Lawyer's Tale - Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
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The Lawyer's Tale

This is probably a picture of either the real Constantina
or her mother Helena (Santa Costanza church, Rome)

In the time of the Roman Empire, says the lawyer on Chaucer's pilgrimage, there was a Christian princess Custance, the daughter of the Emperor, who was very beautiful and good. When merchants told the Sultan of Syria about Custance, he wanted to marry her so badly that he agreed to convert from Islam to Christianity for her, together with all his men. So the Emperor agreed to let the Sultan marry Custance. Custance was sad to leave her father and her home, but she had no choice.

But the Sultan's mother - an evil woman - didn't like all this converting from Islam to Christianity. When Custance and the Sultan and all the court came to a feast at her house, the Sultan's mother had all of the Christians killed, even her son the Sultan, except for Custance herself (God saved her, the way he saved Daniel in the lion's den).

The evil Sultan's mother put Custance on a boat and sent her off towards Rome all alone. She's shipwrecked on the way, and has many adventures, but she's true to her faith and she's always good, and in the end she is reunited with her father (who has avenged himself on the Syrians) and marries a good loving Christian man, and has a son who grows up to be the emperor Maurice.

This story is not so different from the Clerk's Tale about Griselda - the patient woman who is still good even when bad things happen to her. It's interesting to see what had happened over time to the story, because the real Custance - Constantine I's daughter Constantina - was nothing like the Custance in the Lawyer's Tale. The real Constantina was an active participant in the politics of her brother Constantius' reign, and married her much younger first cousin Gallus, who was also a Roman emperor.

Historically, the Lawyer's Tale has other problems as well - in the time of Constantina, there was no Islam yet, and no Sultans. And the real emperor Maurice lived several hundred years later than Constantina.

The Knight's Tale
The Miller's Tale
The Clerk's Tale
The Wife of Bath's Tale

You can read the original story online in Middle English or translated into modern English.

Bibliography and further reading about Chaucer:

The first of these Chaucer books for kids has some stories about farts and naked bottoms in it; don't buy it if you don't want that. The second one has been cleaned up for children.

More medieval European literature
Medieval Islamic literature home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 27 April, 2017