The Man of Law’s Tale

Race and racism: “The Man of law’s Tale”

Cord j. Whitaker


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 2 The Man of Law’s Tale might seem an unlikely specimen for examining the development of race in the Middle Ages: it does not explicitly feature skin color difference among its characters. But skin color is merely one element in medieval race. Color lacks the overwhelming primacy in medieval race that it lays claim to in modern racial ideology. The tale’s medieval racial discourse is evident in its predominant interest in identifying borders and then troubling them. The Canterbury Tales’ narrators represent a community characterized by class and occupational divisions. One of Chaucer’s most important sources, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, features a collection of Florentine nobles who vacate the city in order to escape a bout of plague. They tell stories to pass the time while traveling between one another’s country villas. Chaucer’s tales, however, feature narrators that run the gamut of social standing—from an aristocratic knight to a parson, from a prioress to a miller. Together, they represent all of the three recognized medieval social estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. The Tales represent communal relations when Chaucer’s pilgrim-narrators interact among themselves with affirmations, condemnations, and confrontations—in much the same ways that members of a political community react to one another. The exploration of communal fissures and social bonds is a central concern in Chaucer’s tales, and social estate is but one among a number of a medieval community’s organizing principles. Race, the notion that an individual’s worth inheres in his or her discernible and immutable membership in a particular group, is a central element in the construction of community and provides ample fodder for the imaginative border-crossing that characterizes the Tales.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 Race in the Middle Ages was characterized by geographic borders, and in exploring fissures and bonds the Tales—and especially the Man of Law’s Tale—troubles those borders and tends toward representing a global community. Race was often dependent on the notion that the world consisted of three Continents; Europe, Africa, and Asia had been divided among the progeny of Noah’s three sons after the biblical flood depicted in Genesis. A person’s lineal descent from Noah was discernible in his skin color and other features considered indicative of European, African, or Asian ancestry. The Tales’ settings impressively range across space and time—from local and contemporary happenings in Oxford and Cambridge in the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales to ancient Thebes and Athens in the Knight’s Tale to contemporary Brittany in the Franklin’s Tale. The Squire’s Tale takes place in the Mongol Empire and features Ghenghis Khan’s daughter Canacee, and the Prioress’s Tale takes place in “in Asye, in a greet cite” (in Asia, in a great city) [VII.488]. But no other tale exhibits the geographic range of the Man of Law’s Tale, which seamlessly connects Rome and the Mediterranean with the Levant and England. The Man of Law’s Tale, in troubling and exceeding geographic borders, engages with the discourses of geographic difference that informed medieval race.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 The Man of Law’s Tale’s global aspirations and engagement with race are on display in its heroine’s travels. Custance, the daughter of the Roman Emperor, attracts the attentions of a Syrian sultan who agrees to convert to Christianity if she will marry him. In order to “destroy” Islam, the Church and the Emperor agree to the marriage. Custance, with a significant retinue of bishops, lords, ladies, and “knights of renown,” travels to Syria for the wedding. Endeavoring to save Syria from Christian conversion, the sultan’s mother, known only as the Sultaness, surreptitiously raises a force to murder her son, his retinue, and Custance’s entourage during a celebratory wedding feast. The Sultaness spares Custance and puts her into a rudderless boat. She floats haplessly until she washes ashore in Northumbria, on the Continent-facing coast of what is now northern England and southern Scotland. Custance is taken in by local king’s constable and his wife Hermengyld. She befriends them and converts them to Christianity. A wicked knight desires Custance and when she rebuffs his advances, he murders Hermengyld and frames Custance. A divine hand and voice exonerates her, and the miracle facilitates the conversion of the Northumbrian King Alla. He subsequently marries Custance, who bears his child. Alla’s mother Donegild considers Custance a “strange…creature” [II.700] because she has never revealed her imperial identity. Donegild forges letters from Alla, who is away in battle, ordering that Custance and her newborn child be put out to sea in the rudderless boat on which she arrived. For more than five years, Custance and her son Maurice float on the sea. Somewhere in the Atlantic, either in southern Europe or northwestern Africa, Custance washes up near “an heathen castle” where an apostate steward attempts to rape her. She, with the help of the Virgin Mary, fights him off and drowns him in the sea. Her ship then sails back into the Mediterranean through the narrow strait between Gilbraltar and Morocco. She is intercepted by a Roman senator who does not recognize her. He informs her that the Romans have conquered Syria in retaliation for the Sultaness’s treachery. Custance returns to Rome where she is eventually reunited with the Emperor and her Northumbrian husband. Custance rules Northumbria with Alla, and Maurice eventually becomes Roman Emperor. Assuring religious and political unity, Custance’s travels unite Rome, Syria, and England under the banner of one family. Her community transcends the geographic and associated lineal distinctions that inform race in the Middle Ages.


4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 In addition to geography and lineal descent, medieval race was characterized by religious and political identity; this chapter takes the examination of religious and political difference as tools for analysis fitting for the Man of Law’s Tale and texts of its ilk. Religious group membership is integral to medieval race in that it was thought to be discernible by rituals and customs in addition to bodily features including skin color. Rituals and customs were often religious and political in nature. The tale is a crusading romance, a popular narrative written in the vernacular and “depicting the confrontation of a Christian military power with a non-Christian one in another country because the latter is non-Christian” (Manion, 7; Hamel, 177-94). The confrontation between a Christian power and non-Christian powers—Syria and Northumbria—is central to the Man of Law’s Tale and offers characters whose differences from one another are both religious and political. The tale, like other crusading romances, demands to be understood through the lens of a medieval notion of racial identity that is characterized by religious and political difference.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Using religio-political race as an epistemological tool helps make sense of the religious and political differences that feature in the tale. Religious difference abounds: Custance is a Christian; the sultan, Sultaness, and Syrians are Muslim; and Alla and the other Northumbrians are pagans. Political differences abound as well: Rome is ruled by an emperor, Syria by a sultan, and Northumbria by a king. Each has different relationships with their polities: The Emperor agrees to Custance’s marriage to the sultan only with the intervention “by treaties and ambassadry” of the Pope, “all the church,” and “all the warrior class,” but the Emperor does not reach out to them for advice [II.233-235]. His will is sovereign though he is open to influence. The sultan rules in a parliamentary style when he convenes his privy council in order to “declare his intent” to have Custance. He asks them “to devise…some remedy” for his lovesickness [II.204-210]. The sultan relies heavily on solicited advice. Alla, for his part, rules generously and directly. He is away when Hermengyld is murdered. When Custance stands accused “the king’s heart began to tremble with pity” [II.614]. He is “deeply moved” by household members’ attestations that Custance was “ever so virtuous” and “loving” toward Hermegyld [II.624-630]. When a disembodied hand “smites” the accusing knight and a disembodied voice proclaims Custance’s innocence and her identity as the “daughter of holy church,” Alla converts to Christianity [II.669-676]. Each ruler’s religious identity correlates roughly with his political style. Alla, with his “gentil herte…fulfild of pitee” and his reliance on God’s grace instead of his own will or advice to reveal truth, is the ruler most amenable to the elision of the difference between a non-Christian and Christian polity. The examination of religious and political differences elucidates the racial nature of the conflicts and resolutions that constitute the Man of Law’s Tale. Reading the tale with an eye to religio-political race helps contextualize late medieval England’s comportment toward the world beyond its borders.


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Reading the tale for its engagements with politics and religion—two robust conceptual tools but certainly not the only ones–reveals a sophisticated understanding of race in which the borders between groups that appear discrete are shown to be in fact permeable and inconstant. The Man of Law’s Tale does not offer the simplistic conclusion that English identity is singularly right for inclusion in the global Christian community. On the contrary, the tale demonstrates that political distinctions often disrupt assumed religious and geographic boundaries, inhering within presumptively unified communities. For example, the Sultaness does not agree with her son’s decision to accept Christianity. She only pretends to agree while she in fact fears that conversion will result in “thraldom to oure bodies and penance,/ And afterward in helle to be drawe” [II.338-339]. What’s more, her comportment toward parliamentary politics differs from her son’s. While he calls in advisors to help him figure out how to obtain Custance, the Sultaness calls her council in order to tell them how she will proceed and how they will help her [II.323-357]. The Sultaness’s quasi-parliamentary consultation demonstrates political division: the sultan’s rule is parliamentary, even if self-interested, while the Sultaness’s is absolutist. A similar scene plays out in Northumbria. Though neither Alla nor Donegild act with the help of a council, they represent opposed comportments toward Custance’s foreignness: Custance’s holiness and her generous pity toward her accuser causes Alla to respect and marry her. The same characteristics cause Donegild disgust at Custance’s “strangeness” and lead her to plot against her son’s wife. The Man of Law’s Tale demonstrates that political differences can readily trump religious and geographic unity. Politics and religion cut across one another, disrupting the coherence of racial categories.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The racial categories the Man of Law’s Tale explores—Roman Christian, Syrian Muslim, English pagan—are largely the products of the Crusades, and so is Custance. English ideas of the world continued to be informed by the Crusades long after Christendom’s hopes of victory ended with the loss of the last crusader stronghold at Acre in 1291. For example, during Chaucer’s lifetime, in 1382-3, a “croiserye general” (general crusade) was led by the bishop of Norwich in order to maintain English financial interests in Flanders. Also, John of Gaunt, uncle to King Richard II, launched a crusade in 1386 against Spain to advance his claim, through his wife, to the throne of Castile (Tyerman, 334-6, 338-9). The Man of Law’s Tale draws on textual sources that are the products of the period’s crusading culture, including the early fourteenth century Anglo-Norman “Of the Noble Lady Constance” by Oxford Dominican Nicholas Trevet and the later Confessio Amantis by Chaucer’s contemporary John Gower. Completed around the same time as Chaucer’s tale, the Confessio also uses Trevet as its source (Correale, 279-288). Each version depicts its heroine—Custance in Chaucer’s version and Constance in Trevet’s and Gower’s—as a paragon of feminized apostolic Christianity that is “less coercive, less hierarchical, and more communal” than “masculine” conventional Roman Catholicism (Robertson, 143-180). Each version responds to the Crusades by depicting a heroine who transgresses racial categories, albeit with differing forms of agency.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Divergences in the heroine’s agency respond to the religious and political differences that characterize medieval race. The passivity of Chaucer’s Custance has prompted readers to consider her a cipher, a zero-value that has no meaning by itself but changes the values of the entities with which it interacts. As I demonstrate below by comparing Trevet’s and Gower’s heroines, Custance’s passive approach, coupled with the divine announcement of her holiness and the possible divine intervention that vanquishes the knight who attempts to rape her, suggests that in the Man of Law’s Tale crusading agency is God’s. God, like the Emperor, wields a sovereign will that is nonetheless open to influence. Custance’s submission suggests that Christendom ought to interpret its crusading losses as God’s will and accept them. Chaucer’s is a Constance story for a Western Europe that must rethink its approach to its eastern Others.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The religious and political differences that define eastern identity for western Christians do not escape Trevet, but his heroine’s response is far more active and represents a different comportment toward God’s sovereignty. Trevet’s Constance is put out to sea once she actively and repetitively refuses to give up her Christian faith. Her agency answers the Sultaness’s agency when she actively saves herself from rape. Chaucer’s Custance is saved by help from “blisful Marie” and it is unclear exactly how the would-be rapist “fil over bord al sodeynly” (II.920-922), but Trevet’s Constance reasons with her would-be attacker: in order that her two-year-old not witness their intercourse, they must find land where they can copulate unseen. While the knight stands in the front of the ship, looking for land in the distance, “Constance, to safeguard her chastity, came secretly behind his back and pushed him into the sea” (383-394). Like Chaucer’s sultan, Trevet’s Christian God rules in a parliamentary style: He requires Constance’s active participation and decision-making, if not her advice. For Trevet, Christian Europe’s agency must answer in kind the brash and violent agency by which Christendom defines its eastern Muslim competitors.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 4 Gower’s Constance offers a middle ground that questions the racial characterization upon which crusading romances trade. Gower’s Constance, like Trevet’s, converts the Syrian merchants with “hire words wise/ of Cristes feith so full enformed”(606-7). But when threatened with rape, she uses a mix of her own agency and divine intervention. While the knight looks out from the boat to make sure no one can see them, Constance, in a move that appears in no other version, prays to God for intervention. “[S]odeinliche [the knight] was out throwe/ And dreynt” (1121-1122). Constance’s approach—prayer—occupies a liminal space somewhere between the active and the passive. Furthermore, the text does not explicitly state that Constance’s prayer is the cause of the knight’s ejection. The nature of God’s will is indiscernible: it may be absolutist, parliamentary, or somewhere in between. Human agency is equally hard to decipher: Constance is active like the Sultaness even as she is the passive recipient of grace like Alla when he witnesses Chaucer’s heroine’s exoneration. Gower’s Constance destabilizes the judgments that a reader might otherwise make: that Muslims are characteristically aggressive and that the Northumbrians, standing in for the English, are necessarily passive and predisposed to Christianity. When agency and passivity inhere in Constance, Gower’s narrative troubles the racial categorization of any group as either entirely active or passive. Neither group worships a God who is entirely parliamentary or absolutist.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Political organization and religious agency are merely two conceptual sites that reading race in the Man of Law’s Tale makes available. Using race as an analytical tool might also inform readings that consider gender, economics, saintliness, and the sacraments, among other possibilities.


12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Though political and religious differences are perhaps the most prevalent constituents of medieval race, skin color—the primary element of modern race—is present, too. The Man of Law’s Tale may appear unconcerned with race because there is no skin color difference, but a closer look at the tale’s sources reveals how elemental race is to the Constance narrative. A likely source for Trevet’s tale is the late thirteenth- or early fourteenth-century crusading romance The King of Tars. The story is basically the same: a Christian princess, the daughter of the king of Tars, is desired by the Muslim Sultan of Damascus. She marries him, conceives a child who is born a lifeless lump of flesh, and convinces him to convert to Christianity. The story diverges when the sultan’s skin is described as “blac & loþely” (928). In a conversion miracle, as he is prepared for baptism, his skin “[a]l white bicom, þurth Godes gras/ & clere wiþouten blame” (929-930). The conversion scene is operative to the narrative’s crusading efforts; the sultan’s people are forced to convert and, in league with his father-in-law the Christian king of Tars, he wages war on other non-Christian kings. The Man of Law’s Tale does not proclaim its sultan’s blackness, but it does not disavow it either. If the King of Tars, in which the sultan’s blackness does not appear until line 928 of some 1240, is any indication then medieval readers might very well have assumed the Muslim sultan’s blackness—whether it is stated or not.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 The Man of Law’s Tale shows medieval race’s primary elements to be political and religious difference, though physical difference lurks in the shadows. The transformations that constitute the tale’s conclusion are political and religious. The differences between Rome, English Northumbria, and Syria are elided when Custance and Alla’s son Maurice becomes Roman Emperor. Maurice “links two dynastic houses, royal and imperial, in the West and in the East, creating a new blood-pedigree that will furnish an impeccable future genealogy for the re-imagined local community” (Heng, 209). The Man of Law’s Tale and the Constance Group assert England’s global influence by grafting English identity onto the history of the Roman Empire in order to create a new English racial identity that enfolds multiple forms of earthly and divine rule. The Roman Empire with its impressive geographical, cultural, and historical reach is no longer only Roman; it is now fully English, too.


  1. 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0
  2. What physical characteristics come to mind when you imagine a person from northern England? from northern Europe generally? from Syria? from elsewhere in the Middle East?
  1. 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  2. What personality traits come to mind when you imagine a person from one of these regions?
  1. 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  2. How do you react when you encounter someone with dark skin who identifies as a European? when you encounter a person who identifies as Middle Eastern or African who appears “white”?
  1. 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0
  2. Have personal experiences with individuals influenced your answers?
  1. 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  2. Consider your answers in the contexts of politics and religion. Have your political beliefs influenced your answers? Have your religious beliefs? If you answered yes to Question 4, how may your political and religious beliefs have influenced your experiences with individuals?


  1. 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0
  2. Different and Same
  • 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1
  • Make three lists—one each for Christianity, Islam, and paganism—and categorize practices, beliefs, and characteristics you associate with the religions and their practitioners. These may include material objects such as ritual objects and non-material attributes such as habits of interaction or comportment toward other faith traditions.
  • Then choose three episodes in the Man of Law’s Tale. Identify the items on your lists that the tale depicts as belonging to a different group, or more groups, than you expected.
  1. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2
  2. Politics, Religion, and Race
    1. Compare the actions of the three heroines in episodes other than the near assault by the apostate knight.
    2. Identify how their actions represent different political arrangements.
    3. Identify how their actions represent different comportments to God.
    4. Discuss the implications of the various political arrangements and religious ideas for medieval race.
    5. Discuss whether and how the roles of politics and religion differ between medieval and modern race.

Suggested Reading

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0  

Sources and Analogues to the Man of Law’s Tale

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 The King of Tars, edited from the Auchinleck MS, Advocates 19.2.1. Ed. Judith Perryman. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1980.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 Gower, John. “Tale of Constance.” In Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol 2. Eds. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. 330-350.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 Trevet, Nicholas. “Of the Noble Lady Constance.” In Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol. 2. Eds. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005. 296-329.

Scholarly Resources

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 Akbari, Suzanne Conklin. Idols in the East: European Representations of Islam and the Orient, 1100–1450. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 Calkin, Siobhan Bly. Saracens and the Making of English Identity: The Auchinleck Manuscript. New York: Routledge, 2005.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 Correale, Robert M. “The Man of Law’s Prologue and Tale.” In Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel, eds., Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol 2. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Daniel, Norman. Islam and the West: The Making of an Image. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1960.

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 Hahn, Thomas, ed. Race and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages. Special Issue. Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31.1. Winter 2001.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 Hamel, Mary. “The Siege of Jerusalem as a Crusading Poem.” In Barbara N. Sargent-Baur, ed., Journeys Toward God: Pilgrimage and Crusade. Kalamazoo: University of Western Michigan Press, 1992.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 Heng, Geraldine. Empire of Magic: Medieval Romance and the Politics of Cultural Fantasy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 Khanmohamadi, Shirin. In Light of Another’s Word: European Ethnography in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 Manion, Lee. Narrating the Crusades: Loss and Recovery in Medieval and Early Modern English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Robertson, Elizabeth. “The Elvyssh Power of Constance: Christian Feminism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23. 2001: 143-80.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Tyerman, Christopher. England and the Crusades: 1095-1588. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Whalen, Brett Edward. Dominion of God: Christendom and Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Whitaker, Cord J., ed. Making Race Matter in the Middle Ages. Special Issue. postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies 6.1. Spring 2015.

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