Gower Bibliography

The Question of Authority and The Man of Law's Tale

Eberle, Patricia J.. "The Question of Authority and The Man of Law's Tale." In The Centre and Its Compass: Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor John Leyerle. Ed. Taylor, Robert A. and Leyerle, John. Studies in Medieval Culture (33). Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1993, pp. 111-49.


Eberle considers Chaucer's "Man of Law's Tale" and its analogues in Trivet's "Cronicles" and CA as three different versions of a "story of origins," more particularly of the origin of Christian rulership in England. Each of them takes a different stance with regard to the opposition in contemporary political theory between the "ascending" view of authority (by which authority arises from the governed) and the "descending" view (by which authority descends from God through the king), a question that would have been of special interest to Chaucer, who sat as representative of Kent in the Parliament of 1386 in which these two views were set in direct conflict in the openly expressed challenges to the authority of the king. Trivet adopts a "descending" view especially suited to the royal princess for whom he wrote: his Constance is "forthright, self-confident, and empowered by her faith in God to speak out against those who wrongly attempt to force her to submit. . . . If 'all power is of God,' then God can grant power even to a woman, and a women of noble birth, good education, and a strong commitment to the Christian faith can play a founding role in the course of English history" (p. 131). Gower too seems to adopt a strict "descending" view in his Prologue to CA, expressing in his declaration of allegiance to the king a notion of royal authority that must have been completely congenial to Richard II. In his tale, however, he shifts the emphasis from Constance's personal accomplishments to God's grace; thus "he interprets the 'descending' theory in a way that is calculated to emphasize not the ruler's absolute authority over those beneath him but his absolute dependence on and duty of obedience to the God who is above him as the source of his power" (p. 132). Chaucer's version is more complex. He repeatedly calls attention to human inability to understand God's plan, and emphasizes the suffering that can inexplicably befall individuals in the fulfillment of the greater good. Not only is Custance's preservation attributed to God, but so too are her trials. The arbitrariness and incomprehensibility of Providence raise serious questions about the "descending" view of authority that the tale ostensibly endorses. In another distinctive aspect of Chaucer's version, moreover, Custance's suffering is repeatedly attributed to a confusion between God's will and that of a human ruler: her "submission to the authority of God is what preserves her from death at various points in the story, but her suffering originates in her unquestioning submission to secular authority, beginning with the authority of her father the emperor" (p. 139). The Man of Law's actual preference for an "ascending" view is made more explicit in the Prologue to his tale, where he responds to the Host's claims of authority over the pilgrims with a reminder (echoing Bracton) that "laws bind the lawgiver," asserting "the ongoing legal authority of his own power of assent" (p. 146) in a fashion quite unlike that of the long-suffering Custance. The conflict between these two views of authority, Eberle concludes, occurs throughout CT, and offers a way of discovering previously unappreciated interconnections among a number of important tales. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 14.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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