The Ellesmere portraitist did not have much to work on in his portrait of The Man of Law; he provided him with the "coif" that marks a Sergeant at Law, and followed what little description Chaucer provided:
He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote,
Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;
Of his array telle I no lenger tale.
Syrian merchants carry home to their Sultan news of the beautiful and virtuous Custance, daughter of the Emperor of Rome. He loves her unseen and agrees to adopt Christianity if she will be his wife. The Emperor agrees and Custance leaves sadly for Syria. The Sultan's mother, enraged that her son has determined to take a new faith, arranges a massacre at a welcoming banquet. All are slain except Custance, who is set adrift in a rudderless boat. She drifts to Northumbria. She is taken in by a constable and his wife Hermengild, both of whom become Christian. An evil knight slays Hermengild and blames Custance for the deed. King Alla holds court, and the knight who accuses Custance is struck dead. Alla marries Custance. They have a male child, Maurice. Donegild, the king's mother, by falsified letters makes Alla think Custance has borne a monster, and she contrives the exile of Custance and her son. They are set adrift in the same rudderless boat in which she arrived. Alla learns the truth and slays Donegild. Custance drifts near a castle, where the lord's steward comes aboard and tries to rape her; aided by heaven, she knocks him overboard and drifts on. A Roman senator, returning from a punitive expedition to Syria, comes upon Custance in her boat and brings her and her son to Rome. Meanwhile, King Alla has set out from for Rome to do penance for killing Donegild. Alla and Custance are reunited when Alla sees Maurice and recognizes his resemblance to Custance. She is then reunited with her father, the Emperor. Later Mauruce succeeds to the imperial throne. Alla and Custance return to Northumbria. When Alla dies, Custance returns to her father in Rome.
(Students reading this tale for the first time may find an interlinear translation helpful.)
The Tale told by the Man of Law also appears in John Gower's Confession Amantis. That fact is important to the Introduction to The Man of Law's Tale: in that introduction, the Man of Law first praises Chaucer for his exaltation of women and he lists the heroines of Chaucer's Legend of Good Women (along with others who may or may not have been intended for later inclusion in that work). Then he says that Chaucer would never tell such "cursed stories" as the tales of Canace and Machaire and of Appolonius of Tyre. Both are stories of incest; both tales also appear in the work of his friend, John Gower in his Confessio Amantis:
For a glossed version of Gower's story of Canace and Machaire see: The Tale of Canace.
For Apollonius of Tyre see: The Confessio Amantis, Book VIII, lines 271-2028, in the electronic text collection at the University of Michigan (This is not glossed; one must use the printed version of Macaculay's edition for notes and glosses).
The story of Constance belongs to a tradition of stories of "exiled queens" -- see Margaret Schlauch, Constance and Accused Queens. In many of the stories, attempted incest is the cause of the heroine's initial exile. This is the case in Emaré, a fourteenth-century work that contains an earlier version of the story of Constance and her exile.
There is no trace of the theme of incest in the source on which both Chaucer and Gower drew for their tales of Constance. They used the same direct source, a story in Nicholas Trivet's Anglo-French Chronicle; see The Riverside Chaucer, p. 857, and Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F, Bryan and Germaine Dempster (Chicago, 1941; New York, 1958) . A comparison of the Man of Law's Tale and Gower's "Tale of Constance" is thus especially revealing.
See Gower's Tale of Constance.
Since there is no incest in the tale of Constance, why Chaucer raises the subject is not at all clear; perhaps he merely wishes to needle his friend John Gower, whom he elsewhere rightly calls "moral Gower." As noted above, the Tale of Constance, which follows, is a tale that Gower also tells in his Confessio, and this is the first of a number of tales in The Canterbury Tales that have analogues in Gower's work: The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Physician's Tale, and the Manciple's Tale, like the Man of Law's Tale, have their counterparts in The Confessio Amantis. It is almost as if Chaucer is challenging his friend to a tale-telling contest of the sort that Harry Bailey establishes for the pilgrims themselves.
The most notable difference between Gower's and Chaucer's versions is obvious even on a casual reading of the two texts: Chaucer's version is cast in the elegant rime royal stanza, which Chaucer first employed in English verse, and his tale, unlike Gower's rather plain style, is cast in the elaborate high style,which his contemporaries and imitators regarded as his principal contribution to English poetry.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Man of Law's Tale click here.