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In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, each tale’s genre is an integral component of its respective meaning. The task of interpreting the meaning of a tale from its genre, however, is complicated by Chaucer’s frequent deviation from a genre’s conventions. In some cases, Chaucer even uses the conventions of more than one genre per narrative; this is the case with the Man of Law’s tale. In “The Narrative Style of the Man of Law’s Tale” Paul M. Clogan defines the tale’s genre as “hagiographic romance” (217). That is, the genre of the tale straddles the line between a medieval romance, and a saint’s legend (pseudo-biographical narratives of saints’ lives). The tale can be considered a romance, in the sense that it tells of adventures in “sondry” lands, and has a protagonist on a quest. It is also not particularly interested in working under the confines of realism, as its episodic events of melodrama are numerous: Custance, the protagonist, escapes rape, massacre and false accusations. Unlike conventional romances of the period, however, the Man of Law’s tale does not focus on courtly love, nor does it preoccupy itself with the chivalric traditions of other medieval romances. As a piece of hagiography or a legend of a saint, the tale also falls short. Although Custance is portrayed as an ideal Christian who willingly endures the sufferings of the mortal world, and never once questions her faith in God, in the end she is not martyred nor canonized. The tale, then, is not both a romance and a saint’s legend, but rather a complicated commingling of the two genres. Because of this conflation, the Man of Law’s tale is neither a romance nor a saint’s legend. The lingering question of why Chaucer fuses these two genres, then, is left to his audience. While Clogan states that the hagiographic romance as a genre was a very popular during the medieval era, and believes that it “instills in [Chaucer’s] narrator a new kind of truth closely linked to lyric modes” (231), I believe that the merging of the two genres is done so ironically. Hagiographic romance, with its elevated style, emphasizes the Man of Law’s own pretensions. It reflects the Man of Law’s attitudes, but more importantly, it serves as a smokescreen; the genre uses religion and romance to mask what the tale is truly about: the patriarchal need for the subordination of women to men. The Man of Law uses the genre of hagiographic romance as one would use rhetoric; he persuades through style and genre. His tale justifies the oppression of women without doing so explicitly.
There has been much critical attention on whether the Man of Law’s tale is congruous with his estate. When compared to a sententious tale like the Tale of Melibee, the tale of Custance does not seem as suitable for the teller. One would expect from a lawyer a tale about the objective truths of law, told perhaps in prose , and not the hagiographic romance that the Man of Law tells. One could argue, however, that because medieval British law was very much tied to Christianity, the religious overtones of a saint’s legend would be appropriate with the teller. The tale, then, could be seen as an avowal to the Man of Law’s devotion to Christianity.
With closer analysis, however, it becomes clear that the Man of Law’s tale and the narrator’s description of him in the General Prologue emphasize his avaricious attitude, rather than reflect religious piety. At first, the description of the Man of Law seems to be a positive one. When the audience first encounters the Man of Law in the General Prologue, he is described to be a lawyer who knows his trade well. A photographic memory was a trait that any good lawyer during the fourteenth century would have had to possess; because a lawyer’s education consisted of memorizing lectures without the aid of textbooks, his memory and his note-taking skills would have to have been extremely proficient for the Man of Law to complete his education in the legal sciences (Seaman). The Man of Law, then, is portrayed as one that is fully competent as a lawyer, since “There koude no wight pynch at his writing; / And every statut koude he pleyn by rote” (323-4). Throughout his entire description, however, the word “justice” is only used to describe his position as a judge (314), and never used to describe his morality or his ethics. Instead, the Man of Law is illustrated as a person that is mainly concerned with the accumulation of wealth. He is described as “ful riche of excellence” (311), which is meant to be a compliment to his professional competence; however, the word “riche” is also a pun which signals Chaucer’s audience to notice the wealth the Man of Law has accumulated since becoming a lawyer. His personal wealth is emphasized as the audience is told that “Of fees and robes hadde he many oon” (317). Because medieval lawyers were unwilling to help people in need of their services unless they were paid, there was a certain amount of resentment common people had towards them. Litigants without a lawyer were almost always guaranteed to lose their cases, and thus were forced to pay lawyers large sums of money. It is no wonder, then, that medieval lawyers were often described as “somewhat inhuman, and eager to sell their services to the highest bidder” (Cantor 310). Because of the immense amount of time it took to become a lawyer, they would often emerge eager to make as much money as possible in a short period of time (ibid.). Chaucer’s characterization of the Man of Law as a person preoccupied with personal gain, then, is accordant with medieval public opinion of lawyers. The General Prologue can be seen as a satirical jab at lawyers as a profession, as it shows the Man of Law to be more preoccupied with profits and personal gain than with justice.
Moreover, the Man of Law’s unabashed attitude towards the virtues of wealth and his indignant views of the poor reveal him to be a man of little sympathy:
If thou be povre, farewell thy reverence!
Yet of the wise man take this sentence:
“All the days of povre men been wikke.”
Be war, therefore, er thou come to that prikke!
The Man of Law’s deterministic views of possessions reveal his perverted sense of morality. Indigents are shown to be unworthy of “reverence,” and are depicted as “wikke”. Although “wikke” can be translated as “miserable,” it more likely translates into “wicked”. That is, for the Man of Law, poverty represents vice, and as a corollary, wealth represents wisdom and virtue.The fact that the Man of Law’s tale is borrowed from a merchant, then, follows the general logic of the Man of Law’s characterization, as Chaucer’s clearly drawing comparisons between the two estates. The Man of Law is revealed to be a merchant under the guise of respectability and learned self-righteousness. Even the narrator in the General Prologue sees through the Man of Law’s appearances and realizes that “he [the Man of Law] semed bisier than he was” (322; emphasis added). Similarly, the Man of Law’s tale, like himself, is a tale in disguise: it is a tale that exploits women underneath the guise of religious and moral conceits.
In the tale, it is made explicit that medieval women—even the royalty—are enslaved to men. We realize by Custance’s first speech that she is no fool, as she recognizes her own precarious situation in society: “I wrecche woman, no fors though I spille! / Wommen are born to thralldom and penance, / And to been under mannes governance” (285-7). Custance acknowledges the fact that women’s lives are viewed as unimportant in her society. The death of even the emperor’s daughter is shown to have “no fors” . Although one could argue that Custance is speaking of the death of the corporeal body as being unimportant, therefore, implying that men’s lives are also insignificant, it is clear that her speech is gendered. It is “[w]ommen” who must suffer, and it is “mannes governance” that they are subjected to. Women, then, are “wrecche” because they are viewed as merely an object for which man (the subject) can use and exchange. Throughout the entire tale, Custance is transferred from one man’s possession to another.
While Custance recognizes the inequity of such practices, she endures it because of her faith; she puts herself completely at the mercy of God. The Man of Law believes that suffering is in God’s plan, and thus rejecting it is a rejection of Providence. All people, then, regardless of their sex, are unable to control their own fates. The rudderless ship that Custance is put on by the Syrians, therefore, is a metaphor for life: no one is able to direct their lives’ outcomes.
The Man of Law feels, however, that women are even more impotent at controlling their lives than men. He constantly describes the female sex as vulnerable and fragile: “How may this wayke woman han this strengthe / Hire to defend agayn this renegat?” (932-3). The Man of Law constructs a fiction that women are inherently unable to protect themselves. This fiction justifies the passing of women from man to man, as in the tale, it is implied that men and their institutions, like the Man of Law and law, are protectors of women. When Custance is accused of murdering Hermengyld, and stands before Alla, the king and judge of her case, the Man of Law bewails the fact that Custance “hast no champioun” (631). Christ (a symbol of religion) is the “champioun” that is alluded to; however, the Man of Law is also referring to himself (a symbol of law) as a possible champion for Custance, since, as a lawyer, he would have been able to aid her in her legal battle. Although it is Christ that comes to her rescue, the Man of Law is implying that law could have also been her champion. It is clear that law and religion are concepts that are inextricably connected in the Man of Law’s mind . Women, in his mind, must be championed by men, the law, or religion. However, the logic of these implications are tautological, as it is men and law that Custance needs to be protected from, since it is a man that falsely accuses her, and it is law that threatens to murder her; what Custance truly needs to be protected from, then, are her protectors—the institutions of a patriarchy.
Women, therefore, are weak because they are oppressed by men, and not because they are inherently so. The Man of Law never acknowledges this. He willingly ignores that in the second part of the tale, it is the men who are weak and needed to be protected (from the Sultaness). Similarly, it is Alla who needs to be protected from the wiles of his mother Donegild. The Man of Law reconciles this contradiction in his logic by attacking these women’s femininity. For him, they are almost no longer women. When describing Donegild, the Man of Law calls her “mannysh” (782), and he explains the Sultaness’ behaviour by calling her a “serpent under femynyntee” (360). That is, these women are aggressive because they are unwomanly; they are masculine underneath their female bodies. The Sultaness is evil because she refuses to be subjected to her sons, and instead exerts her own power. In the Man of Law’s perspective passivity is a feminine virtue, and not necessarily a Christian one. He never once bemoans the violence of the male characters in the text. The Emperor of Rome’s massacre of the Syrians is mentioned only in passing, and not in a chastising manner. It is clear, then, that only women are expected to endure wrongs, while men have the freedom to actively avenge themselves.
Because law and a patriarchy are symbiotically linked, the Man of Law is invested in the protection of his society’s contradictory ideals. The telling of the tale in hagiographic romance, then, follows logically, as the genre of a saint’s legend idealizes the passive endurance of suffering, and the conventions of romance often employs the literary device of the damsel in distress. Hagiographic romances, then, romanticize the passive female protagonist who leaves her life fully dependent on men. The genre, like its teller’s estate is a conflation of the sacred and profane; it is a rhetorical device that obscures the division between religious and secular ideals.The Man of Law uses the genre of hagiographic romance to justify the exchange of women between men. In “Commodities Amongst Themselves,” Luce Irigaray states that “[t]he exchanges upon which patriarchal societies are based take place exclusively among men. Women, signs, commodities, and currency always pass from one man to another” (575). What Irigaray points out is that in a patriarchy, women are commodified, and necessarily so, since the very structure of a patriarchy requires their being exchanged. Therefore, it is the structure of a patriarchy, of which Custance’s world is included, which oppresses women. Women are exchanged for the benefit of men. Although Custance is to be married to the Sultan of Syria in order to convert him and his subjects to Christianity, her marriage also ensures a political alliance between Rome (her father’s state) and Syria. She is passed from one patriarch to another in order for the men to bond politically.
The source of the Man of Law’s disgust in incestuous subjects, then, becomes obvious. In his prologue, the Man of Law states that Chaucer would never tell the tale of Canacee or Apollonius of Tyre, because such subjects are “unkynde abhomynacions” (88). The incest taboo the Man of Law calls “unkynde” or unnatural is actually, as Gayle Rubin aptly points out, “a mechanism to insure that such exchanges [the exchange of women between men] take place between families and between groups” (542). That is, incestuous relationships would preclude women from being exchanged with outside groups. If Custance were to have had an incestuous relationship with her father, for instance, she would not have been able to be given to the Sultan of Syria, and trade would have been made impossible between he two nations—something the Man of Law with his interest in profit certainly would have noticed. The Man of Law’s use of the word “abhomynaciouns” also points to the fact that he views incest as not only an offense against familial relations, but also an offense against relations between nations, since the word “nacioun” can be translated as both “family” and “nation”.
As the Man of Law’s prologue indicates, he is only interested in telling a tale of good women. The Man of Law’s invocation of the natural way of things, then, is only a symptom of his investment in the status quo of the patriarchy. He is interested in creating a model from which other women can imitate. Whether he fully understands the complicated matrix of the patriarchy that he is a part of is irrelevant; the Man of Law is still a part of society’s hypocrisy, whether he knows it or not. He is a constituent of the mechanism that perpetuates the status quo.
The Man of Law, by praising Custance’s willingness to endure suffering, idealizes the victim, and essentially asks the victim to be content with her plight. He uses his tale to manipulate his audience into ignoring the iniquities of their society. That is why the tale is told in rime royal: its elevated tone romanticizes the suffering of women, as well as makes their suffering more noble by the heightening of language. The epic simile used to describe Custance’s sorrow in the beginning of the tale illustrates this point:
I trowe at Troye, whan Pirrus brak the wal,
Or Ilion brende, ne at Thebes the Citee,
N’at Rome for the harm thurgh Hanybal
That Romayns hath venquysshed tymes thre,
Nas herd swich tendre wepyng for pitee
As in the chambre was, for his departynge;
But forth she moot, wher-so she wepe or synge.
This passage heightens Custance’s suffering to epic proportions. Her sorrows, however, by being compared to the sorrows of the victims of the Trojan War, are made to seem noble. Her suffering is for a reason: she is sacrificed for her nation; however, she is a sacrificial victim that has no choice, since she “moot, wher-so she wepe or synge”. This simile is apt, however, because all of the portrayed violence is inflicted by men. The suffering of Custance, then, is shown to be administered by men and their institutions. War is a choice made by men, and is not predestined by the stars or God. To blame fate is only to evade responsibility.
Chaucer recognizes the iniquities of his society. The purpose of this essay, however, is not to imply that Chaucer is a feminist or that he is a detractor of the institution of law. Rather, this particular analysis seeks to point out the advanced and complicated understanding Chaucer has of the institutions of his society and their hypocrisies. Chaucer uses the Man of Law’s own contradictions as a symptom of society; through the Man of Law and his tale, Chaucer articulates his society’s contradictions and injustices. The meaning of the Man of Law’s tale is hidden beneath a veneer of education and prestige; it is masked by false pretenses of religion, elevated language, and the romanticization of the truth. Only through acknowledging these pretenses can this complicated tale be fully understood as a manifestation of an unjust society.
Cantor, Norman F.. The Civilization of the Middle Ages. Rev. ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 23-328.
Clogan, Paul M.. “The Narrative Style of The Man of Law’s Tale.” Medievalia et Humanistica 8 (1977): 217-33.
Irigaray, Luce. “Commodities Amongst Themselves.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2000. 574-7.
Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2000. 533-60.
Seaman, Betsy. “Lawyers in Chaucer’s Time.” ALSA Forum. 6.2 (1982). 17 Jul. 2002 <http://www.law.utexas.edu/lpop/etext/lsf/seaman6.htm>
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