The canterbury tales, p.98
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.98

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  30 Malkin: A typical name for a lower-class woman (cf. NP 3384, and see A. J. Fletcher, ELN, 24.2 (1986), 15–20). The irrecover-ability of lost virginity was proverbial; cf. Gower, CA V.5647–8, 6208–11.

  33 The imposing Serjeant at Law of the General Prologue (see n. to GP 309) has here become a common-or-garden Man of Law. It is not clear that Chaucer intended anything specific by making the change.

  41 Biheste is dette: ‘A promise is an obligation.’ Proverbial; see Whiting B214.

  43–5 The reference to ‘oure text’ in line 45 suggests that Chaucer has a specific source in mind, which is probably the Digest of Justinian, II.ii, rubric (I, 42).

  53–5 The work referred to is Ovid’s Heroides, a collection of fictional letters written by unhappy women to the male lovers who have, for the most part, abandoned or betrayed them. The last six (XVI–XXI) are letters of courtship exchanged between three pairs of lovers: Paris/Helen, Leander/Hero, Acontius/Cydippe. See further nn. to ML 61–85.

  57 Chaucer had retold the story of King Ceyx and his wife Alcyone in the first section of the Book of the Duchess (62–230); his source was Ovid’s Metamorphoses (XI.410–748). Ceyx was drowned on a sea-voyage, leaving Alcyone uncertain of his fate; in answer to her prayer Juno sent Morpheus to her in the shape of the drowned Ceyx to tell her of his death. In Chaucer’s version Alcyone then dies of grief; in Ovid’s, she and Ceyx are changed into sea-birds.

  61 ff. The reference is to Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, a collection of stories about women who were ‘martyred’ by the cruelty of the male lovers who abandoned or betrayed them. The list of the Legend’s contents given here suggests that the work as we have it may be seriously incomplete, since it refers to eight more legends (those of Deianira, Hermione, Hero, Helen, Briseida, Laodamia, Penelope and Alcestis) than are included in the version we have (conversely, however, this version includes the stories of Cleopatra and Philomela, who are not mentioned here). Chaucer’s Retractions of his profane writings at the end of CT, which refer to the Legend as ‘The Book of the xxv Ladies’, support the notion that part of the work has been lost (see n. to Retr 1086).

  Fifteen of the lovers mentioned by the Man of Law are included in Ovid’s Heroides (Dido, Phyllis, Deianira, Hermione, Ariadne, Hypsipyle, Leander, Hero, Helen, Briseida, Laodamia, Medea, Hypermnestra, Penelope, Canace).

  62–3 Lucresse: Chaucer’s source for the story of the Roman matron Lucretia in LGW (1680–1885) is Ovid’s Fasti (II.685–852). Having been raped by Tarquin, king of Rome, Lucretia committed suicide; popular indignation at the crime led to Tarquin’s banishment. Cf. Fkl 1405–8.

  Babilan Tesbee: Thisbe, a maiden of Babylon, could communicate with her lover Piramus only through a crack in the wall between their houses. When they arranged to meet outside the city and run away together, Piramus found Thisbe’s bloodstained cloak at their rendezvous, and believing that she had been killed by a lion, committed suicide; finding his dead body, Thisbe followed suit. Chaucer’s source for this story in LGW (706–923) was Ovid’s Metamorphoses (IV.55–166). Cf. Mch 2128–31.

  64 Dido … Enee: Chaucer’s account, in LGW 924–1367, of Dido’s abandonment by Aeneas and subsequent suicide draws on both Vergil (Aeneid, Book IV) and Ovid (Heroides VII).

  65 Phillis … Demophon: Phyllis (LGW 2394–2561; cf. Heroides II) hanged herself when her lover Demophoon failed to return by the date he had promised.

  66 Dianire … Hermion: On Deianira, wife of Hercules, see n. to Kn 1942–6. Hermione (Heroides VIII), the betrothed of Orestes, was married against her will to Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, after the fall of Troy.

  67 Adriane … Isiphilee: Ariadne (LGW 1886–2227, Heroides X) helped Theseus to slay the Minotaur and escape from Crete in return for a promise of marriage, but was abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, the ‘bareine ile’ of line 68 (cf. Heroides X.59–62). Hypsipyle (LGW 1368–1579; cf. Heroides VI) was abandoned by her husband Jason in favour of Medea.

  69 Leandre … Erro: Leander, a youth of Abydos, was the secret lover of Hero of Sestos, and would swim across the Hellespont at night to her tower (Heroides XVIII–XIX). One stormy night he was drowned, and when Hero found his body cast up on the shore, she threw herself into the sea.

  70 Eleine: Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Lacedaemon, was abducted by Paris, son of King Priam of Troy; the result was the siege and fall of Troy. Heroides XVI–XVII represent Paris’s first declaration of his love, and Helen’s ambivalent response, but make no mention of her weeping. Chaucer seems to have in mind Guido delle Colonne’s History of the Destruction of Troy: although Helen there acquiesces in her own abduction, when brought to Troy sheis‘tormented with great anguish’bythe loss ofher family and native land, and is drowned in continual tears until Paris consoles her (Book VII, ed. Griffin, p. 76; tr. Meek, p. 75).

  71 Brixseide: The Trojan girl Briseis was given as a captive to the Greek hero Achilles, but taken away from him by Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, when he was obliged to give up his own captive Chryseis. Achilles’ wrath at this injury, and consequent refusal to fight for the Greeks against Troy, is the subject of Homer’s Iliad. Heroides III is an impassioned plea from Briseis to Achilles, complaining at his delay in reclaiming her from Agamemnon.

  Ladomia: Laodamia (Heroides XIII) was wife of Protesilaus, the first Greek leader to be killed by the Trojans, according to the prophecy that this fate would befall the first Greek warrior to set foot on the Trojan shore. The gods later granted Laodamia’s plea that he be restored to life for three hours, and when he died a second time, she committed suicide in order to be with him. Cf. Fkl 1445–7.

  72–4 Medea (LGW 1580–1679; Heroides XII) by her magic arts helped Jason win the Golden Fleece, in return for which he made her his wife, but eventually abandoned her to marry the daughter of Creon, king of Corinth. Medea’s murder of her two children by Jason is not mentioned in Heroides XII, and is only obliquely referred to in LGW (1574) as a fate wished on Medea by her abandoned predecessor Hypsipyle. The statement that the children were hanged by the neck is without parallel elsewhere; in RR (13229) she is said to have strangled them.

  75 Ypermystra: Hypermnestra (LGW 2562–2723; Heroides XIV) was the youngest of the fifty daughters of Danaus, whose brother Aegyptus insisted that they be married to his fifty sons. Danaus gave each of his daughters a knife, and ordered them to kill their husbands on the wedding night, but Hypermnestra disobeyed and helped her husband Lynceus to escape. Chaucer’s version of the story in LGW says nothing of the marriages between the other forty-nine sisters and brothers, and reverses the names of the fathers.

  Penolopee: Penelope (Heroides I) was the wife of Ulysses, one of the Greek leaders at the siege of Troy, and remained faithful to him, despite being importuned by numerous suitors, throughout his twenty-year absence. Cf. Fkl 1443.

  Alceste: Alcestis, wife of King Admetus, volunteered to save her husband’s life by dying in his stead when the Fates agreed to spare him if his father, mother or wife were willing to take his place. She was brought back from the Underworld by Hercules. In the Prologue to LGW, she appears as the God of Love’s queenly consort, and intercedes with the God of Love on Chaucer’s behalf. Cf. Fkl 1442.

  77–85 Canacee: The incestuous love between Canace, daughter of King Aeolus, and her brother Macareus became known when she gave birth to their son; her father had the child exposed on a mountain-side and ordered Canace to kill herself (Heroides XI). In the Prologue to LGW, Chaucer includes her, without any sign of distaste, in the list of faithful women lovers in the Balade sung in Alcestis’s honour (F 265, G 219).

  Tyro Appollonius: Apollonius, prince of Tyre, was a suitor for the hand of the daughter of Antiochus, king of Antioch; he successfully decoded the riddle that Antiochus required her suitors to solve, on pain of death, but found to his horror that its answer revealed an incestuous relationship between father and daughter. The Apollonius story was extremely widespread in the Middle Ages and Renaissance; see E. Archibald, Apollo
nius of Tyre: Medieval and Renaissance Themes and Variations (Cambridge, 1991).

  Gower tells both the story of Canace (with striking sympathy for the incestuous pair) and the story of Apollonius in CA (III.143–336, VIII.271–2008), and it may be that Chaucer is here teasing his friend Gower by having the Man of Law express disgust for such ‘cursed stories’. However, Chaucer expresses a similar reluctance to rehearse a ‘foule storye’ when embarking on the tale of Tereus’s rape of Philomela in LGW (2228–43), so these lines may reflect genuine feeling. Gower’s story says nothing about Antiochus throwing his daughter ‘upon the pavement’; Chaucer may have remembered a Latin version of the story (see J. H. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (London, 1965), p. 370, n. 18).

  Some narrative analogues of the Man of Law’s Tale begin with the heroine’s flight from threatened incest (see E. Archibald, ChauR, 20 (1986), 259–72); Chaucer may thus be signalling his refusal to tell the story in this form.

  92 Pierides: The Muses are so called because according to legend they were born at the foot of Mount Olympia in Pieria. They are here confused with the nine daughters of Pierus, who foolishly challenged the Muses to a singing contest and were changed into magpies when they lost (Metamorphoses V.294–678). The Man of Law fears that his own tale will be as inferior to Chaucer’s as the song of Pierus’s daughters was to that of the Muses.

  93 Methamorphosios: The ending of this word represents the Greek genitive singular, and is a common medieval error for the genitive plural in the full form of Ovid’s title: Metamorphoseon Libri Quindecim (‘15 Books of Metamorphoses’). See E. F. Shannon, Chaucer and the Roman Poets(Cambridge, MA,1929), pp. 307–12.

  96 I speke in prose: Despite this claim, the Man of Law’s tale is in the verse-form known as rhyme royal (stanzas of seven five-stress lines, rhyming ababbcc). This line may thus indicate that Chaucer had originally assigned another tale to the Man of Law – most likely the Tale of Melibee, whose ultimate source was the Liber consolationis et consilii, written by a lawyer, Albertano of Brescia (see Headnote to Mel).

  99–121 These lines are based on a section (I.14) of the De Miseria Condicionis Humane of Pope Innocent III (written in 1195), a moralizing work in fairly simple Latin which was very widely read in the Middle Ages and beyond (see the edition and translation by R. E. Lewis (London, 1980), pp. 3–5). This is almost certainly the work of Pope Innocent’s which Chaucer is said to have translated in the Prologue to LGW (G 414–15). It is drawn on at several other points in ML (see nn. to ML 421–7, 771–7, 925–31 and 1135–8); marginal Latin glosses in many CT MSS, including Hg and El, make the borrowings clear by quoting the relevant passages of Innocent’s work (for details of these glosses, see Manly and Rickert III, 492–6).

  Although Chaucer here follows Pope Innocent’s words quite closely, his picture of the constraints of poverty culminates in a very different conclusion: whereas Innocent concludes that riches bring moral dangers, and people should be estimated according to their virtue rather than their wealth, Chaucer blithely ignores moral questions and expresses admiration for the life of wealthy merchants. The worldly-wise attitude of these stanzas is nearer to the reflections on poverty and riches in Mel 1551–74, which quote the same section of the De Miseria (see 1568–70 and n.), but Dame Prudence does not have the strain of flippancy which makes itself heard here. In contrast, Chaucer’s later quotations of Innocent’s work in this tale preserve and even heighten the solemnity of tone.

  This whole section (99–133) is connected with the preceding part of MLPr by the Man of Law’s protestation that he is ‘of tales desolat’ (131), and with the following Tale by the use of the rhyme royal stanza, but its content is not obviously relevant to either. Perhaps the picture of poverty’s grumbling discontent was intended as a thematic contrast to the tale of patience in adversity which follows, since ‘grucchyng’ is an opposite of patience (see Introduction, p. xxxiii).

  114 Ecclesiasticus 40:29; also quoted at Mel 1571.

  115 Proverbs 14:20.

  118 Proverbs 15:15.

  120–21 Proverbs 19:7; cf. Whiting P295 and Mel 1559.

  124 ambes as: In the game of dice, the lowest possible score, hence an emblem of bad luck.

  125 sis cink: The highest possible throw with two dice, with the exception of two sixes.


  Parallels to the narrative motifs of the Man of Law’s Tale (the voyage in a rudderless boat, the wicked mother-in-law) can be found in a wide range of medieval romances and tales (see M. Schlauch, Chaucer’s Constance and Accused Queens (New York, 1927), and J. R. Reinhard, ‘Setting Adrift in Medieval Law and Literature’, PMLA, 56 (1941), 33–68), but it is generally agreed that Chaucer’s direct source was a section of the AN prose chronicle by the fourteenth-century Dominican friar Nicholas Trevet. Trevet’s Chronicle was composed for Mary, daughter of Edward I, who was a nun at Amesbury, and who might have felt a special interest in the story of the high-born and devout heroine Constance. Chaucer may also have been influenced by the version of the Constance story included in Gower’s Confessio Amantis (II.587–1612); see P. Nicholson, ChauR, 26 (1991), 153–74.

  Like Trevet’s, Chaucer’s telling of the tale is closer to hagiography than to romance; Chaucer, however, omits many of Trevet’s circumstantial details, and increases the intellectual weightiness of the tale by setting it in a cosmological framework, and by weaving into it passages – some original, some drawn from other writers (Innocent III, Bernard Silvestris, Boethius) – which make the action a basis for reflection on the human condition and the justice or injustice of divine providence. He also gives the tale much greater solemnity and dignity of style through the constant use of apostrophes, exclamations and rhetorical questions, and by the frequent use of biblical and classical allusions. The rhyme royal stanza (see n. to ML 96) adds to this solemn effect. At the same time, he increases the pathos of the tale by vivid representations of Constance’s sufferings and by appeals to the audience’s pity.

  Trevet’s Chronicle is unedited, but the section containing the Constance story was printed, with facing English translation, in Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, ed. F. J. Furnivall, E. Brock and W. A. Clouston (London, [1888]); a freshly edited text and parallel English translation by R. M. Correale are included in SA2 II, together with Gower’s Constance story and relevant excerpts from Innocent III. Correale has analysed all the manuscripts of Trevet’s work in order to determine which best represents the text of Chaucer’s source (ChauR, 25 (1991), 238–65), in preparation for a new edition in the Chaucer Library series. For a full account of Chaucer’s handling of his source material, see E. A. Block, PMLA, 68 (1953), 572–616, and the article by Nicholson cited above.

  134 In Chaucer’s day, Syria was a non-Christian country, having passed into Arab hands in the seventh century. However, at the date that the events of the Constance story supposedly took place (see n. to ML 1121–2), Syria was part of the Roman Empire, of which Christianity was the official religion; the story is therefore founded on a major anachronism. Trevet and Gower are geographically vaguer, locating the Sultan in ‘Saracenland’ and ‘Barbary’ respectively, but Trevet’s statement that the Sultan promised free Christian access to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in return for Constance’s hand shows that he too is thinking of circumstances appropriate to a date after the Arab conquest of the Middle East.

  190–203 A Latin marginal gloss which appears in most CT manuscripts (including Hg and El) identifies the source of these stanzas as a passage in the Cosmographia of Bernard Silvestris (fl. 1130–60) on the future destinies foretold in the stars: ‘[There are] the sceptre of Phoroneus, the conflict between the brothers at Thebes, the flames of Phaethon, Deucalion’s flood. In the stars are … the splendour of Priam, the daring of Turnus, the wisdom of Ulysses, and the strength of Hercules’ (ed. Dronke, Megacosmos III.39–44; tr. Wetherbee, p. 76). But whereas the stars foretell a varied range of attributes a
nd events in Bernard, in Chaucer they record only death.

  198 Ector: Hector, eldest son of Priam, king of Troy, was the chief defender of the Trojans against the Greeks; his death at the hands of Achilles, the leading warrior on the Greek side, marks the end of Homer’s Iliad. Although the Iliad was not read in Greek during the Middle Ages, its narrative events were known through a number of Latin versions; see C. D. Benson, The History of Troy in Middle English Literature (Woodbridge, 1980).

  Achilles’ death is not related in the Iliad; Chaucer could have read an account of how he was lured by his love of the Trojan girl Polyxena to the Trojan temple of Apollo, and there ambushed and slain by Paris, in Guido delle Colonne’s History of the Destruction of Troy (XXVII), or in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s Roman de Troie, lines 21838–2334 (ed. L. Constans, 6 vols. (Paris, 1904–12)).

  199 Pompey, Julius: Pompey and Julius Caesar were for a long time political collaborators at Rome, but their growing differences eventually led to the outbreak of civil war (49 BC), in which Pompey was defeated, and later treacherously murdered in Egypt. Caesar then assumed supreme powers, but was murdered in the Roman senate (44 BC) by a group of conspirators who claimed to be acting in defence of the republic (cf. Mk 2671–2726 and n.).

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