Chaucer: The Man of Law’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MAN OF LAW’S TALE
The first specific reference to the month and day — April 18th (5-6) — helps us find the year of presumed composition. “The ferthe part” (3) of the day being gone would mean we’re at 10:00, 45 degrees, so the day runs from 8:00 to 4:00. It seems like a late start but the pilgrims are on holiday. It’s probably the second day of the pilgrimage, with Fragment A unfinished. Perhaps it would have settled overnight. The Host’s urgency suggests the second day; he spends a long time wailing about wasting time.
The Host calls on the Man of Law and tries to use legalese to remind all of his, the Host’s, own authority. Oddly, the Man of Law says,
I kan right now no thrify tale seyn
That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly
On metres and on rymyng craftily,
Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan
Of olde tyme, as knoweth many a man….
Subsequently, he lists some of Chaucer’s works, so we get another “autobibliography.” Medieval authors do not sign their works; that would be a sign of Pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins. We usually rely on mention in other works by other writers, indirect reference, for identifications. But Chaucer has the Man of Law mention “Ceys and Alcione” (57) and “the Seintes Legende of Cupide” (61) — does this expert in citing texts and cases get the title wrong? — omitting a couple and including several we don’t have (again, an ironic poke at this supposed expert at citing?). The Man of Law mentions Medea’s “litel children hangynge by the hals” (73) and says that Chaucer at least has not written
Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee,
That loved hir owene brother synfully —
Of swiche cursed stories I sey fy! —
Or ellis of Tyro Appollonius,
How that the cursed kyng Antiochus
Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede,
That is so horrible a tale for to rede,
Whan he hir threw upon the pavement.
Does the Man of Law secretly delight in the gruesome, behind his disapproving sanctimony? Is this is “quiting” of Pynchbeck? Or, since Gower does have the story of Canacee and that of Tyro in Confessio Amantis (though not the rape and the pavement detail), is this a “quiting” somehow against “O moral Gower”? All of this smacks of an in-joke, but one to which we seem to lack the key.
The Man of Law dismisses Chaucer: “I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make” (96).
[For the other two autobibliographies, see the Prologue to The Legend of Good Women and the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales.
We get a rime royal tale instead of the prose promised, so perhaps the legalistic Melibee was originally intended as the Man of Law’s tale. The LGW Prologue tells us that Chaucer translated The Wretched Engerndrynge of Mankind = Innocent III’s De miseria condicionis humane, so was a prose translation of this originally the tale? The poverty stanzas in the Man of Law’s Prologue here don’t fit the tale.
This, like the Physician’s Tale, is a classical legend, like those found in the Gesta Romanorum allegorized by monks (as with Ovide moralisée). The classical legend usually begins “In the days of the emperor…” and offers a Greek or Roman theme with a moral. Chaucer often uses rime royal in moral tales. Gower uses this tale, probably first, in Confessio Amantis.
There’s not much one can do with this tale of Custance in considering the connections between the tale and the teller. The organization is nice. Maybe the oratorical devices come in handy when pleading a case. There’s some anti-feminism.
The Host begins to engage the Parson but is interrupted by a pilgrim whose identity, given the scribal variations in the manuscripts, is uncertain. The Shipman? The Squire? The Summoner? The fact that so many variants appear suggests that Chaucer left the space blank as he considered the overall sequence or reconsidered the ordering.