The Man of Law and the Muslim Ban: A Strategy for Resistance


The Man of Law. San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, EL 26.C.9, Ellesmere MS, fol. 50v.

In the Man of Law’s Tale the Sultaness of Syria worries over her son’s impending marriage to the Christian daughter of the emperor of Rome. At the prospect of converting to Christianity, the Sultaness exclaims to her council of conspirators:

“But oon avow to grete God I heete,
The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte
Or Makometes lawe out of myn herte!” (334-336) [1]

To her proclamation of resistance, she adds her prediction about what would happen if Syrians were to follow her son’s plan to convert:

“What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe
But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,
And afterward in helle to be drawe,
For we reneyed Mahoun oure creance?” (337-340)

Christianity will come to no good end for Syrian Muslims; the Sultaness foresees slavery and continual penance.

The Sultaness might as well have been witnessing, as if in the mind’s eye of a soothsayer, scenes playing out in airports across the United States on the night of January 27, 2017 and in the days that followed. On January 28, Iranian-American author and activist Trita Parsi tweeted that “Green card holders were handcuffed, their social media was reviewed, and they were asked their views on Trump.” In another case, documented by the New York Times, a 65-year-old Iraqi woman named Hamdiyah Al Saeedi landed at JFK on her way to reunite with her son Ali Alsaeedy, an American citizen and U.S. Army sergeant based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Before finally being allowed into the U.S., she was held for more than 33 hours and denied the wheelchair she needs. And yes, she too was handcuffed for some of it. Despite the Trump administration’s protestations that the executive order prohibiting immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations is not a “Muslim Ban,” that is precisely the name that has stuck. The application of handcuffs, commonly used in the U.S. as a spectacle connoting the wearer’s depravity and disempowerment, to travelers for the sole reason that they have come from a majority-Muslim part of the world smacks of slavery and a forced form of penance. [2] This looks a lot like what the Sultaness of Syria feared.

Courtesy of Philly Blooms Photography (

Her proclamation and its bloody outcome—the Sultaness directs the massacre of the Sultan, his retinue, and the princess’s Roman Christian entourage—certainly indicates that the threat of slavery and forced penance is dire enough to avoid at all costs. As a Chaucerian who studies race, I would like to think that one of my favorite texts to teach and study—and one that has revealed much to me about the nature of medieval race-thinking—goes beyond the mere recognition that identity-based slavery is threatening to its victims. This text in fact offers a strategy for defanging the very notion of identity-based slavery and perhaps for dismantling it altogether.

The text’s strategy resides in the fact that the Sultaness and Custance are not as different as they seem. When the Sultaness voices her fear of “thraldom to oure bodies and penance,” she echoes Custance. Upon accepting that she must go to Syria in order to marry the Sultan, Custance laments:

“I, wrecche woman, no fors though I spille!
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mannes governance.” (285-287, my emphasis)

The Sultaness’s fear of subjection drives her villainy, yet she gets the words to express it from the very woman who would seem to be the instrument of that subjection. Echoes are extraordinary things: they may reverse roles in that the speaker becomes the hearer, but they also destabilize identity; an entity that is an exact copy of another can be set into motion in the opposite direction of its forebear. An echo shows an entity to be mobile, to be capable of bearing itself in multiple directions, to exhibit multiple comportments toward an object. Carolyn Dinshaw takes the position in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics that Custance is characterized by nothingness, “an essential blankness that will be inscribed by men,” while Elizabeth Robertson argues that Custance “generates power” and, along with her violent mothers-in-law, stands in for “apostolic Christianity as it is embedded in the feminine” and as a “strong challenge” to the conventions of the “institutionalized form of Roman Christianity operating in the fourteenth-century English Church.” [3] It may be that the debate between these two positions need be no debate at all. What if Custance represents both?

What if Custance is at once the suffering, passive hagiographic figure who does God’s will even unto the death and the raging mother bear who will protect her culture and religion (as the Sultaness does) or her child (as Custance’s other mother-in-law arguably believes herself to do) at all costs? The Custance who fails to reveal her identity when she arrives in Northumbria (524-527), who converts her Northumbrian host and then actively encourages her to do miracle work (566-567), who conceals her identity for some years after she returns to her Roman homeland and only reveals it when the opportunity to reunite with her husband presents itself (974-1022)—this is not an entirely passive Custance.

The text’s strategy for fighting injustice becomes clearest when the text is at its most unclear. Though some events make Custance appear the hapless victim and others make her appear an active agent, there is a single moment when it becomes most difficult to judge whether she is passive or active: Custance washes ashore near the Gibraltar Strait and is threatened with rape by an apostate knight. Whether she escapes injury by her own might or by that of God is nearly impossible to judge. In one of the tale’s sources, Nicholas Trevet’s Les Cronicles, she convinces the knight to stand at the edge of her boat to look out for land. If he finds a suitable place, where he can rape her out of the sight of her two-year old, she will submit to him. When he is standing on the edge of the deck, she deliberately pushes him overboard (383-394). In another possible source, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, she prays to God and the would-be attacker is “oute throwe / and dreynt.” The text is clear that “the myhti Goddes hond / Hire hath conveied and defended” (1120-1125). Chaucer’s tale, however, finds a middle way: “Blisful Marie” helps Custance right away, even as Custance was “struglyng wel and myghtily.” The attacker “fil over bord al sodeynly,” and “Crist unwemmed kept Custance” (920-924). Custance is both passive and active, helped by the Virgin Mary and Christ, yet putting up a good fight herself. The attacker’s downfall is unattributed; it is unclear exactly whose power pushes him overboard.

Therein lies the Man of Law’s rhetorical strategy: Custance is more powerful than in either Trevet’s or Gower’s versions because her power cannot be pinned down. Is she the learned and active agent Trevet presents or is she the beloved daughter of God defended by Him at every turn that Gower offers? Moreover, is she the hapless victim of the militaristic and violent power exhibited by her mothers-in-law or does she share in the capability of such violence herself? Did it matter that she was on the sea alone and that her exile may have signaled to others that something was wrong with her—that she was a criminal or otherwise damaged? Was Custance’s exile like the handcuffing of a 65-year-old female traveler on her way to be reunited with her son? Does the power of her apparent innocence pale in comparison to the sign of depravity now placed upon her? That these are valid questions intimates that the conflict between innocence and the appearance of guilt makes Custance a more powerful sign: she cannot be easily interpreted.

It might behoove those of us who would resist the Muslim ban, and similar isolationist and prejudiced efforts, to heed the Man of Law’s strategy: passively turn the other cheek sometimes, until that is what the attackers expect, and then at other times struggle well and mightily, even unto the death. When struggling well and mightily, let it be a bit unclear whose power prevails—that of the public voice, especially that of women and people of color; that of the courts; that of respect for the U.S. Constitution; even that of the free press, however beleaguered it may be. When successful resistance springs from multiple sources that change positions and work in and out of concert, resistance takes on a divine aspect. Issuing from multiple directions and seeming to inhabit every space at once, resistance becomes unassailable—until the attacker is “oute throwe.”

Sgt. Ali Alsaeedy had a sense of the Man of Law’s strategy. He did not wait passively in North Carolina. He immediately flew to New York to find his mother. Once he figured out what was going on, as crowds of protestors swelled outside JFK, he filed a habeas petition for her release. Nonetheless, it seemed that he would not get to see his mother when a federal agent called to tell him that she would be sent on to Germany that night. But in the end, as protests grew and grew outside, and as legal challenges were launched around the country, Sgt. Alsaeedy’s mother was released. After her 33 hour-long ordeal, she was finally reunited with her son.

The Alsaeedy family’s story is like Custance’s. The innocent are made to appear guilty, their bodies are threatened with “thraldom” and forced “penance” for nothing other than who they are, where they come from, what they profess to believe—their very identities. They find relief through a whirling mix of direct action and passive resistance—emergent travel, prayer, legal action, strategically revealing one’s identity as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces or as a Roman princess. To resist an authoritarian’s edicts requires such a whirling approach. Even as I write this, it has just been reported that the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, stayed by a court order since February 3, one week after its issue, may indeed be thwarted . An official stated that the administration would not appeal the ban to the Supreme Court. Mere minutes later, however, another official appeared to reverse that position, saying that the White House will be “reviewing all of our options in the court system.” But, for the moment at least, it appears that a dizzying array of modes of resistance—of which the Man of Law would no doubt approve—has left the would-be authoritarian attacker of American freedoms oute throwe.

[1] All Chaucer quotations are taken from the Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

[2] Bill Wringe, “Perp Walks as Punishment,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18.3 (June 2015), 615-629.

[3] Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989), 65–87. Elizabeth Robertson, “The Elvyssh Power of Constance: Christian Feminism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 143-80, at 163, 144.

Professor Cord Whitaker is Assistant Professor of English at Wellesley, where he works on medieval literature and the history of race. He blogs at He will soon launch, with the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute, The Spoke, a blog for smart approaches to public affairs. Keep an eye out for it at