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Proving Constant: Torture and The Man ofLaw's Tale James Landman University ofNorth Texas Tthicd pate ofChaucet's Man ,\ Tai, opens with the toc­ ture ofKing Alla's messenger to extract the vital information that Alla's mother, Donegild, offered the messenger lodging on his way to and from Alla's military camp in Scotland. This information confirms that Donegild had the opportunity to plant the counterfeit letters, delivered by the unfortunate but unwittingmessenger, that secure Custance's ban­ ishment from Northumberland. The messenger's torture occupies a brief passage (the desired information is quickly obtained), involving a minor character, in the middle of what is considered to be one of Chaucer's "problem" tales. Not surprisingly, the passage has received little critical attention. The absence of the messenger and his torture in discussions of The Man ofLaw's Tale seemingly befits the messenger's insignificant role in the tale. Perhaps also this absence is a product of an understanding of the Middle Ages that reads an incident such as the messenger's torture as a nonproblematic, albeit unpleasant, attribute of medieval culture. Yet the messenger's torture becomes increasingly troublesome as we inquire into the English analogues of Chaucer's tale, and the legal cul­ ture with which its fictional narrator is identified. It is striking that neither Nicholas Trever's Anglo-Norman Chroniques ecrites pour Marie d'Angleterre nor John Gower's Confessio Amantis (the two English ana­ logues ofthe tale ofCustance) depicts the messenger's torture. It is even more striking that an incident of torture should be inserted into a tale assigned to an English man of law. 1 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER As a serjeant of law, the Man of Law is near the top of the English legal system, a legal system that in the later Middle Ages was distin­ guished from its continental European counterparts by the absence of institutionalized judicial torture in its criminal procedure. It is this very distinction that the fifteenth-century English juristJohn Fortescue seizes upon in his De laudibus legum Anglie to set apart and commend the laws of England as compared with the continental legal system repre­ sented in his text by France. Fortescue's condemnation of torture is, however, notably lacking in his fictional predecessor's tale. Indeed, the Man of Law's description of the messenger's torture as part of a process of "wit and sotil enquerynge" (MLT 888)1 suggests approval of a pro­ cedure seemingly perceived as a proper method for the retrieval of in­ formation from an unreliable source. This article shall argue that the messenger's torture is not a unique incident within the Man ofLaw's narrative, nor, despite England's long­ standing avoidance of institutionalized torture, is it necessarily an anomaly within a tale told by an English man of law. Instead, the appearance of torture within The Man ofLaw's Tale is a reminder of the fragility of the common-law institutions he represents, and of torture's alluring promise ofcertainty. This promise shineswith particularbright­ ness for the Man of Law-and those like him-whose livelihood and professional reputation depend on the control of narrative, a control that can never be fully achieved within the institutions ofthe common law. The Man ofLaw and his colleagues work within a legal system also distinguished by an increasingly insular delegation of the factfinding power to local juries over which men of law exercise little control. In Fortescue's later writing the jury will become the mark ofEnglish legal procedure's superiority over the inquisitorial methods assigned to the continent, yet despite the vigor of the De laudibus's defense of English law, both its commitment to the jury and its condemnation of torture prove markedly guarded. And later still, torture eventually, ifonly tem­ porarily, finds a place in English law. The treatment of judicial torture in The Man of Law's Tale, in other words, places the tale in a complicated and enduring dialogue in English writing on the question of torture's potential to discover the truth. Early in this essay, I will consider how the professional profile of 1 All citations of Chaucer...


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