Chaucer, CT, Man of Law’s Tale

Index to this series

The tale of Chaucer’s Man of Law is a strange fantasy, taking place in the Mediterranean and England, at a time when there are

  • a Muslim sultan in Syria,
  • pagan rulers in England,
  • both an emperor and a pope in Rome.

There does not seem to have been such a time historically. The pope crowned emperors such as Charlemagne, but they didn’t sit in Rome.

The Man of Law names only one male historical figure, who is King Ælla of Northumbria, who died in 867. Several women are named, particularly Constance, who is apparently to be taken as the type of a virtuous Christian woman.

While telling his tale, the Serjeant asserts that our fates are written in the stars, if only we could read them. He also says he learned his tale from a merchant, years ago, and Chaucer will have to versify it. But then Chaucer the poet is having his character called the Serjeant or Man of Law say this in the first place.

The reading has three parts.

  • In the Introduction:
    • It’s April 18 and, as objects are as tall as their shadows are long, the Host knows it’s 10 o’clock; he says wasting time is like wasting your maidenhead, and so the Man of Laws should tell a tale.
    • According to this Serjeant, Chaucer has written many tales of love, albeit not with incest as a theme.
  • In his Prologue, the Serjeant says poverty is bad, but rich merchants know good stories; he will tell one of them.
  • In the Tale itself, a woman marries two men in sequence, but is cast adrift at sea each time by her mother-in-law:
    • the first time, the mother-in-law has killed her son (maybe before the actual wedding, not to mention consummation);
    • the second time, after consummation (when the woman puts a little of her holiness aside) and even childbirth, the son kills his mother and is later reunited with his wife.

    The woman is called Constance. She converts each husband to Christianity, and God protects her at sea. Twice do men try to seduce or rape her, but they fail.

In more detail, the Tale (which itself has three parts) is as follows.

  • Part I

    • Chapmen of Syria visit Rome (or perhaps Second Rome, i.e. Constantinople) and learn the goodness and beauty of the Emperor’s daughter Constance. They report this to the Sultan.

    • In the stars is written, “clear as glass,” the death of every man, such as Hector and Socrates; but men cannot read it.

    • To marry Constance, the Sultan agrees to become Christian.

    • Constance submits to the marriage, since (lines 286–7)

      Women are born to thraldom and penance,
      And to be under man’s governance.

    • The emperor lacks a philosopher to tell him it’s a bad time in heaven for the marriage.

    • Not able to tolerate his conversion, being corrupted by Satan as Eve was, the Sultan’s mother will have him killed.

  • Part II

    • The Christians come to Syria with the bride-to-be, and the Sultaness has all of them but Constance killed at a feast, that she may rule herself.

    • The Sultaness has Constance put to see in a rudderless boat, in which Constance herself has placed an unspecified treasure.

    • She prays to Christ and is protected as were Daniel, Jonah, the Hebrews in the Red Sea, and the servants of God by the account of Revelation 7:3.

    • The boat washes ashore in Northumberland, where the constable of a castle and his wife Hermengild save her.

    • Constance communicates in Latin, but will not say who she is.

    • Hermengild becomes Christian.

    • The Christians of Britain have fled to Wales, but three remain. One of these is blind, but sees with his mind. he asks Hermengild to heal him in the name of Christ. She does this at the urging of Constance. This converts the constable.

    • Satan makes a young knight love Constance, who will not yield.

    • The knight kills Hermengild in bed and lays the bloody knife by Constance, who, confronted, prays to be saved as Susanna was.

    • King Alla invites the knight to swear on a Gospel, and he is struck down by heaven, so the king and many others are converted.

    • The king puts the knight to death, but Constance is sorry, so Christ has the king make her a queen.

    • Constance submits to her husband’s pleasure at night and conceives a boy.

    • When Mauricius is christened, Alla is away fighting in Scotland. The man sent with a message first visits Alla’s mother and gets drunk.

    • Donegild has a new letter forged, saying the newborn is a monster. Alla writes keep it anyway, but again Donegild replaces the letter, now with one saying to put mother and child to sea.

    • The constable must torment Constance or suffer shame, apparently of disobedience.

    • Constance agrees to go, praying to Mary, who saw her own son put to death.

  • Part III

    • Alla comes home and kills his mother.

    • The boat of Constance goes ashore somewhere, where the man who tries to rape her falls overboard and drowns; so Constance is saved as David was from Goliath, or Judith from Holofernes.

    • The boat enters the Mediterranean, where a Senator meets it on returning from Syria after exacting vengeance.

    • Alla comes to Rome to do penance for having killed his mother.

    • Maurice goes with the Senator to a feast for Alla, who sees the resemblance.

    • The senator says the boy has no known father, but a mother who would take a knife through her breast before being wicked.

    • At the senator’s house, Constance learns the truth about her husband and is reconciled.

    • She tells her father to send her to heathens no more. She goes back to England with Alla, but when he dies a year later, she returns to her father in Rome.

    • Maurice will eventually be emperor.


The wordes of the Hoost to the companye.

OUR Hoste sey wel that the brighte sonne
The ark of his artificial day had ronne
The fourthe part, and half an houre, and more;
And though he were not depe expert in lore,
 5He wiste it was the eightetethe day
Of April,
that is messager to May;
And sey wel that the shadwe of every tree
Was as in lengthe the same quantitee
That was the body erect that caused it.

 10And therfor by the shadwe he took his wit
That Phebus, which that shoon so clere and brighte,
Degrees was fyve and fourty clombe on highte;
And for that day, as in that latitude,
It was ten of the clokke, he gan conclude,
 15And sodeynly he plighte his hors aboute.

Is this doing any more than showing an awareness of the measurement of time?

‘Lordinges,’ quod he, ‘I warne yow, al this route,
The fourthe party of this day is goon;
Now, for the love of god and of seint Iohn,
Leseth no tyme, as ferforth as ye may;
 20Lordinges, the tyme wasteth night and day,
And steleth from us, what prively slepinge,
And what thurgh necligence in our wakinge,
As dooth the streem, that turneth never agayn,
Descending fro the montaigne in-to playn.
 25Wel can Senek, and many a philosophre
Biwailen tyme,
more than gold in cofre.
“For los of catel may recovered be,
But los of tyme shendeth us,” quod he.
It wol nat come agayn, with-outen drede,
 30Na more than wol Malkins maydenhede,
Whan she hath lost it in hir wantownesse;
Lat us nat moulen thus in ydelnesse.
Sir man of lawe,’ quod he, ‘so have ye blis,
Tel us a tale anon, as forward is;
 35Ye been submitted thurgh your free assent
To stonde in this cas at my Iugement.
Acquiteth yow, and holdeth your biheste,
Than have ye doon your devoir atte leste.’

“Shend” seems to be cognate with “shame,” but with no known relations outside Germanic.

Malkin is apparently a proverbial woman. The waster of time is as bad as a loose woman.

‘Hoste,’ quod he, ‘depardieux ich assente,
 40To breke forward is not myn entente.
Biheste is dette, and I wol holde fayn
Al my biheste; I can no better seyn.
For swich lawe as man yeveth another wight,
He sholde him-selven usen it by right;

 45Thus wol our text; but natheles certeyn
I can right now no thrifty tale seyn,
But Chaucer,
though he can but lewedly
On metres and on ryming craftily,
Hath seyd hem in swich English as he can
 50Of olde tyme,
as knoweth many a man.
And if he have not seyd hem, leve brother,
In o book, he hath seyd hem in another.
For he hath told of loveres up and doun
Mo than Ovyde made of mencioun
 55In his Epistelles, that been ful olde.
What sholde I tellen hem, sin they ben tolde?
In youthe he made of Ceys and Alcion,
And sithen hath he spoke of everichon,
Thise noble wyves and thise loveres eke.
 60Who-so that wol his large volume seke
Cleped the Seintes Legende of Cupyde,
Ther may he seen the large woundes wyde
Of Lucresse, and of Babilan Tisbee;
The swerd of Dido for the false Enee;
 65The tree of Phillis for hir Demophon;
The pleinte of Dianire and Hermion,
Of Adriane and of Isiphilee;
The bareyne yle stonding in the see;
The dreynte Leander for his Erro;
 70The teres of Eleyne, and eek the wo
Of Brixseyde, and of thee, Ladomëa;
The crueltee of thee, queen Medëa,
Thy litel children hanging by the hals
For thy Iason, that was of love so fals!
 75O Ypermistra, Penelopee, Alceste,
Your wyfhod he comendeth with the beste!’

OUr author boasts through his character.

‘But certeinly no word ne wryteth he
Of thilke wikke ensample of Canacee,
That lovede hir owne brother sinfully;
 80Of swiche cursed stories I sey “fy”;

Or elles of Tyro Apollonius,
How that the cursed king Antiochus
Birafte his doghter of hir maydenhede,
That is so horrible a tale for to rede,
 85Whan he hir threw up-on the pavement.
And therfor he, of ful avysement,
Nolde never wryte in none of his sermouns
Of swiche unkinde abhominaciouns,
Ne I wol noon reherse, if that I may.’

The letter of Canace to her brother is number XI of the fifteen epistles of Ovid’s Heriodes. With her brother Macareus, Candace begets a child, which her father Aeolus discovers when the nurse tries to sacrifice it. Aeolus orders it exposed and has a sword delivered to Candace, who writes Macareus that she will use it as expected. Maybe Chaucer gets this and the story of Antiochus from Gower’s Confessio Amantis. The scholars know more!

 90‘But of my tale how shal I doon this day?
Me were looth be lykned, doutelees,
To Muses that men clepe Pierides—
Metamorphoseos wot what I mene:—
But nathelees, I recche noght a bene
 95Though I come after him with hawe-bake;
I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make.
And with that word he, with a sobre chere,
Bigan his tale, as ye shal after here.’

The Prologe of the Mannes Tale of Lawe.

O hateful harm! condicion of poverte!
 100With thurst, with cold, with hunger so confounded!
To asken help thee shameth in thyn herte;
If thou noon aske, with nede artow so wounded,

That verray nede unwrappeth al thy wounde hid!
Maugree thyn heed, thou most for indigence
 105Or stele, or begge, or borwe thy despence!
Thou blamest Crist, and seyst ful bitterly,
He misdeparteth richesse temporal;
 (10)Thy neighebour thou wytest sinfully,
And seyst thou hast to lyte, and he hath al.
 110‘Parfay,’ seistow, ‘somtyme he rekne shal,
Whan that his tayl shal brennen in the glede,
For he noght helpeth needfulle in hir nede.’
Herkne what is the sentence of the wyse:—
‘Bet is to dyën than have indigence;’
 115Thy selve neighebour wol thee despyse;
If thou be povre, farwel thy reverence!
Yet of the wyse man tak this sentence:—
 (20)‘Alle the dayes of povre men ben wikke;’
Be war therfor, er thou come in that prikke!
 120If thou be povre, thy brother hateth thee,
And alle thy freendes fleen fro thee, alas!
O riche marchaunts, ful of wele ben ye,
O noble, o prudent folk, as in this cas!

Your bagges been nat filled with ambes as,
 125But with sis cink, than renneth for your chaunce;
At Cristemasse merie may ye daunce!
Ye seken lond and see for your winninges,
 (30)As wyse folk ye knowen al thestaat
Of regnes; ye ben fadres of tydinges
 130And tales, bothe of pees and of debat.
I were right now of tales desolat,
Nere that a marchaunt, goon is many a yere,
Me taughte a tale, which that ye shal here.

The Man of Laws alludes to hazard, of which craps is an American simplification.

In the General Prologue, it is said of the Man of Law,

No-wher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
And yet he semed bisier than he was.

He seems to be busy arguing the law of property, going back to the Doomsday Book.


Here beginneth the Man of Lawe his Tale.

IN Surrie whylom dwelte a companye
 135Of chapmen riche, and therto sadde and trewe,

That wyde-wher senten her spycerye,
Clothes of gold, and satins riche of hewe;
 (40)Her chaffar was so thrifty and so newe,
That every wight hath deyntee to chaffare
 140With hem, and eek to sellen hem hir ware.

There will be 147 of these seven-line stanzas, rhyming ABABBCC.

“Surrie” is not Surrey, but Syria.

The use of “sad” here (and “sadly” on line 743) illustrates the obsolete OED definition, “Orderly and regular in life; of trustworthy character and judgement; grave, serious. Often coupled with wise or discreet.” The word is cognate with “sate, satisfy, asset, satire.”

“Chapman” and “chaffer” are cognate, the latter being in origin “cheap fare.”

Now fel it, that the maistres of that sort
Han shapen hem to Rome for to wende;

Were it for chapmanhode or for disport,
Non other message wolde they thider sende,
 145But comen hem-self to Rome, this is the ende;
And in swich place, as thoughte hem avantage
For her entente, they take her herbergage.

“Harbergage, harbinger, harbour”: cognate.

 (50)Soiourned han thise marchants in that toun
A certein tyme, as fel to hir plesance.
 150And so bifel, that thexcellent renoun
Of themperoures doghter, dame Custance,
Reported was, with every circumstance,
Un-to thise Surrien marchants
in swich wyse,
Fro day to day, as I shal yow devyse.

The Man of Laws could mean Second Rome, i.e. Constantinople, although he will refer to Italy in line 441. Some relevant dates:

Assassination of the last Roman emperor, Julius Nepos.
570 (approximately)
Birth of Muhammad.
Battle of Tours, when his followers were checked by Charles Martel.
Crowning of Charles’s grandson Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans.
Death of King Ælla of Northumbria.

 155This was the commune vois of every man—
‘Our Emperour of Rome, god him see,
A doghter hath that, sin the world bigan,
 (60)To rekne as wel hir goodnesse as beautee,
Nas never swich another as is she;

 160I prey to god in honour hir sustene,
And wolde she were of al Europe the quene.’


‘In hir is heigh beautee, with-oute pryde,
Yowthe, with-oute grenehede or folye;
To alle hir werkes vertu is hir gyde,
 165Humblesse hath slayn in hir al tirannye.
She is mirour of alle curteisye;
Hir herte is verray chambre of holinesse,
 (70)Hir hand, ministre of fredom for almesse.’


And al this vois was soth, as god is trewe,
 170But now to purpos lat us turne agayn;
Thise marchants han doon fraught hir shippes newe,
And, whan they han this blisful mayden seyn,
Hoom to Surryë been they went ful fayn,
And doon her nedes as they han don yore,
 175And liven in wele; I can sey yow no more.


Now fel it, that thise marchants stode in grace
Of him, that was the sowdan of Surrye;

 (80)For whan they came from any strange place,
He wolde, of his benigne curteisye,
 180Make hem good chere, and bisily espye
Tydings of sondry regnes, for to lere
The wondres that they mighte seen or here.

Sowdan = sultan.

Amonges othere thinges, specially
Thise marchants han him told of dame Custance,
 185So gret noblesse in ernest, ceriously,
That this sowdan hath caught so gret plesance
To han hir figure in his remembrance,
 (90)That al his lust and al his bisy cure
Was for to love hir whyl his lyf may dure.


 190Paraventure in thilke large book
Which that men clepe the heven, y-writen was
With sterres, whan that he his birthe took,
That he for love shulde han his deeth, allas!
For in the sterres,
clerer than is glas,
 195Is writen, god wot, who-so coude it rede,
The deeth of every man, withouten drede.


In sterres, many a winter ther-biforn,
 (100)Was writen the deeth of Ector, Achilles,
Of Pompey, Iulius, er they were born;
 200The stryf of Thebes; and of Ercules,
Of Sampson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The deeth; but mennes wittes been so dulle,
That no wight can wel rede it atte fulle.


This sowdan for his privee conseil sente,
 205And, shortly of this mater for to pace,
He hath to hem declared his entente,
And seyde hem certein, ‘but he mighte have grace
 (110)To han Custance with-inne a litel space,
He nas but deed;’ and charged hem, in hye,
 210To shapen for his lyf som remedye.


Diverse men diverse thinges seyden;
They argumenten, casten up and doun;
Many a subtil resoun forth they leyden,
They speken of magik and abusioun;
 215But finally, as in conclusion,
They can not seen in that non avantage,
Ne in non other wey, save mariage.


 (120)Than sawe they ther-in swich difficultee
By wey of resoun, for to speke al playn,
 220By-cause that ther was swich diversitee
Bitwene hir bothe lawes,
that they sayn,
They trowe ‘that no cristen prince wolde fayn
Wedden his child under oure lawes swete
That us were taught by Mahoun our prophete.’


 225And he answerde, ‘rather than I lese
Custance, I wol be cristned doutelees;
I mot ben hires, I may non other chese.
 (130)I prey yow holde your arguments in pees;
Saveth my lyf, and beeth noght recchelees
 230To geten hir that hath my lyf in cure;
For in this wo I may not longe endure.’


What nedeth gretter dilatacioun?
I seye, by tretis and embassadrye,
And by the popes mediacioun,
 235And al the chirche, and al the chivalrye,
That, in destruccioun of Maumetrye,
And in encrees of Cristes lawe dere,
 (140)They ben acorded, so as ye shal here;


How that the sowdan and his baronage
 240And alle his liges shulde y-cristned be,
And he shal han Custance in mariage,
And certein gold, I noot what quantitee,
And her-to founden suffisant seurtee;
This same acord was sworn on eyther syde;
 245Now, faire Custance, almighty god thee gyde!


Now wolde som men waiten, as I gesse,
That I shulde tellen al the purveyance
 (150)That themperour, of his grete noblesse,
Hath shapen for his doghter dame Custance.
 250Wel may men knowe that so gret ordinance
May no man tellen in a litel clause
As was arrayed for so heigh a cause.


Bisshopes ben shapen with hir for to wende,
Lordes, ladyes, knightes of renoun,
 255And other folk y-nowe, this is the ende;
And notifyed is thurgh-out the toun
That every wight, with gret devocioun,
 (160)Shulde preyen Crist that he this mariage
Receyve in gree, and spede this viage.


 260The day is comen of hir departinge,
I sey, the woful day fatal is come,
That ther may be no lenger taryinge,
But forthward they hem dressen, alle and some;
Custance, that was with sorwe al overcome,
 265Ful pale arist, and dresseth hir to wende;
For wel she seeth ther is non other ende.


Allas! what wonder is it though she wepte,
 (170)That shal be sent to strange nacioun
Fro freendes, that so tendrely hir kepte,
 270And to be bounden under subieccioun
Of oon, she knoweth not his condicioun.
Housbondes been alle gode, and han ben yore,
That knowen wyves, I dar say yow no more.


‘Fader,’ she sayde, ‘thy wrecched child Custance,
 275Thy yonge doghter, fostred up so softe,
And ye, my moder, my soverayn plesance
Over alle thing, out-taken Crist on-lofte,
 (180)Custance, your child, hir recomandeth ofte
Un-to your grace, for I shal to Surryë,
 280Ne shal I never seen yow more with yë.


‘Allas! un-to the Barbre nacioun
I moste anon, sin that it is your wille;
But [Crist,] that starf for our redempcioun,
So yeve me grace, his hestes to fulfille;
 285I, wrecche womman, no fors though I spille.
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to ben under mannes governance.’

A condition to bemoan, or change?

 (190)I trowe, at Troye, whan Pirrus brak the wal
Or Ylion brende, at Thebes the citee,
 290Nat Rome, for the harm thurgh Hanibal
That Romayns hath venquisshed tymes thre,
Nas herd swich tendre weping for pitee
As in the chambre was for hir departinge;
Bot forth she moot, wher-so she wepe or singe.

Pyrrhus is Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, from a source other than Homer.

 295O firste moevyng cruel firmament,
With thy diurnal sweigh that crowdest ay
And hurlest al from Est til Occident,
 (200)That naturelly wolde holde another way,
Thy crowding set the heven in swich array
 300At the beginning of this fiers viage,
That cruel Mars hath slayn this mariage.


Infortunat ascendent tortuous,
Of which the lord is helples falle, allas!
Out of his angle in-to the derkest hous.
 305O Mars, O Atazir, as in this cas!
O feble mone, unhappy been thy pas!
Thou knittest thee ther thou art nat receyved,
 (210)Ther thou were weel, fro thennes artow weyved.


Imprudent emperour of Rome, allas!
 310Was ther no philosophre in al thy toun?
Is no tyme bet than other in swich cas?

Of viage is ther noon eleccioun,
Namely to folk of heigh condicioun,
Nat whan a rote is of a birthe y-knowe?
 315Allas! we ben to lewed or to slowe.


To shippe is brought this woful faire mayde
Solempnely, with every circumstance.
 (220)‘Now Iesu Crist be with yow alle,’ she sayde;
Ther nis namore but ‘farewel! faire Custance!’
 320She peyneth hir to make good countenance,
And forth I lete hir sayle in this manere,
And turne I wol agayn to my matere.


The moder of the sowdan, welle of vyces,
Espyëd hath hir sones pleyn entente,
 325How he wol lete his olde sacrifyces,
And right anon she for hir conseil sente;
And they ben come, to knowe what she mente.
 (230)And when assembled was this folk in-fere,
She sette hir doun, and sayde as ye shal here.


 330‘Lordes,’ quod she, ’ye knowen everichon,
How that my sone in point is for to lete
The holy lawes of our Alkaron,
Yeven by goddes message Makomete.
But oon avow to grete god I hete,
 335The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte
Than Makometes lawe out of myn herte!


What shulde us tyden of this newe lawe
 (240)But thraldom to our bodies and penance?
And afterward in helle to be drawe
 340For we reneyed Mahoun our creance?
But, lordes, wol ye maken assurance,
As I shal seyn, assenting to my lore,
And I shall make us sauf for evermore?’


They sworen and assenten, every man,
 345To live with hir and dye, and by hir stonde;
And everich, in the beste wyse he can,
To strengthen hir shal alle his freendes fonde;
 (250)And she hath this empryse y-take on honde,
Which ye shal heren that I shal devyse,
 350And to hem alle she spak right in this wyse.


We shul first feyne us cristendom to take,
Cold water shal not greve us but a lyte;
And I shal swich a feste and revel make,
That, as I trowe, I shal the sowdan quyte.
 355For though his wyf be cristned never so whyte,
She shal have nede to wasshe awey the rede,

Thogh she a font-ful water with hir lede.’


 (260)O sowdanesse, rote of iniquitee,
Virago, thou Semyram the secounde,
 360O serpent under femininitee,
Lyk to the serpent depe in helle y-bounde,
O feyned womman, al that may confounde
Vertu and innocence, thurgh thy malyce,
Is bred in thee, as nest of every vyce!


 365O Satan, envious sin thilke day
That thou were chased from our heritage,
Wel knowestow to wommen the olde way!
 (270)Thou madest Eva bringe us in servage.
Thou wolt fordoon this cristen mariage.
 370Thyn instrument so, weylawey the whyle!
Makestow of wommen, whan thou wolt begyle.


This sowdanesse, whom I thus blame and warie,
Leet prively hir conseil goon hir way.
What sholde I in this tale lenger tarie?
 375She rydeth to the sowdan on a day,
And seyde him, that she wolde reneye hir lay,

And cristendom of preestes handes fonge,
 (280)Repenting hir she hethen was so longe,

Lay = law, creed

Biseching him to doon hir that honour,
 380That she moste han the cristen men to feste;
‘To plesen hem I wol do my labour.’
The sowdan seith, ‘I wol don at your heste,’
And kneling thanketh hir of that requeste.
So glad he was, he niste what to seye;
 385She kiste hir sone, and hoom she gooth hir weye.

Explicit prima pars. Sequitur pars secunda.

Arryved ben this cristen folk to londe,
In Surrie, with a greet solempne route,
 (290)And hastily this sowdan sente his sonde,
First to his moder, and al the regne aboute,
 390And seyde, his wyf was comen, out of doute,
And preyde hir for to ryde agayn the quene,
The honour of his regne to sustene.


Gret was the prees, and riche was tharray
Of Surriens and Romayns met y-fere;
 395The moder of the sowdan, riche and gay,
Receyveth hir with al-so glad a chere
As any moder mighte hir doghter dere,
 (300)And to the nexte citee ther bisyde
A softe pas solempnely they ryde.


 400Noght trowe I the triumphe of Iulius,
Of which that Lucan maketh swich a bost,
Was royaller, ne more curious
Than was thassemblee of this blisful host.
But this scorpioun, this wikked gost,
 405The sowdanesse, for al hir flateringe,
Caste under this ful mortally to stinge.


The sowdan comth him-self sone after this
 (310)So royally, that wonder is to telle,
And welcometh hir with alle Ioye and blis.
 410And thus in merthe and Ioye I lete hem dwelle.
The fruyt of this matere is that I telle.
Whan tyme cam, men thoughte it for the beste
That revel stinte, and men goon to hir reste.


The tyme cam, this olde sowdanesse
 415Ordeyned hath this feste of which I tolde,

And to the feste cristen folk hem dresse
In general, ye! bothe yonge and olde.
 (320)Here may men feste and royaltee biholde,
And deyntees mo than I can yow devyse,
 420But al to dere they boughte it er they ryse.


O sodeyn wo! that ever art successour
To worldly blisse, spreynd with bitternesse;
Thende of the Ioye of our worldly labour;
Wo occupieth the fyn of our gladnesse.
 425Herke this conseil for thy sikernesse,
Up-on thy glade day have in thy minde
The unwar wo or harm that comth bihinde.


 (330)For shortly for to tellen at o word,
The sowdan and the cristen everichone
 430Ben al to-hewe and stiked at the bord,
But it were only dame Custance allone.
This olde sowdanesse,
cursed crone,
Hath with hir frendes doon this cursed dede,
For she hir-self wolde al the contree lede.


 435Ne ther was Surrien noon that was converted
That of the conseil of the sowdan woot,
That he nas al to-hewe er he asterted.
 (340)And Custance han they take anon, foot-hoot,
And in a shippe al sterelees, god woot,
 440They han hir set, and bidde hir lerne sayle
Out of Surrye agaynward to Itayle.


A certein tresor that she thider ladde,
And, sooth to sayn, vitaille gret plentee
They han hir yeven, and clothes eek she hadde,
 445And forth she sayleth in the salte see.
O my Custance, ful of benignitee,
O emperoures yonge doghter dere,
 (350)He that is lord of fortune be thy stere!


She blesseth hir, and with ful pitous voys
 450Un-to the croys of Crist thus seyde she,
‘O clere, o welful auter, holy croys,
Reed of the lambes blood full of pitee,
That wesh the world fro the olde iniquitee,
Me fro the feend, and fro his clawes kepe,
 455That day that I shal drenchen in the depe.

“Rede” is cognate with “read” and can mean counsel, advice, scheme, story …

Victorious tree, proteccioun of trewe,
That only worthy were for to bere
 (360)The king of heven with his woundes newe,
The whyte lamb, that hurt was with the spere,
 460Flemer of feendes out of him and here
On which thy limes feithfully extenden,
Me keep, and yif me might my lyf tamenden.


Yeres and dayes fleet this creature
Thurghout the see of Grece un-to the strayte
 465Of Marrok, as it was hir aventure;
On many a sory meel now may she bayte;
After her deeth ful often may she wayte,
 (370)Er that the wilde wawes wole hir dryve
Un-to the place, ther she shal arryve.


 470Men mighten asken why she was not slayn?
Eek at the feste who mighte hir body save?
And I answere to that demaunde agayn,
Who saved Daniel in the horrible cave,
Ther every wight save he, maister and knave,
 475Was with the leoun frete er he asterte?
No wight but god, that he bar in his herte.


God liste to shewe his wonderful miracle
 (380)In hir,
for we sholde seen his mighty werkes;
Crist, which that is to every harm triacle,
 480By certein menes ofte, as knowen clerkes,
Doth thing for certein ende that ful derk is
To mannes wit, that for our ignorance
Ne conne not knowe his prudent purveyance.


Now, sith she was not at the feste y-slawe,
 485Who kepte hir fro the drenching in the see?
Who kepte Ionas in the fisshes mawe
Til he was spouted up at Ninivee?
 (390)Wel may men knowe it was no wight but he
That kepte peple Ebraik fro hir drenchinge,
 490With drye feet thurgh-out the see passinge.


Who bad the foure spirits of tempest,
That power han tanoyen land and see,
‘Bothe north and south, and also west and est,
Anoyeth neither see, ne land, ne tree?’
 495Sothly, the comaundour of that was he,
That fro the tempest ay this womman kepte
As wel whan [that] she wook as whan she slepte.

Wyclif’s Bible, Apocalips 7:

1 Aftir these thingis Y sai foure aungels stondinge on the foure corneris of the erthe, holdinge foure wyndis of the erthe, that thei blewen not on the erthe, nether on the see, nether on ony tre.
2 And Y sawy anothir aungel stiynge fro the risynge of the sunne, that hadde a signe of the lyuynge God. And he criede with a greet vois to the foure aungels, to whiche it was youun to noye the erthe, and the see,
3 and seide, Nyle ye noye the erthe, and see, nether trees, til we marken the seruauntis of oure God in the forhedis of hem.


1 After these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding [the] four winds of the earth, that they blew not on the earth [that they blow not on the earth], neither on the sea, neither on any tree.
2 And I saw another angel ascending up from the rising of the sun, that had a sign of the living God [And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having a sign of quick God]. And he cried with a great voice to the four angels, to which it was given [to whom it is given] to harm the earth, and the sea,
3 and said [saying], Do not ye harm the earth, and the sea, neither [to] trees, till we mark [till we sign, or mark] the servants of our God in the foreheads of them.

King James:

1 And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree.
2 And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea,
3 Saying, Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads.

 (400)Wher mighte this womman mete and drinke have?
Three yeer and more how lasteth hir vitaille?
 500Who fedde the Egipcien Marie in the cave,
Or in desert? no wight but Crist, sans faille.
Fyve thousand folk it was as gret mervaille
With loves fyve and fisshes two to fede.
God sente his foison at hir grete nede.

“Foison” abundance from Latin fusio.

 505She dryveth forth in-to our occean
Thurgh-out our wilde see, til, atte laste,
Under an hold that nempnen I ne can,
 (410)Fer in Northumberlond the wawe hir caste,
And in the sond hir ship stiked so faste,
 510That thennes wolde it noght of al a tyde,
The wille of Crist was that she shulde abyde.


The constable of the castel doun is fare
To seen this wrak, and al the ship he soghte,
And fond this wery womman ful of care;
 515He fond also the tresor that she broghte.
In hir langage mercy she bisoghte
The lyf out of hir body for to twinne,

 (420)Hir to delivere of wo that she was inne.


A maner Latin corrupt was hir speche,
 520But algates ther by was she understonde;
The constable, whan him list no lenger seche,
This woful womman broghte he to the londe;
She kneleth doun, and thanketh goddes sonde.
But what she was, she wolde no man seye,
 525For foul ne fair, though that she shulde deye.


She seyde, she was so mased in the see
That she forgat hir minde, by hir trouthe;
 (430)The constable hath of hir so greet pitee,
And eek his wyf, that they wepen for routhe,
 530She was so diligent, with-outen slouthe,
To serve and plesen everich
in that place,
That alle hir loven that loken on hir face.


This constable and dame Hermengild his wyf
Were payens, and that contree every-where;

 535But Hermengild lovede hir right as hir lyf,
And Custance hath so longe soiourned there,
In orisons, with many a bitter tere,
 (440)Til Iesu hath converted thurgh his grace
Dame Hermengild,
constablesse of that place.

What does it mean for a pagan to be converted? We saw the conversion of the Sultan of Syria, but he was already a monotheist.

Is the paganism here historical and the result of the Danish invasions, which the next stanza may refer to?

 540In al that lond no cristen durste route,
Alle cristen folk ben fled fro that contree
Thurgh payens, that conquereden al aboute
The plages of the North, by land and see;
To Walis fled the cristianitee
 545Of olde Britons, dwellinge in this yle;
Ther was hir refut for the mene whyle.


But yet nere cristen Britons so exyled
 (450)That ther nere somme that in hir privetee
Honoured Crist, and hethen folk bigyled;
 550And ny the castel swiche ther dwelten three.
That oon of hem was blind, and mighte nat see
But it were with thilke yën of his minde,
With whiche men seen, after that they ben blinde.


Bright was the sonne as in that someres day,
 555For which the constable and his wyf also
And Custance han y-take the righte way
Toward the see, a furlong wey or two,
 (460)To pleyen and to romen to and fro;
And in hir walk this blinde man they mette
 560Croked and old, with yën faste y-shette.


‘In name of Crist,’ cryde this blinde Britoun,
‘Dame Hermengild, yif me my sighte agayn.’

This lady wex affrayed of the soun,
Lest that hir housbond, shortly for to sayn,
 565Wolde hir for Iesu Cristes love han slayn,
Til Custance made hir bold, and bad hir werche
The wil of Crist, as doghter of his chirche.


 (470)The constable wex abasshed of that sight,
And seyde, ‘what amounteth al this fare?’
 570Custance answerde, ‘sire, it is Cristes might,
That helpeth folk out of the feendes snare.’
And so ferforth she gan our lay declare,
That she the constable, er that it were eve,
and on Crist made him bileve.


 575This constable was no-thing lord of this place
Of which I speke, ther he Custance fond,
But kepte it strongly, many wintres space,
 (480)Under Alla, king of al Northumberlond,
That was ful wys, and worthy of his hond
 580Agayn the Scottes, as men may wel here,
But turne I wol agayn to my matere.

There was a King Ælla of Northumbria, died 867.

Sathan, that ever us waiteth to bigyle,
Saugh of Custance al hir perfeccioun,
And caste anon how he mighte quyte hir whyle,
 585And made a yong knight, that dwelte in that toun,
Love hir so hote, of foul affeccioun,
That verraily him thoughte he shulde spille
 (490)But he of hir mighte ones have his wille.


He woweth hir, but it availleth noght,
 590She wolde do no sinne, by no weye;
And, for despyt, he compassed in his thoght
To maken hir on shamful deth to deye.

He wayteth whan the constable was aweye,
And prively, up-on a night, he crepte
 595In Hermengildes chambre whyl she slepte.


Wery, for-waked in her orisouns,
Slepeth Custance, and Hermengild also.
 (500)This knight, thurgh Sathanas temptaciouns,
Al softely is to the bed y-go,
 600And kitte the throte of Hermengild a-two,
And leyde the blody knyf by dame Custance,

And wente his wey, ther god yeve him meschance!


Sone after comth this constable hoom agayn,
And eek Alla,
that king was of that lond,
 605And saugh his wyf despitously y-slayn,
For which ful ofte he weep and wrong his hond,
And in the bed the blody knyf he fond
 (510)By dame Custance; allas! what mighte she seye?
For verray wo hir wit was al aweye.


 610To king Alla was told al this meschance,
And eek the tyme, and where, and in what wyse
That in a ship was founden dame Custance,
As heer-biforn that ye han herd devyse.
The kinges herte of pitee gan agryse,
 615Whan he saugh so benigne a creature
Falle in disese and in misaventure.


For as the lomb toward his deeth is broght,
 (520)So stant this innocent bifore the king;

This false knight that hath this tresoun wroght
 620Berth hir on hond that she hath doon this thing.
But nathelees, ther was greet moorning
Among the peple, and seyn, ‘they can not gesse
That she hath doon so greet a wikkednesse.’


‘For they han seyn hir ever so vertuous,
 625And loving Hermengild right as her lyf.’
Of this bar witnesse everich in that hous
Save he that Hermengild slow with his knyf.
 (530)This gentil king hath caught a gret motyf
Of this witnesse,
and thoghte he wolde enquere
 630Depper in this, a trouthe for to lere.


Allas! Custance! thou hast no champioun,
Ne fighte canstow nought, so weylawey!
But he, that starf for our redempcioun
And bond Sathan (and yit lyth ther he lay)
 635So be thy stronge champioun this day!
For, but-if Crist open miracle kythe,
Withouten gilt thou shalt be slayn as swythe.

To kithe is to make couth (as in the General Prologue), “couth” being in origin the past participle of “can.”

“Swith” (of unknown origin) means quickly etc.

 (540)She sette her doun on knees, and thus she sayde,
Immortal god, that savedest Susanne
 640Fro false blame, and thou, merciful mayde,
Mary I mene, doghter to Seint Anne,
Bifore whos child aungeles singe Osanne,
If I be giltlees of this felonye,
My socour be,
for elles I shal dye!’


 645Have ye nat seyn som tyme a pale face,
Among a prees, of him that hath be lad
Toward his deeth, wher-as him gat no grace,
 (550)And swich a colour in his face hath had,
Men mighte knowe his face, that was bistad,
 650Amonges alle the faces in that route:
So stant Custance, and loketh hir aboute.


O quenes, livinge in prosperitee,
Duchesses, and ye ladies everichone,
Haveth som routhe on hir adversitee;

 655An emperoures doghter stant allone;
She hath no wight to whom to make hir mone.
O blood royal, that stondest in this drede,
 (560)Fer ben thy freendes at thy grete nede!

Why are men not also appealed to?

This Alla king hath swich compassioun,
 660As gentil herte is fulfild of pitee,
That from his yën ran the water doun.
‘Now hastily do fecche a book,’ quod he,
‘And if this knight wol sweren how that she
This womman slow, yet wole we us avyse
 665Whom that we wole that shal ben our Iustyse.


A Briton book, writen with Evangyles,
Was fet, and on this book he swoor anoon
 (570)She gilty was, and in the mene whyles
A hand him smoot upon the nekke-boon,

 670That doun he fil atones as a stoon,
And bothe his yën broste out of his face
In sight of every body in that place.

Is it the Wyclif Bible or Wessex Gospel? Is everybody but Constance and the constable really a Christian?

A vois was herd in general audience,
And seyde, ‘thou hast desclaundred giltelees
 675The doghter of holy chirche in hey presence;
Thus hastou doon, and yet holde I my pees.’
Of this mervaille agast was al the prees;
 (580)As mased folk they stoden everichone,
For drede of wreche, save Custance allone.


 680Greet was the drede and eek the repentance
Of hem that hadden wrong suspeccioun
Upon this sely innocent Custance;
And, for this miracle, in conclusioun,
And by Custances mediacioun,
 685The king, and many another in that place,
Converted was, thanked be Cristes grace!


This false knight was slayn for his untrouthe
 (590)By Iugement of Alla hastifly;
And yet Custance hadde of his deeth gret routhe.
 690And after this Iesus, of his mercy,
Made Alla wedden ful solempnely
This holy mayden, that is so bright and shene,
And thus hath Crist y-maad Custance a quene.


But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,
 695Of this wedding but Donegild, and na mo,
The kinges moder, ful of tirannye?
Hir thoughte hir cursed herte brast a-two;
 (600)She wolde noght hir sone had do so;
Hir thoughte a despit, that he sholde take
 700So strange a creature un-to his make.

The trope of the mother who thinks no bride worthy of her son.

Me list nat of the chaf nor of the stree
Maken so long a tale, as of the corn.
What sholde I tellen of the royaltee
At mariage, or which cours gooth biforn,
 705Who bloweth in a trompe or in an horn?
The fruit of every tale is for to seye;
They ete, and drinke, and daunce, and singe, and pleye.


 (610)They goon to bedde, as it was skile and right;
For, thogh that wyves been ful holy thinges,
 710They moste take in pacience at night
Swich maner necessaries as been plesinges
To folk that han y-wedded hem with ringes,

And leye a lyte hir holinesse asyde
As for the tyme; it may no bet bityde.


 715On hir he gat a knave-child anoon,
And to a bishop and his constable eke
He took his wyf to kepe, whan he is goon
 (620)To Scotland-ward,
his fo-men for to seke;
Now faire Custance, that is so humble and meke,
 720So longe is goon with childe, til that stille
She halt hir chambre, abyding Cristes wille.


The tyme is come, a knave-child she ber;
Mauricius at the font-stoon they him calle;
This Constable dooth forth come a messager,
 725And wroot un-to his king,
that cleped was Alle,
How that this blisful tyding is bifalle,
And othere tydings speedful for to seye;
 (630)He takth the lettre, and forth he gooth his weye.


This messager, to doon his avantage,
 730Un-to the kinges moder rydeth swythe,
And salueth hir ful faire in his langage,
‘Madame,’ quod he, ‘ye may be glad and blythe,
And thanke god an hundred thousand sythe;
My lady quene hath child, with-outen doute,
 735To Ioye and blisse of al this regne aboute.’


‘Lo, heer the lettres seled of this thing,
That I mot bere with al the haste I may;
 (640)If ye wol aught un-to your sone the king,
I am your servant, bothe night and day.’
 740Donegild answerde, ‘as now at this tyme, nay;
But heer al night I wol thou take thy reste,
Tomorwe wol I seye thee what me leste.’


This messager drank sadly ale and wyn,
And stolen were his lettres prively
 745Out of his box, whyl he sleep as a swyn;
And countrefeted was ful subtilly
Another lettre,
wroght ful sinfully,
 (650)Un-to the king direct of this matere
Fro his constable, as ye shul after here.


 750The lettre spak, ‘the queen delivered was
Of so horrible a feendly creature,

That in the castel noon so hardy was
That any whyle dorste ther endure.
The moder was an elf, by aventure
 755Y-come, by charmes or by sorcerye,
And every wight hateth hir companye.’


Wo was this king whan he this lettre had seyn,
 (660)But to no wighte he tolde his sorwes sore,
But of his owene honde he wroot ageyn,
 760‘Welcome the sonde of Crist for evermore
To me, that am now lerned in his lore;
Lord, welcome be thy lust and thy plesaunce,
My lust I putte al in thyn ordinaunce!’


Kepeth this child, al be it foul or fair,
 765And eek my wyf, un-to myn hoom-cominge;
Crist, whan him list, may sende me an heir
More agreable than this to my lykinge.’
 (670)This lettre he seleth, prively wepinge,
Which to the messager was take sone,
 770And forth he gooth; ther is na more to done.

Again what would seem to be third-person singular, “kepeth,” is used as a second-person imperative. Robinson says it’s the form of the second-person plural imperative.

O messager, fulfild of dronkenesse,
Strong is thy breeth, thy limes faltren ay,
And thou biwreyest alle secreenesse.
Thy mind is lorn, thou Ianglest as a Iay,
 775Thy face is turned in a newe array!
Ther dronkenesse regneth in any route,
Ther is no conseil hid, with-outen doute.

Secree: secret.

 (680)O Donegild, I ne have noon English digne
Un-to thy malice and thy tirannye!
 780And therfor to the feend I thee resigne,
Let him endyten of thy traitorye!
Fy, mannish, fy! o nay, by god, I lye,
Fy, feendly spirit, for I dar wel telle,
Though thou heer walke, thy spirit is in helle!


 785This messager comth fro the king agayn,
And at the kinges modres court he lighte,

And she was of this messager ful fayn,
 (690)And plesed him in al that ever she mighte.
He drank, and wel his girdel underpighte.
 790He slepeth, and he snoreth in his gyse
Al night, un-til the sonne gan aryse.


Eft were his lettres stolen everichon
And countrefeted lettres in this wyse;
‘The king comandeth his constable anon,
 795Up peyne of hanging, and on heigh Iuÿse,
That he ne sholde suffren in no wyse
Custance in-with his regne for tabyde
 (700)Thre dayes and a quarter of a tyde;’


‘But in the same ship as he hir fond,
 800Hir and hir yonge sone, and al hir gere,
He sholde putte,
and croude hir fro the lond,
And charge hir that she never eft come there.’
O my Custance, wel may thy goost have fere
And sleping in thy dreem been in penance,
 805When Donegild caste al this ordinance!


This messager on morwe, whan he wook,
Un-to the castel halt the nexte wey,
 (710)And to the constable he the lettre took;
And whan that he this pitous lettre sey,
 810Ful ofte he seyde ‘allas!’ and ‘weylawey!’
‘Lord Crist,’ quod he, ‘how may this world endure?
So ful of sinne is many a creature!’


‘O mighty god, if that it be thy wille,
Sith thou art rightful Iuge, how may it be
 815That thou wolt suffren innocents to spille,
And wikked folk regne in prosperitee?
O good Custance, allas! so wo is me
 (720)That I mot be thy tormentour, or deye
On shames deeth;
ther is noon other weye!’


 820Wepen bothe yonge and olde in al that place,
Whan that the king this cursed lettre sente,
And Custance, with a deedly pale face,
The ferthe day toward hir ship she wente.
But natheles she taketh in good entente
 825The wille of Crist, and, kneling on the stronde,
She seyde,lord! ay wel-com be thy sonde!


‘He that me kepte fro the false blame
 (730)Whyl I was on the londe amonges yow,
He can me kepe from harme and eek fro shame
 830In salte see, al-thogh I se nat how.
As strong as ever he was, he is yet now.
In him triste I, and in his moder dere,
That is to me my seyl and eek my stere.’


Hir litel child lay weping in hir arm,
 835And kneling, pitously to him she seyde,
‘Pees, litel sone, I wol do thee non harm.’
With that hir kerchef of hir heed she breyde,
 (740)And over his litel yën she it leyde;
And in hir arm she lulleth it ful faste,
 840And in-to heven hir yën up she caste.


‘Moder,’ quod she, ‘and mayde bright, Marye,
Sooth is that thurgh wommannes eggement
Mankind was lorn and damned ay to dye,
For which thy child was on a croys y-rent;

 845Thy blisful yën sawe al his torment;
Than is ther no comparisoun bitwene
Thy wo and any wo man may sustene.’


 (750)Thou sawe thy child y-slayn bifor thyn yën,
And yet now liveth my litel child, parfay!
 850Now, lady bright, to whom alle woful cryën,
Thou glorie of wommanhede, thou faire may,
Thou haven of refut, brighte sterre of day,
Rewe on my child, that of thy gentillesse
Rewest on every rewful in distresse!’


 855‘O litel child, allas! what is thy gilt,
That never wroughtest sinne as yet, pardee,
Why wil thyn harde fader han thee spilt?
 (760)O mercy, dere Constable!’ quod she;
As lat my litel child dwelle heer with thee;
 860And if thou darst not saven him, for blame,
So kis him ones in his fadres name!’


Ther-with she loketh bakward to the londe,
And seyde, ‘far-wel, housbond routhelees!’
And up she rist, and walketh doun the stronde
 865Toward the ship; hir folweth al the prees,
And ever she preyeth hir child to holde his pees;
And taketh hir leve, and with an holy entente
 (770)She blesseth hir; and in-to ship she wente.


Vitailled was the ship, it is no drede,
 870Habundantly for hir, ful longe space,
And other necessaries that sholde nede
She hadde y-nogh, heried be goddes grace!
For wind and weder almighty god purchace,
And bringe hir hoom! I can no bettre seye;
 875But in the see she dryveth forth hir weye.


Explicit secunda pars. Sequitur pars tercia.

Alla the king comth hoom, sone after this,
Unto his castel of the which I tolde,
 (780)And axeth wher his wyf and his child is.
The constable gan aboute his herte colde,
 880And pleynly al the maner he him tolde
As ye han herd, I can telle it no bettre,
And sheweth the king his seel and [eek] his lettre,


And seyde, ‘lord, as ye comaunded me
Up peyne of deeth, so have I doon, certein.’
 885This messager tormented was til he
Moste biknowe and tellen, plat and plein,
Fro night to night, in what place he had leyn.
 (790)And thus, by wit and subtil enqueringe,
Ymagined was by whom this harm gan springe.


 890The hand was knowe that the lettre wroot,
And al the venim of this cursed dede,
But in what wyse, certeinly I noot.
Theffect is this, that Alla, out of drede,
His moder slow,
that men may pleinly rede,
 895For that she traitour was to hir ligeaunce.
Thus endeth olde Donegild with meschaunce.


The sorwe that this Alla, night and day,
 (800)Maketh for his wyf and for his child also,
Ther is no tonge that it telle may.
 900But now wol I un-to Custance go,
That fleteth in the see, in peyne and wo,
Fyve yeer and more,
as lyked Cristes sonde,
Er that hir ship approched un-to londe.


Under an hethen castel, atte laste,
 905Of which the name in my text noght I finde,
Custance and eek hir child the see up-caste.

Almighty god, that saveth al mankinde,
 (810)Have on Custance and on hir child som minde,
That fallen is in hethen land eft-sone,
 910In point to spille, as I shal telle yow sone.


Doun from the castel comth ther many a wight
To gauren on this ship and on Custance.
But shortly, from the castel, on a night,
The lordes styward—god yeve him meschaunce!—
 915A theef, that had reneyed our creaunce,
Com in-to ship allone, and seyde he sholde
Hir lemman be, wher-so she wolde or nolde.


 (820)Wo was this wrecched womman tho bigon,
Hir child cryde, and she cryde pitously;
 920But blisful Marie heelp hir right anon;
For with hir strugling wel and mightily
The theef fil over bord al sodeinly,
And in the see he dreynte
for vengeance;
And thus hath Crist unwemmed kept Custance.


 925 AuctorO foule lust of luxurie! lo, thyn ende!
Nat only that thou feyntest mannes minde,
But verraily thou wolt his body shende;
 (830)Thende of thy werk or of thy lustes blinde
Is compleyning, how many-oon may men finde
 930That noght for werk som-tyme, but for thentente
To doon this sinne, ben outher sleyn or shente!


How may this wayke womman han this strengthe
Hir to defende agayn this renegat?
O Golias, unmesurable of lengthe,
 935How mighte David make thee so mat,

So yong and of armure so desolat?
How dorste he loke up-on thy dredful face?
 (840)Wel may men seen, it nas but goddes grace!


Who yaf Iudith corage or hardinesse
 940To sleen him, Olofernus, in his tente,

And to deliveren out of wrecchednesse
The peple of god? I seye, for this entente,
That, right as god spirit of vigour sente
To hem, and saved hem out of meschance,
 945So sente he might and vigour to Custance.


Forth goth hir ship thurgh-out the narwe mouth
Of Iubaltar and Septe, dryving ay,
 (850)Som-tyme West, som-tyme North and South,
And som-tyme Est, ful many a wery day,
 950Til Cristes moder (blessed be she ay!)
Hath shapen, thurgh hir endelees goodnesse,
To make an ende of al hir hevinesse.


Now lat us stinte of Custance but a throwe,
And speke we of the Romain Emperour,
 955That out of Surrie hath by lettres knowe
The slaughtre of cristen folk, and dishonour
Don to his doghter by a fals traitour,
 (860)I mene the cursed wikked sowdanesse,
That at the feste leet sleen both more and lesse.


 960For which this emperour hath sent anoon
His senatour,
with royal ordinance,
And othere lordes, got wot, many oon,
On Surriens to taken heigh vengeance.
They brennen, sleen, and bringe hem to meschance
 965Ful many a day; but shortly, this is thende,
Homward to Rome they shapen hem to wende.


This senatour repaireth with victorie
 (870)To Rome-ward, sayling ful royally,
And mette the ship dryving, as seith the storie,
 970In which Custance sit ful pitously.

No-thing ne knew he what she was, ne why
She was in swich array; ne she nil seye
Of hir estaat, althogh she sholde deye.

Hasn’t Constance been gone for years?

He bringeth hir to Rome, and to his wyf
 975He yaf hir, and hir yonge sone also;

And with the senatour she ladde her lyf.
Thus can our lady bringen out of wo
 (880)Woful Custance, and many another mo.
And longe tyme dwelled she in that place,
 980In holy werkes ever, as was hir grace.
The senatoures wyf hir aunte was,
But for al that she knew hir never the more;
I wol no lenger tarien in this cas,
But to king Alla, which I spak of yore,
 985That for his wyf wepeth and syketh sore,
I wol retourne, and lete I wol Custance
Under the senatoures governance.


 (890)King Alla, which that hadde his moder slayn,
Upon a day fil in swich repentance,
 990That, if I shortly tellen shal and plain,
To Rome he comth, to receyven his penance;
And putte him in the popes ordinance
In heigh and low, and Iesu Crist bisoghte
Foryeve his wikked werkes that he wroghte.


 995The fame anon thurgh Rome toun is born,
How Alla king shal come in pilgrimage,
By herbergeours that wenten him biforn;
 (900)For which the senatour, as was usage,
Rood him ageyn, and many of his linage,
 1000As wel to shewen his heighe magnificence
As to don any king a reverence.


Greet chere dooth this noble senatour
To king Alla, and he to him also;
Everich of hem doth other greet honour;
 1005And so bifel that, in a day or two,
This senatour is to king Alla go
To feste, and shortly, if I shal nat lye,
 (910)Custances sone wente in his companye.


Som men wolde seyn, at requeste of Custance,
 1010This senatour hath lad this child to feste;

I may nat tellen every circumstance,
Be as be may, ther was he at the leste.
But soth is this, that, at his modres heste,
Biforn Alla, during the metes space,
 1015The child stood,
loking in the kinges face.


This Alla king hath of this child greet wonder,
And to the senatour he seyde anon,
 (920)‘Whos is that faire child that stondeth yonder?’
‘I noot,’ quod he, ‘by god, and by seint Iohn!
 1020A moder he hath, but fader hath he non
That I of woot
’—but shortly, in a stounde,
He tolde Alla how that this child was founde.


‘But god wot,’ quod this senatour also,
‘So vertuous a livere in my lyf,
 1025Ne saugh I never as she, ne herde of mo
Of worldly wommen, mayden, nor of wyf;
I dar wel seyn hir hadde lever a knyf
 (930)Thurgh-out her breste, than been a womman wikke;

Ther is no man coude bringe hir to that prikke.’


 1030Now was this child as lyk un-to Custance
As possible is a creature to be.
This Alla hath the face in remembrance
Of dame Custance,
and ther-on mused he
If that the childes moder were aught she
 1035That was his wyf, and prively he sighte,
And spedde him fro the table that he mighte.


‘Parfay,’ thoghte he, ‘fantome is in myn heed!
 (940)I oghte deme, of skilful Iugement,
That in the salte see my wyf is deed.’
 1040And afterward he made his argument—
What woot I, if that Crist have hider y-sent
My wyf by see,
as wel as he hir sente
To my contree fro thennes that she wente?’


And, after noon, hoom with the senatour
 1045Goth Alla,
for to seen this wonder chaunce.
This senatour dooth Alla greet honour,
And hastifly he sente after Custaunce.
 (950)But trusteth weel, hir liste nat to daunce
Whan that she wiste wherefor was that sonde.
 1050Unnethe up-on hir feet she mighte stonde.

The senator did not want Constance to dance?

When Alla saugh his wyf, faire he hir grette,
And weep, that it was routhe for to see.
For at the firste look he on hir sette
He knew wel verraily that it was she.
 1055And she for sorwe as domb stant as a tree;
So was hir herte shet in hir distresse
Whan she remembred his unkindenesse.


 (960)Twyës she swowned in his owne sighte;
He weep, and him excuseth pitously:—
 1060‘Now god,’ quod he, ‘and alle his halwes brighte
So wisly on my soule as have mercy,
That of your harm as giltelees am I
As is Maurice my sone so lyk your face;

Elles the feend me fecche out of this place!’


 1065Long was the sobbing and the bitter peyne
Er that hir woful hertes mighte cesse;
Greet was the pitee for to here hem pleyne,
 (970)Thurgh whiche pleintes gan hir wo encresse.
I prey yow al my labour to relesse;
 1070I may nat telle hir wo un-til tomorwe,
I am so wery for to speke of sorwe.


But fynally, when that the sooth is wist
That Alla giltelees was of hir wo,
I trowe an hundred tymes been they kist,
 1075And swich a blisse is ther bitwix hem two
That, save the Ioye that lasteth evermo,
Ther is non lyk,
that any creature
 (980)Hath seyn or shal, whyl that the world may dure.


Tho preyde she hir housbond mekely,
 1080In relief of hir longe pitous pyne,
That he wold preye hir fader specially
That, of his magestee, he wolde enclyne
To vouche-sauf som day with him to dyne;
She preyde him eek, he sholde by no weye
 1085Un-to hir fader no word of hir seye.


Som men wold seyn, how that the child Maurice
Doth this message un-to this emperour;

 (990)But, as I gesse, Alla was nat so nyce
To him, that was of so sovereyn honour
 1090As he that is of cristen folk the flour,
Sente any child, but it is bet to deme
He wente him-self,
and so it may wel seme.


This emperour hath graunted gentilly
To come to diner, as he him bisoghte;
 1095And wel rede I, he loked bisily
Up-on this child, and on his doghter thoghte.
Alla goth to his in, and, as him oghte,
 (1000)Arrayed for this feste in every wyse
As ferforth as his conning may suffyse.


 1100The morwe cam, and Alla gan him dresse,
And eek his wyf, this emperour to mete;
And forth they ryde in Ioye and in gladnesse.
And whan she saugh hir fader in the strete,
She lighte doun, and falleth him to fete.
 1105‘Fader,’ quod she, ‘your yonge child Custance
Is now ful clene out of your remembrance.


‘I am your doghter Custance,’ quod she,
 (1010)‘That whylom ye han sent un-to Surrye.
It am I, fader, that in the salte see
 1110Was put allone and dampned for to dye.
Now, gode fader, mercy I yow crye,
Send me namore un-to non hethenesse,
But thonketh my lord heer of his kindenesse.’


Who can the pitous Ioye tellen al
 1115Bitwix hem three, sin they ben thus y-mette?
But of my tale make an ende I shal;
The day goth faste, I wol no lenger lette.
 (1020)This glade folk to diner they hem sette;
In Ioye and blisse at mete I lete hem dwelle
 1120A thousand fold wel more than I can telle.


This child Maurice was sithen emperour
Maad by the pope, and lived cristenly.
To Cristes chirche he dide greet honour;
But I lete al his storie passen by,

 1125Of Custance is my tale specially.
In olde Romayn gestes may men finde
Maurices lyf; I bere it noght in minde.


 (1030)This king Alla, whan he his tyme sey,
With his Custance, his holy wyf so swete,
 1130To Engelond been they come
the righte wey,
Wher-as they live in Ioye and in quiete.
But litel whyl it lasteth, I yow hete,
Ioye of this world, for tyme wol nat abyde;
Fro day to night it changeth as the tyde.


 1135Who lived ever in swich delyt o day
That him ne moeved outher conscience,
Or ire, or talent, or som kin affray,
 (1040)Envye, or pryde, or passion, or offence?
I ne seye but for this ende this sentence,
 1140That litel whyl in Ioye or in plesance
Lasteth the blisse of Alla with Custance.


For deeth, that taketh of heigh and low his rente,
When passed was a yeer, even as I gesse,
Out of this world this king Alla he hente,
 1145For whom Custance hath ful gret hevinesse.
Now lat us preyen god his soule blesse!
And dame Custance, fynally to seye,
 (1050)Towards the toun of Rome gooth hir weye.


To Rome is come this holy creature,
 1150And fyndeth ther hir frendes hole and sounde:
Now is she scaped al hir aventure;
And whan that she hir fader hath y-founde,
Doun on hir knees falleth she to grounde;
Weping for tendrenesse in herte blythe,
 1155She herieth god an hundred thousand sythe.

“Hery”: praise.

“Sithe” (related to “send”): time, occurrence.

In vertu and in holy almes-dede
They liven alle, and never a-sonder wende;
 (1060)Til deeth departed hem, this lyf they lede.
And fareth now weel, my tale is at an ende.
 1160Now Iesu Crist, that of his might may sende
Ioye after wo, governe us in his grace,
And kepe us alle that ben in this place! Amen.


Here endeth the Tale of the Man of Lawe; and next folweth the Shipmannes Prolog.

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