"The Man of Law's Tale" (Middle English: "The Man of Lawes Tale"; also known in Modern English as "The Lawyer's Tale") is a short story in verse from Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. The story's protagonist is a saintly Christian princess who remains uncorrupted in spite of being unjustly persecuted and facing many difficulties.
Although the story does not feature the same level of religious intolerance as "The Prioress's Tale", it contains elements (such as a Muslim monarch who is quick to abandon his faith, the presence of a villainous Muslim woman and the presence of a villainous English pagan woman) which may make some readers feel uncomfortable.
Some Syrian merchants visit Rome. During their time there, they hear many reports about the beauty and good character of the Emperor's daughter Constance. On return to their own country, the Sultan asks them to tell him about the city. They repeat to him what they heard about Princess Constance. The Sultan determines to marry the beautiful and virtuous Emperor's daughter. When some of his courtiers point out to him that a Christian princess would be unlikely to want to marry a Muslim prince, the Sultan declares that he will convert to Christianity. The Sultan becomes a Christian and so do several of his nobles. The marriage of the Sultan and Constance is arranged. Constance arrives in Syria, bringing with her some treasure and a retinue of bishops, noblemen and ladies.
The Sultan's mother is angry with him for having abandoned Islam. She pretends to convert to Christianity, in order to plot her revenge. She tells her son that she has organized a feast to which all Roman and Syrian Christians are invited. At the feast, all of the Christians are murdered except for Constance. The Sultan's mother and her followers place Constance on her own in a boat, along with the treasure which she brought with her to Syria, clothes and an ample supply of food. After three years, the boat arrives in Northumberland, a pagan kingdom in the north of England.
Constance pretends to have lost her memory. She is taken in by the Constable of a castle, a man who looks after a castle on behalf of King Alla, and his wife Hermengild. Constance converts Hermegild and later her husband to Christianity.
A young knight falls in love with Constance. He courts her but she spurns his advances. Realizing that he will never have Constance's love, the knight determines instead that she will die a shameful death. At night, he sneaks into the castle and enters the room where Hermegild and Constance are both sleeping. He cuts Hermegild's throat and leaves the bloody knife in Constance's hands. Constance is questioned about the murder of Hermegild in front of King Alla and his court. The young knight says that he saw Constance kill the woman. King Alla orders that the knight swear to this on an old Celtic book which contains some Biblical texts. The knight is immediately struck blind and paralyzed. An unseen voice announces that this is punishment for having slandered a blameless Christian woman. The knight is executed. King Alla converts to Christianity and marries Constance.
While Constance is pregnant, King Alla goes off to war in Scotland. Constance gives birth to a son named Maurice. A messenger is told to send a letter of the news to King Alla. On the way, the messenger goes to the house of King Alla's mother Donegild to ask if she has any other message to send to her son. Donegild hates Constance. She gets the messenger drunk and, while he is sleeping, replaces his letter with another one which says that Constance has given birth to a monster. King Alla sends back a letter which says that the child should be loved regardless. Again, the messenger stops at Donegild's house and again she replaces the letter. Donegild's forged letter says that Constance should be placed with her son in the boat in which she arrived and banished from Northumberland forever. King Alla returns from Scotland after Constance has been sent away. When he finds out the truth behind what has happened, he kills his mother as punishment for what she has done.
After five years, Constance reaches Rome. Again, she pretends to have no memory of her past. She and her child are taken in by a senator and his wife.
Wishing to ask for forgiveness from the Pope for having killed his mother, King Alla travels to Rome. He is greeted by the senator, who invites him to a feast. At the feast, King Alla sees Maurice and is immediately struck by how much the boy looks like Constance. He asks the senator who the child is. The senator replies that the child has no known father but that his mother, who lives in the senator's house, is an extremely good woman. King Alla goes to the senator's house and is reunited with Constance. At first, Constance is not happy to see the man whom she believes has treated her very cruelly. When she finds out the truth about what has happened to her, she and her husband are reconciled.
King Alla and Maurice have an audience with the Emperor and invite him to dine with them. At dinner, the Emperor is overjoyed to be reunited with his daughter.
Constance goes back to England with King Alla. A year later, King Alla dies. Constance returns to her family in Rome. Her son Maurice eventually becomes Emperor.
- Original Middle English text of "The Man of Law's Tale" on Wikisource.
- Middle English text of "The Man of Law's Tale" with interlinear Modern English translation on the Harvard University website.
- Modern English translation of "The Man of Law's Tale" on the Florida State University website.
- Public domain audiobook of "The Man of Law's Tale" on YouTube.