In the prologue to The Man of Law's Tale, the Host notes that the morning is quickly passing. He turns to the Man of Law and, using his best legal language, exhorts him to fulfill his contract and acquit himself of his debt. The Man of Law protests that Chaucer has already written about all the good stories of the world and has left nothing else to be told, and, furthermore, he is a plain spoken man who will not use rhyme. The Man of Law introduces his tale as one he had heard from a merchant long ago, and, therefore, his tale will be about merchants.
While in Rome, a company of Syrian merchants hear of the emperor's daughter, Dame Constance, who is the epitome of beauty, goodness, and innocence. Upon their return to Syria, the merchants share their adventures with the young Syrian ruler, the Sultan, who is particularly captivated by the descriptions of Lady Constance. He decides to have Constance for a wife, and because a Christian emperor will not form an alliance with a Muslim nation, the Sultan is baptized — "Rather than that I lose / The Lady Constance, I will be baptized" ("Rather than I lese / Custance, I wol be cristned") — he instructs his subjects to become Christians as well.
With the marriage arranged and her journey to begin, Constance is close to despair at leaving her family, friends, and Rome, but being a dutiful and faithful daughter, she commends herself to the journey, relying upon "Jesus Christ who died for our salvation, / Give me the strength of purpose to fulfill / His wishes" ("But Crist, that starf for our redempcion / So yeve me grace his heestes to fulfille"). Meanwhile, the Sultan's mother, who would rather die than give up her religion for the sake of a foreign girl, arranges with her councilors to pretend to accept the new religion until the wedding feast, at which time they will attack and slay the Christians.
At the celebration following the wedding ceremony, the evil conspirators of the Sultan's mother sweep down on the Christians and kill them all, including the young Sultan. Lady Constance escapes death and is placed on a well-provisioned ship and cast upon the sea. After "a year and a day" of roaming the sea, the ship lands in the northern isle of Northumberland, where a constable and his wife find Constance and take her in. Because Northumberland is a pagan land, Constance keeps her faith a secret. Soon, however, the constable's wife, Hermengild, becomes a Christian, and, when the constable observes Hermengild and Constance performing a miracle, he becomes a Christian.
A young knight sees Constance and is filled with lustful desires. Spurned and manipulated by Satan, the knight slits Hermengild's throat and leaves the murder weapon in Constance's bed. The constable takes Constance before the king, Alla, who rules with a wise and firm hand. The king sentences Constance to death but makes the knight swear on holy books that she is guilty. The moment the knight swears to her guilt, he is stricken dead, and a voice saying that the king has unjustly judged a disciple of Christ is heard.
Awe-stricken, the pagans convert to Christianity. Soon, King Alla and Constance fall in love and are married. While the king is away at war, Constance gives birth to a beautiful son. But the king's mother, Donegild, an evil and vicious woman, intercepts and replaces the message bearing the happy news with letters of her own, saying that the king's son was born deformed. In his response, King Alla says he will accept the child, but Donegild intercepts that message as well and writes a false one saying that the king's will is to the have the child destroyed. Horrified, Constance sails away with her son. Upon his return, King Alla discovers the falsified messages and, grief-stricken at the loss of is wife and son, has Donegild executed.
In the meanwhile, the emperor of Rome, Constance's father, hearing of the tragic news of the death of the Christians, sends an army to Syria to revenge their deaths. As the Romans return to Rome, they spy the vessel steered by Constance. Not recognizing Constance, they take her to Rome, but because she has lost her memory and does not recognize her homeland, she lives in obscurity.
The grief-stricken King Alla makes a pilgrimage to Rome to seek penance. While in the company of the noble senator, he sees a child who bears a strong resemblance to Constance. He soon after learns of the circumstances of Constance's arrival and, going to her dwelling place, repudiates the false messages and convinces her of his love for both her and their son. After their joyous reunion, Constance, miraculously regaining her memory, kneels before the emperor and confesses that she is his daughter. Alla and Constance return to Northumberland, but within a year, Alla is dead. Constance and her son return to Rome, where the child, upon the death of his grandfather, becomes the emperor.
After the Man of Law had finished, the Host proclaims the tale a first class story and turns to the Priest for a tale, but the Priest is offended by the Host's swearing. The Host then refers to the Priest in a slightly satiric tone, calling him a "Johnny" and a "Lollard." The Skipper interrupts, saying that he has a tale to tell but that his tale won't be about philosophy. The content of this epilogue sounds as though the next tale will therefore be the Shipman's, but Chaucer abandoned this idea.
The theme of The Man of Law's Tale is constancy, a term nearly interchangeable in medieval times with patience. Constance (Custance) is the spiritual antithesis of the Wife of Bath, whose tale usually follows this one. Constance exemplifies endurance in adversity and trust in God. She also teaches constancy to total commitments and submission to law. Even though, in the beginning, she weeps for having been ordered to Syria, Constance does not strive against lawful authority represented by the wills of God, of parents, and of husband.
The emphasis in The Man of Law's Tale is the power and safety that comes with Christian constancy. In the medieval sense, Christian constancy meant a steadfast devotion to God and an indifference to the world. The poem opens with a contrast between the wealth of this world — characterized by the wealthy Syrian merchants and the Sultan — and the wealth of the spirit, summed up in the character of Constance. She is the perfect and the universal. She is portrayed in poverty and in prosperity, in joy and sorrow, in defeat and in victory. Looking forward to the bliss of the next world, Christian Constance can tolerate many ills, including grief, abandonment, and the cruelty of Fortune. Constance can resist the temptations of this world knowing that she will be rewarded in the next world.
Throughout the story, Constance is unmoved and unshaken from the great Christian virtues of humility, faith, hope, and charity. She moves from one improbable situation to another and always, in the end, is miraculously saved. Chaucer makes no attempt to explain these miraculous events; he — and his audience — seemingly accepts them joyously.
It is puzzling why Chaucer has the Man of Law pretend that he cannot handle rhymes: "I speak plain prose and leave the rhymes to (Chaucer)." Yet, his tale is told in seven-line stanzas of rhymed iambic pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ababbcc, technically called Rime Royal, a scheme Chaucer uses in Troilus and Criseyde.
"The Arc of his Artificial Day" from dawn to sunset as opposed to the "natural day of twenty-four hours."
Phebus (Phoebus) Phoebus Apollo, the Greek god of light or sun.
Malkynes Maydenhede (Molly's Maidenhead) a reference to Molly in The Reeve's Tale who lost her virginity that night.
Ceix. . .halcyon their story is found in Chaucer's first long original poem, The Book of the Dutchess, 1369.
The Legend Of Cupid's Saints (Steintes Legende Of Cupide) Better known under the title Legend of Good Women. Each episode shows how women have been abused by men and have suffered throughout the ages, therefore preparing us for abuse that Constance must endure.
Metamorphoses the central work by the Roman poet Ovid.
Koran/Mahomet Mahomet wrote the Koran, which is the book or bible of the Islamic religion.
Queen Semiramis (Semyrame) Assyrian queen, founder of Babylon, noted for her beauty and strength, and the epitome of licentiousness and decadent behavior. The Man of Law compares the Sultan's mother to her.
"Serpent Masked In Femininity" (Serpant Under Femynynytee) Satan, often depicted as a serpent with a woman's face in medieval literature and art.
Saint Mary, the Egyptian A woman who converted to Christianity and fled to the desert, where she lived for forty-seven years without any visible means of food or sustenance. Her situation is compared to Constance's predicament of being three years on a ship without food or sustenance.