Front Page Titles (by Subject) Introduction to the Man of Lawes Tale. - Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5)
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Introduction to the Man of Lawes Tale. - Geoffrey Chaucer, Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5) 
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous manuscripts by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols. Vol. 5.
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Introduction to the Man of Lawes Tale.
1.If, as Mr. Furnivall supposes, the time of the telling of the Canterbury Tales be taken to be longer than one day, we may suppose the Man of Lawes Tale to begin the stories told on the second morning of the journey, April 18. Otherwise, we must suppose all the stories in Group A to precede it, which is not impossible, if we suppose the pilgrims to have started early in the morning.
Hoste. This is one of the words which are sometimes dissyllabic, and sometimes monosyllabic; it is here a dissyllable, as in l. 39. See note to line 1883 below.
sey, i.e. saw. The forms of ‘saw’ vary in the MSS. In this line we find saugh, sauh, segh, sauhe, sawh, none of which are Chaucer’s own, but due to the scribes. The true form is determined by the rime, as in the Clerkes Tale, E. 667, where most of the MSS. have say. A still better spelling is sey, which may be found in the House of Fame, 1151, where it rimes with lay. The A. S. form is sēah.
2.The ark, &c. In Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe, pt. ii. ch. 7 (vol. iii. 194), is the proposition headed—‘to knowe the arch of the day, that some folk callen the day artificial, from the sonne arysing til hit go to reste.’ Thus, while the ‘day natural’ is twenty-four hours, the ‘day artificial’ is the time during which the sun is above the horizon. The ‘arc’ of this day merely means the extent or duration of it, as reckoned along the circular rim of an astrolabe; or, when measured along the horizon (as here), it means the arc extending from the point of sunrise to that of sunset. ronne, run, performed, completed.
3.The fourthe part. The true explanation of this passage, which Tyrwhitt failed to discover, is due to Mr. A. E. Brae, who first published it in May, 1851, and reprinted it at p. 68 of his edition of Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe. His conclusions were based upon actual calculation, and will be mentioned in due order. In re-editing the ‘Astrolabe,’ I took the opportunity of roughly checking his calculations by other methods, and am satisfied that he is quite correct, and that the day meant is not the 28th of April, as in the Ellesmere MS., nor the 13th of April, as in the Harleian MS., but the 18th, as in the Hengwrt MS. and most others. It is easily seen that xviii may be corrupted into xxviii by prefixing x, or into xiii by the omission of v; this may account for the variations.
The key to the whole matter is given by a passage in Chaucer’s ‘Astrolabe,’ pt. ii. ch. 29, where it is clear that Chaucer (who, however, merely translates from Messahala) actually confuses the hour-angle with the azimuthal arc; that is, he considered it correct to find the hour of the day by noting the point of the horizon over which the sun appears to stand, and supposing this point to advance, with a uniform, not a variable, motion. The host’s method of proceeding was this. Wanting to know the hour, he observed how far the sun had moved southward along the horizon since it rose, and saw that it had gone more than half-way from the point of sunrise to the exact southern point. Now the 18th of April in Chaucer’s time answers to the 26th of April at present. On April 26, 1874, the sun rose at 4h. 43m., and set at 7h. 12m., giving a day of about 14h. 30m., the fourth part of which is at 8h. 20m., or, with sufficient exactness, at half-past eight. This would leave a whole hour and a half to signify Chaucer’s ‘half an houre and more,’ shewing that further explanation is still necessary. The fact is, however, that the host reckoned, as has been said, in another way, viz. by observing the sun’s position with reference to the horizon. On April 18 the sun was in the 6th degree of Taurus at that date, as we again learn from Chaucer’s treatise. Set this 6th degree of Taurus on the East horizon on a globe, and it is found to be 22 degrees to the North of the East point, or 112 degrees from the South. The half of this is at 56 degrees from the South; and the sun would seem to stand above this 56th degree, as may be seen even upon a globe, at about a quarter past nine; but Mr. Brae has made the calculation, and shews that it was at twenty minutes past nine. This makes Chaucer’s ‘half an houre and more’ to stand for half an hour and ten minutes; an extremely neat result. But this we can check again by help of the host’s other observation. He also took note, that the lengths of a shadow and its object were equal, whence the sun’s altitude must have been 45 degrees. Even a globe will shew that the sun’s altitude, when in the 6th degree of Taurus, and at 10 o’clock in the morning, is somewhere about 45 or 46 degrees. But Mr. Brae has calculated it exactly, and his result is, that the sun attained its altitude of 45 degrees at two minutes to ten exactly. This is even a closer approximation than we might expect, and leaves no doubt about the right date being the eighteenth of April. For fuller particulars, see Chaucer on the Astrolabe, ed. Brae, p. 69; and ed. Skeat (E. E. T. S.), preface, p. l.
5.eightetethe, eighteenth. Mr. Wright prints eightetene, with the remark that ‘this is the reading in which the MSS. seem mostly to agree.’ This is right in substance, but not critically exact. No such word as eightetene appears here in the MSS., which denote the number by an abbreviation, as stated in the footnote. The Hengwrt MS. has xviijthe, and the Old English for eighteenth must have have been eightetethe, the ordinal, not the cardinal number. This form is easily inferred from the numerous examples in which -teenth is represented by -tethe; see feowertethe, fiftethe, &c. in Stratmann’s Old English Dictionary; we find the very form eightetethe in Rob. of Glouc., ed. Wright, 6490; and eighteteothe in St. Swithin, l. 5, as printed in Poems and Lives of Saints, ed. Furnivall, 1858, p. 43. Eighte is of two syllables, from A. S. eahta, cognate with Lat. octo. Eightetethe has four syllables; see A. 3223, and the note.
8.as in lengthe, with respect to its length.
13. The astrolabe which Chaucer gave to his little son Lewis was adapted for the latitude of Oxford. If, as is likely, the poet-astronomer checked his statements in this passage by a reference to it, he would neglect the difference in latitude between Oxford and the Canterbury road. In fact, it is less than a quarter of a degree, and not worth considering in the present case.
14.gan conclude, did conclude, concluded. Gan is often used thus as an auxiliary verb.
15.plighte, plucked; cf. shrighte, shrieked, in Kn. A. 2817.—M.
16.Lordinges, sirs. This form of address is exceedingly common in Early English poetry. Cf. the first line in the Tale of Sir Thopas.
18.seint Iohn. See the Squire’s Tale, F. 596.
19.Leseth, lose ye; note the form of the imperative plural in -eth; cf. l. 37. As ferforth as ye may, as far as lies in your power.
20.wasteth, consumeth; cf. wastour, a wasteful person, in P. Plowm. B. vi. 154.—M. Hl. has passeth, i. e. passes away; several MSS. insert it before wasteth, but it is not required by the metre, since the e in time is here fully sounded; cf. A. S. tīma. Compare—
See also Clerkes Tale, E. 118.
21.what. We now say—what with. It means, ‘partly owing to.’
22.wakinge; strictly, it means watching; but here, in our wakinge = whilst we are awake.
23. Cf. Ovid, Art. Amat. iii. 62–65:—
25. Seneca wrote a treatise De Breuitate Temporis, but this does not contain any passage very much resembling the text. I have no doubt that Chaucer was thinking of a passage which may easily have caught his eye, as being very near the beginning of the first of Seneca’s epistles. ‘Quaedam tempora eripiuntur nobis, quaedam subducuntur, quaedam effluunt. Turpissima tamen est iactura, quae per negligentiam fit. Quem mihi dabis, qui aliquod pretium tempori ponat? qui diem aestimet? . . . In huius rei unius fugacis ac lubricae possessionem natura nos misit, ex qua expellit quicumque uult; et tanta stultitia mortalium est, ut, quae minima et uilissima sint, certe reparabilia, imputari sibi, quum impetrauere, patiantur; nemo se iudicet quidquam debere, qui tempus accepit, quum interim hoc unum est, quod ne gratus quidem potest reddere’; Epist. I.; Seneca Lucilio suo.
30.Malkin; a proverbial name for a wanton woman; see P. Plowman, C. ii. 181 (B. i. 182), and my note. ‘There are more maids than Malkin’; Heywood’s Proverbs.
32.moulen, lit. ‘become mouldy’; hence, be idle, stagnate, remain sluggish, rot. See Mouldy in the Appendix to my Etym. Dict. 2nd ed. 1884; and cf. note to A. 3870.
33.Man of Lawe. This is the ‘sergeant of the lawe’ described in the Prologue, ll. 309–330. So have ye blis, so may you obtain bliss; as you hope to reach heaven.
34.as forward is, as is the agreement. See Prologue, A. 33, 829.
35.been submitted, have agreed. This illustrates the common usage of expressing a perfect by the verb to be and the past part. of an intransitive verb. Cf. is went, in B. 1730.—M.
36.at my Iugement, at my decree; ready to do as I bid you. See Prologue, A. 818 and 833.
37.Acquiteth yow, acquit yourself, viz. by redeeming your promise. holdeth your biheste, keep your promise. Acquit means to absolve or free oneself from a debt, obligation, charge, &c.; or to free oneself from the claims of duty, by fulfilling it.
38.devoir, duty; see Knightes Tale, A. 2598.
atte leste, at the least. Atte or atten is common in Old English for at the or at then; the latter is a later form of A. S. æt þām, where then (=þām) is the dative case of the article. But for the explanation of peculiar forms and words, the Glossarial Index should be consulted.
39. For ich, Tyrwhitt reads jeo=je, though found in none of our seven MSS. This makes the whole phrase French - de par dieux jeo assente. Mr. Jephson suggests that this is a clever hit of Chaucer’s, because he makes the Man of Lawe talk in French, with which, as a lawyer, he was very familiar. However, we find elsewhere—
‘Quod Troilus, “depardieux I assente”;’—
‘ “Depardieux,” quod she, “god leve al be wel”;’
Troilus and Cres. ii. 1058 and 1212;
and in the Freres Tale, D. 1395—
‘ “Depardieux,” quod this yeman, “dere brother.” ’
It is much more to the point to observe that the Man of Lawe talks about law in l. 43. Cotgrave, in his French Dictionary, under par, gives—‘De par Dieu soit, a [i. e. in] God’s name be it. De par moy, by my means. De par le roy, by the king’s appointment.’ De par is a corruption of O.Fr. de part, on the part or side of; so that de par le roy means literally, ‘as for the king,’ i.e. ‘in the king’s name.’ Similarly, de par Dieu is ‘in God’s name.’ See Burguy, Grammaire de la Langue D’oil, ii. 359. The form dieux is a nominative, from the Latin deus; thus exhibiting an exception to the almost universal law in French, that the modern F. substantives answer to the accusative cases of Latin substantives, as fleur to florem, &c. Other exceptions may be found in some proper names, as Charles, Jacques, from Carolus, Jacobus, and in fils, from filius.
41. In the Morality entitled Everyman, in Hazlitt’s Old Eng. Plays, i. 137, is the proverb—‘Yet promise is debt.’ Mr. Hazlitt wrongly considers that as the earliest instance of the phrase.—M. Cf. Hoccleve, De Regim. Principum, p. 64:—‘And of a trewe man beheest is dette.’
holde fayn, &c.; gladly perform all my promise.
43.man . . . another = one . . . another. The Cambridge MS. is right.—M. ‘For whatever law a man imposes on others, he should in justice consider as binding on himself.’ This is obviously a quotation, as appears from l. 45. The expression referred to was probably proverbial. An English proverb says—‘They that make the laws must not break them’; a Spanish one—‘El que ley establece, guardarla debe,’ he who makes a law ought to keep it; and a Latin one—‘Patere legem quam ipse tulisti,’ abide by the law which you made yourself. The idea is expanded in the following passage from Claudian’s Panegyric on the 4th consulship of Honorius, carm. viii., l. 296.—
45.text, quotation from an author, precept, saying. Thus wol our text, i. e. such is what the expression implies.
47.But. This reading is given by Tyrwhitt, from MS. Dd. 4. 24 in the Cambridge University Library and two other MSS. All our seven MSS. read That; but this would require the word Nath (hath not) instead of Hath, in l. 49. Chaucer talks about his writings in a similar strain in A. 746, 1460; and at a still earlier period. in his House of Fame, 620, where Jupiter’s eagle says to him:—
can but lewedly on metres, is but slightly skilled in metre. Can=knows here; in the line above it is the ordinary auxiliary verb.
54. Ovid is mentioned for two reasons; because he has so many love-stories, and because Chaucer himself borrowed several of his own from Ovid.
made of mencioun; we should now say—‘made mention of.’
55.Epistelles, Epistles. (T. prints Epistolis, the Lat. form, without authority. The word has here four syllables.) The book referred to is Ovid’s Heroides, which contains twenty-one love-letters. See note to l. 61.
56.What, why, on what account? cf. Prologue, A. 184.
57. ‘The story of Ceyx and Alcyone is related in the introduction to the poem which was for some time called “The Dreme of Chaucer,” but which, in the MSS. Fairfax 16 and Bodl. 638, is more properly entitled, “The Boke of the Duchesse.” ’—Tyrwhitt. Chaucer took it from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, bk. xi. ‘Ceyx and Alcyone’ was once, probably, an independent poem; see vol. i. p. 63.
59.Thise is a monosyllable; the final e probably denotes that s was ‘voiced,’ and perhaps the i was long, pronounced (dhiiz).
59, 60. For eek, seek, read eke, seke. Here sek-e is in the infinitive mood. The form ek-e is not etymological, as the A. S. ēac was a monosyllable; but, as -e frequently denoted an adverbial suffix, it was easily added. Hence, in M. E., both eek and ek-e occur; and Chaucer uses either form at pleasure, ek-e being more usual. For examples of eek, see E. 1349, G. 794.
61.the seintes legende of Cupyde; better known now as The Legend of Good Women. Tyrwhitt says—‘According to Lydgate (Prologue to Boccace), the number [of good women] was to have been nineteen; and perhaps the Legend itself affords some ground for this notion; see l. 283, and Court of Love, l. 108. But this number was never completed, and the last story, of Hypermnestra, is seemingly unfinished. . . . In this passage the Man of Lawe omits two ladies, viz. Cleopatra and Philomela, whose histories are in the Legend; and he enumerates eight others, of whom there are no histories in the Legend as we have it at present. Are we to suppose, that they have been lost?’ The Legend contains the nine stories following: 1. Cleopatra; 2. Thisbe; 3. Dido; 4. Hypsipyle and Medea; 5. Lucretia; 6. Ariadne; 7. Philomela; 8. Phyllis; 9. Hypermnestra. Of these, Chaucer here mentions, as Tyrwhitt points out, all but two, Cleopatra and Philomela. Before discussing the matter further, let me note that in medieval times, proper names took strange shapes, and the reader must not suppose that the writing of Adriane for Ariadne, for example, is peculiar to Chaucer. The meaning of the other names is as follows:—Lucresse, Lucretia; Babilan Tisbee, Thisbe of Babylon; Enee, Æneas; Dianire, Deianira; Hermion, Hermione; Adriane, Ariadne; Isiphilee, Hypsipyle; Leander, Erro, Leander and Hero; Eleyne, Helena; Brixseyde, Briseis (acc. Briseïda); Ladomea, Laodamia; Ypermistra, Hypermnestra; Alceste, Alcestis.
Returning to the question of Chaucer’s plan for his Legend of Good Women, we may easily conclude what his intention was, though it was never carried out. He intended to write stories concerning nineteen women who were celebrated for being martyrs of love, and to conclude the series by an additional story concerning queen Alcestis, whom he regarded as the best of all the good women. Now, though he does not expressly say who these women were, he has left us two lists, both incomplete, in which he mentions some of them; and by combining these, and taking into consideration the stories which he actually wrote, we can make out the whole intended series very nearly. One of the lists is the one given here; the other is in a Ballad which is introduced into the Prologue to the Legend. The key to the incompleteness of the present list, certainly the later written of the two, is that the poet chiefly mentions here such names as are also to be found in Ovid’s Heroides; cf. l. 55. Putting all the information together, it is sufficiently clear that Chaucer’s intended scheme must have been very nearly as follows, the number of women (if we include Alcestis) being twenty.
1. Cleopatra. 2. Thisbe. 3. Dido. 4. and 5. Hypsipyle and Medea. 6. Lucretia. 7. Ariadne. 8. Philomela. 9. Phyllis. 10. Hypermnestra (unfinished). After which, 11. Penelope. 12. Briseis. 13. Hermione. 14. Deianira. 15. Laodamia. 16. Helen. 17. Hero. 18. Polyxena (see the Ballad). 19. either Lavinia (see the Ballad), or Oenone (mentioned in Ovid, and in the House of Fame). 20. Alcestis.
Since the list of stories in Ovid’s Heroides is the best guide to the whole passage, it is here subjoined.
In this list, the numbers refer to the letters as numbered in Ovid; the italics shew the stories which Chaucer actually wrote; the asterisk points out such of the remaining stories as he happens to mention in the present enumeration; and the dagger points out the ladies mentioned in his Prologue to the Legend of Good Women.
Chaucer’s method, I fear, was to plan more than he cared to finish. He did so with his Canterbury Tales, and again with his Treatise on the Astrolabe; and he left the Squire’s Tale half-told. According to his own account (Prologue to Legend of Good Women, l. 481) he never intended to write his Legend all at once, but only ‘yeer by yere.’ Such proposals are dangerous, and commonly end in incompleteness. To Tyrwhitt’s question—‘are we to suppose that they [i.e. the legends of Penelope and others] have been lost?’ the obvious answer is, that they were never written.
Chaucer alludes to Ovid’s Epistles again in his House of Fame, bk. i., where he mentions the stories of Phyllis, Briseis, Oenone (not mentioned here), Hypsipyle, Medea, Deianira, Ariadne, and Dido; the last being told at some length. Again, in the Book of the Duchesse, he alludes to Medea, Phyllis, and Dido (ll. 726–734); to Penelope and Lucretia (l. 1081); and to Helen (l. 331). As for the stories in the Legend which are not in Ovid’s Heroides, we find that of Thisbe in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, bk. iv; that of Philomela in the same, bk. vi; whilst those of Cleopatra and Lucretia are in Boccaccio’s book De Claris Mulieribus, from which he imitated the title ‘Legend of Good Women,’ and derived also the story of Zenobia, as told in the Monkes Tale. However, Chaucer also consulted other sources, such as Ovid’s Fasti (ii. 721) and Livy for Lucretia, &c. See my Introduction to the Legend in vol. iii. pp. xxv., xxxvii.
With regard to the title ‘seintes legend of Cupide,’ which in modern English would be ‘Cupid’s Saints’ Legend,’ or ‘the Legend of Cupid’s Saints,’ Mr. Jephson remarks—‘This name is one example of the way in which Chaucer entered into the spirit of the heathen pantheism, as a real form of religion. He considers these persons, who suffered for love, to have been saints and martyrs for Cupid, just as Peter and Paul and Cyprian were martyrs for Christ.’
63. Gower also tells the story of Tarquin and Lucrece, which he took, says Professor Morley (English Writers, iv. 230), from the Gesta Romanorum, which again had it from Augustine’s De Civitate Dei.
Babilan, Babylonian; elsewhere Chaucer has Babiloine=Babylon, riming with Macedoine; Book of the Duchesse, l. 1061.
64.swerd, sword; put here for death by the sword. See Virgil’s Aeneid, iv. 646; and Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, 1351.
65.tree, put here, most likely, for death by hanging; cf. last line. In Chaucer’s Legend, 2485, we find—
‘She was her owne deeth right with a corde.’
The word may also be taken literally, since Phyllis was metamorphosed after her death into a tree; Gower says she became a nut-tree, and derives filbert from Phyllis; Conf. Amant. bk. iv. Lydgate writes filbert instead of Phyllis; Complaint of Black Knight, l. 68.
66.The pleinte of Dianire, the complaint of Deianira, referring to Ovid’s letter ‘Deianira Herculi’; so also that of Hermion refers to the letter entitled ‘Hermione Orestae’; that of Adriane, to the ‘Ariadne Theseo’; and that of Isiphilee, to the ‘Hypsipyle Iasoni.’
68.bareyne yle, barren island; of which I can find no correct explanation by a previous editor. It refers to Ariadne, mentioned in the previous line. The expression is taken from Ariadne’s letter to Theseus, in Ovid’s Heroides, Ep. x. 59, where we find ‘uacat insula cultu’; and just below—
Or, without referring to Ovid at all, the allusion might easily have been explained by observing Chaucer’s Legend of Ariadne, l. 2163, where the island is described as solitary and desolate. It is said to have been the isle of Naxos.
69. Scan—The dreynt | e Lé | andér |. Here the pp. dreynt is used adjectivally, and takes the final e in the definite form. So in the Book of the Duchesse, 195, it is best to read the dreynte; and in the House of Fame, 1783, we must read the sweynte.
75.Alceste. The story of Alcestis—‘that turned was into a dayesie’—is sketched by Chaucer in his Prologue to the Legend, l. 511, &c. No doubt he intended to include her amongst the Good Women, as the very queen of them all.
78.Canacee; not the Canace of the Squieres Tale, whom Chaucer describes as so kind and good as well as beautiful, but Ovid’s Canace. The story is told by Gower, Confess. Amantis, book iii. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Chaucer is here making a direct attack upon Gower, his former friend; probably because Gower had, in some places, imitated the earlier edition of Chaucer’s Man of Lawes Tale. This difficult question is fully discussed in vol. iii. pp. 413–7.
81. ‘Or else the story of Apollonius of Tyre.’ The form Tyro represents the Lat. ablative in ‘Apollonius de Tyro.’ This story, like that of Canacee (note to l. 78), is told by Gower, Conf. Amant. bk. viii., ed. Pauli, iii. 284; and here again Chaucer seems to reflect upon Gower. The story occurs in the Gesta Romanorum, in which it appears as Tale cliii., being the longest story in the whole collection. It is remarkable as being the only really romantic story extant in an Anglo-Saxon version; see Thorpe’s edition of it, London, 1834. It is therefore much older than 1190, the earliest date assigned by Warton. Compare the play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
89.if that I may, as far as lies in my power (to do as I please); a common expletive phrase, of no great force.
90.of, as to, with regard to. doon, accomplish it.
92.Pierides; Tyrwhitt rightly says—‘He rather means, I think, the daughters of Pierus, that contended with the Muses, and were changed into pies; Ovid, Metam. bk. v.’ Yet the expression is not wrong; it signifies—‘I do not wish to be likened to those would-be Muses, the Pierides’; in other words, I do not set myself up as worthy to be considered a poet.
93.Metamorphoseos. It was common to cite books thus, by a title in the genitive case, since the word Liber was understood. There is, however, a slight error in this substitution of the singular for the plural; the true title being P. Ovidii Nasonis Metamorphoseon Libri Quindecim. See the use of Eneydos in the Nonne Prestes Tale, B. 4549; and of Judicum in Monk. Ta. B. 3236.
94. ‘But, nevertheless, I care not a bean.’ Cf. l. 4004 below.
95.with hawe bake, with plain fare, as Dr. Morris explains it; it obviously means something of a humble character, unsuited for a refined taste. This was left unexplained by Tyrwhitt, but we may fairly translate it literally by ‘with a baked haw,’ i. e. something that could just be eaten by a very hungry person. The expression I sette nat an hawe (=I care not a haw) occurs in the Wyf of Bathes Prologue, D. 659. Haws are mentioned as given to feed hogs in the Vision of Piers Plowman, B. x. 10; but in The Romance of William of Palerne, l. 1811, a lady actually tells her lover that they can live in the woods on haws, hips, acorns, and hazel-nuts. There is a somewhat similar passage in the Legend of Good Women, Prol. ll. 73–77. I see no difficulty in this explanation. That proposed by Mr. Jephson—‘hark back’—is out of the question; we cannot rime bak with makë, nor does it make sense.
Baken was a strong verb in M. E., with the pp. baken or bake (A. S. bacen). Dr. Stratmann, apparently by mistake, enters this phrase under hawe, adj. dark grey! But he refrains from explaining bake.
96.I speke in prose, I generally have to speak in prose in the law courts; so that if my tale is prosy as compared with Chaucer’s, it is only what you would expect. Dr. Furnivall suggests that perhaps the prose tale of Melibeus was originally meant to be assigned to the Man of Lawe. See further in vol. iii. p. 406.
98.after, afterwards, immediately hereafter. Cf. other for otherwise in Old English.—M.