Verse > Anthologies > T. H. Ward, ed. > The English Poets > Vol. I. Chaucer to Donne
Thomas Humphry Ward, ed.  The English Poets.  1880–1918.
Vol. I. Early Poetry: Chaucer to Donne
Extracts from The Tale of the Man of Lawe
By Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400)
(See full text)

[Custance is falsely charged with the murder of Dame Hermengild. The Knight who charges her is struck down for his perjury.]

ALLAS! Custance! thou hast no champioun
Ne fyghtë canstow nought, so weylawey!
But he, that starf for our redempcioun,
And bond Sathan (and yit lyth ther 1 he lay)
So be thy strongë champioun this day!        5
For, but if crist open miracle kythe, 2
Withouten gilt thou shalt he slayn as swythe. 3
She sette her doun on knees, and thus she sayde,
‘Immortal god, that sauedest Susanne
Fro falsë blame, and thow, merciful mayde,        10
Mary I menë, doughter to Seint Anne,
Bifore whos child aungelës singe Osanne,
If I be giltlees of this felonye,
My socour be, for elles I shal dye!’
Haue ye not seyn som tyme a palë face,        15
Among a prees, of him that hath be lad
Toward his deth, wher as him gat no grace,
And swich a colour in his face hath had,
Men myghtë knowe his face, that was bistad, 4
Amongës alle the faces in that route:        20
So stant Custance, and looketh hir aboute.
O queenës, lyuinge in prosperitee,
Duchesses, and ladyës euerichone,
Haueth som rewthe on hir aduersitee;
An emperourës doughter stant allone;        25
She hath no wight to whom to make hir mone.
O blood roial! that stondest in this drede,
Fer ben thy frendës at thy gretë nede!
This Alla king hath swich compassioun,
As gentil herte is fulfild of pitee,        30
That from his yën ran the water doun.
‘Now hastily do fecche a book,’ quod he,
‘And if this knyght wol sweren how that she
This womman slow, 5 yet wole we vs auyse
Whom that we wole that shal ben our Iustyse.’        35
A Briton book, writen with Euangyles,
Was fet, 6 and on this book he swor anoon
She gilty was, and in the menë whyles
A hand him smot vpon the nekkë-boon,
That doun he fel atonës as a stoon,        40
And both his yën braste out of his face
In sight of euery body in that place.
A voys was herd in general audience,
And seyde, ‘thou hast disclaundered giltelees
The doughter of holy chirche in hey presence;        45
Thus hastou doon, and yet holde I my pees.’
Of this meruaille agast was al the prees;
As masëd folk they stoden euerichone,
For drede of wrechë, 7 saue Custance allone.
Gret was the drede and eek the repentance        50
Of hem that hadden wrong suspeccioun
Vpon this sely innocent Custance;
And, for this miracle, in conclusioun,
And by Custances mediacioun,
The king, and many another in that place,        55
Conuerted was, thanked be Cristës grace!
This falsë knyght was slayn for his vntrewthe
By Iugëment of Alla hastily;
And yet Custance hadde of his deth gret rewthe.
And after this Iesus, of his mercy,        60
Made Alla wedden ful solempnëly
This holy mayden, that is so bright and sheene,
And thus hath Crist ymaad Custance a queene.
*        *        *        *        *
[Through the intrigues of Donegild, the queen mother, a forged letter is sent in the king’s name bidding Custance to be banished and turned adrift in an open boat.]

Wepen both yonge and olde in al that place,
Whan that the king this cursëd letter sente,        65
And Custance, with a deedly palë face,
The ferthë day toward hir ship she wente.
But nathëles she taketh in good entente
The wille of Crist, and, kneling on the stronde,
She seydë, ‘lord! ay wel-com be thy sonde! 8        70
He that me keptë fro the falsë blame
Whyl I was on the londe amongës yow,
He can me kepe from harme and eek fro shame
In saltë see, al-though I se nat how.
As strong as euer he was, he is yet now.        75
In him triste I, and in his moder dere,
That is to me my seyl and eek my stere.’ 9
Hir litel child lay weping in hir arm,
And kneling, pitously to him she seyde,
‘Pees, litel sone, I wol do thee noon harm.’        80
With that hir kerchef of hir heed she breyde, 10
And ouer his litel yën she it leyde;
And in hir arm she lulleth it ful faste,
And in-to heuen hir yën vp she caste.
‘Moder,’ quod she, ‘and maydë bright, Marye,        85
Soth is that thurgh womannës eggëment 11
Mankynd was lorn 12 and damnëd ay to dye,
For which thy child was on a croys yrent;
Thy blisful yën seye al his torment;
Than is ther no comparisoun bitwene        90
Thy wo and any wo man may sustene.
Thou sey thy child yslayn bifor thyn yën,
And yet now lyueth my litel child, parfay!
Now, lady bryght, to whom alle woful cryën,
Thou glorie of wommanhede, thou fayrë may,        95
Thou hauen of refut, bryghtë sterre of day,
Rewe on my child, that of thy gentillesse
Rewest on euery rewful in distresse!
O litel child, allas! what is thy gilt,
That neuer wroughtest sinne as yet, parde,        100
Why wil thyn hardë fader han thee spilt? 13
O mercy, derë Constable!’ quod she;
‘As lat my litel child dwelle heer with thee;
And if thou darst not sauen him, for blame,
So kis him onës in his fadres name!’        105
Ther-with she loketh bakward to the londe,
And seydë, ‘far-wel, housbond rewthëlees!’
And vp she rist, 14 and walketh doun the stronde
Toward the ship; hir folweth al the prees,
And euer she preyeth hir child to holde his pees;        110
And taketh hir leue, and with an holy entente
She blisseth hir; and in-to ship she wente.
Vitailled was the ship, it is no drede,
Habundantly for hir ful longe space,
And other necessaries that sholde nede        115
She hadde ynough, heried 15 be Goddes grace!
For wynd and weder almyghty God purchace
And bringe hir hoom! I can no better seye;
But in the see she dryueth forth hir weye.
*        *        *        *        *
[King Alla and Custance meet at Rome after many years]

Whan Alla sey his wyf, fayre he hir grette,
And weep, that it was rewthë for to see.
For at the firstë look he on hir sette
He knew wel verraily that it was she.
And she for sorwe as domb stant as a tre;
So was hir hertë shet in hir distresse        125
Whan she remembred his vnkyndënesse.
Twyës she swownëd in his owën syghte;
He weep, and him excuseth pitously:—
‘Now God,’ quod he, ‘and alle his halwes 16 bryghte
So wisly 17 on my soule as haue mercy,        130
That of your harm as giltelees am I
As is Maurice my sone so lyk your face;
Ellës the feend me fecche out of this place!’
Long was the sobbing and the bitter peyne
Er that her woful hertës myghtë cesse;        135
Greet was the pitë for to here hem pleyne
Thurgh whichë pleyntës gan her wo encresse.
I prey yow al my labour to relesse;
I may nat telle her wo vn-til tomorwe,
I am so wery for to speke of sorwe.        140
But fynally, when that the soth is wist
That Alla giltëlees was of hir wo,
I trowe an hundred tymës been they kist,
And swich a blisse is ther bitwix hem two
That, saue the Ioye that lasteth euermo,        145
Ther is noon lyk that any creature
Hath seyn or shal, whyl that the world may dure.
Note 1. where. [back]
Note 2. show. [back]
Note 3. quickly. [back]
Note 4. in sore peril. [back]
Note 5. slew. [back]
Note 6. fetched. [back]
Note 7. vengeance. [back]
Note 8. sending, visitation. [back]
Note 9. rudder. [back]
Note 10. removed. [back]
Note 11. incitement. [back]
Note 12. lost. [back]
Note 13. killed. [back]
Note 14. rises (riseth). [back]
Note 15. praised. [back]
Note 16. saints. [back]
Note 17. certainly. [back]
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