The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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6: The Man of Law's Tale Summary and Analysis

Summary
The Host reminds the company that the day is nearly one quarter over and they must hurry on with the telling of tales. He calls on the Man of Law to begin his story quickly. The worthy gentleman consents. He rambles along for a while, commenting that he cannot hope to imitate the well-known poet Chaucer in the quality of his speech, yet he will tell one in prose even though he be plainspoken. The teller then rambles on some more in an apparent sermon against poverty. It seems that his tale will somehow deal with this subject, but it certainly does not.

Part One: The Christian Emperor of Rome has a beautiful and extremely virtuous daughter named Constance whose reputation comes to the attention of the Sultan of Syria. Without even laying eyes on the lady, the Sultan falls madly in love with her and determines she must be his bride. He begins to negotiate for her hand, even promising to become Christian. The arrangements are finally concluded and Constance and the Sultan are married. In the meantime, the mother of the Sultan, horrified that her son is so willing to renounce his Muslim faith, has plotted against the alliance.

Part Two: Shortly after the marriage, the Sultan's mother gives a banquet to honor the newlyweds. Once all the guests are seated, her henchmen assassinate all who assisted in the marriage and embraced the Christain faith, including her own son, the Sultan.

Only Constance is spared, but is placed on a rudderless ship to float aimlessly over all the seas until she eventually suffers some terrible death. The Mother of Christ intervenes in behalf of Constance and spares her life. The ship lands in Britain.

Constance is befriended by the King's warden and his wife. Both come to love her virtuous and sweet nature. Hermengild, the warden's wife, is so impressed by Constance's piety that she becomes a secret Christian.

A young knight in the area falls in love with Constance. When his efforts to seduce her fail, he seeks revenge by framing Constance for the murder of Hermingild which he has actually committed. While the warden was away, Hermengild and Constance slept in the same bed. The wicked young knight sneaked into the bedchamber, slit Hermengild's throat, covered Constance with the blood, and placed the bloody weapon in Constance's hand.

When the warden returns and comes upon the scene, he can only conclude that Constance is the murderer. However, the cruelty of the act is so out of character for Constance the warden takes her to King Aella to be judged. All those who testify speak of her virtue and hold her to be incapable of the crime, except for the knight, who finally swears on the Bible that Constance is guilty. The Lord knocks him down as he gives this false witness and the voice of God is heard declaring Constance innocent. This miracle brings about the conversion of all present. King Aella has the evil knight executed and Constance is pardoned.

Naturally, Aella also soon falls in love with Constance and marries her. She becomes pregnant, but just as she is about to deliver, Aella is called away to fight the Scots. Constance is safely delivered of a beautiful boy and immediately sends a messenger to King Aella with the good news.

Unfortunately, the messenger stops first at the palace of the king's mother who hates Constance. She gets the messenger drunk and substitutes a false letter that says Constance has given birth to a monster and accuses Constance of being a witch. When Aella receives this letter he is terribly sad, but sends a reply stating that he accepts the will of God and hopes for a more normal child the next time.

On the return trip, the messenger stops again at the palace of the king's mother. Again he falls into a drunken slumber, and again, the wicked mother-in-law substitutes a false letter for the real one. The counterfeit letter orders the warden to put Constance and the baby in the same ship in which Constance had arrived and to put that ship again out to sea.

When the letter arrives,...

(The entire section is 1,568 words.)