English Poetry

Geoffrey Chaucer: Canterbury Tale from the Man of Law

14th century, Middle English. Handful of 15th century manuscripts, numerous printed copies.

again and againConcealed identity

The constable of the castle came down onto the shore to view the wreck and found the weary woman on board. She knelt in thanks to God. But who she was, she would not say – not to anybody.

For shortly for to tellen at o word, the sowdan [sultan] and the Cristen everichone ben al to-hewe... – and to get quickly to the point, the Christians and the Sultan, everybody, were hacked to pieces and stabbed at the table; only Constance alone was spared. Constance was quickly bundled out of the hall and put into a ship without a rudder, and told to learn quickly how to sail if she wished to get back to Italy again!

Days and years passed. Years and days. This sorry creature drifted throughout the Aegean Sea and on through the Straits of Gibraltar, waiting for death to claim her; for she harboured no hope of surviving to see her boat cast at last onto a shore.

You may ask why she was not killed at the banquet. Who was there to save her? And I answer – who saved Daniel from the lion’s mouth? But, if she was not killed along with everybody else at the banquet, who kept her from drowning in the sea? Who kept Jonas safe in the whale’s mouth before he was vomited up at Nineveh? Only God. God chose to show us a miracle through her so that we might see his mighty works.

But who provided her with food for three years? Three years! No one but Christ, who fed five thousand folk with five loaves and two fishes. She was driven into our ocean and survived in our wild seas until at last, beneath a castle in Northumberland whose name I do not know, she was cast up by the waves and beached upon the sand. No tide could move her.

The constable of the castle came down onto the shore to view the wreck and found the weary woman on board. She knelt in thanks to God. But who she was, she would not say – not to anybody. She told them that she had been traumatised by her voyage and that she had forgotten everything that had happened to her before setting out. The constable and his wife wept out of pity for her. She was so hardworking and willing to serve and to please everybody in the castle that soon everybody grew to love her.

A fragment of Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Man of Law recounted from: Skeat, Walter W, edited from numerous manuscripts, 1912, reprinted 1973. Chaucer: Complete Works. Oxford University Press. Canterbury Tales. The Man of Law's Tale. written c. 1390.

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