Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale Constance’s Agency

The seventeenth century saw the transformation of the idea of nature from something that is not of material substance into a territory. Medieval and Literary Scholar, Stanbury, claims that during this time nature became a “commodity whose relationship to human was defined by its uses whether those involves preservation, consumption of destruction” (4-5). In the Man of Law’s Tale, Constance’s elvish characteristics and deep connections to her faith associate her with the natural world thus both reminding a modern audience about the link of the human spirit to nature and providing a parallel comparison to the expectations of how to care for the environment. Chaucer wrote the Canterbury tales with a single philosophical question in mind “the nature and spiritual effect of love” (Gardner 11). In this tale and in others, he depicts a force of nature that has its own spirit and power outside of its physical form. Often times the way in which the natural world interacts with the characters is representative of their moral being. Chaucer’s work ties together spirituality and the way in which nature loves one who has faith in the Christian God, as in Constance’s instance. Constance is awarded a certain elvish power and certain characteristics as a mother that connects her with a world outside of the human one. By the end of the story, Constance is representative of very nature herself providing readers with a metaphor for the treatment of nature. For a modern reader, Chaucer’s depiction of nature requires a deep understanding that nature has a live outside its potential for human usage.

The beginning prologue of the Canterbury Tales beginning with the spring as an agent. The different components of Spring are different active components. “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote”, and “Whan Zephirus” are invoked in these first eighteen-line sentence personifies the season not only by referring to it the time as a person but also by calling upon mythologies in order to provide action in the springtime description. It is not something that is stagnant but something that has some agency. Scholar Stanbury also discusses how the springtime acts as a force that awakens within humankind and encourages them to go on a pilgrimage (11). Nature depicted in this way is meant to be considered a part of the living and human community, something in which people should be interacting with. The medieval sense of nature held a sense of energy within it and a powerful landscape emphasized a more connected sense of community (Siewers 14).  The reason for the entire journey then lies in the hands of the nature world and thus none of the story would be possible without the acts of nature. The community of storytellers is then created as these people from different walks of life engage in each others’ mind during this pilgrimage. In other words, the story would have never occurred had not the Springtime had not hit and instilled in people a want to go on a religious pilgrimage.

Similarly, The Man of Law’s tale would have never occurred had it not bene for the power of Constance. This initial description of Constance had they never been revealed or been known to all of Rome, then the tale would have never occurred and Constance would have been living in Rome all her life with nothing but love surrounding her but alas that was not her destiny.

“And so bifel that th’ excellent renoun
Of the Emperoures doghter, dame Custance…

This was the commune voys of every man:
“Oure Emperour of Rome — God hym see! —
A doghter hath that, syn the world bigan,
To rekene as wel hir goodnesse as beautee,
Nas nevere swich another as is shee.
I prey to God in honour hire susteene,
And wolde she were of al Europe the queene”

(The Man of Law’s Tale, 150-152; 155-161)

It is in this moment of the tale where, suddenly Constance is more than just the heroine of the story. The characteristics that define her are not of the common human but she is set apart from the rest of society. This establishes her as a being above the normal expectations of common folk. She is associated with a more heavenly form. Constance’s entrance upon Chaucer’s tale gives her a “Christian otherworldliness thus is identified with a native pre-Norman elvishness, and also with a type of Christianity linked to a mythical native Celtic Christianity…” (Siewers 112).

In this beginning section, some of the qualities that were associated with her being are characteristics that are common of a holy being:

“In hire is heigh beautee, withoute pride,
Yowthe, withoute grenehede or folye;
To alle hire werkes vertu is hir gyde;
Humblesse hath slayn in hire al tirannye.
She is mirour of alle curteisye;
Hir herte is verray chambre of hoolynesse,
Hir hand, ministre of fredam for almesse.”

(The Man of Law’s Tale 162-168).

In this further description of Constance, we begin to associate her with a true vision of perfection, of someone who deserves praise and prayers to be done unto her. Thus, beginning the parallels between the Hail Holy Queen, which will be discussed later in further detail. However, the only connection to other worldly being does not only lie with Constance’s connection with the Holy Mother but also with Anglo-Saxon tradition of the elf. Elves are often associated with the power to “inflict mind-altering ailments” (Hall 243). It is this particular elvish quality within her that begins to impact those she does not even begin to know. For it is solely by word of mouth from the Syrian merchants that the faraway Sultan dreams of having her divine-ness as a wife, which essentially sense her on her own journey. He even decides to change his religion and baptize himself due to Constance’s reputation and this is based solely on a description of a person that he had never met, but her connection to a spiritual Christianity precedes her. These initial descriptions of Constance however, set up for a larger connection with the spiritual world and thus is also representative of nature.

Twice was Constance put through a long trail in the sea, and during those times of her floating in the sea, very little is known. “Yeres and dayes fleet this creature… Men myghten asken why she was nat slayn Eek at the feeste? Who myghte hit body save? (The Man of Law’s Tale 463, 470-471). These are the rhetorical questions that might have been floating in the depths of a reader’s mind upon hearing this tale, well The Man of Law answers them for us. He brings us back to the Christian answer referring us to the different miracles that God preforms in Biblical readings. These trips into the sea is the way in which Constance detaches herself from earthly evils. Despite the fact that these are wrongs done onto her, they are functioning like tests of faith, to which she resigns herself with faith that the Lord will take care of her. It is his resignation that provides her with a truly spiritual self. “This departure saves [her] from the idolatry of being, vanity, non-existence, and we gain that being which truly exists” (Tatakēs 113).” It is a heightening of her spiritual self as she is floating in the sea in a sort of meditated state. When Constance then came upon this first land her transformative power is brought out.

It is in this unknown land in which she landed she did leave her permeant mark and gained power.  At this point in the tale, she is also given power of the nature world through God. For Constance, “Wolde hire for Jhesu Cristes love han slayn,” (The Man of Law’s Tale 565). This complete dedication to her faith allowed her to perform a miracle through prayer to the old blind man. This was expletory of the type of spirituality and natural power that comes with complete faith. This single act allows her to mend the spirituality of the King, who later became her husband. It is through this mean that she is allowed to convert the king to believe in the Christian God. “Constance embodies a different type of sovereignty figure, still within a tradition likely adapted typologically by its monastic literary compliers, related both to traditions of the Mother of God… and the feminine figuring of biblical wisdom” (6 Siewers 112). This is in agreement with ecofeminist scholar Ruether that Christian system left a very ambivalent view of women, as either a seductress or as closer to the spiritual realm provided they are freed from subordination which will only occur if they had rejected a certain amount of sexuality (161).  Constance throughout her multiple trials is a clear showcase for Biblical wisdom during times of tribulations. She is placed in situations that she herself cannot control and thus just hopes that it will work out for the best.

This attitude is one that is taken up by the Holy Mother who according to scripture trusted in God, in the moment that she agreed to be the mother of the Savior, and in the moment, that she witnessed her Son die on the cross (Luke 1:26-28 && John 19: 25-27).  In this tale, Constance is tried once more sent off into the sea, but this time with her just born babe.

“Hir litel child lay wepyng in hir arm,
And knelynge, pitously to hym she seyde,
“Pees, litel sone, I wol do thee noon harm.”
With that hir coverchief of hir heed she breyde,
And over his litel eyen she it leyde,
And in hir arm she lulleth it ful faste,
And into hevene hire eyen up she caste.”

(Man of Law’s Tale 834-840)

This image her brings up a popular image of Madonna and Child. She and her son are being exiled into sea yet again with only faith to save them. Although it may seem to some people the constant adversity to which she faces and simply accepts as truth may be seen as passive and going against the agency that links her to the same springtime agency that Chaucer links to nature in the beginning prologue, the agency that belongs to the natural and spiritual world, it does in fact like with her.

No one who has violence in this tale can hold that spiritual connection within them. For as Tatakēs states, that once the body reaches a holy quietness of body and soul then the only thing left to do is to be united with God (114). In that understanding of the holy wisdom does Constance in her unbound wilderness in the sea does she turn to prayer.

“Mooder,” quod she, “and mayde bright, Marie,
Sooth is that thurgh wommanes eggement
Mankynde was lorn, and damned ay to dye,
For which thy child was on a croys yrent.
Thy blisful eyen sawe al his torment;
Thanne is ther no comparison bitwene
Thy wo and any wo man may sustene”

(Man of Law’s Tale 841-847)

Constance calls upon the holy mother to bring her to safety. There is very little that Constance can control about the situation but one thing that she is vastly aware of is that she has the power to have a greater being always at her side and indeed the heaven’s do travel with Constance and keep her from death and rape during her journey. “The primal image of [Constance] in a rudderless boat in the sea reinforces her unknowable, anarchic power” (Robertson 161).  Constance is the agent of the novel. Again, and again, do bad things occur to her despite the fact that she is undeserving of those being subjected to much violence. However not once to those violent agitators in her life ever begin to hold complete power over her. This is because of this power, this elvish quality that Constance seems to hold.

Despite the fact that Constance is the agency for this particular tale, she is also could be a symbol of Mother Earth for the modern reader. While Constance is a symbol of non-violent strength and spirituality the truth of the matter is there are moments within the novel where she is in need of assistance from the real world. For though she goes off to sea and seemingly into another dimension she always comes back to this earth. The first time she lands on the shore she is described as broken:

“The constable of the castel doun is fare
To seen this wrak, and al the ship he soghte,
And foond this wery womman ful of care;
He foond also the tresor that she broghte.
In hir langage mercy she bisoghte,
The lyf out of hir body for to twynne,
Hire to delivere of wo that she was inne.”

(Man of Law’s Tale 512-518).

This pitiful sight on the sand brings memories of oil spills bringing up thousands of dead fish to the surface as they suffocated from the dark liquid. It brings images of a depleting ozone layer. If pushed too harshly, even someone who is one with the natural world can be withered down to nothing. Modern society is not caring for the earth that surrounds them and the misuse of technology against this earth is causing its deuteriation. Chaucer shows us with the very character of Constance how mankind should be in treatment of the earth. Consider the biblical teaching saying that mankind had dominion of the natural world and that they are made in God’s image, then there is indeed a certain amount of agency within mankind (Genesis 1). This agency is given to mankind for the chore of taken care of the church. God and the holy spirit take care of Constance due to her deep connectivity with not only himself but with nature, in the same way that God expected mankind to care for his earth.

Though Chaucer was written in the medieval times it does not fail to apply to today’s society. When looking at the character of Constance from the Man of Law’s tale one can easily associate her with not only a spiritual being but one who is connected with nature so much so that she begins to a part of a deeper natural world. It is her deep understanding of her faith that allows her that closeness to the earth which sends her on her journeys in the sea, which detaches her from normal society. This detachment from society provides her to be the perfect parallel for this dying earth in need of care. In this day in age, many have lost the ability to be connected to nature, and thus according to Byzantine Mysticism it our “intensive duty to turn back, to find the initial condition of man, or better realize within himself the nature which God gave him.” (Tatakēs 120). Not all people have the same devotedness of this fictional character in Chaucer’s tale, nor does one need to be Christian to understand that there was once a time where the earth was believed to have agency among humankind due to a sort of reverence and respect that was given to it. It had the right to life just as humans do. Thus, take a lesson from Chaucer’s tale, and reach out to protect the dying earth of today.

Works Cited

Gardner, John. Life and Times of Chaucer. Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1977.

Hall, Alaric. “Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and elvish.” Anglia-Zeitschrift für             englische Philologie 124.2 (2006): 225-243.

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 23.1   (2001): 143-180.

Radford Ruether, Rosemary. “Ecofeminism: Symbolic and social connections of the         oppression of women and the domination of nature.” Feminist Theology 3.9 (1995): 35-50.

Siewers, Alfred K., and Katherine M. Faull. Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental             Humanities and Ecosemiotics. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, co-       published with Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. Print

Siewers, Alfred K. “6 Ecopoetics and the Origins of English Literature.” Environmental Criticism for the Twenty-First Century (2011): 105-120.

Stanbury, Sarah. “Ecochaucer: Green Ethics and Medieval Nature.” The Chaucer             Review 39.1 (2004): 1-16.

Tatakēs, Vasileios N. Christian Philosophy in the Patristic and Byzantine Tradition. Ed.      George Dion Dragas. Orthodox Research Institute, 2007.

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