Studies on Chaucer and His Audience

By Mary Elizabeth Giffin | Go to book overview

CHAPTER IV
"ALLAS CUSTAUNCE THOW NAST NO CHAMPIOUN"

Like the Parlement of Foules, the "Man of Law's Tale" is constructed upon a symmetrical plan. The life of the Roman princess who became first the wife of a sultan and later the wife of Alla of Northumbria is written in three parts preceded by a prologue. The prologue and part one together exactly equal in length part three, narrating respectively the youth and age of Custaunce. Between them, part two is approximately twice the length of part one, carrying Custaunce through the distresses of her two marriages and the hostility experienced in two foreign countries. At line 631, exactly at the mid-point of part two, Chaucer exclaims in apostrophe: "Allas Custaunce thow hast no champioun."

In taking over from Trivet's chronicle the life of Custaunce, Chaucer rejected about one-third of the chronicle account and transformed the remainder, keeping Custaunce at a sharp focus of attention.1 Single lines and short passages naming her move the narrative forward. Sometimes they keep her in mind by a simple statement, sometimes by rhetorical question, apostrophe, or occupatio, devices particularly well suited to a poem read aloud. Yet the head-link preceding the tale indicates that the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury were not the listeners for whom the poem was designed. Chaucer seems to have intended the Man of Law to tell a tale in prose, but at some point in the writing he changed his mind. The Custaunce as it stands in the Canterbury Tales is evidently an earlier story prepared for another occasion and inserted into the larger work without being adjusted to it, although the tale seems in many respects well suited to the sergeant-at-law as narrator.

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