffering, because Chaucer believed that suffering is an inevitable and unavoidable part of earthly life.

    "The Man of Law's Tale" uses comparisons of Custance's suffering with Mary's and Christ's to enhance her status as a holy woman.

  • Principles

    In "The Man of Law's Tale," virtue is straight-up synonymous with faith in God. Sure, Custance has a bunch of non-religious virtues, such as beauty and courtesy, or politeness. But most of her "benignytee," or goodness, is shown through her piety, which is best demonstrated during her voyages on the open sea, when she totally submits to God's will. In other words, she doesn't care whether she lives or dies. Custance is only concerned about her spiritual salvation.

    Of course we can't ignore the fact that Custance's reputation for virtuous living has important consequences for her actual life—not just her afterlife. It causes her unfortunate marriage to the Sultan of Babylon, saves her from the false accusation of the Northumberland knight, and unites her with her husband Alla on two occasions. These plot points suggest that the reputation for virtue may be just as important as the fact of virtue itself.

    Questions About Principles

    1. What does Custance's virtue consist of? How does she demonstrate her virtue?
    2. How does Custance's reputation for virtue affect her life?
    3. What does "The Man of Law's Tale" suggest are the rewards of virtue? Are the virtuous always rewarded?
    4. Through what means is Custance shown to effect conversions? How much agency does Custance have in these events?

    Chew on This

    Custance is too passive in her own life. She can't really demonstrate virtue because she hardly ever makes decisions.

    "The Man of Law's Tale" demonstrates how a reputation for virtue can have a significant effect on a person's life.

  • Fate and Free Will

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays its characters as helpless chess pieces in the hands of the stars, fate, or God. We may like to think that we have free will, but according to the Man of Law, we've got no control whatsoever. In this world, all a person can do is grin and bear whatever God decides should happen. Into this doom and gloom scenario, however, the narrator injects a note of comfort with the idea that despite our inability to know or understand our fates, God has a purpose for everything that he does.

    This becomes the message of Custance's wanderings, an answer to the Constable's complaint that the suffering of innocents seems very unfair. Cold comfort, sure, but it's what enables Custance to bear her fate without too much gnashing of teeth. In fact, this choice that one makes to piously accept suffering as God's will, along with the decision to live a pious life in general, seem to be the few measures of control characters have in our tale of the day.

    Questions About Fate and Free Will

    1. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" explain the failure of Custance's marriage? How does this explanation interact with the Christian faith in the Tale?
    2. How does Custance explain the origin of her suffering? What does this explanation reveal about her character?
    3. What control over their lives, if any, do characters have in "The Man of Law's Tale"?
    4. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" suggest a Christian ought to deal with the inevitability of fate?

    Chew on This

    "The Man of Law's Tale" raises questions about unquestioning faith in God's plan for the world with the evil plans of the Sultan's mother and Donegild, in combination with Alla's welcoming of the (false) news of a demon child as the "sonde," or "sending" of God.

    The only control characters have over their lives in "The Man of Law's Tale" is in their choice to live a virtuous life or not.

  • Religion

    In its exploration of how two different nations succeed or fail at converting to Custance's faith, "The Man of Law's Tale" reflects not only upon Christianity, but the Islamic faith that it wants to replace. The Sultan's mother's reasons for rejecting Christianity are surprisingly sympathetic: she sincerely regards Islam as the true faith revealed by God's prophet, and fears hell if she rejects it (which goes for Christians, too). The Northumberlanders, by contrast, do not seem to have as much attachment to paganism, so their conversion goes down a bit easier.

    Questions About Religion

    1. What does "The Man of Law's Tale" suggest might be the reasons the Christian conversion fails in Babylon while succeeding in Northumbria?
    2. How does the Christian faith in "The Man of Law's Tale" enable characters to cope with their suffering?
    3. Where does "The Man of Law's Tale" allude to the Fall of Man? How is this episode significant to the themes of the tale?
    4. How does King Alla "prove" the sincerity of his Christian faith? What is his reward?

    Chew on This

    "The Man of Law's Tale" suggests that the failure of the Christian conversion in Babylon is due to the people's sincere belief in their Muslim faith.

    "The Man of Law's Tale" suggests that the failure of the Christian conversion in Babylon is due to the people's moral failings.

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays Satan as the cause of Custance's troubles in Babylon, linking her story to the Fall of Man.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    The most obvious Other-with-a-capital-O in "The Man of Law's Tale" are the non-Christians with whom Custance comes in contact—the Koran-believing Muslims, the pagan Northumbrians, the unspecified "hethens" on whose shore she fends off an attempted rape. The failure of Custance's marriage to the Sultan, and of Christianity in his land, may be due to the Tale's perception of these people as simply too other, too different, for them to become true Christians. In Northumbria, by contrast, the similarities in the languages Custance and the people there speak symbolize a similarity in culture that enables Christianity's spread. So you might say that the extremity of a people's foreignness becomes linked to their ability to embrace Truth. At the same time, though, Custance is often seen as an Other. From Babylon to Northumbria, her Roman Christianity constantly alienates our Custance.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. Who is the Other in "The Man of Law's Tale"? Is there more than one?
    2. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" connect foreignness with a group's success or failure in their attempt at converting to Christianity?
    3. Which characters in "The Man of Law's Tale" express fear or dismay when confronted with the unknown Other? What do they fear? How do they handle it?
    4. How does Donegild's false letter to her son reveal her perspective on Custance's foreignness?
    5. How does the narrator make Donegild and the Sultan's mother seem foreign or separate from regular people?

    Chew on This

    Custance's fear of the unknown is, strangely enough, the source of her most substantial connection with two of the foreign groups she fears.

    The narrator's description of the Sultan's mother's qualms about Christianity humanize her, making the audience able to relate to her as a fellow believer.

  • Good vs. Evil

    "The Man of Law's Tale" often links Custance's suffering to the suffering of Christ and Mary. So in a way, the characters that do her wrong, like her two evil mothers-in-law, instantly become linked with Satan. The narrator calls both mothers-in-law instruments of the devil, implying that they are simply tools of a higher power. Portraying the women this way makes them seem demonic, but it also means that the Devil, not them, is control of their actions. It also makes Custance a figure for the Virgin Mary, as she becomes the pious figure whose essential goodness makes up for the evil of these two "Eves."

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" make the Sultanness and Donegild seem evil?
    2. How does the Tale link the tension between Custance and her mothers-in-law to the struggle between Christ and Satan?
    3. How does the Tale link the tension between Custance and her mothers-in-law to the events surrounding the Fall of Man? What is the effect of this connection upon our understanding of the characters, particularly Custance?
    4. How can we reconcile the fatalism—or belief in the impossibility of determining one's own fate—in "The Man of Law's Tale" with its desire to assign blame to Donegild and the Sultaness, or can we?

    Chew on This

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays Custance as a new version of Mary, who redeems the world from the evil of her mothers-in-law.

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays evil as the result of Satan's evil plotting on Earth.

  • Women and Femininity

    Custance is the standard of womanhood by which all other women are judged in "The Man of Law's Tale." She's pretty, pleasing, polite, and pious. Her most important trait, though, is another P-word: her long-suffering passivity. Our girl Custance accepts whatever life throws at her as the will of God. Accordingly, women who attempt to control their fates, like the mothers-in-law, are labeled un-feminine. What's feminine, as the character of Custance makes clear, is for women to be "under mannes governance" (287) whether it makes them happy or not. Yet the situation of Custance, who laments her unhappy plight as the fate of all women, draws attention to the suffering women must endure because of their subjection to men.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. How does the character of Custance set up the expectations of an ideal female in "The Man of Law's Tale"? Who fulfills these expectations? Who does not?
    2. How do the Sultaness and Donegild give up their claims to femininity, from the narrator's perspective? How does he punish them for their actions? How does the "Tale" punish them?
    3. How does Custance characterize the position of women in her speech to her father? Does the narrator agree with her?

    Chew on This

    Custance's characterization of her marriage to the Sultan as a plight she must endure because of her father's will draws attention to the suffering of all women "under mannes governance" (287).

    "The Man of Law's Tale" punishes Donegild and the Sultaness because of their refusal to yield authority to men.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Three Big Fat Lies go down in "The Man of Law's Tale." In all of them, Custance is their intended victim. Yet in all cases, the truth is eventually brought to light. In the case of the treacherous knight, the hand of God illuminates the truth. This reflects His characterization as the God of Truth who not only exposes lies, but also reveals the Truth to his faithful. King Alla distinguishes himself as a determined truth-seeker too, not content to rest until he has learned the facts of both the Knight's and his mother's treachery. In all cases, lies are revealed and liars are punished: this is a world ruled by the God of Truth, who reveals all things in time.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. What deceptions occur in "The Man of Law's Tale"? Who is responsible for them?
    2. How are liars punished in "The Man of Law's Tale"? Do their punishments fit their crimes?
    3. By whom, and by what means, are deceptions uncovered in "The Man of Law's Tale"?
    4. How does "The Man of Law's Tale" connect truth in general to the Christian truth, and lies to paganism?

    Chew on This

    "The Man of Law's Tale" portrays Christianity as the religion of truth in the alignment of its characters with truth and deception, as well as in the means and agents of the revelation of the truth.

    King Alla models an ideal Christian scholar with his perseverance in seeking out the truth.