In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Man of Law tells the story of a Roman woman called Constance, who undergoes great travails in her life. This story is, in fact, an adaptation of previous stories by, first, Nicholas Trevet and later on, John Gower. In each story, the writer’s modifications are set to serve a different function. This short essay will examine and compare the differences in the characterization of the Syrian Sultan’s mother in each story.
In all three stories, the Sultan’s mother initiates the murder of her Christian guests and her own son; yet, some differences shed a distinctive light on each tale. In Trevet’s version, The Sultan’s mother is characterized as much more religious, and consequently, her murderous acts are directly derived from it. Trevet recounts that the Sultan’s mother “plotted evil and treason” after she sees “that her religion was already on the point of being destroyed by Christians” (lines 73-84). In Gower’s version, he particularly specifies “Envie” (line 641) as what catalyzes the Sultan’s mother to such a ghastly scheme, and later on, she greedily comments that if her son will “wedde in this manere” then her own “astat schal so be lassed” (lines 646-648).
The portrait of the Sultan’s mother in Gower’s story is therefore much more nefarious than the one in Trevet’s: while Trevet presents her as savagely attempting to save her religion by murder, in Gower, she is purely motivated by self-interest and utter selfishness. Gower also makes an additional small alteration that depicts the Sultan’s mother slightly more vilely. In Trevet’s story, she swears to her son that she “secretly” had the resolve to “adopt the Christian faith” as well (73-84); Gowers alters this false admission – she proclaims to him that she desired that he will be the one who “[r]eceive and take a newe feith” (line 661). Thus, she makes him feel more reassured and complacent before executing her monstrous plan.
The aftermath of the murder in Gower’s story also makes the Sultan’s mother appear more evil than in Trevet’s. The murderers in Trevet’s story kill all the Christians and converters “except only the maiden” and “three young Christian men” who manage to escape (lines 85-99). In Gower’s version of the slaughter, there is no mention of any survivors and there is even a horrid description of Constance standing alone after the bloodbath, seeing that “al was torned into blod” (line 698). Thus, Gower’s depiction certainly adds more cruelty to the characterization of the Sultan’s mother.
In the adaptation of this story into the tale of the Man of Law, Chaucer seems to favor Gower’s more wicked characterization of the Sultan’s mother and supplements it with additional layers of viciousness. The Man of Law specifies the reasons for the Sultan’s mother’s conspiracy that appear in both Trevet and Gower’s stories – fanatic faith and greed – which function to contrast with Constance’s benevolent and tolerant character throughout the tale. The Sultan’s mother zealously asserts that she would rather lose her life “[t]han Makometes lawe out of [her] herte” (line 336), and in addition, she sardonically wonders, “in helle to be drawe / For we reneyed Mahoun oure creance” (lines 339-340).
Chaucer partially adopts the Sultan’s mother’s false proclamation of wishing to become a Christian herself from Trevet’s story but integrates it deeper into her plot, which ultimately renders her more viciously sly; she tells her son “that she wolde reneye hir lay” (line 376), as part of the feast in which she plots to murder him and all the Christians. As in Gower’s story, Chaucer also leaves no survivors; the Man of Law clearly emphasizes, “everichone / Been al tohewe and stiked” except “oonly dame Custance allone” (lines 429-431). Chaucer does not only settle with this more violent depiction of the Sultan’s mother but also dedicates a whole segment (lines 358-371) in which the Man of Law utterly vilifies her.
Overall, Chaucer clearly intends to enhance the cruelty and malice of the Sultan’s mother to idolize Constance further as he juxtaposes the two characters.