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At the beginning of class Professor Sutherland announced two schedule
changes: the Tales of the Friar and the Summoner have been moved
to March 13 instead of January 30, 2003, and the essay due date
has been extended by one week to March 13, 2003.
We briefly discussed the life of Constance in the Man of Law’s
tale as one dictated by a stifling world of socially determined
rules, which was followed by a presentation on Lawyers in the fourteenth
Man of Law’s Tale
In the introduction to the Man of Law’s tale the narrator
makes an apostrophe against poverty in the language of Innocent
III’s treatise "On the Misery of the Human Condition,"
which depicts the human body as a vessel born of bile, sperm, worms
and other grotesque features. However, rather than depicting humans
as vile to turn their thoughts to God, he turns the mind to merchants
and their prosperity.
The Host draws attention to the passing day and pulls the narrative
back on track. He calls on the Man of Law, whose rightful place
in the social order is third following the Knight and the Reeve.
The Man of Law’s tale is a rendition of oral folklore based
on incest. Chaucer’s version, however, is the G-rated one;
he deliberately suppresses the incest motif (Constance is in love
with her brother). Remnants of it appear in the figures of the jealous
mothers, in the ending when Constance is reunited with her father
after her husband’s death and lives out her life with him
(daughter as lover), and in her tender and passionate return to
Constance is depicted as a holy creature. Unlike Criseyde, she
is not a demure heroine but a wandering soul. On the ship she is
shown in an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary, an ancient motif.
It is only in marriage that she is granted womanhood, albeit tongue-in-cheek;
Constance must to put aside her holiness to be a wife. In Line 274
she compares herself to Christ in her marriage and makes a bitter
accusation: women are born into thralldom and must do the penance
of being under man’s guidance.
The two mother figures are doubles and represent the pagan female
as the impossible woman—the serpent of Satan—compared
with Constance, the Christian soul. (For more about attitudes towards
Moslems and Islam in the Middle Ages see Mini Report
In the epilogue the Host calls on the parish priest. The Parson
objects to the Host’s swearing by God’s bones. This
suggests that he may be a follower of Wyclif, or a Lollard. This
group of religious reformists argued against Church property and
wealth. They argued for the translation of the Bible into the vernacular
and were against the idea of priests as a mediator between God and
humankind. This was just beginning to be a sensitive topic during
Chaucer’s time. John of Gaunt was a friend of Wyclif so Chaucer
may well have been sympathetic to his ideas. In the decades after
Chaucer's death you could be burned at the stake for the Lollard
heresy. The tension in the story is where this pious creature will
settle: England or Rome? Should the Church be an English vernacular
institution or part of the Latin Catholic church?
Constance is subjected to Trial by Ordeal. Swearing on the Bible
harks back to pre-Norman common law and is somewhat problematic:
old Anglo-Saxon Bibles were not written in Latin, is it then a British
book because written in English? When falsely accused of her friend’s
murder before the King, a voice claims Constance as the daughter
of the Holy Church in England. For the Man of Law it would have
been a daily occurrence to see a person led to their death. However,
rather than meeting death, her presence sets off a conversion and
brings the Church to Rome where she starts an Empire and lives as
Every time Constance is on a ship she loses her memory. She represents
the silent female part of a male world and converts others through
her silence. Maurice, her son, brings about both reunions and is
a representation of his mother.
The Prioress’s Tale
The Prioress is a large yet dainty creature. Her brooch with the
ambiguous "Love Conquers All" inscription and delicate
nature finely tuned to the suffer of all creatures great and small
suggests that she is better suited to be a figure in court than
a religious disciple. To tell the tale of a child martyr, the Prioress
begins with a prayer and invokes a modesty topos in which compares
herself to an infant without speech. There is strong biblical support
for being childlike but also a warning not to be naive: be babes
in evil, be mature in thinking. Her representation points to the
dichotomy between ignorance and innocence and raises the question
of where does one end and the other begin?
Dr. Sutherland introduced the tale by telling us about Boccaccio’s
story of Melchisedech, a Jew who avoids an impossible choice among
the three religions of Judaism Christianity and Islam by himself
recounting the Tale of three Rings to Saladine, the great sultan
and warrior. The moral: final decisions about religion are in abeyance
during life. Business and friendship are more important.
The main problem of the Prioress’s Tale is one of voice.
Some critics argue that the Prioress in the tale is not the same
as that in the General Prologue; we are meant to hear their estate
not their particular psychology in the tale they tell. Thus, the
entire tale cannot be read ironically, in the bad French of the
courtly Prioress, because before the fourteenth century there would
be no reason to doubt the intent of a story about a child martyr.
The setting adds to the tale's problematic antisemitism (see Mini
Report below for more about this). The Jews were expelled
from England in 1290 and the tale takes place in some Asian city
where the sin of usury is still tolerated. And yet the story is
about an event that happened in England in the 12th century, the
supposed murder of Hugh of St Lincoln by the Jewish community at
Easter--a blood ritual killing.
For medieval Christians the Hebrew scriptures prefigure the Virgin.
The idea that the miraculous and mediating role of the Virgin is
beyond human comprehension materializes in the child who sings in
Latin. He repeats the words but does not comprehend their meaning.
In order to learn the psalm the clergian must make a sacrifice.
He neglects his studies even though this may mean he will be beaten
three times per hour (l.529-44). The clergian is educated in violence
and experiences it from cradle to grave. The justice meted out to
the Jewish community at the end of the tale is excessively violent.
Ironically, the Prioress is squeamish about trapped mice but accepts
The Prioress’s tale is a retelling of Christ’s crucifixion;
in her version Satan acts through the Jews to crucify the Savior.
It was believed that bad people listened to Satan and did his bidding.
Though the Jews in the story as responsible for the child’s
death, it was Satan who put them up to it. The terms "Jew"
and "Jews" are used interchangeably in the tale. One Jew
killed the boy; the whole community of Jews is punished for the
crime. Christian’s, in comparison, have good moral roles in
the tale. The clergian’s mother, for example, becomes a Rachel
figure, a representation of the suffering mother.
It is important that death comes before sex for the child martyr.
He is depicted as a celestial virgin, raised from shit to heaven.
His death is beautifully understated. The mother is lead to the
pit and the miracle of her sons singing begins, we forget about
the stench and grotesque state of the boy. The release of the song
leads to the binding of the Jews. The Prioress gives elevated status
to the celestial setting through language. Despite the Abbott’s
attempts to lay the boy to rest, he continues to sing. A symbolic
marker, a grain on his tongue, represents the imperishable seed
of God’s word, a gift from the Virgin. In reaction the abbott
swoons; it is beyond the limits of human reason. The boy’s
body is enshrined in marble and we are left with an inclusive prayer.
Second Term Chaucer Essay: Due March 6, 2003
Choose a tale.
Choose a focus: character, genre, theme, narration (relation of
teller to tale, for example), structure, language (imagery, rhetoric,
1. Discuss a problem that is revealed by your focus. Instead of
resolving the problem, suggest ways in which keeping it unresolved
add to the richness of the tale. (Examples of problems: the theme
of astrological destiny in the Man of Law’s Tale seems to
be in conflict with the Christian theme of Providence. The Wife
of Bath has been claimed as a feminist and yet the narrator seems
to use her as an example of disastrous femininity.)
2. Compare the way your focus is developed in two different tales.
(For example, the relation of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue
and Tale and the Man of Law’s Prologue and Tale, or the Pardoner’s
Prologue and Tale, etc.)
3. Discuss the way your focus differs in one of the tale’s
analogues or sources. (Example: the character of Custance in Trevet
and Chaucer). Length: approximately 12 pages or 3000 words.