Monday, 19 June 2017

Guest Post: The Rich and Strange: Women Working Sea-Changes in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale

by Dr Daisy Black (University Of Wolverhampton)

‘Diverse men diverse thynges seyden.’ (The Man of Law’s Tale, l. 211)
‘All of us know that I can’t tell a tale of days long ago that Chaucer hasn’t already told. If he hasn’t said them in one book, he has said them in another.’ (Broken Shells)
Stories hold a political power that can even surprise their tellers.

The Man of Law. San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, EL 26.C.9, Ellesmere MS, fol. 50v.

In Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, a group of Syrian merchants return home with a story of a Roman woman, Custance. She has beauty without pride; youth without foolishness; and humility without tyranny.

On hearing this story, the Sultan of Syria declares he will die unless he have Custance as his wife. To make this happen, he decrees he and his people will forsake the laws of Mohammed, and convert to Custance’s religion – Christianity. This decision causes great division. The Sultan’s advisors are flung into heated debate – about conversion, the foreign, and the ‘other’. ‘Diverse men’, Chaucer tells us, ‘say diverse things’.

And in this way, a story traded by men merely hoping to win favour with their ruler escalates into a massacre.

I was commissioned to devise Broken Shells – a one-woman storytelling performance of Chaucer’s Tale – for the 2016 symposium ‘Women at Sea’ at Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum. The Man of Law’s Tale is the sole text appearing in the second fragment of The Canterbury Tales as ordered in the Ellesmere manuscript (c. 1400-1410). The tale reworks the ‘princess/virgin at sea’ narratives of popular contemporary hagiography and romance together with the trope of the accused queen. In many ways, Chaucer’s heroine Custance is the ultimate ‘woman at sea’, as she has the bad fortune to be repeatedly placed in a rudderless boat and set adrift.

I knew as I began adapting this story for a modern audience, that Chaucer’s story would accrue loaded political connotations. My adaptation was told at the end of a long year filled with distressing reports of the plight of refugees in the Mediterranean, Syria, Greece, Turkey and at Calais. These reports simultaneously formed the daily horror stories of the news channels, yet were repeatedly erased in political discourse through ever-more virulent anti-immigrant dialogue of the Brexit campaign.

I knew my story would be performed at the end of a day of a symposium which had been opened by a roundtable panel of writers – all of whom were refugee women now living in Swansea. These women shared stories and poems about their experiences of being dislocated from their homes and former lives and forced to seek asylum in a new land. In telling Chaucer’s tale, I wanted to honour these women, but not eclipse their own stories.

As it happened, the story took on a meaning I could never have predicted. It was performed only a few days after the Brexit vote, right at the end of that uneasy week in which established political figureheads crumbled, the pound plummeted and, for many, the very values of what it meant to be ‘British’ had been caught in a tidal wave of confusion. As a result, Broken Shells, along with the academic papers of several colleagues, took on an urgency and painful directness that it had not had during my months of rehearsal.

More importantly, when juxtaposed with the personal narratives of real ‘women at sea’, the heroine of my, and Chaucer’s story, emerged in a rather different light to the heroine I thought I had lived with through rehearsals. By the afternoon telling, my vision of Custance as a brave, but essentially passive victim of prejudice had entirely dissolved. She became an indomitable woman whose strength lay, not in passivity, but in survival. This reassessment of survival and strength also opened up more sympathetic ways of reading some of the other women in the Man of Law’s Tale – in particular, Custance’s female antagonists, who consciously use storytelling to manipulate both the men around them and the political climate.

In that opening performance of Broken Shells, the female characters’ desire to tell, or to refuse to tell, their stories, had become a political action.

Surviving the Story

‘What she was she wolde no many seye, For foul ne fair, thogh that she sholde deye.’ (ll. 524-5)
In The Man of Law’s Tale, the narratives around Custance are primarily constructed by, and for, men. Custance first enters the story as a figure constructed entirely by narrative, masculine ideals and misogynist hyperbole. In many ways, the Syrian merchants’ stories construct Custance, not as extraordinary, but as the utterly commonplace, familiar heroine of medieval romance: the ideal woman. As such, they tell us absolutely nothing about Custance as a character.

The merchants’ report is part of a storytelling economy in which tales are exchanged as part of the trading process, or used as currency to gain favour with political leaders. The men who become Custance’s husbands – the Sultan of Syria and, later, King Alla of Northumbria – are primary receivers of stories about Custance, and yet they know very little about her. The Sultan is an idealist: like an avid consumer of today’s ‘fake news’, he takes all stories as the truth and makes decisions based on them. King Alla attempts to be a more critical reader. Yet while he demonstrates a healthy scepticism of the narratives told about and against Custance, he nevertheless bases his decisions on narratives told about a silent woman.

As the story progresses, Custance continues to be presented as a surface against which men project their own stories. This storytelling is often violent. A Northumbrian knight tries to frame Custance for the murder of her host and friend, Hermengyld. He almost succeeds even though many others swear that Custance loved Hermengyld ‘right as her lyf’ (l. 625). A castle steward boards Custance’s stranded ship in the middle of the night, subverting the chivalric romance form when he tells her he will be her lover ‘wherso she wolde or nolde’ (l. 917).

Literary criticism dealing with Custance has, until recently, examined her, either as the sum of the stories told about her or as a relentlessly unchanging entity – even though her presence demands change of all those she encounters. Yet translating Custance’s narrative into a story crafted for modern audiences, I noticed that none of these stories ‘stick’. While male acts of storytelling in The Man of Law’s Tale aim to change Custance – through marriage, murder or rape – the roles these stories cast her in never last. Whenever Custance is set adrift, her voyage erases these projected identities – of wife, murderer, lover and victim. Whenever she arrives in a new land, she never tells those she encounters her name, who she is, or her status. In maintaining her silence, Custance makes the male storyteller impotent.

Storytelling in The Man of Law’s Tale often causes religious and political strife, miscarriages of justice, false accusations, and it facilitates violence against the female body. However, Custance’s refusal to tell her own stories disrupts this masculine story-economy. Her denial of the role of storyteller keeps her identity apart from those seeking to define her, and allows her to survive.

Stories as Cultural Past 

While Custance uses silence to control her identity in diverse societies determined to project identity upon her, two of the tale’s antagonists – the Sultan’s mother and Donegild, mother of King Alla, seek to wield narrative to their own political advantage.

Chaucer presents both of Custance’s mothers-in-law as uncomplicatedly, thoroughly evil. He calls the Sultan’s mother a ‘cursed krone’ (l. 433) and Donegild is ‘ful of tirannye’:
‘The kynges mooder ful of tirannye. Hir thought hir cursed herte brast atwo […] Hir thoghte a despit that he sholde take So straunge a creature unto his make.’ (ll. 696-700)
The malicious mother-in-law was often used in medieval literature to exemplify a fear of supersession or transition. Christine M. Rose has argued that the mother-in-laws’ fear of change in The Man of Law’s Tale might be linked to an anti-Semitic Christian polemic which figured Judaism as hostile, yet necessary prior: a representative of the Old Law is supplanted by a New Law as the mother is supplanted by her son’s bride.(1) The narrative of supersession – the replacement of one law by another – was central to medieval Christian theology, and appears in many different guises, from artwork juxtaposing Eve and the Virgin Mary to the spectacular performances of pagan conversion to Christianity in the late fifteenth-century Digby Mary Magdalen play. In performing her generic role as the prior ‘other’, the Sultan’s mother therefore objects to her son’s abandonment of their holy laws:
‘But oon avow to grete God I heete: They lyf shal rather out of my body sterte Than Makometes lawe out of my herte!’ (ll. 224-6)
She successfully takes steps to prevent the mass conversion she fears by slaughtering her son and his supporters at the wedding feast, and sending Custance to sea in a rudderless ship. While constancy in Custance is lauded by Chaucer’s poem, constancy to a non-Christian religious law is condemned.

The Sultan’s mother and Donegild caused me a number of challenges in devising Broken Shells – not least, in my need to deal sensitively with the story’s portrayal of Christianity and its anti-Islamic elements yet remain true to Chaucer’s original story.

This process was made a little easier by the fact that, despite Chaucer’s attempt to cast both the Sultan’s mother and Donegild as unproblematic, ‘evil’ characters set in opposition to the Christian Romans (a Muslim and a pagan, respectively), both nevertheless perform one of the key roles ascribed to early medieval English women.

Elisabeth van Houts has argued that early medieval women performed a central role in the preservation of community memory: ‘women were crucial links in the chain of traditions binding one generation to another’.(2) The female promotion of social and familial memory became particularly important after traumatic historical changes (for example, in maintaining historical rights to land post-invasion). It also performed more subversive functions – for example, when Anglo-Saxon women preserved their pre-conquest traditions for several generations after the Norman Conquest by giving their daughters Anglo-Saxon names. Where these kinds of memory are ‘approved’ by a new regime, the woman’s role, or constancy, is lauded. Custance’s retention of her Christian faith through all trials is therefore what makes her the heroine of Chaucer’s story. However, when a woman’s cultural memory works against, or threatens a new regime, it is too often cast as unruly, or divergent.

The Sultan’s mother as I have characterised her in Broken Shells is therefore very much aware of her own intertextual nature. As a Syrian woman, she has grown up hearing the stories of Troy, and the ashes of that city cling to her adult soul:
‘a shrewd survivor of state politics, and knows all too well what happens when a bride is plucked from a distant land’ (Broken Shells)
The cultural currency this kind of collective narrative is fully exploited by Chaucer’s Man of Law, who lists Ovid’s classical, cross-national lovers – Dido, Helen and Ariadne – in the introduction to his tale. The Sultan’s mother – and Donegild’s – resistance to a new narrative being superimposed over their own therefore ties into their roles as both keepers of cultural memory and as creative readers.

Stories as Weapons 

Custance’s second mother-in-law is similarly associated with regression. Even her name provides a subtle echo of the word Danegeld: the tax the Anglo-Saxons were obliged to pay the Vikings in the years after they lost the Battle of Maldon (991). As such, Donegild’s character is shaped by the memory of economic coercion and the ongoing war her son, King Alla, is embroiled in. But while the Sultan’s mother is associated with the past by acting as both repository and retainer of cultural and religious memory, Donegild seeks to maintain constancy through becoming a storyteller.

While Alla is absent, Custance gives birth to their son. Donegild intercepts a letter informing her son of the birth, and sends a counterfeited letter in its place. This letter tells her son that Custance is an elf, and has given birth to ‘so horrible a feendly creature’ (ll. 751) none in the castle dare stay in the room with it. Donegild’s letter self-consciously taps into medieval medical writings about women giving birth to monsters.(3) It also equates Custance’s ‘straungeness’ with monstrosity. In doing so, Donegild enters the masculine economy of storytelling in an attempt to get rid of her rival.

While the Sultan, and to some extent, King Alla, are passive receivers, the Sultan’s mother and Donegild are producers, retainers and manipulators of stories. They are fully aware of the political power of the story, and they use this power to direct their own narratives. In doing so, the Sultan’s mother and Donegild challenge the tale’s underling value of constancy. Like Custance, these two female antagonists remain constant to their own pasts. Yet this constancy also prevents them from accepting the foreign, and the new. Ultimately, it also prevents them adapting, as Custance does, in order to survive.

Stories as Cities

‘Joye of this world, for tyme wol nat abyde Fro day to nyght it changeth as the tyde.’ (ll. 1133-4)
Almost a year after the first performance, I’m preparing to tell this tale once again as part of the University of Manchester’s Middle Ages in the Modern World (MAMO) conference. Revising this story after a divisive and inconclusive election campaign, and where news of the refugee crisis has been almost entirely dropped by the mainstream press, I am finding different pressures being brought to bear on Chaucer’s narrative. On the 30th of June, this story will be told in front of the medieval rood screen in Manchester Cathedral – a building that was ransacked during the civil war in 1649, hosted Thomas Clarkson’s famous speech against the slave trade in 1787 and which still bears the scars of the 1940 blitz. It will be told in a city where violence has been so recently seared into the memories of many in my audience. As I rehearse, piles of flowers and toys are being cleared from St Ann’s Square. Manchester remembers violence aimed at the city as a whole, but, more specifically, aimed at its young girls and women.

Yet stories hold political powers that can even surprise their tellers.

Modern popular culture relentlessly depicts its heroes as story-makers – (frequently) male, rebellious, impetuous, and often violent. But Chaucer’s Custance offers a very different model of what it is to be strong. Violence and cultural fear are repeatedly directed towards Custance again and again – through military action, murder, exile and rape. Yet Custance refuses to take part in this narrative cycle by repeating these stories. Rather, she demonstrates the strength it takes to survive – again, and again, and again.

Broken Shells will be performed at Manchester Cathedral at 5.30pm on the 30th June. It is a free event, but donations raised will go to Sheffield Donations for Refugees and the Booth Centre. Click here to book tickets.


(1) Christine M. Rose, ‘The Jewish Mother-in-Law: Synagoga and the Man of Law’s Tale’, in Sheila Delany (ed.), Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 3-23

(2) Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Inc, 1999), p. 147

(3) See Dana Oswald, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010), pp. 1-26

Further Reading

Christine M. Rose, ‘The Jewish Mother-in-Law: Synagoga and the Man of Law’s Tale, in Sheila Delany (ed.), Chaucer and the Jews: Sources, Contexts, Meanings (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 3-23; Elisabeth van Houts, Memory and Gender in Medieval Europe 900-1200 (Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press Inc, 1999); Dana Oswald, Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature (Woodbridge: D.S. Brewer, 2010): Robert B. Dawson, ‘Custance in Context: Rethinking the Protagonist of the “Man of Law’s Tale”’, The Chaucer Review 26:3 (1992), 293-308; Melissa M. Furrow, ‘The Man of Law’s St Custance: Sex and the Saeculum’, The Chaucer Review, 24:3 (1990), 223-235; Laurel L. Hendrix, ‘“Pennannce profytable”: The Currency of Custance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale’, Exemplaria 6:1 (1994), 141-166

About the Author

Dr Daisy Black is a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Wolverhampton. She specialises in medieval religious drama, with a particular interest in time and gender and food in performance. Recent works include articles on the hortus conclusus in Cornish religious drama, on the nails used to crucify Christ in the York ‘Crucifixion’ pageant, and on domestic arguments between Mary and Joseph in the N-Town plays. She also works as a freelance storyteller, theatre director, arts advisor and writer, and has produced creative work for bodies including the Royal College of Physicians, Manchester Cathedral and Swansea’s National Waterfront Museum. Broken Shells was her first one-woman show, and she is currently working on her next major storytelling project, The Bayeux Tapestry: The Full Yarn.