The Canterbury Tales Project (see also Geoffrey Chaucer)

Back to the Clerk/The Sergeant of the Law/The Franklin

309: A sergeant of the lawe, war and wys,
310: That often hadde been at the parvys,
311: Ther was also, ful riche of excellence.
312: Discreet he was and of greet reverence --
313: He semed swich, his wordes weren so wise.
314: Justice he was ful often in assise,
315: By patente and by pleyn commissioun.
316: For his science and for his heigh renoun,
317: Of fees and robes hadde he many oon.
318: So greet a purchasour was nowher noon:
319: Al was fee symple to hym in effect;
320: His purchasyng myghte nat been infect.
321: Nowher so bisy a man as he ther nas,
322: And yet he semed bisier than he was.
323: In termes hadde he caas and doomes alle
324: That from the tyme of kyng william were falle.
325: Therto he koude endite, and make a thyng,
326: Ther koude no wight pynche at his writyng;
327: And every statut koude he pleyn by rote.
328: He rood but hoomly in a medlee cote.
329: Girt with a ceint of silk, with barres smale;
330: Of his array telle I no lenger tale.

The Sergeant of the Law, is, in keeping with the other pilgrims, exceptional at what he does. He not only knows the laws by heart, but all legal precedents for the past three and a half centuries. He is both a solicitor and a barrister (it's a British thing: civil and criminal law), and moves in the highest court circles, often by royal commission.

However, there is an element of the sinister about this lawyer. Chaucer evidently views him with unbridled suspicion, saying that he merely 'seemed' wise, and that 'he seemed much busier than he was'. He is a man who, although very talented, seems to do his job simply for the love of money.

We know almost nothing of the lawyer as a person. He seems to be utterly consumed by his job, to the extent that he has no dealings with anyone outside of it. He is 'discreet', but excessively so. Apart from his competence and richness of dress, we have no insight into his personal life. In this way he is as secretive as the merchant.

Modern English Translation from

A sergeant of the law, wary and wise,
Who'd often gone to Paul's walk to advise,
There was also, compact of excellence.
Discreet he was, and of great reverence;
At least he seemed so, his words were so wise.
Often he sat as justice in assize,
By patent or commission from the crown;
Because of learning and his high renown,
He took large fees and many robes could own.
So great a purchaser was never known.
All was fee simple to him, in effect,
Wherefore his claims could never be suspect.
Nowhere a man so busy of his class,
And yet he seemed much busier than he was.
All cases and all judgments could he cite
That from King William's time were apposite.
And he could draw a contract so explicit
Not any man could fault therefrom elicit;
And every statute he'd verbatim quote.
He rode but badly in a medley coat,
Belted in a silken sash, with little bars,
But of his dress no more particulars.

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