Chaucer’s Man of Law #
Chaucer’s portrait gallery of 14^(th) C. England is renown for its wit and use of Chaucerian irony; praising a character, but undercutting it with subtle wit. Only one character survives Chaucer’s sarcasm unscathed – the lowly Parson. All of the other Pilgrims fall short of their projected image. Chaucer’s characters generally discredit themselve by their actions or words. He depicts society inverted; the top echelons are corrupted, while the lower orders have integrity and dignity.
Most modern literature gives more emphasis on the qualities of the ordinary man.
309 A SERGEANT OF THE LAWE, war and wys,
310 That often hadde been at the Parvys, Porch of St Pauls
311 Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.
312 Discreet he was and of greet reverence – Judicious
313 He semed swich, his wordes weren so wise.
314 Justice he was ful often in assise,
315 By patente and by pleyn commissioun.
316 For his science and for his heigh renoun,
317 Of fees and robes hadde he many oon. Yearly income
318 So greet a purchasour was nowher noon: Land buyer
319 Al was fee symple to hym in effect;
320 His purchasyng myghte nat been infect. contested
321 Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
322 And yet he semed bisier than he was.
323 In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle records of previous cases
324 That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.
325 Therto he koude endite and make a thyng,
326 Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng; unimpeachable writing
327 And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.
328 He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote,
329 Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale; belt of silk with small stripes
330 Of his array telle I no lenger tale.
Essay - Sergeant of the Law #
The Sergeant of Law does not escape Chaucer’s sharp wit through malicious insinuations; his caricature is bourgeois, successful man of high standing, aggressive, scheming, punctilious, but venal, pretentious, shallow….
His cultivated and projected image is a sham as exposed by subtle fulsome praise in the General Prologue and sustained by his own words in his tale.
He attempts to project an image of an erudite and learned professional, but this is undercut by his lack of culture through his banal comments revealing a charlatan.
There are three dominant projections:
- He is an important and busy man:
* And yet he semed bisier than he was.*
- He is a successful business man:
* So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:
Al was fee symple to hym in effect;
His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.
He has an extraordinary memory
1. *In termes hadde he caas and doomes* alle * *cases-decisions
That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.
Therto he koude endite* and make a thyng, *compose
Ther koude no wight pynche* at his writyng; * flawless writing
And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.
Yet none of these attributes are sustained in his long winded tales.
He occupied a high position or rank in court. His title “sergeant” corresponds to the latin “serviens ad legem” or server of the King in legal matters. Socially ranked after the Knights, but took precedence over nobles. They ranked after the judges of the King’s Bench and took precedence of both the Attorney General and Solicitor General. Their eminence at court was evident in that they did not have to remove their head covering in the presence of the Monarch.
After building up the image of the Sergeant, Chaucer begins to whittle it down with some short qualifications:
“he semed switch/ And yet he seemed bisier than he was”
Outside the General Prologue, he is no longer referred to as Sargeant of the Law, merely as Man of the Law which could be seen as slighting his position.
He is a man of appearances, posturing and self-important, pretentious, pompous and vain. Chaucer makes The Man of Law crucify himself every time he opens his mouth, demonstrating Chaucer’s skill at character detraction (assassination?).
The Man of Law postures as a literary critic, a moral philosopher and a successful business man. He likes “thrifty stories” yet his tale is ornate, long winded and full of unnecessary embellishments.
His tale reads like an advocate arguing his case before a jury, using rhetorical flourishes, anticipating objections, but answering them, quoting scripture, playing on the emotions, appealing to their sympathies. He displays his ability to use legal jargon.
Chaucer ridicules rhetorical declamations or smooth operators. As the Parsoun’s characterisation indicates, Chaucer prefers action over words. *“erste he wrought, than he taught”. *
As a bourgeois businessman, the Man of Law is intent on acquiring property, the usual domain of the nobility by virtue of grants by the King. Emerging *noveau - riche, *threatening the privileged aristocracy
John Manly, Some New Light on Chaucer, New York, 1926, after a thorough search of legal records of the time, comes up with a compelling, credible conjecture that Chaucer has based this character on a contemporary Sergeant, Thomas Pynchbach as his satirical inspiration.
The Pynchbach’s were a landless family, but through various land transactions, often of dubious legality he became one of the landed gentry. If land is “entailed” or defect in title (infect), he manages somehow to get around the restrictions and hold it in clear title (in fee simple) for himself.
He is able to write (endite) the documents so that no one is able to find fault with them (kould no wight pynch at his writing)
Like most privileged, The Man of Law attacks the poor as a rationalisation for his affluence and aggressiveness in acquiring more land through his “shrewd” land transactions. He quotes 22 lines, in the Prologue to his tale, from Pope Innocent III’s *“De Miseria Humans Condition”. *It is common for the winners of the rat race to complain about the poor, especially if they are on welfare. The poor always make the advantaged feel guilty, underlying our insecurity.
He then proceeds to strongly praise merchants and their wealth. He sounds like a capitalist defending the capitalist system. If lawyers were considered shrewd, corrupt and unprincipled, then this threatened defence of wealth could be seen as Chaucer satirising the Man of Law’s paranoia.
In the Tale itself, the symbols of success are seen totally in materialistic terms. Merchants introduce Constance to the Sultan. Sumptuous feasts are described in elaborate detail to impress us.
His sharp memory is also questioned:
*In termes hadde he caas and doomes* alle *
That from the tyme of kyng William were falle.
* And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.*
The high praise is undercut by his hesitant and failing memory in both his Prologue and Tale itself. The boast is unfounded. His actions undermine his claims.
“Consonant with the tone of the General Prologue, it is more likely that Chaucer is allowing the pretentious man to make a quasi fool of himself, not by characterising him as an obvious Mr Malaprop, (for that would be unrealistic considering the lawyer’s professional accomplishments), but by allowing him just enough errata to bring an amused smile to the educated audience’s face.”
The Man of Law attempts to impress us with allusions to biblical and literary sources.
According to Robert French, Chief Justice of NSW, judges often deploy poetry in harmless attempts of lifting the “quotidian” tedium of the judicial task but as one dismissive critic said:
Allusion(s), marginally relevant but of sound aesthetic provenance, lightly inserted but suggesting vast allusive reserves, certainly enhances the texture of judicial prose, and may even contribute in useful ways to sustaining a learned and authoritative judicial tone.
The Man of Law’s piety and literary learning are subtlely lampooned by at least ten minor errors. He tells us that Medea hanging her children, (they were slain by sword) and Daniel accompanied by friends in the lion’s den (he was alone).
Delasanta concludes: “He has read scripture, history and literature, but it become evident that he has pursued his extra-legal reading with an eye to intellectual posturing and didactic gesture, certainly not with depth, accuracy and understanding.”
Chaucer uses his consummate skill to set the Man of Law up for positioning himself to be more than he really was.