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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Man of Law’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 9, 2022.

The Man of Law’s Introduction

The morning is moving along, and the Host notices that it is ten o’clock. The pilgrims must not lose time but continue to tell stories. In fact, time moves right along like a stream, and they can never recover it. The Man of Law is to tell his tale next, and he is willing to perform his duty. He mentions, though, that he cannot tell any story that Chaucer has not already told since he has written so many books. He proceeds to list some of Chaucer’s stories and then declares that he will not tell a wicked tale about incest, for Chaucer does not.

The Man of Law’s Prologue

The Man of Law presents a little sermon on poverty and its trials. Everyone despises a poor person, and those in poverty may even blame Christ for their lot. The wise speak against it, and the Man of Law warns his audience to flee from it. The prosperous merchants are much better off, and they are the ones who carry back tales like the one the Man of Law will now relate.

The Man of Law’s Tale

Some Syrian merchants travel to Rome to trade, and while there, they learn about the virtues and beauty of the Emperor’s daughter, Lady Custance. When they return home, they tell the Sultan about this woman, and he immediately falls in love with her and arranges their marriage even though he must convert to Christianity along with all members of his household. The Emperor agrees to the marriage.

Lady Custance, of course, has no say in the matter at all, and she mourns her fate yet is willing to obey her father. She thinks that she will never see her parents again now that she is being exiled (as she feels) to a pagan land, and she weeps. Yet as she leaves, she tries to look cheerful and accept her fate.

The Sultan’s mother has other ideas about her son’s conversion and marriage. She schemes to set things right, and even though she pretends to convert, she plots to pay back her son. Custance arrives in Syria to great pageantry, but at the feast, the Sultan’s mother has everyone killed except Custance. She puts Custance in a rudderless ship with some provisions and sets her adrift.

Custance again accepts her fate and places herself fully under Christ’s care and protection. Her provisions miraculously do not run out even though she is at sea a long time, and finally, she washes up in heathen Northumberland, where she is found and cared for by the constable of the castle and his wife, Lady Hermengild. Custance’s goodness convinces Hermengild to convert to Christianity, and the healing of a blind Briton converts the constable.

A knight falls in love with Custance, but she rejects him. He murders Hermengild and blames Custance, but Custance prays to God to defend her, and the knight is miraculously struck down for his lie when he falsely swears on the Gospel. King Alla converts and marries Custance.

Custance, however, again encounters a malicious mother-in-law in Donegild, and after Custance gives birth to her son, Donegild forges letters so that the constable, thinking he is under Alla’s orders, sets Custance and the baby back out to sea in her ship. When Alla finds out what has happened, he has his mother killed.

Custance and the baby land in Rome and are found by a senator who cares for them. When Alla comes to Rome to do penance, he sees the child and marvels that the boy looks just like Custance. Custance and Alla reconcile, and the Emperor receives his daughter back with joy. Alla dies not long after, and Custance and her child live in Rome.

The Epilogue of the Man of Law’s Tale

The Host praises the Man of Law’s tale and calls upon the Parson to speak next, but the Shipman inserts himself instead. He will tell a merry tale and not preach about morals or law or philosophy.

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