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Susan Schibanoff


Worlds Apart:
Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale

Susan Schibanoff

Although the Man of Law's Tale comes fifth in the order of the Canterbury Tales in all but one manuscript,[1] readers often detect something initiatory about this performance. The Host's astronomical calculation of date and time in the Introduction to the tale sounds like a "new beginning" to Derek Pearsall,[2] and Cooper speculates that the Introduction, which implies that the story-telling has not yet begun, may once have stood at the head of all the tales, following the General Prologue.[3] Cooper also finds that the lawyer's tale of Custance, the Christian missionary bride, "certainly makes a new start":

after the ever more sexually active women of the first fragment comes the saintly Emperor's daughter ... [;] after the vagaries of Fortune and the frenzied human disorder of the preceding tales comes a story that insists throughout on the providential control of events.[4]
V. A. Kolve has also written on the initiatory nature of the Man of Law's tale, arguing, as does Cooper, that it provides the overall work "a new beginning"[5]: in contrast to the secular romance and bawdy fabliaux that constitute the first four tales told by the Knight, Miller, Reeve, and Cook, the austere story of Custance's trials and tribulations reorients the direction of the Canterbury Tales, heading it for the first time towards its pilgrimage goal. In Kolve's view, the Man of Law's tale encodes a Chaucerian "self-correction,"[6] a kind of interim palinode before the final Retraction, which serves the end of "clarification and renewal--for the communitas as much as for the individual Christian soul."[7] As Chaucer's spokesperson, Kolve's Man of Law rallies the faithful by presenting them the narrative of Custance's spiritual journey to emulate in their own travel to Canterbury.

The reading I shall develop here also detects something new and initiatory about the Man of Law's tale, but proceeds from my perception of a different kind of novelty in the narrative: the story of Custance presents Chaucer's sole textual confrontation with medieval Christianity's strongest religious rival, Islam, and it contains his only reference to the prophet Muhammad and to the Qur'an. My question from the start has been to interrogate why, at this particular juncture in the Canterbury Tales and nowhere else, Chaucer turns our attention to an alien faith, to a faraway place, to a distant time.

I shall argue that the Man of Law uses a discourse of orientalism[8] to issue a clarion call for unity--not among the general communitas of the faithful but specifically among the Christian men of his audience. What the lawyer endeavors to remedy by means of his tale is not so much the licentious disorder that characterizes the opening stories as it is the overt divisiveness that has broken out among their narrators, starting with the Miller's "quiting" of the Knight and continuing into the Reeve's angry retort to the Miller and the Cook's possible jab at the Host. As Lee Patterson notes,[9] this dissension takes the form of class antagonism, and the Miller's disruption proves to be the most "explicitly threatening" of all the discord that occurs on the pilgrimage.

The lawyer's strategy, I shall maintain, is to deflect attention from potentially explosive class rivalry by confronting the fractious men of fragment I with another world, another time, ultimately with the Other, in order to forge a sense of community-- that is, fraternity--among them. Gradually but inexorably the Man of Law works to build an airtight case against the Other. It is a project that Chaucer eventually subverts by exposing its self- interested hypocrisy; like Patterson, I hear in the Man of Law "the voice of orthodoxy"[10] from which Chaucer dissociates himself. Yet, in the remaining Canterbury tales, Chaucer creates no subsequent voice persuasive enough to undermine the Man of Law's authority, discredited as it may be.

My reading also proceeds from my observation that the Man of Law constructs the Other in tightly intertwined guises in his tale--as Saracen or Muslim, as woman, and as heretic--and that the lawyer repeatedly performs a reductive rhetorical maneuver in order to induce Christian fraternity among the pilgrims. In locating orientalism at the heart of the Man of Law's treatment of the Muslim, I must take issue with such critics as Morton W. Bloomfield, who in 1952 judged the tale to be tolerant of cultural and religious diversity. Focussing on Chaucer's sense of history, Bloomfield also remarks that the narrative of Custance goes beyond its source to present matters from the "Mohammedan point of view" and to give credibility to Saracen deliberations concerning the sultan's impending conversion and marriage.[11] Elaborating upon Bloomfield's reading, Roger Ellis more recently argues that the tale offers a "sympathetic presentation of Islam" by virtue of Chaucer's "heterodox understanding" that the "experience of faith [is] remarkably similar no matter what the formal system created to contain it":

The [Man of Law's] narrative hints at this heterodox understanding when it gives similar terms to Christian and Muslim to describe the experience of their own faith. The Muslim law is "sweete" [II.223], and the Christian "deere" [II.237], to its followers.[12]
Contra Bloomfield and Ellis, I maintain that the Man of Law is not sympathetic but hostile to Islam and that an altogether orthodox antipathy rather than "heterodox understanding" motivates the lawyer's implication that Islam imitates Christianity. The Man of Law renders Islam threatening not by depicting it as different from Christianity--as idolatrous--but by revealing its dangerous closeness to his own religion. He employs what I shall call the "rhetoric of proximity" to figure Islam as an insidious heresy that mimics Christianity.[13] In doing so, the lawyer avails himself of a popular medieval tradition regarding Islam's relationship to Christianity, albeit one unsupported by canon law.

I shall further argue that the Man of Law's hostility extends beyond religion to gender--specifically, to woman. In holding this view, I join with feminist critics who have commented upon the tale's misogyny for several decades now. Their analyses have largely centered upon Custance's passivity. Although for many readers Custance's lack of action and agency constitutes her Christian virtue, Sheila Delany has defined the problematic nature of this behavior: in the Man of Law's handling, it becomes less an emblem of laudable Christian suffering than a model for female submission.[14] Similarly, Priscilla Martin sees the tale as one of decidedly female--rather than Christian--suffering that endorses the tyranny of husband over wife.[15] So too does Elaine Tuttle Hansen remark upon Custance's resemblance to the "archetypally passive" woman who "put[s] the love of a man above all other responsibilities, even above life itself," in direct consequence of which she must endure "great suffering."[16]

Custance's passivity indeed offers little cause for feminist celebration, but my concern here will be to define the functional role it is made to play in the Man of Law's narrative. Not only does Custance's behavior provide a model of female submission, but it helps the Man of Law reach a more fundamental goal in his tale: to establish and maintain woman's difference from (inferiority to) man, her otherness. The Man of Law's overriding aim, I shall suggest, is to preserve and enhance such difference--between women and men, East and West, Islam and Christianity, ultimately between western patriarchal culture and the Other. That his rhetoric renders Muslims and women interchangeable and thus dehumanizes them is of no consequence to the lawyer; indeed, such reductiveness facilitates his creation of Christian fraternity. And what this tale-teller most fears--similitude--he exploits to realize this objective.


In his exploration of the homosexual as Other, Jonathan Dollimore establishes that such anxiety concerning sameness or proximity and such appropriation often go hand in hand in western culture.[17] Dollimore argues that the system of binary oppositions, so basic to western thought, finds similarity the "most disturbing of all forms of transgression": "the outlaw ... as inlaw, and the other as proximate [prove] more disturbing than the other as absolute difference."[18] At the same time, ironically, the most effective way to maintain this system of polar opposition, which always favors the dominant party, is to figure its collapse--in particular, to depict the Other as potentially similar, the outlaw-as-inlaw.

The roots of this strategy of threatening proximity lie in patristic thought. In Augustine's theodicy, Dollimore notes, the figuration of evil as proximate to good--indeed, as intimate with good--leads to a strengthening of their binary opposition, for it means that "one must necessarily and always seek to distinguish the good from the evil": "as Augustine says, one knows evil only through good. From here it is a short step to knowing good by always and vigilantly distinguishing it from evil."[19] The perception that evil may masquerade as good causes the vigilant Christian continually to separate the two, to redefine and resituate evil as absolutely other. What I call the rhetoric of proximity, which draws the Other dangerously near by suggesting its similitude or "intimacy," ultimately serves the monitory purpose of displaying evil's disturbing likeness to good; it sounds the alarm, so to speak, that mobilizes the faithful to repel evil into a clearly delimited position as Other. The rhetoric of proximity thus plays an indispensable role in maintaining rigid binary oppositions by temporarily destabilizing them.

The simultaneous fear and exploitation of similitude that Dollimore detects in Augustine's theodicy surfaces in two later medieval discourses of domination, those of heresy and of antifeminism. Heresy was perceived--and represented--as an attack on the religious community from within itself as opposed to the challenge posed by the non-belief of those who subscribed to contrary religious doctrines.[20] In canon law, the heretic (from Greek haerein, to choose) is one who keeps the name of Christian but chooses to doubt or deny some part of the faith, whereas the infidel rejects a religion never professed and the pagan remains ignorant of Christian religion.[21]

As "outlaws" rather than "inlaws," non- believers--pagans or infidels--posed the lesser threat to Christianity. Clearly defined as Other, non-Christians occupied a stable, unambiguous position. Ironically but perhaps logically, medieval Christianity could show an ecumenical and charitable attitude to virtuous heathens and good pagans, preferably long dead ones; Langland, Dante, and Chaucer all accord such figures as Trajan and Troilus a final resting place in heaven, if not ultimate salvation.[22] Good Saracens, the heroic figures of the chansons de geste, are dubbed "pagans," and, Norman Daniel observes, "there is a persistent effort to link them with the pagans of the ancient world,"[23] while evil Saracens are denied this relatively benign status.

By their definition as wayward "insiders," heretics, however, evoked a different response. Their insidious proximity to the dominant faith created a dangerous instability that demanded resolution, not complacency or tolerance. Typically, that resolution took one of two forms: the heretic was either reassimilated into the fold or altogether driven from it, clearly branded as other through excommunication or a worse fate. Condemned as a relapsed heretic, Joan of Arc, for instance, had but two choices: abjuration or the stake.[24] The heretic's "perversion"--or choice to turn away from true belief or doctrine--must either be eliminated (made orthodox or "straightened out") or exaggerated for all to recognize clearly.

While actual heretics such as Joan of Arc were subjected to attempts to clarify (and nullify) their ambiguous position, the concept of heresy, personified in Satan, might also serve useful ends and thus remained integral to Christian thought. As Augustine argued in the City of God, "heresies are necessary, to show which of you are in sound condition."[25] The arch-heretic, Satan, was similarly "necessary" to strengthen the faithful by reminding them of unseen enemies that lurked nearby. Of the two high-water periods of Christian heresy, the earlier centuries of the patristic era and the last three centuries of the Middle Ages, the first no doubt resulted from the historical struggle that took place to define Christian dogma and defend it against its competitors. The second period, however, may have resulted from the Church's attempt to envision itself as persecuted, as "imitator Christi," when in fact it no longer had strong rivals in western Europe.

Steven Kruger has suggested that the Church sought to downplay its situation as "an enormously powerful institution" in the later Middle Ages by imagining itself as beset by enemies bent on its destruction, thus "deny[ing] its own power and claim[ing] the moral high ground of the persecuted."[26] If the late medieval Church did seek to present itself as marginalized, then the heretic, by definition a foe so similar as to be nearly invisible, offered it a unique opportunity, for the Church might posit the threat of heresy with impunity and thus rally the faithful to its defense. As Augustine had earlier noted, heresies are "necessary" for delimiting and preserving the Christian communitas.

The discourse of medieval antifeminism also feared yet traded upon similitude, specifically, woman's proximity to man. Patristic interpretation of the dual account of woman's creation in Genesis provides an early example of this simultaneous anxiety and exploitation. Genesis contains two etiologies of woman, the first in 1:27: "And God created man [hominem] to his own image: to the image of God he created him, male and female he created them."[27] As R. Howard Bloch observes, this passage implies the contemporaneous "creation of man and woman, undifferentiated with respect to their humanness, and whose equality is attested by a common designation [homo]."[28] The second--and more familiar--account of Eve's creation from Adam's rib (Genesis 2:7-22) accords man chronological and ontological priority over woman, who is called "virago" "because she was taken out of man" (Genesis 2:23). Despite the apparent differences between these accounts, both could be (and were) interpreted by medieval exegetes as arguments for woman's essential lack of similitude (hence inferiority) to man.

For instance, in De Genesi ad litteram, Augustine couples the egalitarian creation story of Genesis 1:27 with Genesis 1:28, which expresses God's command about fecundity ("increase and multiply"). Genesis 1:28 defines the purpose of woman's creation (in 1:27) as generative, Augustine argues. Woman was created to help Adam beget children, and woman's role in generation is passive, opposite from and inferior to man's active role. Therefore, woman is different from (less perfect than) man, regardless of the cotemporality of their creation. So too, of course, in Augustine's interpretation of the second creation story of Adam's rib, Eve--virago--has a status dependent upon Adam, formed from his body and after him. Aquinas and other later medieval authorities also read both creation accounts as justification of the binary opposition of man and woman, expressing the widespread anxiety about similitude that fuels antifeminist discourse.[29]

At the same time, however, the story of Adam's rib was expropriated to implicate woman's alarming propensity to elide differences between the sexes and encroach upon male status. While the term "virago" initially indicated Eve's derivational and inferior status, her "otherness" from Adam, by the later Middle Ages it could also refer to woman's perverse desire to take over male roles and claim similitude to him. Throughout the Middle Ages, the term occurs pejoratively to denote a "mannish" woman, as the OED records, a bold, impudent, or wicked woman, a termagant and scold. And the reason the virago evoked such cultural scorn was because, as Gavin Douglas phrased it, she transgressed traditional gender roles by "exersand a mannis office."[30]

The virago became a standard monitory topos of later medieval antifeminist satire and discourse. Boccaccio's Corbaccio, for instance, warns its (implied) male audience that women's "appetite for mastery" knows no bounds. Women desire the accoutrements of power--crowns, girdles, ermines, and costly clothes--as ill-disguised "weapons to combat [their husbands'] mastery and vanquish it," "contriving with all their might to seize control" from their "wretched husbands" and become "mistress and ruler" of the house.[31] Like man or "mannish" but not quite man--"mistress and ruler": Boccaccio thus situates his virago in the disturbingly unstable position of proximity to man, the "outlaw" posing as "inlaw." Such ambiguous intimacy, Dollimore argues, leads to calls for resolution by the dominant party. Unlike the heretic, who theoretically might abjure the status of outlaw or Other and rejoin the faithful, medieval woman could not put aside her sex and literally become male. Thus, the patriarchal solution to the threat of her proximity was to reestablish woman's distance from man, to reinscribe her as inferior and subordinate to him, which Augustine, Aquinas, and others repeatedly did.

Ultimately, the rhetoric of proximity that devolves from patristic thought serves the agenda of western binary ideology, for its figuration of woman and heretic as, respectively, "mannish" and pseudo-Christian creates intense pressure to resituate them as clearly distant or Other, be it passive helpmate or member of Satan's perverse legions. As I shall next argue, so too does medieval orientalism employ the discourse of similitude to misrepresent Islam as a crisis of proximity--as a Christian heresy--that demands response and resolution, not tolerance.[32]


In Said's view, the discourse of medieval orientalism sought to "domesticate the exotic" through analogy:

since Christ is the basis of Christian faith, it was assumed--quite incorrectly--that Mohammed was to Islam as Christ was to Christianity. Hence the polemic name "Mohammedanism" given to Islam, and the automatic epithet "imposter" applied to Mohammed.[33]
The purpose of such rhetoric, Said maintains, was to establish Islam as both a misguided and inferior "version of Christianity," the "Orient and the Oriental [as] repetitious pseudo-incarnations of some great original (Christ, Europe, the West) they were supposed to have been imitating."[34]

Said speculates that the strangeness of Islam was deliberately rendered familiar--analogized--by western Europeans in the Middle Ages in order to mute and hence control the threat of this new religion:

If the mind must suddenly deal with what it takes to be a radically new form of life--as Islam appeared to Europe in the early Middle Ages--the response on the whole is conservative and defensive. Islam is judged to be a fraudulent new version of some previous experience, in this case, Christianity. The threat is muted, familiar values impose themselves, and in the end the mind reduces the pressure upon it by accommodating things to itself as either "original" or "repetitious."[35]
Said bases his paradigm of domestication on European response to Islam in the early Middle Ages, yet Dollimore's theory of transgressive proximity would appear to illuminate more satisfactorily the dynamics of orientalism in the high and later medieval periods.[36] That is, the western rhetoric of proximity troped the familiarity of Islam in these latter eras not to mute the threat of the new religion to Europe, but to intensify it, to increase rather than reduce the "pressure" it created upon the occidental mind. Islam was commonly misrepresented as a heresy, a viper all the more dangerous for its proximity to Christianity's bosom, its intimacy with the "true" faith.[37] To heresy, the medieval Christian mind could never accommodate itself; in one way or another--by conversion or extinction--the pressure posed by the heretic as proximate Other had to be released.

The creation of such pressure through the falsification of Islam as a Christian heresy appears to have taken on a new urgency in the period of the Crusades. Although such earlier authorities as John of Damascus (ca. 675-ca. 749) viewed Islam as the last and greatest of the Christian heresies,[38] it was Peter the Venerable (1092-1156) who made a concerted attempt to forge Christian "weapons" against the heresy of Islam, as Southern phrases it (39). In theological terms, canon law denied that Islam was a heresy. Norman Daniel clarifies the issue: canon law recognized that, unlike a heretic, a Muslim had not been baptized and therefore was "not liable to penalties for leaving the church."[39] In what Sheila Delany calls the "rational-scholarly approach" to Islam, this distinction is sometimes observed; Mark of Toledo, for instance, regards Islam as a legem tertiam that combines features of Judaism and Christianity yet evidently remains a separate religion.[40] And respect for the rationality of Islam, if not a willingness to grant its autonomous status, would seem to undergird the repugnance some Christians experienced over the forced conversion of Muslims. Delany cites William of Tripoli and thirteenth-century Dominican and Franciscan missionaries who "believed in the principle that God is not pleased by forced worship."[41] And Dana Carleton Munro charts the development of a generally more positive and accurate European approach to Muslims beginning in the thirteenth century, due in part, he speculates, to increased contact between East and West and to the appearance of a new enemy, the Byzantines.[42]

Yet, Munro notes, a stronger counter-tradition of antipathy to Islam exists throughout the Middle Ages: the majority of Christian clergy remained hostile, especially during the high propaganda periods preceding new Crusades.[43] And Delany discusses the deep roots of later medieval (Chaucerian) orientalism. Founded on patristic and popular attitudes "older than the rationalistic one that had developed since the twelfth century," this antipathetic tradition "maintained the idea of a sinister, immoral, insidious Orient."[44] The notion of an "insidious" Orient had as its corollary, I would argue, the premise that Islam was a Christian heresy, an internal perversion of the putatively true faith. Learned men promoted this view, and some apparently recognized at the same time that it was a falsification, as is the case with Peter the Venerable. Peter, who wrote his Summa totius haeresis Saracenorum for the purpose of acquainting Europeans with Islam so that they might resist it, opens his work by arguing that Islam is the greatest, the most formidable, of all the Christian heresies, as had his predecessor, John of Damascus. But, James Kritzeck notes, Peter immediately subjects his choice of terms to scrutiny, questioning whether a body of religious doctrine that originated outside, not within, the Church could be called a "heresy":

I cannot clearly decide whether the Mohammedan error must be called a heresy and its followers heretics, or whether they are to be called pagans. For I see them, now in the manner of heretics, take certain things from the Christian faith and reject other things; then--a thing which no heresy is described as ever having done--acting as well as teaching according to pagan customs.[45]
In the end, Kritzeck comments, while Peter left the decision up to his readers whether to call Islam a Christian heresy or a distinct pagan faith, he himself chose to view it as a heresy.

Daniel maintains that the western image of Islam as the "culmination or summit of all heresy" was widespread, if by no means universal, for many of Peter's contemporaries adopted the term casually and carelessly in spite of canon law: "neither at Cluny nor elsewhere did polemists take the canonical position into account."[46] Some authorities saw no real distinction between the Muslim and the heretic and treated them as equivalents, even if they were aware that Muslims had not entered the Catholic faith and thus could not renounce it.[47] The popular western notion that Islam was carved out of Christian dogma took different literary forms, often fantastic in conception:

[T]here were stories that associated Muhammad with the New Testament heresiarch Nicholas; others that supposed him to have been under the influence of, or actually to have been, a Roman cardinal or cleric, frustrated in his ambition, who perverted his own converts to spite the Roman Church; together with the poems of Waltherius, du Pont, and before them Hildebert, all these presuppose that Islam arose in a Christian people, "derelicta fide catholica."[48]
The effect of the polemical decision by Peter and others to mischaracterize Islam as a Christian heresy was, in Daniel's words, to find a place for it within the "family of Christian error,"[49] to present it as an erroneous faith that Christians could see only as a perversion of their own truth. In particular, Islam's denial of Christ's divinity was considered the most blasphemous part of its heretical falsehood. Yet Islam did accept Christ as a prophet, and the western rhetoric of proximity contained several tropes to acknowledge that the Qur'an mixed truth with untruth, honey with poison. Perhaps more than anything else, this recognition of the Qur'an's "sweetness," its "truth" about Christ, positioned Islam in what Dollimore would call the "permanently unstable" position of intimacy with Christianity and hence demanded resolution. Typically, Christian polemicists and other western writers suggested that the problem posed by Islam's proximity might be solved in one of two related ways: either by fully assimilating Islam to Christianity or by exposing it as a diabolical plot and altogether rejecting it. In either case, the intent was to eradicate Islam from the West and insure Christian hegemony. Even the relatively more benign "scholarly" tradition, Delany observes, "was as determined as any other to extirpate Islam."[50]

An example of what Daniel sees as the assimilative approach occurs in William of Tripoli's Tractatus de statu Saracenorum (ca. 1271), which encourages Muslims to think that "they themselves were in a fair way to becoming Christians."[51] A later work expressing the same viewpoint but addressed to a Christian audience is Mandeville's Travels. It opens its discussion of the Saracens with an enumeration of the beliefs and doctrines shared by the Qur'an and the Scriptures, stressing the infancy narrative and Christ's status as a prophet. It then solves the "problem" of Islam's proximity to Christianity by seeing in it an opportunity for evangelizing:

because [the Saracens] go so nigh our faith, they be lightly converted to Christian law when men preach them and shew them distinctly the law of Jesu Christ, and when they tell them of the prophecies.[52]
Daniel points out that favorable western commentary on the closeness of Islam to Christianity always had the ulterior motive of conversion, just as praise of a Saracen--usually the token figure, Saladin-- served the satirical purpose of exhorting Christians to live up to the ideals of their own faith. After all, the rationale went, if a Muslim could achieve virtue, a Christian should strive to do at least as much.

The inverse western response to the challenge of the Qur'an's "truth" was to expose it as Muhammad's trick to deceive innocent Christians, as does an anonymous Cluniac commentator:

In the first chapter (i.e., surah II) [Muhammad] immediately praises prayers and alms, that is, under the appearance of seeming good he may entice the unwary to believe him. Notice throughout the whole book that, with marvellous cunning, when he is going to say something ungodly, or recalls having said it, he soon puts in something about fasting, or about prayer, or praising God. [53]
Yet another metaphor that unmasks Muhammad's fraud, in which he is characterized as offering the unwary "deadly poison" within a "sweet apple," analogizes the Prophet to the ultimate instigator of the heresy of Islam: Satan. Often, the link between Christianity's arch-heresiarch, its first and chief pervert, and Muhammad is asserted more baldly. For Peter the Venerable, Muhammad is simply "this Satan," one who advanced all previous heresies, a nefarious task to be "wholly completed by Antichrist, according to diabolical intention." William of Tyre phrases the relationship in familial terms: Muhammad is the "first- born of Satan." As Satan had seduced Eve, Muhammad "seduced" the Orient. Jacques de Vitry combines all these motifs in his condemnation of Muhammad:
[L]ike another Antichrist and the first-born son of Satan, transfigured like Satan into an angel of light, Muhammad, upheld by God's great anger and special displeasure, with the co- operation of the enemy of the human race, perverted ... more people than any other heretic before his time.[54]
In this case, the difficulty posed by Islam's proximity to Christianity was not soluble by subsuming its followers within the community. Instead, Islam's "poison" had to be exposed and expelled. Characterized as the first-born son of Christianity's initial and chief pervert, Muhammad was distinctly cordoned off as absolutely Other, beyond the pale, even if the rhetoric of proximity would continue its inherent work of resituating Islam dangerously close to Christianity only to inspire yet more intense acts of resolution. In practice, these acts were often violent: "it is evident that Christendom recognized a relationship which aimed primarily at the destruction of Islam, and in which missionary endeavor held a subordinate place."[55] Even as late and supposedly liberal a cleric as Robert Holcot (d. 1349) argued the right to kill Muslims who refused to convert. If Christian attempts at conversion fail, Holcot reasons, then the community is justified in protecting itself from the dangerous element that threatens its integrity, just as "a putrid member must be cut off from the natural body."[56]

Holcot's diction figures Islam not as an external foe, but as infection, an internal corruption of the natural body of the community; and the communal body must act to rid itself of this deadly venom. As I shall next trace, the narrative movement of the Man of Law's Tale enacts a similarly oscillating paradigm of medieval orientalism, for it tropes Islam's "sweetness"-- its intimately heretical relationship with Christianity--only to reveal the poison within that calls for a communal act of expulsion. Although Paul E. Beichner has concluded that Chaucer's secular lawyer "must have known much canon law in so far as it touched upon civil law and things temporal,"[57] such knowledge would not necessarily have impeded the Man of Law's orientalist project, for any number of medieval religious authorities chose to ignore canon law and present Islam as a heresy. I shall further argue that the lawyer constructs woman's otherness on the same model and that his invention bears fruit in the Epilogue, which features the detection of yet a third Other, a local and contemporary heretic, in the most disturbing position possible, within the very ranks of the Canterbury pilgrims.[58]


Based upon a section of Nicholas Trevet's Anglo-Norman Chronique (ca. 1334) and, probably, John Gower's adaptation of it in his Confessio amantis, the lawyer's narrative of Custance follows the main outlines of its sources.[59] In all three versions, the saint-like Christian woman is first pledged in marriage to the sultan of Syria on condition that he, a Muslim, convert to her religion. The sultan's mother takes deep offense at her son's conversion and has him murdered, exiling Custance at sea. Custance eventually washes ashore in Northumbria and in due course weds its pagan monarch, Aella, who also converts. Fiercely opposed to her son's action, Aella's mother engineers Custance's second exile. Set adrift again, this time with her infant son, Custance makes her way back to Rome, and her lot finally begins to improve as she and her child are reunited with Aella and with her father, the emperor of Rome.

Although Trevet, Gower, and Chaucer relate the same basic set of events, each shapes the narrative to different ends--respectively, to biography, moral exemplum, and orientalist polemic--and this molding is foreshadowed in each version's development of the initial episode. Taking the role of biographer, albeit of a pseudo- historical narrative, Trevet opens his life of Constance with claims to historical accuracy; he alludes to the different sources (various chronicles, including the ancient one of the Saxons) he has drawn upon, some of which conflict with one another concerning Constance's genealogy. Trevet sorts out the matter and then reconstructs Constance's family tree, identifying her father, mother, and son, and recounting details of Constance's early years with her parents.[60]

Gower's narrator, Genius, however, characterizes his tale in advance as moral exemplum, not as history or biography. Genius terms the Constance narrative a "tale of gret entendement" (CA 2.584)[61] and offers it as an example of correct behavior in response to envy and detraction. He too begins the tale with reference to Constance's early years in Rome, but truncates the discussion of sources and focusses instead on the worthiness of Constance's father, the emperor Tiberius Constantius, and Constance's own good name, setting the stage for the attacks by Envy and Backbiting in the guise of the two evil mothers.

Unlike Trevet and Genius, whose first episodes feature Constance, the Man of Law initially ignores her, casting his opening focus instead upon the group of Syrian merchants that has travelled to the Christian community of Rome either for business or leisure ("for chapmanhood or for disport," II.143). Whatever the merchants' motivation, their passage from Syria to Rome is unremarkable, historically no doubt a commonplace occurrence given the physical proximity of the two Mediterranean locations. Their merchandise ("chaffare," II.138) may be novel, but in themselves the merchants evoke little curiosity. In fact, the Man of Law goes out of his way--beyond Trevet and Gower-- to underline the extent to which the Syrians exhibit western values and attitudes. He observes that the merchants are not merely rich and successful, but trustworthy and honest ("sadde and trewe," II.135). These are indeed good men, as seen through western eyes. Like Mandeville, the Man of Law searches for commonalities; at least at the outset of his tale, he makes no mention of the cultural and religious differences--the disparitas cultus[62]--between Syrians and Romans. Instead, the Man of Law works to establish the closeness, both geographically and culturally, between the two as his opening act.

His next move is to recount how these merchants come to learn of Custance's reputation for goodness and beauty and carry word of it back to their ruler, the sultan. Here the lawyer's emphasis is more upon the "traffic" between the groups of men--the Romans who sing Custance's praises and the Syrians who heed it--than it is upon Custance herself, who has not yet actually appeared in the tale.[63] No cultural or other barriers prevent the Syrians from recognizing and appreciating western-- Roman--goodness and beauty as soon as they hear reports of them. Forthwith, the merchants load their ships, catch a glimpse of the "blisful mayden" (II.172) for themselves, and return home as Custance's ambassadors.

In contrast, Trevet and Genius's merchants are clearly delineated as Other the moment we encounter them: they are presented as pagan or heathen traders who have arrived in Rome. Trevet identifies their origin as the great Saracenland, wherever that vague region might be ("marchauntz paens hors de la graunde sarazine," Chron. 5), while Genius specifies their homeland as "Barbarie" (CA 2.599),[64] and both narrators maintain an emphasis upon the foreignness of the newcomers. Indeed, the merchants' visit to Rome immediately arouses Constance's curiosity, and she seeks them out to learn of their land and of their religious beliefs. Upon discovering that the merchants are heathens ("paens," Chron. 5), she sets to preaching them the Christian faith. Her instruction is so forceful that in short course the foreign merchants renounce, in Genius's words, their "false goddes" (CA 2.610), convert, and receive baptism. They then return to their land. The episode is brief and aptly summed up in the marginal annotation of Trevet's manuscript (Arundel 56): "conuersio paganorum" (Chron. 5). Significantly (and accurately, according to canon law), Trevet considers his Saracens to be pagans, unbaptized non-believers, rather than heretics--unambiguous outlaws rather than outlaws posing as inlaws.

As the Chaucerian narrative continues, however, so does its emphasis upon the commonalities between Syrians and Romans, culminating in the voluntary and altogether effortless conversion of the former to the latter's faith. Hearing from the merchants of Custance's great "noblesse" (II.185), the sultan sets his heart upon the emperor's daughter and to that end assigns his privy council the task of discovering some remedy for his lovesickness.[65] His advisors consider several cures, including magic and deception, but conclude that the only relief for the sultan's malady is to wed Custance. At this point, the issue of cultural diversity throws a brief shadow across the lawyer's narrative: the sultan's councillors doubt that a Christian emperor would allow his daughter to marry under "Mahoun's" law "by cause that ther was swich diversitee / Bitwene hir bothe lawes" (II.220-21).

But the hurdle raised by this "diversitee" is easily overcome, for the sultan soon waves aside his own faith and vows to convert in order to wed Custance. Like Mandeville, whose Saracens may be "lightly converted," the Man of Law stresses the ease with which the sultan comes to terms with Custance's religious differences by speeding the narrative along: "what nedeth gretter dilitacioun?" (II.232), the narrator asks as he quickly runs through the negotiations that take place between Syrians and Romans, condensing greatly this part of Trevet's story. In short space, the Man of Law brings both sides to agreement-- "they been accorded" (II.238). Sounding again the note of commonality between Muslims and Christians--"this same accord was sworn on eyther side" (II.244)--the Man of Law succinctly draws this section of his narrative to a close: "this is th' ende" (II.255). The followers of Muhammad's "lawe sweete" take up the parallel "lawe deere" of Christ, and every Christian is instructed to pray that Christ look favorably upon the union between the new convert and his bride. By implication, the Man of Law figures the sultan's religious faith as but a variation of Christianity, and his conversion requires little effort. The sultan's conversion also seems not to demand the sacrament of baptism; or, if it does, the lawyer has the ceremony performed discreetly offstage in order to mute the actual differences between Islam and Christianity as the canonists saw them.

The unique congruity that Chaucer's narrator establishes between the law of Islam and Christianity, Syrians and Romans, in the first part of the story of Custance gains emphasis from the disparity he creates between different religions and cultures in the second part, which relates Custance's further adventures in sixth-century England, specifically, in the Northumberland ruled by King Aella upon whose shores Custance's boat washes up after her exile from Syria. The first note the Man of Law strikes in this second episode is one of cultural difference: upon her discovery by the Saxon constable, Custance begs for mercy "in hir langage" (II.516), which, of course, is not the tongue of Saxon Britain, but a "maner Latyn corrupt" (II.519), or Italian.[66]

By contrast, Gower's Genius altogether sidesteps the matter of linguistic difference at this point in the narrative and takes poetic license to allow the Roman woman to communicate with her Saxon hosts. Trevet's Constance knows several languages, including Saxon, and she speaks the constable's tongue ("en sessoneys," Chron. 13) so well that she raises his hopes that perhaps she is one of his own race, maybe the daughter of a Saxon king from abroad, from Germany, Saxony, Sweden, or Denmark. Speaking her own language and no other, the lawyer's Custance, however, is too foreign-sounding to excite such expectations in her hosts. By unexplained means, she manages to make herself understood, yet the Man of Law establishes the dominant note of diversity between Latin and Saxon culture early in this episode.

Evidently, Custance is also foreign-looking to her new Saxon acquaintances. Aella's mother, Donegild, opposes the marriage of her son to Custance not because, as in Trevet, she envies her daughter-in-law's marvellous beauty ("merueilouse beaute," Chron. 25), goodness and purity, or, as in Gower, because she fears her new in-law will displace her (CA 2.648), but because it seems to her an insult that her son should wed "so straunge a creature" (II.700) as Custance. Unlike the Syrian sultan, who was smitten with Custance's physical beauty, or at least with the report of it, Aella appears largely unaware of or unaffected by Custance's charms. The Saxon king marries Custance, the Man of Law explains, because Christ wills it, a motivation unique to the lawyer's version of the tale:

And after this Jhesus, of his mercy,
Made Alla wedden ful solempnely
This hooly mayden, that is so bright and sheene;
And thus hath Crist ymaad Custance a queene. II.690-93
The Man of Law sounds the note of cultural estrangement again as he turns his attention to the religion of Custance's Saxon hosts. Unlike Trevet and Gower's accounts, which merely remark that Constance comes to shore in a heathen land, the Man of Law's Tale depicts sixth-century England in greater detail as a land conquered by pagans ("payens," II.534, 542), who have driven all but a few Christian Britons into Wales. Those native Christians who do remain must practice their religion secretly, shielding it from the "hethen folk" (II.549) who now rule the realm. Unlike the parallels between the "sweete lawe" of Islam and the "deere" one of Christianity that the lawyer created earlier, he establishes no close ties between Custance's faith and that of Aella's people. Indeed, as the Man of Law comments, the constable's wife Hermengyld takes a liking to Custance in spite of her religion, not because of it:
This constable and dame Hermengyld, his wyf,
Were payens, and that contree everywhere,
But Hermengyld loved [Custance] right as hir lyf.
II.533-35; italics mine
The Saxon conversion to Christianity in the second part of the Man of Law's narrative is also configured differently than was that of the Syrians in the first part. In the earlier episode, the sultan's councillors "by wey of resoun" (II.219) lead their lord to see that he must convert in order to have Custance; however inadvertently, the sultan's advisors themselves further the Christian agenda. The pagan Saxons, however, require overt external agency to persuade them to accept the truth of Custance's faith, and Custance herself helps effect the initial conversions. After Christ converts Hermengyld (II.538-39), Custance emboldens her to perform his will and restore sight to the blind Briton (II.566). When the astonished constable questions this miracle, Custance expounds upon "oure lay" (II.572) until he too converts. Aella's conversion also requires acts of divine intervention, in the form of the mysterious hand that knocks down Custance's accuser and a disembodied voice that declares her innocent of his false charge of murder. These two events lead the Saxon king (and "many another," II.685) to convert, followed by Aella's marriage to Custance. Unlike the Syrians, the pagan Saxons do not bring about their own conversion; rather, they capitulate to a wondrous and frightening display of divine power and might, abetted by Custance herself.

Thus, in contrast to the distant pagan Saxons, the Muslims of the Man of Law's tale indeed appear "nigh" unto Christianity, as Mandeville would have phrased it, and the lawyer's efforts to situate Islam close to Christianity culminate in the proposed dynastic merger between Romans and Syrians when Custance and the sultan are to marry. But, as the rhetoric of proximity dictates, at exactly this juncture the Man of Law reveals the corruption within Islam that calls for its violent repositioning as Other. Upon learning of her son's conversion and negotiations to wed Custance, the sultaness herself feigns conversion and requests the honor of holding a banquet for her son and his Roman guests. At the banquet, the sultaness reveals her malice; her men slay all the Christians, both Syrian converts and Roman visitors, and set Custance adrift. Not only is the impending union between Custance and the sultan averted in this act, but it leads to the separation of the two cultures and religions, for Custance's father, emperor of Rome, later retaliates against the sultaness and her entire country of Muslims. Roman forces invade Syria and "brennen, sleen, and brynge [its inhabitants] to meschaunce / Ful many a day" (II.964-65). As the Man of Law observes, it is certainly "heigh vengeance" (II.963) that Christians exact upon Muslims.

In their retaliation upon Islamic Syria, the Romans reverse--and thus complete--the lawyer's narrative paradigm that began in similitude. They enact his warning that proximity may harbor and disguise danger, and they model one extreme resolution of the unsettling ambiguities they perceive in such intimacy. This solution takes the form of eradicating the corruption that lurks near Christianity, if not within its very family, and resituating Islam in its radically opposite (and inferior) position as Other. The Syrians literally disappear from the Man of Law's narrative at this point, enabling the tale to proceed to its joyous conclusion of reuniting Custance with her western family, her Saxon husband, Aella, and her Roman father, and to end on a note of dynastic succession in the observation that Custance and Aella's son, Maurice, became a model Christian emperor. As Margaret Schlauch identifies it, this "recognition scene" is typical of Greek romance,[67] but I would suggest that it functions in the Man of Law's narrative to draw round the wagons--western Christian defenses--against a now clearly defined oriental Other.

If the Man of Law partly shapes his narrative to provide an etiology of British Christianity, aligning its origins with the dynastic line that begins in the new emperor, Maurice, he also contrasts this successful merger with the disastrous and aborted union between East and West. Whether or not many fourteenth-century English people had actually met Muslims, or so-called Saracens, such narratives as the Man of Law's must have informed their response to them. But this reinscription of the oriental as Other does not complete the lawyer's cultural work, for he also employs the cautionary discourse of transgressive proximity to create a second outsider in his tale, this one, however, known personally to every Englishman: woman.


Islam may stalk the boundaries of Christianity in the Man of Law's Tale, but closest to its center lurks the primal transgressor, Satan, the heresiarch of whom Muhammad is but a shadow, or, as medieval writers phrased it, "first-born son." Furthermore, the lawyer's narrative couples Satan with an equally alarming figure to the medieval patriarchal mind, woman, through whose agency the "father of lies" exclusively operates to undermine Christianity. Woman, Syrian as well as Saxon, not only imitates Satan's deceptive means but, as the Man of Law exposes her, presents the ultimate menace: although distanced and putatively stabilized in ancient and medieval philosophy and science as man's binary opposite, she schemes to obscure these differentiating marks and become, if not actually male, like man--"mannysh" (II.782), as the lawyer phrases it. Such "mannishness" is the more threatening transgression the Man of Law wishes to reveal, for he presents it as having plagued the entire world--Occident as well as Orient--from its inception, from Eve through Semiramis to the sultaness and Donegild, and, by extension, to the lawyer's own era.[68] Compared to woman, Islam is an analogous but localized and recent problem.

As Satan's agents, women in the Man of Law's Tale work against both Christianity and patriarchy through deception and infiltration. In both the Syrian and Saxon episodes, women are in- laws--actual or intended mothers-in-law of Custance--who are at the same time Dollimore's "outlaws." Their transgressive acts originate in response to Custance's intrusion of a foreign religion into their worlds, but, as the Man of Law presents it, these women also plot to usurp the traditionally masculine power of rulership for themselves.

Outraged that her son has abandoned "Makometes lawe" (II.336) in order to marry Custance, the sultaness vows to die rather than also take up the "newe lawe" (II.337) of Christianity. She wishes to reestablish the Qur'an as the law of the land and thus to escape the pains of hell for renouncing Muhammad. So too does Trevet's sultaness act out of concern that her son's conversion imperils the future of Islam in Syria (Chron. 8). Yet the Man of Law alone creates a desire for conventionally male power in his sultaness, inventing for her a scene that anticipates the council in hell in book 2 of Milton's Paradise Lost, with the sultaness playing the role of Satan as he schemes to regain his former might and glory. She assembles her Syrian "conseil" and harangues its members with rhetorical questions about the evils of forsaking "Mahoun," promising to keep them safe if they swear allegiance to her (II.330-43) and recruit their friends to do so. Unlike Trevet and Gower's figure, the lawyer's sultaness works to establish a political power base in opposition to that of her son. Albeit smaller, her council rivals her son's, for, the Man of Law pointedly observes, in her murderous enterprise the sultaness means to usurp her son's rule: "she hirself wolde al the contree lede" (II.434).

Like Satan, the sultaness enacts her transgressive desire deceptively, feigning conversion to Christianity and good will to Custance in order to entrap and assassinate the sultan and his retinue of converts. Such counterfeit proximity comes in for its share of rhetorical vituperation by the Man of Law, who castigates the sultaness as the scorpion who, for all her flattery of Christianity and Custance, fully intends to "stynge" them (II.403-5). So too does the Man of Law associate the sultaness with the primal transgressor, the source of all evil: she is the "welle of vices" (II.323), "roote of iniquitee" (II.358), "nest of every vice" (II.364), and a serpent disguised as woman "lik to the serpent depe in helle ybounde" (II.360-61). Yet the sultaness's most egregious sin is not that she impersonates Satan, for, the Man of Law remarks, it is Satan who makes women his instrument when he wishes to beguile, as he did with Eve (II.365-71). Instead, the sultaness's ultimate danger is that she would be like man; she is, as the Man of Law alone styles her, "Virago," "Semyrame the secounde" (II.359).

In the Middle Ages, Semiramis was known as the militant queen of ancient Syria (or Assyria) who built Babylon's walls and later became notorious for sexual depravity, including incest with her son, the sin for which Dante consigns her to the second circle of hell. As Johnstone Parr argues, however, more pertinent to the Man of Law's Tale than Semiramis's sexual aberration is the legend that she usurped the throne from her husband, King Ninus, whom she had assassinated after he attended a banquet she arranged for him.[69] Alternatively, as Boccaccio relates the legend in De claris mulieribus, after King Ninus had died from an arrow wound, Semiramis prevented her young son from ruling and "retain[ed] for herself the great kingdom of her husband."[70]

Boccaccio also offers a detailed account of how Semiramis managed to expropriate unto herself the conventionally masculine prerogative of rulership after Ninus's death. With "feminine wiles," Boccaccio explains, she "masqueraded as a man and pretended to be her own son":

Semiramis's face looked very much like her son's; both were beardless; her woman's voice sounded no different from her young son's; and she was just a trifle taller, if at all. Taking advantage of this resemblance, she always wore a turban and kept her arms and legs covered.... Lest the novelty of her garb shock her countrymen, Semiramis decreed that everyone should dress in this fashion.
Having proven her abilities as a ruler, Semiramis later revealed her actual sex, almost as if, Boccaccio speculates, "she wanted to show that in order to govern it is not necessary to be a man, but to have courage." For this "marvelous subterfuge," Semiramis gained the admiration of all those who looked upon her, and she not only retained the lands acquired by her husband, but added Ethiopia and India to them, restored Babylon, and built other new cities, Boccaccio concludes.

Semiramis's pretense as a man and her usurpation of masculine privilege do not, however, finally escape Boccaccio's censure, for he ends his portrayal of her with a dire warning concerning the sexual confusion such masquerades cause in men. It is believed, Boccaccio reports, that the "manly-spirited" Semiramis, "constantly burning with carnal desire," gave herself to many men, including her own son, Ninus, "a very handsome young man," by which description Boccaccio means to suggest the son's effeminacy: "as if he had changed sex with his mother, Ninus rotted away idly in bed, while she sweated in arms against her enemies." Women who take over traditionally male roles, Boccaccio implies, not only threaten men's power and prerogatives but confuse their very sexual identities, indeed, confound even sexual perversity itself. Like the woman-man of medieval homophobic discourse,[71] Ninus plays the passive or female role, yet he does so in heterosexual intercourse with his mother, the man-woman: "Oh, what a wicked thing this is!," Boccaccio complains, "something more beastly than human."[72]

The Man of Law points to the sultaness's relationship to Boccaccio's figure in the epithet "virago" that he couples with "Semiramis" (II.359). As the fifteenth- century poet Gavin Douglas defined the term, a "virago" is not simply a large or quarrelsome woman, but like Juturna in the Aeneid, "a woman exersand a mannis office."[73] To be sure, the lawyer's sultaness is but "Semiramis the secounde," a pale reflection of the cross- dressed transgressor Boccaccio had constructed. Unlike her notorious predecessor, the sultaness does not literally impersonate a male ruler, nor does she commit incest (the "unkynde abhomynacion," II.88, the Man of Law earlier ruled out as potential subject matter for his tale), but she too would take "mannis office" of rulership into her own hands.

Impersonation does occur, however, in the second episode of female deception in the Man of Law's narrative, that in which King Aella's mother, Donegild, masquerades in writing as her son.[74] Having intercepted a letter to Aella informing him that Custance has given birth to their child, Donegild substitutes a letter proclaiming Custance to have borne a monstrous creature. (Such offspring implies that Custance is an "elf," II.745, an evil spirit in the form of a woman.) Donegild next intercepts the return letter from Aella, which voices his compassionate acceptance of the fabricated news, and substitutes her own missive, which directs that Custance and her son are to be exiled from the country, set adrift in the sea. On the authority of this forged letter, the constable sadly carries out what he believes to be Aella's wishes and banishes Custance and her child. For her traitorous male masquerade, the Man of Law excoriates Donegild and rhetorically links her perverse "mannishness" to the ultimate pervert, Satan: "Fy, mannysh, fy!--o nay, by God, I lye-- / Fy, feendlych spirit ...!" (II.782-83).

Donegild's arrogation of male power extends beyond the fact that she impersonates King Aella to the mode by which she actually does so: she takes up the pen, traditionally a male instrument in the Middle Ages, and forges a letter from him. Trevet's narrative also specifies that his Domild intercepts and reads Aella's message and substitutes the counterfeit one she writes herself. Gower, whose interest is to exemplify the evils of envy, not of "mannishness," suppresses Domilde's literal inscription of the letters. She commissions others to do the actual writing: "Sche hath [Aella's] lettres overseie / And formed in an other weie" (CA 2.1011-12). But the Man of Law restores the proscribed "mannish" agency of Trevet's Domild, putting the pen back into his Donegild's hand, so to speak. When Aella returns and finds his wife and child exiled contrary to his express orders, his supposed letter of banishment is reexamined and the hand that wrote it identified (II.890). Presumably this hand is Donegild's, for Aella at once slays his mother for her "cursed dede" (II.891).

The Man of Law also recasts Donegild's motivation for opposing Custance into the virago's, rather than invoking the traditionally female reasons earlier writers named. Trevet imputes Domild's hostility to her envy and jealousy of Constance's "goodness and holiness and marvellous beauty" (Chron. 24), and Gower ascribes it to the conventionally female verbal sins associated with envy--"bacbitinge" (CA 2.1281) and "false tunge" (CA 2.1299). The Man of Law, however, names malice and tyranny (the latter implicated twice, II.696 and 779) as the dominant causes of Donegild's hostility to Custance. Tyranny in particular is an "unwomanly" trait to the Man of Law's way of thinking. Earlier in his narrative, he established that it stands opposed to humility, the Virgin Mary's preeminent virtue in the later Middle Ages,[75] and perhaps Custance's dominant quality as well: "Humblesse hath slayn in [Custance] al tirannye" (II.165), the lawyer observes early in his tale.

As male impersonator, writer, and would-be tyrant, Donegild is indeed "mannish" to patriarchal eyes, like the sultaness, another "Semiramis the secounde." In the Man of Law's deployment, the rhetoric of proximity brings these two maternal figures perilously close to man, blurring the traditional hierarchical arrangement of distinct binary opposition between the sexes. As was the case with the proximate Muslim, such ambiguous "intimacy" calls for violent clarification, which in due course the lawyer's narrative supplies: both the Roman emperor, who dispatches the sultaness, and Aella, who kills Donegild, move decisively to reestablish male dominance over--distance from-- woman.

Yet the sultaness and Donegild's attempted appropriation of so- called male roles evokes a further--and perhaps more forceful-- resituation of woman as man's submissive opposite. Against these viragoes and the transgressive women who serve as their exemplars, from Semiramis back to Eve, the Man of Law advances Custance. Unlike the "mannish" woman, who crowds the preserve of maleness, Custance is repeatedly differentiated as female Other throughout the narrative. In fact, I would argue that Custance plays an integral role in the Man of Law's project to construe and expose woman's insidious desire to achieve similitude to man. Custance is not only an emblem of submissiveness, as Delany observes, but a reassuring symbol of all that is not-man. At crucial points in his narrative, the lawyer uses Custance to reinforce woman's proper difference from man, a task he has rendered urgent by his exposure of woman's perverse desire and ability to mask her outlaw status and masquerade as inlaw, as man.


The Man of Law shapes his presentation of Custance not to offer a biography of her but to focus on her relationship to male power, divine and human. Unlike Trevet's history and Gower's exemplum, which start with the birth and early years of Constance and end with her death, the lawyer's narrative truncates this cradle-to-grave coverage and frames our exposure to Custance between two scenes: her departure from and eventual return to Rome, where Custance is reunited with her husband and her father. In the first episode, in which Custance bids farewell to her parents, she arises "ful pale" (II.265) and weeps at the prospect of leaving her home for a strange land and an arranged marriage to a husband whose "condicioun" (II.271) she does not know. Furthermore, marriage itself is presented pejoratively here: Custance is to "be bounded under subjeccioun" (II.270) to a husband. If we expect any active resistance on Custance's part to the designs patriarchal authorities--father, husband-to-be, church, or state--have on her life, we soon find that Custance serves a different purpose in the Man of Law's narrative. She stands to articulate reassuring asymmetries between the sexes, not troubling congruities. Accordingly, Custance's first words in the lawyer's narrative not only signal her acquiescence to her father's plans to marry her to the sultan, but enunciate the basic dissimilitude between men, born to rule, and women, destined to serve:

"Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mannes governance,"
Custance remarks (II.286-87). The Man of Law's tale ends with an image of subjection that mirrors this opening scene. Upon the death of her husband, Aella, Custance returns to Rome to live with her father. Finding him, "doun on hir knees falleth she to grounde" (II.1153). By word and by gesture, Custance's role in the lawyer's tale is to represent and validate woman's difference from man, her humble position literally beneath him.

Accordingly, Custance's response to the adversities that men-- her father, the false knight who accuses her of murdering Hermengyld, and, as she is tricked into believing, Aella--visit upon her is silence or submission. To the emperor's wish that she marry the sultan, Custance quickly succumbs: "I moste anoon, syn that is youre wille" (II.282), a sentiment the Man of Law echoes ("But forth she moot," II.320). In the face of the false accusation that Custance has murdered Hermengyld, Custance loses her voice altogether, and the Man of Law must speak for her:

Allas! what myghte she seye?
For verray wo hir wit was al aweye.II.608-9
As the lawyer points out, Custance cannot defend herself; she has no mortal "champion," and unlike "mannish" women such as Semiramis, she does not know how to "fighte" (II.631-32). Instead, Custance assumes her properly female-- submissive--posture. She falls upon her knees and prays for Christ's aid, which is forthcoming. Exiled with her son by, she believes, Aella's decree, Custance takes it all in "good entente" (II.824), once again kneeling down to request Christ's succor. Reunited in Rome with Aella, whom she still believes commanded her and her child's cruel exile, Custance stands as "dumb as a tree" (II.1055), only to swoon twice at Aella's feet before he clears himself of guilt. Throughout the narrative, Custance's silence and her humble postures--kneeling, fainting--implicitly reiterate her different status from man.[76] So too does Custance explicitly assert the difference between human and divine. As she is about to be exiled from England, Custance, again kneeling, first prays to Christ and then to Mary to take pity on her infant son, Maurice, also condemned to banishment. Despite the clear parallels between these two mothers, Custance emphasizes that there is "no comparison" (II.846) between the Virgin's woe and her own:
"Thow sawe thy child yslayn bifore thyne yen,
And yet now lyveth my litel child parfay!" II.848-49
It is, of course, Custance's very refusal to analogize her experience--to man or to god--that distinguishes her from the virago, be it the sultaness, Donegild, Semiramis, or, ultimately, Eve, through whose "eggement / Mankynde was lorn, and damned ay to dye" (II.842-43), Custance prompts us to recall.

Yet at the same time that Custance stands opposed to the sultaness and Donegild, she is allied to them, for together these female figures define the full range of woman in medieval antifeminist thought, from Eve to the second Eve, Mary. Accordingly, the Man of Law never brings Custance into actual confrontation with her female opponents the way she is brought into conflict with her male adversaries.[77] Instead, Custance is yoked in juxtaposition to the viragoes, her humble and "womanly" behavior serving as a corrective gloss on their "mannishly" tyrannical actions. Thus, following the farewell scene (invented for the Man of Law) in which Custance declares woman to be born to slavery and man's governance (II.246-322), the lawyer inserts the episode in which the sultaness plots to usurp the governance of her country from her son (II.323-85). And with the account of Custance's wedding night (including the narrator's sententious decree that wives must suffer "in pacience," II.710, their husbands' sexual advances[78]) and of the subsequent birth of Maurice, the Man of Law pairs the scene in which Donegild employs a traditionally masculine agent--the phallic pen--to enact her own desires and "de-paternalize" her son by misleading him into thinking Maurice was fathered by a demon.

Neither the sultaness nor Donegild slays Custance, for the obvious reason that her absence would halt the tale. At the same time, however, one might observe in this narrative pattern the interdependence of the female characters as the Man of Law situates them. In their "mannishness," their transgressive proximity to man, the sultaness and Donegild provide patriarchal interests justification for creating and venerating the figure of Custance, the clearly distanced female Other. The former figure, the virago, is used to promote the establishment of the latter, and while both the sultaness and Donegild are eventually eradicated from the narrative, the rhetoric of proximity might readily supply a host of substitutes, beginning with Eve, to continue justifying a Custance.


My interpretation of the Man of Law's narrative as a cautionary fable of transgressive proximity suggests a way of reading the disputed Epilogue to the tale.[79] As I shall argue here in conclusion, this endlink mimics the tale proper and performs its own corrective act of resituation. Having heard the lawyer's tale of unseen enemies who lurk nearby, the Host and the Shipman join forces to echo its narrative dynamic: they fabricate yet a third type of transgressor within their ranks and then silence him.[80]

In the Epilogue to the Man of Law's tale, Harry Bailly turns to the Parson and "for Goddes bones" (II.1166) requests of him the next tale. The Parson rebukes Harry for swearing so sinfully, and the Host, alluding to the aversion to oaths among Lollards, retorts with a charge of heresy: "I smelle a Lollere in the wynd" (II.1173). Although Harry is prepared to entertain a performance by "this Lollere" (II.1177), the Shipman is not. "`That shal he nat!' / Seyd the Shipman, `Heer schal he nat preche"' (II.1178-79). The Shipman blocks the Parson's tale on the grounds that this heretic Lollard might corrupt the faithful.

Although Lollardy, an actual heresy in canon law, and Islam, popularly regarded as heretical in spite of Church law to the contrary, were perceived as distinct, nevertheless Harry's accusation of the Parson seems more than casually related to the Man of Law's narrative. For one, Harry's jibe about the Parson's Lollardy constitutes Chaucer's exclusive reference to this contemporary English heresy, and it seems more than coincidental that it should follow the Chaucerian tale most concerned with the religious enemies within the Christian family as well as Chaucer's sole references to Islam, so often positioned as a heresy in the later Middle Ages. Not only does the reference to Lollardy localize heresy in a geographical and temporal sense, literally bringing it home to fourteenth-century England, but the term "Lollard" made possible a pun that situates this particular heretic especially close to the faithful, in fact, almost inseparably interspersed among them. In his objection to the Parson's tale, the Shipman employs this pun: "[the Parson] wolde sowen som difficulte, / Or springen cokkel in our clene corn" (II.1182-83).

Medieval etymology derived "Lollard" from Latin lollium, or weed, and Lollards were likened to the tares sown among the wheat in Matthew's parable (13:24-30).[81] In that parable, an enemy sneaks into a man's field and sows weed seed among the wheat seed, unbeknownst to the field's owner until the blades spring up and reveal the corruption of his crop. But not until harvest can the farmer remove the tares, for were he to eradicate the weeds earlier he would also uproot his wheat. Both the etymology of "Lollard" and the verses in Matthew lie behind the Shipman's accusation of the Parson, which likens the cleric to the enemy in the parable of the wheat and tares, one who infiltrates the faithful and sows heresy. By means of his own rhetoric of proximity, then, the Shipman succinctly sums up one lesson he has learned from the Man of Law's cautionary fable: even in one's own field, one must be ever vigilant, for cockle may masquerade as corn and corrupt the true "clene" crop.

As facetious as Harry Bailly's accusation of heresy may be, it contains a similar note of alarm in that it is levelled specifically against the Parson. Many have commented on the apparent ineptness of charging not only a pilgrim cleric but this particular parson with Lollardy; Lollards frowned upon pilgrimage, and the tale that the Parson tells is, in Benson's words, "perfectly orthodox."[82] But the point of implicating the idealized Parson in Lollardy is, I think, precisely its illogicality. The accusation gives voice to medieval anxieties about the very nature of heresy, the fear of its uncanny, demonic ability to insinuate itself into the most disturbing and unlikely locations imaginable.[83] In Harry's case, this means within the Canterbury pilgrimage, indeed, amongst the very group responsible for guarding the faithful from such infiltration, the clergy. Like the Shipman, the Host has learned well another lesson the Man of Law's tale preaches: the Other is more transgressive the closer it approaches.

As Kolve argues, the lawyer's performance does attempt to reorient the direction of the Canterbury fictions. What I suggest the tale motivates, however, is not a return to the austere and vigorous commitment to Christ of the early Church, but the sense of a common vested interest among English men who, thanks to such narratives as the lawyer's, imagine themselves crowded on several fronts by the proximate Other--the woman, the heretic, the Oriental. At one and the same time, the tale of Custance provides the catalyst for the development of such a bond among the men who travel to Canterbury and locates its historical origin in the Saxon past of Aella's Northumberland.

The new praxis we see develop among the Canterbury pilgrims in the endlink bears witness to the effectiveness of the lawyer's rhetoric. Instead of squabbling amongst themselves, as did the fractious men of fragment I, the Host and Shipman join forces to perform a communal act of ousting, resituating the Parson as heretical Other. Just as masculine identity appears to demand a clearly delineated female Other,[84] so Christian identity rests upon the perception of a clearly inscribed religious Other, the heretic Lollard. Not by chance is this the sole occasion on the pilgrimage when the Shipman constructs both a communal and piously Christian identity for himself: "we leven alle in the grete God," he proclaims (II.1181).

The Shipman's profession of religion helps define the cultural work the Man of Law's tale of Custance has accomplished. But it also interrogates the lawyer's project, for the sailor's newfound Christian conscience must strain audience credulity. The Shipman's expression of religious devotion in the endlink has already been compromised by what we have heard about his maliciousness in the General Prologue, information valorized by the fact that Chaucer the pilgrim enunciates it. With uncharacteristic bluntness, Chaucer there introduced the Shipman as one who pays no heed to "nyce conscience" (I.398), who is not above stealing from merchants and dispatching his enemies to watery graves. This suggests that what the Shipman has found in the Epilogue is not Christ but men of his own stripe and that he has found such fraternity in opposition to the Other as the lawyer constructs that layered figure in his tale. The Man of Law's Tale exposes, hence questions, a central dynamic of patriarchal Christianity by which the communitas that develops in the Epilogue is achieved in response to a tale of exclusion and subordination, a tale that situates men and women, East and West, worlds apart.[85]


A brief epilogue to this article is also in order, however, for no matter how deeply Chaucer may implicate the communitas the Man of Law has created, it is also true that Chaucer preserves this group's hegemony as the pilgrimage proceeds. Its authority is challenged on several occasions, most evidently by the Wife of Bath's resistance to playing the role of man's binary opposite, by the Pardoner's attempt to lure the Host away from his peer group, and by the Squire's effort to narrate a tale of eastern origin, quite possibly one that meant to rewrite the story of Custance.[86] Yet the fraternal ties that emerge in the Man of Law's Epilogue hold firm against these and other challenges: the Clerk, Merchant, and Franklin come together to rebut the Wife of Bath; the Knight reintegrates both the Pardoner and the Host into the fold; the Squire's tale fizzles out and the Franklin takes the young man under his paternal wing. No matter how clearly Chaucer exposes the Man of Law's dehumanizing rhetoric, the lawyer's tale nevertheless remains a pivotal narrative, for it catalyzes the originary act of solidarity among the Christian men of the Canterbury pilgrimage. That bond of western brotherhood proves to be a privileged defensive wall. The other pilgrims--and the Other--may strain against it, but they are not allowed to breach it.

University of New Hampshire