The Man of Law’s Tale: Breaking Down the Role of Religion
The Man of Law’s Tale is in many ways marks a new beginning in the middle of the Canterbury Tales, a break from the bawdy and secular tales that precede it. While Chaucer could have made it a more straightforward recentering of the tales on a Christian theme, Chaucer makes it more complex by introducing a foreign religion, Islam, into the tale. Certainly one of the major questions that arises when any student of Chaucer does a close reading of the Man of Law’s Tale is “why?” What purpose does Islam serve in this tale, and why only here, and not other places in the tale? Articles by Carolyn Dinsaw, Susan Schibanoff, and Kathryn Lynch offer some insight.
Carolyn Dinshaw’s article “The Law of Man and its ‘Abhomynacions’” reads the Man of Law as literally that: “a man made up of law” (118). In the tales, he serves as a representative of patriarchal ideology itself. It is his duty therefore to tell a tale that supports the view of women as subordinate to “and dependent upon patriarchal protection” (119). The characters in his tale consequently fall into the requisite binary categories of those that fit the traditional patriarchal structure and those that are a threat to it2E The most notable members of the latter group are the mothers-in-law, potential or actual, presented in the tale. These women’s actions subvert the established gender roles and as Dinshaw argues later int he article, represent underlying incestual forces in the narrative.
Supporting the interpretation of the Man of Law as a literal representation of law itself, Dinshaw points to the legal speech in the tale’s prologue: the Host begins by reminding the Man of Law of his promise to the group to tell a tale, and the Man of Law responds with an agreement to make good on his promise. Dinshaw uses this legal foundation of the Man of Law’s Tale to undergird her argument of the commoditization of not only his tale-telling, but of the women in the tale itself: “[f]or the Man of Law, the two kinds of profit that tales and commodities offer–moral and monetary–are indissolubly linked” (121). After all, the Man of Law himself insists that he has heard the story from an old merchant, which as Dinshaw points out, reminds us that “the story is delivered directly from the world of commerce” (122).
The article discusses the role of women as commodities to be traded, beginning with an exploration of Custance as narrative and progressing to women traded in marriage. The article then turns to an examination of incestual evidence in the tale, from the prologue’s insistence that the tale will avoid incest, to evidence of circumspect deliacy in expurgating remnants of incest from Chaucer’s version compared to other versions (“[i]n the mos popular versions of the Constance legend, the ‘accused queen’ flees unwanted sexual advances of her father”). The article ultimately uncovers an interesting interpretation of incest in the tale: “the jealousy of the mothers-in-law, which [the author] read[s] as potentially incestuous desires of mothers for their sons” (132).
What I found most interesting about this article is that Carolyn Dinshaw reads the Man of Law’s name in itself as fundamental to the meaning of the tale itself. The Man of Law as representative of law itself, specifically patriarchal law, gives a certain slant to a close reading of the tale in this light. His agenda in telling the tale is to advance the traditional ideal of patriarchal dominance. Custance in this tale is “thoroughly subject to ‘mannes governance’ and dependent upon patriarchal protection” (119). In this reading of the Man of Law’s Tale,the Other could be those characters that subvert the traditional patriarchal ideal: the mothers-in-law. Diametrically opposed to the Man of Law’s patriarcal ideology, these Women of Law “[pose] a radical threat to masculine prerogative” and “are not so easily ignored or absorbed into supports of the patriarchal structure” (132). While I’m not quite completely sold on the incestuous undertones Dinshaw insists permeate the tale, I agree with much of her interpretation.
Susan Schibanoff’s article “Worlds Apart: Orientalism, Antifeminism, and Heresy in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale” begins with a discussion of the tale as a “new beginning” in the middle of the Canterbury Tales, “in contrast to the secular romance and bawdy fabliaux that constitute the first four tales” (60). But her reading of the Man of Law’s Tale does not focus on the self-corrective nature of the tale, or its exemplary nature as a model of a pilgrammage, but rather on a reading as “Chaucer’s sole textual confrontation with medieval Christianity’s strongest religious rival, Islam” as well as Chaucer’s “only referecnce to the prophet Muhammad and to the Qur’an” (60). In her article, Schibanoff aims to answer the question “why, at this particular juncture in the Canterbury Tales and nowhere else, Chaucer turns our attention to an alien faith, to a faraway place, to a distant time” (60). What she suggests is that the Man of Law’s tale serves to strengthen Christian brotherhood among the pilgrims by “deflect[ing] attentian from the potentially explosive class rivalry by confronting the fractious men…with another world, another time, and ultimately with the Other, in order to forge a sense of community” (61).
Schibanoff argues that it is the Other that the Man of Law uses to strengthen the Christian brotherhood of the pilgrims: he “constructs the Other in tightly intertwined guises in his tale–as Saracen or Muslim, as woman, and as heretic” and he ” repeatedly performs a reductive rhetorical maneuver in order to induce Christian fraternity among the pilgrims” (61). The Man of Law’s strengthening of Christian brotherhood by depicting Islam is effected through a focus on Islam’s apparent similarities with Christianity rather than its differences, in what Schibanoff calls the “rhetoric of proximity” that “figure[s] Islam as an insidious heresy that mimics Christianity” (62). By showing the similarities between the mainstream and the Other, fear will incite the audience to widen the contrast between the two to maintain ideological stability in their separation. The majority ofthe article explores the various instances of the Man of Law’s exploiting the similitude of two entities–Christianity and Islam, male and female–in order to force the audience to reevaluate and strengthen the contrasts between them.
Susan Schibanoff’s article is straightforward for the most part, but could stand another pass at the carving knife: it is at its best when it focused on the tale itself, but seems to lose its focuse along with its reader (at least this one) when it strays into discussion of the history of heresy, Biblical creation stories. It gets back on track when it returns to discussion of the tale, however, so all is not lost. Discussion of the tale takes the form of analysis of its “airtight case against the Other” (61), in this case Islam. An interesting twist on this reading of the Man of Law’s Tale, is not that the tale stresses the contrasts between the two extremes, but rather their similarites–a “rhetoric of proximity” (62). The narrator portrays the danger of Islam not in its physical and ideological distane from Christianity, but rather in its proximity and numerous silimarities. Islam’s remarkable closeness to Christianity is evidenced by the numerous religious conversions in the tale. It is this analysis that is the true gem of the article, and what makes it a worthwhile read for any student of this particular tale.
Kathryn L. Lynch’s article “Storytelling, Exchange, and Constancy: East and West in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale” aims to show that Chaucer portrays Islam in the tale not to “scapegoat an alien religious tradition but rather to use cultural difference as a way of talking about larger issues of freedom and constraint in storytelling” (410). Again we have an exploration of the dominant culture of the West contrasted with the Other of the East. In addition to the common peculiarities and idiosyncracies typically evoked in depictions of the East, ranging from “peculiar rituals, religious doctrines, and customs” to “generalized abundance and technological innovation” (411). The latter description of the East, as a culture of “generalized abundance,” or an “economy of excess” is problematized in Chaucer’s tale: Lynch notes that “the tale seems to project onto the East both ungovernable extravagance and strict exchange, mutability and its own form of rigidity” (415).
Lynch reads the Man of Law’s prologue not as a new beginning, but rather as “attempting a new beginning” (417). She admits that it can read as a spiritual reorientation of the Tales, as the host seems to focus on the time and the reading of shadows, in “a kind of companion piece to the Parson’s Prologue, where the lengthening shadows of the day’s end call the pilgrims to spiritual attention” (417). But Chaucer is rarely so transparent; his “placement of the exotic East in the lawyer’s care where it is mangled and misconstrued works against such an optimistic prognosis” (417).
Lynch explores the tale’s depiction of East versus West, and conludes that “the tale remains trapped by Western chauvinisim” and “that it returns repetitively and unproductively to its campaign against the ‘Other’”(417). In the end of the tale, she argues, the polarization between East and West remains, with the question of how to read the character of Custancewho floats passively through the tale from beginning to end: the answer is found in her name — “Custance does signify constancy” (419). Passively existing between the poles of East and West, from the beginning of the tale to the end Custance “holds the same value, powerful though unspoken, in every location, every circumstance, every language” (419).
Kathryn Lynch’s article is clearly written and well organized, and would benefit anyone doing a close analysis of the Man of Law’s Tale. Particularly interesting is that the author bookends the article with quotes from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick on the subject of men who seek the “White Whale” but at the same time need “food for their more common, daily appetites.” The relevance of the epigraph quote to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale at first eluded me, but upon completing the article Lynch makes it clear that in both the Melville quote and in Chaucer’s work, balanceis necessary. The Man of Law’s Tale draws a distinct line between the West and the Other, but existence on either side is unbalanced. Lynch suggests that the Squire’s Tale gives the Man of Law’s Tale a literary balance that it sorely needs: “[t]it for tat may work for trade, but storytelling, love, and forgiveness require at least some of the excesses of the exotic East” (419).
All three of the articles offer readings of Islam in the Man of Law’s Tale as the Other, a concept that serves to soften Chaucer’s attack on the religion: it is not Islam itself that Chaucer attaks, but rather he uses the contrast between Islam and Christianity to make other arguments. I am not entirely convinced that Chaucer is not attacking Islam in this tale, because he covers himself well. These articles do make a strong case for Islam in the tale as the Other, not singled out for attack, but evoked for the purpose of serving as a foil to Christianity in order to inspire Christian fraternity among the Pilgrims. It seems that there are more questions to answer now than there were at the beginning of this paper; more articles, I believe, is the only answer.
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