Family Values and the Boundaries of Christendom in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale

Lee, Brian S.
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The Southern African Society for Medieval and Renaissance Studies (SASMARS)
Between 1847 and 1851 Ford Madox Brown painted a picture of Chaucer reading the ‘Legend of Custance’ to an open air gathering of the court of Edward III. (See Appendix, and Gaylord 216–20 and 236–8.) In the Catalogue of the Piccadilly Exhibition (1865) Brown identifies the passage being read as a moment of maternal pathos (Man of Law’s Tale lines 834–40), where Custance is kneeling and hushing her infant son as they are about to be cast adrift on the sea. Like the Man of Law’s Tale itself, Brown’s romantic scene is overshadowed by a sense of impending doom. Though Chaucer’s face is that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who sat for the picture, Brown depicts with historical accuracy a moment near the end of Edward III’s reign. Edward’s heir the Black Prince (1330–76) reclines languidly in his last illness, his elbow solicitously supported by his wife, Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent. Alice Perrers, the King’s mistress, with an arch or smug look on her face, is complacently fanning herself next to the whitebearded monarch, a heavily armed John of Gaunt standing gloomily beside them. At the Black Prince’s knee sits his young son, who is soon to reign as the selfcentred voluptuary Richard II, while on Chaucer’s right stands Gaunt’s stalwart son Henry, holding his father’s sword and destined in due course to depose his ineffectual cousin.
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