The Canterbury Tales
Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2007, All Rights Reserved.
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The Man of Law’s Prologue
The words of the Host to the company
Our Host saw well that the bright sun
The arc of his artificial day had run
The fourth part and half an hour and more,
And though he was not deeply versed in lore,
He knew that it was the eighteenth day
Of April, that is messenger to May,
And saw that the shadow of every tree
Was in its length the same in quantity
As was the body erect that produced it,
And therefore, from the shadow, his wit
Deduced that Phoebus, so clear and bright,
Was five and forty degrees in height,
And on that day, and in that latitude,
It was ten o’clock, he might conclude;
And suddenly he turned his horse about.
‘Lordings,’ quoth he, ‘I warn you all right now,
The fourth part of this day’s already gone.
Now, for the love of God and of Saint John,
Lose no time, as little as you may.
Lordings, time is wasting, night and day,
And steals from us, what with covert sleeping,
And what with negligence in our waking,
Like the stream that never returns again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Seneca, and many a philosopher,
Mourn for time more than for gold in coffer;
‘For loss of wealth recovered it may be,
But loss of time consumes us,’ quoth he.
It will not come again, once sped,
No more than will Malkin’s maidenhead,
When she has lost it in her wantonness.
Let us not moulder thus in idleness!
Sir Man of Law’ quoth he, ‘yours be bliss,
Tell us a tale, as our agreement is.
You have submitted by your free assent,
To accept, in this affair, my judgement.
Acquit yourself now at my request;
Then shall you do your duty, with the best.’
‘Host,’ quoth he, ‘depardieux, I assent!
To break a pledge was never my intent.
A promise is a debt, and I would pay
All my debts; I can no fairer say.
For the laws a man makes in his might
He should obey himself, and that is right –
Thus says our text. Nonetheless, for certain,
I can right now no decent tale sustain
Such as Chaucer, though little skilled is he
In metre, and in rhyming craftily,
Has written, in such English as he can,
Of ancient times, known to many a man.
And if he has not told them, dear brother
In one book, he has told them in another.
He has written of lovers up and down
More than our Ovid himself had found
In his Heroides that are full old.
Why tell them again, since they are told?
In youth he spoke of Ceyx and Alcyon,
And after that has written of everyone,
Those noble wives and those lovers too.
Whoever reads his large volume through
That is called The Legend of Good Women,
There the large wounds wide are penned
Of Babylon’s Thisbe, and Lucretia,
Dido’s sword for Aeneas her lover,
The tree of Phyllis for her Demophon,
Deianira’s and Hermione’s moan
Ariadne’s and Hypsipyle’s,
The barren isle standing in the sea,
The drowned Leander for his Hero,
The tears of Helen, and then the woe
Of Briseis, and you, Laodamia;
The cruelty of the Queen, Medea –
The little children hanged in the hall,
For your Jason, who in love was false.
O Hypermnestra, Penelope, Alceste,
Your wifehood he commended with the best!
But certainly no word does he sample
Of the wicked Canace’s example,
Who loved her own brother sinfully.
Such cursed stories, they are not for me,
Nor that of Tyre’s Apollonius –
And how the cursed King Antiochus
Bereft his daughter of her maidenhead.
And is so terrible, that tale I read,
Where he hurls her to the pavement!
And therefore with deliberate intent,
Would never write in any of his sermons
Of such unnatural abominations,
Nor will I retell them, though I may.
But what shall I do for a tale today?
I’m loath to be likened, you see,
To Muses men call the Pierides –
The Metamorphoses shows what I mean.
But nonetheless I care not a bean,
Though I come after him with poor man’s bake.
I’ll speak in prose, let him the rhymes make.’
And with a serious expression here
Began his tale, as you shall after hear.
The Prologue to the Man of Law’s Tale
O hateful harm, condition of poverty,
With thirst, with cold, with hunger, so confounded!
To ask for help shames your heart wretchedly;
If you ask none, so sore then are you wounded
That very need discovers all your wound hid.
Despite your need, you must for indigence
Steal or beg, or borrow your subsistence.
You blame the Christ, and say full bitterly
He misdirects our riches temporal.
Your neighbour you blame sinfully,
And say you have too little, and he has all.
‘By faith,’ you say, ‘judgement someday will fall,
And his tail shall burn in the fire indeed
For he the needy helped not in their need!’
Hark to the opinion of the wise:
‘Better to die than live in indigence.
Your very neighbour will you despise.’
If you be poor, respect for you flies hence!
Yet from the wise man hear this sentence:
‘All the days of poor men are wretched.’
Beware then, ere there you make your bed.
If you are poor, your brother hates you too,
And all your friends flee from you, alas!
O rich merchant, full of wealth are you!
O noble, o prudent folk, as is your case!
Your bag’s not filled by throwing double ace,
But six and five that fall to you by chance.
At Christmas-tide merrily may you dance!
You seek o’er land and sea for your winnings.
As wise folk you know the certain state
Of kingdoms; are the fathers of tidings
And tales, both of peace and fierce debate.
I were now of tales right desolate,
But that a merchant, of another year,
Taught me a tale, one that you now shall hear.
The Man of Law’s Tale
Here begins the Man of Law’s tale
In Syria once there dwelt a company
Of merchants rich, both dignified and true,
That far and wide despatched their spicery,
Their cloth of gold and satins rich of hue,
Merchandise of such quality, brand new,
That every one was happy to trade there
With them, and sell them all their wares.
Now it happened that merchants of this sort
Decided that to Rome their way they’d wend.
Whether for business dealings or for sport,
They wished no other messenger to send,
But go to Rome themselves did so intend.
And in such place as they thought pleasing
For their purpose, settle on their lodging.
The merchants had sojourned in that town
A certain time, as their pleasure chanced.
And so befell that the excellent renown
Of the Emperor’s daughter, Dame Constance,
Reported was, with every circumstance,
To these Syrian merchants in such wise,
From day to day, as I shall you advise.
This was the common voice of every man:
‘Our Emperor of Rome, God save thee!
A daughter has, that since the world began,
Reckoning both her goodness and her beauty,
There was never such another one as she.
I pray that God in honour keep her green,
And would she were of all Europe the queen!
In her there is high beauty without pride,
Youth, without frivolity or folly;
In all her works virtue is her guide;
Humility has conquered vanity.
She is the mirror of all courtesy;
Her heart the chamber is of holiness,
Her hand, the medium of all largesse.’
And all these words were just, as God is true;
But to our purpose let us turn again.
These merchants their ships had freighted new,
And after they had seen this blessed maid,
Home to Syria they gladly sailed,
And ran their trade as they had done before,
And lived in wealth; I can say no more.
Now it befell these merchants stood in grace
With him that was the Sultan of Syria;
For when they returned from foreign place,
He would, of his benevolence and care,
Make them good cheer so he might share
Tidings of sundry kingdoms, and have word
Of wonders that they might have seen or heard.
Among other things, especially,
The merchants told him of Dame Constance
Her nobleness, in earnest, so minutely,
That thought of her the Sultan did entrance
And kept her image so in his remembrance
That all his delight and care was for
The love of her, while life might endure.
Peradventure, in that immense book
Men call the heavens, it written was
In stars, since upon our birth they look,
That love would be the death of him, alas!
For in the stars, clearer than in glass,
Is written, God knows, for us to read
Each man’s death as it must come to be.
In stars many a winter long before
Was written the death of Hector, Achilles,
Of Pompey, Caesar, ere they were born;
The strife of Thebes, and of Hercules,
Of Samson, Turnus, and of Socrates
The death; but men’s wits are so dull,
That no man can read of it all in full.
This Sultan for his privy council sent,
And briefly through this matter to pace,
He declared to them his whole intent,
And said, unless he might have the grace
To win Constance within a little space,
He was but a dead man, bade them see
If they could find for him some remedy.
Diverse men diverse words then said;
They discussed it, argued up and down.
Many a subtle reason forth they led;
They spoke of magic and deception.
But finally, resolved in conclusion
That they could see no clear advantage
In any other course, except in marriage.
But therein they saw such difficulty,
Reasoning like this, to make all plain,
Because there was such great diversity
Between their laws, one must maintain
They said ‘no Christian prince would deign
Wed his daughter by the laws as set
And taught us by Mahomet, our prophet.’
And he replied: ‘Rather than I should lose
Constance, I would be christened, no less.
I must be hers; I may no other choose.
I pray you, these thoughts no more express;
Save my life, and show no idleness
In gaining her who can kill me or cure,
For in this woe I cannot long endure.’
What need for greater explanation?
I say, by treaties and diplomacy,
And also by the Pope’s mediation,
And all the Church, and all the chivalry,
Bent on destroying Islam and heresy,
And spreading the law of Christ dear,
They all agreed, such as you shall hear:
How that the Sultan and his baronage
And all his lieges should christened be,
And he should have Constance in marriage,
And certain gold – I know not what quantity;
Be found as sufficient security.
This same accord was sworn on either side.
Now, fair Constance, may God be your guide!
Some might expect me to tell, I guess,
Of all the preparations in advance
That the Emperor, in his nobleness,
Made for his daughter, Dame Constance.
Yet men will know that such an instance
Cannot be described in some little clause,
As was displayed in all that noble cause.
Bishops were appointed to attend,
Lords, ladies, knights of high renown,
And other folk enough – to this end.
And it is notified to all the town
That everyone of true devotion
Should pray to Christ that He this marriage
Might favour in His sight, and speed its passage.
The time is come for her departure –
I say the woeful fatal day is come,
That there she may no longer linger,
And forth to go were ready all and some.
Constance, who was with sorrow overcome,
Full pale arose, and dressed herself to go,
For well she knows it must indeed be so.
Alas, what wonder is it if she wept,
On being sent to a foreign nation,
Far from friends whose company she’d kept,
And then be bound in absolute subjection
To someone, knowing not his predilection?
Husbands are all good men, as known before
By all good wives – I dare say nothing more.
‘Father,’ she said, ‘your wretched child Constance,
Your young daughter used to life so soft,
And you, my mother, of delight the instance
Above all things, except for Christ aloft,
Constance your child commends herself oft
To your grace, for I go to Syria,
And I lose you from my sight forever.
Alas, unto that barbarous nation
I must anon, since it is your will!
But Christ, that died for our redemption,
So give me grace his purpose to fulfil.
I, wretched woman, any can me kill.
Women are born to servitude and penance,
And to be kept within man’s governance.’
I think in Troy, when Pyrrhus breached the wall,
And Ilium burnt, or in Thebes the city,
Or Rome, when harm was done by Hannibal,
Who vanquished the Romans times three,
Never were heard such tender tears, for pity,
As were heard in her room at her departing!
But forth she must, whether she weep or sing.
O Primum Mobile, cruel firmament!
That drives all on in your diurnal sway
And hurls all from the east to occident
That naturally would run the other way,
Your driving set the heavens in such array
At the beginning of this fierce miscarriage
That cruel Mars had cursed the marriage.
Unfortunate ascendant tortuous
Whose ruler now helpless falls, alas,
Out of his angle into the darkest house!
O Mars, O fatal chart, as this one was!
O feeble moon, unhappy in your course!
Positioned, where you are not well-received;
From where you would be so, cruelly heaved.
Imprudent Emperor of Rome, alas!
Was there no astrologer in all your town?
Was there no better day than this day was?
In journeying is there no decision
To be made for folk of high condition,
Even when their natal chart we know?
Alas, we are too ignorant or slow!
To ship is brought this woeful fair maid,
Solemnly, with royal circumstance.
‘Now Jesus Christ be with you all,’ she said.
Them there’s no more but: ‘Farewell, fair Constance!’
She strives to show a happy countenance;
And forth I let her sail now in this manner,
And turn I will again to my matter.
The Sultan’s mother, a well of vices,
Has understood her son’s full intent,
How he will forsake old sacrifices,
And right anon she for her council sent,
And they were made aware of her bent.
And when they were all assembled there,
She sat down, and spoke as you shall hear:
‘Lords,’ quoth she, ‘you know, each and every one,
How my son is minded to forget
The holy laws proclaimed in our Koran,
Even by God’s messenger Mahomet.
But one vow to great God I make yet:
The life shall rather out of my body start,
Than Mahomet’s law from out my heart!
What can befall us from this new law
But thraldom to our bodies and grief,
And afterward to fall into Hell’s maw
Renouncing Mahomet, and our belief?
So lords, will you make pledge to me
In what I say, assenting to my course,
And I shall make us safe for evermore?
They swore and assented, every man,
To live and die for her, and by her stand,
And ever, in the best way that he can,
Support her with his friends throughout the land.
And she this enterprise takes in hand
Which you shall hear of as I devise,
And to them all she spoke and in this wise:
‘We first shall feign their baptism to take –
Cold water will grieve us but a mite!
And I shall such a feast and revel make
That, I vow, the Sultan I’ll requite.
‘For, though his wife be christened never so white,
She shall have need to wash away the red,
Though she pour a font of water on her head.’
O Sultaness, root of iniquity,
Virago, Semiramis the second!
O serpent masked in femininity,
Like the serpent who in Hell is bound!
O feigning woman, all that may confound
Virtue and innocence, through your malice,
Is bred in you, the nest of every vice!
O Satan, envious since that day
When you were chased from our heritage,
You know well woman’s ancient way!
You made Eve bring us into bondage.
You will foredoom this Christian marriage.
Your instrument – well-away the while! –
You make of woman, whom you will beguile.
This Sultaness, whom I blame and decry,
Let her council go quietly on their way.
Why should I in this tale longer tarry?
She rides to see the Sultan on a day,
And tells him she will renounce her faith,
And baptism at the priest’s hands undergone
Repent of being a heathen for so long,
Beseeching him to do her the honour,
Of asking the Christian folks to a feast.
‘To please them I will nobly labour.’
The Sultan said: ‘I accept at your behest,’
And, kneeling thanked her for her request.
So glad he was he knew not what to say.
She kissed her son, and home she went her way.
The Christian folk have reached the land
Of Syria, with a great solemn rout,
Swiftly a message left the Sultan’s hand
First to his mother, then to all about,
And said his wife was here, without doubt.
And asked her to ride and meet his Queen,
That his kingdom’s honour should be green.
Great was the throng and rich was the array
Of Syrians and Romans in that place.
The mother of the Sultan, rich and gay,
Received her also with as glad a face
As mother might her daughter there embrace.
And to the nearest city there beside
At a gentle pace they thither ride.
I doubt that the triumph of Julius,
Of which Lucan makes such a boast
Was more royal or more curious
Than was the meeting of this splendid host.
But this scorpion, this wicked ghost,
The Sultaness, for all her flattering,
Planned in her heart full mortally to sting.
The Sultan himself arrived soon after this,
So royally, it was wonderful to tell.
He welcomes her with every joy and bliss.
And thus in mirth and joy I’ll let him dwell;
The fruit of this matter I must tell.
In due time, men thought it for the best
That revel ended, men went to their rest.
The day arrived, when this old Sultaness
Had ordained the feast of which I told,
And to the feast Christian folk addressed
Themselves, in general, both young and old.
Here may men feast and royalty behold,
And dainties more than I could so devise –
But all too dearly paid for ere they rise.
O sudden woe that ever is successor
To worldly bliss, mixed with bitterness!
The end of joy in all our earthly labour!
Woe occupies the bound of our gladness.
Hark to this counsel, such our auspices:
‘On the glad day bear it well in mind
That unknown woe or harm comes on behind.’
For briefly for to tell, in a word,
The Sultan and the Christians every one
Were hacked to pieces, stabbed at the board,
Except for our Dame Constance alone.
The old Sultaness, that cursed crone,
Has with her friends done this cursed deed,
For she herself would all that country lead.
There was not one Syrian that converted,
No member of the Sultan’s council but
Was hewn to pieces, none had death averted.
And Constance have they taken now, hot-foot,
And in a ship all rudderless is she put,
God knows, and told to study how to sail
From Syria to Italy, calm or gale.
A certain treasure, brought with her, they add,
And, truth to tell, victuals in great plenty,
Were given her with the clothes she had;
And forth she sailed into the salt sea.
O my Constance, full of benignity,
O Emperor’s young daughter dear,
He that is lord of Fortune, shall you steer!
She crossed herself, and with full piteous voice,
Unto the cross of Christ thus spoke she:
‘O bright, o joyful altar, holy cross,
Reed of the Lamb’s blood, full of pity,
That wash the world of old iniquity,
Me from the fiend and his claws now keep,
That day that I shall drown in the deep!
Victorious Tree, protection of the true,
Thou alone worthy were to bear
The King of Heaven, with His wounds new,
The white Lamb, that hurt was with a spear;
Driver of fiends from every him and her
Over whom your arms faithfully extend,
Protect and grant me strength my life to amend!’
For years and days driven was this creature
Through the seas of Greece, unto the strait
Of Morocco, her fate it was to adventure.
Of many a sorry meal now she ate!
On her death full often must she wait,
Ere that the wild waves shall her drive
To any shore whence succour might arrive.
Men might ask why then she was not slain
At the feast itself? Who did her body save?
And I reply to that demand again,
Who saved Daniel in the dreadful cave,
Where every man save he, master and knave,
Was eaten by lions before he could depart?
No one but God, whom he bore in his heart.
God wished to show a wondrous miracle
In her, for us to see how great his work is.
Christ, that is remedy for every fickle
Act of fate, by means that learned clerics
Know of, does many a thing that full dark is
To Man’s wit, and in our ignorance
We cannot know His careful providence.
Now, since she was not drenched in gore,
What kept her then from drowning in the sea?
Well, who kept Jonah in the whale’s maw,
Till he was spouted up in Nineveh?
Men must know that it was none but He
That kept the Hebrew people from drowning,
With dry feet through the Red Sea passing.
Who bade the four spirits of the tempest,
That have the power to trouble land and sea,
Both north and south, and also east and west,
‘Trouble not the waves, nor land nor tree’?
Truly, of that the commander was He
That from the tempest ever this woman kept,
As well when she awoke as when she slept.
What meat and drink for her then on the wave
Three years and more beyond the sight of sail?
Who fed Mary of Egypt in the cave
Or the desert? No one but Christ, sans fail.
Five thousand folk were in a greater tale
On loaves five and fishes two to feed.
God sent his plenty in hour of need.
She is driven out into our ocean
Through the wild sea, till at the last
Below a castle, known to no man,
Far in Northumberland, she was cast.
And in the sand her vessel stuck so fast
That it remained from turn to turn of tide;
The will of Christ was that she should abide.
The Constable of the castle came there
To see the wreck, and in the vessel sought,
And found this weary woman full of care;
He found also the treasure that she brought
In her own language mercy she besought,
The life out of her body fate to win,
And deliver her from the woe that she was in.
A sort of degenerate Latin was her speech,
But nevertheless he yet could understand.
This Constable, when nought was left to seek,
Brought this woeful woman to the land.
She knelt down, blessed God’s saving hand;
But as to who she was gave no reply,
For foul or fair, though she might die.
She said, she was confounded by the sea
Her memory was gone, in very truth.
And the Constable had for her such pity
And his wife too, that they wept forsooth.
She was so diligent, eager in her youth,
To serve and please all who were in that place
That all loved her who looked on her face.
The Constable, and Dame Hermengild his wife,
Were pagan, as was that country everywhere.
But Hermengild loved her as her life,
And Constance had so long sojourned there,
In orisons, with many a bitter tears,
Till Jesus converted through his grace
Dame Hermengild, the lady of the place.
In all that land no Christians were about;
All Christian folk had fled the country,
For pagans had conquered, made a rout,
On all the northern shores, by land and sea.
To Wales had fled that Christianity
Of ancient Britons living in this isle;
There was its refuge for the meanwhile.
But Christian Britain was not so exiled
That there was not a few that secretly
Honoured Christ, and heathen folk beguiled;
And of such by the castle there lived three.
One of them was blind, and could not see
Except with the eyes within the mind,
With which men see when they are blind.
Bright was the sun on that summer’s day
On which the Constable and his wife also
And Constance had taken the direct way
Towards the sea, a furlong off or two,
To take their pleasure, roaming fro and to.
And on their walk this blind man they met,
Bent and old, with eyes fast shut and set.
‘In Christ’s name,’ cried out this blind Briton,
‘Dame Hermengild, give me my sight again!’
This lady grew fearful at the sound,
Lest her husband, briefly to explain,
Should for her love of Christ have her slain;
Till Constance made bold, and bade her work
The will of Christ, as daughter of his church.
The Constable was troubled at the sight,
And said: ‘What means it then, this affair?’
Constance answered: ‘Sir, it is Christ’s might,
Who helps folks from out the foul fiend’s snare.’
And so our faith began she to declare,
Till she the Constable, before that eve,
Converted, and in Christ made him believe.
The Constable was not lord of this place
Where he found Constance on the sand,
But held it strongly, many winters’ space,
Under Alla, King of Northumberland,
That was full wise and strong of hand
Against the Scots, as men are aware.
But I turn now again to my matter.
Satan, that waits for us to beguile,
Saw of Constance all her perfection,
And cast about how he might her defile,
And made a young knight dwelling in that town
Love her so hotly, with a foul affection,
That truly he thought to die, or live until
He of her might once have had his will.
He wooed her then, but it availed him not –
She would not sin at all in any way.
And out of spite he plotted in his thought
A shameful death indeed for her, I say.
Waiting till the Constable was away,
Secretly upon a night he crept
Into Hermengild’s chamber while she slept.
Wearied, with making of her orisons,
Constance sleeps, and Hermengild also.
This knight, through Satan’s temptations
All stealthily towards the bed does go,
And at once slits Hermengild’s throat,
And lays the bloody knife by Dame Constance
And goes his way – may God bring him mischance!
Soon after comes the Constable home again,
Along with Alla, that king was of those lands,
And saw his wife pitilessly slain,
At which full oft he wept and wrung his hands.
And in the bed the bloody knife he found
Beside Dame Constance. Alas, what could she say?
For very woe her wits went all astray.
To King Alla was told all this mischance,
And the time, and where, and in what wise
That in a ship was found this Dame Constance,
As before you have heard me advise.
The king’s heart melted in his eyes
When he saw so gentle a creature
Lost in suffering and misadventure.
For as the lamb towards its death is brought,
So stands this innocent before the king.
The false knight that has this treason wrought
Accuses her of doing this dark thing.
But nonetheless there was great mourning
Among the people, saying they would not guess
That she could do so great a wickedness.
That they had ever seen her virtuous,
And loving Hermengild as her life,
Of this bore witness all in that house,
Save he that slew Hermengild with his knife.
The noble king heard far and wide
This testimony, and thought to enquire
Deep into this, and find the truth entire.
Alas, Constance, you have no champion,
Nor can you fight yourself, so well-away!
But he that died for our redemption
And bound Satan (who lies where he lay),
May He be your strong champion this day!
Unless Christ an open miracle display,
Guiltless you shall be slain without delay.
She fell upon her knees, and thus she said:
‘Immortal God, that did save Susanna
From calumny, and you, merciful maid,
Mary I mean, daughter of Saint Anna,
Before whose child angels sing Hosanna,
If I be guiltless of this felony,
My succour be, or else I shall die!’
Have you not seen sometimes a pale face
Among the throng, of him that has been led
Towards his death, having obtained no grace,
And such a hue over his face has spread,
Men might know his face as one in dread
Among all the faces there to be found?
So stands Constance, and gazes all around.
O Queens, living in prosperity
Duchesses, and you ladies every one,
Take pity on her in adversity!
An Emperor’s daughter stands alone;
She has no one to whom to make her moan.
O blood royal, that stands in dread indeed,
Far off are your friends in your great need!
This King Alla had such compassion,
As noble heart is filled full of pity,
That from his eyes ran the water down.
‘Now swiftly go fetch a Book,’ quoth he,
‘And if this knight will swear that she
This woman slew, we will consider much
On whom we wish to nominate as judge.’
A British Book, in which were the Gospels,
Was fetched, and on this book he swore anon
She guilty was, it instantly befell
That a hand smote him on the neck-bone,
And down he fell lifeless as a stone,
And both his eyes burst from his face,
In sight of everybody in that place.
A voice was heard in general audience,
And said: ‘You have slandered the innocent,
A daughter of Holy Church in high presence.
So have you done, yet I remain silent!’
The throng was struck with amazement,
At this wonder, dumb stood every one
For fear of vengeance, save Constance alone.
Great was the dread, and also the repentance,
Of those who had harboured false suspicion
Of the innocent and humble Constance.
And for this miracle, in conclusion,
And through Constance’s mediation,
The king, and many another in that place,
Converted were, thanks be to Christ’s grace!
The false knight had been slain in untruth
By judgement of Alla, instantly,
And yet Constance had pity for his youth.
And after this Jesus of his mercy
Made Alla marry full solemnly
This holy maid, who is so bright serene.
And so has Christ made Constance a queen.
But who was woeful, and I tell no lie,
At this wedding, but Donegild alone,
The king’s mother, full of tyranny?
She thought her cursed heart would break;
She wished her son had not done so.
She thought it an insult he should take
A foreign creature to be his mate.
Now I’d not wish from chaff and straw
To make so long a tale, but from good corn.
Why should I tell then of the wealth they pour
Out for the marriage, the course first borne,
Who blows upon the trumpet or the horn?
The fruit of every tale is but to say:
They eat and drink, and dance, and sing, and play.
They went to bed, both reasonable and right,
For though wives are the holiest of things,
They must accept patiently at night
Such necessary customs as are pleasing
To folk that have wedded them with rings,
And lay their holiness somewhat aside
On such occasions – it cannot be denied.
He begat a boy child on her anon;
And to the Constable and Bishop he,
Gave his wife to guard when he was gone
To Scotland, there his enemies to seek.
Now fair Constance, who is so humble and meek
So far is gone with child, that calm and still
She lies in her chamber, abiding Christ’s will.
The time is come, a boy child she bears;
Mauricius at the font they him name.
The Constable summons a messenger,
And writes to his king, Alla, the same,
With blissful tidings how the child came
And other news expedient to say.
He takes the letter, and goes on his way.
This messenger, for his own advantage,
To the king’s mother swiftly rides,
And greets her full fair in this language:
‘Madame,’ quoth he, ‘you may be glad and blithe,
And thank God a hundred thousand times:
My lady has a child, of that no doubt,
To the joy and bliss of all the land about.
Lo, here, these sealed letters speak the thing,
Which I must bear with all the haste I may.
If you have aught for your son the king,
I am your servant, both night and day.’
Donegild answered: ‘Not at this time, nay.
But here tonight I would you’d take your rest;
Tomorrow will I tell you all the rest.’
The messenger drank deep of ale and wine,
And stolen were his letters secretly
Out of his box, while he slept like a swine.
And counterfeited was all subtly
Another letter, wrought all sinfully,
Unto the king addressed about the matter
From his Constable, as you’ll hear after.
The letter claimed the Queen delivered was
Of so horrible a fiendish creature
That in the castle none so stalwart was
To dare for any time there to endure.
The mother was an elf, peradventure
Come by charms or by sorcery,
And every soul hated her company.
Woe was the king with this letter plain,
But spoke to no one of his sorrows sore,
And on his own hand he wrote again:
‘Welcome what Christ sends for evermore
To me that am now learned in His lore!
Lord, welcome be your wish and action;
All mine is subject to your direction.
‘Defend this child, though it be foul or fair,
And my wife also, till my home-coming.
Christ, when he wish, may send me an heir
More agreeable than this to my liking.’
This letter he sealed, privately weeping,
Which to the messenger was taken soon,
And off he goes; no more was to be done.
O messenger, filled full of drunkenness,
Strong is your breath, your limbs falter they,
And all your secrets you confess.
Your mind is gone, you chatter like a jay;
Your face altered features does display.
Where drunkenness reigns in the house
There is no counsel hid, have no doubt.
O Donegild, there’s no English of mine
Fit for your malice and your tyranny,
And therefore to the fiend I you resign;
Let him write further of your treachery!
Fie, human monster! – No, by God, I lie! –
Fie, fiendish spirit! For I dare say well,
Though you walk here, your spirit is in Hell.
The messenger comes from the King again,
And at the King’s Mother’s court alights,
And she worked his confidence to gain,
And pleased him in everything she might.
He drank and filled his belly till the night;
He slept then, and snored in every wise
Until the morning sun began to rise.
Again were his letters stolen every one,
And counterfeit letters penned like this:
‘The King commands his Constable anon,
On pain of hanging and severe justice,
That he should in no manner suffer his
Wife Constance in the land, she to abide
Three days more, and the quarter of a tide;
But in the same ship where she was found,
Her and her young son and all her gear
He should set, and thrust her from the land,
And charge her to nevermore come here.’
O my Constance, well may your spirit fear,
And sleeping, in your dream, feel the pangs,
When Donegild decrees this ordinance!
The messenger that morrow, when he woke,
Hastened to the castle the nearest way,
And to the Constable he the letter took.
And seeing what this sad letter had to say,
Full often he said: ‘Alas!’ and ‘Well-away!’
‘Lord Christ,’ quoth he, ‘how may this world endure,
So full of sin is many a creature?
Almighty God, if it should be your will,
Since you are the true Judge, how can it be
That you will allow innocent blood to spill,
And wicked folk to reign in prosperity?
O good Constance, alas, so woe is me,
That I must be your tormentor, or pay
In shameful death; there is no other way.’
Both young and old wept in that place,
When the King this cursed letter sent.
And Constance, with a deadly pale face,
On the fourth day to her ship she went.
Nevertheless with inward content
She bowed to Christ’s will, knelt on the sand,
And said: ‘Lord, welcome is your command!
He that has defended me from blame
While I was on the shore among you,
He will keep me from all harm and shame
On the salt sea, though I know not how.
As strong as ever He was, so is He now.
In Him I trust, and in His Mother dear,
Who is to me my sail, and He will steer.’
Her little child lay weeping in her arms,
And kneeling, piteously to him she said:
‘Peace, little son, I will do you no harm.’
With that her head-cloth she disarrayed,
And doffing it, over his eyes it laid,
And in her arms she lulled him full fast,
And up to Heaven her eyes she cast.
‘Mother,’ quoth she, and maiden bright, Marie,
True it is, that through woman’s frail intent
Mankind was ruined, and condemned was he,
For which your child was on the Cross rent.
Your blessed eyes witnessed His torment;
Thus is there no comparison between
Your woe, and any woe that man has seen.
You saw your child slain before your eyes,
And yet now lives my little child, in faith.
Now lady bright, who hears all woeful cries,
You glory of womanhood, you fair maid,
You haven of refuge, bright star of day,
Pity my child, and in your gentleness
Pity the pitiful, in sore distress.
O little child, alas, what is your guilt
That never sinned as yet, can it be
That your harsh father shall have you killed?
O mercy, dear Constable,’ quoth she,
‘Let my little child dwell still with thee!
And if you dare not save him, fearing blame,
Yet kiss him once in his father’s name!’
With this she looked back towards the land,
And said: ‘Farewell, my husband, pitiless!’
And up she rose and walked across the sand
Towards the ship; her followed all the rest.
And ever she prayed her child to cry the less,
And took her leave, and with holy intent
She crossed herself, and into the ship she went.
Victualled fully was the ship, indeed
Abundantly for her, a longish space;
And other necessaries she would need
She had enough, praised be God’s grace!
May wind and weather bow to God’s face,
And bring her home! I can no other say
Than through the sea she sets out on her way.
Alla the King comes home soon after this
Back to his castle, that of which I told,
And asks where his wife and child is.
The Constable at his heart turned cold,
And plainly all the matter he him told –
As you have heard; I cannot tell it better –
And showed the King his seal and the letter,
And said: ‘Lord, as you commanded me
On pain of death, so have I done, be certain.’
The messenger questioned was till he
Was forced to confess, blunt and plain,
From night to night in what place he had lain.
And thus by close and subtle enquiry
It was conceived from whom this harm might be,
The hand was revealed that letter wrote,
And all the venom of this cursed deed,
But in what manner, certainly I know not.
The outcome was this: that Alla, as is said,
His mother slew – that all might know instead
How, traitor, she had failed in her allegiance.
So ends old Donegild, cursed in all that land!
The sorrow that this Alla night and day,
Feels for his wife and for his child also,
There is no tongue that tell it may.
But now will I again to Constance go,
Who drifts about the sea, in pain and woe,
Five years or more, at Christ’s command,
Before her ship draws near to land.
Below a heathen castle at long last,
Of which no name in my text I find,
Constance and her child the sea up-cast.
Almighty God, who saves all mankind,
Have Constance and her child in mind,
To fall now into heathen hands her doom,
At brink of death, as I shall show you soon.
Down from the castle to gaze on this sight
Came many a one, and found Constance;
But shortly, from the castle in the night
The lord’s steward – God curse him at a glance! –
A thief that abjured our faith, did prance,
Came to the ship alone and said he should
Lie with her, no matter if she would.
The wretched woman then was woebegone;
Her child cried, and she cried piteously.
But blessed Mary helped her right anon;
For with her struggling hard and fiercely
The thief fell overboard, and suddenly
Was drowned beneath the sea, in vengeance,
And so Christ, undefiled keeps this Constance.
O foul lust and lechery, lo, your end!
Not only that you darken a man’s mind,
But truly you will his body take and rend.
The end of your work or passions blind
Is lamentation. How often men will find,
That not for the act, but for the intent
To commit the sin, they are killed or rent?
How could this frail woman have the strength
To defend herself against this renegade?
O Goliath, immeasurable in length,
How has David your might un-made,
And he so young, in armour un-arrayed?
How did he dare to gaze on your dread face?
Well can men see, it was but by God’s grace.
Who gave Judith courage or hardiness
To slay King Holofernes in his tent,
And deliver out of wretchedness
The people of God? I say it was meant,
And just as God a spirit of vigour sent
To them, and saved them from mischance,
So sent he might and vigour to Constance.
Forth goes her ship through the narrow mouth
Of Gibraltar and Ceuta, then, drifts away,
Sometimes west, sometimes north and south,
And sometimes east, for many a weary day.
Till Christ’s Mother – blessed be she always! –
Determines through her endless goodness
To make an end of all her heaviness.
Now let us turn from Constance for a throw,
And speak about the Roman Emperor,
Who out of Syria in letters came to know
Of the slaughter of Christians, and dishonour
Done to his daughter by a false traitor;
I mean the cursed wicked Sultaness,
Who had so many slain at the feast.
At which the Emperor has sent anon
His Senator, with royal ordinance,
And other lords, God knows, many a one,
On the Syrians to take high vengeance.
They burn, slay, and bring them mischance
For many a day; but to make and end:
Homeward to Rome their way they wend.
This Senator returned in victory
To Rome, sailing full royally,
And met the ship adrift, so goes the story,
In which Constance sat so piteously.
He knew nothing of who she was, or why
She was in such state, nor would she supply
One word about her rank, though she should die.
He brought her back to Rome, and to his wife
He gave her, and her young son also,
And with the Senator she led her life.
Thus can Our Lady bring us out of woe,
Woeful Constance and many another so;
And long time she dwelled in that place,
Doing holy works ever, in her grace.
The Senator’s wife her own aunt was,
But for all that she knew her no more.
I will no longer tarry on the case,
But to Alla, of whom I spoke before,
Who weeps for his wife and sighs full sore,
I will return, and I will leave Constance
Under the Senator’s governance.
King Alla, who had his mother slain,
Fell one day into such repentance
That, to tell you briefly, and explain,
To Rome he came, to do his penance,
And to obey the Pope’s ordinance
In high and low, and Jesus Christ besought
To forgive the wicked works he had wrought.
The news at once through the town was borne
That Alla the King came in pilgrimage,
By harbingers of him, that came before;
And so the Senator, as was his usage,
Rode out again, and many of his lineage,
As much to show his great magnificence
As to do any king a reverence.
Great welcome does this noble Senator
Show King Alla, and he to him also;
Each of them does the other great honour.
And so it befell, in a day or so,
This Senator to King Alla is to go
To dine, I will not lie, and thus briefly,
Constance’s son went in his company.
Some say the request came from Constance
That the Senator take the child to the feast.
I cannot tell every circumstance;
Be as it may, there he was at least.
But true it is, that at his mother’s behest
Before Alla, during the meal’s space,
The child stood, and gazed at the King’s face.
King Alla in this child found a wonder,
And to the Senator he said anon:
‘Whose is that fair child standing yonder?’
I know not,’ quoth he, ‘by God and by Saint John!
A mother he has, but father had he none
That I know of’ – and briefly he unwound
The tale to Alla of how the child was found.
‘But God knows,’ said this Senator also,
‘So virtuous a being in my life
As she I never saw, nor heard of, no,
Of worldly women, whether maid or wife.
I dare well say she’d rather feel the knife
Through her breast than be a wicked woman;
No man could bring her to that condition.’
Now was this child as like to Constance
As it were possible for child to be.
And Alla has the face in his remembrance
Of Dame Constance, and on this mused he,
If that the child’s mother could chance to be
His wife, and secretly began to sigh,
And left the table swiftly as he might.
‘By my faith,’ quoth he, a ghost is in my head!
I must believe, by every rational judgement,
That in the salt sea my wife is dead.’
Yet after that he made this argument:
‘How do I know that Christ has not sent
My wife here by sea, as once was his intent
To bring her to my land from which she went?’
And after noon, home with the Senator
Goes Alla, to pursue this wondrous chance.
The Senator does Alla great honour
And swiftly he sends for Constance.
But trust in this, it did not make her dance
When she knew the reason for this command,
Barely upon her feet could she stand.
Alla greeted his wife fair, when they met,
And wept so much it was pitiful to see;
For at the first look that on her he set
He knew in very truth that it was she.
And she for sorrow stood dumb as a tree,
So was her heart imprisoned by distress,
When she remembered all his harshness.
Twice she swooned before him in his sight,
He wept and sought her pardon piteously.
‘Now God,’ quoth he, ‘and all his saints bright,
As surely may on my soul have mercy
If of your harm not innocent am I
As is Maurice my son, so like in face –
Else the fiend may drag me from this place!’
Long was the sobbing and the bitter pain
Ere that their woeful hearts might have peace.
Great was the pity to hear him weep again,
Through which her woe would then increase.
I pray you all from labour me release;
I may not tell their woe until tomorrow –
I am too weary now to speak of sorrow.
But finally, when all the truth men know,
That Alla was innocent of all her woe,
A hundred times to kissing do they go,
And such a bliss is there between the two
That save the joy that is eternal so,
None like it has been seen by any creature
Or ever will, while this world shall endure.
Then she prayed her husband humbly,
To help ease her long-troubled mind,
That he would beg her father especially,
That of his majesty he would incline
To vouchsafe with him someday to dine.
She begged him also he should in no way
Tell her father of this that she did say.
Some men say how that the child Maurice
Carried this message to the Emperor;
But, as I guess, Alla was not so foolish
As to send, to one of sovereign honour –
He that is of Christian folk the flower –
A child indeed; but wiser still I deem
For him to go himself, as it would seem.
The Emperor answered courteously
The dinner invitation as he besought;
And as I read here, he gazed intently
At this child, and of his daughter thought.
Alla goes to his inn, and as he ought
Arrays himself for the feast in every wise,
As perfectly as his skill might suffice.
The morrow came, and Alla began to dress,
And his wife also, the Emperor to meet,
And off they ride in joy and gladness.
And when she saw her father in the street,
She alighted and fell down at his feet.
‘Father,’ quoth she, ‘your young child Constance
Is now clean lost from your remembrance.
‘I am your daughter Constance,’ quoth she,
‘That you once sent into Syria.
It is I, father, that in the salt sea
Was lost alone, and condemned to suffer.
Now father, have mercy on your daughter!
Send me no more into heathenness,
But thank my lord here for his kindness.’
Who can the merciful joy tell all
Betwixt those three, now they are met?
But of my tale make an end I shall;
The day goes fast, I will no longer let
Time slip: this glad folk to dinner sit;
In joy and bliss at dinner let them dwell,
A thousand-fold more than I can tell.
The child Maurice after was Emperor
Crowned by the Pope, in Christianity;
To Christ’s Church he did great honour.
But I let all his story fly from me;
Of Constance is my tale especially.
In the old Roman chronicles we find
Maurice’s life; I have it not in mind.
King Alla, when there came the chosen day,
With his Constance, his holy wife so sweet,
To England they sailed the nearest way,
Where they lived in joy and in quiet.
But little while it lasted, I admit,
Joy of this world, since time will not abide;
From day to day it changes as the tide.
Who lived ever in such delight all day
That in him there moved no instance
Of anger, or desire, some kin’s affray,
Envy or pride, or passion, or offence?
I will only say to end this sentence,
But a little while in a joyful sense
Lasted the bliss of Alla and Constance.
For death takes of high and low his rent:
When a year had passed, even as I guess,
Life in this world for King Alla was spent,
At which Constance felt such great sadness.
Now let us pray that God his soul bless!
And Dame Constance, finally to say,
Towards the town of Rome goes her way.
To Rome, is come this holy creature,
And finds her friends there whole and sound;
Now escaped from all her adventures.
And when that she her father has found;
Down on her knees falls she to the ground;
Weeping for tenderness with heart blithe,
She praises God a hundred thousand times.
In virtue and in holy alms’ deeds
They all live, and never asunder wend;
Till death parts them from this life they lead.
And fare well now, my tale is at an end.
Now Jesus Christ, in His might may He send
Joy after woe, and govern us in His grace,
And protect us all that are in this place! Amen.
Here Ends the Man of Law’s Tale
The Epilogue to the Man of Law’s Tale
Our Host upon his stirrups stood anon,
And said: ‘Good men, hearken everyone!
That was a nifty tale! All gold, no stones!
Sir Parish Priest,’ quoth he, ‘for God’s bones,
Tell us a tale, as you promised us before.
As I know well you men learned in lore
Are full of knowledge, by God’s dignity.’
The Parson answered: ‘Benedicitee!
What ails the man so sinfully to swear?’
Our Host answered, ‘O Jankin, are you there?
I smell a Lollard in the wind!’ quoth he.
‘Now good men,’ quoth our Host, hark to me!
Abide, for God’s noble passion,
For we shall have – in preacher’s fashion –
This Lollard tell us piously what’s what.’
‘Nay, by my father’s soul, that shall he not!’
Said the Shipman, ‘Here shall he not preach.
He shall no gospel gloss for us, nor teach.
We live all in the great God’s eye,’ quoth he,
‘He would sow for us some difficulty,
Or scatter tares about in our clean corn.
And therefore, Host, I warn you before
My handsome body a fine tale shall tell,
And ring for you so merry a bell,
That I shall waken all this company.
But it shall not be of philosophy,
No physicus, no strange terms in law.
There is but little Latin in my maw!’
(The authenticity of the Epilogue has been questioned.)