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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

Introduction to the Sergeant at Law’s Tale

The host realizes that one-fourth of the day had already passed away and urges the pilgrims not to waste any more time. He then asks the Sergeant at Law to tell a story and reminds him in a legal sounding language of his to do so. While the Sergeant at Law has no intention of dishonoring his commitment, he complains that Chaucer has already written all the good stories that can be told. He further announces that he will speak in prose and tell his story plainly.


The Sergeant at Law’s Tale

Summary

Once upon a time a group of wise, sober and honest traders lived in Syria. They exported spices, gold, satins, etc far and wide. It so happened that the leading traders of this prosperous group made up their minds to go to Rome for business purposes. During their stay in Rome the Syrian traders came to know about the incredible beauty of Constance, the daughter of Roman Emperor Tiberius Constantinus. Constance was commended for her remarkable beauty, humility, strength of character, holiness, generosity and graciousness. After finishing their business these merchants sailed back home to .

They were on good terms with the Sultan and after every foreign trip they would inform him of the news of various countries and the wonders that they had either heard of or seen. The merchants, among other things, told the Sultan about Lady Constance. The Sultan was captivated by Lady Constance’s description and resolved to make her his wife. The Sultan sent for his Privy Council and quite plainly told them that he would die if he could not win her over.

The Sultan’s problem engendered a great debate on the issue. Nothing except marriage seemed feasible. But the councilors foresaw that no Christian ruler would be willing to let his heir marry a Muslim. The Sultan was so much in love with Constance that he dismissed this religious objection and declared that he would convert. Soon all his Syrian subjects also converted Christianity.

The Roman emperor made magnificent preparations for his daughter’s wedding. When the day of departure finally arrived Constance was overcome with sorrow and wept at being sent away to a strange land and being distanced from her friends. An unhappy Constance tearfully set sail for Syria.

In the meanwhile the Sultan’s mother, who was very angry at her son’s renunciation of the teachings of the holy Koran for the sake of Constance, summoned some of her counselors and made them pledge that they would rather die than renounce their Muslim faith. The She told them to make a pretense of accepting and to kill all the Christians at the end of the banquet that she would arrange to celebrate her son’s wedding. The Sergeant at Law denounces the evil maliciousness of the Sultan’s mother.


The Sergeant at Law’s Tale - Part 2

Summary

The Sultan received Lady Constance and the accompanying her with great joy. A splendid crowd of the Syrian subjects had turned out for the occasion. After the wedding ceremony, the Sultan, Constance and all the Christians went to the banquet hosted by the Sultan’s mother. Suddenly her conspirators entered and hacked all the Christians including the Sultan to pieces. Even the Syrian subjects who had converted to Christianity were not spared. Only Lady Constance was left alive. The widowed Constance was captured and set adrift in a well-provisioned sailing vessel. Her little boat tossed upon the stormy waves for more than three years and by divine grace finally landed in Northumberland.

The constable of the castle found the worn out Constance in the wrecked vessel and took her home to his wife. They took care of her and soon enough Constance’s tirelessness won everybody’s hearts. The and his wife, Hermengild, like the rest of the inhabitants of Northumberland, were heathens. Under Constance’s influence secretly converted to Christianity. One day Constance miraculously cured a blind man and converted the heathen constable to Christianity.

However this peaceful state of affairs was too perfect to last long. Satan made a young Northumbrian knight fall in love with Constance who spurned him. One night the knight burning with the desire to take revenge murdered and put the blood stained knife in Constance’s bed so as to implicate her. The grief stricken constable found the murder weapon in Constance’s bed and produced her before Alla, the King of Northumberland. Nobody in court could believe that Constance could have perpetrated such a foul act. The knight however publicly testified that Constance had killed . At this moment a mysterious voice was heard which condemned the knight for falsely defaming a disciple of Christ. This marvel astonished those present in court and everybody including King Alla embraced Christianity. The knight was sentenced to death for his perjury and King Alla married Constance. However Donegild, the King’s tyrannical mother, didn’t approve of this marriage.

Constance gave birth to a beautiful son while the King had gone on an expedition to Scotland. The child was christened Maurice. The constable sent a message to Alla to inform him of the happy news but the King’s evil mother interfered with the message and instead wrote a false letter saying that Constance had given birth to a horrible and fiendish creature. Although Alla was grief stricken he reconciled himself to his fate and accepted it as God’s will. The King wrote a message instructing the constable to keep the child and Constance safely until his return. However once again intercepted the message and wrote a letter commanding the constable to set Constance and her child adrift in a boat within 3 days. Accordingly Constance along with her son had to once again endure hardships to prove the strength of her faith.


The Sergeant at Law’s Tale - Part 3


Summary

When Alla returned from his Scottish expedition, he was consumed with grief at the loss of his wife and child. Upon questioning the constable and the messenger Alla soon discovered Donegild’s evil hand in the plot and killed his mother.

Constance had to sail for more than five years and endure many hardships before her ship touched land. In the meanwhile, the Roman emperor heard about the massacre of the Christians in Syria and the tragic fate that befell his daughter. He dispatched a senator with an army to Syria to exact revenge. The Roman soldiers killed the Syrians and then victoriously set sail for Rome. On the return voyage the senator came upon Constance’s boat and brought her back to Rome. Constance had lost her memory and didn’t recognize Rome as her homeland and lived with the senator and his wife.

Alla decided to go to Rome to do penance for the bad luck that had befallen his beloved Constance. The news of Alla’s pilgrimage spread throughout Rome and the senator went to receive him. Alla invited the for dinner. Constance’s son, Maurice, accompanied the senator to the banquet. Alla was struck by the child’s resemblance to Constance. Alla then went to see Constance and explained his innocence and the role played by his evil mother in distorting the messages.

There followed a joyous reunion and Constance requested Alla to invite her father, the Roman Emperor, to dinner without revealing anything about her. Soon Constance was reunited with her father. Alla then returned with Constance to Northumberland and lived happily. But earthly joys are transient and Alla died after one year. The widowed Constance returned to Rome and lived with her father. Her son Maurice later became the Emperor of Rome.

Notes

The story of Constance is also told by John Gower in ‘Confessio Amantis’ (Lover’s Confession) and is the basis of the verse romance ‘Emare’ but Chaucer’s immediate source was the Anglo-Norman chronicle of 1355 by Nicholas Trivet. Chaucer compressed Trivet’s story a great deal and has added philosophical musings to adapt it to the character of the learned Sergeant at Law.

The Sergeant at Law’s Prologue is a close translation of Pope Innocent III’s pamphlet titled "On Despising the World". The Prologue has little thematic connection with the tale that follows. This has led commentators to suggest that Chaucer perhaps intended the Prologue to function as the tale and only later added the tragic tale of Constance.

The Sergeant at Law declares in the Prologue that he will speak in prose but proceeds to deliver a story in verse form.

The plot of the Sergeant at Law’s Tale revolves around the central character of Constance who is the epitome of perfection and goodness. She embodies the highest Christian virtues and ideals of conduct. She is exceptionally beautiful, patient, humble, generous, optimistic and retains faith in the goodness of God during all her ordeals. She is the daughter of the Roman Emperor. She is married twice to a pagan ruler, converts both her husbands to Christianity, is treacherously betrayed both the times by a vengeful mother-in-law, and is set adrift on the stormy seas both the times. The plot does seem fantastically incredible but Chaucer makes no attempt to explain Constance’s good fortune. Chaucer simply accepts Constance’s survival as a miracle of the merciful God.

The focus of the tale is upon the goodness and perfection of Constance. Every incident serves to highlight her fortitude and faith in God. The reader feels compassion for her miseries and is happy when she is finally reunited with her second husband, King Alla. The plot is cumbersome and superfluous. The essence of the tale lies in magnifying Constance’s virtuous character.


The Epilogue of the Sergeant at Law’s Tale

The host congratulates the Sergeant at Law for narrating such an excellent Tale and requests the Parson to tell another handsome Tale. But the Parson checks the host for swearing in the name of God. Fearing that they will now hear a sermon, the Sea captain declares that they need to hear a merry Tale, one devoid of philosophy and the jargon of law.


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