Words of the Host to the Company
Our Host saw that the brightly shining sun
Through artificial day’s arc then had run
One-fourth the way plus half an hour or more;
And though he wasn’t deeply into lore,
He knew quite well it was the eighteenth day 5
Of April, which is messenger of May.
He saw too that the shadow of each tree
Was in its length of the same quantity
As was the tree that stood producing it;
And by that shadow he judged by his wit 10
That Phoebus, who was shining clear and bright,
Had climbed then forty-five degrees in height;
The hour for that day and latitude
Was ten o’clock, our Host had to conclude.
He stopped and quickly reined his horse about. 15
“My lords,” said he, “I warn you all the rout,
A fourth part of the day’s already gone.
Now for the love of God and of Saint John,
Let’s lose as little time now as we may.
My lords, it’s time that wastes both night and day, 20
That robs us while we sleep without defense,
And while awake, through our own negligence.
It’s like a stream returning not again,
Descending from the mountain to the plain.
Well Seneca, like others of his measure, 25
Bewails the loss of time more than of treasure:
‘Of chattels there may be recovery,
But we are ruined by loss of time,’ said he.
It will not come again, that’s safely said,
No more than may come Malkin’s maidenhead 30
Once she has lost it in her wantonness.
Let’s not grow moldy, then, through idleness.
“Sir Lawyer,” said our Host, “God grant you bliss,
Tell us a tale now; you’ve agreed to this.
You’ve been committed by your free assent, 35
As I may judge the case, without dissent.
Acquit your promise, then you’ll be released;
You will have done your duty at the least.”
“Host,” he replied, “depardieux, I assent,
To break agreements is not my intent. 40
A promise is a debt, and I will pay
What I have promised–what more can I say?
Laws he would give another man one should
Obey himself, it’s only right, our good
Text so requires. But I know very well 45
There’s not one worthy tale that I could tell
That Chaucer (though he’s not too good at meter,
And not too skillful in his rhyming either)
Has not been telling folks as best he can
For quite a while, as known to any man. 50
And if he hasn’t told them, my dear brother,
In one book then he’s told them in another.
He’s told of lovers, paid them much attention,
Much more than Ovid ever made a mention
In his Epistles that are very old. 55
Why should I tell what’s been already told?
“In youth, of Ceyx and Alcyone he wrote,
And since then has of everyone made note
Among the noblest wives, their lovers too.
Whoever reads his lengthy volume through, 60
The one called The Legend of Cupid’s Saints,
Will find therein the great wounds and complaints:
Lucretia’s; those of Babylonian Thisbe,
The sword of Dido (false Aeneas!); tree
Of Phyllis, who for Demophon would die; 65
Hermione’s and Dejanira’s cry,
Hypsipyle’s, and that of Ariadne
(Left on that barren island in the sea);
Leander drowning for his love of Hero;
The tears of Helen, and also the woe 70
Of you, Briseis, and you, Laodamia;
The cruelty of you, O Queen Medea,
To hang your children, all for hatred of
Your Jason who was faithless in his love;
Alcestis, Hypermnestra, Penelope, 75
Your wifehood with the best commended he.
“But certainly no word he ever wrote
Of Canace, that wicked case of note
In which she loved her brother sinfully–
Fie on such cursed stories, I agree! 80
Or of the case of Apollonius,
In which the cursed king Antiochus
Bereft his daughter of her maidenhead–
So horrible a story to be read–
When he had thrown her upon the pavement. 85
He’s never written (and for good intent),
Not in a single one of his narrations,
Of such unnatural abominations.
I won’t relate them now for all I may.
“But for a tale what shall I do today? 90
I’d surely not be likened to the Muses
(Or the Pierides if one so chooses,
The Metamorphoses tells what I mean).
But nonetheless why should I care a bean
Though after him I’ve only haw to bake? 95
I’ll speak in prose, his rhymes he’s free to make.”
And with that word, he with a sober cheer
Began his tale, as you’re about to hear.
O hateful harm, you state of poverty,
Where thirst and cold and hunger so confound! 100
You feel ashamed to ask for charity,
But, asking not, your need will be profound,
Unwrapping every hidden wound you’ve bound;
Your head will bow as in your indigence
You steal or beg or borrow for expense. 105
You blame Lord Jesus, saying bitterly
His temporal blessings aren’t proportional;
You also blame your neighbor wrongfully,
You say that you have little, he has all.
You say, “He’ll pay, by faith, it shall befall 110
That his tail will be burning in the coals
Because he doesn’t help us needy souls.”
And listen to the sayings of the wise:
“Better to die than live in indigence”;
“Your very neighbor soon will you despise.” 115
If you are poor, farewell to reverence!
And from the wise man too this sapience:
“All poor men’s days are evil.” So beware
Lest you should sink to such point of despair!
If you are poor, you’ll have your brother’s spite, 120
And all your friends, alas, will flee from you.
O merchants rich, well being’s your delight,
O noble, prudent folk, we see it’s true!
Your bags have not been filled with aces two,
You’re running six-and-five with every chance. 125
How merrily at Christmas you may dance!
You earn by land and sea, your wealth accrues,
While also you gain knowledge of the state
Of kingdoms; you’ve been bearers, too, of news,
Of tales of peace and war. And desolate 130
I’d be right now for stories to relate
Had not a merchant taught me, many a year
Ago, a tale, and one that you shall hear.
The Lawyer’s Tale
In Syria once dwelt a company
Of wealthy merchants, dignified and true; 135
And everywhere they sent their spicery
And cloth of gold and satins rich in hue.
Their wares were all so popular and new
That everyone was pleased at bargains made
With them, and sold to them his stock in trade. 140
The leaders of this company one day
Decided that to Rome they were to wend.
Be it for business or for pleasure, they
Did not desire a messenger to send
But went in person, for whatever end. 145
As for a place to lodge, they chose to rent
One that they thought the best for their intent.
And so these merchants sojourned in that town
A certain time, as it was to their pleasure;
And it befell that of the great renown 150
Of Constance, daughter of the Emperor,
They had report. All things concerning her
These Syrian merchants heard from day to day.
I’ll tell you what they heard the people say.
This was the voiced opinion to a man: 155
“Our Emperor of Rome–blest may he be!–
A daughter has, and since the world began
(To rank her worth and beauty equally)
There’s never been another such as she.
Sustain her, Lord, I pray with humble mien, 160
And would that of all Europe she were queen.
“In her there is high beauty without pride,
Youth not with folly but maturity;
In all her works her virtue is her guide,
Her humbleness supplanting tyranny. 165
She is the mirror of all courtesy,
Her heart a chamber of true holiness,
Her hand a ministration of largess.”
This common voice was right, as God is true.
Let’s go back to our tale. These merchants, when 170
Their ships had been reloaded, and a view
They’d had of this so blissful maiden, then
Went home to Syria as happy men.
They plied their trade as they had done before
And prospered there. I cannot tell you more. 175
These merchants, it befell, stood in the grace
Of him who held the sultanate; and he,
When they returned from any foreign place,
Invited them in kindest courtesy
To entertainment, asking busily 180
For news of sundry realms, for any word
Of wonders seen or of which they had heard.
Of things they told about, especially
They told of Lady Constance, in great measure
Spoke earnestly of her nobility, 185
Till for the Sultan it was such a pleasure,
The very thought of having such a treasure,
That his desire, each effort he expended,
Was for her love until his life be ended.
It’s possible that in that same large book 190
That men call heaven what would come to pass
With stars was written when first breath he took:
That love would be the death of him, alas!
For in the stars is written, clear as glass,
There to be read, God knows, by all who can, 195
Without a doubt the death of every man.
In stars, for many a winter here on earth,
Was written death for Hector, Achilles,
Pompey, and Caesar, before each’s birth;
The strife of Thebes; as well of Hercules 200
And Samson, of Turnus and Socrates,
The deaths. But so dull are the wits of men,
Not one can read the full of what’s therein.
This Sultan for his privy council sent
And, that the matter be dealt with apace, 205
Declared to them that which was his intent.
He told them, “Surely now, without the grace
Of having Constance, in but little space
I’m good as dead.” He charged them hastily,
For his life’s sake, to plan some remedy. 210
Now different men had different things to say;
They argued, casting round for a solution,
And many a subtle plan proposed to lay;
They spoke of magic arts and of delusion,
But at the last, by way of a conclusion, 215
They found no one best plan that might be carried
Forth, except that he and she be married.
But therein lay the problem, they could see,
To speak quite plainly and with level head,
Because there was so much diversity 220
Between their two religions. As they said,
“We don’t believe a Christian prince would wed
His daughter under the law of Mahomet,
Which is the law taught to us by our prophet.”
But he replied, “Rather than have to lose 225
My Constance, I’ll be Christianized, don’t doubt it.
I must be hers, no other way to choose.
In peace, I pray, deliberate about it;
Take care to save my life ere I’m without it,
And bring her. My life’s in her custody, 230
And in this woe I can no longer be.”
What need is there to treat in greater scope?
By pacts, I’ll say, and by diplomacy
And by the mediation of the Pope,
Of all the church and of all chivalry, 235
For the destruction of idolatry
And the increase of Christian law so dear,
At last they reached accord as you shall hear:
The Sultan would with all his baronage
And lieges embrace Christianity, 240
And Lady Constance he would have in marriage,
And gold (I know not what the quantity);
Therein was found sufficient surety.
And this accord was sworn on either side.
May mighty God, fair Constance, be your guide! 245
Now some men will be waiting, as I guess,
For me to tell of all that then was planned
By the Emperor in his great nobleness
For his daughter Constance; one can understand,
However, that provisions all so grand 250
No man can tell, in but a little pause,
As was arranged then for so high a cause.
It was arranged that bishops with her wend
Along with ladies, lords, knights of renown,
And other folks; in brief that was the end. 255
And notice was given throughout the town
That everyone devoutly, kneeling down,
Pray Christ receive this marriage on its day
In his good grace and speed them on their way.
The day arrived when they were to depart; 260
That woeful, fateful day, I say, had come,
And there was nothing could delay the start
But forward they must journey, all and some.
So Constance, by great sorrow overcome,
With patience rose, preparing then to wend, 265
For well she saw there was no other end.
Alas! is it a wonder that she wept,
One being sent now to a foreign nation,
Away from friends who tenderly had kept
And cared for her, bound now for subjugation 270
To one about whom she’d no information?
But husbands all are good; from times of yore
This wives have known, and I’ll dare say no more.
“Father, your Constance, wretched child,” said she,
“Your daughter, young and gently reared, and you, 275
My mother–of my pleasure you would be
The best except for Christ on high–in rue
Constance your child, always commended to
Your grace, shall for the Syrian domain
Depart, and not set eyes on you again. 280
“Alas! for it is to the Barbary nation
That I must go at once, as is your will;
I pray that Christ, who died for our salvation,
Gives me the grace his precepts to fulfill.
Though I’m a wretched woman, come to ill, 285
Women are born to thralldom and to penance,
And to be under manhood’s governance.”
At Troy, I think, when Pyrrhus broke the wall
And Ilium burnt; at Thebes, and equally
At Rome for all the harm through Hannibal 290
Who smote the Romans not one time but three,
Such weeping wasn’t heard as came to be
Inside that place when time for her to leave;
She had to go although she sing or grieve.
O primum mobile! Cruel firmament 295
That always crowds with your diurnal sway,
Hurling all from the East to Occident
That naturally would go the other way;
In crowding so, you set in such array
The heavens, when began this fateful train, 300
By cruel Mars the marriage would be slain.
O tortuous ascendancy, by force
Of which now Mars the lord falls helplessly
Into the darkest house out of his course!
O atazir of Mars’s cruelty! 305
O feeble moon who moves unhappily!
You’re in conjunction where not kindly taken,
Your new position leaves you now forsaken.
Alas, imprudent Emperor of Rome!
In all your town not one philosopher? 310
There’s no propitious time to leave one’s home?
Of times to journey, none you might prefer
For people who of high position were
And all with times of birth exactly known?
Alas, too slow or ignorant you’ve grown! 315
To ship was brought this fair and woeful maid
With ceremony, every circumstance.
“Now Jesus Christ be with you all,” she prayed.
They said but “Farewell, lovely Lady Constance!”
She tried to show a cheerful countenance; 320
Forth in this manner I will let her sail,
As I shall now again resume my tale.
The Sultan’s mother (evil well of vices)
Had seen that which was her son’s full intent,
To leave his old religion’s sacrifices. 325
So for her council right away she sent;
They came to find out what this summons meant,
And when there was assembled all this folk,
She sat down and, as you shall hear, she spoke.
“As you are well aware, lords,” she began, 330
“My son is at the point he would forget
The holy laws contained in our Koran
As given by God’s messenger Mahomet.
But to great God I make this promise yet:
The very life shall from my body start 335
Before Mahomet’s law shall leave my heart!
“What should betide us with this brand-new law
But thralldom for our bodies, penance, grief?
And afterwards to hell we would withdraw,
Having denied Mahomet our belief. 340
Will you assure me, lords, for our relief,
Of your assent to what I’ll say before
You here, to make us safe forevermore?”
Each one assented, each swore that he would
Both live and die for her, and by her stand, 345
That each would try the best way that he could
To get his friends’ support for what she planned.
And she then took this enterprise in hand
As you shall hear, for I shall now explain;
Just in this way she spoke to them again: 350
“Christianity we’ll first feign to embrace;
Cold water’s all it is, we’ll suffer light.
I’ll have a feast and revel then take place,
And you’ve my word the Sultan I’ll requite.
For though his wife be baptized purest white, 355
A fountain full of water will not do
To wash away the red when I am through.”
O Sultaness, root of iniquity!
Virago, second Semiramis found!
Serpent disguised in femininity, 360
You’re like the one that deep in hell is bound;
False woman, of all things that may confound
Virtue and innocence, all that suffice
Are bred in you, the nest of every vice!
O Satan, full of envy since the day 365
They chased you from your heritage, pursued!
To women you know well the ancient way,
As you made Eve bring us to servitude;
This Christian marriage you would now preclude.
Your instrument–and wellaway the while!– 370
You make of women when you would beguile.
This sinful Sultaness at whom I rail
Then let her secret council go their way.
Why should I tarry longer with my tale?
She went to see the Sultan then one day 375
To say that she’d renounce their law, to say
From priestly hands she’d welcome Christendom,
Repenting all her time in heathendom.
She asked if, as an honor, she could hold
A feast, with every Christian as a guest; 380
“I’ll labor much to please them,” he was told.
The Sultan answered, “I’m at your behest.”
He knelt and thanked her then for the request,
So happy that he knew not what to say.
She kissed her son and homeward took her way. 385
Now when this Christian folk had come to land
In Syria–a great distinguished train–
A herald rushed, at the Sultan’s command,
First to his mother, then through the domain,
To say his wife had come, and, to sustain 390
The honor of his realm, pray all convene,
That everyone might ride to meet the queen.
Great was the throng and rich was the array
Of Syrians and Romans come to meet;
The Sultan’s mother, richly clad, that day 395
Met Constance with good cheer, both glad and sweet,
As any mother might her daughter greet.
Then to the nearest city to the side
At slow and stately pace they turned to ride.
Not Julius Caesar’s triumph, I would say, 400
Of which the author Lucan makes such boast,
Had so much royalty or rich display
As the assembly of this blissful host.
But this scorpion like some wicked ghost,
The Sultaness, for all her flattering, 405
Was then contriving mortally to sting.
The Sultan came himself soon after this
(so royally a wonder it’s to tell),
To welcome her with joy, in total bliss.
And so in mirth and joy I let them dwell; 410
The fruit of this is what I have to tell.
For when the time had come, men thought it best
That revel cease and men go to their rest.
Then came the time when this old Sultaness
Ordered the feast be held of which I’ve told. 415
Then to this feast the Christians all progress,
They come in general, young as well as old.
Here one may feast and royalty behold,
And dainties more than my words may devise–
But all too dearly bought, none were to rise. 420
O sudden woe that ever is successor
To worldly bliss, so sprayed with bitterness!
Of all our labors’ joy, the end, oppressor!
Woe occupies the end of happiness.
Hark to this counsel with assuredness: 425
Upon your day of gladness, keep in mind
The unseen woe or harm that comes behind.
To tell you in a word (if one is able),
The Sultan and each Christian who had gone
Were stabbed and cut to pieces at the table– 430
Each one, that is, but Constance, she alone.
This Sultaness, that old and cursed crone,
Had with her friends performed this cursed deed,
That she herself might all the country lead.
Not one converted Syrian in the scrape, 435
Not one who held the Sultan’s counsel true,
Was not dismembered ere he could escape.
And Constance then they put without ado
Aboard a ship–God knows, without a crew–
And bade her learn to sail upon the sea 440
From Syria back home to Italy.
Some treasure that she’d taken with her there,
And, be it said, food in great quantity,
Were given her, and also clothes to wear;
Then forth she sailed upon the salty sea. 445
O Constance, young, full of benignity,
Dear daughter of the Emperor of the realm,
The Lord of Fortune steer you at the helm!
She crossed herself, and with a piteous voice
Prayed to the cross of Christ and made this plea: 450
“O holy cross, altar where we rejoice,
Red from the Lamb’s blood, shed so pityingly,
That cleansed the world of old iniquity;
I pray, from the fiend and his claws please keep
Me, on that day when I drown in the deep. 455
“Victorious tree, protection of the true,
The only tree so worthy that you held
The King of heaven with his wounds anew,
The white Lamb who was speared; you have expelled
Demons from man and woman, all those who 460
Above them see your faithful limbs extend;
Now keep me that my life I might amend.”
For days and years afloat she had to go,
Throughout the Sea of Greece and to the Strait
Of Morocco, as fate would have it so. 465
And many a sorry meal the lady ate,
And frequently her death she would await
Before the waves so wild would ever drive
Her to the place where she longed to arrive.
Now men may ask why Constance wasn’t slain, 470
Or who was at the feast, her life to save;
I’ll answer that by asking them again:
Who saved young Daniel in that horrid cave,
That all but he–the master, every knave–
Be eaten by the lion, torn apart? 475
No one but God, whom he bore in his heart.
God wished to show his wondrous sovereignty
In her, that we should see his mighty work;
For Christ, of every harm the remedy,
Will often by some means (ask any clerk) 480
Do things for certain ends, though it seem murk
Surrounds it in man’s mind, which cannot sense
The prudence that is in his providence.
Now since she wasn’t murdered, as we saw,
Who kept the maid from drowning in the sea? 485
Well, who kept Jonah in the fish’s maw
Till spouted up at Nineveh? You see,
Men well may know it was no one but he
Who saved the Hebrews from a drowning too
When with dry feet they passed the Red Sea through. 490
Who bade the four spirits of the tempest
(With power to annoy land and sea
Both north and south, as well as east and west)
To bother neither sea nor land nor tree?
In truth, the one commanding this was he, 495
Who from the tempest too this woman kept
When she awoke as well as when she slept.
Where might she get her meat and drink? How save
The food she had, three years and more to sail?
Who fed Saint Mary of Egypt in the cave 500
Or desert? None but Christ, and without fail.
Five thousand people–marvelous the tale!–
With five loaves and two fishes he would feed;
God sent his plenty in their greatest need.
She drove forth in our ocean without aim, 505
Throughout our wild sea, till by waves at last
Beneath a castle that I cannot name,
Far in Northumberland, she had been cast;
And in the sand her vessel struck so fast,
From there it wouldn’t budge against the tide; 510
The will of Christ was that she should abide.
The castle’s constable had hurried there
To see the wreck. Survivors then he sought,
And found this weary woman full of care;
He also found the treasure she had brought. 515
In her own language mercy she besought,
That life out of her weary body go
And thereby bring deliverance from her woe.
A corrupted form of Latin was her speech,
But still a kind that one could understand. 520
The constable, his search done, to the beach
This woeful woman took. When on the land,
She knelt and thanked God for his guiding hand;
But who she was to no man she would say,
For foul or fair, though death she have to pay. 525
She claimed that she had lost her memory
While on the sea with such a muddled mind.
Both constable and wife had sympathy
For her to such degree they wept. So kind
She was as well, so diligent to find 530
Ways she might serve and please all in the place,
That she was loved by all who saw her face.
This constable and Hermengild, his wife,
Were pagan, like that country everywhere.
But Hermengild loved her as much as life, 535
And Constance was so long sojourning there,
With orisons and tears of such despair,
That Jesus Christ converted, through his grace,
Dame Hermengild, governess of the place.
No Christian in that land dared move about; 540
The Christian folk had all been forced to flee
Because of pagans, conquering with a rout
The regions of the North by land and sea.
To Wales had fled the Christianity
Among old Britons dwelling in the isle; 545
That was their refuge for a goodly while.
But Christian Britons were not so exiled
That there were not a few who privately
Would honor Christ (the heathen folk beguiled),
And near the castle there were dwelling three. 550
Now one of them was blind–he couldn’t see,
That is, except for eyes within the mind
With which men see when otherwise they’re blind.
Bright was the sun when on one summer’s day
The constable and his wife chose to go, 555
Along with Constance, down the quickest way
Toward the sea, a furlong way or so,
To frolic on the seashore to and fro.
They chanced to meet this blind man as they strolled;
His eyes were shut, hunchbacked he was and old. 560
“In Christ’s sweet name,” this sightless Briton cried,
“Dame Hermengild, give me my sight again!”
The woman feared, when so identified,
That by her husband (briefly to explain)
For loving Jesus she would there be slain– 565
Till Constance gave her strength, to work in search
Of Christ’s own will as daughter of his church.
The constable, abashed at such a sight,
Said, “What’s the meaning of this whole affair?”
And Constance answered, “Sir, it is the might 570
Of Christ, that helps folks out of Satan’s snare.”
And she began our law then to declare
Until she had the constable by eve
Converted, and on Christ made him believe.
This constable was not lord of the place 575
Of which I speak (where Constance chanced to land),
But strongly kept it many a winter’s space
For Alla, king of all Northumberland–
A wise king, one who held a worthy hand
Against the Scots, as men may hear and learn. 580
But to my story I’ll again return.
Now Satan, ever watching to beguile,
At once (on seeing Constance’s perfection)
Looked for a way to foil her with his wile;
He made a young knight dwelling in that section 585
Love her so hotly, with such foul affection,
The knight thought that by passion he’d be killed
If with her once he had not what he willed.
He wooed her but his efforts were for naught,
She would commit no sin in any way. 590
Then for despite he entertained the thought
That shameful death would be the price she’d pay.
He waited; with the constable away,
One evening late, with stealthiness he crept
Into the room where Hermengild then slept. 595
There weary from their prayerful wakefulness,
Both Hermengild and Constance were asleep.
This knight whom Satan tempted to transgress
Then softly managed to the bed to creep.
He cut the throat of Hermengild, and deep; 600
He left by Constance then the bloody knife
And went his way. God’s vengeance on his life!
The constable had soon come home again,
With Alla, king of all the land around,
To see his wife had been so cruelly slain; 605
He wrung his hands and wept, by sorrow bound,
Then in the bed the bloody knife he found
By Constance. O alas! what could she say,
In woe her very senses gone away?
To Alla then was told all this mischance– 610
The time, the place as well, how it occurred
Constance was shipwrecked there by happenstance
As I’ve explained. And when the king had heard,
His heart quaked, so much pity in him stirred,
To see a creature so benign to be
In this distress, in such adversity. 615
For as the lamb is to the slaughter brought,
So stood this innocent before the king.
The lying knight who had this treason wrought
Bore witness that indeed she’d done the thing. 620
But mighty grief all this then came to bring
Among the people, saying, “How can they
Suppose she’d act in such an evil way?”
They’d always found her virtuous; what’s more,
She had loved Hermengild as much as life, 625
As everyone there in the household swore,
Except the one who’d killed her with his knife.
Suspicion in this gentle king grew rife
About the knight; King Alla thought to sleuth
More deeply into this, to learn the truth. 630
Constance, alas! no champion, it’s seemed,
Wills to defend, you cannot fight your way.
But he who died that we might be redeemed,
Who Satan bound (who lies still where he lay),
May he be your strong champion today! 635
Unless Christ brings miraculous event,
You quickly shall be slain though innocent.
She got down on her knees then and she prayed:
“Immortal God, the one who saved Susanna
From false complaint; and thou, merciful maid 640
(Mary I mean, the daughter of Saint Anna)
Before whose child the angels sing ‘Hosanna’–
If I am guiltless of this felony,
Lest I shall perish, my salvation be!”
Before have you not seen the pallid face, 645
Among a crowd, of someone who was led
Toward his death (one who was shown no grace),
And in his face the color had so fled
That men might know his face was one of dread
Among all of the faces in the rout? 650
So Constance stood and palely looked about.
O queens, living in your prosperity,
O duchesses, you ladies so well known,
Please have some ruth for her adversity!
The daughter of an emperor stands alone, 655
She has no one now who would hear her moan.
O royal blood, standing in dread today,
In your great need your friends are far away!
So much compassion had Alla the king
(As pity-filled a gentle heart will be) 660
That tears were running down his cheeks. “Now bring
Without delay a book to us,” said he,
“And if this knight will swear to us how she
This woman slew, we after will decide
Whom we shall choose as judge when she is tried.” 665
A British book was fetched, one that contained
The Gospels; on this book at once he swore
Her guilt. In that same instant that obtained,
A hand did smite his neck, the wound so sore
He fell down like a boulder to the floor, 670
And both his eyes burst right out of his face
In sight of everybody in the place.
A voice was heard by all the audience:
“You’ve spoken slander of the innocent,
This Holy Church’s child, and in high presence; 675
So you have done, yet wrath I do not vent.”
Bewildered by this marvelous event,
Each person stood aghast and like a stone,
In fear of vengeance–save Constance alone.
Great was the fear and also the repentance 680
Of those who had suspected, in delusion,
This holy innocent Lady Constance;
This miracle brought many, in conclusion
(With Constance mediating), absolution,
The king and many others in the place 685
Being converted, thanks to our Lord’s grace.
This lying knight was slain for his untruth,
By judgment of King Alla, hastily;
Yet Constance had upon his death great ruth.
And after this Christ Jesus graciously 690
Had Alla wed with full solemnity
This holy maid who was so bright and sheen;
And thus had Jesus made Constance a queen.
But who had woe, if truth I shall impart,
To see them wed? None but Donegild who 695
Was Alla’s mother, she with tyrant’s heart.
She thought her cursed heart would break in two;
She wouldn’t have him wed as he would do–
She thought it a disgrace that he arrange
To marry such a creature, one so strange. 700
I do not wish with either chaff or straw
To stretch the tale, I’ll get right to the wheat.
What should I tell of royalty one saw
There at the rites, what course came first to eat,
Who blew a trumpet or a horn? The meat 705
Or fruit of every tale is what to say:
They eat and drink, they dance and sing and play.
To bed they went, by reason and by right;
For although wives be truly holy things,
They have to take with patience in the night 710
What’s necessary for the pleasurings
Of those folks who have wedded them with rings,
And lay some of their holiness aside
At such a time. No better may betide.
The king begat a manchild right away; 715
He took his wife and left her in the care
Of constable and bishop on the day
He left for Scotland, hunting foemen there.
Now Constance, she so humble, meek, and fair,
So long had been with child, she stayed inside 720
Her chamber, ever Christ’s will to abide.
The time then came, the child was borne by her,
Beside the font Maurice his christened name;
The constable then called a messenger,
As he wrote to King Alla to proclaim 725
The blissful tidings, how the manchild came
(And other tidings briefly to relay);
He sped him with this letter on his way.
This messenger, to suit his own advantage,
To the king’s mother first was swift to ride, 730
Saluting her in best words he could manage.
“You may,” said he, “be glad and full of pride!
Thank God one hundred thousand times! His bride,
My lady queen, has borne a child. No doubt
Both joy and bliss will sweep the realm throughout. 735
“Here are the letters, sealed, about the thing,
Which I must bear with all the haste I may.
If you’d send others to your son the king,
I am your humble servant night and day.”
“I’ve nothing,” answered Donegild, “to say 740
Right now. Here you will take your rest tonight,
Tomorrow I’ll instruct you as I might.”
This messenger consumed much ale and wine,
And stolen were his letters stealthily
Out of his box, while he slept like a swine. 745
And then was forged (and with great subtlety)
Another letter, written evilly,
Directed to the king as to appear
From his own constable, as you shall hear.
The queen had borne, so this forged letter said, 750
So horrible a creature, to be plain,
That none within the castle, out of dread,
Dared with this fiendish creature to remain.
The mother was an elf, an evil bane
Who’d come by charms or by some sorcery, 755
And everyone now loathed her company.
How grieved the king when he this letter read!
Yet he disclosed to none this wound so sore,
As in his own hand he replied instead:
“What Christ ordains is welcome evermore 760
To me, as one who’s learned in his lore.
Lord, welcome is thy will and all thy pleasance,
My will I yield to thine in goverance.
“Care for this child, though it be foul or fair,
My wife as well, until I’m home again. 765
Christ, when he wills, will send to me an heir
More to my liking, heir to my domain.”
He sealed the letter, weeping in his pain;
The messenger received it, no delay
As forth he went. There is no more to say. 770
O messenger, so full of drunkenness!
Strong breathed, with limbs that falter, you betray
All that is told to you in secretness;
Your mind is lost, you chatter like a jay,
Your face begins to look a whole new way. 775
Wherever drunkenness reigns in a rout
There is no hidden counsel, do not doubt.
O Donegild, my English can’t begin
To treat your malice and your tyranny!
I’ll leave you to the devil–let him then 780
Become the judge of all your treachery.
Fie, manlike–no, by God, I lie, let’s see–
Fie on your fiendish spirit! I dare tell,
Though here you walk, your spirit is in hell.
The messenger came from the king once more, 785
At court of the king’s mother to alight.
She entertained him as she’d done before,
She pleased him in each manner that she might;
He drank until his belt was good and tight,
And then he slept (and snored in usual wise) 790
All night until the sun was to arise.
Then stolen were his letters once again,
Replaced with further forgeries that went:
“The king commands his constable, on pain
Of being hanged, strict justice the intent, 795
That he should suffer now in no event
That Constance for one quarter-hour remain
Beyond three days within King Alla’s reign;
“Rather, in that same ship where she was found
Let her and her young son with all their gear 800
Be placed and then be pushed away from ground
And ordered not to be returning here.”
O Constance, there’s no wonder at the fear
Of woeful spirit as you sleep and dream,
With Donegild concocting such a scheme! 805
This messenger at morning did awake
And to the castle went by shortest way,
The letter to the constable to take.
When he saw what the letter had to say,
The constable cried “Woe!” and “Wellaway! 810
Lord Christ,” said he, “how may this world endure,
So full of sin, of creatures so impure?
“O mighty God, if it should be thy will,
As thou art rightful judge, how may it be
That thou shouldst let the guiltless die and still 815
Let wicked folk reign in prosperity?
O good Constance! Alas, so woe is me,
I’m to be your tormenter–else I die
A shameful death! No other way I spy.”
Both young and old wept all throughout the place, 820
This cursed letter Alla having sent,
As Constance with a deathly pallid face
Upon the fourth day to the vessel went.
But nonetheless she took for good intent
The will of Christ and, kneeling on the strand, 825
Said, “Welcome, Lord, all that is thy command.
“The one who has sustained me in false blame
While here on land among you won’t allow
That I should suffer harm or come to shame
Upon the sea, though I may see not how. 830
As strong as he has been he still is now;
In him I trust, and in his mother dear,
And this will be my sail and help me steer.”
Her little child lay weeping in her arms
As, kneeling, piteously to him she said, 835
“Peace, little son, I’ll do to you no harms.”
Then over the eyes of her child she spread
A kerchief she had taken from her head,
And lulled him gently in her arms. At last
Her eyes toward the heavens Constance cast. 840
“O mother Mary, maiden bright,” said she,
“It’s true that through woman’s encouragement
Mankind was lost, with death the penalty,
For which thy child was crucified and rent.
Thy blessed eyes saw all of his torment, 845
So there is no comparing, to be sure,
Thy woe with any woe man may endure.
“Thou sawest thy child slain before thine eyes,
Yet, by my faith, my child still lives somehow!
O lady bright, who hears our woeful cries, 850
Glory of woman, maiden fair, O thou
Bright star of day, haven of refuge, now
Rue on my child as in thy gentleness
Thou rueth on all rueful in distress.
“O little child, alas! what is your guilt, 855
You who have yet to sin? What could you do
That your hard father wills your life be spilt?
Mercy, dear constable,” she said in rue,
“And let my little child dwell here with you.
But if you dare not save him, risking blame, 860
Give him a last kiss in his father’s name.”
She took a backward look then to the land,
And said, “O ruthless husband, farewell, sir!”
Then she arose and walked down on the strand
Toward the ship (the crowd all followed her), 865
Praying her child would not cry out or stir.
Taking her leave, and with holy intent
Crossing herself, into the ship she went.
The ship was victualed, no need there for dread,
Abundant stores filled each and every space; 870
Of all necessities, so be it said,
She had enough, praise be to God’s good grace.
Almighty God, give wind and weather place
And bring her home! There’s no more I can say
Except that on the sea she sailed away. 875
King Alla came, soon after this was done,
Home to his castle of which I have told,
And asked then where had gone his wife and son.
The constable then felt his blood run cold,
And plainly to the king the tale he told 880
As you have heard (I cannot tell it better),
And showed the king his seal, also his letter;
He said, “My lord, as you commanded me,
On pain of death, is what I’ve done, no less.”
The messenger was tortured then till he 885
Had but one choice, openly to confess
Where he had slept each night. So one could guess,
When wits were used and subtle questioning,
From where this evil work had come to spring.
They recognized which hand the letter wrote, 890
Exposed the venom of this cursed deed;
I don’t know how, so more I cannot note
Except to say that Alla then indeed
His mother slew (as men may plainly read)
For being a traitor. In great dishonor
Thus ends old Donegild. A curse upon her! 895
What sorrow this King Alla night and day
Felt for his wife, and for his child also,
There is no tongue so eloquent to say.
So now again to Constance I will go, 900
Who floats out on the sea in pain and woe,
As Jesus wills, forlorn five years or more
Until her ship at last approaches shore.
Beneath a heathen castle finally
(Its name within my text I fail to find) 905
She and her child were cast up by the sea.
Almighty God, who rescues all mankind,
Have Constance and her little child in mind
Who in a heathen land now fall again,
Near point of death as I shall soon explain. 910
Down from the castle many to the site
Had come, to gaze upon the ship and Constance;
Then shortly from the castle, late one night,
The lord’s own steward–God give him mischance,
A thief who spurned our faith–made an advance 915
Alone onto the ship, and said he ought
To have her love no matter what she thought.
This woman–woebegone, in wretched way,
With crying child–then cried out piteously.
But blessed Mary helped her right away: 920
As Constance struggled well and mightily,
The thief fell overboard quite suddenly
And in the sea as he deserved was finished.
So by our Lord is Constance left unblemished.
Such is your end, O foul lust, lechery! 925
For you not only weaken a man’s mind
But you will ruin his body certainly;
The end of all your work, your lust so blind,
Is grief. How many times that men may find
That not just sinful work but the intent 930
Can lead to shame or death as punishment.
And how could this weak woman have the strength
For such defense against this renegade?
O Goliath, immeasurable in length,
By David how could you so low be laid, 935
By one so young, no armor and no blade?
How dared he look upon your dreadful face?
Well men may see that it was by God’s grace.
Who gave to Judith such brave hardiness
That she slew Holofernes in his tent, 940
That she delivered out of wretchedness
God’s people? This I say as my intent,
That just as God a vigorous spirit sent
To them, thereby to save them from their plight,
He sent to Constance too the will and might. 945
Her ship went forth into the narrow mouth
Of Ceuta and Gibraltar, making way
First to the west, then sometimes north and south
And sometimes east, for many a weary day,
Until Christ’s mother–bless her, as we pray!– 950
Prepared through her eternal graciousness
A plan to end poor Constance’s distress.
Of the Roman Emperor now a word,
And then right back to Constance where we’ve brought her.
Through letters brought from Syria he heard 955
About the Christian folks who’d gone to slaughter,
The traitorous dishonor done his daughter
By that most wicked, cursed Sultaness
Who at the feast had slain with thoroughness.
The Emperor of Rome at once sent out 960
A senator, armed with a royal order,
And other lords–God knows, a mighty rout–
To seek revenge across the Syrian border.
They burnt and slew and razed, giving no quarter
As they spread havoc there for many a day; 965
Then, briefly, home to Rome they took their way.
This senator, thus heading in his glory
For Rome, while sailing royally
Soon chanced upon the ship (so says the story)
In which was seated Constance piteously. 970
He had no inkling of whom she might be,
And she refused to speak a single breath
About herself, were it on pain of death.
He brought her then to Rome, and to his wife
He gave her and her little manchild too; 975
So with this senator she led her life.
(And thus from woe Our Lady can rescue,
Besides poor Constance, many more in rue.)
A lengthy time she dwelt there in that place,
Always in holy works as was her grace. 980
The senator’s wife was in fact her aunt,
But Constance still she didn’t recognize.
To tarry longer at this point I shan’t,
But of King Alla I’ll again advise,
Still weeping for his wife with mournful sighs; 985
To him I shall return now, leaving Constance
There under the senator’s governance.
King Alla, who had had his mother slain,
Came one day to be filled with such repentance
That, if I might relate it short and plain, 990
He went to Rome, that he might have his penance
Completely under papal governance
From high to low. From Jesus Christ he sought
Forgiveness for the wicked works he wrought.
The word in Rome at once went door to door 995
(“King Alla comes, a pilgrim in contrition”)
By harbingers whom he sent out before.
And so the senator, as was tradition,
Rode out to meet him (kinsmen in addition
Rode out), displaying high magnificence 1000
As well as showing royal reverence.
This senator gave Alla gracious greeting,
And he in turn then greeted him as well,
Each honoring the other at their meeting.
A day or two thereafter it befell 1005
That to King Alla’s inn, I’ll briefly tell,
This senator went for a feast, and he
Took Constance’s young son in company.
Now to the feast some men would doubtless say
He took her son at Constance’s request; 1010
I cannot tell it all in every way,
Be as it may he took him as a guest.
It was indeed, though, Constance’s behest
That this young fellow, while the meal took place,
Be standing, looking Alla in the face. 1015
The king was filled with wonder. Curiously
The senator he questioned, promptly so:
“That fair child over there–who might he be?”
“By God and by Saint John, I do not know.
He has a mother but no father, though, 1020
Of whom I know.” Then he set to expound
To Alla briefly how the child was found.
“But God knows,” said the senator when done,
“Not one as virtuous in all my life
I’ve ever seen as she, nor heard of one, 1025
Count every worldly woman, maid or wife.
I daresay she would rather have a knife
Plunge through her heart than have a wicked name.
There is no man could bring her to that shame.”
In looks the child was as alike to Constance 1030
As any creature possibly could be.
Alla recalled to mind her countenance
And he began to wonder musingly
If this child’s mother could be none but she
Who was his wife. Then inwardly he sighed, 1035
And quickly from the table Alla hied.
“By faith,” he thought, “a phantom’s in my head!
I have to think, if logic’s any judgment,”
But then he gave himself this argument: 1040
“How do I know Christ Jesus hasn’t sent
Her here by sea, just as she came before
To my own land before she left its shore?”
That afternoon, home with the senator
King Alla went to see if it was true. 1045
His host great honor to him did confer,
Then sent for Constance with no more ado.
She didn’t feel like dancing once she knew
The reason he had issued such a call–
In fact she scarcely could stand up at all. 1050
When Alla saw her, greeting her with honor,
He wept, a truly ruthful sight to see;
For just as soon as he laid eyes upon her
He knew without a doubt that it was she.
In sorrow Constance stood dumb as a tree, 1055
Her heart so shut because of her distress
When she remembered his unkindliness.
Then twice she swooned right there in Alla’s sight;
He wept, in self-defense said piteously,
“As God and all his saints and angels bright 1060
May surely on my soul have lenity,
Of your harm I’m as guiltless as would be
Maurice my son–so like you in the face–
Or may the devil haul me from this place!”
Long was the sobbing and the bitter pain 1065
Before the woe within their hearts had ceased;
Great was the pity, hearing them complain
With plaints by which their woe was just increased.
I pray that from my labor I’m released,
No more about their woe, until tomorrow; 1070
I am so weary speaking of such sorrow.
But when the truth then finally was known
(Of what she suffered through, his guiltlessness),
They kissed at least a hundred times, I own,
And twixt the two there was such happiness 1075
That, save the joy of everlastingness,
No creature’s ever seen the like, for sure,
Nor ever shall while this world may endure.
She asked her husband with humility
If for relief–so long she’d had to pine– 1080
He would request her father specially
To be, for all his majesty, benign
Enough that someday he might with him dine.
She also prayed that of her in no way
One word would Alla to her father say. 1085
It was the child Maurice, some men believe,
Who to the Emperor took the request;
But I would not think Alla so naive
That to so great a sovereign–one blest
As being of all Christian folk the best– 1090
He’d send a child. It’s better then to deem
That Alla went himself, as it would seem.
The Emperor accepted graciously
The dinner invitation Alla brought;
And I can say he looked distractedly 1095
At Alla’s child and of his daughter thought.
Alla went to his inn and, as he ought,
Prepared for this great feast in every wise
As far as royal cunning could devise.
The next day came and Alla rose to dress, 1100
As did his wife, this Emperor to meet;
And forth they rode in joy and blissfulness.
And when she saw her father in the street,
Constance, alighting, fell down at his feet.
“Father, your young child Constance,” then she cried, 1105
“From your remembrance has been swept aside.
“I am your daughter Constance,” stated she,
“Whom you once sent to Syria. It’s I,
Dear Father, I who on the salty sea
Was put alone and left, condemned to die. 1110
For mercy now, good Father, is my cry!
Send me not out again among the Godless,
But thank my lord here for his kindliness.”
Who could describe the sweet joy that arose
Among those three when they had come to meet? 1115
But I shall bring my story to a close,
No longer I’ll delay, the day is fleet.
These happy people all sat down to eat;
I leave them at their feast–their joy, I hold,
Beyond my words at least a thousandfold. 1120
This child Maurice was later by the Pope
Made Emperor, and he lived righteously;
The respect he paid the Church was great in scope.
I’ll let his story pass if you agree,
For my tale is of Constance specially. 1125
In histories of Rome is where you’ll find
Maurice’s life, I’ll pay it here no mind.
King Alla, when there came the proper day,
Then went with Constance, his sweet, holy wife,
Back home to England by the shortest way; 1130
There they enjoyed a blissful, quiet life.
But I can well assure you, woe or strife
Soon follows worldly joy; time won’t abide,
From day to night it changes like the tide.
Who’s ever lived one day of full delight 1135
Who has not still been moved by conscience, ire,
By envy, pride, by tragedy or fright,
By some effrontery or by desire?
I say this only as it would transpire
That joy and bliss for Alla on this isle 1140
With Constance was to last but little while.
For death, which takes its toll from high to low,
After about a year, as I would guess,
Had taken Alla from this world. Such woe
Did Constance feel, she grieved with heaviness. 1145
Now let us pray that God his soul will bless!
Dame Constance, in conclusion I will say,
Toward the town of Rome then made her way.
In Rome this holy creature has arrived
To find that all her friends are whole and sound. 1150
All her adventure Constance has survived;
And when her father she at last has found,
She falls down to her knees upon the ground
And there she weeps, so tender in her ways,
A hundred thousand times our Lord to praise. 1155
In virtue and in holy Christian deed
They live, and never from each other wend;
Till death should part, such is the life they lead.
And so farewell! my tale is at an end.
Now Jesus Christ, who in his might may send 1160
Joy after woe, govern us by his grace
And keep each one of us who’s in this place! Amen.
Our Host stood in his stirrups right away
And said, “Good men, give ear to what I say!
That was a worthy tale for our intent! 1165
Sir Parish Priest, by God’s bones,” on he went,
“Tell us a tale as you agreed before.
Well I can see you learned men in lore
Know, by God’s dignity, much good to say!”
The Parson answered, “Benedicite! 1170
What ails the man, so sinfully to swear?”
Our Host replied, “O Johnny, are you there?
I smell a Lollard in the wind,” said he.
“Now, good men,” said our Host, “attend to me;
Abide awhile, by our Lord’s worthy passion, 1175
For we shall have a sermon–in his fashion
This Lollard here will preach to us somewhat.”
“Nay, by my father’s soul, that he shall not!”
The Skipper said. “Here shall he never preach,
Not here shall he the gospel gloss or teach. 1180
We all believe in one great God,” he said.
“Some difficulty he would sow, he’d spread
Some cockles, sow some weed, in our clean corn.
And therefore, Host, you fairly I will warn,
A tale my jolly body now shall tell 1185
And clang for you so merrily a bell
That I shall wake up all this company!
And it shall not be of philosophy
Or medicine or of quaint terms of law;
There is but little Latin in my maw.” 1190