Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Saint Behind the Character: The Subsumation of Custance in The Man of Law’s Tale

    The Man of Law’s Tale tells the story of how Custance has been married off to the Sultan by her father the Emperor of Rome, plotted against by the Sultaness, banished in a boat and left the drift along the seas, shipwrecked in the wilds of Northumberland, falsely accused of murdering her benefactress, Hermengyld, and how she converted the pagans of Northumberland. After all of this turmoil and adventure she falls in love with Alla, a king of Northumberland, gives birth to his heir, is again plotted against by her mother-in-law and banished to a boat to drift along the seas.  The last three stanzas of the tale are the culmination of the character of Custance.  However, the culmination does not take the form of completing her rich character, rather it ends with the effacing of her character so that nothing is left but her example as a role model.  Chaucer’s final argument is that it is the saintly example she represents, and not the events that brought her there, which is important.  The fact that the tale is written in rhyme royal enhances and elevates this tale of saintly virtue.
In the third stanza from the end, the reader still sees Custance as a whole person even though her identity is already beginning to be stripped away, through her grief for Alla’s death and her decision to leave for Rome.  At the beginning, Custance is defined by her role as wife to Alla,  but when he dies that part of her personality disappears.  His death is given only passing notice by the narrator, who offhandedly comments that “Out of this world this kyng Alla he hente” (line 1144), as if it has no bearing on the events to come.  Using short words, many of them formed of simple syllables; the author further relegates this part of Custance’s life to the background.  Custance’s grief and Alla’s death are dismissed with a bland, and unemotional “Now lat us prayen God his soule blesse!” (line 1146)  This is a generic blessing, which not only diminishes Alla’s significance, but also subtracts a key part of Custance’s identity.  
The next step in effacing Custance’s character is the recognition that the loss of her role of wife is unimportant except for the fact that it is the catalyst for bringing Custance back to Rome.  By ending the stanza in a rhyming couplet, which stands in stark contrast to the rest of the stanza, the author reinforces that Custance returning home is her true purpose “And dame Custance, finally to seye,/Toward the toun of Rome goth hir weye.” (lines 1147-1148)   By summing up her life with Alla in only these five lines the author is saying that any time spent after the reunion between Custance, Alla and Maurice is unimportant and it is only once she is free that her life as an example begins.  This is reinforced by jumping the narrative from the loss of Alla to Custance leaving for Rome.  
In the second stanza, the description of Custance’s homecoming serves as the device that illustrates her further subsumation by the tale.  The echo of “Rome” from the end of the first stanza, in “To Rome is come this hooly creature,” (line 1149) stresses the greatness of Rome, and by extension, the greatness of the life that Custance has left behind.  She returns to her old life, where she “And fyndeth hire freendes hoole and sounde;” (line 1150) which reinforces the image that the strength of Rome is that it does not change, its stability.  In “Now is she scaped al hire aventure.” (line 1151) the word choice views Custance’s life throughout the tale as something that she has escaped from, as can be seen from the use of past tense, now coming home safe to Rome.  In this stanza, she is subsumed into the role of a pious and faithful daughter, to all extents and purposes, the person she was before her marriage to the Sultan and all that came after.  
The word choice for the homecoming with her father becomes much more elaborate than the first stanza and the rhyme scheme more complicated; the style and the emotion is overly dramatic, and demonstrates an excess that The Man of Law has avoided throughout the rest of the tale “And whan that she hir fader hath yfounde,/Doun on hir knees falleth she to grounde;” (lines 1152-1153This exaggerating of this facet of Custance’s character, when her actions and adventures have proven that there is no need for such a scene, seems to make the second stanza the weakest of the three. If this were only a simple reunion it would seem unusual, especially given all the trials and tribulations that she has been through, for her to feel so much gratitude upon reaching Rome.   The logical explanation for this effusive display of emotion is that Custance feels such great relief upon returning home, and all that it represents that she is overwhelmed, “Wepynge for tendrenesse in herte blithe,/She heryeth God an hundred thousand sithe.” (lines 1154-1155) and cannot help but collapse on the ground at her father’s feet, and blessing God a hundred thousand times to show her relief upon reaching the safety and security of Rome.  By ending the stanza with these images, of Custance on her knees, blessing God, the author, presents the image of a saint or martyr.
The reference to Custance as a “hooly creature” (line1149) can have several meanings (as a creature of God, her separateness after her near martyrdom in Northumberland, her isolation after so many years away from the comfort and security of Rome) and marks a different facet of her character from the widow in the first stanza.    By describing her as a creature of God, and later in the stanza, that she is a daughter showing proper filial piety as well as relief that the hardships that she has had to endure are over, the author continues the pattern, of effacing Custance as a character and leaving only the role of a saint or role model.
    By the last stanza the character of Custance has become so absorbed by her father and friends in Rome that she has completely lost her individual identity, as evidenced by the use of the word “they” in “In vertu and in hooly almus-dede/They lyven alle, and nevere asonder wende;” (lines 1156-1157) This lessening of her character is also seen in the use of clear, simple and concise language which imparts to the reader that her time with the Sultan, Hermengyld and Alla and Maurice never happened (hearkening back to line 1151, “Now is she scaped al hire aventure.”).  Custance is no longer her own person, she is not even mentioned by name in this stanza, it is the performance of good deeds and giving alms that defines her.  It is her participation in this group, which has adopted her pious ways, that is important, not her individual actions (a stark contrast to her adventures throughout the tale). Custance’s dedication is simply an extension of how she has lived all her life, conducted herself throughout the tale and it is a choice that serves her until the end, “Til deeth departeth hem, this lyf they lede.” (line 1158)
    By the end, Custance as a character of her own has been completely subsumed by the model she now represents.  She no longer has a life of her own; there are no adventures to be had, no husband to define her, instead, she is completely defined by the actions she takes as part of the group with her father and friends.  The author holds her up as an example to others at the end of the tale.  Since there is no mention of the piety of her father or her friends at the beginning of the tale, it is safe to assume that it is Custance’s daily illustration of how to be pious that inspires them to give alms and perform these good deeds.  These last three stanzas serve as the culmination of the tale by effacing the character of Custance, stripping away her individual identity so that the reader is left viewing her as a saint, and not as the myriad of roles she has played throughout.

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