The Reading Room

A Modified Proposal: The Man of Law’s Tale

There is a third theme which weaves its way through the first few of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, building up to its use in one of the most famous Tales, the Wife of Bath’s Tale. This is the theme of a good woman. 
Each of the tales leading up to the Wife of Bath’s turn at the story-telling contest in some measure features the love of a female character as a primary goal of the other characters in the story. The Knight’s Emelye, the object of two rival knights’ love, is a woman of incredible beauty and almost no character, the perfect subject (or rather object) of a courtly love romance. She exists to be loved, wooed, and worshiped, not to take actions of her own. Indeed, when Emelye attempts to take matters into her own hands, praying to the goddess of the hunt Diana that she might remain an unwed virgin, a member of the goddess’ band of huntresses, she is flat-out denied and told she must marry one of the two contending knights (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 2249-51). The Miller in his tale counters the object of courtly love from the previous story with the young wife of a wealthy, jealous old husband who readily agrees to commit adultery with the scholar Nicholas, aids him in his plot to trick her husband, and acts of her complete own initiative to get rid of Absolon by means of a crude prank. 
The third tale, the Reeve’s, is a twist upon the Miller’s. Annoyed by the Miller’s Tale of the cuckolded carpenter because he too is by trade a carpenter, the Reeve launches into a variation of the Miller’s Tale where two scholars deceive a miller who had tried to steal their grain, getting revenge on him by lying with his wife and daughter. These two offer very little agency or character, being taken by surprise in their sleep by the two scholars and offering no complaint to their advances. The daughter advises the scholar that lay with her to retrieve the grain the miller had stolen from them from its hiding place, but offers little else besides this return of his stolen goods as further recompense (besides their night together) for the misdeeds of her father (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment A, 4240-4247). Even the Cook’s Tale, although unfinished, the final part of Chaucer’s first Fragment (A), implies the continuation of this theme with another wife, the wife, this time, of the master of the apprentice who seems to have been the main character in this story and who “heeld for contenance / A shoppe, and swyved [prostituted herself] for hir sustenance” (4421-2). It is somewhat of an understatement, then, to say that up to this point with the exception of Emelye, Chaucer’s portrayal of women in his tales has been rather unflattering. Indeed, quoth the Miller, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold” (3152).
The Man of Law, whose turn presumably was next after the Cook’s, seeks to rectify this injustice, stating so explicitly in his prologue through his mention of Chaucer’s earlier work The Legend of Good Women and the many faithful lovers of whom he has written, listing out several pairings and examples of good wives—“O Ypermystra, Penelopee, Alceste, / Youre wifhod he comendeth with the beste!” (Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales Fragment B, 75-6). In so listing Chaucer’s name and works, the Man of Law seeks to defend his author, displaying that the opinions of several lewd and lowly characters in their tales does not represent the view of the poet himself. The Man of Law thus deliberately sets up himself and his Tale as the one which shall rectify the swift downward turn of the previous three Tales, bringing things back up to the level of the Knight’s Tale, but with the amendment that now it is a woman in the genre of a saint’s hagiography, rather than two contesting men in a chivalric romance. Yet even in this genre change and character shift much of the Knight’s Tale is restored. Chivalric courtly love, despite the genre shift, is present once again. Like the knights of the first tale the Sowdan [Sultan] of Surrye [Syria] declares that “but he myghte have grace / to han [gain] Custance withinne a litel space, he nas but deed [could do no other but die]” (Fragment B, 207-9). Along with this declaration we also have a return to the power of the stars in the heavens to dictate the outcomes of events—“O firste moevyng! Crueel firmament, / With thy diurnal sweigh that crowdest ay / and hurlest al from est til occident / That naturelly wolde holde another way” (Fragment B, 295-8).
This is the Tale which immediately precedes the famed Wife of Bath’s Tale, and its position within the ongoing debate I have before mentioned must not be ignored. The Man of Law is seeking in his Tale with gentle care to return the debate back to consideration of the Knight’s Tale. Where the Miller, Reeve, and Cook had all diverged wildly into ribald nonsense, the Man of Law took note of their critiques and responds in kind. He is thus, in a way, presenting a “corrected” form of the Knight’s Tale, a revision of the original thesis but modified to respond to the criticism laid before it. Constance, his main female character has a much more active and important role in the story, but she carries herself with the gentleness and patience of a saint, thus lifting the story back up into one of high sentence and solace. The stars and their power are back, but more obscure, less easily interpretable by the eyes and knowledge of men. The setting has changed to something much more familiar than old Greece, though with the mystique of the Orient and the awe of the Roman Empire now present to maintain the weight of a high and noble story. The rival love of two secular knights has now been turned into a parable for the constancy of the faithful in a fallen world. Thus the Man of Law has modified the Knight’s Tale, presenting the corrected edition and interpretation of high Boethian philosophy to the pilgrims, testing to see if this reformed version will be palatable to their thought.
“What good are these high ideals?” The Miller had seemed to ask.
“Their good,” the Man of Law seems to reply. “Is to make us saints.”