Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, October 09, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (The Lawyer’s Tale)

In the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale we saw human vices on display; especially deceit, greed and lust.  In this story we see some human vices too but also some of the human virtues; especially meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  These virtues describe a beautiful Roman emperor’s daughter named Constance.  Modern readers may feel right at home in the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale.  In today’s terms they’re the equivalent of watching an R-rated movie.  But the Lawyer’s Tale takes us into the alien territory of the concept of medieval virtue.  Courtesy and generosity would be recognized as modern virtues.  Meekness and holiness, not so much.  Constance is not a modern woman.  A Syrian sultan likes to talk to merchants about their travels in foreign lands.  When “these merchants told him tales of fair Constance, from such nobility” the sultan was smitten, without ever having seen her.  “This sultan caught a dream of great pleasance… to love that fair lady.”  What he loved in her was her “nobility” or the medieval virtues of meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  He was so much in love that he agreed to convert from Islam to Christianity in order to marry her.  No one asked Constance what she wanted.  But she went along, even though “Constance was overcome with sorrow” to be sent into “a strange country, far from friends” to marry a man she’d never met.  However, she didn’t complain.  She told her father that “women are born to slave and to repent and to be subject to man’s government.”  This is the kind of meekness that is rejected by most of the modern world.  And Constance’s problems were just beginning.

Many of Chaucer’s stories make perfect sense to modern readers.  The Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue revolve around getting along in a grimy world with grimy people.  Constance is not a grimy person.  In fact, she’s so clean that she comes off like some kind of cartoon character; too good to be living in this world.  For one thing, she stoically accepts her suffering as a normal part of life.  But just because she doesn’t complain that doesn’t mean she’s a weak woman.  She comes across as a holy woman, made holy by the suffering she patiently endures.  It’s ironic that her suffering is caused precisely because she is such a virtuous woman.  The sultan was impressed with her virtue, not her beauty.  The irony of this story is that her virtue is not rewarded, at least not until the very end, and then her “reward” is dubious.  And this brings up the question of the role of religion in the medieval mind.  We’re left wondering if Christian faith helped people better cope with suffering; or if their faith helped cause their suffering.  The problem is further complicated by the failure of the sultan to convert his countrymen from Islam to Christianity.  His own mother led a revolt which led to the death not only of the sultan but of all the others he had persuaded to convert to Christianity.  What is the message of that failure of Christian conversion?  Was it due to the strong faith of the Muslim population?  Or was it due to their moral failure to accept love and make peace with their Christian neighbors?  This leads into the deeper question of how much control these characters have over their own lives.  Constance doesn’t seem to have much choice what happens in her life, and she’s an emperor’s daughter.  How much less choice do all the daughters of the lower classes have?  The Roman emperor seems hemmed in.  A match between his daughter and the sultan would cement relations between two whole kingdoms.  That marriage would benefit thousands of people and his own wishes or those of his daughter would pale in comparison.  Also, the sultan doesn’t seem to have much control over his heart.  He can’t help falling in love with Constance.  The sultan’s mother can’t control her own son.  How free are these people?  It’s as if the ancient Greek battle between Fate and Free Will has resurfaced in the Middle Ages.  Or maybe it never went away.  Human vice and human virtue seems to thrive in every age.

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