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The Man of Law's Tale


In Chaucer and the Image of Narrative, V. A. Kolve suggests that the conventional associations with the image of the rudderless boat in medieval Christian tradition illuminate three different levels of meaning in Chaucer's tale. Most obviously, the boat represents the Church, as St. Augustine explained in his exegesis of Noah's ark. The image of the Church as a boat in which the faithful find refuge from the sea of the world is extremely commonplace in medieval iconography. The architecture of the church building itself is meant to recall an image of a boat; the "nave" (from the Latin "navis" meaning "ship") is often constructed so that the roof resembles an upside-down ship's keel. Thus, on one level, Constance's journey represents the ship of the Church on pilgrimage through the world, spreading the Christian faith to heathen lands.

Ship's keel nave

But Noah's ark also represented the sacraments of baptism and communion, as Agustine explained in his discussion of Noah's ark. "And the door which it was given in its side surely represents the wound made when the side of the crucified was pierced with the spear. This, as we know, is the way of entrance for those who come to him, because from that wound flowed the sacraments with which believers are initiated" (City of God, XV, 27).

Noah building his ark.

Constance's second journey places much more emphasis on the role of faith within the individual human soul rocked by adversity. Unlike the false conversion of the Sultan and his barons, the conversions of the constable, Hermengild, and Alla are sincere. Alla in particular is as unshakable as Constance herself in retaining his faith in God's providence despite the misfortunes that strike him. The faith that Constance and Alla maintain in God's providential governance of their own lives even in the face of enormous adversity, faith which is rewarded in the end, contrasts with the complaints of Palamon and Arcite in the Knight's Tale.

In this illustration for Psalm 69 from the Belleville Breviary, chosen to accompany the sacrament of Confirmation, St. Peter lies in a boat on a storm-tossed sea while God blesses him from the heavens, symbolizing the soul's refuge in time of trial in the ship of the Church which is blessed by God.

St. Peter in the ship of the Church

The final traditional symbolic meaning of the ship is a means of conveyance between this world and the next. In Christian tradition, in which earthly life was seen as a pilgrimage, the ship of the church transports the faithful through the seas of the world to the heavenly home. Kolve quotes an anonymous northern English poem, "Of žo flode of žo world," that explains the significance of the ship as an allegory for the church and points out the function of the church in the salvation of men's souls:
žese fisshers žat us fisshen ouer žo ship borde,
Are noght but žo precours of gods worde,
žat to men prechen žat here wrong lyuen
& to žo world & delytes of flesshe hom gyuen

The St. Ursula legend is vaguely similar to the Constance legend. Like Constance, Ursula was a British Christian, and the wreck and martyrdom of St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins was often glossed in a way illustrated by the lines quoted above. St. Ursula was often portrayed as helping sinners into her boat to save them from drowning in the seas of the world.

St. Ursula taking leave of her father

Some Analogues


Emare is a 14th c. poem on the Constance theme. A rich and mighty emperor named Artyus has an only child, Emare. The empress dies before her daughter can walk or talk. Sir Tergaunte, the king of Sicily, presents the Emperor with a marvelous cloth of gold, that had previously belonged to the Sowdan. The Emperor has a a beautiful robe made for Emare out of the cloth, and when he sees her in it, he falls in love with her and wants to marry her. He even goes so far as to seek permission of the Pope to allow such an irregular marriage, but the girl refuses. Her father becomes angry and sets her out on a raft. She takes the robe with her. The craft lands in Gaul where it is found by the King's steward. The King falls in love with her and marries her against his mother's wishes. He then goes off to war leaving Emare in the care of his steward and a bishop. During his absence, she bears a son, Segramour, and false messages are sent to the King concerning the birth of his child as in the versions by Trivet and Gower. Emare is set adrift once again and ends up in Rome where a merchant named Jurdan finds her and takes her home. In the meantime, the King returns, discovers the treachery, and has his mother banished. Some years later he goes to Rome to get absolution and lodges in the house of the merchant who had befriended Emare. There he sees his son, learns the boy's name, guesses the truth, and a joyful reunion finally takes place. In Trivet's version of the story, the incest theme has been filtered out. In Emare the wicked stepmother is not killed, only exiled.

The Tale of Jereslau's Wife

Thomas Hoccleve's poem on the Constance theme, "The Tale of Jereslau's Wife," is written in rime royal, like Chaucer's. Jereslau is a prince who goes on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, leaving the kingdom in the care of his wife and brother, with the stipulation that his brother is to rule according to the advice of the wife. After Jereslau leaves, the brother gets proud, oppresses the poor, robs the rich, and makes advances on Jereslau's wife. She rejects him, summons the magnates, and has him locked up. When he hears that his brother is coming home, he repents and she unwisely takes pity on him and lets him out. As they are going to greet the returning emperor, a hart starts up and everybody rushes after it, leaving the two of them alone. He once again makes advances, and when she refuses, he hangs her by her hair from a tree and leaves her, so he believes, to starve and die in the forest, telling everyone on his return that she was taken from him by force. As luck would have it, another hunting party comes along, led by an Earl and chances upon the unfortunate Empress. The Earl cuts her down, and takes her home. He and his wife have a little girl who is very fond of her, but unfortunately, a knight at the house falls in love with her and vows revenge when she rejects him. He kills the child so she will be blamed. The mother wants the emperess killed, but the Earl refuses to do it because of his Christian faith. Thus she is allowed to mount her palfrey and ride off. One day in her wanderings she comes to a man who is about to be hanged. She pays money to save him and takes him on as a servant. They come to the Coast where she sees a merchant ship and sends her servant to find out who's on board. The ship is full of rich cloths. The servant takes the shipman to the Empress and she asks to examine his cloths. He agrees but tempts the servant, who accepts the bribe, to betray her. He convinces her to come on board his ship. When she is aboard, the ship leaves. The shipman attacks; she first temporizes then prays to God for help. In answer to her prayer, a storm comes up that splits the ship in two, and they are washed up on different shores. Constance gets to a nunnery, where becomes famous for healing people and doing good works. In the meantime all 4 men who have wronged her have developed diseases (the brother-in-law is a leper; the false knight is blind, deaf, and palsied; the thief-servant is gouty and lame; the shipman has the frenzy--Hoccleve inserts a stanza about the punishment for men who seek to betray and deceive women) and they all go to Rome to see her, and be cured, which she says is possible only on the condition they confess their sins. Her husband accompanies the wicked brother who refuses to confess until his brother promises to forgive him. He confesses and the Emperor is almost beside himself for anger. Then the others confess and Constance heals them. Finally Constance's identity is revealed t the great joy of her husband. Following the tale, Hoccleve inserts a passage in prose in which he glosses the tale. The Emperor is Christ, his brother Man, his Empire is the body and soul. The Earl hunting is the preacher who leads the soul to Holy Church; the bad steward is the pride of life; the thief is man brought to death by sin; the shipman is the devil, and the Empress is the noble soul.

Matthew of Paris's Life of Offa II

One day King Offa was out hunting when a storm arose and he was separated from his men. Wandering in the woods, he heard a piteous voice come from the thickets. He found an exquisite maiden who said she was the daughter of a prince of York who had been abandoned and left to die because her father had lusted after her and tried to have sex with her but she in no way ever consented. Her father had ordered her slain, but the men charged with this affair felt pity for her because of her great beauty and failed to discharge this duty, abandoning her in the wild instead. Offa turned her over to certain of his courtiers to be brought up, and some years afterwards, when his nobles, anxious for the future of their country, entreated him to marry, he remembered the beautiful girl and chose her as his wife. In due time she bore him many lovely children, both boys and girls, and the king was held in high honor and esteem. Then it came to pass that the King of Northumbria, sore harassed by the king of Scotland and certain of his own subjects, prayed Offa to help him, offering to marry Offa's daughter and acknowledge Offa as his sovereign. Offa set off to the north and succeeded mightily against the Scots. He sent home a message announcing his success, and the envoy stopped over at the house of the king of York whose daughter Offa had married. This prince got the messenger drunk and substituted another message which said that Offa and his men had suffered great reverses in battle as God's punishment for having married that damnable witch, and ordered her and her children slain. Offa's men, though greatly marvelling and in much sorrow, dared not disobey, and they took them out into a wasteland and hacked the children to pieces, but they spared the mother for pity at her great beauty. A hermit passing by heard the woman's wails and also the piercing cries issuing from the bodies of the children, and knew it to be God's work. The hermit put the pieces of the bodies of the children back together again and made the sign of the cross over them, at which point the children were miraculously whole again. The hermit took them to his dwelling and there they abode. Meanwhile Offa returned home from the wars, and for a long time the news was hidden from him. Finally he insisted on knowing where the queen was and the terrible truth was revealed. Offa fell into such great sorrow that it was a pity to see. At length, on the insistance of his friends, he began to breathe again, and one day, as he was hunting, he happened to find himself just near the hermit's abode. The hermit revealed the joyous truth to him, and instructed him to build a monastery on the spot. Offa neglected this charge during his lifetime, and on his deathbed he instructed his children to maintain the promise.

Press here to read Gower's story of Canace and Machaire.

Click here to return to the index of Jane Zatta's Chaucer Web Site