ALF Law and Literature Reading Group: Unearthing the Law during the Canterbury Pilgrimage (Session 9, 14 July, 2015)

For its 9th Session, the ALF Law and Literature Reading Group experimented with a slightly denser and longer piece of literature, The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of over 20 stories written by Geoffrey Chaucer. The tales, which are mostly written in verse, are presented as a part of a story telling contest by a group of twenty- nine pilgrims along with the host (the narrator) as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

Avid readers have often experienced how voluminous books appear deceitful in their length once we start reading them. Well Chaucer’s tales defies this. The stories go on and on, and the fact that they’re written in Middle English really doesn’t help. Written during the period of the Hundred Years’ War, the collection of stories is an ironic take by Chaucer on the English society, more so on their rigid belief in the Church.

The historical underpinnings of the story take us back to the latter part of the 14th century where the ecclesiastical law was at loggerheads with the common law, and there were debates going on about the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical court.

The tales, as Chaucer later recounts, are a compilation of twenty nine stories written at different points of time. Since his book weaves together the narrations of twenty nine different men and women of different classes and backgrounds, Chaucer places their individual stories in the thematic backdrop of a pilgrimage since he believes that this is the only way he can bring all of them on an equal social footing.

A tragic tale of friendship and betrayal has made Canterbury the ultimate pilgrim destination. Who would think?! Henry II had anointed his close friend, Thomas Beckett, as Archbishop of Canterbury to drive a clear ridge between secular law and Church law. However, Beckett flagrantly opposed this command due to which he faced an ultimate assassination at the hands of his erstwhile friend, and now fatal enemy, Henry II.

The Host starts the Tales by entering into a contract with the twenty nine other pilgrims that they have to narrate two stories each. However, the Canterbury tales includes the narration of only a story each from everyone, as Chaucer died before he could complete the second round of stories.

Chaucer has included in the umbrella of his short stories all kinds of Englishmen, and alluded to all of them eccentric mannerisms. Rather than constricting the characters to the dyad of good or bad, Chaucer has given the characters fully individualized, rounded personalities with none amongst the twenty nine limiting themselves to the ideal type.

We discussed three characters’ narrations in particular – The Man of Law’s Tale, The Parson’s Tale and the Pardoner’s Tale.

We invested the maximum time and the larger part of our interest in The Man of Law’s Tale. The story was highly interesting since we were able to draw several connections with it. Though the Man of Law promises to go away from poem form, he restricts himself to just that. A Walking Encyclopedia, the Man of Law praises Chaucer for his thrifty stories which re-establish the power of man over woman. It’s just like one misogynist praising the other.

Danish drew a connect with this story and Voltaire’s novella, Candide, in terms of how both stories impose a forced sense of optimism on the readers. After a good read of Candide, we are compelled to be happy about the world we are currently living in, since it is the greatest world there is. The Man of Law’s Tale too puts us in a similarly uncomfortable position where Constance, the female protagonist and focus of the tale shows gratitude in the sight of recurrent and accentuating misfortune. What saves Constance is her constant and incessant faith in Christianity.

Women are shown in bipolar characters – the epitomized Christian woman who is a constant believer in Christ against all odds, and the evil woman who is malevolent by resisting conversion and believing in either Islam (the Sultan’s mother) or Paganism (King Alla’s mother). The tale epitomizes a woman to be of an ideal and pristine character if she stays optimistic and faithful in spite of being subject to abject suffering and distress, but someone has to come and rescue her against all odds in the end.

We see the Man of Law as a symbol of positive law, separate from the Church law, yet he has come to the pilgrimage. Is this a subtle indication that Church law trumps Common law, or is it just an ironical take of the hypocrisy of law which purports to be highly rational in its structure, but is inherently plagued with contradictions?

Constance exemplifies a devout Christian who unquestioningly subjects herself to the lawful authority, by continually invoking God. Through all her misfortune Christ seems to bail her out persistently. There is so much emphasis laid on preserving the soul, that the physical body is not given any importance.

We also discussed at length the instance of intersectionality in the tale, where one is compelled to choose religion over their gender. Constance is highly revered in this tale since she privileged her faith in Christ in spite of being violated continually due to her gender. A parallel was then drawn to the Shah Bano case where Flavia Agnes argues that Shah Bano was compelled to choose one identity over the other, and she resorted to privileging religion over gender. This is probably because as human beings, we advantage security over liberty, and hence our community beliefs tend to precede our quest for gender justice. Is it because we are social animals as Aristotle characterizes us, where we would perish with our liberty if the opportunity cost for the same was our recognition by the community?

We also juxtaposed this kind of Church law with the divine law seen in the Greek tragedies which we had reviewed in the earlier Law and Literature reading sessions earlier this month.

A significant transition can be seen from the Greek tragedies where God made law was considered the supreme. In Greek tragedy divinity is unmediated, and the law proclaimed by God is the ultimate source of law. However, what happens when divinity is mediated by humans? Is natural law derived from within human nature, or external nature? Law is always trying to make clear boundaries for what might not have boundaries.

As the characters are recounting their stories, one can notice how there are a lot of interruptions where questions are asked, stories disregarded, deference denied which might have compelled a few to abandon their stories in their midst, this showcases a lot of equality amongst characters. The Law of Contract ensures equality amongst the parties irrespective of their class, gender and profession.

We concluded our session by very superficially venturing into the Parson’s Tale. The tale is a highly indicative one as it depicts how the language of law keeps changing. Within poetic tale, the reader can see prose. Deeptha pointed out that the tale includes in its length everything that resembles a statute: definitions, types, punishments, essentials. Chaucer has brilliantly amalgamated law and literature in the book to keep his audience both engaged as well as informed about the law and society prevalent during that time.

Written by: Stuti Shah
Stuti is an intern with ALF for July 2015.
Published on: 21 July 2015