Geoffrey Chaucer Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

I have written this commentary in the hope that it may help other people to enjoy Chaucer’s poetry as much as I do. It may fill the gap between excellent study guides such as York Notes Advanced, and the truly academic articles that are difficult for most of us to understand. I have explored Chaucer’s text in considerable depth but I have tried to avoid academic jargon. I have divided the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale into four sections: the first 162 lines, the three old husbands, the fourth and fifth husbands, and the tale. At the end of each section there is additional reading, in the shape of fuller reference or source materials. There are also sections on other aspects of the fourteenth century that may help Chaucer’s twenty-first century readers to appreciate what life was like then. These cover fourteenth century history, the church in the fourteenth century, pilgrimage, what really went on in church, and a brief look at some of Chaucer’s contemporaries.

Larry D Benson’s text is the online edition that I have used. The wonderful Chaucer site that he has prepared and maintained is to be found on http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/
and it is a treasure trove. However, I have made my own translation of the Middle English text, enormously helped by the translation in The Canterbury Tales edited by A Kent Hieatt and Constance Hieatt, Bantam Books, 1964. It is now unfortunately out of print, but copies can be found online.

To see the way that Chaucer’s poetry works, it is probably much clearer and makes more sense to download a copy of the text and then highlight the patterns of words in colour codes. In that way you can feel the energy, the pace, the way the Wife works towards yet another detonation to explode previously held ideas. I have had to use words, which is not nearly such a simple way of doing it and is much more hassle to read.

Wherever possible I have asked for the institutions’, authors’ or photographers’ permissions to use quotations and images. Where this has not been possible, I have given the source of the quotation or image.

Why read the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale?

Chaucer writes about the age-old things that we recognise at once: the struggle between men and women; the journey through life and what it feels like to be getting older and not to be able to do the things you once did; the desire to communicate; the fun of sex; wanting to get your own way; dealing with people who insult you; the fairytale ending that you wish your life could have.

The time at which Chaucer wrote, towards the end of the 14th century, was a very exciting and turbulent time. Facts that had seemed absolute and incontrovertible were suddenly being called into question. The power of the aristocracy and of landowners, for example, had developed cracks since the Black Death had made labour more scarce. The Peasants’ Revolt made it clear that the underprivileged classes had much more power than had been supposed, and a new class, the middle class, was emerging. The authority of the church, too, could be questioned. There were now two popes, one in Rome, one in southern France and no-one could decide which was in the right; orders such as mendicant friars had become very corrupt and church officers, too, were notoriously corrupt. Men such as Wyclif and his followers, the Lollards, were questioning the edicts of the church. Even the supposed chivalric ideals of knights had deteriorated as the Hundred Years’ War ground on.

This background of debate and uncertainty feeds into the Prologue and Tale of the Wife of Bath: a woman – a member of the inferior sex in a fiercely patriarchal society – telling men that after centuries of being in charge they have got it all wrong.

Some of these events in 14th century history we can easily recognise today: wars that go on and on; sudden epidemics of terrifying, uncontrollable and highly infectious diseases; revolutions; governments favouring the rich and oppressing the poor; corruption in high places. But today we are – perhaps – more used to seeing several sides of an issue, whereas in Chaucer’s day it was more unusual to question the status quo. This was partly because travel and communication were difficult. People did manage to criticise issues they felt strongly about, of course; they always do. Satire was everywhere: in writing, in marginalia, in carvings such as those on misericords, in activities such as the feast of fools. And in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale!

Prologue, opening, lines 1-62

Section 1. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, opening section

Lines 1-162: the Wife challenges ‘auctoritee’

The first 162 lines of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue are by far the most difficult for us to understand nowadays. After this difficult beginning, the story of her life with her five husbands rattles along like something out of Hello! magazine, all sex and rows. However, the first 162 lines are full of allusions to the Bible, particularly to one of St Paul’s letters. The Wife also takes issue with St Jerome who had written spiritual books and commentaries on the Bible as well as making a famous translation of it – the Vulgate. The Wife takes exception to the rules of behaviour for women set down in these books and letters. To her mind, experience is the key to women’s behaviour, not theological treatises written hundreds of years earlier by unmarried men who knew nothing about sexual relationships with women.

The Wife plunges us into the middle of her feelings on the subject of the ‘wo that is in marriage.’ However, characteristically, she immediately digresses, and starts to defend the fact that she has been widowed and has remarried five times. She sets out to question the ideas to be found on that subject in the Bible and in the writings of the church fathers, such as St Jerome. These ideas suggest she should not have remarried so often, if at all. So the Wife cites famous characters from the Old Testament who married more than once, mixing them in with St Paul’s ideas on virginity. The Wife has no time for the thought that anyone should be a virgin: ‘I nyl nat envye no virginitee.’ Sex, to her, is key. She then informs us definitively that she likes to have a husband and one who is her slave, ‘my thral.’

The Wife of Bath is a compelling speaker, even if some of her methods and conclusions seem questionable. What she is doing is taking selected parts of selected quotations from the Bible and giving her own dogmatic interpretation of them. And this is precisely what the male ‘auctoritees’ over the centuries have and had done, although they came to very different conclusions from the Wife’s.

Various themes emerge from this opening section. There is the notion that experience as lived by women is as valid as the theory and intellectually-based opinions of the male authorities. Overridingly, we hear the clash of women’s opinions with those of men. These are voiced through women’s desire to challenge the control and authority of men in what was an ultra-patriarchal society. Then there is the desire, as a woman, to make your voice heard (the Wife certainly achieves that). Closely related to this is the desire to prove that a woman is as capable as a man of understanding and interpreting the Bible and the writings of the church fathers. Although, in the Middle Ages, what the Wife says would have been recognised as confessio, it sounds remarkably like one of Carol Ann Duffy’s dramatic monologues in The World’s Wife.

You can react in three main ways to this section of the Prologue. You can see it as rather admirable – the Wife is a very convincing debater, and what she says is hard hitting. As she points out, the authorities were not perfect. Or you can see it as very funny – the Wife is such an exaggerated figure, with her outrageous number of husbands and her obsession with sex – and all this while she’s going on pilgrimage. Or you can see it as very serious: the Wife refuses to be obedient to the word of God and is an embodiment of vice.

Auctoritee

In the very first line of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, we meet the world ‘auctoritee’ (authority) and it is central to the Wife’s arguments and to our understanding of the first part of her Prologue. ‘Auctoritee’ refers to the writings of learned authorities, including Saint Paul and St Jerome whose key texts are given below, dictating the way the Christian life is to be lived. In the case of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, these texts are particularly specific in the case of women who, with the exception of the Virgin Mary and some saints, were vilified as having been the direct cause of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise. The texts that the Wife most often refers to are the Bible, the Letter Against Jovinian written by St Jerome in about 393 AD, and The Golden Book of Marriage by the Greek philosopher, Theophrastus. There are several references to other texts, such as Le Miroir de Mariage by Eustache Deschamps (1406), and another French text, The Romance of the Rose, first written in 1237 and finished by a later very antifeminist writer. It may seem strange that the Wife of Bath knows anything about these texts. In the late 14th century, only a few people could read, and the price of a manuscript was too high for most people to dream of possessing one. However, we are told towards the end of her Prologue that her fifth husband, a clerk, used constantly to read these texts aloud to her, hence, perhaps, her detailed knowledge.

Key Texts: St Paul’s letter to the new church at Corinth, and St Paul’s letter to Timothy

There are some texts that are key to our understanding of why the Wife of Bath is fighting so hard against the patriarchal anti-feminist view of women. She constantly attacks the advice given in the letters of St. Paul (the Apostle). The New Testament of the Bible contains St Paul’s first letter to the newly-established church at Corinth, where he writes in Chapter 7 one of the passages that the Wife challenges. Echoes of St Paul’s language can be heard throughout the Wife’s Prologue.

I have given St Paul’s words first in the translation that would have been brand-new in the Wife’s day, that of John Wyclif and his followers, who made the first translation of the Latin Bible into English in the 1380s. Secondly, since Wyclif’s late 14th century English may not be clear to us in the 21th century, I have given the same passage in the more accessible Good News Translation of the Bible.

Here is the beginning of Chapter 7 of St Paul’s letter to Christians at Corinth in the Wyclif Bible translation

But of those things that ye have written to me, it is good to a man to touch not a woman [it is good to a man for to not touch a woman].
But for fornication each man have his own wife, and each woman have her own husband.
The husband yield debt to the wife, and also the wife to the husband.
The woman hath not power of her body, but the husband; [also forsooth] and the husband hath not power of his body, but the woman [but the wife].
Do not ye defraud each to other [Do not defraud together], but peradventure of consent for a time, that ye give attention to prayer; and again turn again to the same thing, lest Satan tempt you for your uncontinence.
But I say this thing as giving leave, not by commandment.[a]
For I will, that all men be as myself. But each man hath his proper gift of God; one thus, and another thus.
But I say to them, that be not wedded, and to widows [and widows], it is good to them, if they dwell so as I.
And if they contain not themselves, be they wedded; for it is better to be wedded, than to be burnt.

Here is the same passage in more modern English from The Good News Translation.

A man does well not to marry. But because there is so much immorality, every man should have his own wife, and every woman should have her own husband. A man should fulfill his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfill her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other, unless you first agree to do so for a while in order to spend your time in prayer; but then resume normal marital relations. In this way you will be kept from giving in to Satan’s temptation because of your lack of self-control.
I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission. Actually I would prefer that all of you were as I am; but each one has a special gift from God, one person this gift, another one that gift.
Now, to the unmarried and to the widows I say that it would be better for you to continue to live alone as I do. But if you cannot restrain your desires, go ahead and marry – it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

St Paul also wrote two letters to his fellow missionary, Timothy.

In the first letter, in Chapter 2, verses 8 – 14, he writes about the way women should behave.

In every church service I want the men to pray, men who are dedicated to God and can lift up their hands in prayer without anger or argument. I also want the women to be modest and sensible about their clothes and to dress properly; not with fancy hair styles or with gold ornaments or pearls or expensive dresses, but with good deeds, as is proper for women who claim to be religious. Women should learn in silence and all humility. I do not allow them to teach or to have authority over men; they must keep quiet. For Adam was created first, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law. (Good News Translation)

St Paul had this to say about widows in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 5.

Show respect for widows who really are all alone. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should learn first to carry out their religious duties toward their own family and in this way repay their parents and grandparents, because that is what pleases God. A widow who is all alone, with no one to take care of her, has placed her hope in God and continues to pray and ask him for his help night and day. But a widow who gives herself to pleasure has already died, even though she lives. Give them these instructions, so that no one will find fault with them. But if any do not take care of their relatives, especially the members of their own family, they have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever.
Do not add any widow to the list of widows unless she is over sixty years of age. In addition, she must have been married only once and have a reputation for good deeds: a woman who brought up her children well, received strangers in her home, performed humble duties for other Christians, helped people in trouble, and devoted herself to doing good.
But do not include younger widows in the list; because when their desires make them want to marry, they turn away from Christ, and so become guilty of breaking their earlier promise to him. They also learn to waste their time in going around from house to house; but even worse, they learn to be gossips and busybodies, talking of things they should not. (Good News Translation)

Another key text is St Jerome’s Letter against Jovinian or Epistola adversus Jovinianum, which St Jerome wrote in AD 393. Jovinian had published a treatise in which he voiced opinions about the spiritual status of virgins and other such matters that St Jerome felt had to be put straight in no uncertain terms. Jovinian’s ideas were far too lax and easy-going for St Jerome to stomach. You can get a taste of St Jerome’s views on Jovinian when you know that he wrote that Jovinian had ‘amidst pheasants and pork rather belched out than breathed out his life.’ St Jerome’s Letter against Jovinian was partly concerned with marriage and virginity, and this is the section of the Letter that most irritates the Wife of Bath who has been married and widowed five times. Jerome devotes nine chapters to interpreting St Paul’s teaching in his first letter to the Corinthians (see previous page), and twenty-five chapters to his interpretation of other teaching in the Bible.

When the Wife of Bath crosses swords with St Jerome, therefore, she is taking on one of the most revered theologians and saints in the business. St Jerome wrote several commentaries and is considered to be one of the most authoritative of the Church Fathers. He revised the Latin version of the New Testament of the Bible and translated much of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin. Previously, the Bible had been translated into Latin from the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Old Testament, so in translating from the Hebrew, St Jerome was doing something fairly radical. By the 13th century St Jerome’s translation was known as the ‘versio vulgata‘, the ‘commonly-used version’ or, more simply, the ‘vulgata‘ which is why it is now referred to as the Vulgate. To give an example of how much St Jerome’s Vulgate Bible was respected, it was made the Catholic Church’s official Latin Bible after the Council of Trent (1545–63). However, the Wife of Bath has no qualms about proving St Jerome wrong, even if he is considered one of the foremost theologians of the Church.

On the other hand, St Jerome does some questionable things himself. For example, in his Letter against Jovinian, he quotes Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage. Theophrastus was pagan, so it is odd that St Jerome should enlist his support in the cause of Christian doctrine.

Other background texts that inform the Wife of Bath’s Prologue

There are other important background texts, too, whose influence is constantly apparent in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. Some of them are secular rather than spiritual. One is The Romance of the Rose or Le Roman de la Rose. It was written in France, at the height of the age of chivalry and courtly love. Guillaume de Lorris started it but left it unfinished on his death at about 1278. Jean de Meun finished it about 40 years later (that’s to say, he added about another 21,000 lines to it). This text, too, is full of antifeminist ideas. Chaucer translated some of The Romance of the Rose into English, and it looks as if the Wife of Bath’s character is taken directly from that of La Vieille, the old woman or bawd, one of the characters in the work. Indeed, Valerie Allen, in her ‘Medieval Section’ of English Literature in Context, edited by Paul Poplawski, CUP, 2008, writes: ‘Although Alison (the Wife of Bath) often exhibits such verisimilitude that we are tempted to think of her as a psychologically authentic woman, we also do well to remember that she is a construct of texts.’ (page 63) A sort of collage, in effect.

The medieval view of women

The Wife of Bath is not just taking on some of the greatest saints in the church at the beginning of her Prologue. She is defending women in general and herself in particular against a thousand years of antifeminism. The medieval line on women was that Eve tempted Adam (Bible, Genesis, Chapter 3) and therefore Adam lost Paradise. The snake (the devil) in medieval paintings of the Garden of Eden is often a woman, a temptress as you can see in the illustrations below. The theme was that a great man was brought down by a woman: women are betrayers. As St Paul wrote in his first letter to Timothy: ‘ And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law.’ However, one woman was revered: the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, who was perceived as the opposite of Eve. She came to undo Eve’s sin and was the pure Mother of God. It was Eve who had made it necessary for Christ to be born and crucified. Women in general, therefore, were considered to be lustful, talkative, nagging, inferior to men in every way, including intellectually. Sex was bad unless it was directed exclusively to the conceiving of children.

Here are some samples of the accusations levelled against women.

‘Do you not know that you (a woman) are Eve? … You are the gateway of the devil.’
Tertullian, the first Christian writer to write in Latin, in about 200 AD

‘Now, if the woman was not made for the man to be his helper in begetting children, in what was she to help him? … How much more agreeably could two male friends, rather than a man and a woman, enjoy companionship in a life shared together.’
St Augustine, Christian theologian and philosopher, in about 400 AD

Ecclesiastes (Old Testament of the Bible): ‘I find woman more bitter than death: she is a snare (a trap), her heart a net, her arms are chains.’

Veronica Sekules, in her article on Women and Art in England in the 13th and 14th centuries, in the Age of Chivalry catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts 1987, writes:
‘Women were feared by the Church as a potentially unruly and unsettling force. An English homilist wrote in the 13th century: “Woman …is the confusion of Man, an insatiable beast, a continuous anxiety, an incessant warfare, a daily ruin, a house of tempest, a hindrance to devotion.”‘ (p 42)

Alastair Minnis, in Fallible Athors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath, writes of the Prologue that it ‘features a woman who is highly competent in the academic discipline of disputation and adept at deploying authorities from the Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers. Writing in 1415, in the wake of the Oldcastle rebellion, which was seen as a consequence of Lollardy, Thomas Hoccleve warned women to keep to their station in life. Given that they are weak-minded and uneducated, “lewed calates” (ie strumpets) should confine themselves to spinning and traditional sources of gossip rather than vainly attempting to construct arguments based on the Bible and to engage in disputation on topics from which God has barred them.

Some wommen eeke, thogh hir wit be thynne,
Wold argumentes make in holy writ!
Lewed calates! sittish doun and spynne,
And kakele of sumwht elles, for your wit
Is al to feeble to despute of it!
To Clerkes grete apparteneth that aart
The knowleche of that, god hath fro yow shit;
Stynte and leue of for right sclendre is your paart. (lines 144-52)’

from ‘Address to Sir John Oldcastle’ 1415 Thomas Hoccleve

fot1

Adam, Eve, and the serpent – Benjamin the Scribe, c.1280
Here the serpent has a woman’s head, which illustrates the antifeminist view of women.

However, Christine de Pizan, who lived about 1400 (the year Chaucer died) and was the first known woman in the Middle Ages to make a living by writing, questions this stance towards women when she says this:
‘ … all manner of philosophers, poets and orators .. all seem to speak with one voice … that all female nature is wholly given up to vice.’

In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often challenges the party line on women. One character (obviously a woman) says:

I, wrecche woman, no force though I spille!
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mans governance.
I, wretched woman, it doesn’t matter if I die!
Women are born to be slaves and to suffer
And to be under man’s rule.

The Wife of Bath says:

… trusteth wel, it is … impossible
That any clerk wol speak good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves …
Believe me, it’s impossible
for a scholar to speak well of women
unless the women are holy saints.

fot2

In this illustration, the serpent not only has a woman’s head, but it’s a contemporary woman wearing medieval net and coif. She and Eve appear to be doing a high five, with the apple core in the middle of it; it’s as if ‘us wyves’ are allying themselves against Adam.

This image is reproduced by permission of the Master and Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge.
St John’s College provides the following description of the image. De serpente decipiente adam et euam. Ge. iij. Blue ground, red patterns, red tree, three branches, red and blue leaves. Serpent has woman’s head and arms, hair in a net, and linen coif.
The serpent deceives Adam and Eve, from f.4r of MS K26, one of a sequence of 46 Biblical illustrations (c1270-80) inserted at the front of a 14th century English psalter. These images possibly served to teach children

More medieval ideas about women

Gail Ashton writes: ‘Medieval thought classified a ‘proper’ (masculine) body as one that was whole or sealed, without dangerous apertures where sin might enter. In contrast, an ‘improper’ body was fragmented and regarded as feminine, an associaion analagous to a fear of the female body and, in particular, its vaginal orifice. This feminine body is threatening; it has gaps – from which leak sound and fluid; it is grotesque, distorted in pregnancy, for example…. Alison’s is a feminine body …. allied with the monstrous, … an unsettling figure.’ From the section ‘Feminisms’ in Chaucer: an Oxford Guide edited by Steve Ellis, OUP, 2005 page 378.

A woman was supposed to be contained (repressed), and to stay within her sphere, at home. However, the Wife is off on pilgrimages, and every other sort of church activity (not motivated by any sense of devotion, but for fun). When her fourth husband is away in London, she is walking in the fields with Jankyn. She constantly gads about seeing friends and gossiping. She demands to be ‘at oure large.’ This is just what St Paul warned against when he wrote that widows ‘waste their time in going around from house to house; but even worse, they learn to be gossips and busybodies, talking of things they should not.’

It gets worse. In her essay, “Transgression, Contamination, and Woman in Eustache Deschamps’s Miroir de mariage,” Laura Kendrick tells us some horrifying facts about the medieval view of women.

‘Toward the end of the fourteenth century, probably in the 1380s or early 1390s, the most prolific medieval French poet, Eustache Deschamps, a household and judicial officer with a long career in the service of French kings Charles V and Charles VI and of the royal line, composed a didactic treatise over twelve thousand [lines] long, the Miroir de mariage, in which he argued for male chastity as opposed to marriage….

‘In La peur en Occident, Jean Delumeau has pointed out that the chorus of voices culpabilizing woman grows stronger and more secular among Western intellectual elites from the middle of the fourteenth century on; indeed, early humanists were among the loudest voices in the misogynist choir. He concludes that the pressures of war, schism, plagues, and the fear of the world’s end with that of the century created an obsessional mentality among late-fourteenth-century men, and that they found an outlet for their frustrations in the degradation of women…..

‘…Odo, tenth-century abbot of Cluny (writes): “If men could see what is under the skin, the sight of woman would nauseate them. When we cannot touch with the tip of one finger a piece of spittle or a turd, how can we desire to embrace this sack of shit?” In his De contemptu mundi: A Bitter Satirical Poem of 3000 Lines upon the Morals of the XIIth Century the mid-twelfth-century Cluniac monk, Bernard of Morval (or Morlas), compiles a long verse catalogue of feminine vices wherein he accuses woman, using various invective epithets, of being a dangerous opening and stigmatizes her as unclean:

Sordid woman, perfidious woman, broken woman,
contaminates what is pure, ruminates impious things, spoils actions.
Woman is a thing accused, a thing maliciously carnal, entirely flesh,
eager to ruin, born to deceive, expert in deception,
freshest pit, worst viper, beautiful putrefaction, slippery path …
conscious of no good, everchanging, impious, pot full of infection,
pit of lechery, instrument of the whirlpool, mouth of vices.
… She is the supreme folly, the intimate enemy, the intimate pestilence.
… Perfidious woman, fetid woman, stinking woman
is the throne of Satan; modesty, a burden to her. Flee her, reader!’

(H. C. Hoskier, ‘De contemptu mundi’: A Bitter Satirical Poem of 3000 Lines upon the Morals of the XIIth Century by Bernard of Morval, Monk of Cluny (London: B. Quaritch, 1929) 52-55, vv. 445-518.)

Kendrick continues: ‘Elsewhere, in ballads on the miseries of the human condition (2: 121; 6: 12), Deschamps repeats this charge of feminine impurity:

Tresmalheureus, orgueilleus, povres corps,
Qui est conceus en puour de luxure,
Nourris dedenz, quan qu’il soit du dehors,
De sang manstru, treshorrible pasture,
Chiens en muerent, terre en pert sa verdure.

(2: 121)

[Miserable, proud, impoverished body,
which is conceived in the putrefaction of lust,
fed inside, until it be outside,
on menstrual blood—most awful fodder!
Dogs die of it; the earth loses its greenness because of it.]

‘The human foetus’s prolonged contact with—indeed, forced feeding on and composition from—putrid, poisonous, menstrual blood is the very means by which original sin is conveyed and the soul of the infant corrupted, according to this line of Christian reasoning. The child is conceived in the “puour de luxure,” that is, in the sex act and in the womb, in a putrefaction that corrupts the infant soul just as a “bucket of filth attracts infections” (Lay 2: 251). [Ainsi que vaisseauls d’ordure / Attrait les infections]. Because of his physical conception in this manner and his expulsion at birth covered with a “shamefully bloody, filthy skin” (Lay 2: 261) [“une orde pel diffamée / De sang”], man is fundamentally impure, likened to excrement. Whereas other living things provide useful products, man produces only filth; his very nature is excremental: “tu es chargée / De fiens, pyssat, cracherre; / Bonne odeur seult on requerre / Es arbres: en toy, fumée” (Lay 2: 262) [… you are full / of shit, piss, spittle. / Pleasant odors one may seek in trees; in you, fumes].

‘If what is bad in man can be attributed to his stay inside the female body, then the way to purify himself of the contamination of his physical origin (and to take control of himself) is to perform an act of symbolic defecation. The logic of transgression, of impurity and danger, is a logic of the body, which should not take within its boundaries anything that it has previously expelled. Transgression is a reunion of what has been separated and deliberately kept apart, a mixing of the sullied outside with the pure inside. The only way for man to redeem himself from the degradation of being something expelled from the female body at birth is to expel the female from his own body, and the only way he can do this is symbolically, as through verbal invective against or degradation of woman, or through laws preventing women from participating in the masculine social body. As a symbolic act of defecation, misogynist literature or invective against women (conveyed by words “expelled” from men’s mouths) is the equivalent of legal measures excluding women, such as the fourteenth-century decision that the French crown could be handed down only through the male line, only from father to son.’
“Transgression, Contamination, and Woman in Eustache Deschamps’s Miroir de mariage” Laura Kendrick
Stanford French Review 14, no. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 1990): 211-30.

Modern psychiatrists could have a field-day with all this repression and the swift projection onto women of anything the medieval man found unacceptable in himself!

The legal status of a wife

Although, in her portrait in the General Prologue, the Wife of Bath is presented as a cloth-maker, in her own Prologue she defines herself as a wife. Lee Patterson tells us that ‘As a wife … a woman was known as a femme couverte de baron – literally, as a woman ‘covered’ by her husband. This meant that legally she had no status. As one historian says, ‘the femme couverte in common law, was a condition of virtual nonexistence’ (Bennett, Medieval Women, Modern Women: Across the Great Divide London: Harvester, 1992 page 153). As just one example of this nonexistence, a femme couverte could not make a grant of land to her husband since ‘the position of a woman … in regard to (her husband) was analogous to the position of an underage child or a mentally incompetent person’ (Palmer ‘Contexts of Marriage in Medieval England’ Speculum 59 (1984) page 62). Regarded as wholly under the authority of their husbands – the legal phrase was sub virga viri sui, ‘under the rod of her man’ – wives were far from being considered full members of … society.’
Lee Patterson “Experience woot well it is noght so”: Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’
The Wife of Bath. Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Peter G. Beidler. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1996. Pp. 133-54.

In the same article, Lee Patterson writes: ‘In the Middle Ages women were almost entirely denied access to positions of public authority. They could not serve as public officials …. One of the most common ways medieval society imagined itself was through ‘estates lists,’ lists of the various kinds of people … present in society. Many of these lists do not include women at all. those that do include women represent them in terms of either their marital status (maiden, wife, widow) or their religious vocation (nun, prioress). … One of the otherwise most progressive political thinkers of the fourteenth century, Marsilius of Padua, defined ‘the people’ as including everybody but children, slaves, aliens – and women.’

Admirable, comic or morally serious?

Modern understanding of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale falls into two camps: that it is comic or that it is ultra serious and moral. If you see the Prologue and Tale as comic, you are aware of the running jokes. For example, the Wife is drawn as a typically comic type, with everything exaggerated, starting with the astonishing number of times she has been married. Then there’s the fact that the Wife of Bath has come on pilgrimage not for any spiritual reason but to find a sixth husband and that she is brandishing stories of her masterful treatment of men and her sexual exploits to an audience of male pilgrims (with the exception of two or three nuns). If you see the Prologue and Tale as serious and moral, you will interpret her version of events and her glosses on the Bible as ‘hopelessly carnal and literal’ (A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives D W Robertson Jr, Princeton University Press, 1962). Given Chaucer’s detached, twinklingly ironic stance, it seems impossible for modern readers to arrive at a decision on his intentions.

Read the Wife’s Prologue and Tale for yourself, listen to her voice, and see what you think.

A Prologue

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is a combination of her life story (her marriages) and her extremely strongly held views (her fight against men and authoritative writings by men). The two vie for attention from the outset. In Chaucer’s day, a prologue was usually a speech in which the narrator introduced himself and modestly expressed reservations about his ability to tell his tale skilfully. It provided a frame and a context for the tale. Here, for example, is another of the Wife’s fellow-pilgrims, the Franklin, telling the other pilgrims how ill-equipped he is to tell his story:

709 Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes
The old noble Bretons in their day
710 Of diverse aventures maden layes,
composed lays (poems about adventures and romance) about various adventures,
711 Rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge,
rhymed in their first Breton language,
712 Whiche layes with hir instrumentz they songe
and they sang these lays, accompanying themselves on their instruments
713 Or elles redden hem for hir plesaunce;
or else read them for their pleasure;
714 And oon of hem have I in remembraunce,
And I remember one of them,
715 Which I shal seyn with good wyl as I kan.
which I shall tell you with as good will as I can.
716 But, sires, by cause I am a burel man,
But, sirs, because I am an unlearned man,
717 At my bigynnyng first I yow biseche,
before I even begin, I beg you,
718 Have me excused of my rude speche.
to excuse me for my unintelligent speech.
719 I lerned nevere rethorik, certeyn;
Certainly, I have never learned rhetoric;
720 Thyng that I speke, it moot be bare and pleyn.
anything I say must be bare and plain.
721 I sleep nevere on the Mount of Pernaso,
I never slept on Mount Parnassus (home of the muses who inspire artists),
722 Ne lerned Marcus Tullius Scithero.
nor did I learn about Marcus Tullius Cicero (famous writer and speaker).
723 Colours ne knowe I none, withouten drede,
I certainly don’t know about colouring my speech or speaking in a persuasive way,
724 But swiche colours as growen in the mede,
The only colours I know are those of the flowers that grow in the field,
725 Or elles swiche as men dye or peynte.
or the colours that men use to dye or paint.
726 Colours of rethoryk been to me queynte;
Colours of rhetoric (figures of speech) are unknown to me;
727 My spirit feeleth noght of swich mateere.
My spirit feels nothing of such matter.
728 But if yow list, my tale shul ye heere.
But if you wish, you shall hear my tale.

No such doubts trouble the Wife of Bath, however! She plunges in without any modest disclaimer, and her Prologue does not follow conventional lines. In fact, after over 800 lines of Prologue, one of the pilgrims, the Friar, teases the Wife: ‘This is a long preamble (beginning, or prologue) to a tale.’

Wife of Bath’s Prologue, lines 1 – 29

Speaking as a woman who has been married five times, the Wife sets her experience against the dictates of the ‘auctoritees’.

Many of the Canterbury Tales begin by setting up expectations. When the Knight begins his tale, we expect a courtly romance. It’s clear from the opening two lines that this is what we are going to get.

Ther was a duk that highte Theseus duk – duke; highte – was called

Of Athenes he was lord and governour …

It’s going to be about dukes and lords and queens and chivalry. The Miller tells us in his prologue that he

wol telle a legende and a lyf

Bothe of a carpenter and of his wyf,

How that a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe. how a student deceived the carpenter

Even nowadays, we all know what will happen in a story if there is an old husband, a young wife and a student lodger.

The Wife of Bath tells us in line 6 of her Prologue that she has been married five times. In the Middle Ages, people would have known what to expect of an experienced (as she calls herself) widow, especially one who immediately starts to question the authorities. There is a whole library of antifeminist literature that tells you what to expect of widows. They are sexually predatory, indeed insatiable, a bad lot. The question is, is the Wife a comic illustration of one of these predatory widows, or is she an example of sin, indeed, of most of the Seven Deadly Sins.

It becomes clear almost at once that the aspect of these authoritative texts ‘auctoritee’ that interests (and enrages) the Wife of Bath is their antifeminism – this is the word generally used, rather than misogyny. Antifeminism means an antagonism to women’s equality and rights, rather than an outright hatred of women (though surely Bernard of Morval and Deschamps would qualify as misogynists). Many of the Wife’s comments and arguments are aimed against the men who wrote them, St Paul, St Jerome, and Theophrastus. These writers were well-known for their antifeminist texts in the 14th century. The texts will have been written in Latin (although John Wyclif, a radical reformer of the time, had produced an English translation of the Bible in the 1380s to render it more accessible). It seems that the Wife of Bath has become (unhappily) acquainted with these texts because her scholarly fifth husband constantly quoted them against her.

1 “Experience, though noon auctoritee
“Experience, even if there were no other authority
2 Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
in this world, would be grounds enough for me
3 To speke of wo that is in mariage;
To speak of the unhappiness in marriage;

The Wife of Bath bursts in to her tirade without any invitation from the Host, or introductory conversation, thus overturning at one stroke the way a woman was supposed to behave in the Middle Ages. (St Paul’s first letter to Timothy states, ‘Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer (allow) not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence.’)

Experience, though noon auctoritee

Were in this world, is right ynogh for me

The structure of the opening lines immediately sets up an opposition between lived experience (as lived and championed by the Wife of Bath) and textual authority (written by – mostly – celibate men). It therefore also immediately sets up an opposition between women (experience) and men. This opposition is further stated through the opening rhymes: ‘auctoritee’ set against ‘me’. This is a statement, a pronouncement: ‘experience … is right ynogh for me’ and a challenging one, too. It challenges the auctoritee accepted for centuries by the patriarchal society of the Middle Ages. It is a sentiment possibly taken from La Vieille in The Romance of the Rose, who also claims that love may only be learned from experience.

Mais je sai tout par la practique: I know all by practice:
Esperiment m’en fait sage. Experience has made me wise.

(lines 12804, 5 Le Roman de la Rose)

There isn’t nearly as much punctuation in the original manuscripts of Chaucer as we are used to seeing today. Modern editors have added much more, to make the sense easier to pick up. In the Middle Ages, the usual punctuation mark was the slash or virgule which might go almost anywhere in the line. There was some indication of a new paragraph. You can just see the slashes in the Ellesmere manuscript – the photo below is from the beginning of the Wife’s Tale, with the famous picture of her.

fot3

But reading the text in modern editions, we can see that, in the opening three lines, the run-on lines leave not a nano-second for anyone to interrupt the Wife’s challenging opening. The alliterated ‘were in this world … wo that is in mariage’ adds energy to her claim. Chaucer is writing in iambic pentameter, but even in the second line the rhythm is broken, the stress falls right at the beginning of the second line ‘were in this world’, adding to the Wife’s insistence on her own point of view.

The Wife of Bath starts her Prologue using scholarly language; the words ‘experience’ and ‘auctoritee’ are both derived from Latin. But if you look at the way the sentence is constructed, the Wife’s point of view is already obvious. The main clause is, ‘Experience … is right ynogh for me.’ It’s a very energetic assertion. The patriarchal society, with its ‘auctoritee’ (authoritative books and passages of text referring to Scripture and written by men) is reduced and relegated to the inferior status of a subordinate clause: ‘ though noon auctoritee / Were in this world…’ Even from a grammatical point of view, the Wife insists that it’s her experience that is important. And she speaks about it in the present tense, ‘is right ynogh for me’ which gives what she says a characteristic immediacy. In the opening to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer started with a long sentence, withholding the verb until the twelfth line and thus creating a literary tension while the reader / listener waited to see what was going to happen. No such tension arises with the Wife of Bath’s opening. We get down to business immediately: ‘Experience … is (verb) right ynogh for me.’ And the whole of her Prologue is in the first person: the words ‘I’ and ‘me’ recur time and again, adding yet more to the sense of a strong-minded, personal account.

The Wife is established, in these first lines, as mistress of overstatement. Not only is ‘auctoritee’ consigned to a subordinate clause, but it’s dispatched in a supposition that gets rid of it completely, ‘though noon auctoritee / Were in this world’.

She then abandons the scholarly words, and gets stuck straight into telling everyone about herself in a far more chatty and confidential way:

4 For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,
For, gentlemen, since I was twelve years old,
5 Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve,
thanks be to eternal God,
6 Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve —
I have had five husbands at the church door —
7 If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee —
if I may have been married so often; —
8 And alle were worthy men in hir degree.
and all were worthy men in their different ways.

As well as the sense, the rhyme of ‘Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve’ with ‘housbondes … I have had fyve’ makes us realise that the Wife is thanking God not for spiritual matters but for the fact that she has had an outrageously large number of husbands! She throws in a quick attack – in parenthesis – on the male ‘auctoritees’ (primarily St Paul and St Jerome) who questioned the validity of her five marriages. And then she assesses her husbands in terms of their social rank ‘in hir degree’ (is that how you would assess your husband?). In Chaucer’s day you could legally marry at the age of 12 if you were a woman, and at 14 if you were a man, but that does not mean that everybody married so early. Perhaps the Wife’s point is that she has amassed an enormous amount of ‘experience’ – the most that it is legally possible for a woman to have.

Another feature of the Wife’s narrative style surfaces immediately: she constantly digresses. Even at this early stage, she interrupts the straightforward story

For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age,

Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve —

And alle were worthy men in hir degree.

There are constant interpolations, such as ‘Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve’, and ‘If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee –.’ If you were an antifeminist, no doubt you would take this as proof that a woman’s mind is not rational, cannot proceed logically (in the Middle Ages, men were considered to be the rational sex). Maybe there are other possibilities. Perhaps she is juggling various strands of thought in her Prologue and including them in her life-story, rather than keeping strictly to biographical details. Maybe she is simultaneously defending herself, attacking the auctoritees and reminding her audience how devout she is.

In her Prologue, the Wife makes a lot of references to the Bible, especially to St Paul’s letters in the New Testament. She makes some references also to famous characters in the Old Testament. The Bible could be read in Latin (if you could read and if you knew Latin), which meant at that time most people couldn’t read or understand it for themselves. They would have known the most famous Bible stories from the depictions in stained glass windows in churches and cathedrals – the poor man’s bible, as they were known. They might also have seen the stories acted out in the Mystery Plays each summer by members of the various most appropriate guilds – the carpenters’ guild, for example, enacting the story of Noah’s Ark. Each Sunday in his sermon the priest would have told them the stories and explained them, but then you had to rely entirely on his accuracy and on his interpretation – and sometimes the interpretations were quite strange and distorted, as we shall see. The fact that most people could not read and understand the Bible for themselves was part of the power the Church held over lay (ordinary) people – the claim was that only the Church knew the truth. This was one reason that John Wyclif’s translation of the Bible into English in the 1380s was greeted with such hostility. To quote the eminent Chaucerian, Peter Beidler, ‘The only Bible that was readily available in Chaucer’s England was Jerome’s Vulgate Bible in Latin. None but clerics, however, were permitted to read it. Indeed, a thirteenth-century edict made it specifically illegal to have the Bible translated into the common tongue. Wyclif, not surprisingly, ignored that edict and set to work on his translation.’

The Wife questions the matter of remarriage for widows

Now the Wife embarks on her first challenge to ‘auctoritee’. She says, in parenthesis, If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee –, and she proceeds to take issue both with St Jerome and with St Paul. In St Jerome’s famous refutation of Jovinian’s liberal ideas, his Epistola adversus Jovinianum, he questions whether any husband after the first is legitimate (1. 14). St Jerome writes: ‘For where there are more husbands than one the proper idea of a husband, who is a single person, is destroyed. At the beginning one rib was turned into one wife. “And they two,” he says, “shall be one flesh”: not three, or four; otherwise, how can they be any longer two, if they are several.’ This is just the sort of ‘auctoritee’ that the Wife is taking issue with in her opening line.

However, in the secular world, remarriage of widows was encouraged, as property was seen to be more secure under male ownership. This shows the many differing views of the time. St Jerome was against remarriage. Legally, though, there were no restraints on the number of times a widow could remarry. And the secular world of property actively encouraged remarriage.

Books were written on the approved behaviour of young women. Mary Carruthers writes, ‘These books were designed to teach young girls how to be good wives, and the books that have survived tend to stress wifely goodness more than wifely skills. …The two best-known deportment (behaviour) books are both French and both were composed in the last thirty years of the fourteenth century, The Book of the Knight of LaTour-Landry … and Le Menagier de Paris (The Goodman of Paris).

‘…The Knight of LaTour-Landry praises the piety of widows who do not remarry, but it is clear that his expectations for his own daughters are quite different:
“But, my faire daughters, take hereby a good ensaumple, that yet be fortune ye fall into a good marriage, and afterwards God take youre husbands from you, wedde you not ayen vnauisely for vain pleasance, but werkithe bi the counsaile of youre true frendes.” (pages 156,7). The manager, who is a very moral man indeed, clearly expects his young wife to marry again upon his death.’ (pages 42 and 109).
from ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,’ Mary Carruthers

But the thought of being criticised for her frequent marriages still rankles with the Wife of Bath. And how, exactly, does she say, ‘If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee –‘? Does she say it doubtfully. Or does she say it cheerfully? Or aggressively?

The stories of the Wedding at Cana of Galilee and the Samaritan Woman by the Well, lines 9 – 23

In the next section of the Prologue, the Wife defends her much-married status by referring to two stories from the beginning of St John’s Gospel in the New Testament of the Bible. First she refers to the story of Jesus Christ and his mother at a wedding in Cana of Galilee where, seeing that the host had embarrassingly run out of wine, Christ turned the water kept in jars at the feast into the best vintage wine for the enjoyment of the guests. Then the Wife refers to the story of Jesus and his disciples visiting a village in Samaria, a district in the middle of Israel that was normally avoided by Jews such as Jesus because Jews did not mix with Samaritans. Jesus stopped by a well and asked the woman he met there to give him a drink of water. He fell into conversation with her and revealed that he knew that she had had five husbands and that she was currently living with a man to whom she wasn’t married. This, indeed, was why she was at the well on her own; the more ‘respectable’ women in the town would not mix with her. (The Wife of Bath does not pause to dwell on this aspect of the story.)

9 But me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is,
But I was definitely told, not long ago,
10 That sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
that since Christ went only once
11 To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
to a wedding, in Cana of Galilee,
12 That by the same ensample taughte he me
that by that example he taught me
13 That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.
that I should not be married more than once.
14 Herkne eek, lo, which a sharp word for the nones,
Also, consider what sharp words
15 Biside a welle, Jhesus, God and man,
Jesus, God and man, spoke beside a well
16 Spak in repreeve of the Samaritan:
in reproof of the Samaritan:
17 `Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes,’ quod he,
`You have had five husbands,’ he said,
18 `And that ilke man that now hath thee
`and the man you are with now
19 Is noght thyn housbonde,’ thus seyde he certeyn.
is not your husband;’ that’s what he said, certainly.
20 What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;
What he meant by it, I cannot say;
21 But that I axe, why that the fifthe man
but I ask this, why was the fifth man
22 Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?
not a husband to the Samaritan?
23 How manye myghte she have in mariage?
How many (husbands) was she allowed to marry?

By the time we arrive breathlessly at the two questions that end the section referring to the Samaritan woman, another aspect of the Wife’s narrative style has become evident: the speed at which she talks. If you run your eye over the first twenty-three lines, you will see the opening assertion, followed by ‘For’ (l. 4); ‘If” (l. 7); ‘And’ (l. 8); ‘But’ (l. 9); ‘Lo’ (l.14); ‘But’ (l. 21); ‘How’ (l. 23) ‘Yet’ (l. 24). It carries on, too; she’s rattling on just as fast when she gets to: ‘But’ (l. 27); ‘Eke well’ (l. 30); ‘But’ (l.32); ‘Lo’ (l.35); ‘For’ (l.46; For (l.49); What (l.53) And And And (ll.56,7,8). The effect of this speed is partly that it gives us a feeling of the unstoppable energy of this woman. Also, we never have a chance to think over the somewhat dubious claims she makes in the course of her headlong monologue. We are swept along in the torrential discourse, both by her speed and by her constant addressing of her hearers. ‘For, lordings,’ and later, in line 61, ‘I pray you, telleth me.’

Confessio

The Wife of Bath speaks directly to us and to her fellow pilgrims in what we would now call an autobiographical account of her life. In fact, autobiography did not exist in the 14th century. The nearest equivalent in those days was confessio.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica gives this definition of confessio: ‘Confession, in literature, is an autobiography, either real or fictitious, in which intimate and hidden details of the subject’s life are revealed. The first outstanding example of the genre was the Confessions of St. Augustine (c. ad 400), a painstaking examination of Augustine’s progress from juvenile sinfulness and youthful debauchery to conversion to Christianity and the triumph of the spirit over the flesh.’

In the genre of confessio, the writer confessed to the unsatisfactory way that he (almost all writers were male) had lived his life, and ended by submitting to the will of God and undertaking to reform and live according to God’s will. The Wife of Bath happily tells us what she has done, but revels in it, rather than wanting to reform her life and commit herself to God. You can see this as a comic parody of confessio, because she is proud of what could be called her sins and she most certainly isn’t submitting to the will of God – quite the reverse. Or you can see her life story as an example of the unaware and unrepentant sinner, heading straight for hell.

Challenging the auctoritees

That the Wife speaks at such length, dismisses the statements of the authorities (all male), and quotes extensively from the Bible, adds up to a reflection of the social turbulence of the time. Women were unimportant and yet here is the Wife speaking up, uninvited, and refuting what men, who have all the power in this patriarchal society, have to say. But the powerful were beginning to be challenged, and the unimportant were beginning to be more important in the second half of the 14th century. After the Black Death had killed so many of the peasants who did all the work, they became much more of a force to be reckoned with, especially during the Peasants’ Revolt of June 1381 when they marched on London and burned down the ruler, John of Gaunt’s, palace and beheaded the Archbishop of Canterbury. The church was no longer quite so powerful as it had been, after Wyclif had translated the bible into English and his followers, the Lollards, were in favour of reading and interpreting the bible for themselves. Lollards also accepted women in a way that the power-focused Pope did not. Added to this was the fact that the pope’s unquestioned authority over the Roman Catholic church was now questioned. Between 1378 and 1418, there were rival claims to the papacy in a disagreement that became known as The Great Schism or Papal Schism. European leaders had to choose which pope they would recognise, the pope in Rome or the pope in Avignon (France).

For all these reasons, the supremacy of the aristocracy over the peasants, and the power of the church over the people was not so absolute as it had been at the beginning of the 14th century. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale was written at the end of the 14th century, and the hierarchy of society was changing. Added to this is the fact that the Wife of Bath is a member of the newly-emerging middle classes; a self-reliant, self-made woman who is an expert in the cloth trade. Against this historical and social background, the Wife’s questionings can be seen as the questions of someone with an independent and lively mind, the product of an increased confidence in the minds of people who had formerly simply been members of the downtrodden numberless masses.

The story of the wedding at Cana in Galilee in the Bible, St John, Chapter 2

10 …. sith that Crist ne wente nevere but onis
11 To weddyng, in the Cane of Galilee,
12 That by the same ensample taughte he me
13 That I ne sholde wedded be but ones.

‘On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, ‘They have no more wine.’ ‘Woman, why do you involve me?’ Jesus replied. ‘My hour has not yet come.’ His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from eighty to a hundred and twenty litres. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water’; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.’ They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realise where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, ‘Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.’ What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples put their faith in him.’
New International Version of the Bible

fot4

The stained glass window in Canterbury Cathedral depicting the Wedding at Cana. Poor Man’s Bible window 2, 13th century stained glass, north choir aisle.
Underneath it are the words:
Hydria metratas capien estquaelibet aetas:
Lympha dat historium, vinum notat allegoriam
This translates as:
The jug seizing/taking (?) the casks is whatever age you like / any age.
Water gives the history, but wine denotes the allegory.

The pilgrims would have seen this window when they arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. St Jerome, commenting on the story of the Wedding at Cana, argued that ‘by going once to a marriage, (Christ) taught that man should marry only once.’ (Epistola adversus Jovinianum book 1 section 40).

To get a picture of how the story of the Wedding at Cana was interpreted in Chaucer’s day, D W Robertson in his Preface to Chaucer quotes Thomas Ringstede or Ringstead, a 14th century expert in glosing or interpretation. Ringstede’s answer to the question of why second marriages are not as blessed as first marriage is: ‘The response is, on account of the signification; for the union of a husband and a wife signifies the union of Christ and the Church, so that there should be one wife (the Church) for one husband (Christ). Thus when a woman accepts a second husband, she becomes one wife of two husbands, and the primary signification ceases.’ Nicolas de Goran, who lived a little earlier than Chaucer, writes of the Wedding: ‘Morally, these nuptials are those between God and the soul … Wine is lacking in these nuptials when the soul lacks internal devotion.’ You can see why D W Robertson remarks in his Preface to Chaucer: ‘Almost anything (was) capable of producing a moral lesson’ in the 14th century. The second line of the Latin inscription under the Canterbury stained glass window depicting the scene points us towards a moral interpretation too: Water gives the history, but wine denotes the allegory.
A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives D W Robertson, Princeton University Press 1962

These profound figurative and moral contemporary interpretations of Bible stories also make it very clear that the Wife is not concerned with the deeper spiritual significance of the Bible. For her, just because we are only told about one wedding that Jesus went to is no reason for her only to be married once and then remain a widow for the rest of her life. She goes whirling straight onto the next Bible story in order to dismiss anything antifeminist (and anti-marrying several times) that the authorities may have said about that story.

The Bible story of the Samaritan woman at the well: St John Chapter 4, lines 14-23

‘The Pharisees heard that Jesus was winning and baptizing more disciples than John. (Actually, Jesus himself did not baptize anyone; only his disciples did.) So when Jesus heard what was being said, he left Judea and went back to Galilee; on his way there he had to go through Samaria.
In Samaria he came to a town named Sychar, which was not far from the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by the trip, sat down by the well. It was about noon.
A Samaritan woman came to draw some water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink of water.” ( His disciples had gone into town to buy food.)
The woman answered, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan—so how can you ask me for a drink?” (Jews will not use the same cups and bowls that Samaritans use.)
Jesus answered, “If you only knew what God gives and who it is that is asking you for a drink, you would ask him, and he would give you life-giving water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you don’t have a bucket, and the well is deep. Where would you get that life-giving water? It was our ancestor Jacob who gave us this well; he and his children and his flocks all drank from it. You don’t claim to be greater than Jacob, do you?”
Jesus answered, “Those who drink this water will get thirsty again, 14 but those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give them will become in them a spring which will provide them with life-giving water and give them eternal life.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “give me that water! Then I will never be thirsty again, nor will I have to come here to draw water.”
“Go and call your husband,” Jesus told her, “and come back.”
“I don’t have a husband,” she answered.
Jesus replied, “You are right when you say you don’t have a husband. You have been married to five men, and the man you live with now is not really your husband. You have told me the truth.”
“I see you are a prophet, sir,” the woman said. “My Samaritan ancestors worshiped God on this mountain, but you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where we should worship God.”
Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time will come when people will not worship the Father either on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans do not really know whom you worship; but we Jews know whom we worship, because it is from the Jews that salvation comes. But the time is coming and is already here, when by the power of God’s Spirit people will worship the Father as he really is, offering him the true worship that he wants. God is Spirit, and only by the power of his Spirit can people worship him as he really is.”
The woman said to him, “I know that the Messiah will come, and when he comes, he will tell us everything.”
Jesus answered, “I am he, I who am talking with you.”
At that moment Jesus’ disciples returned, and they were greatly surprised to find him talking with a woman. But none of them said to her, “What do you want?” or asked him, “Why are you talking with her?”
Then the woman left her water jar, went back to the town, and said to the people there, “Come and see the man who told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Messiah?” So they left the town and went to Jesus.
In the meantime the disciples were begging Jesus, “Teacher, have something to eat!”
But he answered, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
So the disciples started asking among themselves, “Could somebody have brought him food?”
“My food,” Jesus said to them, “is to obey the will of the one who sent me and to finish the work he gave me to do. You have a saying, ‘Four more months and then the harvest.’ But I tell you, take a good look at the fields; the crops are now ripe and ready to be harvested! The one who reaps the harvest is being paid and gathers the crops for eternal life; so the one who plants and the one who reaps will be glad together. For the saying is true, ‘Someone plants, someone else reaps.’ I have sent you to reap a harvest in a field where you did not work; others worked there, and you profit from their work.”
Many of the Samaritans in that town believed in Jesus because the woman had said, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they begged him to stay with them, and Jesus stayed there two days.
Many more believed because of his message, and they told the woman, “We believe now, not because of what you said, but because we ourselves have heard him, and we know that he really is the Saviour of the world.”

(Good News Translation of the Bible)

`Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes,’ quod he,

18 `And that ilke man that now hath thee

19 Is noght thyn housbonde,’ thus seyde he certeyn.

20 What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn;

21 But that I axe, why that the fifthe man

22 Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?

23 How manye myghte she have in mariage?

The Wife of Bath’s follows the story cheerfully enough up to a point. Jesus said, `Thou hast yhad fyve housbondes,’ quod he.’ We’re plunged right into the Bible story that the Wife of Bath instantly appropriates as her own since she too has had five husbands. However, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus challenges the Samaritan woman to live differently. At which rather awkward point, the Wife slips neatly away from the Christian implications of the story, saying ‘What that he mente thereby, I cannot sayn.’ Attack is the best form of defence, and so she energetically defends herself by asking extremely combative questions ll 22,3.

21 But that I axe, why that the fifthe man

22 Was noon housbonde to the Samaritan?

23 How manye myghte she have in mariage?

In fact the Wife has got the story slightly wrong; the Samaritan woman had had five husbands and she was now living with the sixth whom she was not married to. The Wife has miscounted.

No wonder the Wife is described in the General Prologue as wearing spurs on her feet and adorned with headgear as wide as a shield. She attacks her listeners / readers (and the auctoritees), bombarding them with aggressive questions. And while her hearers are still reeling, she follows this attack with a definitive statement (lines 24, 5) that should silence any remnants of opposition.

Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age

Never yet in my life have I heard

25 Upon this nombre diffinicioun.

this number limited / restricted.

What St Jerome had written about Jesus and the Samaritan woman was this:
‘the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel who said that she had her sixth husband was reproved by the Lord because he was not her husband. For where there are more husbands than one, the proper idea of a husband, who is a single person, is destroyed. At the beginning (St Jerome means, in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, Chapter 2) one rib was turned into one wife. ‘And they two shall be one flesh.’ Not three, or four; otherwise, how can they be any longer two, if they are several?’

D W Robertson, in A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspective, suggests a detailed comparison between the Samaritan woman at the well and the Wife of Bath. He looks at the difference between the Wife’s and the Samaritan woman’s response to Jesus. When the Wife simply announces ‘What he (Jesus) mente therby, I kan nat seyn’, D W Robertson suggests that the Wife’s marital condition (much married) is ‘an iconographic device’ typical of the medieval period. (Iconography is the use of images or symbols in visual arts.) He argues that in Chaucer’s day, the five husbands may represent the five senses. The Wife is dominated by the senses / the flesh rather than by spiritual understanding. She is a personification of rampant femininity or carnality and so all her conclusions are carnal and literal, not spiritual. Robertson writes, ‘Those who see her ‘human qualities’ are, from a 14th century point of view, simply being misled.’
A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives D W Robertson, Princeton University Press 1962

Whereas the Samaritan woman listens to Jesus, the Wife of Bath turns away from his teaching. She is, we were told in the General Prologue, ‘somdeel deef’, a description which might have indicated to the medieval mind that she does not hear the word of God, she is spiritually deaf. (See the end of this section for the story Jesus told about people who are spiritually deaf.)

Women are more lustful than men

The Samaritan woman’s and the Wife of Bath’s many husbands would have illustrated the medieval idea was that women were far more carnal (lustful) than men. This was thought to be especially true of widows, who already had physical experience and were now single again. One of the authorities on this state of affairs was St Isidore of Seville writing in about AD 600.

From Etymologies (Etymologiae) by St Isidore of Sevile, circa 600 – if you want to look at a picture of the manuscript, go to en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Isidoro_di_siviglia…

Here are extracts from St Isidore’s writing.

‘Man (vir) is so named, bcause there is greater force (vis) in him than in women (feminis) – hence also the word ‘strength’ (virtus) – or, he is so named because he controls woman forcefully. Woman (mulier) gets her name from ‘softness’ (mollitie) or as it were ‘softer’. … Thus there is the greatest strength in man and less in woman so that she might be forbearing to man; otherwise, if women were to repel them, sexual desire might compel men to desire something else or rush off to another sex…’

‘What is now called a ‘femal’ (femina), antiquity called vira (the female of vir, man) … The word female (femina) derives from the area of the thighs (femorum) where the gender is distinguished from a man’s. But some think she is called female through the Greek etymology for ‘burning force’ (Greek fox) because of the intensity of her desire. For females are more lustful than males.’

Oh, dear.

Here is a relatively contemporary lyric describing the prodigious lusts of women. It was presumably written by a dyed-in-the-wool antifeminist and is to be found in Reliquiae Antiquae – Scraps from Ancient Manscripts by Thomas Wright, which can of course be had on Amazon. It was written down in about 1460, so I imagine it would have been extant orally much earlier than that. It is a paraphrase of the ten commandments. Here are extracts from what is described as a paraphrase of the sixth commandment, but must mean the seventh – thou shalt not commit adultery.

In suche foule lustis is moste her delyte She mostly takes delight in vile lust

And to make her fresh wyth gay attyris; And in wearing gaily coloured clothes

And to be made muche of she gretly desyris; She very much wants to be made a fuss of

She wil be redy with the tywnkelyng of an eie, She’ll be ready immediately

And wyth her lytille whetyng-corne to encrese and multeply. 1

She ne sparid straunger ne other, Neither strangers nor any other men were safe,

And if he come not, she wold hym calle; And if a man didn’t come, she would call him;

She toke her sonne and eke her brother,2

Such a fals lust was on her falle; She was so consumed with faithless lust

Hir corage was to have ado with alle; Her sexual desire prompted her to have doings with everyone.

But with her prety tytmose to encrece and multeply.

1 whet – increase appetite for here, suggesting the part of her that increases a man’s lust in his cornutus or horn
2 She would force her son and also her brother (to have sex with her),

It sounds remarkably similar to the Wife’s literal understanding of increase and multiply, although it seems to have been written by a virulent woman-hater. Unfortunately, the Wife’s tendency to do some of the things described in the verses above is hardly going to add to her attractions as a future wife for husband number six.

Gautier le Leu, tapping into the idea that widows are sexually insatiably voracious, depicts a woman newly widowed looking around for the next man. Le Leu was a French poet who worked during the second half of the 13th century and wrote several fabliaux, some obscene, some satirical. His story, La Veuve (the widow), bears similarities to the Wife of Bath and to la Vieille in the Romance of the Rose; she reacts to her husband’s death more by grief over sexual deprivation than personal loss and she sets out to find another husband. St Isidore would have known just what Gautier was describing when he wrote ‘the fire burns so high in her …’

‘Une dolcors al cuer li point,
Qui le soslieve contremont;
Et li doiens le resomont,
Qui desire a mangier car crue
Que n’est de paon ne de crue
Ains est de l’andolle pendant
U les plusors sont atendant (lines 134 – 40)’
A sweet sensation pricks her heart and lifts up her spirit, and arouses in the bearded counselor under her skirts an appetite for meat, neither peacock nor crane, but that dangling sausage for which so many are eager.

Quoted from Fallible Authors, Alastair Minnis, University of Pensylvania Press, 2008

One of the Wife’s favourite Bible texts: God bad us for to wexe and multiplye,
lines 24 – 34

24 Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Never yet in my life have I heard
25 Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
this number limited / restricted. (ie the number of husbands a woman may have)
26 Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
Men may guess and interpret the text up and down,
27 But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
But I know well, absolutely certainly, without a doubt,
28 God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
God told us to increase and multiply;
29 That gentil text kan I wel understonde.
I can well understand that noble text.

When the Wife says ‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplye’ she is referring to the many times in the first book of the Bible, Genesis, that God commands people to have children ‘multiplye’.
Genesis Chapter 1 verse 28: ‘God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’
Genesis Chapter 9 verse 1: ‘Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.’
Genesis Chapter 9 verse 7: ‘As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.’
However, the Wife concentrates exclusively upon the pleasure involved in the process of conceiving children; there is never any mention of her having children, so she is in effect dismissing the actual increasing and multiplying part of God’s command.

‘Glosinge’ was interpreting the Bible (always done by men, of course); these interpretations could be a distortion of the true meaning, or one that suited the interpreter’s purposes. The Wife, in her own highly individual interpretations of the Bible, is thus following her own well-worn path of distorting the true meaning! All the Wife’s interpretations of scripture end up with the Bible encouraging her to have as much sex as possible, which is an unusual interpretation of the Bible to say the least. I think it adds to the comedy of the Prologue; St Isidore of Seville would no doubt be moralising over the intensity of her desire and thinking of the seven deadly sins, one of which is lust.

The scribe (possibly Adam Pinkhurst) who copied the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in the Ellesmere manuscript, glossed it extensively – although the glosses are not the same thing as the ‘glosing’ of the scholars which was a much more full-scale affair. Scribes’ glosses are what we would now understand as brief annotations written alongside the text. These glosses tended to fulfil a number of different functions. However, of the first twenty-six glosses in the Wife’s Prologue, twenty-one refer the reader to St Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, evidently presupposing an intellectual readership. (If the poem were to be read aloud from this MS, the reader would surely not read the glosses too?)

In her ‘Professional Readers at Work’, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton asks: ‘are some of these ‘source glosses’ a pretence for subtle commentary?’ As an example, she gives the gloss on ‘God bad us for to wexe and multiplye.’ At this point, the scribe has written in the margin, ‘Crescite et multiplicamini’ (which is a reference to Jerome’s Letter, 1.16). If Chaucer’s reader knew their Jerome, they would know that the full Latin text referred to read: ‘As for the command ‘Increase and multiply, and fill the earth,’ it was necessary first for matter to be planted and grow so that there would be something to be cut off later. And let’s think about what ‘fill the earth’ means. Marriage fills earth, virginity heaven.’ (‘Nuptiae terram replent, virginitas paradisum.’) Translation by Janna and Lawler, 2005. Kathryn Kerby-Fulton comments on St Jerome’s text that it constitutes ‘a vicious metaphor in a sexual context, suggesting marriage as emasculation?’
From ‘Professional Readers at Work’, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, Literary and Visual Approaches, Cornell University Press, 2012, pages 216, 7.

This matter of the scribe’s glosses to the Ellesmere MS both complicates the issue and adds to the impossibility of knowing Chaucer’s stance. Do the glosses remind the reader of and direct the reader to a much more serious understanding of the quotation from the Bible that the Wife interprets so uproariously? Or does the reader’s knowledge that St Jerome could be considered a sneering zealot add to their support of the Wife’s carnivalesque interpretation of the Bible? Are some of the glosses in effect undermining St Jerome? Or the Wife? At 600 years’ distance, it’s mpossible to know.

Although the Wife cheerfully appropriates God’s command to ‘increase and multiply’ as a divine directive to have lots of sex simply for the pleasure of it with her husband of the time, this was not the orthodox view. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) agreed with St Augustine in saying that if husband and wife make love ‘in order to pay the debt’ of marriage, this is not sinful. ‘Reddere debitum coniugale nullius est criminis.’

An early 15th century treatise entitled Dives and Pauper gives doctrinal instruction about the ten commandments. It lists 8 ways in which a man could sin with his wife, the first of which was ‘if he medle with hyr only to fulfyllyn his lust is lecherie.’ Eustache Deschamps’ Miroir de Mariage (186) agrees, saying that if a man loves his wife in a ‘disorderly’ manner (that is, not in accordance with the rule or law; in other words, not solely in order to conceive a child), he is committing adultery with her.

Nulle chose n’est plus amere
Que ta femma comme adultere
Amer desordonneement (lines 5403-5).

However, the Wife insists on her own interpretation of the Bible.

Men may devyne and glosen …
But well I woot, expres, withoute lye …’.

The ‘men’ who ‘glosen’, St Augustine, Aquinas, Eustache Deschamps, the writer of Dives and Pauper and all the rest of them, are summarily dismissed. The Wife points out that the commentators and interpreters of the Bible (who ‘devyne’ and ‘glosen’) are men, and specifically sets herself and her knowledge born of a woman’s personal experience against these men: ‘well I woot.’ The contrast is made all the clearer by the alliteration of ‘men may’ set against ‘well I woot … withoute lye’, and the force of the Wife’s experience is further underlined by the words ‘expres, withoute lye’ and by the rhymes of ‘I’ and ‘lye’. God’s command is gathered into the Wife’s knowledge ‘well I woot’ (with alliterated ws for emphasis) ‘God bade us for to wexe and multiply’.

And, in case this is not assertion enough, the Wife’s rhetoric insists even more upon her own position in the argument for lots of husbands and sex.

Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
25 Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
26 Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
27 But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
28 God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;

She repeats ‘I’ and ‘myn’, relegates men’s notions to the conditional tense ‘may’ and then introduces her biblical quotation (about having lots of sex) with three synonyms: ‘wel I woot’ (I know well); ‘expres’ (with absolute certainty); ‘withoute lye’ (without lying). By the time she’s trumpeting ‘God bad us’ (God told us), nobody listening has a leg to stand on.

Simon Horobin, in his book, Chaucer’s Language, observes that ‘repetition and redundancy are a feature of the Wife of Bath’s lengthy monologue’ citing, ‘But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye’, as an example. Perhaps the repetition and redundancy are a characteristic of the Wife’s tendency to ramble, and perhaps of her feminine and unacademic mind.
Chaucer’s Language, Simon Horobin, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, page 193

St Jerome’s own somewhat tight-lipped response to the texts from Genesis encouraging man to ‘wexe and multiplye’ was: ‘while we honour marriage, we prefer virginity’, and ‘marriage replenishes the earth, virginity fills Paradise.’ (‘Nuptiae terram replent, virginitas paradisum.’) It’s enough to make one appreciate the Wife’s point of view.

The Wife challenges the authorities on the matter of how many husbands a woman may marry

30 Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde
Also I know well, he said my husband
31 Sholde lete fader and mooder and take to me.
Should leave father and mother and attach himself to me.
32 But of no nombre mencion made he,
But he made no mention of number,
33 Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
Of marrying two, or of marrying eight;
34 Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?
Why then should men speak of it as if it were evil?

The Wife’s reference in lines 30 and 31 is to the early part of the gospel according to St Matthew, Chapter 19. In Wyclif’s translation of the Bible, this reads:

And the Pharisees came to him, tempting him, and said, Whether it be leaveful to a man to leave his wife, for any cause? [And Pharisees came nigh to him, tempting him, and saying, Whether it is leaveful for a man to leave, or forsake, his wife, for whatever cause?] Which answered, and said to them, Have ye not read, for he that made men at the beginning, made them male and female? And he said, For this thing a man shall leave father and mother, and he shall draw to his wife [and he shall cleave, or draw, to his wife]; and they shall be twain in one flesh. And so they be not now twain, but one flesh. Therefore man separate not that thing that God hath joined [together].

The Good News Bible translation of this passage from Chapter 19 reads:

Some Pharisees came to him and tried to trap him by asking, “Does our Law allow a man to divorce his wife for whatever reason he wishes?”
Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read the scripture that says that in the beginning the Creator made people male and female? And God said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and unite with his wife, and the two will become one.’ So they are no longer two, but one. No human being must separate, then, what God has joined together.”

Characteristically, the Wife personalises this. In her version Christ is speaking directly to her: ‘he seyde myn housbonde / Sholde lete fader and mooder and take to me.’ ‘Myn’ and ‘me’ are striking elements of Christ’s words in the Wife’s version, as if Christ has specifically put her in charge of her husband. Her interpretations of the Bible often make it sound as if she is right there in the middle of the story. This, indeed, is one well-known way of meditating on the Bible stories. But instead of meditating, the Wife’s way is to see the stories, or the authorities’ interpretations of them, in terms of the people involved. Her version of events is always very personal, and we can hear the voices of the different people involved. She is always the one talking, in her retelling of the Bible stories, and her strident voice is always the loudest.

When it comes to the question, in line 32, of exactly how many husbands a woman – specifically ‘me’, the Wife of Bath – may have, she probably has in mind St Jerome’s writings. In his Letter against Jovinian, he writes, ‘I do not condemn second, nor third, nor, pardon the expression, eighth marriages,’ but quickly qualifies this unusually liberal stance by quoting St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians: ‘All things are lawful … but all things are not expedient.’ (1 Corinthians, Chapter 6 verse 12)

In her famous study, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions’, Mary Carruthers sheds interesting light on St Jerome’s reputation.

‘A master of parody, Alisoun turns Jerome’s words back on themselves, to his presumed discomfiture and to our delight. Jerome is one of those figures who open themselves up to such treatment, for the most intemperate of antifeminist Christian satirists is a man best known in his private life for the circle of women disciples he collected, whose education he encouraged in a series of notably eloquent letters. It is the Roman period of Jerome’s life, the period of Paula, Marcella, Eustochium, and the unfortunate Blesilla, that the Wife remembers especially about him, as her epithet for him, “a clerk at Rome,” indicates. And Alisoun is as exegetically skilled, as polemically successful, as Jerome would have wished any of his women friends to be; she has simply taken him at his word (“I do not condemn even octogamy”) and remarried all those times. Jerome was, moreover, a man so brilliantly vituperative that he constantly embarrassed himself. The Adversus Jovinianum got him into a great deal of trouble at the time it was written, so much so that his friend Pammachius withdrew from circulation and destroyed as many copies of the treatise as he could lay his hands on. Jerome approved of this action, which he called “prudent and friendly” in the letter of defence that he wrote to Pammachius. The record of this controversy was not lost in the Middle Ages. In taking on Jerome as she does, Alisoun is not engaging in new sport but is making a rich joke at the expense of a notoriously ill-tempered saint’s most notoriously ill-tempered work.’

The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions’, PMLA 94 (1979), pp 209-22

30 Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde
31 Sholde lete fader and mooder and take to me.
32 But of no nombre mencion made he,
33 Of bigamye, or of octogamye;

The rhymes of ‘me’ and ‘he’ (lines 31 and 32), referring to the Wife of Bath and Jesus, again give the impression that the Wife’s argument in favour of many successive husbands is endorsed personally by Jesus.

Derek Pearsall has fascinating insights in his ‘Towards a Poetics of Chaucerian Narrative’ in Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, Presses Universitaires du Mirail 2003. Listening to the poetry (as indeed it was originally intended) he finds a vitality and comedy that are not always apparent when you read the words. He says,

‘From the first, she (the Wife) appropriates the language of her opponents, the clerical advocates of divinity and detractors of women.’ He finds ‘she scornfully dismisses patristic argument concerning the fixed permissible number of husbands in her sarcastic mimicry of the scholarly word ‘diffinicioun’ (line 25). The word comes at the end of the line and is drawn up to lingeringly, so as to savour its full absurdity. Exactly the same effect is repeated with ‘octogamye’ where the line seems to enact the search for the word with the right ridiculous connotations:
But of no nombre mencion made he,
Of bigamye, or of octogamye (lines 33, 34).’

For me, these insights bring the poetry to life, with all its energy and high spirits.

King Solomon, a character from the Bible (Old Testament) whom the Wife admires,
lines 35 – 43

35 Lo, heere the wise kyng, daun Salomon;
Consider here the wise king, Lord Salomon;
36 I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon.
I believe he had wives more than one.
37 As wolde God it leveful were unto me
and I wish God would legally allow me
38 To be refresshed half so ofte as he!
to be refreshed half so often as he was!
39 Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wyvys!
What a gift of God he had because of all his wives!
40 No man hath swich that in this world alyve is.
No man that in this world is alive has such (a gift).
41 God woot, this noble kyng, as to my wit,
God knows, this noble king, according to my judgment,
42 The firste nyght had many a myrie fit
the first night had many a merry fit/session
43 With ech of hem, so wel was hym on lyve.
with each of them, things went so well for him in his lifetime.

King Solomon was famous for his wisdom and also for building the temple in Jerusalem. However, so far as the Wife is concerned, King Solomon is famous for sexual prowess. Typically imagining herself in the story, as one of King Solomon’s ladies, she starts fantasising about the sex he had with all his wives and concubines. She applies the story directly to herself, as the rhymes ‘me’ and ‘he’ in lines 37 and 38 suggest.

Here is the relevant part of the story of King Solomon and his impressively large number of wives and concubines in the Good News Translation of the first book of Kings, Chapter 11:

Solomon Turns Away from God
Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides the daughter of the king of Egypt he married Hittite women and women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, and Sidon.  He married them even though the Lord had commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with these people, because they would cause the Israelites to give their loyalty to other gods.  Solomon married seven hundred princesses and also had three hundred concubines. They made him turn away from God,  and by the time he was old they had led him into the worship of foreign gods. He was not faithful to the Lord his God, as his father David had been.  He worshiped Astarte, the goddess of Sidon, and Molech, the disgusting god of Ammon.  He sinned against the Lord and was not true to him as his father David had been.  On the mountain east of Jerusalem he built a place to worship Chemosh, the disgusting god of Moab, and a place to worship Molech, the disgusting god of Ammon.  He also built places of worship where all his foreign wives could burn incense and offer sacrifices to their own gods.
Even though the Lord, the God of Israel, had appeared to Solomon twice and had commanded him not to worship foreign gods, Solomon did not obey the Lord but turned away from him.

Thus in the first book of Kings in the Old Testament, it is made very clear that the moral of the story is that the wives led Solomon astray: ‘He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray’. The Bible’s focus is at odds with the Wife’s focus, which is on the number of ‘myrie fit(s)’ that Solomon had and that she wishes it was lawful for her to have. Still, she has done her best in accumulating five husbands, even though that looks rather paltry compared to Solomon and his 700 princesses plus 300 concubines.

How many husbands can you have? lines 44 – 62

44 Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve!
Blessed be God that I have wedded five!1
44a [Of whiche I have pyked out the beste,
[Of which I have picked out the best,
44b Bothe of here nether purs and of here cheste.
Both of their lower purse (scrotum / balls) and of their strongbox / moneybox.
44c Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,
Differing academic schools make perfect scholars,
44d And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes practice makes perfect
and differing practice in many various works
44e Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly;
makes the workman truly perfect;
44f Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I.]
I am the academic expert of five husbands’ worth of ‘practyk’.

1Cp line 6,7:Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve, Thanked be God who is eternally alive, Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve — I have had five husbands at the church door —

These six lines are to be found in the Cambridge University Library manuscript, Dd.4.24, copied within twenty years of Chaucer’s death. However they are not in other authoritative manuscripts, such as the Ellesmere. The scribe of the Cambridge University Library manuscript may have inserted these lines himself, adding to the picture of the Wife as being typical of all that the antifeminists claimed of women – their deceit, their lustfulness, their greed. As Valerie Allen writes, in the ‘Medieval English’ section of English Literature in Context, ‘In manuscript culture, the copier or reproducer of a text is also its reader and editor.’

The images that Chaucer – if it is Chaucer – uses in these six lines describe a good husband, ‘ I have pyked out the beste,’ in terms of sexual equipment and money, ‘Bothe of here nether purs and of here cheste.’ To quote Ruth Mazo Karras:

‘Married young … to older men who treated her as their property, she had ‘pyked out the beste / Bothe of here nether purse and of here cheste’ (44a, 44b) – that is, she emptied ‘pyked out’ both their metaphorical ‘lower purse’ and literal strongboxes.’

From Historians on Chaucer: The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales OUP edited by Alastair Minnis, Stephen Rigby page 327. From the chapter on the Wife of Bath by Ruth Mazo Karras.

The Wife describes herself as a foremost academic in practical sexual matters, ”Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes…. Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I.’ Later on, she describes the abusive Jankyn as being able to ‘wel me glose’ in bed. Although she does not say so explicitly, the images of scholarship suggest that when the Wife engages in battle with the ‘auctoritees’, she sees herself as an expert academic in her own field, that of sex, which is indeed a field in which the chaste church fathers and some of the other authorities have no experience.

45 Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal.
Welcome the sixth, whenever he shall appear.
46 For sothe, I wol nat kepe me chaast in al.
For truly, I will not keep myself chaste in everything.

So is this why she has come on pilgrimage? In the hope of meeting husband number 6? It’s an unusual reason for going on a pilgrimage. Her prayers are unusual, too: twice so far she has thanked or blessed God for the fact that she’s had five husbands and we are only on line 44: Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve, (line 5) and ‘Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve!’ (line 44).

Below is the Ellesmere manuscript in the Huntingdon Library, California, at the relevant lines. You can clearly see the extensive Latin gloss added by the scribe to the left of the text, the virgules, and the carefully ruled lines. The Latin gloss refers the reader to I Corinthians Chapter 7 verse 28. The website that allows you to see this wonderful manuscript is:
http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15150coll7/id/2838

fot5

47 Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon,
When my husband is gone from the world,
48 Som Cristen man shal wedde me anon,
Some Christian man shall wed me straightway,
49 For thanne th’ apostle seith that I am free th’apostle is St Paul
For then the apostle says that I am free
50 To wedde, a Goddes half, where it liketh me.
To wed, by God’s side (I swear), wherever it pleases me.

In this section, it sounds as if ‘myn housbonde’ in line 47 is being replaced as fast as possible by ‘som (other) Cristen man’. The sense tells us this ‘Some Cristen man shal wedde me anon’ (straight away), and so do the sounds. Internal rhymes as well as rhyming couplets increase the sense of speed at which one husband is overtaken by the next. ‘Whan’ …is linked by sound to ‘som …man’ and to ‘thanne’. And at the end of the lines, ‘ygon’ is linked to ‘anon’. And there are, as always with the Wife, a lot of words about ‘I’ and ‘me’: ‘myn housbonde’ … ‘man shal wedde me’ … ‘I am free’…. ‘where it liketh me.’ Tpically with the Wife, ‘free’ rhymes with ‘me’, and not only that but ‘it liketh me.’ She’s going to do what pleases her (‘it liketh me’).

51 He seith that to be wedded is no synne;
He (St Paul) says that to be wedded is no sin;
52 Bet is to be wedded than to brynne.
It is better to be wedded than to burn.

In lines 49, 50 and 51, 2 the Wife quotes some lines from St Paul accurately but she crucially leaves out the lines where St Paul says that marriage is a second-best option.

‘ I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue,
even as I. (that’s to say, chaste) But if they do not contain themselves, let them
marry. For it is better to marry than to burn’. (By burn, he means burn in hell.)

(I Corinthians, Chapter 7, verses 8 and 9).

The Wife’s next line of attack is to list more biblical characters who have acted as she does. She details characters from the Old Testament who had more than one wife or who married more than once, lines 53 – 62

53 What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye
What do I care, though people condemn
54 Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?
cursed Lamech and his bigamy?
55 I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,
I know very well that Abraham was a holy man,
56 And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;
and Jacob also, insofar as I can see;
57 And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,
And each of them had more than two wives,
58 And many another holy man also.
and many another holy man also.
59 Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,
Where can you find, in any historical period,
60 That hye God defended mariage
that God on high expressly forbad marriage
61 By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
I pray you, tell me.
62 Or where comanded he virginitee?
or where did he command virginity?

In referring to these characters from the Old Testament, the Wife is ignoring the New Testament teaching which updated this in favour of having only one wife at a time.

St Jerome, in his Letter against Jovinian, says of Lamech: ‘Lamech, a man of blood and a murderer, was the first who divided one flesh between two wives.’ And Adam Pinkhurst, the scribe who wrote out the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, copied this gloss to the line about Lamech, adding to Lamech’s bigamy, Abraham’s ‘trigamy’ and Jacob’s ‘quatrigamy’ (which unsavoury information he takes from St Jerome’s Letter). But the Wife brushes this drawback aside:

What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye (What do I care?)
Of shrewed Lameth and his bigamye?

Lamech was Noah’s father (Noah of Noah’s Ark fame). Abraham is the great patriarch of Israel, and to New Testament believers, “He is the father of us all (St Paul’s letter to the Romans Chapter 4 verse16).” The faith and obedience of Abraham are his outstanding qualities. His name means ‘father of a multitude.’ As the Wife says, he had more than one wife. Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, and his twelve sons fathered the twelve tribes of Israel. He, too, had more than one wife.

Lamech would be known to the pilgrims and they would be seeing a stained glass representation of Lamech when they reached Canterbury Cathedral. Here he is, between Noah and Thara in the Ancestors of Christ windows:

fot6

Images above: Noah, Lamech, and Thara, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178-1180. Colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came. Images © Robert Greshoff Photography, courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury.

http://greshoff.photoshelter.com

Maybe the Wife is taking a leaf out of the Lollards’ thinking. The Lollards, led by Wyclif, and prominent in the mid to late 14th century, challenged the power of the Pope and the priests who safeguarded for themselves knowledge about the Bible (and the services too were in Latin, so most people were none the wiser). Lollards promoted the reading of the Holy Scripture in the vernacular (in this case, English) as the means of knowing the true Word of God. Personal faith was a central issue. Lollards also promoted the equality of the sexes, so presumably the Wife’s ideas were as valid as men’s ideas. However, the Lollards would have been astounded if they had thought that the Wife was reading the Bible in English in order to endorse her belief in having a series of husbands and as much sex as possible.

As usual the Wife is here making a series of absolute statements:

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man

She is bombarding her audience (and the auctoritees) with questions undermining their control:

Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,

60 That hye God defended mariage
61 By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
62 Or where comanded he virginitee?

Or where commanded he virginity?

Producing a string of famous men from the Old Testament who had more than one wife at a time means that she can marry lots of husbands consecutively, says the Wife. But she is interpreting the New Testament (where Jesus and St Paul say that a man may marry one wife at a time) in the light of the Old Testament (lots of wives). Whereas, of course, in orthodox understanding, you move from the Old Testament to the New. Jesus says at various times in the gospels that Moses said one thing in the Old Testament, ‘But I say to you ….’. He is updating the true meaning of the Old Testament in the New. The Wife is ignoring this, conveniently.

The Wife piles on the questions but she whirls on before anyone has time even to think about the answer, let alone put it into words. Speed is one of her trademarks.


Further reading

Jesus’s story of the sower: a story about those who cannot hear and are spiritually deaf. This points up the contrast between the Samaritan woman, who listens to what Jesus says (lines 14 – 23) and the Wife of Bath.

D W Robertson is quoting from Jesus’s parable of the sower when he writes: ‘The Samaritan (woman) learns to listen to the message of Christ, but the Wife of Bath is “somdel deef,” an attribute which indicates that although she has ears, she hears not.’ It’s to be found in St Matthew’s Gospel Chapter 13: In Wyclif’s translation, this reads:

In that day Jesus went out of the house, and sat beside the sea.
And much people was gathered to him, so that he went up into a boat, and sat; and all the people stood on the brink. [And many companies were gathered to him, so that he ascending into a boat sat; and all the company stood in the brink.]
And he spake to them many things in parables, and said [saying], Lo! he that soweth, went out to sow his seed.
And while he soweth, some seeds felled [fell] beside the way, and birds of the air came, and ate them.
But other seeds [Soothly other] felled into stony places, where they had not much earth; and at once [and anon] they sprung up, for they had not deepness of earth.
But when the sun was risen, they parched [they sweltered, or burned for heat], and for they had not root, they dried up.
And other seeds [Forsooth other] felled among thorns; and the thorns waxed up, and strangled them.
But other seeds [But other] felled into good land, and gave fruit; some an hundredfold, another sixtyfold, [and] another thirtyfold.
He that hath ears of hearing, hear he.
And the disciples came nigh, and said to him, Why speakest thou in parables to them?
And he answered, and said to them, For to you it is given to know the privates of the kingdom of heavens; but it is not given to them.[a]
For it shall be given to him that hath, and he shall have plenty; but if a man hath not [truly who that hath not], also that thing that he hath shall be taken away from him.
Therefore I speak to them in parables, for they seeing see not, and they hearing hear not, neither understand;
that the prophecy of Esaias’ saying be fulfilled in them [that the prophecy of Easias be filled in them, that saith], With hearing ye shall hear, and ye shall not understand; and ye seeing shall see, and ye shall not see;

This is the same chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel in the Good News Translation.

That same day Jesus left the house and went to the lakeside, where he sat down to teach. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it, while the crowd stood on the shore.  He used parables to tell them many things.
“Once there was a man who went out to sow grain. As he scattered the seed in the field, some of it fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some of it fell on rocky ground, where there was little soil. The seeds soon sprouted, because the soil wasn’t deep.  But when the sun came up, it burned the young plants; and because the roots had not grown deep enough, the plants soon dried up.  Some of the seed fell among thorn bushes, which grew up and choked the plants. But some seeds fell in good soil, and the plants bore grain: some had one hundred grains, others sixty, and others thirty.”
And Jesus concluded, “Listen, then, if you have ears!”
Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked him, “Why do you use parables when you talk to the people?”
Jesus answered, “The knowledge about the secrets of the Kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.  For the person who has something will be given more, so that he will have more than enough; but the person who has nothing will have taken away from him even the little he has.  The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look, but do not see, and they listen, but do not hear or understand.  So the prophecy of Isaiah applies to them:
‘This people will listen and listen, but not understand;
they will look and look, but not see.’

Opening, lines 63-162

Section 1 continued

Wife of Bath’s Prologue: The Wife attacks the idea that God forbad marriage and commanded people to be virgins, lines 59 – 76

59 Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,
Tell me, where, in any time,
60 That hye God defended mariage
did almighty God specifically prohibit marriage
61 By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
I pray you, tell me.
62 Or where comanded he virginitee?
Or where did he command people to be virgin?
63 I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
I know as well as you do
64 Th’ apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
that the apostle (Paul), when he speaks about virginity,
65 He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
said that he had no commandment for it.
66 Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
Men may advise a woman to be chaste,
67 But conseillyng is no comandement.
but advice is not the same as a commandment.
68 He putte it in oure owene juggement;
He left it to our own judgment;
69 For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
For if God had commanded virginity,
70 Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede.
then he would have condemned marriage in effect.
71 And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
And certainly, if there were no seed sown,
72 Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?
then what would virginity grow from?
73 Poul dorste nat comanden, atte leeste,
In any case, Paul dared not command
74 A thyng of which his maister yaf noon heeste.
something for which his master gave no order.
75 The dart is set up for virginitee;
The prize is set up for virginity;
76 Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.
Let whoever can, seize it; let’s see who wins the race. (a proverb)

The Wife argues energetically and combatively that God never prohibited marriage and neither did he command people to remain virgins. The speed at which she stacks up her arguments is increased by the number of questions piled up, one after the other.

59 Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,
60 That hye God defended mariage
61 By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me.
62 Or where comanded he virginitee?

The Wife challenges her audience to prove her wrong. Words like ‘telleth me’ are in fact the Middle English form of an order. Tell me. Tell me, she says, where in the Bible it says that God forbad marriage. She’s directing this tirade straight at her audience of listeners / readers: ‘Wher can ye seye…?’ ‘I pray yow, telleth me.’ She is also mistress of the art of repetition, which is such an effective rhetorical device. So she says, ‘Wher can ye seye …?’ and ‘Or where comanded he …?’

Grammatically and rhetorically, firing out commands like this, the Wife of Bath is in the driving seat. She hardly needs to tell us, later in her Prologue, ‘Myself have been the whippe’ (line 175).

A few lines ago, the Wife had happily disposed of Bible patriarchs who married more than one wife with a general wave of the hand: ‘And many another holy man also.’ But now it suits her argument to require exact details from the Bible. She maintains that she’s not interested in generalities: she wants concrete evidence: ‘ by expres word?’ And even if there was some concrete evidence to be had, there’s no time to produce it, because she has whirled on to St Paul (‘th’apostel’ in line 64):

63 I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
64 Th’ apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
65 He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
66 Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
67 But conseillyng is no comandement.
68 He putte it in oure owene juggement;

The verse to which the Wife of Bath is referring in lines 64 and 65 is in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7 verse 25.

‘Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment of the Lord; but I give counsel, as having obtained mercy of the Lord, to be faithful.’

The Wife certainly gives this verse from the Bible a good shaking-up. In lines 64 – 70 she examines the word ‘precept’ (order), and investigates ‘heeste’ (command), and ‘conseilyng’ (advice) which she swiftly points out is not the same as a ‘comandement’ (command, order), repeating the word ‘comande’ several times till the listener feels quite bemused and dizzy. And her line of argument proceeds at top speed: ‘I woot as wel as ye …’, ‘Men may conseille …. But … For … Then….And certes …’ Tellingly, ‘comandement’ (line 67) is rhymed with and set against ‘oure owene juggement’ and the Wife is happy to use her own judgement in deciding how best to conduct her life. ‘Th’apostel’ is at a severe disadvantage from the Wife’s point of view, since he is a man. She moves swiftly from ‘Th’apostel’ to ‘Men may conseille’, disposing of men’s ‘conseille’ and arriving very satisfactorily at ‘oure (presumably women’s) owene juggement.’ As a line of argument it is fuelled by anti-auctoritee emotion and opinion rather than reason.

The Wife also, as usual, sees the theological argument in terms of people speaking, specifically in this instance, St Paul speaking. She also manages to make it sound as if he is a representative of his gender: ‘Men may conseille a womman to been oon (single),’ so she is continuing the issue of men versus women. She speaks of ‘oure owene juggement’ as if she is speaking on behalf of the whole sisterhood of women. And she has somehow managed to make her audience collude with her: ‘ I woot as wel as ye’ which make it impossible for us to refute her line of argument, reinforced as it is by the alliterated ws of ‘woot’ and ‘wel’.

Is the Wife influenced by Lollard teaching?

In claiming to use her own ‘juggement’ in interpreting the Bible, the Wife could be influenced by the reformer, John Wyclif c 1320 – 1384. He was – I am quoting Wikipedia here –

‘an English scholastic philosopher, theologian, lay preacher, translator, reformer and university teacher at Oxford, who was known as an early dissident in the Roman Catholic Church during the 14th century. His followers were known as Lollards, a somewhat rebellious movement, which preached anticlerical and biblically-centred reforms. (Wyclif) was one of the earliest opponents of papal authority influencing secular power. Wyclif was also an early advocate for translation of the Bible into the common language. He completed his translation directly from the Vulgate into vernacular English in the year 1382, now known as Wyclif’s Bible.’

The Lollards promoted the reading of the scriptures in English, thinking that in this way people could know the true word of God for themselves to increase personal faith.

The Chaucer scholar, Peter Beidler, writes:

‘There had been a couple of earlier efforts to translate parts of the Bible into English. The Venerable Bede, for example, had translated one of the gospels into Anglo-Saxon, and Alfred the Great had translated the Ten Commandments, but nothing so grand as the Wycliffe Bible had ever been attempted. The only Bible that was readily available in Chaucer’s England was Jerome’s Vulgate Bible in Latin. None but clerics, however, were permitted to read it. Indeed, a thirteenth-century edict made it specifically illegal to have the Bible translated into the common tongue. Wycliffe, not surprisingly, ignored that edict and set to work on his translation. Although he did not do all of the translation himself, he did supervise the work of several translators and was clearly the impetus behind the work.’

From On-line Reference Book for Medieval Studies

http://www.the-orb.net/textbooks/anthology/beidler/wyclif.html

After the Wyclif Bible was finished, copied, and distributed, the people of England could either read or have read to them the scriptures in their own language.
On the next page is a picture of the beginning of St John’s gospel in a copy of John Wyclif’s translation. It’s pocket-sized, perhaps for a wandering preacher.

fot7

In the beginning was the Word … ‘In þe bigynnyng was/þe word & þe word/was at god/& god was/þe word

By permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections

The whole website is: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/medicine.html

In the next four lines (69 – 72), the Wife uses a compelling rhetorical device, reductio ad absurdum. In other words, if you take something to its ultimate logical conclusion, you can prove it to be an absurd line of reasoning. First she strengthens her argument against virginity and in favour of marriage through her formidable connectives, ‘For’ leading to ‘Thanne’ followed up by ‘And’ and ‘then’. Next she bolsters the argument through the internal rhymes of comanded (maydenhede) and dampned (weddyng):

69 For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
70 Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede.
71 And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
72 Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?

Here, she points out that, logically, if nobody ever had children because marriage was condemned in favour of virginity, then there would be no children to form the next generation of virgins. The rhymes ‘ysowe’ and ‘growe’ assist the ridiculous argument.
Q.E.D. reductio ad absurdum.

It has to be admitted, though, that Jovinian, quoted by St Jerome, had already come up with this reductio ad absurdum argument himself. St Jerome quotes him as saying, ‘If the Lord had commanded virginity He would have seemed to condemn marriage, and to do away with the seed-plot of mankind, of which virginity itself is a growth.’ Nature’s priest, Genius, says something very similar in The Romance of the Rose, lines 19553 – 98. So the Wife hasn’t invented the idea for herself.

Next the Wife manages somehow almost to set St Paul against Jesus, or at least to belittle St Paul’s claims to authority:

73 Poul dorste nat comanden, atte leeste,
74 A thyng of which his maister yaf noon heeste.

Finally, the Wife refers to St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where he writes in Chapter 9 verses 24 – 27:

Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize. 25 Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last forever. 26 That is why I run straight for the finish line; (Good News Translation)

Or maybe she is quoting St Jerome, who in his Letter against Jovinian, I 12, writes:

The Master of the Christian race offers the rewrd, invites candidates to the course, holds in His Hand the prize of virginity, points to the fountain of purity …’

The Wife’s version is this:

75 The dart is set up for virginitee;
76 Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.

The dart refers to the dart or small spear that was sometimes given to the winner of a

race. The Wife goes straight from a biblical allusion to a homely proverb, which gives the flavour of her practical and everyday approach to the Bible. According to Peter G Beidler, the Wife probably has a completely different dart in mind – and not St Paul’s prize given to the winner of a race. He thinks that the Wife’s dart would be something more to do with the dart of love shot by Cupid, or perhaps she is thinking of the phallic shape of a dart. At all events, she certainly doesn’t want to win the prize for the race to be perfect spiritually, particularly if that involves virginity

Is the Wife Preaching a Sermon?

By this stage of her Prologue, the Wife has delivered something remarkably like a sermon or, more accurately, a parody of a sermon. (A parody is imitation of the style of a particular writer, artist, or genre with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.) If you didn’t think this was funny, and thought she was a vice figure, you would think she had given a travesty of a sermon. (A travesty is an imitation or version of something that falls far short of the real thing.) The Wife has used some of the typical rhetorical devices of a sermon in her attack on ‘auctoritee’. She starts as a priest would with a clear point and then gives an example from the Bible as an authoritative illustration, providing her own persuasive interpretation of this illustration.

In a sermon the priest explained the Bible readings for the day, educated people about the Christian faith, and made clear the way in which they could lead a more holy and spiritual life. A well-delivered sermon would be an exercise in rhetoric, with lots of ornamentation to interest and persuade the congregation. Some of the ornaments would help to explain the content of the sermon; some would help in the presentation. Some of the Canterbury Tales are sermons: the Pardoner’s Tale, for example, and possibly the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. A sermon would contain the following sections, amongst many others unfamiliar to us now.

  • The theme
  • Winning-over of the audience
  • Prayer
  • Introduction
  • Division
  • Statement of the parts
  • Proof of the parts
  • Amplification
  • Digression (or transition)
  • Conclusion’

This is all very very serious. But you can see, looking at some of these ‘ornaments’ to a sermon, that the Wife’s version is an uproarious parody. The theme (experience is better than male authority), the winning-over of the audience (actually, more battering the audience into submission), the prayer (thanks for lots of husbands), the allusions to the Bible, statement of the parts (taking us through the first three husbands and then numbers four and five), the endless amplification and digression, conclusion (and we lived happily ever after because I had the maistrye) …. If you do see it as a comic parody of a sermon, then the irony is delicious. The Wife is attacking ‘auctoritee’ by making use of some of the very devices that the auctoritees would use in a sermon. As always, another way of looking at this is not to see it as comic at all, but to see the Wife as a vice figure, blasphemously using the form of a sermon to promote her carnal views.

The Wife argues that not everyone has to be virgin, lines 77 – 96

The previous section ended with the Wife saying, somewhat ambiguously, that

75 The dart is set up for virginitee;
76 Cacche whoso may, who renneth best lat see.

Whoever wants to can strive for the goal of virginity; let’s see who wins the race. In St Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians, this meant ,

‘Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize. 25 Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last forever.’

(I Corinthians 9, verses 24, 25) But the prize in the race the Wife has in mind is not one that will last for ever. Her ideas about the race of life and the prize to be achieved are far less lofty. She approaches the topic gradually, but by line 111 she makes herself very clear indeed:

He (Jesus) spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly;
He spoke to those who wish to live perfectly;
112 And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.
and gentlemen, with your permission (may I say), that’s not me.
113 I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
I will give / devote the flower / the best part of all my life
114 In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.
to the acts and fruits of marriage.

The Wife embarks on her championing of the cause of wifehood. She argues that advice to be virgin is not the same as a command.

77 But this word is nat taken of every wight,
But this saying (it is best to be virgin) does not apply to everyone,
78 But ther as God lust gyve it of his myght.
but where God pleases to give it through his power.
79 I woot wel that th’ apostel was a mayde;
I know very well that the apostle (St Paul) was a virgin;
80 But nathelees, thogh that he wroot and sayde
but nonetheless, though he wrote and said
81 He wolde that every wight were swich as he,
he wished everyone did the same as he did,
82 Al nys but conseil to virginitee.
all this is only advice in favour of virginity.
83 And for to been a wyf he yaf me leve
and he gave me permission, through his generosity, to be a wife
84 Of indulgence; so nys it no repreve
so I am not to be blamed
85 To wedde me, if that my make dye,
if I marry if my mate dies
86 Withouten excepcion of bigamye.
Without objection on the grounds of being married again.
87 Al were it good no womman for to touche —
Although it would be good not to touch a woman —
88 He mente as in his bed or in his couche,
he meant in bed or on a couch,
89 For peril is bothe fyr and tow t’ assemble; (this is a proverb)
for it is dangerous to mix fire and flax;
90 Ye knowe what this ensample may resemble.
You know what this example means.

The Wife is still wrestling with the intractable problem of virginity, which is completely incompatible with her view of life. She admits that St Paul was virgin, but comes out strongly with the argument that St Paul only wished and advised everyone to be virgin, he didn’t command it. It wouldn’t be appropriate for everyone. Therefore – warming to her subject – by implication, even St Paul gave the Wife permission to be a married woman which means that she can marry again if her ‘make’ (partner) dies. Of course it’s asking for trouble if a man touches a woman in bed because flax is so flammable (this said with a wink).

Here the Wife of Bath is quoting St Paul in his First letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7:

‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman. But for fear of fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.’

But whereas St Paul was advocating marriage if people could not manage to remain chaste, the Wife of Bath immediately thinks of sex ‘in his bed or in his couche, / For peril is bothe fyr and tow t’assemble.’ It’s true that St Jerome’s thoughts seem to have turned in a similar direction in his Letter against Jovinian:

‘As then he who touches fire is instantly burned, so by the mere touch the peculiar
(particular) nature of man and woman is perceived.’

91 This is al and som: he heeld virginitee
It comes down to this: he considered virginity
92 Moore parfit than weddyng in freletee.
more perfect than marrying because you wanted sex.
93 Freletee clepe I, but if that he and she
Weakness that’s to say, unless husband and wife
94 Wolde leden al hir lyf in chastitee.
decide to live all their married life in chastity.
95 I graunte it wel; I have noon envie,
That’s fine if that’s what they want to do; I’m not envious,
96 Thogh maydenhede preferre bigamye.
though chastity may be even more virtuous than a second marriage.

Nothing is going to make the Wife endorse virginity. Her argument seems to recast St Paul’s ideas into a clash of opinions between men and women. So at the beginning of this section you have ‘he heeld virginitee / Moore parfit than weddyng …’ Moving towards ‘I graunte it wel; I have noon envie…’. He wants people to be perfect virgins; well, I don’t envy them! It’s unanswerable! Nobody would envy the virgins.

The Wife pauses to consider the different gifts that God gives people, lines 97-104

97 It liketh hem to be clene, body and goost;
It pleases some to be pure, body and spirit;
98 Of myn estaat I nyl nat make no boost,
I won’t boast about my own state,
99 For wel ye knowe, a lord in his houshold,
for as you know well, a lord doesn’t have every
100 He nath nat every vessel al of gold;
utensil in his household made of gold;
101 Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servyse.
Some are made of wood, and are useful to the lord of the house.
102 God clepeth folk to hym in sondry wyse,
God calls folk to him in various ways,
103 and everich hath of God a propre yifte —
And each one has an individual gift from God–
104 Som this, som that, as hym liketh shifte.
some this, some that, as it pleases Him to provide.
103 And everich hath of God a propre yifte — (gift)
104 Som this, som that, as hym liketh shifte.

Here, the Wife is quoting St Paul, I Corinthians 7.7. ‘But every one hath his proper (own particular) gift from God: one after this manner, and another after that. However, the full context of what St Paul has to say in this chapter is about relationships in marriage:

Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

Needless to say the Wife of Bath gives St Paul’s ideas her own slant. In fact, she reverses what St Paul says! When he says, ‘Each of you has your own gift from God’, quoted almost verbatim by the Wife: ‘And everich hath of God a propre yifte –‘ he most certainly did not have in mind the Wife’s notion of the particular gift given to her by God: ‘the best quoniam myghte be’.

The Wife’s interpretation of St Paul’s letter to Timothy

The Wife also refers to St Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Chapter 2 verse 20.

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.’

St Jerome’s interpretation of this was that marriage was allowable but virginity was even better. The Wife’s take on this is quite different. She interprets the passage as meaning that she is one of the vessels of ‘tree’ (wood) – less perfect than the gold vessels but still useful.

In a study that has become a classic, Mary Carruthers writes about the Wife’s claims:

‘She does not deny the celibate ideal its due; she merely points out its lack of domestic economy. A good wife should be thrifty, and only an imprudent household would set its board exclusively with gold and silver dishes (as Jerome himself said, echoing Paul).’

from Mary Carruthers’ article, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.’

The Wife considers virginity again, lines 105 – 114

105 Virginitee is greet perfeccion,
Virginity is a great perfection,
106 And continence eek with devocion,
and continence coupled with devout practices,
107 But Crist, that of perfeccion is welle,
but Christ, who is the source of perfection,
108 Bad nat every wight he sholde go selle
did not command everyone to sell
109 Al that he hadde, and gyve it to the poore,
all that he had, and give it to the poor,
110 And in swich wise folwe hym and his foore.
and in that way to follow in his footsteps.
111 He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly;
He spoke to those who wish to live perfectly;
112 And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.
And gentlemen, by your leave, that’s not me.
113 I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
I will give / devote the flower / the best part of all my life
114 In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.
to the acts and fruits of marriage.

So, says the Wife, virginity and continence and prayer are all very perfect. But even Jesus Christ who is entirely perfect didn’t tell everyone to do things like selling all their possessions and giving the money to the poor. He was addressing people who want to lead a perfect life and I absolutely am not that sort of person: ‘lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.’ What the Wife wants to do is devote the best part of herself to sex.

There is an irrepresible punch to the lines,

He spak to hem that wolde lyve parfitly
And lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I. (lines 111, 12)

It comes, Derek Pearsall suggests, from the quiet, polite acknowledgement of her audience ‘lordynges, by your leve’ which suddenly morphs into the shameless, feisty ebullience of ‘that am nat I’. Those last four monosyllables suddenly rocket towards the rhyming word which of course, since this is the Wife of Bath, is ‘I’ and, joy of joys, it rhymes with ‘parfitly’ which is the opposite of the way of life the Wife is embracing.

The words virginity, perfection, continence, devotion, perfection (and on lines 115, 6 conclusion and generation) are Latinate words. Perhaps the Wife is having a jab at St Jerome and other auctoritees with all their learned texts written in Latin. It’s almost as if she’s demonstrating that she too can adopt the academic intellectual vocabulary if required, but she does so almost satirically. When the Wife produces one of her creeds, it’s in robust everyday language, not in – as she seems to imply – emasculated Latinate words used by ‘the clerk, whan he is old and may noght do / Of Venus wekes worth his olde sho’. She firmly distances herself from ‘hem that wolde lyve parfitly’ (parfitly is another Latinate word) and proclaims: ‘lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I.’ And the rhyme of ‘I’ with ‘parfitly’ underlines the clash in values.

I will bestow the flour (the best part) of al myn age (life)
In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.

‘Fruyt’ should mean children but it sounds as if the Wife means sexual pleasure. ‘I will bestow’ is characteristically determined. In his article, ‘Further Puns from the Prologue and Tale of the Wife of Bath,’ Barry Sanders explores the sexual implications of ‘flour’ being ground by a grindstone at the mill. These are considered in more detail later on in the commentary.

‘Further Puns from the Prologue and Tale of the Wife of Bath’, by Barry Sanders, Papers on Language and Literature 4, 1968, pages 192-5.

Derek Pearsall comments appreciatively – and very interestingly – on the oral impact of the way the Wife speaks in his ‘Towards a Poetics of Chaucerian Narrative.’ He writes:

‘The most brilliant example of this sarcastic play with long words comes (when) … she generously grants to her opponents the privilege of advocating virginity (suggesting more than once that such advocacy derives from lack of means or capacity for anything else):
Viginitee is greet perfection.
And continence eek with devocion (105, 6)
The polysyllables are drawn out mockingly, in a kind of condescending drawl (heavy stress on greet) as if the impotence of learned scholarship were sufficiently displayed in its own language of abstraction.’

from ‘Towards a Poetics of Chaucerian Narrative’ in Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, edited by Wendy Harding, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003

What are those special parts of the body for? lines 115 – 124

Before anyone has time to think, she’s off again with another battering ram of a question. ‘Telle me also ….’

115 Telle me also, to what conclusion
Tell me also, for what purpose
116 Were membres maad of generacion,
Were reproductive organs made,
117 And of so parfit wys a [wright] ywroght?
And by so perfectly wise a Workman wrought?
Why are people made so perfectly?
118 Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght.
You can bet, they were not made for no reason.
119 Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun
Anyone who wants to can interpret and argue
120 That they were maked for purgacioun
That they were made to purge / clear the body
121 Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale
Of urine, and both our private parts
122 Were eek to knowe a femele from a male,
Were made so that you can tell a female from a male,
123 And for noon oother cause — say ye no?
And for no other cause — do you say no? do you agree?
124 The experience woot wel it is noght so.

experience knows well / tells us this isn’t the case.

The Wife is mistress of maximum rhetorical impact. When, as here, she is presenting a counter argument to the dictates of learned men, she uses their intellectual terminology. Thus, she asks the rhetorical question (nobody is given time to answer it):

to what conclusion

Were membres maad of generacion…..

… they were maked for purgacioun

Of uryne, (lines 115 – 16 and 120 -121)

Here she uses the Latin-derived words, ‘conclusion’, ‘generacion’, ‘purgacioun’, just as the auctoritees would have done. However, later in her Prologue, she uses her own much more homely, not to say vulgar, vocabulary: ‘pisse’ (line 729). And as for that famous ‘membre … of generacion’, the Wife’s ‘quoniam’, she gives it a number of names, making certain that it is verbally as in your face as possible.

It is perfectly true that to claim that ‘membres … of generacion’, were made simply to empty the bladder (purgacioun / Of uryne) was one of St Jerome’s weaker efforts in reasoning. By the time the Wife is asking her audience whether they honestly believe that ‘membres … of generacion’ are there simply to help them know whether they are a man or a woman, she’s made a mockery of the ‘auctoritees.’ All those virgin church fathers with their learned glosing: ‘Glose whoso wole and seye bothe up and doun.’ It’s only too clear that the efforts of the men who glose are nullified by everyday ‘experience’ – which is just what the Wife claimed in her opening salvo.

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, were right ynogh for me …
‘The experience woot wel it is noght so.’

Again, the Wife proves conclusively that experience wins hands down over authority. And she trumpets it in an end-stopped line that underlines her all-conquering logic. Quod Est Demonstrandum.

There seems to be a strong element of what Mikhail Bakhtin calls ‘carnivalesque’ here. In her book The Canterbury Tales: Oxford Guides to Chaucer, Helen Cooper describes both the idea of carnival and its effects. Carnival is the

‘whole area of festive liberation, of the Rabelaisian cocked snook, of which
mockery of the rational and the proper and the ascetic is an integral part. The
Wife’s assertion of bodily fact – of the various functions of the genitals, for
instance – is an appeal to the half of human experience that cannot be disallowed
by official doctrines on the greater importance of the spirit over the flesh. The
Wife is Carnival to Jerome’s Lent; and that is why it is so important that Jerome
should be so strongly present. Parody and mockery are of the essence of this
counter-official reading of the world, and for those to exist there must be both a
text to parody and an object to mock. Above all, carnival denies the official
culture’s claim to represent the whole truth and nothing but the truth – not
countering it with any equal claim to absoluteness, but by insisting on
the relative, the irreverent, the earthy. Her very insistence on the detail of life in
the world is a reminder of the limitations of abstract scholasticism.’

The Canterbury Tales: Oxford Guides to Chaucer by Helen Cooper, OUP, 1996, page 151

Derek Pearsall enjoys ‘the declarative power of a succession of monosyllables … exploited here in the concluding line to a devastating critique of the clerical arguments against marriage and in favour of virginity:

Telle me also, to what conclusion
Were membres maad of generacion,
And of so parfit wys a wright ywroght?
Trusteth right wel, they were not maad for noght. (lines 115 – 18)’

I had not appreciated, until I read Pearsall’s article, the comic undermining effect of the last line of monosyllables (except for ‘trusteth’) coming after all the intellectual Latinate high-powered words. Pearsall suggests that these effects ‘enhance the vitality and presence of the Wife of Bath’s voice and our conviction of her dramatic reality.’ It’s one of the ways that Chaucer brings to life what Valerie Allen calls his ‘construct of texts.’

Further consideration of what ‘membres … of generacion’ are for, lines 125 – 132

The Wife allows the ‘clerkes’ that they have a point; ‘membres … of generacion’ were made for ‘office’ but they were certainly made for sex, too. And she goes enthusiastically on to quote (misquote, actually) St Paul on this very subject.

125 So that the clerkes be nat with me wrothe,
I hope / In order that the clerks won’t be angry with me (when),
126 I sey this: that they maked ben for bothe;
I say this: that they are made for both;
127 That is to seye, for office and for ese
That is to say, for business / urination and for ease / pleasure
128 Of engendrure, ther we nat God displese.
Of procreation, so long as we do not displease God.
129 Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette
Why else should men set it down in their books
130 That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?
That a man shall pay his wife her debt?
131 Now wherwith sholde he make his paiement,
Now what could he make his payment with,
132 If he ne used his sely instrument?
If he did not use his blessed instrument?

When the wife says ‘That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?’ she’s referring to St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7 verses 3 – 6 : The relevant verses read: 3 The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command.

The Wife has, characteristically, been selective in her use of quotation from the Bible. St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, advises that the husband should make love to his wife and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. ‘Yield’ is definitely not a word in the Wife’s vocabulary, and she has also somehow left out the part of the verse advising ‘likewise the wife to her husband’. As for the wife not having authority over anything, let alone her body, this is a concept quite foreign to our Wife.

However, a concept that is not at all foreign to our Wife is the idea of debt and payment, which she elaborates upon later in her Prologue. In Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible, verse 3 reads ‘The husband yield debt to the wife, and also the wife to the husband,’ so the Wife is quite right when she picks up the word ‘debt’. But for her, sex is frequently a commercial transaction – which is certainly not what St Paul had in mind.

Yet more exploration of the purpose of ‘membres … of generacion’ and the virtues of barley bread, lines 133 – 146

The Wife continues her exploration of what members of generation are for. She makes it very clear that not everybody has to have sex – indeed, Christ himself was virgin. Other saints have been virgin. But this way of life is not for the Wife.

133 Thanne were they maad upon a creature
Then were they made on a creature

134 To purge uryne, and eek for engendrure.
To purge urine, and also for procreation.

135 But I seye noght that every wight is holde,
But I’m not saying that every person with such equipment as I told you about is required,

136 That hath swich harneys as I to yow tolde,

137 To goon and usen hem in engendrure.
To go and use it in procreation.

138 Thanne sholde men take of chastitee no cure.
Then nobody would care about chastity.

139 Crist was a mayde and shapen as a man,
Christ, who was formed as a man, was a virgin,

140 And many a seint, sith that the world bigan;
And so are many saints, since the beginning of the world;

141 Yet lyved they evere in parfit chastitee.
Yet they lived their whole lives in perfect chastity.

142 I nyl envye no virginitee.
I don’t envy them their virginity.

143 Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,
Let them be bread made from finest wheat,

144 And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;
And let us wives be called barley-bread;

145 And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle kan,
And yet it was with barley-bread, as Mark writes (in his gospel),

146 Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man.
(that) our Lord Jesus refreshed a crowd of people.

The Wife cheerfully dismisses Jesus and a whole lot of saints by saying that they lived in perfect chastity, and she doesn’t envy them this way of living. In another trumpeting statement, the line end-stopped for extra force, and the double negative adding even more emphasis she says: I nyl envye no virginitee. I don’t envy anyone their virginity. She then adopts the metaphor that Jerome had used in his Letter against Jovinian: “Let them (virgins) be bread of pured wheate seed (which was the very best kind of bread). ‘And let us wives (she’s including all women here except for saints) hoten (be called) barley bread.’ Barley bread was less expensive than wheat bread. There was in fact bread made from even coarser materials like beans, fed to animals and eaten by the very poor. The Wife likens herself to something cheaper than wheat bread, and consumable. Appetite and consuming are integral to the Wife’s approach to life.

Jill Mann’s note in Penguin Classics Canterbury Tales reads: ‘Jerome (in his Letter against Jovinian)… recommend(ed) virginity by comparing it to wheat-bread, marriage to barley-bread and fornication to dung; it is better to eat barley-bread than dung, ‘stercus bubulum’, but that does not mean that wheat-bread is not better than barley-bread.’ The Wife leaves out the third part of the comparison, about dung, and makes the difference out to be just between wheat and barley bread a matter of which taste you prefer. As the Wife of Bath seems to have a considerable appetite for extra-marital sex judging from what she tells us later, presumably she’s really a dung-eater.

The Wife then – presumably using lateral thinking – links the barley bread image used by St Jerome with the ‘five barley loaves’ that Christ used when he fed the five thousand. Actually, it’s not in St Mark’s gospel that the bread is specified as barley but in St John’s, chapter 6 verse 9. The Wife is not very accurate when it comes to specifics, but she sweeps you along at such speed there is no time to protest.

The mind that moves from St Jerome’s image of barley bread to the five barley loaves with which Christ fed five thousand people is a mind that is powerfully persuasive in terms of rhetorical performance, rather than conscientiously accurate in terms of dialectic. If you read Mary Carruthers’ description of rhetoric and dialectic, you can see that the Wife is a brilliant rhetorician:
‘…rhetoric and dialectic (‘argument’)… the heart of rhetoric, as of all art, lies in its performance: it proffers both visual spectacle and verbal dance to an audience which is not passive but an actor in the whole experience … As an art, rhetoric is set by Aristotle in the practical social world, while dialectic is purer, more self-contained. In a witty metaphor, Jacques Brunschwig noted that ‘dialectic is basically a greenhouse flower that grows and flourishes in the protected atmosphere of the school. … But rhetoric is a plant growing in the open air of the city and the public places.’

Delivery (performance) is not an aspect of rhetoric that has received much analytical attention from its students … but it is at the heart of rhetoric. … The persuasiveness of artful language is … beyond the definitional trench of grammar and dialectic (logic), …
Rhetoric Beyond Words: Delight and Persuasion in the Arts of the Middle Ages by Mary Carruthers, CUP 2010, pages 2 and 3

In his article, ‘The Wife of Bath versus the Clerk of Oxford: what their rivalry means’, John A Alford argues that ‘the Wife’s first word, ‘Experience’, announces that rhetoric is her domain. Cicero, Quintilian and others, well known in the Middle Ages, said that logic is concerned with indefinite questions, rhetoric with definite questions. Logic might argue that marriage is good, or bad; rhetoric reduces the question to the level of the Wife’s own personal experience.

‘The Wife’s tendency to digress is the verbal corollary of her ‘wandrynge by the weye’, was a typical criticism of rhetorical discourse. She tries to create a special bond between herself and her audience, constantly addressing them. She repeatedly puts questions to them. She draws them into the world of her experience. She includes all women in her questions ‘what do we most desire. The answer to the riddle in the tale is the basic end of rhetorical discourse: power.’
‘The Wife of Bath versus the Clerk of Oxford: what their rivalry means’ by John A Alford published in The Chaucer Review 1986
St John’s account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand with five barley loaves

After this, Jesus went across Lake Galilee (or, Lake Tiberias, as it is also called). A large crowd followed him, because they had seen his miracles of healing the sick. Jesus went up a hill and sat down with his disciples. The time for the Passover Festival was near. Jesus looked around and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, so he asked Philip, “Where can we buy enough food to feed all these people?” (He said this to test Philip; actually he already knew what he would do.)
Philip answered, “For everyone to have even a little, it would take more than two hundred silver coins[a] to buy enough bread.”
Another one of his disciples, Andrew, who was Simon Peter’s brother, said, “There is a boy here who has five loaves of barley bread and two fish. But they will certainly not be enough for all these people.”
“Make the people sit down,” Jesus told them. (There was a lot of grass there.) So all the people sat down; there were about five thousand men. Jesus took the bread, gave thanks to God, and distributed it to the people who were sitting there. He did the same with the fish, and they all had as much as they wanted. When they were all full, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces left over; let us not waste a bit.” So they gathered them all and filled twelve baskets with the pieces left over from the five barley loaves which the people had eaten.

‘Oure Lord Jhesu refreshed many a man’ is a very Wife-of-Bath use of the word ‘refreshed’. Here it simply means that Jesus fed hungry people, and so gave them energy, but last time the Wife used this word it was in connection with King Solomon’s sex with his wives.

As wolde God it leveful were unto me
To be refresshed half so ofte as he!
Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wyvys! (lines 37 – 39)

The Wife’s understanding of refreshing men is very different from Jesus’s. Jesus feeds hungry people with bread – and later in this same chapter of St John’s gospel, he says: “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty.” (John Chapter 6 verse 35) Even quite innocent words like refresshed receive a sexual connotation from the Wife of Bath, whose generosity is in sexual matters and satisfies quite a different sort of appetite. Her capacity to put a sexual interpretation on almost any text from the Bible is quite remarkable.

A person’s vocation, lines 147 – 162

In the next section, the Wife redefines the notion of a person’s vocation, or calling, ‘In swich estaat as God hath cleped (called) us’:

147 In swich estaat as God hath cleped us
In such estate / situation as God has called us to
148 I wol persevere; I nam nat precius.
I will persevere; I am not fussy.
149 In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument
In wifehood I will use my sexual equipment
150 As frely as my Makere hath it sent.
As freely / liberally as my Maker has given it to me.
151 If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe!
If I be cold / stand-offish, God give me sorrow!
152 Myn housbonde shal it have bothe eve and morwe,
My husband shall have it both in the evenings and the mornings,
153 Whan that hym list come forth and paye his dette.
Whenever it pleases him to come forth and pay his debt.
154 An housbonde I wol have — I wol nat lette —
A husband I will have — I will not be denied —
155 Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral,
Who shall both pay his debt to me and be my slave,
156 And have his tribulacion withal
And have his suffering also
157 Upon his flessh, whil that I am his wyf.
Upon his flesh, while I am his wife.
158 I have the power durynge al my lyf
Throughout my life, I have the power
159 Upon his propre body, and noght he.
over his own body, and not he.
160 Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me,
That’s exactly what the Apostle Paul told me
161 And bad oure housbondes for to love us weel.
And commanded our husbands to love us (women) well.
162 Al this sentence me liketh every deel” —
Every bit of this opinion pleases me …” –

The Wife really has got going here. She claims to have a vocation (a calling from God) just as a priest or a saint does, only hers is to sex. ‘In swich estaat (condition, way of living) as God hath cleped (called, invited) us / I wol persevere…’ There’s a lot of I will (as in, I am absolutely going to and no-one is going to stop me). ‘I wol persevere’… ‘I wol use myn instrumennt’ … ‘An housbonde I wol have – I wol nat lette.’ She asks God to punish her not for her sins but if she isn’t enthusiastic about sex (a completely new form of prayer). The language of power is conspicuous: ‘An housbonde I wol have – I wol nat lette – / Which shal be bothe my detour and my thrallI have the power durynge al my lyf / Upon his proper body, and noght he.’ And as well as the language of ‘detour’, ‘thrall’, ‘I have the power’, Chaucer sets up the antithesis between ‘I have the power … and noght he.’

The Wife is actually remarkably inconsistent (thus illustrating the medieval view of women). At one point she claims that the authorities are rubbish (line 119 ‘Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun’) and then she piously claims to be doing just what St Paul told her to do (line 160 ‘Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me.’).

When we get to ‘I have the power…’ (line 158), the Wife has returned to I Corinthians Chapter 7 verses 3 – 6 again. She was last alluding to this text on line 130. The relevant verses here are these:

A man should fulfill his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfill her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs. A wife is not the master of her own body, but her husband is; in the same way a husband is not the master of his own body, but his wife is. Do not deny yourselves to each other, unless you first agree to do so for a while in order to spend your time in prayer; but then resume normal marital relations. In this way you will be kept from giving in to Satan’s temptation because of your lack of self-control.

I tell you this not as an order, but simply as a permission. Actually I would prefer that all of you were as I am; but each one has a special gift from God, one person this gift, another one that gift.

Here again, therefore, the Wife has only used the details of this quotation from St Paul’s letter that suit her, thus completely distorting its meaning, which advises mutual generosity between husband and wife. St Paul certainly wasn’t advising husbands to become the slaves of their wives. This is her version of St Paul’s text:

An housbonde I wol have — I wol nat lette —
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral, my debtor and my slave
And have his tribulacion withal
Upon his flessh, whil that I am his wyf.
I have the power durynge al my lyf
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me….. (lines 154 – 160)

In case any of her listeners are having problems with the Wife’s interpretation of the Bible here, she assures them with characteristic confidence: ‘Right thus the Apostel (St Paul) tolde it unto me.’ Again, we have the sense of people talking, which is how the Wife seems to view the Bible. And not only talking, but talking personally to her. To dismiss any possible disagreement, the Wife prefaces her final remark with ‘Right thus’ – a variation on ‘Wel I woote, expres, withouten lye.’ (line 27).

‘ Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me…..’ This personal way of speaking about the saints shows how the Wife has the knack of bringing saints, even God himself, down to her own size. There is something so personal and familiar in her way of talking about them that it is reductive. Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas writes:

‘… the saints sound like ordinary people. ‘God’ crops up in every other sentence
and becomes very familiar in the prcoess. He is in there with the berries (line
659) and the bacon (line 418) and the dishes made of ‘tree’ (line 101). And if the
Wife brings God into her workaday world then no one else is likely to escape
the levelling process. Saint Jerome becomes ‘a clerk at Rome’ (line 673) and
King Solomon becomes a fourteenth-century ‘sir’ (line 35).

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale by Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas, York Notes Advanced, York Press, 1998, page 55

Then we arrive at the end of this section, where the Wife triumphantly reinterprets St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 5 verses 25 – 33:
New International Version (NIV)

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

You wouldn’t know that you were reading the same text when you hear the Wife’s version of events:

Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me,
And bad oure housbondes for to love us weel.
Al this sentence me liketh every deel” — (lines 160 – 162)

Certainly the Wife’s understanding of ‘love us weel’ means lots of sex. Again, in her opinion, the Bible’s teaching all comes down to lots of sex and total power over your husband. Most unusual.

However, in defence of the Wife’s admittedly very distorted version of St Paul’s letter, focusing only on what the husband owes his wife, can be set the equally distorted interpretations given by male scholars (‘auctoritees’). For example, even the saintly Parson, in his tale, devotes most of his energy to a wife’s subjection and very little to a husband’s love. ‘Lo, what seith seint Augustin: ‘ther is no-thing so lyk the develes child as he that ofte chydeth.’ Seint Paul seith eek: ‘I, servant of god, bihove nat to chyde.’ /630 And how that chydinge be a vileyns thing bitwixe alle manere folk, yet it is certes most uncovenable bitwixe a man and his wyf; for there is nevere reste. And therfore seith Salomon, ‘an hous that is uncovered and droppinge, and a chydinge wyf, been lyke.’ / A man that is in a droppinge hous in many places, though he eschewe the droppinge in o place, it droppeth on him in another place; so fareth it by a chydinge wyf. But she chyde him in o place, she wol chyde him in another. / And therfore, ‘bettre is a morsel of breed with Ioye than an hous ful of delyces, with chydinge,’ seith Salomon. / Seint Paul seith: ‘O ye wommen, be ye subgetes to youre housbondes as bihoveth in god; and ye men, loveth youre wyves.’ Ad Colossenses, tertio.’

The interpretation of that (in)famous male scholar, St Jerome, rears its head in the Ellesmere MS. These lines, ‘Which shal be both my dettour and my thral’ to ‘Al this sentence me liketh every deel’ (155 – 162) seem to have sent the scribe of the Ellesmere MS into overdrive. They have five scribal glosses beside them. Two of the glosses direct the reader to St Jerome, two to St Jerome quoting St Paul and one to St Paul himself. St Jerome, as quoted by the scribe, is at this point saying, ‘He who has a wife is said to be a debtor,… and a servant of his wife, and like a bad servant he is bound.’ And ‘Again you are the slave of a wife…’

In A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives, D W Robertson argues: Alisoun of Bath is not a ‘character’ in the modern sense at all, but an elaborate iconographic figure … She is in some ways, typically ‘feminine’ but the feminity she represents was in Chaucer’s day a philosophical rather than a psychological concept … Those who grow sentimental over her ‘human’ qualities are, from a fourteenth-century point of view, simply being misled.’

In a serious interpretation of the first section of the Wife’s Prologue, she would represent the feminine meaning the carnal. Her understanding is carnal, not spiritual. D W Robertson’s argument is that the way he reads her Prologue fits in the with 14th century point of view. On this interpretation, the Wife’s inconsistency, rather than being funny, is a sign of her lack of intelligence (typical of a woman, so men claimed). Nowadays we are probably more likely to find her funny, because of the discrepancy between what St Paul writes and the Wife’s interpretation of it.

163 Up stirte the Pardoner, and that anon;
The Pardoner jumped up at once;
164 “Now, dame,” quod he, “by God and by Seint John!
“Now, madam,” he said, “by God and by Saint John!
165 Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.
You are a noble preacher in this matter.
166 I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!
I was about to wed a wife; alas!
167 What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere?
Why should I pay for it so dearly with my flesh?
168 Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere!”
I’d rather not marry a wife this year!”
169 “Abyde!” quod she, “my tale is nat bigonne.1

1 Wait, hang on a minute: I haven’t started my story.

The three old husbands, lines 195-378

Section 2 The three old husbands:

Wife of Bath’s Prologue lines 195 – 451

The three old husbands and their sexual inadequacy, lines 193 – 218

At long last the Wife gets going – but although she has said she is going to tell her tale, in fact she is still telling us the story of her life. She divides her five husbands into two categories: the good, who were ‘rich and olde’, and the bad who, we later learn, were younger and much less biddable than the three old ones. The Wife laughs at the old husbands’ attempts at sex but, on the plus side, ‘I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond’, which to her is a very satisfactory state of affairs.

However, there are always two views: those of a woman and those of a man. Evidently deafened by the unstoppably strident voice of the Wife of Bath, the Ellesmere scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, glosses line 193, just before this passage begins: ‘Bihoold how this goode wyf served hir iij (three) first housbondes which were goode olde men.’ So readers of / listeners to the Ellesmere version reeceived the account of the three old husbands with this gloss ringing in their ears.

195 I shal seye sooth; tho housbondes that I hadde,
I ‘ll tell you the truth; those husbands that I had,

196 As thre of hem were goode, and two were badde.
three of them were good, and two were bad.

The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde;
The (first) three were good, and rich, and old;

198 Unnethe myghte they the statut holde
they could hardly keep the statute (pay the debt)

199 In which that they were bounden unto me.
which they were bound to pay me.

200 Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
You know well enough what I mean by this, by God!

201 As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
So help me God, I laugh when I think

202 How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!
how I made them work so hard at night that you could have felt sorry for them!

203 And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor.
And, by my faith, I didn’t value their efforts.

204 They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor;
They had given me their land and their treasure;

205 Me neded nat do lenger diligence
I didn’t need to work hard any longer

206 To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence.
to win their love, or respect them.

207 They loved me so wel, by God above,
They loved me so well, by God above,

208 That I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love!
that I didn’t care about / take any pleasure in their love!

209 A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon
A wise woman will be constantly busy

210 To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon.
to get her husband’s love, yes, if he doesn’t love her.

211 But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
But since I had them wholly in my hand (under my thumb),

212 And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
nd since they had me given all their land,

213 What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
why should I take care to please them,

214 But it were for my profit and myn ese?
unless it were for my profit and my pleasure?

215 I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,
I made them work so hard, I promise you,

216 That many a nyght they songen `Weilawey!’
that on many a night they sang out, `Alas!’

217 The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
The (prize of) bacon given to (a happy married couple) in Dunmow in
Essex was never brought to them, I can tell you.

218 That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe.

Needless to say, the Wife has hardly begun on the story of the first three husbands – who are never differentiated, but simply referred to collectively as a threesome – when we get on to the sexual aspect of the marriages.

Unnethe myghte they the statut holde
In which that they were bounden unto me.
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! (lines 198 – 202)

One line introduces the old husbands:

The thre were goode men, and riche, and olde

and, without a moment’s delay, we learn in the very next line, that

Unnethe myghte they the statut holde…. (holde – engage in).

That’s to say that the old husbands could hardly manage to have sex with their energetic and demanding young bride. The rhyme of ‘olde’ and ‘the statut holde’ underlines their sexual inadequacy. Pausing only to mention that the husbands were ‘bounden’ to the Wife in this respect, she continues roguishly (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) to involve her audience. ‘Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!’ (Pardee means par dieu, by God, which seems incongruous in the context of this line.) Her audience of pilgrims contains plenty of men whose obsession is sex, but it also contains conspicuously saintly people like knight, the parson and the ploughman, and also two nuns, the second nun and the prioress, who must all have been rather taken aback by this information.

The Wife has made it clear from the outset that she is arguing from her own lived experience against the dictates of ‘auctoritee’. However, she is very inconsistent – or a good debater: she frequently justifies her actions as complying with the pronouncements of the ‘auctoritees’ or church fathers. When she says that her three old husbands are scarcely capable of holding the ‘statut’ (the debt) in which they were bound to her, she is referring again to St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 7 verse 3. The Good News Translation reads:

A man should fulfill his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfill her duty as
a wife, and each should satisfy the other’s needs.

However, John Wyclif’s translation, made about ten years before the Wife of Bath’s Prologue was written, reads:

The husband yield debt to the wife, and also the wife to the husband.

Thus Wyclif’s translation brings in the concept of a conjugal ‘dette’, the ‘debitum’, as if a sexual relationship is part of a legal or commercial contract.

This commercial aspect of a sexual relationship is one that the Wife frequently returns to. For example, in lines 130-1

Why sholde men ellis in hir bokes sette
That man shal yelde to his wyf hir dette?
Now wherewith sholde he make his paiement
If he ne used his sely instrument? sely – happy, blessed

In lines 150-4, the Wife is trumpeting that

Myn housbonde shal it (sex) have bothe eve and morwe,
Whan that hym list come forth and paye his dette.
An housbonde I wol have – I wol not lette –
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral…. thral – slave

However, marriage, and the children who would be heirs of that marriage, were an important aspect of property and inheritance in the Middle Ages; marriage was not all or even partly about love. So payment of the ‘dette’ was important in a practical sense for the production of heirs. In fact, a marriage could be (and still can be) annulled if there was a failure to make ‘paiement’ as Marion Wynne-Davies points out in the Routledge English Texts edition of this tale. But we are never told that the Wife has any children. For her, payment of the ‘dette’ is all to do with physical pleasure (or not, as in the case of the three old husbands to whom she later refers disparagingly as ‘bacon’ – line 418).

The Wife describes her husbands as being ‘bounden unto me’ to pay their sexual debt to her. ‘Bounden’ means tied, in a legal sense but it has another meaning of binding someone with fetters, depriving them of liberty, which is likely to appeal to the controlling Wife. She has also controlled what St Paul said by selecting exactly which sections of his letter she will quote: (Wyclif’s translation) ‘The husband yield debt to the wife, and also the wife to the husband.’ There’s no mention of her bothering to please her husbands. If the auctoritees can ‘glose’ and distort the sense of the Bible, so can she.

So if they were useless in bed, why does the Wife describe the first three husbands as ‘good’? Presumably it is because they were ‘riche and olde.’ We are told, ‘They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor’ (line 204). Jill Mann explains, in her notes to the Penguin Classics edition of the Canterbury Tales, that the husbands had settled property on the Wife at the time of the marriage. Her husband would have kept control of the property during his lifetime but when he died it would have passed to the Wife who would have retained it when she remarried. By the time husband number three has died, she must have accumulated considerable wealth.

Thus, even before the Wife starts to talk about her marriages (as she does a little later) as commercial transactions, we can see that for her, that’s all these first three marriages were. She would only have shown the husbands love and respect to extract their wealth; as they’d already given it to her, she didn’t bother with love or respect. She asks why she should take pains to please her husbands unless for her own ‘profit’ (214), another commercial word.

In her article, ‘Sex, Money, and Power in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’, Christine Tucker gives another reason the three old husbands are described as ‘good’. She makes the point that ‘The distinction between good and bad comes from the level of power each man grants her (the Wife). The three good men are the ones who give her “maistrie,” no questions asked; the last two husbands are bad because they threaten her power.’
Sex, Money, and Power in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale – J-Saw
jsaw.lib.lehigh.edu/include/getdoc.php?id=1752

The antifeminist idea about women being sexually voracious (in lines 198 – 202) comes from the Miroir de Mariage. In that text, Deschamps says that the men’s wives are so voracious that their husbands cannot satisfy them. Chaucer’s version has a different slant: it is because the three husbands are too old for their very young wife. Is he suggesting that medieval marriages often caused great misery to very young women? As always, with Chaucer, it’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he is making a similar point in The Merchant’s Tale, when he describes, in horrifying detail, what the young bride May has to endure on her wedding night from her old husband January.

The bryde was broght abedde as stille as stoon;
The bride was brought to bed as still as stone;
And whan the bed was with the preest yblessed,
and when the bed had been blessed by the priest,
Out of the chambre hath every wight hym dressed,
everyone left the room,
And Januarie hath faste in armes take
and January took (May) energetically in his arms
His fresshe May, his paradys, his make.
his fresh May, his paradise, his mate.
He lulleth hire; he kisseth hire ful ofte;
He lulls her; he kisses her again and again;
With thikke brustles of his berd unsofte,
(He rubs her tender face) with thick bristles of his rough beard,
Lyk to the skyn of houndfyssh, sharp as brere —
like the skin of a shark, sharp as a briar —
For he was shave al newe in his manere —
for he was all newly shaved according to his custom —
He rubbeth hire aboute hir tendre face…. (lines 1818 – 1827)

The misery endured by the young bride with the elderly husband is also depicted by William Dunbar in ‘The Tretis of tua mariit Wemen and the Wedo.’ Here, the young wife is complaining of her old husband’s impotence:

Quhen kissis me that carybalf, than kyndillis all my sorrow;
As birs of ane brym bair, his berd is als stif
Bot soft and soupill as the silk is his sary lume;
He may weill to the syn assent, bot sakles is his deidis. (lines 94 -97)

When that foul man kisses me, then all my sorrows are kindled
His beard is as stiff as the bristle of a fierce bear
But soft and supple as silk is his sorry tool;
He may well assent to the sin, but blameless is his deed.

from Handbook of Medieval Sexuality edited by Vern L. Bullough, James A. Brundage, Garland Publishing Inc, 1996

Another look at lines 198 – 218

By now, the Wife is well into her stride. First she regales her audience with the near-impotence of the old husbands, and tells everyone how she laughed at their pitiable efforts. Next, she informs everyone that, since the husbands had made over their land and their treasure to her, she didn’t need to make any effort to get them to love her. In fact, they already loved her, and she scorned them for it. Then she returns again to their hilarious efforts in bed.

Unnethe myghte they the statut holde
In which that they were bounden unto me.
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!
And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor. t
They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor;
Me neded nat do lenger diligence
To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence.
They loved me so wel, by God above,
That I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love!

A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon
To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon.
But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
But it were for my profit and myn ese?
I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,
That many a nyght they songen `Weilawey!’
The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe,
That som men han in Essex at Dunmowe. (lines 198 – 218)

A discussion of literature on BBC Radio 4 came up with the genre ‘ego literature’ and the phrase seems tailor made for the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Look at this passage, and count the number of times you find the words ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’. There is no doubt who is at the centre of this Prologue! Whenever ‘they’ do get a look in, it’s to be laughed at or dismissed or controlled. Laughed at: ‘I laughe whan I thynke / How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! (201, 2). Dismissed: / How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! (202). ‘Pitously’ also has the meaning of doing something inadequately or contemptibly and this could apply to the sexual efforts of the old husbands. ‘I tolde of it no stoor.’ (203); ‘Me neded nat do lenger diligence / To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence.’ (205,6); ‘I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love! (208); ‘What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese’ (213). Controlled: ‘I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond’ (211); ‘I sette hem so a-werke’ (215); ‘I governed them.’ (219). Poor old husbands.

The Wife quite frequently mentions work in this passage, but she uses very different words for it. The word for the hard work of the husbands failing to satisfy her in bed is ‘swynke’ :’How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!’ and this word is generally used for the hard labour of a peasant. In addition, she says she’s laughing at their heroic efforts so, in choosing the word ‘swynke’, she is dismissing their work as useless and also classifying it as a peasant’s work which demeans it in a social way, too. However, overall, there is no suggestion that the husbands were not of respectable middle class social status in any other sense. Another word that the Wife uses for work is ‘diligence’ (line 205), a sophisticated Latin-derived word that contrasts with ‘swynke’. To ‘do … diligence ‘means to do one’s utmost, with some suggestion of reverence and deep respect. The Wife says she didn’t need to do this diligence that implied some work in the doing of it. So not only is it a more sophisticated word for work, but she isn’t even bothering to do it. Finally, the Wife says that she ‘sette hem so a-werke’ (l 215) that on many nights they sang out ‘Weilawey’ in sorrow and woe. (‘The woe that is in mariage?’) Again, it’s the husbands who are toiling away in bed. The Wife has set them to work and doesn’t care. The overall picture of work in this passage is of the husbands working away like peasants and singing out ‘Weilawey’ and the Wife not bothering with any work at all, not even that of respecting her husbands. In fact, especially not that of respecting her husbands; she laughs at them.

You would hope that in marriage there would be a sense of a relationship: some love and respect between husband and wife. Not in these marriages. The only mention we have of love and respect is to kick it out of doors:

Me neded nat do lenger diligence
To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence.

And why?

They loved me so wel, by God above,
That I ne tolde no deyntee of hir love!

‘Deyntee’ is liking or pleasure in doing something; there are also connotations of esteem. The Wife can’t be bothered with any of this.

The Wife controls her three old husbands, lines 211 – 233

In the Wife’s view, a woman needs to acquire her husband’s love, ‘to gete hire love’. Once she has this commodity, she has got what she wants because it means that she is in control of the husbands. As the Wife puts it:

But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese
But it were for my profit and myn ese? (lines 211 – 214)

Again, the Wife is aiming for total control, and she’s got it: ‘I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond’. The alliterated hs of ‘hadde hem hoolly’ and ‘myn hond’ stress her control. There is a constant contrast in this section of her Prologue between the total control she has over her husbands, the fact that they have given her all their land, and the little care she takes of them. You get lines such as ‘I had them hoolly in myn hond,’ rhymed for extra emphasis with ‘they hadde me yeven al hir lond‘ (lines 211 and 212). She adds that ‘They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor’ (line 204) and ‘They loved me so wel (line 207). The extent of the Wife’s power over and property extracted from the husbands is contrasted to the little she gives them in return. ‘I tolde of it no stoor.’ (line 203); I ne tolde no dyntee of hir love.’ (line 208); ‘What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese?’ (213).

The Wife’s argument in defence of her treatment of the husbands starts with an absolute statement on which the rest of her reasoning is based:

A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon
To gete hire love, ye, ther as she hath noon.

The argument then runs, ‘But sith’ (since)… ‘And sith’….’What (why) sholde I’….’But (unless) it were for my profit and myn ese?’ So she doesn’t ‘taken keep hem for to plese.’ She doesn’t respect them; she simply desires ‘profit and … ese (pleasure).’ In her view, a woman marries in order to make a profit and gain pleasure. There is a sense here that the Wife glories in her total control over her husbands, and in her acquisition of ‘profit and … ese.’ She is almost boasting of her prowess:

What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
But it were for my profit and myn ese?

It sounds as if she is proud that she and her husbands haven’t won the flitch of bacon given each year to the most harmonious couple in Dunmow.

Besides, she claims that they enjoy her government.

219 I governed hem so wel, after my lawe,
I governed them so well, according to my way of doing things,
220 That ech of hem ful blisful was and fawe fawe : delighted
that each of them was happy and eager
221 To brynge me gaye thynges fro the fayre.
to bring me gay things from the fair.
222 They were ful glad whan I spak to hem faire,
They were very glad when I spoke to them pleasantly,
223 For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously.
for, God knows, I scolded them cruelly.

The Wife makes it very clear that she was the centre of the old husbands’ lives. She tells us what they did or felt about her.

‘They had me given their land and their treasure’ (204),
‘They loved me so well’ (207).
‘they had given me all their land (212)
‘brynge me gaye thynges’ (221)
‘they were full glad when I spoke to them fair’ (222).

The Wife comes second in the sentence construction, ‘they …. Me’, only because she is in receipt of something she wants to acquire: wealth, property, presents or affection.

On the other occasions in this passage, the Wife takes the upper hand. You can see this in what she makes them do. Again and again the pattern of words is repeated as the Wife describes how she treated her husbands:

‘I made them swink’ (202)
‘I had them hoolly in my hand’ (211)
‘I set them so a-worke’ (215)
‘I governed them … after my law’ (119)
‘I chid them’ (223)

Each time the clause starts with ‘I’, then comes the verb (made, had, set, governed, chid) then the object of this control, ‘them’ the unfortunate husbands. The repeated pattern shows how relentless the Wife is in dominating her husbands. She is the active party, not in any way passive. And what she does to them is entirely dominating: there is no love in these relationships.

What she makes the old husbands do is revealing. In line 202 she made them ‘swink’ , and this word depicts them as peasants who must cater for her sexual appetite. In line 215 she says that she set them to work (and again this is sexual work). In line 211 she claims, I had them … in my hand (in my power). Line 119 I governed them … after (according) to my law – another sentence filled with the language of power ‘I governed…my law.’ You look in vain for the language of love.

The passage starting on line 195 and continuing to line 223 has a remarkable number of pronouns, so it seems to me, concerning the Wife and the husbands. ‘They’ and ‘me’/’my’/ ‘I’, or ‘their’ / ‘them’ appear in almost every line. So the Wife is interested in the marriage relationship, but in a very specific and somewhat startling way. The words that describe the relationship are to do with acquiring (‘get’ line 210 and ‘given me all their land’ 212), having power and making the husbands work hard sexually, governing, nagging. In the next section she goes on to the matter of deceiving husbands in order to have the upper hand.

One detail: in lines 220 and 221 the Wife is telling everybody how, under her nagging and merciless ‘gouvernance’ her husbands were only too glad to bring her pretty presents from the fair because they were so glad when she spoke to them ‘faire’, nicely in thanks for the present. ‘Fayre’ and ‘faire’ are the same word but with different meanings; rhyming them was a conspicuously sophisticated literary technique called rime riche which Chaucer mischievously applies to the conspicuously unpleasant way the Wife achieves mastery over her old husbands. I wonder whether the word that ends line 220, ‘fawe’, which half rhymes with and is alliterated with ‘faire’ is part of the same literary joke.

224 Now herkneth hou I baar me proprely,
Now listen how well I behaved,1
225 Ye wise wyves, that kan understonde.
you wise wives, who can understand.2

1 ‘well’ is a matter of opinion. You could say ‘badly’
2 ‘wise’ is a matter of opinion, too

Here is the Wife of Bath holding forth again: ‘now herkneth hou I ….’ she commands her audience (-eth is the form of the verb that’s used when the speaker / writer is giving an order). She continues this authoritative tone in line 226, ‘ Thus shulde ye speke.’ Her version of events is that as a wife she conducted herself ‘proprely’ which means properly or appropriately. The thing is, the word ‘appropriate’ is all a matter of opinion, depending on who you are. If you are the Wife, getting the upper hand by any means available, then presumably ‘appropriate’ is the word. If you are the deceived husband, then it is not. Chaucer’s twinkling irony flickers over the lines.

The Wife uses the same verb, ‘beren’, in two lines out of three.

224 Now herkneth hou I baar me proprely,
226 Thus shulde ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde,

In the first line it means how she bore herself as in behaved, conducted herself. In the second it means that she accused them loudly. Using the same verb, Chaucer makes the link between behaviour and loud accusation.

Not only is the Wife’s definition of ‘proprely’ somewhat suspect; her definition of ‘wise wyves’ in the next line also seems open to different interpretations. (The Clerk’s Tale, which follows that of the Wife of Bath, tells the story of a completely different sort of wise wife, the patient Griselda.) Wise wives, according to the Wife, deceive their husbands. She repeats the phrase ‘wyves that been wyse’ on line 229 and again ‘A wys wyf’ on line 231 telling us that ‘A wys wyf … Shal beren hym on honde….’ ‘Beren hym on honde’ means accuse and also deceive and has overtones of shouting. The word ‘honde’ reminds us that she had her old husbands ‘hoolly in myn honde.’

226 Thus shulde ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde,
you should speak to them as I tell you and accuse them wrongfully,
227 For half so boldely kan ther no man
no man can swear and lie half so boldly
228 Swere and lyen, as a womman kan.
as a woman can.

This offensive description of women comes from the Romance of the Rose, where the character, Nature, says, of women: ‘(women) swear and lie more boldly than any man.’ (translation Horgan, lines 18106,7).

By the lines, ‘For half so boldely kan ther no man / Swere and lyen, as a womman kan’, the scribe copying out the manuscript that is in the Cambridge University Library, Dd.4.24, wrote, ‘Verum est’, ‘it’s true’ in the margin! Valerie Allen, writing the Medieval English section of English Literature in Context, says: ‘In manuscript culture, the copier or reproducer of a text is also its reader and editor.’ If you want to find out more about scribes and medieval books, there is a wonderful blog, started in August 2014, by Eric Kwakkel, book historian at Leiden University, The Netherlands. The link is http://medievalbooks.nl/about-me/ and the weekly posts are fascinating and well illustrated.

Lesley Lawton, in her essay, ‘Glose Whoso Wole’: Voice, Text and Authority in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, points out that the Wife presents speaking in varying ways. Sometimes, as here, she simply calls it speaking. ‘Spak to hem fayre’ (l 222) ‘Thus shulde ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde’ (l 226). However, the words ‘spak’ or ‘speke’ do have bits added to show that actually she was usually manipulating or deceiving the old husbands in some way. ‘Spak to hem fayre’ suggests she was sweet-talking them; ‘speke and bere hem wrong on honde’ means deceiving them. A little bit further on (line 281) the speaking goes up a gear and becomes chiding and complaining.

229 I sey nat this by wyves that been wyse,
I do not say this about wise wives,
230 But if it be whan they hem mysavyse.
unless it’s when they act unadvisedly / unwisely.
231 A wys wyf, if that she kan hir good,
A wise wife, if she knows what is good for her,1
232 Shal beren hym on honde the cow is wood,
shall convince him by swearing the bird (chough) is crazy,
233 And take witnesse of hir owene mayde,
and prove it by taking witness of her own maid
234 Of hir assent. But herkneth how I sayde:
who is in league / conspires with her. But listen to what I said:

‘The cow is wood’ refers to the story of an unfaithful wife who had a tame talking bird in her room. The bird would have been a chough, a member of the crow family that is a bit larger than a jackdaw. The talking bird tells the woman’s husband that he saw the wife with her lover, but the wife, with her maid’s support, convinces her husband that the bird is mad.

1Wife of Bath keeps repeating ‘wise wife’convince him/(deceive him)

The Wife gives advice on how to control husbands, lines 235 – 398

The next few lines, 235 – 47, originated with Theophrastus’s The Golden Book on Marriage preserved in Jerome’s Letter against Jovinian I. 47. I’ve given the text of it at the end of this section. It was repeated in the Miroir de Mariage, an antifeminist tract by Eustache Deschamps, and in other medieval antifeminist texts such as Matheolus’ Lamentations.

235 `Sire olde kaynard, is this thyn array?
`You lazy old man, what’s going on here?
236 Why is my neighebores wyf so gay?
Why is my neighbour’s wife so finely dressed?
237 She is honoured overal ther she gooth; 1
238 I sitte at hoom; I have no thrifty clooth.
I sit at home; I have no decent / respectable clothes to wear.
239 What dostow at my neighebores hous?
What are you doing at my neighbor’s house?
240 Is she so fair? Artow so amorous?
Is she so beautiful? Are you such a lecher?
241 What rowne ye with oure mayde? Benedicite!
What do you whisper about with our maid? Bless me!
242 Sire olde lecchour, lat thy japes be!
You old lecher, stop your tricks!

1 (Contrast with neighbour’s wife She is honored everywhere she goes; she is honoured / I sit at home)

What dostow at my neighebores hous? / Is she so fair? Artow so amorous? / What rowne ye with oure mayde? / Sire olde lecchour, lat thy japes be!
These accusing questions are actually quite flattering to the ancient husbands, who are too elderly to manage anything in bed – so it’s a clever tactic on the Wife’s part. At the same time as the Wife is attacking them (Sire olde kaynard, is this thyn array?) she is suggesting that they are off womanising and that she is jealous.

St Jerome quotes that committed antifeminist, Theophrastus, from the ‘Golden Book on Marriage.’ Here is a brief excerpt.
‘Married women want many things, costly dresses, gold, jewels, expensive items, maidservants…. Then come prattling complaints all the night: that one lady goes out better dressed than she, that another is looked up to by all …’ (see more of what he had to say at the end of this section of commentary). However, the Wife’s accusations call into question St Jerome, who claimed that women were the lecherous ones. The Wife’s flattering questions, ‘Sire olde lecchour,’ to her old husbands suggest that men are the lusters.

In these lines, the Wife has described her relationship (if that’s the right word) with her husbands as ‘swinking’, receiving, deceiving, governing and chiding. It is indeed a picture of the ‘wo that is in mariage’ for the husbands. Perhaps unwittingly, the Wife describes how she makes her husbands just as miserable as the antifeminists had always claimed. She is the embodiment of the antifeminists’ worst nightmares.

She speaks with total confidence: ‘Now herkneth (listen) hou I baar me proprely’ (how well I handled things). And her idea of handling things well is to nag and deceive her husbands into total submission. This is not the method recommended in contemporary texts. The Goodman of Paris for example, was written by a 60 year old for his teenage bride. He recommends the story of Patient Griselda as an example of obedience: ‘it behoves them (wives) of need to submit them in all things to the will of their husbands and to suffer patiently all that those husbands will.’ The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry, written in the early 1370s by a father for his three daughters, similarly advises them on proper and obedient behaviour. It became a popular educational book. You can read extracts at the Harvard University Chaucer site: http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/latour/

The advice on wives’ behaviour given by the Goodman of Paris and the Knight of La Tour-Landry is a far cry from the advice so confidently given by our own Wife. She turns the contemporary conduct texts on their heads and teaches wives how to subjugate their husbands. What is happening to male power in the ultra-patriarchal society of the late fourteenth century with the Wife’s teaching subverting everything that men stand for?

243 And if I have a gossib or a freend,
And if I have a close friend or an acquaintance,
244 Withouten gilt, thou chidest as a feend,
and I’m completely innocent, you scold like a fiend,
245 If that I walke or pleye unto his hous!
if I walk to his house to amuse myself!
246 Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous,
You come home as drunk as a mouse,
247 And prechest on thy bench, with yvel preef!
and preach on your bench, bad luck to you!

The Wife begins here by saying innocently ‘withouten gilt’ that if she has a

best friend that she goes to see, her husband tells her off. It isn’t until three lines later that we discover this ‘gossib or .. freend’ is male! No wonder the husband is cross!

How the Wife controls her husbands: the ‘thou seist’ method, lines 248 – 382

Throughout the next 100 lines, the Wife tells us all the things she accuses her husbands of saying to her when they were drunk – so they can’t defend themselves now that they are sober. They didn’t actually say any of these things, as she eventually discloses:

380 Baar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde (I deceived them)
I firmly swore to my old husbands
381 That thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse;
that this is what they said when they were drunk;
382 And al was fals…

and it was all false…

On the other hand, virtually all these complaints against women (from lines 248 – 302) originated with Theophrastus, quoted by St Jerome in his Letter again Jovinian I. 47. You can find I. 47 and 48 of St Jerome’s Letter at the end of this section. They are a standby of antifeminist literature. Not only that, but many of these criticisms of women are also to be found in John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, a book of ethical and political philosophy written around 1159, and also in the speech of the husband in the Romance of the Rose and in Deschamps’ Miroir de Mariage. There really was a vast accumulation of antifeminism that the Wife is attacking here. The Wife is getting her own back by (a) accusing her husbands of having criticised her like this (which they hadn’t) and (b) by making them be extra nice to her to make up for their criticism. It’s tough on the innocent old husbands to stand proxy for their antifeminist forbears, but in another way it’s poetic justice. You could see the Wife as being the valiant spokesman for all her abused sisterhood in her attack on the antifeminist authorities, Theophrastus, St Jerome, St Isidore of Seville, John of Salisbury, Guillaume de Lorris and all the rest.

Chaucer gives his readers / audience a vivid impression of the Wife’s chief method of dominating her husbands: relentless nagging. For one thing, the section beginning, ‘Thou seist to me…’ starts on line 248 and continues until line 378; it’s over 100 lines long. On and on and on it goes, with the repeated ‘thou seist… thanne seistow.’ It’s no wonder the poor elderly husbands were battered into submission. Anything to get the Wife to shut up

248 Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief
You tell me it is a great misfortune
249 To wedde a povre womman, for costage;
to marry a poor woman, because of the expense;
250 And if that she be riche, of heigh parage,
And if she is rich, of good birth,
251 Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie
then you say it is a torment
252 To soffre hire pride and hire malencolie.
to put up with her pride and her angry moods.
253 And if that she be fair, thou verray knave,
And if she be beautiful, you utterly unpleasant man (shit),
254 Thou seyst that every holour wol hire have;
you say that every lecher wants to have her;
255 She may no while in chastitee abyde,
A woman can not remain chaste for long,
256 That is assailled upon ech a syde.
who is assaulted / attacked from every direction (by men who want to be her lover).
From The Romance of the Rose. 8587 – 92
‘S’el rest bele, tuit i aceuurent / … Tuit li vont entour, tuit la prient’
(If she is beautiful, all will come running … all will surround her, beg her).
257 Thou seystsom folk desiren us for richesse,
You say some men desire us women for our riches,
258 Somme for oure shap, and somme for oure fairnesse shap=figure but also genitals
some for our shapeliness, and some for our beauty,
259 And som for she kan outher synge or daunce,
and some want a woman because she can (either) sing or dance,
260 And som for gentillesse and daliaunce;
and some because she is well-bred and flirtatious;
261 Som for hir handes and hir armes smale;
Some desire her because of her hands and slender arms;
262 Thus goth al to the devel, by thy tale.
Thus we all go to the devil, according to you.

The relentless repetition of ‘som’ in this passage increases the pace as it heads towards ‘al’. The qualities for which men desire women are superficial and mostly connected with appearance: ‘shap’, fairness, singing and dancing, gentleness and dalliance, hands and arms. The effect is that of a list, which emphasises the way women are made mere objects in men’s eyes. It gets worse.

St Isidore of Seville gave reasons why men desire women in his Etymologies: Book 7 section 9: ‘pulchritudo, genus, divitiae, mores.’
29. Then, in choosing a wife, four things impel a man to love: beauty, family, wealth, and character. Yet it is better if character is looked for in her rather than beauty. But nowadays, wives are sought whom wealth and beauty recommend, not uprightness of character. 30. Women stand under the power of their husbands because they are quite often deceived by the fickleness of their minds. Whence, it was right that they were repressed by the authority of men. Consequently, the ancients wanted their unwed women, even those of mature age, to live in guardianship, on account of their fickle minds.
If you want to read the text of the Etymologies, it is to be found in :
http://potpourri.fltr.ucl.ac.be/files/AClassftp/TEXTES/ISIDORUS/Etymologie/B1N8PWGetQy.pdf

263 Thou seyst men may nat kepe a castel wal,
You say men cannot defend a castle wall,
264 It may so longe assailled been overal.
when it is under attack for so long from every direction.
Another antifeminist detail from The Romance of the Rose 8595 – 92. ‘Car tour de toutes parz assise / Enviz eschape d’estre prise.’ (For a tower besieged on all sides can hardly escape being taken).
265 And if that she be foul, thou seist that she
And if she is ugly, you say that she
266 Coveiteth every man that she may se,
covets (wants) every man that she sees,
267 For as a spanyel she wol on hym lepe,
for she will jump on him like a spaniel,
268 Til that she fynde som man hire to chepe. 1
until she finds some man to buy (take) her.

1 Chepe=do business with, a commercial way of talking about sex. Compare line 521

Still more antifeminism from the Romance of the Rose, lines 8597-8600 ‘If, on the other hand, she is ugly, she wants to please everybody; and how could anyone guard something that everyone attacks, or guard one who wants all those who see her.’ This idea is also to be found in Theophrastus.

269 Ne noon so grey goos gooth ther in the lake
You say there is no goose swimming in the lake, no matter how drab,
270 As, seistow, wol been withoute make.
that can’t find a mate.

Women are compared here to animals, spaniels or geese in a thoroughly disrespectful and dismissive way.

271 And seyst it is an hard thyng for to welde
And you say it is hard to control
272 A thyng that no man wole, his thankes, helde.
a thing that no man will, willingly, keep.

This is a direct translation of ‘Molestum est possidere, quod nemo hebere dignetur’ from Theophrastus as quoted by St Jerome in the Letter against Jovinianum I 47.

273 Thus seistow, lorel, whan thow goost to bedde,
You say this, scoundrel / blackguard, when you go to bed,
274 And that no wys man nedeth for to wedde,
and that no wise man needs to marry,
275 Ne no man that entendeth unto hevene.
nor any man that hopes (to go) to heaven.

The antifeminist thought in lines 265 ff comes from the Romance of the Rose, where the Friend retails what the jealous husband said of his wife:

If she be foul, she’ll try to please them all;
And how can one do this and yet be safe?
She guards a jewel all are fighting for –
Which every man desires…

(No wonder Christine de Pisan took issue with the antifeminist views to be found in The Romance of the Rose.)

276 With wilde thonder-dynt and firy levene
May wild thunder-bolt and fiery lightning
277 Moote thy welked nekke be tobroke!
break your withered old neck!
278 Thow seyst that droppyng houses, and eek smoke,
You say that leaky houses, and also smoke,
279 And chidyng wyves maken men to flee
and scolding / nagging wives make men flee
280 Out of hir owene houses; a, benedicitee!
out of their own houses; ah, bless me!

This comes from Proverbs, Chapter 27, verse 15 in the Bible.
‘A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping
of a leaky roof in a rainstorm.’ The idea is also to be found in Proverbs Chapter 21, It is better to dwell in a corner of the housetop, than with a brawling woman …’
However, again, to give just a taste of the vast body of literature ranged against women, here is a list of some of the ‘auctoritees’ who used these sayings from Proverbs. Needless to say, St Jerome quoted it, in his diatribe against women, the Letter against Jovinian. So did Pope Innocent III, in De Miseria (On the Misery of the Human Condition) in the late 12th century, and so did Matheolus, a 13th century French poet, in his Lamentations (see extract at the end of this section).

281 What eyleth swich an old man for to chide?
What’s wrong with such an old man to scold like that?
282 Thow seyst we wyves wol oure vices hide
You say we wives will hide our vices
283 Til we be fast, and thanne we wol hem shewe —
until we are securely tied (ie safely married), and then we show them —
284 Wel may that be a proverbe of a shrewe!
that’s the proverb of a scoundrel / villain!
285 Thou seist that oxen, asses, hors, and houndes,
You say that oxen, asses, horses, and hounds,
286 They been assayed at diverse stoundes;
are tried out several times (before they are bought);
287 Bacyns, lavours, er that men hem bye,
and so are basins, (and) wash bowls, before men buy them,
288 Spoones and stooles, and al swich housbondrye,
spoons and stools, and all such household items,
289 And so been pottes, clothes, and array;
and so are pots, clothes, and adornments;
290 But folk of wyves maken noon assay,
But men don’t try out wives
291 Til they be wedded — olde dotard shrewe! —
until they are married — you old doddering scoundrel / imbecile! —
292 And thanne, seistow, we wol oure vices shewe.
and then, you say, we will show our vices.

The construction of the Wife’s accusation constantly repeats the same pattern. ‘Thou sayest … we (wives) will …. till …. then …..’ It gives the effect of an unstoppable battering-ram. ‘Seistow’ gets intensified from time to time to ‘chidying’, as in ‘chidyng wyves maken men to flee’ which immediately gets thrown back in the face of the old husband and recast as, ‘What eyleth swich an old man for to chide?’

The content for lines 282 – 92 comes from the same three anti-feminist texts again: Miroir de Mariage, St Jerome, and the Romance of the Rose. They all say that women hide their faults till they are married.

The Wife repeats ‘thou sayest’ and ‘and’ to great effect. You get the impression that there’s an unending list of the horrible things said about wives. The Wife moves from claiming that these things are said against her; then this becomes more inclusive, ‘me’ becomes ‘us’ and then ‘wives’ although the only other women on the pilgrimage are two nuns – the second nun and the prioress. So presumably the Wife now envisages a worldwide audience of women.

The imagery in these lines is very offensive to women. They are reduced to the level of animals used by men for work – oxen, asses, horses – or for pleasure – hounds (285). Then the comparisons reduce women yet further, to the level of inanimate objects such as kitchen utensils (289), objects that are tried out before they are bought. But before condemning the Wife for being so unpleasant to her old husbands, it’s worth thinking that in fact it really was what Theophrastus said against women to humiliate them. The Wife of Bath shames her husbands by maintaining it’s what they said against her, and they are so horrified by their apparent behaviour when they were allegedly drunk, that they give her much of what she wants.

293 Thou seist also that it displeseth me
You say also that I am displeased
294 But if that thou wolt preyse my beautee,
unless you praise my beauty,
295 And but thou poure alwey upon my face,
and unless you always gaze at my face,
296 And clepe me “faire dame” in every place.
and call me “beautiful lady” everywhere (we go).
297 And butthou make a feeste on thilke day
And unless you hold a feast (a party) on my birthday
298 That I was born, and make me fressh and gay;
and make me blooming and cheerful;
299 And but thou do to my norice honour,
And unless you honour / respect my nurse,
300 And to my chamberere withinne my bour,
and my chambermaid within my bedchamber,
301 And to my fadres folk and his allyes —
and my father’s family and relations —
302 Thus seistow, olde barel-ful of lyes!
that’s what you say, you old barrelful of lies!

There’s a slight change in the battering pattern here: it is an unadorned list, ‘gathering momentum with and . .. and … and…and…’ It finishes with a sledgehammer end-stopped statement: ‘Thus seistow, olde barel-ful of lyes!’ The Wife manages to combine four insults in one line here: ‘thou’ (lack of respect in her use of the second person singular to her husband); ‘olde’ reminds him of how old he is; ‘barel-ful’ reminds him of how drunk he is; ‘lyes’, which may well be a pun on lees (dregs) labels him a drunkard and a liar.

The antifeminism in lines 293– 302 comes from St Jerome’s quotation of Theophrastus’s Golden Book on Marriage. ‘Our gaze must always be directed to her face, and we must always praise her beauty …’.

303 And yet of oure apprentice Janekyn,
And in addition, you have caught a false suspicion of our apprentice Janekin,

304 For his crispe heer, shynynge as gold so fyn,
because of his curly hair, shining like fine gold,
305 And for he squiereth me bothe up and doun,
and because he attends me everywhere,
306 Yet hastow caught a fals suspecioun.
307 I wol hym noght, thogh thou were deed tomorwe!
I don’t want him, even if you died tomorrow!

The description of ‘oure apprentice Janekyn’ with his shining gold hair forms a striking contrast with the elderly husbands. The Wife does not hesitate to mention the wounding possibility that the old husbands might be ‘deed tomorwe!’

The Ellesmere manuscript has a great many glosses written in Latin by the scribe to direct the reader to the reference in the text. The one against line 303 reads ‘Et procurator calamistratus et cetera’ making it very clear that Jankin is ‘the curled darling who manages the wife’s affairs’ and who is her lover, mentioned in Theophrastus as quoted by St Jerome in his Letter against Jovinian I. 47 (see end of this section).

Jankyn is also the name of the Wife’s fifth husband, the ‘clerk of Oxenford’ who lodges with her great friend. Whether he is the same person as the apprentice mentioned here is unclear.

308 But tel me this: why hydestow, with sorwe,
But tell me this: why do you hide, bad luck to you,
309 The keyes of thy cheste awey fro me?
the keys of your strongbox away from me?
310 It is my good as wel as thyn, pardee!
It is my property as well as yours, by God!

‘It is my good ….’ is another end-stopped line that makes it sound like an irrefutable statement. But actually, if the old husbands have hidden the keys of the treasure chest from her, then maybe she doesn’t have quite the tyrannical control over them that she has claimed. There are some elements in the story that don’t add up – although you never have time to notice because of the speed of her narration.

311 What, wenestow make an ydiot of oure dame?
What, do you think you can make a fool of the mistress of the house?
312 Now by that lord that called is Seint Jame,
Now by Saint James,
313 Thou shalt nat bothe, thogh that thou were wood,

you shan’t be master of my body and of my property, even if you are crazy with anger,

314 Be maister of my body and of my good;
315 That oon thou shalt forgo, maugree thyne yen.
You’ll have to go without one of them, like it or not.
316 What helpith it of me to enquere or spyen?
What use is it to snoop and spy on me?
317 I trowe thou woldest loke me in thy chiste!
I think you would like to lock me in your strongbox!
318 Thou sholdest seye, “Wyf, go wher thee liste;
You ought to say, “Wife, go where you like;
319 Taak youre disport; I wol nat leve no talys.
Enjoy yourself; I won’t believe any gossip.
320 I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, dame Alys.”
I know you are a true wife, dame Alys.”
321 We love no man that taketh kep or charge
We don’t love a man who carefully watches
322 Wher that we goon; we wol ben at oure large.
where we go; we want to be free (to do as we wish).
323 Of alle men yblessed moot he be,
Of all men, may the wise astronomer, Lord Ptolemy, be the most blessed
324 The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome,
325 That seith this proverbe in his Almageste:
for in his Almagest he speaks this proverb:
326 “Of alle men his wysdom is the hyeste
“The wisest of all men is the one
327 That rekketh nevere who hath the world in honde.”
who never cares who has the world in his control.”
328 By this proverbe thou shalt understonde,
this proverb means,
329 Have thou ynogh, what thar thee recche or care
if you have enough, why should you take notice or care
330 How myrily that othere folkes fare?
how merrily other people are getting on?
331 For, certeyn, olde dotard, by youre leve,
For, certainly, old senile fool, by your leave,
332 Ye shul have queynte right ynogh at eve. ‘pleasant thing’ – a euphemism
you’ll have quite enough sex at night.
333 He is to greet a nygard that wolde werne
A man who refuses to let another man light a candle at his lantern is too mean;
334 A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne;1

335 He shal have never the lasse light, pardee.
He’ll have none the less light, by God.
336 Have thou ynogh, thee thar nat pleyne thee.
If you have enough, you needn’t complain.

1 this proverb/image is all about sex, his wife inflaming other men’s desires

This idea of the light of the candle is proverbial, but in The Romance of the Rose, lines 7410 – 14, it has sexual connotations just as it does here. ‘It is the candle in the lantern, and if you gave its light to a thousand people, you would not find its flame smaller.’ Typically, the Wife uses a proverb like this in a sexual way, and the candle provides a good phallic symbol in addition to the flame that is universally understood as a symbol for passion. In this instance, the Wife is right up there with Virgil’s mistress who apparently supplied fires for the whole city of Rome ‘in a way better left undescribed’.

337 Thou seyst also, that if we make us gay
And you also say, that if we make ourselves attractive
338 With clothyng, and with precious array,
with nice clothes, and with precious adornments,
339 That it is peril of oure chastitee;
that it threatens our chastity;
340 And yet — with sorwe! — thou most enforce thee,
And further — bad luck to you! — you must reinforce your argument,
341 And seye thise wordes in the Apostles name:
by saying these words in the Apostle’s name (quoting St Paul):
342 “In habit maad with chastitee and shame
“Women should adorn themselves modestly and soberly,” he said,
343 Ye wommen shul apparaille yow,” quod he
344 “And noght in tressed heer and gay perree,
“And not in carefully arranged hair and sparkling precious stones,
345 As perles, ne with gold, ne clothes riche.”
like pearls, and gold, and expensive clothes.”
346 After thy text, ne after thy rubriche,
347 I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat.
I won’t conform to this text and set of instructions for one nanosecond.

St Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, writes:

‘I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.’

1 Timothy Chapter 2 verse 9 (of course quoted by Jerome).

Preachers often spoke against clothes that were too ornate, luxurious or revealing, but on the other hand, wives were encouraged to wear clothes that reflected their husband’s social status. Sumptuary laws (laws that limit private expenditure on food and personal items) regulated and restrained spending on women’s dress.

One of the sumptuary laws of 1351 dictated that, for example, only ‘good and noble dames and damsels of the realm’ could wear hoods trimmed with fur. ‘Chaucer’s account of the Wife’s clothing walks the line between mockery and admiration while leaning towards the former.’ (Ruth Mazo Karras Historians on Chaucer: The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales ed Alastair Minnis, Stephen Rigby, OUP, 2014 page 323) There would have been moral implications of the way she dressed. The soft shoes, the excessive weight of her kerchiefs and her huge hat described in the General Prologue suggest that the Wife is extravagant. There’s a hint a little later on that she could sell her ‘bele chose’ (line 447) to make money to spend on clothes. She says

447 For if I wolde selle my bele chose, (beautiful thing – a euphemism)
448 I koude walke as fressh as is a rose.

Meanwhile the Wife pursues her line of argument, lines 348 – 378

348 Thou seydest this, that I was lyk a cat;
You said this, that I was like a cat;
349 For whoso wolde senge a cattes skyn,
For if anyone singes a cat’s fur,
350 Thanne wolde the cat wel dwellen in his in;
then the cat will stay indoors;
351 And if the cattes skyn be slyk and gay,
And if the cat’s fur is sleek and attractive,
352 She wol nat dwelle in house half a day,
she will not stay in the house half a day,
353 But forth she wole, er any day be dawed,
but she’ll be off before daybreak,
354 To shewe hir skyn and goon a-caterwawed.
to show her fur and go yowling off like a cat in heat.

The unflattering comparison of a woman and a cat come from those antifeminist diehards, Matheolus in his Lamentations, and Deschamps in his Miroir de Mariage. Deschamps’s Miroir is an allegorical antifeminist tract. In this unfinished poem of over 12,000 lines, Franc Vouloir (True Heart) ponders whether to marry. While some passages describe the difficulties of matrimony as equally burdensome for both men and women, the overall tone of the work is strongly misogynistic: the narrative includes duplicitous wives, spendthrift mistresses, and interloping mothers-in-law. – See more at:
http://www.enotes.com/topics/eustache-deschamps#sthash.DJXG5gV8.dpuf

355 This is to seye, if I be gay, sire shrewe,
This is to say, if I’m well dressed, sir scoundrel,
356 I wol renne out my borel for to shewe.
I will run out to show off my clothes.
357 Sire olde fool, what helpeth thee to spyen?
You old fool, what use is it for you to spy?
358 Thogh thou preye Argus with his hundred yen Jove, king of the gods, set Argos, his 100 eyed son, to watch over his mistress Io. La Vieille in Romance of the Rose also claims that Argus with all his eyes cannot keep watch over a woman.
Though you beg Argus with his hundred eyes
359 To be my warde-cors, as he kan best,
to be my bodyguard, as he can do it better than anyone else,
360 In feith, he shal nat kepe me but me lest;
In faith, he can’t guard me unless I please;
361 Yet koude I make his berd, so moot I thee!
I could still deceive him, as I hope to prosper!
362 Thou seydest eek that ther been thynges thre,
You also said that there are three things,
363 The whiche thynges troublen al this erthe,
which trouble all this earth,
364 And that no wight may endure the ferthe.
and that no man can bear the fourth.

Proverbs Chapter 30 verses 21 – 3 Wycliffe’s translation

The earth is moved by three things, and by the fourth thing, which it may not
sustain;
by a servant, when he reigneth; by a fool, when he is filled with meat (by a fool,
when he is filled full with food);
by an hateful woman, when she is taken in matrimony; and by an handmaid, when
she is heir of her lady (and by a servantess, when she is her lady’s heir).

Good News Translation

There are four things that the earth itself cannot tolerate:
a slave who becomes a king,
a fool who has all he wants to eat,
a hateful woman who gets married,
and a servant woman who takes the place of her mistress.

365 O leeve sire shrewe, Jhesu shorte thy lyf!
O dear Mr villain, may Jesus shorten your life!
366 Yet prechestow and seyst an hateful wyf
Still you preach and say that a hateful wife
367 Yrekened is for oon of thise meschances.
is reckoned to be one of these misfortunes.
368 Been ther none othere maner resemblances
Are there no other sorts of comparisons
369 That ye may likne youre parables to,
that you can use in your sayings,
370 But if a sely wyf be oon of tho?
must a poor wife be one of them?
371 Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle,
You also compare women’s love to hell,
372 To bareyne lond, ther water may nat dwelle.
to barren land, where water can’t remain.
373 Thou liknest it also to wilde fyr; fire that could not be put out with water
You also compare it to Greek (inextinguishable / wild) fire;
374 The moore it brenneth, the moore it hath desir
The more it burns, the more it wants
375 To consume every thyng that brent wole be.
to consume every thing that will burn.

The basis for lines 371 to 375 is Proverbs, Chapter 30, verses 15 and 16 which read:

Three things be unable to be (ful)filled, and the fourth, that saith never, It
sufficeth (and the fourth, that never saith, It sufficeth);
hell; and the mouth of the womb; and the earth that is never filled with water; but
fire (that) saith never, It sufficeth. (Sheol, or the land of the dead/the grave; and
the mouth of the womb; and the land that is never filled with water; and the fire
that never saith, It sufficeth.) (Wyclif’s translation)

However, St Jerome, quoting this passage in his Letter against Jovinian, substituted ‘a woman’s love’ (is never satisfied) where the Bible reads ‘the mouth of the womb’ (meaning that a childless woman always longs for children).
Here is the modern rendering of this Bible passage, which may seem obscure in Wycliffe’s translation.

There are four things that are never satisfied:
the world of the dead,
a woman without children,
dry ground that needs rain,
and a fire burning out of control. (Good News Translation)

Dr Jacqueline A Tasioulas comments most illuminatingly on this passage in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale in the York Notes Advanced series. She notes that ‘the image of woman as fire first appears early in the prologue, during the discussion of virginity.’ A woman and a man touching are like ‘fyr and tow’ (line 89). The idea of women being like fire was a staple of antifeminist literature. St Isidore of Seville, in his medieval encyclopedia, Etymologiae, expounded his idea that the word ‘female’ comes from the Greek ‘fos’ meaning fire. He writes: ‘Some think she is called ‘female’ from the Greek ‘fos’ meaning ‘burning force’ because of the intensity of her desire. For females are more lustful than males in both humans and animals.’ (The Wife of Bath refutes this idea in her Tale, where it is the knight who rapes a maiden at the beginning of the story.) St Isidore’s ideas follow a trail blazed by St Jerome two centuries earlier: ‘The love of any woman … is always insiatiable. If you attempt to put it out it will only burst into flame again. If you feed the fire it will be soon in need once more. (Epistle against Jovinian I 28).’
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, by J A Tasioulas, York Notes Advanced, York Press 1998, page 64

Hell was the other thing associated with fire in the Middle Ages. In the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, Chapter 19, Hell is described as ‘the lake of fire that burns with sulphur.’ Hence ‘Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle.’ Again, as Dr Tasioulas points out, the Wife of Bath / Chaucer turns this image around in the Tale in the old hag’s lecture where the inextinguishable nature of fire is an image of the impossibility of changing the nature of nobility or ‘gentillesse’.

Taak fyr, and ber it in the derkeste house
Bitwix this and the mount of Kaukasous,
And lat men shette the dores and go thenne;
Yet wole the fyr as faire lie and brenne. (1139 -42)

However, in these lines from the Prologue, the Wife is still busy claiming that, when they were drunk, her old husbands compared a woman’s love to hell, desert and wild fire. Wild fire or Greek fire was used in naval warfare, because it would burn on water, and it continues the idea of the perpetual warfare between men and women which cannot be put out.

376 Thou seyest,right as wormes shende a tree,
You say, just as worms destroy a tree,
377 Right so a wyf destroyeth hire housbonde;
just so a wife destroys her husband;
378 This knowe they that been to wyves bonde.’1
and all those who are bound to wives know this.’

1 bonde can have the meaning confined, as in prison

‘Like a worm in wood, so a (wicked) woman destroys her husband’ says St Jerome, Letter against Jovinian I 28, quoting Proverbs Chapter 12 verse 4: ‘A good wife is her husband’s pride and joy; but a wife who brings shame on her husband is like a cancer in his bones.’ (Good News Translation). Or it may be a reference to Proverbs Chapter 25 verse 20: ‘ Like a moth harmeth a cloak, and a worm harmeth a tree, so a person’s sorrow harmeth his heart.(Wyclif’s translation). Jill Man comments in her Penguin Classics notes on this line, that St Jerome was ‘giving an antifeminist form to’ this quotation from Proverbs. To us, the ‘worm’ probably sounds like a caterpillar or maybe a beetle, as in Dutch Elm Disease. But to the medieval mind, a worm also signified a snake, so to read of a worm destroying a tree just as a wife destroys her husband would have taken you straight to Eve, tempted by the serpent (the Devil) to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis Chapter 2) and destroying her husband with the fruit from it. We are straight back to Tertullian: ‘Do you not know that you (a woman) are Eve? … You are the gateway of the devil.’

In medieval paintings, the serpent (worm), who was in fact the devil in the story in Genesis, often had the head of a woman, as in these painting.

fot1

fot9

Adam and Eve and snake with a woman’s head. Book of hours, Bruges or Ghent 15th century Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 287, fol. 46r

The three old husbands, lines 379-451

Section 2 continued

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, The three old husbands, lines 379 – 451

At last the Wife has ended her lengthy tirade, which began over 100 lines earlier, ‘Now herkneth hou I baar me proprely,’ (line 224) ‘Listen to the brilliant way I handled my husbands.’ I call it a tirade because not only does she claim that these are the ways she manages to dominate her husbands, she has also appropriated much antifeminist material and put it into the unfortunate husbands’ mouths. So it is really a tirade against the ‘auctoritees.’

Shamelessly she boasts that, although she accused the old husbands of doing and saying all these dreadful things, none of it was true. But to make the whole denunciation watertight, she has arranged that Janekyn and her niece should endorse her claims against the old men.

The Wife takes pride in her power over her husbands and what she has put them through, lines 379 – 392

379 Lordynges, right thus, as ye have understonde,
Gentlemen, just so, as you have heard,
380 Baar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde assert or accuse (MED) stifly – vehemently, hotly (MED)
I firmly swore to my old husbands
381 That thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse;
that this is what they said (to me) when they were drunk;
382 And al was fals, but that I took witnesse
And none of it was true, but I called on
383 On Janekyn, and on my nece also.
on Janekin, and also on my niece as witnesses.
384 O Lord! The peyne I dide hem and the wo,
O Lord! The pain and misery I put them through,
385 Ful giltelees, by Goddes sweete pyne!1
386 For as an hors I koude byte and whyne.
For I could bite and whinny like a horse.
387 I koude pleyne, and yit was in the gilt,
I could complain, and yet I was in the wrong,
388 Or elles often tyme hadde I been spilt.
or else / otherwise on many occasions I would have been ruined.
389 Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt;
Whoever gets to the mill first, grinds the corn first;
390 I pleyned first, so was oure werre ystynt.
I complained first, and so our war was ended.
391 They were ful glade to excuse hem blyve
They were very glad to excuse themselves quickly
392 Of thyng of which they nevere agilte hir lyve.
of things they were never guilty of doing in their lives.

1 although they were entirely guiltless, I swear by God’s sweet suffering on the cross!

‘Thou sayst ….’; Theophrastus, quoted approvingly by St Jerome, provides much of what the Wife of Bath puts into the mouths of her unfortunate husbands, alleging that they attacked her with these words when they were drunk. In his Liber aureolus de nuptiis or Golden Book of Marriage, Theophrastus delivers a tirade against women. But by the time the Wife of Bath accuses her husbands of having insulted her grievously when they were drunk, ‘They were ful glad to excusen them ful blive / Of things of which they never a-guilt their lives.’ So that ‘At th’end I had the better in each degree, / By sleight or force or by some maner thing.’ In other words, the Wife of Bath accuses her husbands of having the usual misogynistic view of women and since they are powerless to defend themselves – apparently they said all this when they were drunk ‘in vino veritas’ – they have to apologise and excuse themselves. As she says, they’d never done any of these things in their lives, it was Theophrastus who wrote all these things against women in the first place and St Jerome and other ‘auctoritees’ who endorsed him. So she has all the fun of deceiving her husbands, hurling insults at them such as ‘olde barel-ful of lies’, ‘olde dotard’, ‘O leve sir shrewe’ and other choice epithets, and finally getting the upper hand over them. They are forced to apologise not for what they have done but for the insults of the misogynistic ‘auctoritees’ over the last thousand years.

The Wife seems to be proud of her ability to convince her husbands that they have insulted her. In fact, she has insulted them, both by claiming that they have spoken to her in this way when they were drunk, and also in the names she calls them: ‘lorel’, ‘olde barel-ful of lies’ (l 302), ‘olde dotard’, ‘O leve sire shrewe’ (355).

She also boasts that the old men were innocent but she still managed to persuade them
that they were guilty of insulting her. ‘And al was fals,’ she brags, for they were ‘Ful giltelees,’ and a little later she makes them believe they have done ‘thyng of which they nevere agilte hir lyve.’ These boasts are supported by the rhyme: ‘excuse hem blyve’ / ‘they nevere agilte hir lyve.’ The supposed ‘dronkenesse’ of the old husbands is attested to by Janekyn and the niece’s false ‘witnesse’. And the Wife shamelessly admits that it was she, not her husbands, who was ‘in the gilt’.

The proverbs and comparisons that the Wife uses as she tells this part of her story help to ground it in the domestic everyday sphere as part of her ‘experience’ which she sets against the theoretical treatises of ‘auctoritee’. She says she could bite and whinny like a horse (surely not a very admirable comparison? But she seems to have in mind her power to inflict pain, like a strong domestic animal that cannot well be controlled.). Medieval listeners well versed in the psalms may have remembered an uncomplimentary reference to horses’ stupidity in Psalm 32 (see end of this section). The Wife is proud of her tactics: she gets her complaint in before the husbands have time to complain about her, because first come, first served. Or, as the Wife puts it, Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt.’ The Wife’s sayings are often very practical, as this one is. After all, it was the Pardoner who asked her to ‘… teche us yonge men of your praktike,’ and these sayings seem to be a part of her praktike.

Both proverbs, although they seem quite straightforward, have sexual connotations – and, as it’s the Wife who uses them, this comes as no surprise. Sanders’ article on the subject of grinding and mills has become a classic. He writes: ‘The term grind … carried the meaning ‘copulation.’ (in Slang and its Analogues: Past and Present (London, 1890). Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (London, 1961) … indicates that mill and grindstone, when used sexually, referred to the pudendum and the penis, respectively. … Chaucer is helpful, for the beginning of line 390, ‘I pleyned first’ may be a pun on the word pley(e)n, which meant both to complain and to play. The pun on pleyned is the same as that on daliance (l 565) for both meant sexual indulgence.’
(CB: The Oxford English Dictionary gives ‘to have sexual intercourse’ as one of the meanings of pleyen and ‘wanton toying’ as the meaning of daliaunce.)
Barry Sanders, Barry Sanders ‘Further Puns from the Prologue and the Tale of the Wife of Bath.’ Published in Papers on Language and Literature 4 (1968) pp 192-195; Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Two centuries later, the same sort of usage was still current: [1598 J. Florio Worlde of Wordes, Macinio, the grinding or greest. Also taken for carnall copulation.]

When the Wife says that she could bite and whinny like a horse, there are various possible associations with a horse that may be relevant. A female horse was apparently despised: the Roman writer, Aelian, records in his book On the Nature of Animals that mares were extremely lustful. However, the biting and whinnying that the Wife goes in for may have more to do with what Beryl Rowland describes in her book, Animals with Human Faces. ‘Uncontollable steeds, …were used to illustrate the vigorous conflict between the virtues and vices in Prudentius’ Psychomachia, the early fifth-century epic which was one of the most popular didactic works of the Middle Ages. Here the steeds were mounted by Pride and Lust, and they threw their riders headlong.’
Animals with Human Faces, Beryl Rowland, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, page109

There’s a noticeable repetition of words in this section. First, ‘pleyne’ in ‘I could pleyne’ and then ‘I pleyned first’. So far as the Wife is concerned, it’s a question of making sure she complains to the old husbands before they have time to complain of her behaviour. ‘I pleyned first, so was oure werre ystynt.’ As she says, it’s all-out war, and she is going to be the victor. Besides, if she hadn’t complained first, she might have been found out: ‘Or elles often tyme hadde I been spilt.’ ‘Spilt’ here means ruined, but in warfare it means killed. The Wife is above all a survivor. She describes her marriages as ‘oure werre’, so the words ‘spilt’ and ‘werre’ imply that she’s playing a dangerous game, but she carries all before her.

Look at the number of times the words ‘I’ and ‘my’ occur in this extract! She is surviving and winning the war of her relationship with her husbands, making sure she is in control. As so often with the Wife, there are lots of verbs reflecting her boundless energy. ‘Baar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde’; ‘I took witnesse’; ‘The peyne I dide hem and the wo’; ‘I koude byte and whyne’; ‘I koude pleyne’; ‘first to mille comth, first grynt’; ‘I pleyned first’. Possibly the expression baar on honde, meaning to accuse the husbands or assert that they have done something, adds to the impression that the Wife has her husbands firmly in hand, under her control.

Lordynges, right thus ….
380 Baar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde 1
381 That thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse;
382 And al was fals,

1 assert or accuse (MED) (see line 211) vehemently, hotly (MED)

Almost 200 lines earlier, the Wife told us that ‘I hadde hem (her old husbands) hoolly in myn hond’, (line 211). So the expression ‘baar I … on honde,’ fits nicely into that motif of control. And it also supports her assertion that she uses deceit as one of her chief controlling tactics. She uses the same expression a few lines later when she accuses the old husbands of going wenching in order to disguise the fact that actually it is she who is out and about at night:

Of wenches wolde I beren hem on honde (line 393).

Another set of repeated words in this passage involves ‘peyne’/’pyne’ in, ‘O Lord! The peyne I dide hem and the wo,’ immediately followed by Ful giltelees, by Goddes sweete pyne!’ Peyne means agonising suffering, and it refers to Jesus’s suffering on the cross. It seems that the Wife is simply using the expressions ‘O Lord’ and ‘by Goddes sweete pyne,’ as meaningless fillers – as people would nowadays say, ‘I was … like …’. But she is on a pilgrimage, and in this devotional context her words have all too much meaning. Even though she does not think of it, she is referring to Jesus’s suffering. Jesus is the innocent, the lamb of God, suffering to redeem us all from our guilt and sin. So when the Wife says ‘I …. was in the gilt,’ she draws attention to herself as the sinner in a Christian sense. This puts her boasting about what she managed to pull off despite her husbands’ innocence in quite a different context, a Christian and moral context. Later, when she describes her courtship of husband number five during Lent when husband number four was away in London, a similar context comes into play. Lent is the time for penitence and devotion in the weeks before Easter, but the Wife devotes it to ensuring that she has another (sexy young) husband up her sleeve if number four should die.

However, the moral implications of her behaviour seem to pass the Wife by. When she says, ‘O Lord! The peyne I dide hem and the wo,’ she’s just laughing at what a hard time she gave the old husbands. As she said earlier, with a similarly meaningless call to God, ‘As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke / How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! … /And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor.’ (lines 201-203) Another detail that underlines the Wife’s lack of spiritual awareness is the rhyme of ‘Goddes sweete pyne’ with the Wife biting and whinnying at her husbands like a horse: ‘I koude byte and whyne.’ We move abruptly from Jesus’s agony on the cross to the Wife / a horse biting and whinnying to ensure that she / it gets its own way.

If you take a very serious view of the Wife of Bath, then she probably seems to embody a vice figure, since she commits most of the seven deadly sins, and is proud of doing so. The Parson’s Tale, which is the last tale before the pilgrims reach Canterbury, the heavenly Jerusalem, is a treatise on penitence. First it discusses penitence, then it moves to confession, and then gives a detailed description of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath, sloth, avarice, gluttony and lust. The Wife may not understand her lack of spiritual awareness, but Chaucer does.

In his book Venus’ owne Clerk, Rodopi, 2007, B W Lindeboom goes into great detail on the seven deadly sins as evidenced in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. He refers to the Parson’s definitions of these sins, and then looks at what the Wife does. This section of the Prologue shows the Wife to be guilty of the sin of Envy, ‘hardnesse of herte in wikkednesse.’ This includes backbiting, distorting the truth, grucchyng or murmuracion – and as the Wife herself cheerfully says ‘Atte end I hadd the bettre in ech degree … As by continueel murmur or grucchyng.’ (404-6) The Wife is also guilty of the sin of Anger. She describes her relationship with the three old husbands as ‘oure werre.’ Swearing is another manifestation of anger and the Wife swears quite a lot. Avarice – the Wife gets her old husbands to give her ‘hir lond and hir tresoor’. Dominating others, ‘thraldom,’ comes under avarice, and certainly the Wife wants to ensure that her husband is her ‘thral’. The fact that she is on a pilgrimage and so should be more aware of spiritual matters highlights how oblivious she is to all things spiritual.

The Wife continues to deceive her husbands, lines 393 – 402

393 Of wenches wolde I beren hem on honde,
I would accuse them of going after wenches
394 Whan that for syk unnethes myghte they stonde.
when they were so sick they could hardly stand.
395 Yet tikled I his herte, for that he
Yet I pleased (my husband), for he
396 Wende that I hadde of hym so greet chiertee!
believed that I showed such fondness for him!
397 I swoor that al my walkynge out by nyghte
I swore that all my walking out by night
398 Was for t’ espye wenches that he dighte;
was to spy on women he was sleeping with;
399 Under that colour hadde I many a myrthe.
Using that story I had a great time.
400 For al swich wit is yeven us in oure byrthe;
For all such quick thinking is given us at our birth;
401 Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive
God has given women deceit, weeping and spinning as part of their nature during their lives.
402 To wommen kyndely, whil that they may lyve.

The Wife doesn’t take any responsibility for behaving in such a deceitful way, asserting that God has given various attributes to women and deceit is one of them. The Wife is translating a Latin proverb when she says she can’t help being deceitful: ‘Fallere, flere, nere / Statuit deus in muliere’ (Lying and weeping God gave unto woman) and it’s entered in a number of the manuscripts as a marginal gloss. Although the Wife seems cheerful in dismissing any fault on her part, blaming God for your faults was an example of the deadly sin of anger. As usual, the Wife thinks the whole thing is a good laugh: ‘Under that colour hadde I many a myrthe.’

(Later in her Prologue the Wife says that she can’t help being lustful, although this time her stars, not God, get blamed. She doesn’t seem to take any responsibility for her actions.

For certes, I am al Venerien
In felinge, and myn herte is Marcien.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardinesse.
Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars ther-inne. lines 610-14)

The Wife gets the better of her husbands, and makes them pay to sleep with her, lines 403 – 422

403 And thus of o thyng I avaunte me:
And I can boast about one thing:
404 Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree,
in the end I got the better of them in every way,
405 By sleighte, or force, or by som maner thyng,
by trickery, or force, or by some such thing,
406 As by continueel murmur or grucchyng.
such as by continual grumbling or grouching.
407 Namely abedde hadden they meschaunce:
They had particularly bad luck in bed:
408 Ther wolde I chide and do hem no plesaunce;
Where would I scold and give them no pleasure;
409 I wolde no lenger in the bed abyde,
I wouldn’t stay in our bed any longer
410 If that I felte his arm over my syde,
if I felt my husband’s arm over my side,
411 Til he had maad his raunson unto me;
until he had paid me money;
412 Thanne wolde I suffre hym do his nycetee.1

1 Satisfy his lust. Nycetee also means foolish/stupid so maybe the Wife is mocking her husbands’ inability to do much in bed.

Then would I allow him to have his silly way.
413 And therfore every man this tale I telle,
And therefore I tell everyone this,
414 Wynne whoso may, for al is for to selle;
whoever can do so should make a profit, for everything is for sale;
415 With empty hand men may none haukes lure.
You cannot entice hawks with an empty hand.
416 For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure,
I would endure all his lust for profit,
417 And make me a feyned appetit;
and pretend to enjoy it;
418 And yet in bacon hadde I nevere delit.
And yet I never took any delight in bacon (old meat).
419 That made me that evere I wolde hem chide,
That’s what made me scold them all the time,
420 For thogh the pope hadde seten hem biside,
for even if the pope had sat beside them,
421 I wolde nat spare hem at hir owene bord,
I would not spare them at their own table,
422 For, by my trouthe, I quitte hem word for word.
for, I promise you, I paid them back word for word.

‘Bacon’ probably means the old husbands, although it could mean that she had no desire for a happy marriage of the kind that would win the flitch of bacon in Dunmow. She is more interested in money than in a happy marriage: ‘For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure.’ Besides, she regards the old husbands’ efforts in bed as ‘nycetee’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the specific meaning ‘satisfy his lust’ citing this example. Nicety can also mean a foolish action, which is a disparaging comment on the husbands’ sexual ability.

Various aspects of this passage stand out. The relationship between the Wife and her husbands is primarily described in terms of conflict which is resolved in her mastering of them, as usual. The Wife obviously complains and nags at the husbands non-stop: ‘continueel murmur or grucchyng’; ‘Ther wolde I chide’; ‘evere I wolde hem chide’; ‘I quitte hem word for word’. And, as usual, she is the centre of it all, controlling and dominating events. ‘I avaunte me’: ‘I hadde the bettre’; ‘Ther wolde I chide and do hem no plesaunce’; ‘I wolde no lenger in the bed abyde’, ‘I suffre hym’; ‘I wolde nat spare hem at hir owene bord, / For, by my trouthe, I quitte hem word for word.’

Another conspicuous aspect of this passage is the Wife’s reduction of her relationship with her husbands to an opportunity for making money: she forces each old man to make ‘his raunson unto me’, summing up her modus vivendi as, ‘Wynne whoso may, for al is for to selle.’ Juliette Dor comments that ‘the issues of buying and selling … debt, ransom, sell, payment, debtor, merchandise, recur constantly…’.
‘The Wife of Bath’s Wandrynge by the Weye and Conduct Literature for Women,’ Juliette Dor, from Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, edited by Wendy Harding, Presse Universitaires du Mirail, 2003, page 150

Marriage is war, and the Wife wins it, lines 423 – 442

The Wife boasts of her quick wit in dominating her husbands in the warfare that, for her, constitutes marriage. Even if her husband looked like the king of beasts, a furious lion, she could reduce him to the status of a baby or a sheep.

423 As helpe me verray God omnipotent,
So help me, true and almighty God,
424 Though I right now sholde make my testament,
even if I were to make my will right now,
425 I ne owe hem nat a word that it nys quit.
I don’t owe them one word that I haven’t paid back.
426 I broghte it so aboute by my wit
I managed it by my wit
427 That they moste yeve it up, as for the beste,
that they had to give up, as the best thing to do,
428 Or elles hadde we nevere been in reste;
Or else we would never have been at peace;
429 For thogh he looked as a wood leon,
For even though he (my husband) looked like a raging lion,
430 Yet sholde he faille of his conclusion.
Yet he would fail to gain / win his point.
431 Thanne wolde I seye, `Goode lief, taak keep
Then I would say, `Sweetheart, see
432 How mekely looketh Wilkyn, oure sheep!
how meek Willy, our sheep, looks!
433 Com neer, my spouse, lat me ba thy cheke!
Come near, my hubby, let me kiss your cheek!
434 Ye sholde been al pacient and meke,
You should be all patient and meek,
435 And han a sweete spiced conscience,
and have a scrupulous conscience,
436 Sith ye so preche of Jobes pacience.
since you preach so well about Job’s patience.

It’s again noticeable that the Wife makes reference to God and the Bible in a very unspiritual way. She swears by God that she always had the last, defining word in any argument with her husbands. So she is breaking the third commandment, do not take the name of the Lord God in vain. She is simply using God’s name as a means to exaggerate – I promise you, I paid my husbands back every time. ‘I ne owe hem nat a word that it nys quit.’ All the alliterating negatives help the emphasis: ‘ne’, ‘nat’, nys’. The husbands had to admit total defeat at her hands: ‘they moste yeve it up.’

Then the Wife forces her husbands to submit to baby-talk, which is another way of dominating them – treating them like helpless babies.

Goode lief, taak keep

432 How mekely looketh Wilkyn, oure sheep!
433 Com neer, my spouse, lat me ba thy cheke!

‘Goode lief’, ‘My dear, my pet,’ she says and tells him to take notice ‘taak keep’ of the fact that he’s now looking meek and not like a furious lion. Wilkyn is a pet name for William. It could be that she’s asking the husband to be as meek as Will, the sheep, but it’s equally likely that she’s telling him he’s looking meek as a sheep, and calling him by a demeaning baby-name. She uses the baby-word for kiss, ‘ba’, when she beckons him to her for a kiss. Even when she’s treating her husband like an infant, she’s giving him orders: ‘taak keep’; ‘com neer’; ‘let me’.

The next tactic is twisting the example of the proverbial patience of Job, in the Old Testament. Job’s patient enduring of his sufferings was a byword. Women were considered to be characteristically angry and patience was a remedy against anger. The Parson, in his tale, says: ‘The remedye agains ire (anger) is a vertu that men clepen (call) mansuetude, that is debonairetee (gentleness), and eek (also) another vertu that men callen pacience or suffraunce.’ (654) However, far from considering Job as an ideal to emulate, and repenting of her angry dominating ways, the Wife simply twists the story of Job’s patience in order to dominate her husbands further. Since they tell her about Job’s patient endurance of his sufferings and since they, as men, are more reasonable than women, they will be better able to endure suffering patiently than she will. Therefore, she reasons: ‘Ye sholde been al pacient and meke.’ As Juliette Dor points out, ‘Cleverly enough, she twists the significance of Job’s celebrated patience in order to trap them (the husbands) into submissiveness, a trait that was recommended to women exclusively.’
‘The Wife of Bath’s Wandrynge by the Weye and Conduct Literature for Women,’ Juliette Dor, from Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, edited by Wendy Harding, Presse Universitaires du Mirail, 2003, page 150

The Wife threatens her husbands with the promise that, unless they give way and endure patiently, they will certainly find out what it’s like not to live peacefully with her. As she points out, either she or they must give way, and they are self-evidently the better candidates for enduring patiently and giving way since they are men, and more reasonable than women. So a story that has always been understood as an ideal of patience that men and women must aim for, suddenly finds itself appropriated for the purpose of the Wife’s domination of her husbands.

437 Suffreth alwey, syn ye so wel kan preche;
You should always endure patiently, especially since you know how well to preach about patience.
438 And but ye do, certein we shal yow teche
And unless you do, certainly we shall teach you
439 That it is fair to have a wyf in pees.
That it is a fine thing to live in peace with your wife.
440 Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees,
Obviously one of the two of us must give way
441 And sith a man is moore resonable
And since men are more reasonable
442 Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable.
than women, you must endure suffering patiently.

Helen Cooper comments, on these last three lines: ‘Her syllogisms make up in determination what they lack in logic.’ Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales OUP 1989 p 155. A syllogism is a persuasive but fallacious way of arguing, that goes from a major premise and a minor premise and then heads to a conclusion. Premise one: one of us has to give way; premise two: men are more reasonable than women (a pronouncement beloved of a patriarchal society); therefore, conclusion, you have to give way. This conclusion gains added emotional potency from being based on the lines that precede it. You, a man, know how to preach about patience; you know that it’s much nicer to live peacefully with your wife; therefore, as one of us has to give way, you are the way to demonstrate patient endurance. Hamlet would have called it being hoist with your own petard.

The Wife teases her husbands for wanting to have sex with her, lines 443 – 451

The Wife is still talking, talking, talking. Now she is teasing her husbands about wanting to have sex with her – you can hardly call it making love when she keeps flaunting her ‘queynte’ and her ‘bele chose’ in their faces.

443 What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?
What’s the matter with you? why do you grumble and groan so much?
444 Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?
Is it because you want to have my you-know-what all to yourself?
445 Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel!
Why, take it all, then, have every bit of it!
446 Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel;
By Saint Peter! I would curse you, if you did not love it well;
447 For if I wolde selle my bele chose,
Now, if I sold my `pretty thing,’
448 I koude walke as fressh as is a rose;
I could walk out as fresh as a rose (in new clothes that I could buy with the money);
449 But I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth.
But I will keep it for your own appetite.
450 Ye be to blame, by God! I sey yow sooth.’
What a terrible man you are!’
451 Swiche manere wordes hadde we on honde.
Those are the sorts of conversations we had.

Again, the Chaucer rhymes the important words. The Wife is telling the elderly husbands what rascals they are (flattering them) for wanting sex all the time. So ‘grone’ is rhymed with ‘queynte allone’ (all to yourself), ‘every deel’ is rhymed with ‘ye love it weel.’ And she refers to the article in question as something for her husbands’ ‘tooth’, that’s to say, appetite. She flaunts her ‘queynte’ in terms of a commodity that the husbands want to consume.

She puts questions in the husbands’ mouths and answers them, and they still haven’t had a chance to say a word.

What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?

444 Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?
445 Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel!

She follows this roguish teasing with a veiled threat that she could sell herself: ‘if I wolde selle my bele chose.’ This threat is another form of domination. The thing is, she does sell herself: to her old husbands. Perhaps they are bemused with all the talk by now, and haven’t followed the twists and turns of her arguments.

Monstrous though this insatiable appetite for domination may seem – and assuredly did seem to the late fourteenth-century man – you have to remember that this was a rigidly, even cruelly, patriarchal society. Woman was subject to man in a way that seems shocking to us now. The Wife is turning the tables on men by assuming ‘maistrye’ herself and telling other wives how to follow in her footsteps. It’s also very funny (or, if you take it the other way, appallingly addicted to vice) that the Wife should be instructing other wives in her ways. There were plenty of contemporary conduct books directed at women: The Book of the Knight of La Tour-Landry; The Ménagier de Paris (the Goodman of Paris) who wrote a book for the instruction of his young wife … are two of the most well-known. But, characteristically, the Wife steps into the shoes of the men intent on controlling their womenfolk, and turns the whole situation upside down.

The Wife of Bath’s trademark seems to be to do to men what men in a very patriarchal society have done to women down the ages. Men have ‘glosed’ or interpreted texts in ways that suited them, picking and choosing to endorse their point. The Wife does the same thing back at them in her quotations from the Bible, quoting extremely selectively and distorting the original. Here, she puts into her innocent husbands’ mouths the misogynistic observations of the auctoritees, making her husbands apologise for these words to her.


Read more

Associations with mills and millstones

Possible associations with mills and millstones, as in ‘Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt’.
Notes from Deuteronomy: a Commentary by Jack R Lundbom from the Chapter on Deuteronomy Chapter 24 publ Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Co 2013
Prov. xxvii. 22. or in a mill
The writer describes the ‘hand-mill … upper millstone’ a pair of stones that made up a smaller type of mill found in … (most) households. One term for the upper millstone (as in Judges 9.53) is the ‘rider stone’ since it ‘rides’ on the lower millstone. … One of the common mills of antiquity was the ‘saddle-quern’ which consisted of a large slightly concave lower stone, … used together with a smaller loaf-shaped upper stone. (look up saddle-quern found at Megiddo)
There is a rotary quern described as ‘two stones … which lie in contact; the face of the nether stone has often a raised collar inside of which the upper stone fits.’ Then the whole thing is rotated in half circles, backwards and forwards.’

Sex and Death on the Threshing Floor posted on June 19, 2012 by Alastair Roberts who has allowed me to reproduce extracts from his post.

‘A friend asked me yesterday about the significant of the threshing floor in Scripture. I briefly sketched a response to his enquiry, but thought that it would be good to fill out this response in the following post. Perhaps some of my readers will be interested in the subject.
‘Much of the following is highly speculative, and should be taken on board only with considerable caution. In most of the respects that matter, interpreting Scripture is more of an art than a science, so we will need to develop and depend upon an instinct for the text, in communion with the Church’s tradition of engagement, rather than upon some sure technique or method, to settle upon appropriate readings.

‘Sex on the Threshing Floor

The threshing floor was a place associated with sexual congress, both licit and illicit. In Hosea 9:1, YHWH (the Lord God) declares: ‘Do not rejoice, O Israel, with joy like other peoples, For you have played the harlot against your God. You have made love for hire on every threshing floor.’
‘The reduction of the grain obtained through the threshing process to floor was also associated with sexual imagery. There were two millstones, one on top of another. While the lower of the two stones was especially associated with women and the upper especially associated with men … both upper and lower millstones were connected with women, as the act of grinding the mill was primarily the task of women.
‘In Job 31:10 we read, ‘Then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down over her.’ The woman here seems to be symbolically identified with the lower millstone. The point of the verse is not, as some (perhaps more delicate) translations and interpreters would have it, that Job’s wife should become the slave of another man, but that she should be sexually subject to him, as the lower millstone ‘grinds’ beneath the upper millstone.

http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/sex-and-death-on-the-threshing-floor/ Alastair Roberts

‘As an horse I koude byte and whyne.’

‘As an horse I koude byte and whyne.’ If you read Psalm 32, you find that a horse was known not only for its stupidity but, more importantly in the case of the Wife, it was hard to make a horse submit.
‘The Lord says, “I will teach you the way you should go;

I will instruct you and advise you.

9 Don’t be stupid like a horse or a mule,
which must be controlled with a bit and bridle
to make it submit.” ‘(Good News Translation)

In the Wyclif Bible, this reads: 8 I shall give understanding to thee, and I shall teach thee; in this way in which thou shalt go, I shall make steadfast mine eyes on thee. (And the Lord said, I shall give understanding to thee, and I shall teach thee the way in which thou should go; and I shall put my eyes steadfastly upon thee.)
9 Do not ye be made as an horse and mule; to which is none understanding. Lord, constrain thou the cheeks of them with a barnacle and bridle; that (they) nigh not to thee. (Do not ye be made like a horse or a mule; which have no understanding, or reasoning ability. Their mouths must be constrained with a bit and a bridle; so that they finally submit to where they should go.) (Wyclif Bible)

Extracts from writings mentioned in this section of the commentary

The Goodman of Paris: an example of how an elderly husband wished his young wife to behave. The Goodman of Paris was about 60 and married a young woman of 15. He wrote this book between 1392-94 for her instruction.

‘… you shall be humble and obedient towards him that shall be your husband, the which article containeth in itself four particulars. The first particular saith that you shall be obedient to wit to him and to his commandments whatsoe’er they be, whether they be made in earnest or in jest, or whether they be orders to do strange things, or whether they be made concerning matters of small import or of great; for all things should be of great import to you, since he that shall be your husband hath bidden you to do them. The second part or particular is to understand that if you have some business to perform concerning which you have not spoken to him that shall be your husband, nor hath he bethought him concerning it, wherefore hath he nothing ordered nor forbidden, if the business be urgent and it behoves to perform it before he that shall be your husband knoweth it, and if you be moved to do after one fashion and you feel that he that shall be your husband would be pleased to do after another fashion, do you act according to the pleasure of your husband that shall be, rather than according to your own, for his pleasure should come before yours. The third particular is to understand that if he that shall be your husband shall forbid you to do anything, whether he forbid you in jest or in earnest or whether it be concerning small matters or great, you must watch that you do not in any manner that which he has forbidden. The fourth particular is that you be not arrogant and that you answer not back your husband that shall be, nor his words, nor contradict what he saith, above all before other people. Taking the first of the four particulars, which biddeth you to be humble and obedient to your husband, the Scripture bids it, Ad Ephesios v�, where it is said: Mulieres viris suis subdite sint sicut domino, quoniam vir caput est mulieris, sicut Christus caput est Ecclesie. That is to say, it is the command of God that wives be subject to their husbands as their lords, for the husband is the head of the wife, even as our Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. Thus it followeth that even as the Church is subject and obedient to the commandments, great and small, of Jesus Christ as to her head, even so wives ought to be subject to their husbands as to their head and obey them and all their commandments great and small. And so did Our Lord command, as saint Jerome saith, and likewise the Decretal, XXXIIIa Questione, quinto capitulo: Cum caput. Wherefore the apostle writing unto the Hebrews saith in the XIIIth chapter: Obedite prepositis vestris et subjacete eis etc. That is to say, obey them that have rule over you and submit yourselves. Again it is plainly shown unto you that it is our Lord’s word, for that it is said in the beginning that woman ought to be in subjection to man. For it is said that when at the beginning of the world Adam was made, our Lord spake these words and said: Let us make him an help meet for him. And then from Adam’s rib he made woman as help and subject, and so it useth to be, and it is reason.

The Goodman of Paris Eds. G. G. Coulton and Eileen Power. Trans. Eileen Power.
London: George Routledge & Sons, 1928.
copied from
http://mw.mcmaster.ca/scriptorium/section4.html

Lee Patterson quotes from this same translation: ‘in all matters, in all terms, in all places and in all seasons, you shall do and accomplish without argument all my commandments whatsoever.’

Extracts from St Jerome’s Letter Against Jovinian
Letter Against Jovinian, I 47
(copied from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm)

47. I feel that in giving this list of women I have said far more than is customary in illustrating a point, and that I might be justly censured by my learned reader. But what am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat from morning to night the precepts which allow a second marriage? Seeing they despise the fidelity which Christian purity dictates, let them at least learn chastity from the heathen. A book On Marriage, worth its weight in gold, passes under the name of Theophrastus. In it the author asks whether a wise man marries. And after laying down the conditions— that the wife must be fair, of good character, and honest parentage, the husband in good health and of ample means, and after saying that under these circumstances a wise man sometimes enters the state of matrimony, he immediately proceeds thus: “But all these conditions are seldom satisfied in marriage. A wise man therefore must not take a wife. For in the first place his study of philosophy will be hindered, and it is impossible for anyone to attend to his books and his wife. Matrons want many things, costly dresses, gold, jewels, great outlay, maid-servants, all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches. Then come curtain-lectures the livelong night: she complains that one lady goes out better dressed than she: that another is looked up to by all: ‘I am a poor despised nobody at the ladies’ assemblies.’ ‘Why did you ogle that creature next door?’ ‘Why were you talking to the maid?’ ‘What did you bring from the market?’ ‘I am not allowed to have a single friend, or companion.’ She suspects that her husband’s love goes the same way as her hate. There may be in some neighbouring city the wisest of teachers; but if we have a wife we can neither leave her behind, nor take the burden with us. To support a poor wife, is hard: to put up with a rich one, is torture. Notice, too, that in the case of a wife you cannot pick and choose: you must take her as you find her. If she has a bad temper, or is a fool, if she has a blemish, or is proud, or has bad breath, whatever her fault may be— all this we learn after marriage. Horses, asses, cattle, even slaves of the smallest worth, clothes, kettles, wooden seats, cups, and earthenware pitchers, are first tried and then bought: a wife is the only thing that is not shown before she is married, for fear she may not give satisfaction. Our gaze must always be directed to her face, and we must always praise her beauty: if you look at another woman, she thinks that she is out of favour. She must be called my lady, her birth-day must be kept, we must swear by her health and wish that she may survive us, respect must be paid to the nurse, to the nursemaid, to the father’s slave, to the foster-child, to the handsome hanger-on, to the curled darling who manages her affairs, and to the eunuch who ministers to the safe indulgence of her lust: names which are only a cloak for adultery. Upon whomsoever she sets her heart, they must have her love though they want her not. If you give her the management of the whole house, you must yourself be her slave. If you reserve something for yourself, she will not think you are loyal to her; but she will turn to strife and hatred, and unless you quickly take care, she will have the poison ready. If you introduce old women, and soothsayers, and prophets, and vendors of jewels and silken clothing, you imperil her chastity; if you shut the door upon them, she is injured and fancies you suspect her. But what is the good of even a careful guardian, when an unchaste wife cannot be watched, and a chaste one ought not to be? For necessity is but a faithless keeper of chastity, and she alone really deserves to be called pure, who is free to sin if she chooses. If a woman be fair, she soon finds lovers; if she be ugly, it is easy to be wanton. It is difficult to guard what many long for. It is annoying to have what no one thinks worth possessing. But the misery of having an ugly wife is less than that of watching a comely one. Nothing is safe, for which a whole people sighs and longs. One man entices with his figure, another with his brains, another with his wit, another with his open hand. Somehow, or sometime, the fortress is captured which is attacked on all sides. Men marry, indeed, so as to get a manager for the house, to solace weariness, to banish solitude; but a faithful slave is a far better manager, more submissive to the master, more observant of his ways, than a wife who thinks she proves herself mistress if she acts in opposition to her husband, that is, if she does what pleases her, not what she is commanded. But friends, and servants who are under the obligation of benefits received, are better able to wait upon us in sickness than a wife who makes us responsible for her tears (she will sell you enough to make a deluge for the hope of a legacy), boasts of her anxiety, but drives her sick husband to the distraction of despair. But if she herself is poorly, we must fall sick with her and never leave her bedside. Or if she be a good and agreeable wife (how rare a bird she is!), we have to share her groans in childbirth, and suffer torture when she is in danger. A wise man can never be alone. He has with him the good men of all time, and turns his mind freely wherever he chooses. What is inaccessible to him in person he can embrace in thought. And, if men are scarce, he converses with God. He is never less alone than when alone. Then again, to marry for the sake of children, so that our name may not perish, or that we may have support in old age, and leave our property without dispute, is the height of stupidity. For what is it to us when we are leaving the world if another bears our name, when even a son does not all at once take his father’s title, and there are countless others who are called by the same name. Or what support in old age is he whom you bring up, and who may die before you, or turn out a reprobate? Or at all events when he reaches mature age, you may seem to him long in dying. Friends and relatives whom you can judiciously love are better and safer heirs than those whom you must make your heirs whether you like it or not. Indeed, the surest way of having a good heir is to ruin your fortune in a good cause while you live, not to leave the fruit of your labour to be used you know not how.”
From The Principal Works of St. Jerome, tr. W.H. Fremantle, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, Vol. VI. New York, 1893. (paragraphing and chapter titles supplied) [Hilles 281.7.VI]

Letter against Jovinian I. 48
(copied from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm)

48. When Theophrastus thus discourses, are there any of us, Christians, whose conversation is in heaven and who daily say Philippians 1:23 “I long to be dissolved, and to be with Christ,” whom he does not put to the blush? Shall a joint-heir of Christ really long for human heirs? And shall he desire children and delight himself in a long line of descendants, who will perhaps fall into the clutches of Antichrist, when we read that Moses and Samuel preferred other men to their own sons, and did not count as their children those whom they saw to be displeasing to God? When Cicero after divorcing Terentia was requested by Hirtius to marry his sister, he set the matter altogether on one side, and said that he could not possibly devote himself to a wife and to philosophy. Meanwhile that excellent partner, who had herself drunk wisdom at Tully’s fountains, married Sallust his enemy, and took for her third husband Messala Corvinus, and thus, as it were, passed through three degrees of eloquence. Socrates had two wives, Xantippe and Myron, grand-daughter of Aristides. They frequently quarrelled, and he was accustomed to banter them for disagreeing about him, he being the ugliest of men, with snub nose, bald forehead, rough-haired, and bandy-legged. At last they planned an attack upon him, and having punished him severely, and put him to flight, vexed him for a long time. On one occasion when he opposed Xantippe; who from above was heaping abuse upon him, the termagant soused him with dirty water, but he only wiped his head and said, “I knew that a shower must follow such thunder as that.” Metella, consort of L. Sulla the Fortunate (except in the matter of his wife) was openly unchaste. It was the common talk of Athens, as I learned in my youthful years when we soon pick up what is bad, and yet Sulla was in the dark, and first got to know the secrets of his household through the abuse of his enemies. Cn. Pompey had an impure wife Mucia, who was surrounded by eunuchs from Pontus and troops of the countrymen of Mithridates. Others thought that he knew all and submitted to it; but a comrade told him during the campaign, and the conqueror of the whole world was dismayed at the sad intelligence. M. Cato, the Censor, had a wife Actoria Paula, a woman of low origin, fond of drink, violent, and (who would believe it?) haughty to Cato. I say this for fear anyone may suppose that in marrying a poor woman he has secured peace. When Philip king of Macedon, against whom Demosthenes thundered in his Philippics, was entering his bed-room as usual, his wife in a passion shut him out. Finding himself excluded he held his tongue, and consoled himself for the insult by reading a tragic poem. Gorgias the Rhetorician recited his excellent treatise on Concord to the Greeks, then at variance among themselves, at Olympia. Whereupon Melanthius his enemy observed: “Here is a man who teaches us concord, and yet could not make concord between himself his wife, and maid-servant, three persons in one house.” The truth was that his wife envied the beauty of the girl, and drove the purest of men wild with daily quarrels. Whole tragedies of Euripides are censures on women. Hence Hermione says, “The counsels of evil women have beguiled me.” In the semi-barbarous and remote city Leptis it is the custom for a daughter-in-law on the second day to beg the loan of a jar from her mother-in-law. The latter at once denies the request, and we see how true was the remark of Terence, ambiguously expressed on purpose— “How is this? Do all mothers-in-law hate their daughters-in-law?” We read of a certain Roman noble who, when his friends found fault with him for having divorced a wife, beautiful, chaste, and rich, put out his foot and said to them, “And the shoe before you looks new and elegant, yet no one but myself knows where it pinches.” Herodotus tells us that a woman puts off her modesty with her clothes. And our own comic poet thinks the man fortunate who has never been married. Why should I refer to Pasiphaë;, Clytemnestra, and Eriphyle, the first of whom, the wife of a king and swimming in pleasure, is said to have lusted for a bull, the second to have killed her: husband for the sake of an adulterer, the third to have betrayed Amphiaraus, and to have preferred a gold necklace to the welfare of her husband. In all the bombast of tragedy and the overthrow of houses, cities, and kingdoms, it is the wives and concubines who stir up strife. Parents take up arms against their children: unspeakable banquets are served: and on account of the rape of one wretched woman Europe and Asia are involved in a ten years’ war. We read of some who were divorced the day after they were married, and immediately married again. Both husbands are to blame, both he who was so soon dissatisfied, and he who was so soon pleased. Epicurus the patron of pleasure (though Metrodorus his disciple married Leontia) says that a wise man can seldom marry, because marriage has many drawbacks. And as riches, honours, bodily health, and other things which we call indifferent, are neither good nor bad, but stand as it were midway, and become good and bad according to the use and issue, so wives stand on the border line of good and ill. It is, moreover, a serious matter for a wise man to be in doubt whether he is going to marry a good or a bad woman. Chrysippus ridiculously maintains that a wise man should marry, that he may not outrage Jupiter Gamelius and Genethlius. For upon that principle the Latins would not marry at all, since they have no Jupiter who presides over marriage. But if, as he thinks, the life of men is determined by the names of gods, whoever chooses to sit will offend Jupiter Stator.

Extracts from The Lamentations
of
Matheolus

Copied from http://theabsolute.net/misogyny/matheol.html

While married men necessarily know very little about women, Matheolus struggles through his bitterness to reveal more than enough of the truth about women, at the same time as serving as a warning to us all . . .

The following short extracts are from Le Fèvre’s translation (c. 1371-2) of a subtle poem, the Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, written around 1295 by Mathieu of Boulogne (via a recent translation from Le Fèvre’s by Karen Pratt, in Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, Oxford University Press, 1992)

Dominating Clock
This female clock is really driving me mad, for her quarrelsome din doesn’t stop for a moment. The tongue of a quarrelsome woman never tires of chiming in. She even drowns out the sound of the church bell. A nagging wife couldn’t care less whether her words are wise or foolish, provided that the sound of her own voice can be heard. She simply pursues her own ends; there’s not a grain of sense in what she says; in fact she finds it impossible to have a decent thought. She doesn’t want her husband to be the boss and finds fault with everything he does. Rightly or wrongly, the husband has no choice: he has to put up with the situation and keep his mouth shut if he wants to remain in one piece. No man, however self disciplined or clear-sighted he may be, can protect himself adequately against this. A husband has to like what the wife likes, and disapprove of what she hates and criticize what she criticizes so that her opinions appear to be right. So anyone who wishes to immolate himself on the altar of marriage will have a lot to put up with. Fifteen times, both day and night, he will suffer without respite and he will be sorely tormented. Indeed, I believe that this torture is worse than the torments of hell, with its chains, fire, and iron.

The Winning Sophistry of Wives
In addition to using arguments and disputes, a woman can lead her man to false conclusions by means of five different types of sophism. It’s only right that I should give you some examples of their deception. Their linguistic sophistry is easily demonstrated.

Guy found his wife in her bedroom underneath Simon, who was bonking her on the edge of the bed. Once the act was over, Guy got angry, scolded and reproached his wife, saying, “Get out, wicked woman, may God destroy you, body and soul, for your wickedness is now only too clear.” But the woman was very quick to contradict her husband, replying, “Are you trying to kill me? Tell me what’s the matter?”. And the martyr to marriage said to her, “I want a divorce.” “Alas,” she said “why do you dare to speak such evil words to me? My father was once deluded into thinking that what you are now accusing me of had happened to him, for he imagined that he had seen my mother behaving in a wifely manner underneath another man, but his eyesight was defective. I know that my mother died as a result of such an incident, and my other female ancestors in just the same way. Dear husband, tell me how you arrived at such a crazy idea. Where has this melancholy come from? Dear friend, do you wish to be the death of me? Do you want me to live, or to die needlessly having done no wrong? You would be a wicked man indeed. Tell me what you want me to do.” The poor wretch wept as he embraced her and said to her, “Sweet sister, I want you to live, for if you were ever to depart prematurely from this life as your mother did, your death would be too bitter a blow to me.” She replied. “Then you must acknowledge publicly that I was never guilty of such a crime or, I promise you, I shall die. Now go quickly and say that it was a lie and that you dreamt it, for it was in this way that my female ancestors met their untimely ends.” Against this argument the husband could find no defence, and without further ado, retracted his accusations under oath in the presence of their female neighbours, gossips, and cousins and swore that he had lied and had wrongly accused her. Thus his wife was exculpated, while he allowing himself to be contradicted in this way, suffered public humiliation.

The fourth and fifth husbands, lines 452-542

Section 3 The fourth and fifth husbands:

Wife of Bath’s Prologue lines 452 – 542

The fourth husband, lines 452 – 468

And now the Wife gets going on her fourth husband, who seems to have been thoroughly unsatisfactory. This is an unlooked-for setback, since he is much younger than the first three husbands, and she might have expected to have more fun in bed with him than she had with the old men. But he looks for his pleasure elsewhere.

452 Now wol I speken of my fourthe housbonde.
Now will I speak about my fourth husband.
453 My fourthe housbonde was a revelour —
My fourth husband was a reveller (led quite a wild life) —
454 This is to seyn, he hadde a paramour —
this is to say, he had a mistress —
455 And I was yong and ful of ragerye,
And I was young and sexy,
456 Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye.
stubborn and strong, and jolly as a magpie.

fot10

Magpie: Permission given by The Bodleian Libraries, The University of Oxford, MS.Bodl.764, fol. 76r

The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest quotations mentioning ‘pyes’ (magpies) show that they were thought to chatter incessantly. The 7th century St Isidore of Seville writes in his Etymologies, Book 12, 7:46: ‘The magpie (pica) speaks words with distinct sounds, like a person. Even if they cannot speak a language, they imitate the sound of the human voice. It is a garrulous bird that hangs in the branches of trees, sounding forth.’ (source website bestiary.ca)

457 How koude I daunce to an harpe smale,
How well I could dance to a small harp,
458 And synge, ywis, as any nyghtyngale,
and sing, indeed, just like a nightingale,
459 Whan I had dronke a draughte of sweete wyn!
when I had downed a draught of sweet wine!

You can hear the energy of the young Wife in these lines with all their verbs: ‘daunce’, ‘synge’, ‘dronke’. The impact of her activities and personality is heightened by the alliteration: ‘Whan I had dronke a draughte’ ; “Stibourn and strong … synge … sweete.’ And by the appeal to the senses: the sense of touch and feeling in the dancing; the sense of sound in the singing, the sense of taste in the draft of sweet wine. It’s all very physical.

Ironically, having accused the first three old husbands of going off wenching when they had done no such thing, the Wife of Bath has now married a man who – she finds – ‘hadde a paramour’. However, rather than dwell on this, she digresses. Is this a sign of her present considerable age, or of the fact that, according to men, women are unable to think clearly?

She says ‘And I was yong and ful of ragerye,’ so it sounds as if she and her husband the ‘revelour’ are much nearer in age than was the case when she married the first three husbands. Or, indeed, when she married Jankyn who was half her age. Can it be that the much-vaunted ‘best quoniam myghte be’ was not exciting enough to keep the fourth husband faithful? It seems, also, that she was married to the fourth husband for quite a long time, if she was 40 when she married Jankyn within a month of Number Four’s death. She must have done most of her travelling on pilgrimage during her marriage to this unsatisfactory husband, perhaps to get away from him.

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem …
At Rome she hadde been and at Boloigne
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne …

She mentions, casually, that husband Number Four died when she returned from Jerusalm and she buried him in a relatively inexpensive tomb. ‘He deyde whan I cam fro Jerusalem’. (line 495)

The Wife immediately digresses from the unpalatable tale of the husband who looked elsewhere for his sexual entertainment. First she describes how she was young, and loved to dance, sing and drink, which, we soon learn, always leads her to sex. This prompts another digression, this time on Metellius who murdered his wife for drinking and what she would have done to Metellius if she had been married to him.

460 Metellius, the foule cherl, the swyn,
Metellius, the foul churl, the swine,
461 That with a staf birafte his wyf hir lyf,
who clubbed his wife to death,
462 For she drank wyn, thogh I hadde been his wyf,
because she drank wine; now if I had been his wife,
463 He sholde nat han daunted me fro drynke!
he shouldn’t have frightened me away from drink!
464 And after wyn on Venus moste I thynke,
And after wine, my thoughts always turn towards Venus the goddess of sex,
465 For al so siker as cold engendreth hayl,
for as surely as cold brings hail,
466 A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl.
an insatiably thirsty mouth must have a lustful tail (ie sexual member; penis or (oftener) pudendum).
467 In wommen vinolent is no defence —
If a woman is drunk she can’t defend herself —
468 This knowen lecchours by experience.
and lechers know this through experience.

The reference to Metellius comes from Valerius Maximus and the gloss in the margin of the Ellesmere manuscript refers us to Valerius libro 6 capitulo 3. Valerius was in fact contrasting the severity of Metellius’ punishment of his wife to the decadence of Rome where women used to drink wine. Is the Wife therefore unwittingly classing herself as decadent? She evidently drinks a fair amount of alcohol and with considerable enthusiasm: ‘He sholde nat han daunted me fro drynke!’ And her point in referring to Metellius is to say that she would have continued to drink, a point made most emphatically through the alliterating plosive ds of ‘daunted’ and ‘drynke.’

Chaucer is punning when he writes, ‘A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl.’ Likerous means gluttonous (the first time in the line) and lecherous or lustful the second time. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that it means pleasing to the palate, then a little later it came to mean lustful, and a little later still having a keen desire for something pleasant. Whether it’s sex or food and drink, it’s all to do with appetite, and the Wife certainly has a voracious appetite.

Chapter 26 verses 6 – 8 of the Book of Ecclesiasticus (Apocrypha) has something very similar to say: ‘but it is heart-ache and grief when a wife is jealous of a rival and everyone alike feels the lash of her tongue. A bad wife is a chafing yoke; controlling her is like clutching a scorpion. A drunken wife is a great provocation; she cannot keep her excesses secret.’ The Romance of the Rose reads similarly: lines 13452 ff ‘And when a woman is drunk she has no defence at all.’ St Jerome jumps enthusiastically on this bandwagon: ‘The eating of flesh (meat) and drinking of wine, and fulness of stomach, is the seed-plot of lust.’ (Letter against Jovinianum II. 7)

Why the sudden digression to Metellius, who killed his wife for drinking, and whom the Wife describes angrily as ‘the foule cherl, the swyn.’ We’ve moved from the fourth husband who looked outside his marriage for sex, to the Wife’s ragerye, her dancing, singing, drinking and enjoyment of sex and thence to Metellius. Emotionally, it sounds as if the Wife is actually furious with the fourth husband, rather than with Metellius; the fourth husband who gives her no outlet for her dancing, singing, drinking and sex, or who perhaps finds them inadequate for his own needs. The Wife’s rage is energetically conveyed with the repeated fs in the lines,
‘Metellius, the foule cherl, the swyn, / That with a staf birafte his wyf hir lyf…’
However, she moves swiftly on to good-time memories.

Memories of times past, lines 469 – 479

469 But — Lord Crist! — whan that it remembreth me
But — Lord Christ! — when I remember
470 Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
my youth, and my gaiety,
471 It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
it pleases / gratifies me to the depths of my heart.
472 Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
To this day it does my heart good
473 That I have had my world as in my tyme.
that I have had such a good time.
474 But age, allas, that al wole envenyme,
But, alas, age, that poisons everything,
475 Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
has taken away / deprived me of my beauty and my vigour.
476 Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!
Let it go. Farewell! The devil go with it!
477 The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;
The flour is gone; there is no more to tell;
478 The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
The bran, as best I can, is what I must sell now;
479 But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.
But yet I will try to be right merry.

This is a part of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue that appeals very much to modern readers who admire her courage and lack of self-pity. The passage is built on the contrast between the Wife’s past ‘yowthe’ and present ‘age.’ In the last two lines she looks to the future. As she takes a nostalgic glance at the past, her ‘yowthe, and … jolitee,’ rhyme with ‘me’. That’s what she looks for in life: ‘jolitee.’ The word ‘herte’ occurs twice in the next two lines, both times in connection with her happiness in remembering the good times. She is glad to have lived life to the full: ‘I have had my world as in my tyme.’

The word ‘But’ heralds the change from youth and jollity to her considerable age in the present. Age, she says, poisons everything, and the word for poison, ‘envenyme,’ is rhymed, tellingly with ‘time’. The Wife emphasises what age has done to her with vigorous plosive bs: ‘ Hath me biraft (taken away) my beautee and my pith.’ But with characteristic energy and lack of self-pity, she continues: ‘Lat go. Farewel! The devel go therwith!’ And equally characteristically she refers to what she has left (physically) in terms of commerce:

The flour is goon; ther is namoore to telle;

The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;

Beryl Rowland finds a sexual connotation in line 389 ‘Whoso that first to mille comth first grint’ (Rowland, Beryl, in Explicator, Volume 24 Issue 2 (1965) and it seems that perhaps something of the same is going on here with ‘flour’ and ‘bren’. Certainly the Wife has been happy to sell sex to her husbands. The Wife ends merrily, despite the drawbacks of advancing age: ‘ But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.’

Chaucer bases this passage closely on what La Vieille (the old woman or the bawd) in The Romance of the Rose says:

But it still pleases me when I think back on it. I rejoice in my thought and my limbs become lively again when I remember the good times and the gay life for which my heart so strongly yearns. Just to think of it and to remember it all makes my body young again. Remembering all that happened gives me all the blessings of the world, so that however they may have deceived me, at least I have had my fun. (translation Dahlberg)

Whereas La Vieille is looking back at the fun, and rejoices when she does so, the Wife, having done this, looks ahead with pragmatism.

You can see why Valerie Allen, in the section on Medieval English in English Literature in Context Cambridge University Press 2008, describes the Wife of Bath as ‘this hotchpotch of quotations’. She is, in a sense, simply a collage of classic texts. Chaucer’s magic touch is to make her seem a living, breathing woman who appears so real that some research has been dedicated to discovering whether she was based on an actual historical woman.

However, Chaucer has not copied The Romance of the Rose word for word. He has kept some important aspects and changed others. He keeps La Vieille’s word ‘world’. To the medieval eye, the Wife’s word ‘world’ would have been the opposite of the spiritual, and thus should have been looked back upon with contrition before embarking upon a penitent, reformed and much more spiritual future. But the Wife is not concerned with confessio; she is intent upon fun. However, Chaucer begins the passage with ‘But — Lord Crist!…’ This is certainly taking the name of the Lord in vain (the third of the ten commandments) and perhaps highlights the lack of sanctity in the rest of the passage where any mention of God is conspicuously absent. She rejoices in the physical fun she has had and to this day it ‘tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.’ Increasing age does not make her think of how she should prepare her soul for death. She simply says age has taken away her beauty and oomph (‘pith’). She has no longer got such attractive merchandise to ‘sell.’ Rather than fearing that she might not be making her life’s journey towards heaven but towards another place, she simply consigns the fact that she is no longer young to the ‘devel’. Are we being subtly reminded of her lack of spiritual awareness by this mention of the devil?

D W Robertson in his book A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives, Princeton University Press, 1962, comments very seriously on this section that most readers nowadays see as full of humanity and courage. He sees the opening ‘But Lord Crist! …’ as a reminder of the spiritual. In Psalm 27, verse 7, for example, he reminds us, ‘The Lord is my helper and my protector: in him hath my heart confided, and I have been helped. And my flesh hath flourished again …’ (Which is very different from the Wife and La Vieille’s happy reminiscences of their sexy pasts when their flesh was flourishing.) In the New Testament, St Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, Chapter 4 verse 22, encourages his readers to ‘put off the old man’ and ‘be renewed’ in order to ‘put on the new man.’ The old man here is the sinful life, and the new man a new life in Christ. This is certainly not what the Wife has in mind. Robertson observes that the Wife has ‘taken the name of Christ in vain’ and has failed to undertake a true renovatio – a renewing of herself in Christ. Renewal through sex and sexy memories leads nowhere, spiritually, but it is this renewal that the Wife sticks to in her tale when the knight has ‘parfit joye’ when the old lady becomes young and beautiful to satisfy his ‘worldly appetit.’ Robertson comments earlier in his book: ‘Those who grow sentimental over her “human” qualities are, from a fourteenth-century point of view, simply being misled.’

More about the fourth husband, lines 480 – 494

Back to the fourth husband again; the Wife has a second go at telling her audience about him.

480 Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde.
Now will I tell (you) about my fourth husband.
481 I seye, I hadde in herte greet despit
I say, I had great anger in my heart
482 That he of any oother had delit.
that he took delight in any other (woman).

The Wife briefly repeats her ‘despit’ that the fourth husband looked for sexual pleasure away from home, but again moves swiftly away from this unpalatable topic. Chaucer highlights her feelings by rhyming her ‘despit’ with her husband’s ‘delit’ in another woman. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the meaning of ‘despit as ‘scorn’ but also as ‘anger, evil feeling, especially such as arises from offended pride, vexation, or annoyance. In later use, the entertaining of a grudge, evil feeling with a desire to harm or vex.’ And the Wife says she was full of ‘angre, and … verray jalousye.’ Accordingly, the she dwells on the ways she paid him back for his unacceptable behaviour.

483 But he was quit, by God and by Seint Joce!
But he was paid back, by God and by Saint Joce!
484 I made hym of the same wode a croce;
I made him a cross of the same wood;
485 Nat of my body, in no foul manere,
not by using my body in a foul manner,
486 But certeinly, I made folk swich cheere
but certainly, my manner towards other people (presumably men) was such
487 That in his owene grece I made hym frye
that I made him fry in his own grease
488 For angre, and for verray jalousye.
out of anger, and pure jealousy.
489 By God, in erthe I was his purgatorie,
By God, I was his purgatory on earth,
490 For which I hope his soule be in glorie.
for which fact I hope his soul may be in glory (now).
491 For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,
For, God knows, he very often sat and cried out in pain,
492 Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.
when his shoe pinched him agonisingly.
493 Ther was no wight, save God and he, that wiste,
No-one but God and he knew
494 In many wise, how soore I hym twiste.
how painfully I tortured him in many different ways.

There is a good deal of emphasis in this passage on the pain the Wife inflicted on the fourth husband. ‘He sat ful ofte and song / Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.’ ‘How soore I hyme twiste.’ The pain is intensified through the repeated ws: ‘wrong’, ‘wight’; wiste’; ‘wise’; ‘twiste.’ The Wife certainly seems to have got her own back on him for being a revelour.

In this passage, the Wife mentions a considerable number of words associated with God and religion: by God, by Saint Joce, ‘a cross’, ‘By God, purgatory, his soule be in glory, God it wot. But these are not words used spiritually by a woman on a pilgrimage. These are the words in the section where the Wife looks back with satisfaction on her torment of husband number four. So even when she does use spiritual words, it’s not in a spiritual way.

Ann S Haskell has written an interesting article about ‘The St Joce Oath in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.’ She points out that the reference to St Joce, far from being merely to find a rhyme for ‘croce’, would have been clear to a 14th century audience, especially an audience of pilgrims. St Joce was a 7th century Breton saint whose symbol was a ‘burdoun’, a wooden pilgrim’s staff. St Joce was also the patron saint of pilgrims, and the Wife goes off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem – effectively leaving unsatisfactory husband number four for a good long time. Apparently St Joce’s help was also invoked against fire; ‘on l’invoquait aussi contre l’incendie …’ which fits in nicely with the Wife’s claim that ‘in his owene grece I made hym frye.’
‘The St Joce Oath in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue by Ann S Haskell in Vol 1 No 2 The Chaucer Review, Fall 1966 pages 85 – 87

I would have thought, too, that the ‘croce’ or cross that the Wife refers to must mean that she tortured the fourth husband in the same way that crucifixion is a torture. Because she boasts that she ‘hym twiste’ (tortured):

For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,

Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong. (pinched him, afflicted him)

Ther was no wight, save God and he, that wiste,

In many wise, how soore I hym twiste. (lines 491 – 94)

The Wife seems to have made a habit of causing her husbands such suffering that they sing out in some form of pain. In the case of the three old husbands, we are told,

I sette hem so a-werke, by my fey,

That many a nyght they songen `Weilawey!’ (lines 215 – 216)

There is a feeling, as the Wife tells the story of her marriages, that this is indeed the story of ‘experience’, lived domestic experience. This impression of a down to earth life may be partly due to the many proverbs and sayings that come naturally to her way of speaking. In this passage, when she treats her roaming husband fairly vitriolically, she says:

in his owene grece I made hym frye ….
For, God it woot, he sat ful ofte and song,
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly hym wrong.

I made him fry in his own grease; only he knew how painfully the shoe pinched him; these are everyday sayings, still current today, to do with cooking and wearing ill-fitting shoes. It seems, from the Oxford English Dictionary, that frying in his own grease in the late 14th century had a stronger meaning than it does now; it meant suffering torment, not just a satisfying tit for tat.

The idea of a wife providing an earthly purgatory for her husband can be found in several antifeminist texts. One of them is De Coniuge non ducenda, Why one shouldn’t take a wife, a popular poem written in the early thirteenth century in either northern France or England. God sends three angels to save a young man from marrying.

Quid dicam breuiter esse coniugium?
Certe uel trtara, uel purgatorium.
Non est in tartaro quies vel ocium,
Nec dolor coniugis habel remedium.

In brief, to sum up marriage well,
It’s either purgatory or hell.
In hell there’s neither rest nor peace –
A husband’s pains have no release.

In Matheolus’ Lamentations (French version translated by Jean Le Fevre) Christ appears to the writer in a dream, describing marriage as purgatory:

‘Since I who am the redeemer and scourge of sinners do not desire their death … I wanted to provide for them many purgatories so that they might purify themselves.  … Among these (torments) the greatest is marriage. … There is no martyrdom worse than continued punishment such as yours, tested in the furnace of marriage.  You are truly a martyr …’

The Wife takes all these well-rehearsed antifeminist sentiments and uses them enthusiastically to punish her husband. If he treats her like that, she is going to ensure that she is his earthly purgatory. There is a sort of relish in the lines:

484 I made hym of the same wode a croce;
487 in his owene grece I made hym frye
489 By God, in erthe I was his purgatorie…

And characteristically she sees to it that she is in charge: ‘I made hym … a croce;’ I made him frye;’ ‘I was his purgatorie.’ And she continues in this masterful vein: I hym twiste.

The fourth husband’s death and burial, lines 495 – 502

Husband number four’s death and burial are treated in a very matter-of-fact and unemotional way. The Wife’s emotion seems to be reserved for her dislike of him for his philandering and her triumph in paying him back so that he suffered for it.

495 He deyde whan I cam fro Jerusalem,
He died when I came back from Jerusalem,
496 And lith ygrave under the roode beem,
and lies buried under the rood beam,
497 Al is his tombe noght so curyus
although his tomb is not so elaborate
498 As was the sepulcre of hym Daryus,
As the tomb of Darius was,
499 Which that Appelles wroghte subtilly;
Which Appelles wrought / made so skilfully;
500 It nys but wast to burye hym preciously.
It would only have been a waste to spend a lot of money on his burial.
501 Lat hym fare wel; God yeve his soule reste!
Farewell to him; may God rest his soul!
502 He is now in his grave and in his cheste.
He is now in his grave and in his coffin.

To add insult to injury, the Wife buried the fourth husband relatively cheaply. He ‘lith ygrave under the roode beem’, the beam between the nave and the chancel. The nearer the altar you were buried, the more expensive it was. As the Wife says, dismissively, ‘It nys but wast to bury hym preciously.’ She seems to bury him pretty comprehensively with the repetition of death-associated words: ‘he deyde;’ ‘and lith ygrave;’ ‘tombe’ ‘sepulcre’; ‘burye’; ‘He is now in his grave and in his cheste.’

Husband number five, lines 503 – 533

Having swiftly disposed of Number Four, the Wife moves on to her favourite husband, Number Five. This is perhaps one of the greatest ironies in her marriage career: besotted with love, she now actually marries a clerk, an upholder of the very ‘auctoritee’ she aimed to demolish at the outset of her Prologue. To further the irony, he treated her appallingly, beating her so violently that she will feel the pain in her ribs for the rest of her life. But he is such an accomplished lover that she instantly forgives him every time he beats her.

503 Now of my fifthe housbonde wol I telle.
Now I will tell (you) about my fifth husband.
504 God lete his soule nevere come in helle!
God forbid his soul should ever go to hell!
505 And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe;
And yet he was the most wicked / brutal to me;
506 That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe,
I can still feel (the effect of his brutality) on my ribs one after another,
507 And evere shal unto myn endyng day.
and always shall until my dying day.
508 But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay,
But in bed he was so lively and gay,
509 And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
and also he could flatter / coax me so well,
510 Whan that he wolde han my bele chose;
when he wanted to have my `pretty thing’;
511 That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
that even if he had beaten me on every bone,
512 He koude wynne agayn my love anon.
he could win back my love straight away.

The word ‘glose’ comes from a ‘gloss’ a comment, explanation or interpretation, but it’s often used to indicate a slightly distorted interpretation. To glose or gloze is to interpret. It seems to me that this word suggests Jankin is treating the Wife as he would a book that he is studying and interpreting or perhaps a book that he is copying, and adding glosses to in a way that implies control on his part. So he ‘interprets’ the Wife the way he wants to, which is to have sex with her, but he also beats her. This is surely the language of control: ‘was he to me the mooste shrewe’; and ‘so wel koude he me glose.’ A ‘glozer’ can also mean a flatterer, a cajoler, although the first instance of it being used specifically in this way is 20 years after Chaucer’s death in 1420, by Thomas Hoccleve in his De Regimine Principum. And ‘glozing’ can mean explaining something away, or palliation. It’s a thoroughly slippery word.

Much earlier in her Prologue, in lines 44 (c) to 44 (f), in a passage that Chaucer may or may not have written, we read:

44c Diverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,
Differing academic schools make perfect scholars,
44d And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes practice makes perfect
and differing practice in many various works
44e Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly;
makes the workman truly perfect;
44f Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I.]
I am the academic expert of five husbands’ worth of ‘practyk’.

Here, the Wife claims that her field of expertise is husbands, and she claims to be a scholarly authority in this field. It is again ironic, then, that she should have met her match and to have married a man who can ‘glose’ her like a text:

wel koude he me glose,
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose; (lines 509, 10)

As the Wife speaks of her beloved fifth husband, the spotlight is very much on him, not, as it usually is, on her. For example,

504 God lete his soule nevere come in helle!
505 was he to me the mooste shrewe;
in oure bed he was so fressh and gay,
509 he wolde han my bele chose;
511 he hadde me bete on every bon,
512 He koude wynne agayn my love anon.

Not only does the Wife repeat the pattern of words in these lines so that the emphasis is on what Jankyn does: ‘his soule’, ‘was he’, ‘he was’, ‘he wolde han’, ‘he hadde me bete’, ‘he koude wynne’. She actually comes second, in the lines and in importance: ”was he to me’; ‘he hadde me bete’; ‘he koude wynne agayn my love.’ In fact, he controls her. She also refers to ‘oure bed’ – oure being a word that indicates relationship in a way that she hasn’t used in her account of the first four husbands.

The passage is also revealing in its rhyming words.

505 And yet was he to me the mooste shrewe;
506 That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe
The rhyme of ‘shrewe’ and ‘rewe’ stresses Jankyn’s physical violence and its effects on the wife who is twice his age.
509 And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
510 Whan that he wolde han my bele chose;
His skills as a ‘clerk’ and also as a cajoler are evident when he wants sex: ‘glose’ rhymes with ‘bele chose.’
That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
512 He koude wynne agayn my love anon.
The uncomfortable juxtaposition of the beating with the sexual expertise is made clear in the rhyme of ‘bon’ and ‘anon’ (immediately).
511 That thogh he hadde me bete on every bon,
512 He koude wynne agayn my love anon.

fot11

Le Roman de la Rose, Bibliothèque St. Geneviève, Paris.

It appears that the idea that a man, as head of the household, had the right to beat his wife, was acceptable. Gratian’s text Decretum (12th cent) reads: ‘a man may chastise his wife and beat her for her own correction.’ Sandra Bardsley in Women’s Roles in the Middle Ages, writes: ‘When Richard Scharp, a wool merchant of London, beat his wife Emma so seriously that she miscarried, he was indicted only for the death of his stillborn son and not for the injury to his wife.’

fot12

French, 1405 A Husband beating his Wife with a Stick Downloaded under the J Paul Getty Trust’s Open Content Program

The Getty Museum provides information on the image above which reads:
One sees some marriages in which the man thinks it the part of wisdom to chastise and beat his wife, to make her live in fear.

This translation of the text adjoining the image gives some glimpse into the commonplace practice of wife-beating in the Middle Ages. Throughout the Middle Ages, wife-beating was not illegal as long as the husband asserted he was punishing his wife in a “reasonable” manner for disobedience or negligence of duty. The author of the Romance of the Rose, however, goes on to warn the reader that under these conditions “true love cannot long endure.” The merciless way the man beats his wife in the image combined with the text’s moralizing message were clearly intended to argue against a widespread custom.

The Wife’s experience with Jankyn seems to be drawn from those of the old woman, or bawd, in the Romance of the Rose. She also had a favourite lover who beat her black and blue but was an expert lover.

We are then given an analysis of what it was about Jankyn that made the Wife love him best of all her husbands.

513 I trowe I loved hym best, for that he
I believe I loved him best, because he
514 Was of his love daungerous to me.
was standoffish towards me.
515 We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,
We women have, to be honest with you,
516 In this matere a queynte fantasye:
a curious fantasy in this matter:
517 Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,
whatever thing we may not easily have,
518 Therafter wol we crie al day and crave.
we will cry all day and crave it.
519 Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;
Forbid us something, and we desire it;
520 Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we fle.
Press(urise) us, and then will we run away.

The Wife easily slips into the mode of spokeswoman for all women: ‘We wommen han …’. Stressing her topic with alliterated ws, she says: ‘We wommen… Wayte what thyng… wol we crie al day.’ The rhymes reinforce her meaning: women ‘crave’ what they ‘may nat lightly have.’ She repeats herself, this time stressing the point through contrast: ‘Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we.’

521 With daunger oute we al oure chaffare;
Reluctance makes us spread out all our merchandise / goods;
522 Greet prees at market maketh deere ware,
A great crowd at the market makes wares expensive,
523 And to greet cheep is holde at litel prys:
and too great a supply makes them of little value:
524 This knoweth every womman that is wys.
Every wise woman knows this.

As usual, the Wife compares relationships to commerce: ‘oute we al oure chaffare’; ‘Greet prees at market maketh deere ware.’

Some of the details the Wife gives us don’t quite add up. She tells us that Jankyn was an irresistibly excitinglover:

But in oure bed he was so fressh and gay,
And therwithal so wel koude he me glose,
Whan that he wolde han my bele chose; (ll 508 – 510)

However, after all her vaunting of owning ‘the best quoniam mighte be’, she then lets slip that Jankyn didn’t make love to her nearly as often as could have been hoped. In fact, he was ‘daungerous’ which means aloof, reserved or reluctant and has another meaning of hard to please and critical. Did he in fact marry her for her money, which she had advertised in her courtship of him, and then find her less exciting in bed than she has told us she was?

513 I trowe I loved hym best, for that he
514 Was of his love daungerous to me.

Having digressed on the matter of women’s contrariness – they want what they can’t get / haven’t got – the Wife moves swiftly back to the subject of the much-loved husband Number Five.

525 My fifthe housbonde — God his soule blesse! —
My fifth husband — God bless his soul! —
526 Which that I took for love, and no richesse,
whom I took for love, and not for money,
527 He som tyme was a clerk of Oxenford,
had been a scholar of Oxford,
528 And hadde left scole, and wente at hom to bord
and had left university, and came home to board
529 With my gossib, dwellynge in oure toun;
with my close friend, who lived in our town;
530 God have hir soule! Hir name was Alisoun.
God bless her soul! Her name was Alisoun.
531 She knew myn herte, and eek my privetee,
She knew my heart, and also my secrets,
532 Bet than oure parisshe preest, so moot I thee!
better than our parish priest, as I hope to prosper!
533 To hire biwreyed I my conseil al.
I revealed all my secrets to her.

Chaucer has this way of innocently telling us something and then making us wait for the double take. The Wife tells us about her friend,

my gossib, dwellynge in oure toun;

God have hir soule! Hir name was Alisoun.
She knew myn herte, and eek my privetee,
Bet than oure parisshe preest, so moot I thee!
To hire biwreyed I my conseil al. (lines 529 -533)

The Wife tells her friend Alisoun everything, all her secrets. And she remarks, in passing, that Alisoun knows what is in the Wife’s heart ‘Bet than oure parisshe preest.’ This raises at least two questions. For one thing, the Wife should have been making a full confession to the parisshe preest in the sacrament of Confession, and of asking for God’s pardon for her sins. It sounds as if the priest only gets a very edited version of events. And it certainly sounds as if the Wife isn’t remotely penitent. For another thing, she told us during the story of the three old husbands that

if I have a gossib or a freend
Withouten gilt, thou chydest as a feend
If that I walke or pleye unto his hous! (lines 243-45)

Going over to the gossib for a cup of tea and a nice chat seems to have involved going to ‘his hous.’ Either the gossib was a man, or, as in the case of the gossib Alisoun, she was the landlady of Jankyn. Maybe the cup of tea with the gossib was not quite so innocent as the Wife would like to make out.

The fourth husband again, lines 534 – 542

This section started ‘My fifthe housbonde…’ But actually, we’re not on husband Number Five. We’re back on unsatisfactory husband Number Four, and on one of the ways in which the Wife made his life a torment. She embarrasses him and reduces his standing in the community by spreading abroad the details of all his nefarious activities.

534 For hadde myn housbonde pissed on a wal,
For whether my husband had pissed against a wall,
535 Or doon a thyng that sholde han cost his lyf,
or done something that should have cost him his life,
536 To hire, and to another worthy wyf,
to her, and to another worthy wife,
537 And to my nece, which that I loved weel,
and to my niece, whom I loved well,
538 I wolde han toold his conseil every deel.
I would have told every one of his secrets.
539 And so I dide ful often, God it woot,
And so I did very often, God knows it,
540 That made his face often reed and hoot
and that often made his face red and hot
541 For verray shame, and blamed hymself for he
for shame, and he blamed himself because he
542 Had toold to me so greet a pryvetee.
had told to me so great a secret / confidence.

The Wife makes us wait with the subordinate clauses:

534 For hadde myn housbonde pissed on a wal,
535 Or doon a thyng that sholde han cost his lyf,

At which point, we think she’s going to tell us what she did. But no. We have to wait still further:

536 To hire, and to another worthy wyf,
537 And to my nece, which that I loved weel,

She’s busily describing all these people and we still don’t know what she did. Then at last:

538 I wolde han toold his conseil every deel.
539 And so I dide ful often, God it woot,

It sounds almost like a threat that she used to torment the husband: ‘I wolde han toold his conseil (his secret)’, and then she reveals that actually, she very often did do exactly that: broadcast his secrets all around the parish. She ‘made his face often reed and hoot’ just as the flames in purgatory would have done. So she is being very successful in acting as his earthly purgatory.

In her book, Transforming Talk, Susan E Phillips writes: ‘Alisoun is an arch-gossip; instead of pretending to condemn idle talk, she openly embraces it – as subject, pastime, discursive mode, and narrative device. … She stands as the embodiment of idele talk…’

Susan Phillips points out that the Wife ‘confesses his (her husband’s) transgressions to an ever-widening circle of women.’ She adds: ‘The Wife uses idle talk to transform her audience into her conversational familiars. …We, like her gossyb dame Alys, accompany the Wife as she walks from house to house to ‘heere sondry tales’ (III 547)… We too, are privy to her husbands’ secrets; that is, we become complicit in her gossip.’
Phillips, Susan, Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England. University Park, PN: Pennsylvania University Press, 2007.

In a sense, then, the whole of the Prologue becomes a vast juicy piece of gossip in which we – the Wife’s audience and readers – are complicit. The Prologue, which might be a subverted confessio or a sermon joyeux, simply turns out to be one amazing piece of gossip. Even the Wife’s glosses on the Bible smack of sensational and slightly prurient gossip rather than academic interpretation (think of King Solomon’s ‘myrie fits’). Well might the patriarchal society of the fourteenth century shudder at this inveterate jangleresse.

The fourth and fifth husbands, lines 543-599

Section 3 The fourth and fifth husbands:

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, lines 543 – 599

The Wife flirts with Jankyn, who will be her fifth husband, lines 543 – 584

And now we reach the part of the Wife’s life-story that concerns the beloved fifth husband, Jankyn. She tells us that she used to visit her gossyb (her god-sister or close friend) and gad about in early spring after the winter mud and snow had kept everybody housebound. Husband number four is still alive but he is away in London that spring, so the Wife seizes the opportunity to have fun.

543 And so bifel that ones in a Lente —
And so it happened that once in Springtime / Lent —
544 So often tymes I to my gossyb wente,
since I frequently went to visit my close friend,
545 For evere yet I loved to be gay,
for I always loved to be merry,
546 And for to walke in March, Averill, and May,
and to walk in March, April, and May,
547 Fro hous to hous, to heere sondry talys —
from house to house, to hear various bits of gossip —
548 That Jankyn clerk, and my gossyb dame Alys,
that Jankin, the clerk, and my close friend, dame Alys,
549 And I myself, into the feeldes wente.
and I myself, went into the fields.
550 Myn housbonde was at Londoun al that Lente;
My husband was in London all that Spring / Lent;
551 I hadde the bettre leyser for to pleye,
I had the better opportunity to amuse myself,
552 And for to se, and eek for to be seye
and to see, and also to be seen
553 Of lusty folk. What wiste I wher my grace
by lively / lustful people. What did I know about where my fortune
554 Was shapen for to be, or in what place?
was destined to be, or in what place?

Lente in the late 14th century can mean either Spring, as in ‘Þe evenes of þe day and of þe nyȝt is ones in þe Lente, and efte in hervest’ or the season of Lent meaning the six weeks before Easter. Chaucer does not make it clear whether it is Spring that he means here or the spiritual season of penitence and fasting leading up to Easter. Characteristically, he stands back and lets his reader / listener decide whether to enjoy the comedy of the Wife’s behaviour in Spring, or whether to take a serious moral view of her unspiritual activities during the devotional and penitential season of Lent.

If Chaucer means Lent as the season of penitence, devotion and an increased focus on spiritual matters, the passage has a glorious irony. For the Wife is not doing anything remotely spiritual. First of all she is going from house to house to hear spicy bits of gossip in a way that St Paul specifically warned against in his first letter to Timothy where he had a good deal to say about widows and gossips. In his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 5, he writes:

‘But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead (St Paul means spiritually dead) even while she lives. …. No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to. ‘

The Wife would definitely count as an idler, and busybody and St Paul would probably judge that she talks nonsense, saying things she ought not to. As she says, she loved to ‘walke in March, Averill, and May, / Fro hous to hous, to heere sondry talys — (spicy gossip)’.

Background information: gossips and janglers

On her blog, ‘Codpieces and Demons’, posted on her website readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com
Jeanne de Montbaston writes: ‘The medieval word ‘god-sib’ (as in ‘my gossyb dame Alys’ CB), originally meant the person who sponsored a child at baptism. But by the late Middle Ages, ‘god-sib’ or ‘gossip’ had come to refer by default to women only. ‘Gossip’, originally denoting a close and solemn spiritual intimacy, came to mean casual, idle, feminine chit-chat.

‘The connotations of ‘gossip’ were shared with another medieval word: ‘jangler’, which meant a person (a woman) who talked too much and too loudly. Disapproving male writers queued up to criticise this fault. In a text written for would-be religious recluses, the author imagines how a young woman might be corrupted by gossip: ‘either an old woman or a new ‘Jangler’ and storyteller sits by the window, feeding her with tales  … from which arise laughing, mocking, and unclean thoughts through day and night, so that in the end the woman is filled full of lust and desire, talebearing, slander and hatred …’ (from Aelred of Rievaulx, De institutione inclusarum).

‘Still later, there’s a brilliant story in cleric Robert Mannyng’s Handbook of Sins, on the dangers of gossip, which reuses the same stereotype of women who gossip being distracted from their religious duties. Mannyng describes how women sit in church gossiping, and explains that, unseen, a demon sits nearby, pen and parchment in his hands, compiling a damning dossier of evidence for the devil to use at judgement day.’

Jeanne de Montbaston also cites Peter Idley, who, in his Instructions to his Son, of 1445-55, writes:

“… these women, as I dare say,
Have been busy talking of ‘husbandry’.
They gaggle like the geese and jangle like the jay.
About how their husbands are full of jealousy.
On gallants, they make it their business to spy.
Seeing their clothes ride up so high.
And their codpieces stiffly standing out.”

Background information: Tutivillus and gossiping women

There was quite a well-known lyric about Tutivillus, the demon who collected snatches of women’s idle gossip during mass (the church service).

Tutivillus, the devil of hell,

He writeth har names, sothe to tell,
He writes their names, truly to tell
Ad missam garulantes. those gossiping at Mass

Better wer be at home for ay
Than her to serve the Devil to pay,

Sic vana famulantes.
serving empty things in this way

Thes women that sitteth the church about,
Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,

Divina impedientes
impeding the divine service

Nut thay be still he wil hem quell
With kene crokes draw hem to hell

Ad puteum autem flentes
but indeed weeping at the well

For his love that you der boght
Hold you still and jangle noght

Sed repece deponentes
but laying aside ?repece?

The bliss of Heven than may ye win
God bring us all to his in

‘Amen, Amen,’ dicentes
saying ‘Amen, Amen.’

¹ From a 15th century Anonymous poem in the Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 104 (21678), f.112b. Quoted here from RT Davies, Medieval English Lyrics, p.198, Poem 103, Faber, 1966

There are some useful websites for medieval illustrations of gossips. One is
http://www.paintedchurch.org/idlegoss.htm
This website was compiled by Anne Marshall and is a fund of information on
Tutivillus and the idle gossips.

Tutivillus is often depicted on church walls and on misericords.
Anne Marshall writes: ‘Tutivillus (or Titivillus), is a minor devil, regularly found in later Medieval literature. It is his specific job to collect together the syllables ‘dropped’ by inattentive people during Masses and other services in church. No doubt the women (they are all women, I fear) shown in these paintings, preoccupied as they are with secular talk or distracted by secular matters generally, kept Titivillus busy. (Copied with permission from Anne and Trevor Marshall.)

http://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/tutivillus.html
This is another good website on Tutivillus compiled by Helen Parry.

fot15

Misericord from Enville Church Staffordshire
from http://www.richard-hayman.co.uk/photo_10203835
This misericord shows the two women gossiping, forgetting their missal and their rosary as they do so, and Tutivillus is avidly collecting what they say.

Jeanne de Montbaston writes on her blog:
‘The picture we have of female friendship in medieval England is pretty limited. In a culture where women were almost invariably seen, both legally and socially, in terms of their relationships to men, and where fewer women than men could write, first-hand records of female friendships are few. In a previous post, I discussed the ‘woman-only space’ of the medieval birth chamber, and I suggested that, in the eyes of many medieval writers, this was a focus of distrust and fear of what women might get up to in spaces men could not penetrate (pun intended).

‘Female friendships were strongly associated with the social customs surrounding childbirth, partly no doubt because women have always sought out other women for support at this time, and partly because the enforced ‘confinement’ of a woman after childbirth placed her in an all-female universe for forty days. Yet the intimate and supportive relationships women developed with one another were associated with a term that endures as a gendered insult.’

fot16

Mural at Little Melton Church, Norfolk , photo: T Marshall

Anne Marshall writes: ‘Two remarkably graceful gossips sit on a rough-hewn bench. The gradual introduction of church seating starts from around the date of the painting, and benches resembling this may well have been in the church at the time.

‘The very large spherical buttons down the centre of the bodice of the woman on the right would have been the height of fashion in rural Norfolk in the 1370s, the likely decade of the painting. Certainly the two women have been painted with considerable skill.

‘Each woman has a rosary, and the two hold these out towards each other, perhaps for mutual admiration of their workmanship (or costliness – these do not look like peasant women). The pair are certainly in a confidential huddle, heads inclined towards each other, as opposed to being piously bent over their beads. At the right hand end of the bench, traces are still visible of a devil standing on it. (There are also) traces of a larger devil standing behind the bench, and embracing the two women … I can see nothing of this now, but there may be another small devil squatting on the left hand end of the bench.’ (You can just faintly see Tutivillus on the right.)

(This photo and commentary come from website: http://www.paintedchurch.org
copyright Anne Marshall 2001; permission to use given by Anne and Trevor Marshall.)

Mike Harding posts this photo of gossips (below) on flickr. It’s in Ely Cathedral and Tutivillus is craning in solicitously to hear the tittle-tattle of two ladies of the mid-fourteenth century, his parchment in his right hoof.

fot17

fot18

Two devils surrounding gossiping women, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire

Here is another image of devils surrounding gossiping women, this time in the stained glass window at Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire. The ladies in this window have devils on each side of them, in stereo. On the right is a monster in pale blue; on the left the upper half of a green devil and the lower half of a ruby coloured monster. Clergy in the Middle Ages had this to say about chattering in church: ‘synners herithe no worde of God, but turnithe hem to dilectacion of synne, to which the devil temptithe hem. For the devil hissithe (hisses, because he is a snake and can beguile people) be mony diverse weyes in the sermon: and how? For he makith someto slepe that they her not the wordes of God: a some he makithe to chatir faste.’ (Owst 1926 p 175)

And yet another defamatory verse about women chattering:

‘Go forth and let the whores cackle!
Where women are, are many words:
Let them go hopping with their hackle (finery)
Where geese sit, are many turds.

This comes from a 15th century morality play, The Castle of Perseverance, whose writer saw speech as a waste product, like goose dung. ‘Sins of the tongue’ were a matter of considerable concern and women were thought to be particularly culpable. You can see this antifeminist position as being driven by fear of women, as Katherine L French explains: ‘women in groups challenged male authority. … The parish church as a source of much social interaction by women, posed a challenge to medieval society in this respect.’
(from The Good Women of the Parish: Gender and Religion After the Black Death
by Katherine L. French, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008)

The charge against women of being compulsive gossips can also be found in The Lamentations of Matheolus from Le Fèvre’s translation (c. 1371-2) of a poem, the Liber lamentationum Matheoluli, written around 1295 by Mathieu of Boulogne. ‘Indeed, the birds will stop singing and the crickets in summer too before woman finds the strength to hold her tongue, whatever harm comes of her words.’ And, a little later in the same passage: ‘Why are women more argumentative, so full of idle gossip and more talkative than men? Because they are made of bone, while our bodies are fashioned of clay: bone makes more noise than clay. Note therefore my conclusion, which does not offer us much solace: it is their nature which makes them all foolish and proud.’
(From the translation of this work to be found on theabsolute.net/misogyny/matheol)

It seems that gossip, particularly that of women, was a great concern in the Middle Ages. They were gossiping during mass (the church service) instead of paying attention. The word ‘jangler’ (and ‘jangleresse’) described a chatterer or idle talker. It was first used in 1303 by Mannynge in his work, Handlyng Synne, and again by Langland in Piers Plowman. In the Manciple’s Tale we read that ‘a jangler is to God abhomynable.’ There are a lot of synonyms for this word jangler: ‘chaterestre’ (a female chatterer); 1250; ‘blabberer’ (1375), ‘clatterer’ (1388), ‘cackler’ (1400). And those are only some of the synonyms. Presumably this female gossiping was something that happened rather a lot. Certainly the Wife describes herself as a ‘jangleresse’ .

The Wife goes to church in her best clothes, lines 555 – 562

The Wife goes to church very often during Lent, but for all the wrong reasons. Worshipping God is never mentioned.

555 Therfore I made my visitaciouns
Therefore I made my visits
556 To vigilies and to processiouns,
to vigils held on the eves of religious feasts and to processions,
557 To prechyng eek, and to thise pilgrimages,
to sermons also, and to pilgrimages,
558 To pleyes of myracles, and to mariages,
to miracle plays, and to weddings,

Visitations simply means going somewhere, and the Wife went to lots of church services. She went to vigils – services held the day before (the eve, as in Christmas Eve or All Hallows Eve – now Hallowe’en) an important religious festival. She attended processions, which were often a part of religious ceremonies. She listened to sermons, went on pilgrimages, saw miracle plays – dramatised versions of major events from the Bible – and went to weddings. We seem to have strayed outside Lent somewhere along the way, because weddings did not take place during Lent, and miracle plays usually took place at midsummer when the days were longer and there was more daylight during which people could see them. And she couldn’t have gone on a very long pilgrimage during Lent when apparently she was dallying with Jankin. It seems to happen rather frequently that, as soon as you pause to consider what the Wife has said, you realise it couldn’t actually have happened in quite the way she tells it.

Now the Wife tells us about the brightly coloured dresses she wore on all these occasions.

559 And wered upon my gaye scarlet gytes.
And wore my gay scarlet dresses.
560 Thise wormes, ne thise motthes, ne thise mytes,
Worms and moths and mites,
561 Upon my peril, frete hem never a deel;
upon my peril (I swear), never chewed (holes) in them;
562 And wostow why? For they were used weel.
and do you know why? Because they were well used.

It seems likely that the Wife’s cheerful mention of the reason her clothes didn’t get eaten by moths would have called to mind Jesus’s words on the subject in St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 6.

Do not ye treasure to you treasures [here] in earth, where rust and moth destroyeth, and where thieves delve out and steal;
but gather to you treasures in heaven [but treasure to you treasures in heaven], where neither rust nor moth destroyeth, and where thieves delve not out, nor steal.
For where thy treasure is, there also thine heart is. (Wyclif translation)
Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and robbers cannot break in and steal.  For your heart will always be where your riches are. (Good News Translation)

The Wife has clearly said that her aim is ‘to pleye / And for to se, and eek for to be seye (seen) / Of (by) lusty folk.’ That is where, in Jesus’s words, her heart is. Again this can be interpreted either as comic – she’s going to all these church services during Lent in her best clothes that never get ‘fretted’ by moth because she wears them all the time to draw attention to herself. Or it can be seen as a most serious shortcoming and in complete negligence of the spiritual gravity of her behaviour.

Daliaunce with Jankyn, lines 563 – 574

The Wife describes how she walked from house to house, and into the fields to have fun, and to walk with Jankyn. In her portrait in the General Prologue, we are told ‘She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye’. This suggests that not only has she travelled all over Europe on pilgrimage but also that she has wandered away from the ‘weye’ or path in a spiritual sense. To follow Jesus was known as following the way, and so, spiritually and morally, the Wife has frequently lost her way even if she does go to church frequently during Lent.

And so the Wife flirted with Jankyn and encouraged him to think that she could be his wife if she should become a widow.

563 Now wol I tellen forth what happed me.
Now I’ll tell (you) what happened to me.
564 I seye that in the feeldes walked we,
As I said, we walked in the fields,
565 Til trewely we hadde swich daliance,
until truly we had such flirtation,
566 This clerk and I, that of my purveiance
this scholar and I, that in order to provide for the future
567 I spak to hym and seyde hym how that he,
I spoke to him and told him how,
568 If I were wydwe, sholde wedde me.
if I became a widow, he should marry me.
569 For certeinly — I sey for no bobance —
For certainly — I say this for no boast —
570 Yet was I nevere withouten purveiance
I was never yet unprovided for
571 Of mariage, n’ of othere thynges eek.
in marriage matters,and other things, too.
572 I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
I reckon that a mouse has a heart worth less than a leek if it only has one hole to run to
573 That hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
574 And if that faille, thanne is al ydo.
and if that fails, then the mouse is finished.

Chaucer has a way of putting innocent-sounding words into the Wife’s mouth that, on second thoughts, have a more serious connotation. When the Wife says, ‘What wiste I wher my grace / Was shapen for to be, or in what place?’ she evidently interprets ‘grace’ as personal good fortune, worldly advantage, which indeed is one of its meanings in the late fourteenth century. It’s all part of her practical approach to life, for, as she says a few lines further on:

For certeinly — I sey for no bobance — (boasting, pride)
570 Yet was I nevere withouten purveiance
571 Of mariage, n’ of othere thynges eek.
572 I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
573 That hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
574 And if that faille, thanne is al ydo.

‘Grace’ or things working out well is compared to being a mouse with several possible bolt holes. The Wife is not going to be one of those people for whom, if Plan A fails, it’s all up with them: ‘thanne is al ydo.’ But grace in its spiritual sense – the sense in which a pilgrim to Canterbury should surely be understanding it – means God’s gift, blessing and granting of salvation to a person regardless of the fact that they don’t deserve it. In this extract, the Wife uses the word ‘purveiance’ which does indeed mean foresight and provision for the future as her practical proverb about the mouse and its holes demonstrates. However, it also has the meaning of the foreknowledge and divine care of God, which is obviously something the Wife is not looking for. She reckons to be in charge of her destiny, not God: ‘…was I nevere withouten purveiance / Of mariage.’ The Wife’s words and actions show her to be oblivious of this meaning. As always with Chaucer, this passage can be understood in a comic or in a serious way.

Chaucer is master of a startling change of register, often leading to a hilarious anticlimax, or bathos. (Or demonstrating the gravity of a character’s behaviour.) Underlining either the comedy or gravity of this passage, is Chaucer’s sudden transition from spiritual words such as ‘grace’ and ‘purveiance’ to a world of mice and leeks and mouseholes.

What wiste I wher my grace

Was shapen for to be? (lines 553, 54)

and

Yet was I nevere withouten purveiance (570)

suddenly turns into

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek,
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
And if that faille, thanne is al y-do.

On the other hand, Chaucer does prepare us for something less than pious when he rhymes ‘purveyance’, with all its spiritual overtones, and ‘daliance’ and, a few lines further on, with ‘bobance.’ Surely words like ‘daliance’ and ‘bobaunce’ undermine the obedience to God implicit in a word like ‘purveyance.’

Til trewely we hadde swich daliance,
This clerk and I, that of my purveyance
I spak to him, and seyde him, how that he,
If I were widwe, sholde wedde me.
For certeinly, I sey for no bobance,
Yet was I never with-outen purveyance
Of mariage, nof othere thinges eek.
I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek,
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
And if that faille, thanne is al y-do.

‘Daliance’ can mean chat, or even serious conversation. However, it also has the meaning amorous toying or caressing, flirtation; often, in a bad sense, wanton toying which, to judge from the details of their conversation that the Wife favours us with, is the sense here. ‘Bobaunce’ is boastful behaviour, showing off (which the Wife tells us she isn’t doing).

And what about the heart of that mouse that has only lined up one mousehole for itself to scuttle into? The Latin tag, mus non uni fidit antro – a mouse does not trust to one hole – gives a common sense, proverbial base to the Wife’s modus operandi.

Beryl Rowland tells us that mice were thought to be unbelievably fertile. And as fertility was almost synonymous with being interested in sex, a mouse became a symbol of lechery, specifically of female sexuality and genitals. Apparently there is a passage in a Greek chorus which reads: ‘the accursed go-between fooled me completely, swearing … that the wench was a virgin … and all the time she was an absolute mousehole.’ (Animals with Human Faces, Beryl Rowland, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1974 page 127) And here’s a medieval lyric in which a young woman describes her sexual relationship with her master:

Ser Iohn ys taken In my mouse-trappe. (Ser Iohn – generic name for a priest)
Ffayn wold I have hem both nyght and day,
He gropith so nysleye a-bout my lap,
I have no powre to sa(y hym nay).

This lyric, ‘Hey Noyney’ is printed in The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt, Oxford University Press. You can also find it in Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song edited by Anne L Klinck (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) It is a 15th century lyric, so the sexual meaning of ‘mousehole’ and ‘mouse-trappe’ evidently continued.

If a mouse only has one mousehole to bolt into in time of danger, it’s ‘nat worth a leek’. In the Middle English Dictionary, the expression not worth a leek appears quite frequently, meaning, worthless. In Medieval English Gardens, Teresa McLean finds that ‘leeks were very abundant. ‘Not worth a leek’s clove’ was the equivalent of ‘not worth a bean.’ A 14th century poem in praise of green porray (pot vegetables) runs:

Now leeks are in season, for pottage full good,
And spareth the nilchcow, and purgeth the blood:
These having with peason for pottage in Lent, (peas)
Thou spareth both oatmeal and bread to be spent.’

‘Trewely we hadde swich daliance, / This clerk and I,’ says the Wife. But possibly in the late fourteenth century, no sooner did you hear the names Jankyn and Alison than you knew the next part of the story. It would be about a woman and her priest / clerk lover.

Jankyn is the diminutive form of John and in Chaucer’s day the name tended to allude to the priest-clerk-lover of a woman, often called Alison. Alison is presumably a pun on Eleison (the Greek word for ‘have mercy’ in the Latin mass: Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy). In the popular lyric ‘Jolly Jankin’, this pun appears in the refrain for each verse. Although the lyric may not have been printed until 15th century it was presumably extant orally in the late14th century. If it was a popular lyric, as it seems to have been, then maybe the allusion was enough to set up the idea of Jankyn as a lover for Alison. Riverside Chaucer notes: ‘The name Janekyn is common in Middle English lyrics for rustic lovers, especially clerks, since it is a diminutive of Sir John, a contemptuous term for a priest.’ Even as early as the late 4th century, St Jerome, quoting from Theophrastus’ Golden Book of Marriage, mentions ‘the curled darling who manages her (a wife’s) affairs … names which are only a cloak for adultery.’ And we know that Janekyn had lovely hair. (Although there are two Jankyns in the Wife’s life story, so husband Jankyn may not be the owner of the shining hair.)

‘Joly Jankyn’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

As I went on Yol Day

As I went on Christmas day

In owre prosessyon,

in our procession,

Knew I joly Jankyn

I knew jolly Jankin

By his mery ton,

by his merry voice.

Kyrieleyson.

Kyrie eleison

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn began the Offys

Jankin began the Service

On the Yol Day,

On Christmas Day

And yyt me thynkyt it dos me good

and yet it seems to me it does me good

So merie gan he say,

so merrily he began to say,

‘Kyrieleyson’.

‘Kyrie eleison’.

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn red the Pystyl

Jankin read the Epistle

Full fayre and full wel,

Very pleasingly and well,

And yyt me thinkyt it dos me good

And yet it seems to me it does me good

As euere haue I sel,

As I hope to gain eternal reward in heaven

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn at the Sanctus

Jankin at the Sanctus

Crakyt a merie note,

Trills a merry note

And yyt me thinkyt it dos me good –

And yet it seems to me it does me good

I payid for his cote,

I paid for his coat,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn crakit notes

Jankin trills notes

An hunderid on a knot,

A hundred at a time,

And yyt he hakkyt hem smallere

And yet he hacks them smaller

Than wortes to the pot,

Than herbs / vegetables for the pot.

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn at the Agnus

Jankin at the Agnus

Beryt the pax-brede:

Carries the pax-board:

He twynkelid but said nowt,

He winked but said nothing,

And on myn fot he trede,

And trod on my foot,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Benedicamus Domino,

Let us bless the Lord,

Cryst fro schame me schylde:

May Christ shield me from shame,

Deo gracias, therto –

Thanks be to God, as well –

Alas! I go with chylde,

Alas! I am with child,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

from:
http://user.phil-fak.uni-duesseldorf.de/~holtei/surprise/popups/December05.htm

Source: Richard L. Greene. The Early English Carols. Oxford 1977, pp.278-279.
Note: R.T. Davies. Medieval English Lyrics. London 1963, pp.336-337.
About the structure of the catholic mass: http://www.music.vt.edu/
On the Liturgy of the mass: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09790b.htm
Middle English Lyric 1100-1500: http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php

Peter Jeffery, in his book Translating Tradition, comments ‘Our impression that this is a realistic depiction can find some support in the fact that dancing caroles in the churchyard, and ogling clerics in church, were two activities medieval women were instructed to confess. Thus we can take the setting of this carol … as a candid ‘snapshot’ of a commonplace church scene … (a) realistic layperson’s eye-view of a Mass.’

The lyric takes us through the Christmas Day mass or church service, at which Joly Jankyn is the clerk. The woman hears him singing in the procession before the service; then she hears him saying a part of the service; reading the Epistle, which is the part of the New Testament of the Bible that is read before the priest reads the Gospel. Then Jankyn sings the Sanctus, which in English means, in the 1549 translation of the Book of Common Prayer:
Holy, holy, holy, Lorde God of Hostes:
heaven (& earth) are full of thy glory:
Hosanna, in the highest.
Blessed is he that commeth in the name of the Lorde:
Glory to thee, O lorde in the highest.

Next he carries the pax board at the Agnus Dei. St John calls Jesus the Lamb of God. The translation reads:
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.
At the end of the service comes the Benedicamus Domino, Let us bless the Lord. This was often sung at the end of the church service.

Pax brede is the pax board, a small plate of ivory, metal, or wood, with a representation of some religious subject on the face and a projecting handle on the back, formerly used for conveying the Kiss of Peace. It was kissed by the celebrant and then by others who received it in turn.

The cleric, Jankyn, obviously has a fine voice which the woman can hear when he is processing into church, reading the lesson from the Bible and singing a very elaborate and decorated tune for the Sanctus. The woman imagines that each time he sings the word eleison (aleyson), he is singing her name. But more seriously, both Jankyn and the woman have sinned, so to ask Lord have mercy is very appropriate. Presumably the woman’s predicament is a secular version of what happened to the holy family when Mary was found to be pregnant, and gave birth to Jesus on Christmas Day.

The Wife tempts Jankin by telling him how rich she is, lines 575 – 584

The Wife continues with her account of how she reeled Jankyn in, so that she would not be without a husband if her current one should die. She doesn’t want to be like a mouse with only one mousehole to run to in an emergency. She is lining Jankyn up, like a second mousehole, should there be need of one. She tells him how rich she is in an involved story about a dream she’s just had (only, of course, as she points out, she never dreamed anything of the kind. It was a trick her mother taught her, for advertising aspects of herself that would be attractive to men.). You might wonder why she doesn’t advertise the much-vaunted quoniam, but as Jankyn is half her age, she might think, in her practical way, that her wealth is likely to be the most attractive thing about her to a possibly penniless young clerk. Probably he could not be persuaded to marry her without the lure of the considerable fortune the three old husbands had left her.

575 I bar him on honde he hadde enchanted me;
I made him believe he had bewitched me
576 My dame taughte me that soutiltee
my mother taught me that trick
577 And eek I seyde I mette of hym al nyght,
And also I said I dreamed of him all night,
578 He wolde han slayn me as I lay upright,
he would have killed me as I lay on my back,
579 And al my bed was ful of verray blood;
and the whole of my bed was full of real blood;
580 `But yet I hope that ye shal do me good,
`But yet I hope that you will do me good,
581 For blood bitokeneth gold, as me was taught.’
For I was taught that blood symbolizes gold.’
582 And al was fals; I dremed of it right naught,
And it was all false; I didn’t dream of it at all,
583 But as I folwed ay my dames loore,
but I followed always my mother’s teaching,
584 As wel of this as of othere thynges moore.
in this as well as in other matters.

Eyeing up Jankyn’s legs at husband number four’s funeral, lines 585 – 599

Very realistically, the Wife now seems to have lost the thread. As she picks it up, we find we are back to husband number four again.

585 But now, sire, lat me se what I shal seyn.
But now, sir, let me see where was I?
586 A ha! By God, I have my tale ageyn.
A ha! By God, I (remember) have my tale again.
587 Whan that my fourthe housbonde was on beere,
When my fourth husband was on the funeral bier,
588 I weep algate, and made sory cheere,
I wept continuously, and acted as if I was sorrowful,
589 As wyves mooten, for it is usage,
as wives must do, for it is the custom,
590 And with my coverchief covered my visage,
and I covered my face with my handkerchief,
591 But for that I was purveyed of a make,
but because I was provided with a mate,
592 I wepte but smal, and that I undertake.
I wept very little, I can tell you.
593 To chirche was myn housbonde born a-morwe
My husband was carried to church in the morning
594 With neighebores, that for hym maden sorwe;
with neighbors, who mourned for him;
595 And Jankyn, oure clerk, was oon of tho.
and Jankin, our clerk, was one of those.
596 As help me God, whan that I saugh hym go
So help me God, when I saw him walk
597 After the beere, me thoughte he hadde a paire
after the bier, I thought he had a pair
598 Of legges and of feet so clene and faire
of legs and of feet so neat and fair
599 That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold.
that I gave all my heart into his keeping.

Alas, the Wife is simply illustrating the way that widows behave – according to the antifeminists. Ovid depicts the way a widow will ensnare the next husband in Book III of his Art of Love: Often a lover’s found at a husband’s funeral:
walking with loosened hair and unchecked weeping suits you.
Translation from poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/ArtofLoveBkIII
St Jerome laments widows’ behaviour in his Letter against Jovinian, 47:
‘But what am I to do when the women of our time press me with apostolic authority, and before the first husband is buried, repeat from morning to night the precepts which allow a second marriage?’
For ‘second marriage’ read ‘fifth marriage’ in the case of the Wife.
Matheolus describes this behaviour of widows in his Lamentations. ‘As soon as her husband is in his coffin, a wife’s only thought day and night is to catch another husband.’ And in the same passage: ‘Alas, things used to be different. A wife used to lament her husband’s death and remain in mourning for a full year. Now she waits no more than three days; you’d be hard pressed to find anyone waiting longer!’ (translation from the absolute.net/misogyny/matheol)

Chaucer’s technique here is cinematic. He starts in general terms with ‘Whan that my fourthe housbonde was on beere,’ and ‘To chirche was myn housbonde born a-morwe.’ Then he moves us to the Wife’s enacted tears: ‘ I weep algate, and made sory cheere,’ and how she really felt: ‘I wepte but smal, and that I undertake.’ This acting contrasts with the tears of the neighbours, ‘neighebores, that for hym maden sorwe;’ although it seems that Jankyn, who she tells us was one of these neighbours, was also feigning tears. And then we move, with what seems to me a quickening of the verse, to what the Wife is really looking at round the edges of her handkerchief: Jankyn’s irresistible legs.

As help me God, whan that I saugh hym go
597 After the beere, me thoughte he hadde a paire
598 Of legges and of feet so clene and faire
599 That al myn herte I yaf unto his hoold.

You can imagine this on film: moving in close-up to the Wife’s eyes behind her ‘coverchief’, and then focusing on the sexy legs of the man following the bier on which the body of her husband is being carried to church by the grieving neighbours.

For this section of the Prologue, the Wife has described the time she spent in church. She went to lots of vigils and processions and miracle plays during Lent while her fourth husband was in London; she went to her fourth husband’s funeral, and she buried the fourth husband as economically as was viable given his apparently considerable standing (it seems he should have been buried more expensively in the chancel). God doesn’t get a look in. It’s all about fun, and seeing people, and looking out for the next husband (selected largely on account of his legs).


Medieval lyrics concerning seducer-priests

The following four lyrics are carols, poems to accompany dancing. In each lyric, the seducer is Jak / Jacke / Sir John. Sir John is the generic name for a priest; in the case of Jacke and Jak, he may not be a priest. Priests vowed to be celibate but it seems the vow was broken not infrequently. Thomas Duncan’s Middle English Lyrics 1995 might be a useful book here, as might Neil Cartlidge ‘Alas I Go with Chylde’ English Studies 1998 pp 395-414.

‘Rybbe ne rele ne spynne ye ne may’ – Jacke is the seducer
‘Alas, alas, the whyle!’ – the seducer is Jak
‘I have forsworne hit while I live’ – seducer is Ser John
Hey noyney – another Sir John
These lyrics come from Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song edited by Anne L Klinck (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

The Theophrastus text quoted by St Jerome in his Letter Against Jovinianum, I have taken from the Harvard University website http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/wbpro/

St Jerome (AD 340? – 420), quoting from Theophrastus’ Golden Book of Marriage, mentions ‘the curled darling who manages her (a wife’s) affairs … names which are only a cloak for adultery.’ This reference is made by the Ellesmere scribe in the gloss to line 303; however, it is not clear whether Jankyn the apprentice (referred to in the gloss) is the same man as Jankyn husband number five.

Burial in the chancel, denied the fourth husband because of the expense

John Hunter, writing about medieval burial customs on the North Craven Heritage website, says:
‘The custom of burial within the church, rather than in the churchyard, was not altogether novel as in medieval times the rich and famous had been able to use their wealth and influence to erect their tombs within churches. This was not so much from social aspiration as a prudential religious precaution. Fear of death prior to modern times was endemic in humankind and has not altogether vanished today. However in medieval times there was a great fear of death, indeed terror of the after-life based on the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Thus many medieval tomb inscriptions bore the legend ‘Of your mercy, pray for the soul’ and the tomb effigy lay on its back, hands clasped pleading with succeeding generations to pray for the deceased so as to shorten his time in the cleansing torture of purgatory. For the same reason medieval liturgies were bespattered with pleadings for mercy for the after-life, reintroduced to the C of E today in the modern liturgy of Common Worship. Thus the powerful of medieval times in both church and state longed to be buried near to the altar where at the holy sacrifice of the mass, the body and blood of God himself in Jesus was present. On the Day of Resurrection such a burial location, it was believed, would stand the deceased in good stead and perhaps contribute to his eternal salvation.’
John Hunter
http://www.northcravenheritage.org.uk/NCHTJ2011/2011/careful/hunter2.html

Christopher Daniell writes about the popularity but also the expense of the chancel as a burial place. He says that the most popular place for burial … was in the choir of the church. … A much more precisely defined area was the chancel, in which only certain people could be buried. Rectors and vicars, gentlemen and knights, qualified but only the richest and most important lay people could be buried in the chancel.
Places such as the altar or a shrine were thought to have the power to draw down holy influence from Heaven and help the soul through Purgatory. The holier sites cost more.
Death and Burial in Medieval England 1066 – 1550 by Christopher Daniell, Routledge 1997 pages 98, 99

The fourth and fifth husbands, lines 600-785

Section 3 The fourth and fifth husbands:

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, lines 600 – 785

The Wife’s fifth husband, Jankyn, lines 600 – 642

The Wife admits her consuming interest in sex. As she says a few lines later, ‘I was a lusty oon.’

600 He was, I trowe, twenty wynter oold,
He was, I believe, twenty years old,
601 And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth;
and I was forty, if the truth be told;
602 But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth.
but yet I always had a colt’s appetite.
603 Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;
I had teeth set wide apart, which was very appropriate;
604 I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.
I had the print of Saint Venus’s seal.

Obviously Jankyn is the Wife’s toyboy; he is half her age. When she says that she always had ‘a coltes tooth,’ that’s to say, she liked young lovers, she is referring to the sexual significance of a horse. Horses have for centuries been seen as a image for sex, as a phallic symbol or as what Beryl Rowland, in her book Animals with Human Faces, calls ‘a repository of sex and as such … often equated with woman.’ But the word ‘colt’ still sounds slightly derogatory; the Wife is comparing herself to an animal. Earlier, when she was haranguing the old husbands, she used to tell them that they complained: ‘Oxen, asses, hors, and houndes, / They been assayed at diverse stoundes, … / But folk of wives maken noon assay… ‘ (lines 285 – 289). Then, so she claims, the husbands compared her in a thoroughly uncomplimentary way to a horse, only they would have tried out the horse before buying it. Now she cheerfully agrees that she is like a colt (a young male horse). Inconsistency is her hallmark – or her prerogative, and her style of argument.

You could see the considerable age difference between Jankyn and the Wife as an illustration of the fact that in the Middle Ages it was accepted that a young man should marry an older widow with ‘lond and fee.’ It meant that the property continued to be under a man’s control. However, the way in which the Wife speaks of Jankyn makes it seem unlikely that she pressed for the marriage with this factor uppermost in her mind. What Jankyn’s motives were we are not told.

Gap-toothed may be derived from the old Norse word gata meaning way, and leading to Middle English gate or gat. In this sense, it suggests that the Wife’s widely gapped front teeth were a sign that she would travel widely (which she has done). It has also been suggested that the word comes from the Middle English for a goat, implying the Wife’s lustfulness. This matches the context – the Wife is describing her coltes tooth, St Venus and being the proud possessor of the ‘best quoniam myghte be.’

fot13

Giotto: St Francis receiving the stigmata, painted circa 1295, Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Venus was the Roman goddess of erotic love, so for the Wife to call her Saint Venus is blasphemy; she was a pagan goddess. The Wife also advertises the fact that she has a birth mark which she claims is a mark of Saint Venus. This invites a comparison with the most devout saints who received the stigmata on their bodies, the marks of the crucified Christ; another blasphemous suggestion on the Wife’s part, which you can either find funny or horrifyingly sinful.

604 I hadde the prente of seinte Venus seel.
I had the print of Saint Venus’s seal.
605 As help me God, I was a lusty oon,
So help me God, I was a lusty one,
606 And faire, and riche, and yong, and wel bigon,
and fair, and rich, and young, and well off,
607 And trewely, as myne housbondes tolde me,
and truly, as my husbands told me,
608 I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be.
I had the best possible naughty bits.
609 For certes, I am al Venerien
For certainly, my feelings are all influenced by Venus
610 In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
and my heart is influenced by Mars.
611 Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
Venus gave me my lust, my lecherousness,
612 And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;
and Mars gave me my sturdy boldness;
613 Myn ascendent was Taur, and Mars therinne.
Taurus was in the ascendent (when I was born), and Mars was in that sign.
614 Allas, allas! That evere love was synne!
Alas, alas! That ever love was sin!

The Latin word quoniam means ‘since, therefore,’ but here the Wife uses it as Matheolus did in 1237: ‘men and women hurry ‘pour faire charnelment congmoistre / Leur quoniam et leur equippe’ (meaning, to make their physical equipment, the quoniam and the equippe, carnally acquainted).

The Wife has various euphemisms for her especial gift from God. In his book, Chaucer’s Language, Simon Horobin remarks that it was used as ‘a slang word for cunt, perhaps punning on the French word conin, ‘rabbit’.’ (Readers of Pepys’s diary will remember that he was permanently in pursuit of the maid’s ‘cunny’ which is the same thing – see his entry for 25 October 1668.) Derek Pearsall agrees, writing in Gothic Europe 1200-1450 ‘There is a particular profusion of hairy monsters, phallic images, rabbits (commonly taken to signify female sexuality, because of the pun in French on conin, ‘rabbit’, and con, ‘cunt’)’… .’ Pearsall is commenting on the miniatures in the ‘Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux’ c 1325 by Jean Pucelle, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He continues, describing the marginalia: ‘The mock-joust with the barrel, for instance, shows rampant males attempting penetration of a uterus-shaped barrel: aforer le tonel (‘breach the barrel’) is a euphemism for foutre (‘fuck’) in the fabliaux.’
Chaucer’s Language, Simon Horobin: Palgrave Macmillan 2013, page 143
Gothic Europe 1200-1450, Derek Pearsall: Pearson Education Ltd, 2001, page 160

It seems a little strange that the Wife claims she was ‘yong, and well bigon’ as she has just told us she was forty. One source gives life expectancy, if you survived childhood, which was a big if, as being a rough likelihood of dying before you were 45. So for the Wife to say she was forty in one breath and ‘yong’ in the next, is somewhat puzzling.

The Wife continues to give her thoroughly secular and pleasure-seeking account of her life, punctuated by little phrases like ‘As help me God.’ She is taking the name of God in vain (the third commandment) and it also helps to highlight, through contrast, her sex-focused career. For you have ‘As help me God’ – a spiritual cry for help – in one half of the line and ‘I was a lusty oon,’ in the next, not spiritual at all.

But apparently none of this lust and aggression is under the Wife’s control. It’s all dictated by her star signs. Having explained the state of the heavens at her birth, she summarises: ‘… myn inclinacion / By vertu of my constellacioun; / That made me I koude noght withdrawe / My chambre of Venus from a good felawe.’ The rhymes emphasise the impossibility for the Wife to do anything differently: ‘inclination’ determined by ‘constellacioun’ so that she can’t ‘withdrawe’ from a good ‘felawe’.

However, although the signs of the Zodiac were regularly used to refer to the time of year (as Chaucer does in the opening to the Tales), and although stars were obviously used for navigation, the Bible specifically forbids astrology, the practice of predicting events and casting horoscopes through the position of the stars. For example, Isaiah,
Chapter 47, reads: ‘Let your astrologers come forward and save you—
those people who study the stars,
who map out the zones of the heavens
and tell you from month to month
what is going to happen to you. They will be like bits of straw,
and a fire will burn them up!’ It appears that, yet again, the Wife is flying in the face of Christian belief when she goes into detail about what was in the ascendant at her birth.

In lines 615 – 626, the Wife embraces some of the worst antifeminist claims made against women. Lines 619 – 626 are not in the early Hengwrt manuscript, so they may have been added later by a virulently antifeminist scribe.

615 I folwed ay myn inclinacioun
I followed always my inclination
616 By vertu of my constellacioun;
because of the astrological influences at my birth;
617 That made me I koude noght withdrawe
They meant that I could not withdraw
618 My chambre of Venus from a good felawe.
my chamber of Venus from a good fellow.

(The euphemism, ‘Chamber of Venus’, comes from the Romance of the Rose, line 13336.)

619 Yet have I Martes mark upon my face,
Yet I have the mark of Mars upon my face,
620 And also in another privee place.
and also in another private place.
621 For God so wys be my salvacioun,
For as I trust that God in his wisdom will be my salvation,
622 I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun,
I never loved with any discrimination,
623 But evere folwede myn appetit,
but always followed my appetite,
624 Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit;
whether a man were short, or tall, or black-haired, or blond;
625 I took no kep, so that he liked me,
I took no notice, provided that he pleased me,
626 How poore he was, ne eek of what degree.
how poor he was, nor of what rank.

The Wife uses expressions like ‘For God so wys be my salvacioun,’ quite unthinkingly, just as someone today might say OMG. It’s another of Chaucer’s twinklingly innocent transcriptions of what she says, because it reminds us that the Wife is a pilgrim bound for Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury. It brings out, wickedly, the discrepancy between God’s salvation of the soul and the Wife cheerfully describing her ‘appetit’ which devoured every man in its path, ‘Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit.’ Chaucer rhymes God’s ‘salvation’ with the Wife’s ‘no discrecioun’ and leads straight into her ‘appetit’ which rhymes with ‘whit’ at the end of the list encompassing all men as acceptable lovers. And the line ‘I took no kep, so that he liked me’, is ambiguous. Does it mean ‘I didn’t care, so long as he pleased me’ or ‘I didn’t care, so long as he was interested in me.’

Certainly the clash in the Wife’s star signs between Venus and Mars makes for comedy. Her nature is shaped by two completely incompatible influences: one pleasure loving and promiscuous, the other aggressive and domineering. Venus draws her into her five marriages; Mars makes the marriage relationship a battleground.

627 What sholde I seye but, at the monthes ende,
What should I say but, at the month’s end,
628 This joly clerk, Jankyn, that was so hende,
this jolly clerk, Jankin, that was so courteous / pleasant,
629 Hath wedded me with greet solempnytee,
married me with great ceremony,
630 And to hym yaf I al the lond and fee
and I gave him all the land and property
631 That evere was me yeven therbifoore.
that was ever given me before then.
632 But afterward repented me ful soore;
But afterwards I repented very bitterly;
633 He nolde suffre nothyng of my list.
he would not allow me anything I wanted.
634 By God, he smoot me ones on the lyst,
By God, he hit me once on the ear,
635 For that I rente out of his book a leef,
because I tore a leaf out of his book,
636 That of the strook myn ere wax al deef.
and because of that blow my ear became completely deaf.

The words ‘This joly clerk Jankyn’ remind me irresistibly of the lyric ‘Joly Jankyn’ printed in the last section. ‘Hende’ seems to mean any one of a number of things, ranging from near at hand, skilful or dexterous, and courteous, gracious; also good to look at (which Jankyn certainly is). It’s a general word of praise. ‘This joly clerk, Jankyn, that was so hende.’

Unfortunately, ‘hende’ is as ‘hende’ does and we now learn why it is that the Wife is rather deaf. The beloved Jankyn hit her hard on the ear. To convey and perhaps to highlight this basic physical violence between husband and wife, Chaucer employs a particularly sophisticated literary technique, rime (rhyme) riche. This involves using the same word for the rhyming couplet but with a different meaning – so ‘list’ means what I wanted and also, in the second rhyme, ear. There is a certain poetic justice in this: the Wife hadn’t been paying any attention to what Jankyn wanted her to do. She had been deaf to his commands. As a result of their fight, she literally becomes deaf. In the Middle Ages, most things had a spiritual aspect, and in this way of understanding the Wife’s story it becomes clear that she is deaf to the word of God.

However, it has to be admitted that Jankyn was subjected to intolerable provocation. His wife has just torn a page out of his book. As a clerk of Oxenford, he could read and write. Books were not yet printed – Caxton’s press produced the first books in the 1470s, among them The Canterbury Tales which is housed in the British Library and can be seen online. Go to the British Library website: bl.uk/treasures or try http://molcat1.bl.uk/treasures/caxton/record.asp There is also some interesting information on Caxton’s Canterbury Tales from the University of Manchester on http://www.library.manchester.ac.uk/firstimpressions/assets/downloads/09-Caxton-and-the-Canterbury-tales.pdf

A book was a fabulously valuable object, written out by hand on parchment, that is, specially prepared animal skin, often that of a cow, sheep or goat. Sometimes the skin of a whole sheep might go into the production of just one page of parchment. The scribe’s work was painstaking and very very slow. It seems also to have been uncomfortable. A medieval saying runs: ‘The fingers write, but the whole body suffers’. (Erik Kwakkel) The excellent site, medievalbooks.nl Erik Kwakkel blogging about medieval manuscripts, is fascinating. Medieval books were written page by page and the pages were only bound into a book when the copying was done. If you want to follow up the work of scribes, try Irene O’Daly’s Writing the Word: Images of the Medieval Scribe at Work on the website Medievalfragments.wordpress .
Maria Popova has written a short piece entitled, ‘Oh, My Hand: Complaints Medieval Monks Scribbled in the Margins of Illuminated Manuscripts.’ It contains these gems, written by miserable scribes:

New parchment, bad ink;
I say nothing more.

I am very cold.

The parchment is hairy.

Thank God, it will soon be dark.

Oh, my hand.

Writing is excessive drudgery.  It crooks your back, it dims your sight, it twists your stomach and your sides.

While I wrote I froze, and what I could not write by the beams of the sun I finished by candlelight.

(Taken from Lapham’s Quarterly  Spring 2012 issue.)

And an outburst from a scribe who had just finished writing 614 pages of double columns:

explicit secunda pars summe fratris thome de aquino ordinis fratrum predicatorum, longissima, prolixissima, et tediosissima scribenti; Deo gratias, Deo gratias, et iterum Deo gratias! Da mihi potem!

Here endeth the second part of the Summa [Theologica] of Thmas Aquinus, of the Order of Preachers, the longest, most verbose, and most tedious to write. Thank God, thank God, and again thank God! Give me a drink!

There is a very interesting website on the whole matter of scribes and manuscripts at
http://medievalwriting.50megs.com

Valerie Allen, in ‘The Age of Chaucer’ in the Cambridge Contexts in Literature series, describes a scribe’s life.
‘The quiet life of a scribe had its drawbacks, described by Thomas Hoccleve who worked as a clerk in the Privy Seal Office. He pictures himself working over a manuscript (which he said was bad for the stomach, bad for the back and bad for eyesight) and looking longingly at the fun that people are having outside.
Thys artificers se I day by day artisans / craftsmen
In the hoottteste of al hyre bysynesse busily involved in their business
Talken and singe and make game and play talk and sing and have fun and play
And forth hyr labour passyth with gladnesse. and their work proceeds happily.
But we laboure in travayllous stilnesse” But we (clerks / scribes) labour away in wearisome stillness / silence
We stowpe and stare upon the schepys skyn We stoop and stare at the sheepskin (parchment)
And kepe must our song and wordys in.’And may not sing or talk

Chaucer himself was not overpleased with the negligent and inaccurate work that Adam Pinkhurst, his own scribe, produced for him. It seems that Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’ work, The Consolation of Philosophy (late 1370s / early 1380s), and his poem Troilus and Criseyde had been somewhat hastily transcribed. Here are ‘Chaucer’s Wordes Unto Adam His Own Scriveyne’.
Adam scrivener, if ever thee befall if it ever happens that you
Boece or Troilus for to write new, copy out my Boethius or Troilus again
Under thy longe locks thow maist have the scall, scabby skin or psoriasis.
But after my makinge thou write mor trew, unless you copy my words more accurately
So oft a day I mot thy werke reneweIt so often happens that I have to restore your work to what I actually wrote
It to correct, and eke to rubbe and scrape, to correct it and rub and scrape away (the mistakes)
And all is thorowe thy necligence and rape. And it’s all because of your negligence and haste

Jankyn’s difficulties with his new wife, lines 637 – 642
As we could all have told Jankyn, his new wife is not easy to handle. In fact, he might have suspected as much from the way she had behaved with him during Lente when her fourth husband was away in London.

637 Stibourn I was as is a leonesse,
I was as stubborn as a lioness,
638 And of my tonge a verray jangleresse,
and a great chatterbox,
639 And walke I wolde, as I had doon biforn,
And I would walk from house to house, as I had done before,
640 From hous to hous, although he had it sworn;
although he had sworn I shoudn’t;
641 For which he often tymes wolde preche,
And because of that, he would often preach at me,
642 And me of olde Romayn geestes teche;
and teach me old Roman stories;

Jankyn is now being treated to exactly the behaviour that the first four husbands had to endure. It was during the time of the old husbands that the Wife proclaimed: ‘We love no man that taketh kepe or charge / Wher that we goon, we wol been at our large.’ (lines 321, 22) The old ones had to put up with the Wife spreading damaging gossip around the community ‘if I have a gossib or a freend … If that I walke or pleye unto his hous’ (lines 243, 245) and number four too: ‘to hire (the gossyb) and to another worthy wyf, / And to my nece … I wolde han toold his conseil (secrets) every del.’ (lines 536-8). She is just the ‘jangleresse’ that was so strongly disapproved of by St Paul, and who would have kept Tutivillus busy. But she evidently intends to continue her practice of ‘go(ing) roule aboute’:

And walke I wolde, as I had doon biforn,
From hous to hous, although he had it sworn;

The alliteration of ‘walke I wolde’ signals her determination not to change her ways ‘as I had doon beforn.’ And the rhyme of ‘biforn’ (her long-practised way of behaving) with Jankyn’s ‘sworn’ shows the clash of views.

And the Wife is not going to give way easily. ‘Stibourn I was as is a leonesse’ she tells us, and the lion is an emblem of power; it also signifies pride and wrath (Beryl Rowland). The lioness had a reputation for infidelity: ‘the lyennesse … is a righte lecherous beest and lovyth alwaye the dede of lechery.’ (14th century translator of the Encyclopedia of Bartholomaeus Anglicus). The lionesse could also symbolise the erring soul. (Animals with Human Faces, Beryl Rowland, Allen and Unwin, 1974) This comparison seems to suit the Wife of Bath exactly.

Jankyn reads from his book of wykked wyves, lines 643 – 785

So Jankyn resorts to preaching at his wife, and he takes his list of examples of erring wives from the ‘auctoritees’ that the Wife of Bath so much resents. His preaching continues until line 786. You could say that the Wife went on at the first three husbands for at least that long (lines 235 – 380), and so now it’s her turn to suffer a similar verbal attack. When Jankyn isn’t preaching at the Wife, he is reading her stories from ‘this book of wikked wyves’.

643 How he Symplicius Gallus lefte his wyf,
How Simplicius Gallus left his wife,
644 And hire forsook for terme of al his lyf,
and never came back to her for rest of his life,
645 Noght but for open-heveded he hir say
simply because one day he saw her look out of the door of his house bare-headed
646 Lookynge out at his dore upon a day.
647 Another Romayn tolde he me by name,
He told me about another Roman, by name,
648 That, for his wyf was at a someres game
Who, because his wife was at a midsummer revel
649 Withouten his wityng, he forsook hire eke.
Without his knowledge, forsook her also.
650 And thanne wolde he upon his Bible seke
And then he would look in his Bible for
651 That ilke proverbe of Ecclesiaste
That proverb in the book of Ecclesiasticus
652 Where he comandeth and forbedeth faste
where he commands and strictly forbids that
653 Man shal nat suffre his wyf go roule aboute.
a man should allow his wife to wander about.
654 Thanne wolde he seye right thus, withouten doute:
Then would he say this, dogmatically:
655 `Whoso that buyldeth his hous al of salwes,
`Whoever builds his house of willow twigs,
656 And priketh his blynde hors over the falwes,
and spurs his blind horse over ploughed land,
657 And suffreth his wyf to go seken halwes,
and allows his wife to go on pilgrimages,
658 Is worthy to been hanged on the galwes!’
deserves to be hanged on the gallows!’

These last four rhyming lines are sometimes thought to be some sort of saying, as the Wife contemptuously describes it ‘his proverbes n’ of his olde sawe’. But the relentless rhymes give the impression to us now of the interminable and monotonous stream of antifeminism in Jankyn’s book that he reads to her, ‘night and day.’ According to the saying that Jankyn quotes, a man who lets his wife goes on pilgrimage is as stupid as a man who builds his house of willow (a soft wood), or spurs his blind horse over newly ploughed ground (where the horse would stumble and fall). He deserves to be hanged for being so stupid. It sounds as if the Wife’s penchant for going on pilgrimage has been checked at this point. But at the moment of speaking she is, of course, on another pilgrimage. Presumably that is because Jankyn is dead, although critics differ in their opinions on this.

Occasionally the Wife manages to stem the torrent of preaching to interpolate her own vigorous and dismissive observations. All this antifeminism is out of date ‘olde sawe’ and not worth a ‘hawe’, a small berry. So much for Ecclesiasticus, the Epistola Valerii and other texts written by respected philosophers. Comparing their magisterial works to a haw is rather like comparing them to a used teabag.

659 But al for noght, I sette noght an hawe
But all for nothing, I didn’t give a hawthorn berry
660 Of his proverbes n’ of his olde sawe,
for his proverbs nor for his old sayings,
661 Ne I wolde nat of hym corrected be.
nor would I be corrected by him.
662 I hate hym that my vices telleth me,
I hate a man who tells me my vices,
663 And so doo mo, God woot, of us than I.
and so do more of us than I, God knows.
664 This made hym with me wood al outrely;
This made him utterly furious with me;
665 I nolde noght forbere hym in no cas.
I would not submit to him in any way.

This passage is full of the pronouns ‘I’ / ‘he’ and ‘me’ / ‘hym’; in other words, full of conflict between the Wife and Jankyn. To and fro the warfare goes: ‘I’ ‘his’ in consecutive lines and then, in the same line, ‘I’ …’hym’ repeated. Then ‘hym … me.’ And the section ends with a remarkably stubborn set of negatives: ‘I nolde noght forbere hym in no cas.’ And there is a large number of verbs, mostly to do with strong feelings of antipathy: ‘sette noght,’ ‘I wolde nat … corrected be,’ ‘I hate hym that … telleth me,’ ‘made hym … wood,’ and ‘I nolde noght forbere hym.’

All through the Prologue, the words and stories of men, Jankyn or ‘auctoritees,’ tend to have had an ecclesiastical or classical provenance and Latinate vocabulary. The Wife, relates what has been said, but her diction ranges from the scholarly to the domestic and, indeed, the vulgar. There’s something indomitable about the way she sets her life of ‘experience’ against the highly-regarded thoughts of scholars. For example, ‘But al for noght, I sette noght an hawe / Of his proverbes n’ of his olde sawe..’ The accumulated weight and wisdom of the proverbs and sawes are tossed aside as not being worth even as much as a tiny haw. Somehow the fact that the Wife is in the foreground, as the loud-voiced and energetic spokeswoman for ‘us wives’, helps to relegate the ‘auctoritees’ to a tedious background position. Even if the Wife’s arguments are somewhat suspect, her presence is overpowering. When she asserts that centuries’ worth of scholarly writing are not worth a haw, you have to believe her. Her presence and her voice are too loud for you to do otherwise.

666 Now wol I seye yow sooth, by Seint Thomas,
Now will I tell you the truth, by Saint Thomas,

667 Why that I rente out of his book a leef,
why I tore a page out of his book,

668 For which he smoot me so that I was deef.
for which (reason) he hit me so hard that I went deaf.

That’s the second time she’s told us how Jankyn hit her on the ear.

When the Wife tells us ‘Now wol I seye yow sooth, by Seint Thomas’, it’s like those people who say, ‘To be absolutely honest with you …’. It makes me wonder how dishonest the Wife has been with us up to now.

669 He hadde a book that gladly, nyght and day,
He had a book that, night and day,
670 For his desport he wolde rede alway;
he loved to keep reading for his amusement;
671 He cleped it Valerie and Theofraste,
He called it Valerius and Theofrastus,
672 At which book he lough alwey ful faste.
he always heartily laughed at this book.

Apparently these antifeminist writings were highly entertaining to Jankyn.

673 And eek ther was somtyme a clerk at Rome,
And also there was once a scholar at Rome,
674 A cardinal, that highte Seint Jerome,
a cardinal, who is called Saint Jerome,
675 That made a book agayn Jovinian;
who wrote a book against Jovinian;
676 In which book eek ther was Tertulan,
this book also contained Tertullian,
677 Crisippus, Trotula, and Helowys,
Crisippus, Trotula, and Heloise,
678 That was abbesse nat fer fro Parys,
who was abbess not far from Paris,
679 And eek the Parables of Salomon,
and also the Parables of Salomon,
680 Ovides Art, and bookes many on,
Ovid’s Art, and many other books,
681 And alle thise were bounden in o volume.
and all these were bound in one volume.
682 And every nyght and day was his custume,
And every night and day was his custom,
683 Whan he hadde leyser and vacacioun
when he had leisure and spare time
684 From oother worldly occupacioun,
from other worldly occupations,
685 To reden on this book of wikked wyves.
to read this book of wicked wives.
686 He knew of hem mo legendes and lyves
He knew more stories and lives about them
687 Than been of goode wyves in the Bible.
than there are about good women in the Bible.

Jankyn’s compilation of antifeminism is intolerably comprehensive. Although one probably skips most of the 140 lines devoted to tales from his book of wikked wyves, to run an eye over a short section does give you the feeling of how intensive and unrelenting was the antifeminist sentiment in the patriarchal society of the Middle Ages. On and on it goes: ‘And eek,’ ‘eek’, ‘And eek’, ‘And all thise…’

At this point the Wife manages to insert another derogatory remark about clerks. She points out, justly, that all the tales glorifying men and denigrating women are written by men. What would it be like if the stories were written by women? ‘Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?’ Now, ‘if wommen hadde writen stories,’ it would all sound very different. She’s right. And having got her toe in the door of Jankyn’s non-stop reading aloud, she starts on her version of events: ‘For trusteth wel….’

688 For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
For believe me, it is impossible
689 That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
for any clerk to speak well of wives,
690 But if it be of hooly seintes lyves,
unless it be of holy saints’ lives,
691 Ne of noon oother womman never the mo.
nor of any other woman in any way.
692 Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
Who painted the lion, tell me who?
693 By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
By God, if women had written stories,
694 As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
as clerks have within their studies and chapels,
695 They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
they would have written about more wickedness perpetrated by men
696 Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
than all the male sex could set right.
697 The children of Mercurie and of Venus
The children of Mercury (clerks) and of Venus (lovers)
698 Been in hir wirkyng ful contrarius;
are incompatible;
699 Mercurie loveth wysdam and science,
Mercury loves wisdom and knowledge,
700 And Venus loveth ryot and dispence.
and Venus loves wild dissolute behaviour and extravagance.
701 And, for hire diverse disposicioun,
And, because of their different natures,
702 Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun.
each loses power in the other’s dominant astronomical position.
703 And thus, God woot, Mercurie is desolat
And thus, God knows, Mercury is powerless
704 In Pisces, wher Venus is exaltat,
in Pisces (the Fish), where Venus is dominant,
705 And Venus falleth ther Mercurie is reysed.
and Venus falls where Mercury is in the ascendant.
706 Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed.
Therefore no woman is praised by any scholar.
707 The clerk, whan he is oold, and may noght do
The clerk, when he is old, and can’t make love any better than an old shoe
708 Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho,
709 Thanne sit he doun, and writ in his dotage
then sits down, and writes in his dotage
710 That wommen kan nat kepe hir mariage!
that women can not keep their marriage (vows)!

The Wife has managed to slot in another denigratory remark about clerks, this time asserting that clerks write their antifeminist works when they are old and their lovemaking is about as exciting as an old shoe (not a complaint apparently that is applicable to Jankyn). She thus neatly manages to blame old clerkly husbands for their wives’ infidelities.

Here is the Ellesmere manuscript at the point where the Wife tells us ‘Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed.’ (line 705 ff) with the lengthy accompanying gloss to the left of the text.

fot14

You can find the whole of the Ellesmere manuscript of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale at this website: http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/ref/collection/p15150coll7/id/2838
It comes from the library in California where the manuscript is kept: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, Manuscripts Department, and the ms number is EL 26 C 9.

Then we think we are coming to the climax of the story. ‘But now to purpos …’ But of course, as it’s the Wife, there are many more digressions to come before we actually get to the great moment of the fight. We know the fight is coming, because the Wife told us so, but it keeps getting postponed. Chaucer has made the Wife’s constant digressions a part of her narrative, but now the digressions help to build up the excitement and suspense as we wonder when we will actually get to the great showdown.

711 But now to purpos, why I tolde thee
But now to the point, why I told you
712 That I was beten for a book, pardee!
that I was beaten because of a book, by God!
713 Upon a nyght Jankyn, that was oure sire,
One night Jankin, who was head of our household,
714 Redde on his book, as he sat by the fire,
read his book, as he sat by the fire,
715 Of Eva first, that for hir wikkednesse
first about Eve, who for her wickedness
716 Was al mankynde broght to wrecchednesse,
brought all mankind to wretchedness,
717 For which that Jhesu Crist hymself was slayn,
for which (wickedness) Jesus Christ himself was put to death,
718 That boghte us with his herte blood agayn.
who redeemed us with his heart’s blood.
719 Lo, heere expres of womman may ye fynde
Look, here you can specifically find
That womman was the los of al mankynde.
that woman caused the fall of all mankind.

These references to Eve are probably fuelled by Tertullian in about 200 AD: ‘Do you not know that you (a woman) are Eve? … You are the gateway of the devil.’

Even if you don’t want to look up each allusion to the terrible deeds of women against their men (or in Eve’s case, against all mankind), you can see the cumulatively enraging effect of the endless examples of women’s wickedness and its consequences (highlighted in yellow) and the unstoppable reading aloud on the part of Jankyn (highlighted in green).

721 Tho redde he me how Sampson loste his heres:
Then he read me how Sampson lost his hair:
722 Slepynge, his lemman kitte it with hir sheres;
Sleeping, his lover cut it with her shears;
723 Thurgh which treson loste he bothe his yen.
Through which treason he lost both his eyes.
724 Tho redde he me, if that I shal nat lyen,
Then he read to me, to tell you the absolute truth,
725 Of Hercules and of his Dianyre,
about Hercules and Dianyre,
726 That caused hym to sette hymself afyre.
who caused him to set himself on fire.
727 No thyng forgat he the care and the wo
He forgot not a bit of the trouble and the misery
728 That Socrates hadde with his wyves two,
that Socrates had with his two wives,
729 How Xantippa caste pisse upon his heed.
how Xantippa chucked piss on his head.
730 This sely man sat stille as he were deed;
This poor man sat still as if he were dead;
731 He wiped his heed, namoore dorste he seyn,
He wiped his head, he didn’t dare say any more,
732 But `Er that thonder stynte, comth a reyn!’
except for, `Before the thunder stops, it rains!’

Jankyn’s example of a horrible wife here is to cite the philosophical husband Socrates. Socrates says that after all the shouting from his wife (thunder) there’s sure to be rain (his wife Xantippa had just thrown a pot of pee over his head).

733 Of Phasipha, that was the queene of Crete,
(He read to me) about Phasipha, who was the queen of Crete,
734 For shrewednesse, hym thoughte the tale swete;
for sheer malignancy, he thought the tale sweet;
735 Fy! Spek namoore — it is a grisly thyng —
Speak no more — it is a grisly thing —
736 Of hire horrible lust and hir likyng.
about her horrible lust and her pleasure.
737 Of Clitermystra, for hire lecherye,
about Clytemnestra, for her lechery,
738 That falsly made hire housbonde for to dye,
who falsely made her husband die,
739 He redde it with ful good devocioun.
He read it with very great dedication.
740 He tolde me eek for what occasioun
He told me also for what occasion
741 Amphiorax at Thebes loste his lyf.
Amphiorax at Thebes lost his life.
742 Myn housbonde hadde a legende of his wyf,
My husband had a legend of his wife,
743 Eriphilem, that for an ouche of gold
Eriphilem, who, for a gold brooch,
744 Hath prively unto the Grekes told
secretly told the Greeks
745 Wher that hir housbonde hidde hym in a place,
where her husband had hidden himself,
746 For which he hadde at Thebes sory grace.
which led to his sad fate at Thebes.
747 Of Lyvia tolde he me, and of Lucye:
he told me about Livia, and Lucie:
748 They bothe made hir housbondes for to dye,
they both made their husbands die,
749 That oon for love, that oother was for hate.
one for love, the other out of hatred.
750 Lyvia hir housbonde, on an even late,
Livia poisoned her husband, late one evening,
751 Empoysoned hath, for that she was his fo;
because she was his enemy;
752 Lucia, likerous, loved hire housbonde so
The lecherous Lucia loved her husband so much
753 That, for he sholde alwey upon hire thynke,
that she gave him a certain sort of love-potion, so that he should always think about her,
754 She yaf hym swich a manere love-drynke
755 That he was deed er it were by the morwe;
and as a result he was dead before morning;
756 And thus algates housbondes han sorwe.
And thus husbands always have sorrow.
757 Thanne tolde he me how oon Latumyus
Then he told me how Latumius
758 Compleyned unto his felawe Arrius
complained unto his friend Arrius
759 That in his gardyn growed swich a tree
that a certain tree grew in his garden
760 On which he seyde how that his wyves thre
on which he said his three wives
761 Hanged hemself for herte despitus.
hanged themselves for the malice in their hearts.
762 `O leeve brother,’ quod this Arrius,
`O dear brother,’ this Arrius said,
763 `Yif me a plante of thilke blissed tree,
`give me a shoot of that blessed tree,
764 And in my gardyn planted shal it bee.’
and it shall be planted in my garden.’

The pace of the passage (and distress of the Wife) increases as we hurtle towards the climax. The pace seems to intensify with the constant repetitions. The accusing voice of Jankyn dominates the passage: ‘He spak’, ‘quod he’. And he has so many examples of alleged female wickedness: ‘more harm’, ‘mo proverbs.’ The whole thing is a tirade against women, and women are mentioned again and again (highlighted in grey). The word ‘somme’ – meaning some women – is repeated incessantly. Just after this section, the Wife tells us ‘Who wolde wene … / The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?’

765 Of latter date, of wyves hath he red
he read about wives from a later date
766 That somme han slayn hir housbondes in hir bed,
some of whom have killed their husbands in their bed,
767 And lete hir lecchour dighte hire al the nyght,
and allowed their lecherous lovers screw them all night,
768 Whan that the corps lay in the floor upright.
while the corpse lay on the floor flat on its back.
769 And somme han dryve nayles in hir brayn,
And some have driven nails in their (husbands’) brains,
770 Whil that they slepte, and thus they had hem slayn.
while they slept, and that’s how they killed them.
771 Somme han hem yeve poysoun in hire drynke.
Some have given them poison in their drink.
772 He spak moore harm than herte may bithynke,
He spoke more harm (against women) than the heart may imagine,
773 And therwithal he knew of mo proverbes
and in addition he knew of more proverbs
774 Than in this world ther growen gras or herbes.
than there are grass or herbs on the planet.

Gail Ashton writes: ‘It is interesting to note … what women apparently do to men in Alison’s personal reading of Jankyn’s books. Sampson loses his hair and both his eyes, thanks to Delilah. Hercules is set on fire. Xantippa “caste pisse” on Socrates’ head. Lyria and Lucia both poison their husbands. Other women drive nails into the brains of their men as they sleep or slay men in their beds after which ‘hir lecchour dihte hire al the night’ while the corpse lies … on the floor.

‘We recognise in all this misogynistic fears of physical violence … embodied in irrational and monstrous women. … The male body is feminized: rendered passive, penetrated (nails in the brain), and marked while the feminine performs, often sexually. It (the male body) is reduced to its parts – heart, head, eyes, brain – those segments traditionally associated with masculine intellect and rationality, with sight and cognition … all here under attack.’ From the section ‘Feminisms’ in Chaucer: an Oxford Guide edited by Steve Ellis OUP 2005 pages 380, 81.

775 `Bet is,’ quod he, `thyn habitacioun
`It is better to live,’ he said,
776 Be with a leon or a foul dragoun,
with a lion or a foul dragon,
777 Than with a womman usynge for to chyde.
than with a scolding woman.
778 Bet is,’ quod he, `hye in the roof abyde,
It’s better,’ he said, `to stay high in the roof,
779 Than with an angry wyf doun in the hous;
than with an angry wife down in the house;
780 They been so wikked and contrarious,
They are so wicked and contrary,
781 They haten that hir housbondes loven ay.’
they always hate what their husbands love.’

This idea comes from the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, Chapter 21:  Better to live on the roof than share the house with a nagging wife. Wycliffe’s translation reads: ‘It is better to sit in the corner of an house without roof, than with a woman full of chiding, and in a common house.

782 He seyde, `A womman cast hir shame away,
He said, `A woman casts their shame away,
783 Whan she cast of hir smok’; and forthermo,
when she takes off her undergarment’; and furthermore,
784 `A fair womman, but she be chaast also,
`A fair woman, unless she is also chaste,
785 Is lyk a gold ryng in a sowes nose.’
is like a gold ring in a sow’s nose.’

This comes from Proverbs Chapter 11 verse 22. Wyclif’s translation: ‘A golden ring in the nostrils of a sow, (is like) a woman fair and fool. (A gold ring in the nostrils of a pig, is like a woman who is comely, but foolish.)’ The Good News Translation reads: ‘Beauty in a woman without good judgment is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.’ The Latin gloss that was added to the manuscript by the scribe, adds the insult ‘impudica’ meaning unchaste to the quotation from Proverbs echoing ‘but she be chaast also’ in the text.

A question arises. Earlier, the Wife was telling us of the insults against women that she imputed (falsely) to the three old husbands. Ashamed that they should have said such things to her, they spoil her to make up for their abominable behaviour. The thing is, she was twelve when she married the first old husband. Surely at that age she would not have known anything about all the antifeminists whose words she uses against her old husbands. Presumably she learned about them much later, from Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves. Perhaps this explains her vehemence in the first three lines of her Prologue.

But if she didn’t know about the antifeminist ‘auctoritees’ in such detail when she was only a teenager, has she in fact invented the diatribe against the three old husbands? Come to that, how much of any of what she tells us can we believe? Even the number of pages torn out of Jankyn’s book seems to range from one to three. And her attitudes change from moment to moment. One moment she is rubbishing the ‘auctoritees’, the next she seems anxious to assure us that she has complied with their dictates.

Is the whole of this Prologue a fiction?

Well, yes, of course it is: Chaucer wrote it. But he assembled a mass of different antifeminist texts in order to do so, and made it sound like the discourse of a real woman. As Coleridge put it in 1817, if the writer achieves a ‘human interest and a semblance of truth’ in a tale, then the audience / reader embraces a ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ Chaucer has done this so convincingly that several critics have looked for real-life originals of Alison of Bath. It’s just that, when you think about the Wife’s lifestory, you realise it couldn’t have happened exactly as she claims it did. But then, she didn’t tell the truth to the three old husbands, or to Jankyn when they were having daliaunce in the fields when the fourth husband was in London. So why should we suppose she would be truthful to us? Is this another of Chaucer’s jokes? Is he seeing whether he can take us in, make us as gullible as the husbands were?

The fourth and fifth husbands, lines-786-828

Section 3 The fourth and fifth husbands:

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, lines 786 – 828

The Wife can’t bear any more and rips three pages out of Jankyn’s book, lines 786 – 793

Driven to desperation by this never-ending list of the wickedness of wives, the Wife takes action. She starts, not by attacking Jankyn, but by defacing the book, the symbol of ‘auctoritee’. This section continues the theme of marriage as conflict and as a battle for supremacy.

786 Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose,
Who would believe, or who would suppose,
787 The wo that in myn herte was, and pyne?
the woe and pain that was in my heart?
788 And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne
And when I saw he would never stop
789 To reden on this cursed book al nyght,
reading from this cursed book all night,
790 Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
suddenly I ripped three pages
791 Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
out of his book, as he was reading, and also
792 I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
I hit him with my fist on the cheek so hard
793 That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.
that he fell down backwards in our fire.

In the heat of the moment, the number of pages the Wife has ripped out of the book has now increased, from one to three. The story gets amplified each time she tells it. Alliteration adds plenty of emphasis to the important words. In the first line of the passage, ‘Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose …?’ repeated questions and clauses underline the Wife’s distress at this constant verbal abuse read out by Jankyn, the latest in a long line of antifeminists. As usual in the Wife’s warfare, there is also a large number of adversarial pronouns, ‘I’ versus ‘he’ / ‘hym’. In modern editions of the text, the pace of the narrative suddenly accelerates with the run-on lines:

Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
791 Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
792 I with my fest so took hym on the cheke
793 That in oure fyr he fil bakward adoun.

However, if you look at the Ellesmere manuscript, there is no punctuation other than virgules. But you still have the impression of the speed and intensity of the episode. How has Chaucer achieved this? The lead up is important. First the question, who can imagine my distress? Instead of an immediate answer to the question, we have a moment while the Wife realises Jankyn will go on reading aloud all night:

And whan I saugh he wolde nevere fyne
789 To reden on this cursed book al nyght…

We pause, ‘And when I saugh …’ So what happened? And the Wife launches in with tremendous energy: ‘Al sodeynly ….’ and a great rush of verbs, which give us the answer to the question. This is what happened; this is what she did. She physically destroys the antifeminist writings:

thre leves have I plyght

Out of his book …

The repeated ls in ‘leves’ and ‘plyght’ add urgency to her action, as does the alliteration of ‘right as he radde’ and ‘fest … that in our fyr he fil bakward …’. This being the Wife, there are lots of verbs, lots of action: ‘plyght’, ‘radde’, ‘took’, ‘he fil’. Also, in each case we are told what she did ‘I plyght,’ ‘I with my fest so took hym’, and when she did it ‘as he radde’ or what the consequence was ‘he fil bakward adoun.’ Except for the word ‘bakward’, the story is told in simple monosyllables, which speed up the narrative. There are no digressions, just what she did and what happened.

This is the climax of the story, towards which we have been working ever since line one when the Wife’s ‘experience’ was set against patriarchal ‘auctoritee’. The Wife has been intent on destroying male domination, both by verbally dismantling its power and now physically by ripping it up and, in a moment, making Jankyn burn it.

It seems that domestic fights were not that uncommon, judging by the depictions on misericords and in manuscripts.

fot19

Domestic brawl: on a misericord in Tewkesbury Abbey http://www.richard-hayman.co.uk

Walters Manuscript W 88 fol 163r

fot21

Husband on his knees at the foot of his wife who holds the tippet of his hood with one hand and belabours him with some implement (probably a flax mallet, possibly a washing beetle) held in the other. Misericord in Chester Cathedral, dating from 1390.

Jankyn and the Wife fight, lines 794 – 810

794 And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun,
And he leaped up as a furious lion does,
795 And with his fest he smoot me on the heed
and with his fist he thumped me on the head
796 That in the floor I lay as I were deed.
so that I lay on the floor as if I were dead.
797 And whan he saugh how stille that I lay,
And when he saw how still I lay,
798 He was agast and wolde han fled his way,
he was appalled and would have run away,
799 Til atte laste out of my swogh I breyde.
until at last I regained consciousness.

Jankyn’s response is that of the king of the beasts, ‘a wood leoun’. Earlier, the old husbands were defeated, even ‘thogh he looked as a wood leoun, / Yet should he faille…’ lines (429, 30) and the Wife is not going to give in. Now, she has attacked Jankyn with her ‘fest’, and he does the same, ‘And with his fest he smoot me…’. There are lots of percussive consonants: the repeated sts of ‘stirte’ and ‘fest’; the powerful ‘sm’ of ‘smoot.’ Still Chaucer chooses monosyllables, except for ‘leoun,’ so that this part of the tale moves very fast until we get to the word ‘deed’ where the sentence stops. Now the pace slows as Jankyn sees what he has done, with the frightened s sounds: ‘saugh how stille,’ and ‘agast’ until the Wife comes round ‘atte laste out of my swogh I breyde.’

As so often with the Wife’s version of events, you begin to wonder. If she was really unconscious, in a ‘swogh’, how does she know that Jankyn was horrified and about to run away? Did she time her ‘recovery’ to stop him from fleeing?

800 `O! hastow slayn me, false theef?’ I seyde,
`O! have you killed me, false thief?’ I said,
801 `And for my land thus hastow mordred me?
`and have you murdered me for my land?
802 Er I be deed, yet wol I kisse thee.’
before I die, I’ll kiss you.’
803 And neer he cam, and kneled faire adoun,
And he came near me, and kneeled respectfully down,
804 And seyde, `Deere suster Alisoun,
and said, `Dear sister Alisoun,
805 As help me God, I shal thee nevere smyte!
so help me God, I shall never hit you (again)!
806 That I have doon, it is thyself to wyte.
You are to blame for what I have done (i.e. you drove me to it).
807 Foryeve it me, and that I thee biseke!’
forgive me, I beg you!’
808 And yet eftsoones I hitte hym on the cheke,
And yet I immediately hit him on the cheek,
809 And seyde, `Theef, thus muchel am I wreke;
and said, `Thief, at least I’ve paid you back this much;
810 Now wol I dye, I may no lenger speke.’
now I’ll die, I can’t speak any more.’

It has been suggested that the idea for the apparently dying Wife’s attack on Jankyn comes from the 12th century writer Walter Map’s De nugis curialium (Of Courtiers’ Trifles). This contains a tale of a wounded man who asks his assailant to take a kiss to his family, and when the attacker kneels down, the wounded man stabs him. It would be ironic if she got the idea of renewing her attack on Jankyn from Jankyn’s remorseless reading of antifeminist material from Walter Map! However, it has to be admitted that the tale of the wounded man and his assailant is not in itself antifeminist. But Map’s book is one that provided ammunition in Jankyn’s favourite book. It includes the famous letter from Valerius to Rufinus, upon the folly of marrying a wife that entertained Jankyn so much: ‘He cleped it Valerie and Theofraste’ line 671.

Jankyn and the Wife come to an agreement and live happily together with the Wife in control, lines 811 – 828

811 But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
But eventually, with much trouble and woe,
812 We fille acorded by us selven two.
we arrived at an agreement between ourselves.
813 He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
He gave me complete control,
814 To han the governance of hous and lond,
over house and land,
815 And of his tonge, and of his hond also;
and over what he said, and over his authority also;
816 And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.
and I immediately made him burn his book.
817 And whan that I hadde geten unto me,
And when I had acquired,
818 By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,
By power, all the sovereignty (over him),
819 And that he seyde, `Myn owene trewe wyf,
and he said, `My own true wife,
820 Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf;
do as you please for the rest of all your life;
821 Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat’ —
Guard your honour, and also guard my reputation’ —

So, the Wife makes him burn the Book of Wikked Wyves. Fire has been an antifeminist image right the way through the Prologue, connected with women’s misdeeds. Finally, however, it is fire that burns the antifeminist book – better still, the Wife makes Jankyn consign it to the flames. Poetic justice.

Much earlier in the Wife’s story, during the time of the three old husbands, she had said,

Thou sholdest seye, ‘Wyf, go wher thee liste; …
I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, Dame Alis.’ (lines 319, 321)

Now, apparently, her dream has come true:

he seyde, `Myn owene trewe wyf,
820 Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf;
821 Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat’ —

The thing is, it isn’t quite the dream come true that it sounds. She tells us:

Whan that I hadde geten unto me
By maistrie all the soveraynetee,
(And when) that he seyde, ‘Mine owene trewe wyf,
Do as thee lust…..
After that day we hadden never debaat.

It’s quite a big ‘whan’. It is only ‘whan’ she has acquired total supremacy (‘by maistrie all the soveraynetee’) and when she has presumably required him to say, ‘Mine owene trewe wyf, / Do as the lust (do what you want)’ that she finally allows ‘After that day’ -which is another ‘whan’ – ‘we hadden never debaat.’ It doesn’t sound as if the loving words were quite so spontaneous a declaration of Jankyn’s love as one might have supposed.

822 After that day we hadden never debaat.
After that day we never had an argument.
823 God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde
So help me God, I was as kind to him
824 As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,
as any wife from Denmark unto India,
825 And also trewe, and so was he to me.
and also faithful, and so was he to me.
826 I prey to God, that sit in magestee,
I pray to God in majesty,
827 So blesse his soule for his mercy deere.
to bless his soul through his dear mercy dear.
828 Now wol I seye my tale, if ye wol heere.”
Now will I tell my tale, if you will listen to it.”

This story of the Wife of Bath’s life sounds as if it all ends happily, except that presumably Jankyn is now dead, as she is asking God’s mercy on his soul:
‘I pray to God ….So blesse his soule for his mercy deere.’ Also, she speaks of him in the past tense: ‘and so was he to me.’ However, some critics think that Jankyn is still alive and that the Wife, true to form, and not wanting to have only one mousehole to run to in case of trouble, is on the lookout for number six already.

There is one slight hitch. The Wife tells us that

I was to hym as kynde
824 As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,

in other words, as any wife could be in the whole wide world. And ‘kynde’ probably does mean just that, loving and affectionate. But ‘kynde’ has another meaning in Middle English, which is behaving according to one’s nature, so here, doing what is natural and innate to a woman. Earlier, we were told

Deceite, weping, spinning, God hath yeve
To wommen kindely, whil they may live. (lines 401,2)

So the marriage of Jankyn and the Wife could have ended with her behaving in the way natural ‘kindely’ to any wife in the whole wide world. Is that happy ever after?

The proverbs and images in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue

There are a great many proverbs in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. (Although some of the sayings that sound like proverbs actually make their first appearance on the pages of the Prologue.) Do they have the effect of making her sound grounded, as opposed to cut off from the world in pursuit of philosophy, like one of the chaste clerics she so despises? Do they set the rich colourful world of everyday against the dry repressive antifeminist world of ‘auctoritee’? Or are they another rather dubious way of proving that she is right – most proverbs are rather generalised and can be applied to almost anything, especially in the Wife’s hands. Or are they a way of showing that she isn’t that intelligent: a male cleric of the time would see this application of a smattering of proverbs as typical of a woman’s illogical intellect and of the homely world in which she lives.

As you would expect with the Wife of Bath, a great many of the proverbs and the images are about sex. Some are about survival; some are about dominating her husbands. Two are proverbs against women quoted by the Wife’s fifth husband, the cleric Jankyn, against the Wife. It adds to the comedy that the store of proverbs she has so liberally used to promote her own cause, is now being used against her by the husband she loves most. The proverbs and images that the Wife uses tend to give a homely feel to the world of experience: it is the world of the everyday, that you see and touch around you all the time. The world of auctoritee is pictured by the wife as the dry impractical sphere of out of touch, unmarried clerics.

Here is the Wife commenting on St Paul’s counsel for people to embrace virginity; a concept she does not embrace. Somehow, she manages to introduce sex into her comment:

The dart is set up for virginitee.
Cacche whoso may, who runneth best lat see. (lines 75, 6)

And here is the relevant passage from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 9, starting at verse 23.

All this I do for the gospel’s sake, in order to share in its blessings. Surely you know that many runners take part in a race, but only one of them wins the prize. Run, then, in such a way as to win the prize. Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last forever. That is why I run straight for the finish line; that is why I am like a boxer who does not waste his punches. I harden my body with blows and bring it under complete control, to keep myself from being disqualified after having called others to the contest.

The Wyclif translation reads:

Know ye not, that they that run in a furlong, all run, but one taketh the prize? So run ye, that ye catch.
Each man that striveth in fight, abstaineth him from all things; and they [forsooth], that they take a corruptible crown, but we an uncorrupt.
Therefore I run so, not as to an uncertain thing; thus I fight, not as beating the air;
but I chastise my body, and bring it into servage; lest peradventure when I preach to others [lest peradventure when I have preached to others], I myself be made reprovable.

The word ‘dart’ that the Wife uses in ‘The dart is set up for virginitee,’ is conspicuously absent in St Paul’s writing – whether you use the contemporary late fourteenth century Wycliffe translation or a modern one. The critics Skeat and Tyrwhitt suggest that a dart was sometimes given as the prize to the winner of a race, but Beidler, who follows this, thinks that the Wife had a different, phallic, sort of dart in mind. Which is even funnier, since she is talking about ‘virginitee’. Here, the incompatible worlds of auctoritee advocating barren virginity, and experience, advocating practicality, clash in characteristic fashion.

A few lines further on, the Wife is still talking about sex.
For peril is both fire and tow to assemble (line 89)
It’s dangerous to mix fire and flax
Of course, as the Wife uses it, this proverb is about sex. Flax is very flammable and is ignited by the fire of lust. However, as found in the Old Testament, which might be where the saying originated, in the book of the prophet Isaiah, it is about powerful people being destroyed by the evil that they do.
Chapter 1 verse 31:

And your strength shall be as a dead spark of stubble, either of hards of flax, and your work shall be as a quick spark; and ever either shall be burnt together, and none shall be that shall quench. (And your strength shall be like a dead spark of stubble, or of the husks of flax, and your work shall be like a living spark; and both shall be burned together, and no one shall be able to quench them.)

(Wyclif translation; hards of flax are the refuse or coarse part of flax; tow.)
The Good News translation substitutes straw for tow:

Just as straw is set on fire by a spark, so powerful people will be destroyed by their own evil deeds, and no one will be able to stop the destruction.

Other writers have used this proverb, though admittedly some time after Chaucer. For example ‘The Good Wyfe wold a Pylgremage’, dated 1460, contains this image:
‘Feyre and tow i-leyde to-gedore,/ kyndoll hit woll, be resson’
If fire and tow (flax) are laid together, they will, obviously, ignite (burst into flame).
This lyric comes from the A Middle English Miscellany, a mid-fifteenth-century miscellany of prose and verse, formerly known as Porkington MS 10, and it is one of the most important medieval English manuscripts at the National Library of Wales.

fot22

The Wife constantly refers to herself in terms of flour, barley bread, wheat flour, bran, mills and grinding of flour in the first half of her Prologue. And it turns out that these images, too, have sexual connotations. First, the Wife trumpets,
I will bestow the flour of all mine age
In the actes and the fruit of marriage…. (lines 113, 14)
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first definition of flour as: originally, the ‘flower’ or finest quality of meal; hence, the finer portion of meal (whether from wheat or other grain) which is separated by bolting (sieving). The word was in use in this sense in the 14th century. So it seems that whether it is spelt ‘flower’ or ‘flour’ in the Wife’s Prologue, it has the same meaning: the finest part of herself, or her life. Typically, given that it’s the Wife speaking, this means her ‘bele chose’; it means, as she makes explicit, the ‘actes of marriage’. Not, as the church recommended, in order to have children – there is no mention of children in her life story. It’s about sexual pleasure. This is a remarkably secular, pleasure-seeking interpretation of the best part of her life (which one might have hoped from a woman on pilgrimage would be a spiritual matter). It’s also a very homely, domestic image, associated with baking bread. The Wife always expresses her ideas and feelings in homely terms, in sharp contrast to the theories of the church fathers couched in latinate words.

However, the link with the spiritual in the image of flour continues a few lines later lines 143, 44) when the Wife says cheerfully that ‘us wives’ can be called barley bread, dismissing virgins with a wave of the hand, ‘Let them be bred of pured wheate seed’ (the best kind of bread). So already, her best flour (line 113) is used for something quite other than the best flour that goes to the making of ‘bread of pured wheate seed’ (line 143) namely, ‘Christ’ and ‘many a saint’, who ‘lived .. ever in perfect chastity.’ Are we supposed to read this as a reminder of the true spiritual image of flour going to the making of bread, and thus as a condemnation of the Wife’s pleasure-seeking way of life?

The Wife’s reference in these lines ‘Let us wives be called barley bread’ is to St Jerome’s Letter Against Jovinian section 7. St Jerome had written, ‘Let us turn back to the chief point of the evidence: “It is good,” he says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness. He would never have added “let each man have his own wife,” unless he had previously used the words “but, because of fornications.” Do away with fornication, and he will not say “let each man have his own wife.” Just as though one were to lay it down: “It is good to feed on wheaten bread, and to eat the finest wheat flour,” and yet to prevent a person pressed by hunger from devouring cow-dung, I may allow him to eat barley. Does it follow that the wheat will not have its peculiar purity, because such an one prefers barley to excrement? That is naturally good which does not admit of comparison with what is bad, and is not eclipsed because something else is preferred.’

St Jerome is here proving, in arguments similar to the proving of a theorem, the excellence of chastity by comparing it to the finest wheat flour. He more or less dismisses eating bread made from barley-flour, making it seem dangerously close to eating dung. In his comparison, fornication is dung, marriage is comparable to barley-flour and chastity, of course, to the finest wheat flour.

The Wife, however, sees the whole barley-bread and wheat seed image in terms of appetite. She, characteristically, makes it a matter of taste. Jill Mann points this out in her notes to the Penguin Classics edition of the Canterbury Tales, p 884.
‘Lat hem (virgins) be breed of pured whete-seed,
And lat us wives hoten (be called) barly-breed.’
The Wife somehow manages to make barley bread sound much more delicious than the pured whete-seed (virgins), who are summarily dismissed with ‘Lat hem be ….’ She engages 50% of her world-wide audience with her inclusive ‘us wives.’ Her literal audience contained two women, both nuns, to whom this reference presumably did not apply. But in her imagination she has gone far beyond her literal audience.

The ground of St Jerome’s argument is further confused and diminished by the Wife’s sudden illogical allusion to the five barley loaves with which Jesus fed the five thousand in St John’s Gospel Chapter 6 (not St Mark’s, as the Wife claims). I imagine this story pops into the Wife’s mind because St John specifically mentions that the bread was barley bread, and she has just been talking about St Jerome’s idea that wives are equivalent to barley bread. This is how St John’s story goes.

‘Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him (Jesus),  “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?”  Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand.  Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.’
St John continues the story by telling us that on the following day, the large crowd the Jesus had fed looked for him again. And ‘when the people saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Caper′na-um, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”  Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform?  Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.”  They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst…’

The story continues with Jesus saying: ‘I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me.  This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”’

I have quoted Chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel at length to show the direction in which St John takes his story of the miracle of Jesus providing bread for so many people. Jesus has fed five thousand hungry people with five barley loaves and they have eaten as much as they wanted. This is one of the many signs in St John’s gospel of the divinity of Christ, the nature of God, which in this instance is to feed people who are hungry. St John then reports what Jesus says that there is bread that feeds you when you are hungry, but that what he has really come to bring is himself, ‘the living bread which came down from heaven,’ so that people may live for ever. He is speaking in spiritual terms, to show how belief in him will feed every part of a person – physical, emotional, mental, spiritual – to sustain them for ever. Just as he fed the hungry crowd with literal bread, so he will satisfy them with spiritual food that gives them life.

I wonder whether, in her constant references to herself as ‘flour’ which she and her various partners enjoy in a strictly sexual sense, the Wife is either blaspheming (if you take the Prologue very seriously) or showing an irrepressible vitality of a kind that Bakhtin would associate with the spirit of carnival. She says, ‘Oure Lord Jhesu refresshed many a man’ with the barley bread at the feeding of the five thousand. ‘Refresshed’ is a word she used only one hundred lines earlier of King Solomon’s sex life, wishing that she could be ‘refresshed half so ofte as he!’ with all his wives and the ‘many a murye fit’ he had with ‘ech of hem’. Again, it’s all seen in terms of appetite, whether for eating or sex. If ‘refresshed’ is going to have sexual connotations, as it evidently is, then everything to do with flour and bread – and of course, mills and grinding – is a part of the Wife’s sexual world view.

However, the story the Wife refers to is of Jesus feeding with barley bread a huge crowd of people who had been listening to what he had to say. We know she can’t listen because she is rather deaf; also she’s too busy talking herself and refuting what the church fathers have said. And in this same chapter of St John’s gospel, Jesus shows what an astonishing spiritual meaning the bread can have. He says, ‘I am the bread of life’ – one of several times in St John’s gospel that Jesus says ‘I am ….’. In so doing, he refers specifically to God in the Old Testament. In Exodus, Chapter 3, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, telling him, ‘I am that I am’ (or who I am in more modern translations). Jesus is thus making it clear that he is God.

But the Wife has more or less shoved God out of the window. She doesn’t envy anyone the state of virginity, even if Christ himself was virgin. He gets dismissed along with everyone else who is ‘breed of pured whete-seed,’ while the Wife enthusiastically embraces the state of wifehood.

Crist was a mayde, and shapen as a man,
And many a seint, sith that the world bigan,
Yet lived they ever in parfit chastitee.
I nil envye no virginitee;
Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,
And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed;
And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle can,
Our lord Iesu refresshed many a man. (lines 140 – 47)

Surely the image of bread which runs through the gospels must have reminded the listeners of Chaucer’s day of the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples before his crucifixion the next day. At this supper, according to St Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 26, ‘While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”’ Ever since then, Jesus’s followers have commemorated this meal at the celebration of the Eucharist, or thanksgiving, for what Jesus did. This most sacred commemoration is a far cry from the Wife’s conception of flour and bread and its associations.

Here is the Wife again, somewhat later, competitively saying that the early bird catches the worm. In other words, if she gets her complaint to her husbands in before they can complain to her, she will win ‘maistrye’ over them. The proverb she uses is
Whoso that first to mille comth, first grint. (389) Although this time she is referring to bringing flour to the mill to be ground, rather than referring to the flour or the bread itself, the proverb still contains sexual allusions.

I coude pleyne, thogh I were in the gilt,
Or elles often tyme hadde I ben spilt.
Who-so that first to mille comth, first grint;
I pleyned first, so was our werre y-stint.

Barry Sanders’ article on the subject makes it clear that: ‘The term grind … carried the meaning ‘copulation.’ (in Slang and its Analogues: Past and Present (London, 1890). Partridge (A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (London, 1961) … indicates that mill and grindstone, when used sexually, referred to the pudendum and the penis, respectively.’

Jack Lundbom, in his Notes from ‘Deuteronomy: a Commentary, mentions that in Proverbs. xxvii. 22. or in a mill hand-mill … upper millstone a pair of stones that made up a smaller type of mill found in … (most) households. One term for the upper millstone (as in Judges 9.53) is the ‘rider stone’ since it ‘rides’ on the lower millstone. … One of the common mills of antiquity was the ‘saddle-quern’ which consisted of a large slightly concave lower stone, … used together with a smaller loaf-shaped upper stone. … There is a rotary quern described as ‘two stones … which lie in contact; the face of the nether stone has often a raised collar inside of which the upper stone fits.’ Then the whole thing is rotated in half circles, backwards and forwards.’
So you can see why millstones acquired their sexual connotations.

Alastair Roberts has allowed me to quote from his post, Sex and Death on the Threshing Floor, to be found at http://alastairadversaria.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/sex-and-death-on-the-threshing-floor/

‘Much of the following is highly speculative, and should be taken on board only with considerable caution. In most of the respects that matter, interpreting Scripture is more of an art than a science, so we will need to develop and depend upon an instinct for the text, in communion with the Church’s tradition of engagement…

‘The threshing floor was a place associated with sexual congress, both licit and illicit. In Hosea 9:1, YHWH declares: ‘Do not rejoice, O Israel, with joy like other peoples, For you have played the harlot against your God. You have made love for hire on every threshing floor.

‘The reduction of the grain obtained through the threshing process to floor was also associated with sexual imagery. There were two millstones, one on top of another. While the lower of the two stones was especially associated with women and the upper especially associated with men… both upper and lower millstones were connected with women, as the act of grinding the mill was primarily the task of women.

‘In Job 31:10 we read, ‘Then let my wife grind for another, and let others bow down over her.’ The woman here seems to be symbolically identified with the lower millstone. The point of the verse is not, as some (perhaps more delicate) translations and interpreters would have it, that Job’s wife should become the slave of another man, but that she should be sexually subject to him, as the lower millstone ‘grinds’ beneath the upper millstone.’

At the end of her bittersweet reminiscence the Wife again refers to the best of herself as ‘flour’ and her present attractions, such as they are, as ‘bran’. As she has just been telling us what fun she used to have when she was young, presumably these references to ‘flour’ and ‘bren’ concern sex. ‘Pith’ means the essential or vital part, the spirit or essence of a thing or person; it can also be the best part of a loaf, the ‘crumb’.

But age, allas! that al wol envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith;
Lat go, fare-wel, the devel go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is na-more to telle,
The bren, as I best can, now moste I selle; (474 – 478)

The flour (the best part of my life / my youth) has gone, there’s no more to be said about that. Now I must sell what’s left, the bran (the husk round the flour).

If you want to read the whole text of St Jerome’s Letter against Jovinian, section 7 – the section the Wife refers to when she happily claims let us wives be called barley bread – it is printed here.

‘Let us turn back to the chief point of the evidence: “It is good,” he says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil. But surely a thing which is only allowed because there may be something worse has only a slight degree of goodness. He would never have added “let each man have his own wife,” unless he had previously used the words “but, because of fornications.” Do away with fornication, and he will not say “let each man have his own wife.” Just as though one were to lay it down: “It is good to feed on wheaten bread, and to eat the finest wheat flour,” and yet to prevent a person pressed by hunger from devouring cow-dung, I may allow him to eat barley. Does it follow that the wheat will not have its peculiar purity, because such an one prefers barley to excrement? That is naturally good which does not admit of comparison with what is bad, and is not eclipsed because something else is preferred. At the same time we must notice the Apostle’s prudence. He did not say, it is good not to have a wife: but, it is good not to touch a woman: as though there were danger even in the touch: as though he who touched her, would not escape from her who “hunts for the precious life,” who causes the young man’s understanding to fly away. Proverbs 6:27-28 “Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be scorched?” As then he who touches fire is instantly burned, so by the mere touch the peculiar nature of man and woman is perceived, and the difference of sex is understood. Heathen fables relate how Mithras and Ericthonius were begotten of the soil, in stone or earth, by raging lust. Hence it was that our Joseph, because the Egyptian woman wished to touch him, fled from her hands, and, as if he had been bitten by a mad dog and feared the spreading poison, threw away the cloak which she had touched. “But, because of fornications let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” He did not say, because of fornication let each man marry a wife: otherwise by this excuse he would have thrown the reins to lust, and whenever a man’s wife died, he would have to marry another to prevent fornication, but “have his own wife.” Let him he says have and use his own wife, whom he had before he became a believer, and whom it would have been good not to touch, and, when once he became a follower of Christ, to know only as a sister, not as a wife unless fornication should make it excusable to touch her. “The wife has not power over her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband has not power over his own body, but the wife.” The whole question here concerns those who are married men. Is it lawful for them to do what our Lord forbade in the Gospel, and to put away their wives? Whence it is that the Apostle says, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” But inasmuch as he who is once married has no power to abstain except by mutual consent, and may not reject an unoffending partner, let the husband render unto the wife her due. He bound himself voluntarily that he might be under compulsion to render it. “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be by consent for a season, that you may give yourselves unto prayer.” What, I pray you, is the quality of that good thing which hinders prayer? Which does not allow the body of Christ to be received? So long as I do the husband’s part, I fail in continency. The same Apostle in another place commands us to pray always. If we are to pray always, it follows that we must never be in the bondage of wedlock, for as often as I render my wife her due, I cannot pray. from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/30091.htm

When the Wife is busy dominating her old husbands by scolding them and telling them they come home drunk, she tells them they are ‘As drunken as a mous’ (line 246). None of this is true, of course, as she later admits.

In the Knight’s Tale, the idea of being as drunk as a mouse is much more serious than in is in the Wife’s Prologue. In a speech whose ideas are taken largely from The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (which Chaucer had translated earlier in his life) Arcite says:

We witen nat what thing we preyen here. We don’t know what we’re asking for
We faren as he that dronke is as a mous; We act like someone who is completely drunk
A dronke man wot wel he hath an hous, A drunk man knows he has a home
Be he noot which the righte wey is thider; But he can’t remember the way there
And to a dronke man the wey is slider. And so someone who is drunk the path is slippery
And certes, in this world so faren we; And that’s how we all behave in this world
We seken faste after felicitee, We search passionately for happiness
But we goon wrong ful often, trewely. But truly we often get it wrong.

Needless to say, the Wife is not thinking of anything so highbrow as losing ones way in life when she uses the expression ‘as drunken as a mous.’ She is accusing the three old husbands of saying dreadful things to her when

Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous
And prechest on thy bench, with yvel preef!
(lines 246, 7)

The saying as drunk as a mouse, or often, as a drowned mouse, seems to have been quite common. It’s first found in 1307 in Harley’s Lyrics, which reads: When þat he is dronke ase a dreynt mous, (when he is as drunk as a drowned mouse) and it means, completely sozzled. A mouse is also someone who is timid, so it’s thoroughly insulting to the old husbands, as well as being part of the Wife’s method of deceiving her husbands and dominating them. Again, house mice, and getting very wet and being drunk coming home from the pub are all part of the everyday world of the Wife’s ‘experience’. A mouse must surely make you think of something irritating that you find underfoot in the house and is a complete nuisance – and although I think one should stick to fourteenth century understanding so far as possible, this does add another dimension to the description of the husbands!

Later on, the Wife again uses a mouse for comparison; this time it’s to condemn people who only have Plan A, and no plan B to fall back on.

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek,
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to,
And if that faille, thanne is al y-do.

(There was a well-known saying: mus non uni fidit antro: a mouse does not trust to one hole.) And what about the heart of that mouse that has only lined up one mousehole for itself to scuttle into, she asks? Beryl Rowland tells us that mice were thought to be unbelievably fertile. And as fertility was almost synonymous with being interested in sex, a mouse became a symbol of lechery, specifically of female sexuality and genitals. Apparently there is a passage in a Greek chorus which reads: ‘the accursed go-between fooled me completely, swearing … that the wench was a virgin … and all the time she was an absolute mousehole.’ And here’s a medieval lyric in which a young woman describes her sexual relationship with her master:

Ser Iohn ys taken In my mouse-trappe. (Ser Iohn – generic name for a priest)
Ffayn wold I have hem both nyght and day,
He gropith so nysleye a-bout my lap,
I have no powre to sa(y hym nay).

This lyric, ‘Hey Noyney’ is printed in The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England by Barbara A. Hanawalt, Oxford University Press. You can also find it in Anthology of Ancient and Medieval Woman’s Song edited by Anne L Klinck (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) It is a 15th century lyric, so the sexual meaning of ‘mousehole’ and ‘mouse-trappe’ evidently continued.

Here is a lyric describing the prodigious lusts of women. It was presumably written by a dyed in the wool antifeminist and is to be found in Reliquiae Antiquae – Scraps from Ancient Manscripts by Thomas Wright, which can of course be had on Amazon. It was written down in about 1460, so I imagine it would have been extant orally much earlier than that. It is a paraphrase of the ten commandments. Here are extracts from what is described as a paraphrase of the sixth commandment, but must mean the seventh – thou shalt not commit adultery. Sure enough, mice get into the equation again.

In suche foule lustis is moste her delyte She mostly takes delight in vile lust
And to make her fresh wyth gay attyris; And in wearing gaily coloured clothes

And to be made muche of she gretly desyris; She very much wants to be made a fuss of
She wil be redy with the tywnkelyng of an eie, She’ll be ready immediately
And wyth her lytille whetyng-corne to encrese and multeply. whet – increase appetite for
here, suggesting the part of her that increases a man’s lust in his cornutus or horn


She ne sparid straunger ne other,
And if he come not, she wold hym calle;
She toke her sonne and eke her brother,
Such a fals lust was on her falle;
Hir corage was to have ado with alle;

But with her prety tytmose to encrece and multeply.

The Wife refers to other birds and animals in terms of finding a mate.

Ne noon so grey goos goth ther in the lake

There is no goose swimming on the lake, no matter how drab/grey /ugly

As, seystow, wol be withoute make.

That will be without a mate. lines 269, 70

In other words, even the ugliest woman in existence can find a mate. This thoroughly derogatory view that even ugly women can find a man is part of what the Wife claims her husbands say to her when they are drunk.

In the next comparison, the Wife is chiding her husbands for not letting other men light their candles at his lantern.

He is to greet a niggard that wil werne
A man to lighte a candel at his lanterne
He shal han never the lasse light, pardee. (lines 333 – 34)

The man who won’t let another man light a candle at his own lantern is too mean. He won’t have any less light himself (if he does let another man light his candle at his lantern).

This is nothing to do with candles and all about sex. (The images tell you this: fire for sexual passion, candle as a phallic image.) The Wife asks why her husband should complain if other men have sex with her? Her husband can still have all the sex he wants with her. Although it’s true that you can light your own candle at someone else’s lantern, this doesn’t provide an analogy for men other than your husband having sex with you. It’s yet another example of the Wife’s dodgy reasoning.

A few lines later, the Wife complains that her husbands compare her to a cat when she goes gadding about showing off her fine clothes. To the medieval mind, the woman who gadded to show off clothes was like the cat with sleek fur who went caterwauling: they were both looking for sex.

I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat.
Thou seydest this, that I was lyk a cat;
For who-so wolde senge a cattes skin,
Thanne wolde the cat wel dwellen in his in;
And if the cattes skin be slyk and gay,
She wol nat dwelle in house half a day,
But forth she wole, er any day be dawed,
To shewe hir skin, and goon a-caterwawed;
This is to seye, if I be gay, sir shrewe,
I wol renne out, my borel for to shewe. (-351)

Apparently this was a well-known medieval fable, although I cannot find it. ‘Women who wandered abroad rather than remaining in the home were also suspected of lust. The extremely common fable of the singed cat connects women’s gadding about with their love of finery; the implication being that both are intended to arouse men’s lust.’ Ruth Mazo Karras Common Women: Prostitution and sexuality in medieval England.
Of the line, ‘To shewe her skin and goon a caterwawed ‘, the Oxford English Dictionary, with this line specifically quoted, says caterwaul means ‘Of cats: to make the noise proper to them at rutting time.’
I wol renne out my borel for to shewe’ is a bit confusing because in this particular context, borel is usually described as fine clothing, but the Oxford English Dictionary gives it as a coarse woollen cloth, (plain) clothing.

You can’t encourage / entice a hawk to come to you if your hand is empty, says the Wife. As used by her, this image is not primarily about hawking. A person handling a hawk used a lure (meat) to encourage the hawk to come back after flying.
‘With empty hond men may none haukes lure.’ (line 415)
The Wife produces this proverb when she is describing how disgusting she found sex with her very old husbands. She would only consent to have sex with them if they paid her, money being the equivalent of the lure. The way that the Wife applies the proverb makes her a hawk – a wild and predatory bird. It certainly runs directly counter to St Paul’s advice to husbands and wives to be generous in giving themselves to each other.

Then the Wife comes out with a motto that – according to the media – women nowadays would easily recognise.

466 A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tail.
After you’ve drunk lots you want sex.

‘Tail’ can refer to female or male genitals. Likerous means appetising in every sense, so the likerous mouth will have drunk a lot of wine or ale, and the likerous genitalia are wanton or lustful.

The next set of proverbs make the Wife sound like a form of torment to her husbands.
Dropping houses and eek smoke

Dripping / leaky houses, and also smoke
And chiding wives maken men to flee
And scolding / nagging wives make men flee their own houses.

Out of hir owene house. (lines 278 – 80)
This is a part of what the Wife claims her husbands say to her when they are drunk.
The fourth husband has a horrible time.

I made him fry in his own grease. (line 487)

and

Whan that his shoo ful bitterly him wrong (line 492)

When his shoe pinched his foot badly (hurt him). The shoe in this case is marriage to the Wife of Bath.

However, with her fifth husband, the Wife finds that she is at the receiving end of proverbs aimed at dominating the recipient, and she doesn’t like it one bit.
`Whoso that buyldeth his hous al of salwes,

`Whoever builds his house all of willow twigs,
And priketh his blynde hors over the falwes,
And spurs his blind horse over the open fields,
And suffreth his wyf to go seken halwes,
And allows his wife to go on pilgrimages,
Is worthy to been hanged on the galwes!’
Is worthy to be hanged on the gallows!’ (lines 655 – 658)

Basically, says Jankyn, a husband like that deserves what’s coming to him.

Power

It is obvious from the portrait of the Wife in the General Prologue that power is one of her central concerns. Hats are not usually compared to shields, and spurs suggest that she is directing operations.

Upon an amblere easily she sat,
Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
.. And on hir feet a pair of spores sharpe.

fot23

Phrases including the word ‘hond(e)’ are often to do with strength, valour, fighting ability, fighting spirit; also to do with power, control, direction (we say now, the garden has got out of hand). The Oxford English Dictionary cites definitions concerned with possession, custody, charge, authority, power and disposal.

The Wife repeatedly claims that she had total power over her husbands, and describes all the different ways in which she acquired it. She has used insults, deceit, bribery, lies, scolding, false accusations…. . Frequently the word ‘hond(e)’ appears in her descriptions. She says she ‘hadde hem (the old husbands) hoolly in myn hond’ (her power emphasised through the alliterated hs). And she frequently tells us that she persuaded them, or asserted something, or accused them. The phrase she uses again and again is ‘beren on honde’. This means to persuade, assert, accuse, and in the Wife’s mouth it sounds entirely characteristic that it should be an expression containing the word ‘hond(e)’, since she so often refers to her hands to denote her power over her husbands. Even when she doesn’t specifically refer to her hands, she refers to something she holds in her hands with which to wield power: ‘the whippe’, ‘the brydel’. The wonderful illustration of the Wife in the Ellesmere manuscript shows her brandishing her ‘whippe’ and with her bridle hand firmly on the reins. And even more in keeping with her character, the mention of the whip and the bridle and their associations with riding and directing a horse have sexual connotations as well as connotations of power. (For power, think of the many portraits and statues of great leaders, mounted, to denote their authority.)

Beryl Rowland, in Animals with Human Faces (pages 105, 6 George Allen and Unwin Limited, 1974)) writes, ‘in every language riding is a commonplace term for coitus… treading, trampling, spurring are all equivalents.’ She continues, ‘Sometimes the psition of the sexes is reversed, and it is the woman who is the rider and the man the horse. Misogynist clerics in the Middle Ages often depicted women as riding their unhappy husbands like beasts of burden. Chaucer realized the implications of the figure well enough when he described the sexually agrgressive Wife of Bath as riding astride instead of sidesaddle and as sporting a pair of sharp spurs. ‘ She goes on to say that since ‘primitive times female night-fiends have ridden on horses.’ This makes the expression to describe the Wife of Bath ‘the medieval man’s nightmare’ all too accurate.

Here are some of the passages outlining the Wife’s determined grasp on power.

An housbonde I wol have, I nil nat lette, (be prevented)
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral,
And have his tribulacioun with-al
Up-on his flessh, whyl that I am his wyf.
I have the power duringe al my lyf
Up-on his propre body, and noght he. 154 – 159

This to seyn, my-self have been the whippe;— 175

But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven all hir lond,
What sholde I taken hede hem for to plese,
But it were for my profit and myn ese? 211-

I governed hem so wel, after my lawe, 219

Thus shul ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde 226

Shal beren him on hond the cow is wood, 232

Bar I stifly myne olde housbondes on honde, 280
That thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse;
And al was fals,

Of wenches wolde I beren him on honde, l 393

And thus of o thing I avaunte me, 403
Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree,
By sleighte, or force, or by som maner thing,

That they moste yeve it up, as for the beste; 427
Or elles hadde we never been in reste.
For thogh he loked as a wood leoun,
Yet sholde he faille of his conclusioun.

Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees; 440
And sith a man is more resonable
Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable.

Swiche maner wordes hadde we on honde. 451 in process

That in his owene grece I made him frye 487
For angre, and for verray Ialousye.
By god, in erthe I was his purgatorie,
For which I hope his soule be in glorie.
For god it woot, he sat ful ofte and song
Whan that his shoo ful bitterly him wrong.

I bar him on honde, he hadde enchanted me; 575

He yaf me al the brydel in myn hond 813
To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge and of his hond also,
And made him brenne his book anon right tho.
And whan that I hadde geten un-to me,
By maistrie, al the soveraynetee

Definitions from the Middle English Dictionary give:
~ on (an) hond, assert or maintain (that sth. is true); ~ on hond to (upon), accuse (sb. of sth.), assert to (sb. that sth. is true or that he has done sth.), attribute (a statement or action) to (sb.) [cp. OI bera ā hendr and other parallel expressions]; (h) ~ on hond, accuse (sb.); ~ falsed on hond, ~ wrong on (in) hond, accuse (sb.) falsely; ~ on hond of, accuse (sb.) of (sth.); ~ on hond that, ~ hond that, assert (to sb.) that (he is guilty of sth.); (i) ~ on hond, persuade (sb.), try to convince (sb. that sth. is true)

As well as having the upper hand, the Wife likes to paint a convincing picture of herself – though at any given moment that picture may change. This seems to be all part of her desire for power, to be in charge of the image of herself that she projects.
At one moment, we’re told that she will hungrily seize upon any shape or size of man; at the next moment she is claiming virtue. Of her fourth husband, she says,

I seye, I hadde in herte greet despyt
That he of any other had delyt.
But he was quit, by god and by seint Ioce!
I made him of the same wode a croce;
Nat of my body in no foul manere…

And then, a few lines later, she declares:
Allas! allas! that ever love was sinne!
I folwed ay myn inclinacioun 615
By vertu of my constellacioun;
That made me I coude noght withdrawe
My chambre of Venus from a good felawe.
Yet have I Martes mark up-on my face,
And also in another privee place. 620
For, god so wis be my savacioun,
I ne loved never by no discrecioun,
But ever folwede myn appetyt,
Al were he short or long, or blak or whyt;
I took no kepe, so that he lyked me, 625
How pore he was, ne eek of what degree.

But then, these defamatory lines may have been added by a virulently antifeminist scribe.

The Wife always seems to take the most literal reading of anything spiritual, again, in justification of her behaviour. So Jesus’s conversation with the Samaritan woman shows her that she’s not the only one with five husbands. Jesus feeding people with barley bread shows that she, whom St Jerome equates with barley bread since she is a wife, is in good company. Wooden bowls are very useful.

The Wife is dismissive of ‘auctoritee’ from her opening line. ‘Auctoritee’ as wielded by men, is something she refutes. Towards the end of the Prologue, she frequently refers to auctoritees in terms of something pretty worthless.

After thy text, ne after thy rubriche 346
I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat.

But al for noght, I sette noght an hawe
Of his proverbes nof his olde sawe, (sayings)
Ne I wolde nat of him corrected be. (659 – 661)

Here the rhyme of haw (hawthorn berry) with ‘olde sawe’ (sayings), coupled with the Wife’s insistence, ‘I sette noght an hawe’, and her dismissive ‘olde sawe’ – as in, old and irrelevant – all support her point of view. The proverbs and sayings are rubbish.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But-if it be of holy seintes lyves, (688 – 690)

Here, the fact that clerks never speak any good of wives is made definitive by the order ‘trusteth wel’ followed by the absolute statement, ‘it is an impossible /
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves.’ ‘Any clerk’ – you won’t find even one clerk who might speak well of wives. And ‘wyves’ is contrasted with ‘holy seintes lyves’ in the rhyme.

The clerk, whan he is old, and may noght do
Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho,
Than sit he doun, and writ in his dotage
That wommen can nat kepe hir mariage! (707 – 710)

Again, ‘the clerk’ is a generalisation, like ‘any clerk’ in the previous quotation. All clerks are like this. And their efforts in bed are just about as exciting as an old shoe. Mischievous Chaucer sets ‘Venus’ against an ‘olde sho’ in the line, making the clerks’ abysmal failure the more evident through the antithesis. The reasoning is incontrovertible: the clerk defends his uselessness by accusing women. The rhyme of ‘dotage’ and ‘mariage’ make this even clearer.

Commerce

The Wife sees almost everything in terms of what it will sell for, or in terms of enjoyment (sex comes to mind here), not in terms of relationship.

That man shal yelde to his wyf hir dette? 130
Now wher-with sholde he make his payement,
If he ne used his sely instrument?

It’s true that the old translations of the Bible did use the word debt for what husband and wife owed each other in the marriage relationship. But the Wife extends the metaphor, including the word ‘payment’. She also fails to mention what St Paul counselled, which was that the debt was mutual. In her version, the husband makes his payment to her, and not vice versa.

Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe, 152
Whan that him list com forth and paye his dette.

The same idea of husband and wife owing each other a special relationship within their marriage is described here by the word ‘debt’. This, however, does not seem to be how the Wife views the relationship when she uses the word.

For as a spaynel she wol on him lepe, 267,8
Til that she finde som man hir to chepe; to do business, trade with her

I wolde no lenger in the bed abyde, 409
If that I felte his arm over my syde,
Til he had maad his raunson un-to me; (a sum of money)
Than wolde I suffre him do his nycetee.
And ther-fore every man this tale I telle,
Winne who-so may, for al is for to selle.
With empty hand men may none haukes lure;
For winning wolde I al his lust endure,

The bren, as I best can, now moste I selle; 478

With daunger oute we al our chaffare; 521 merchandise, goods for sale
Greet prees at market maketh dere ware, expensive merchandise
And to greet cheep is holde at litel prys; too much of a bargain
This knoweth every womman that is wys. (lines 521-524)

But yet I hope that he shal do me good;
For blood bitokeneth gold, as me was taught. (lines 580, 81)

In Lady Windemere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s character, Lord Darlington, defines a cynic as ‘ A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.’ You could say that the Wife of Bath knows the price of everything – to do with her body at any rate – and the value of nothing. Or is her awareness of her commercial viability, her body as a commodity, more a survival strategy in a tough world that has no value for women? So she is going to make herself of some value somehow, even if only in commercial terms.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale, lines 857-901

Section 4: The Wife of Bath’s Tale

lines 857 – 901

Introduction to the Tale

Chaucer bases the Wife’s Tale upon various folk tales, but he makes several important changes to the story. In his source material, the man is a young noble; in Chaucer’s version, he is one of King Arthur’s knights, which accentuates the ideals of knightly chivalric behaviour that he betrays. In the source, the young nobleman kills an enemy in battle and is taken prisoner. In Chaucer’s tale, he rapes a young maid. The source provides an impossible question for the young man to answer, since the rules of battle stipulate that a prisoner cannot be killed. In Chaucer’s version, the law says the knight should be executed but his life is saved by the queen who then poses an impossible question. (Valerie Allen and David Kirkham, in the Cambridge University Press school edition of Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, list the differences between the folk tales that Chaucer based the Wife’s Tale upon, and the story that he wrote.)

The differences continue. In the source, the disgusting old lady tells the young man what she requires in exchange for telling him the answer to the impossible question. However, in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the old hag simply whispers something in his ear, and so her sudden appearance at the queen’s court, and her demand that the knight marry her, come as a complete surprise, both to the knight and to us. In the source, the young man is as reluctant as Chaucer’s knight to marry the loathly lady, but the wedding night lecture from the old lady is Chaucer’s addition. In the source, the lady offers the knight the choice of her being disgusting and ugly by day and beautiful by night, or the other way round. In other words, the knight can either be proud of her by day and repelled by night, or he can be ashamed of her by day and love her by night. However, in Chaucer, the moral dimension is added. The old hag will either be disgusting and faithful or beautiful and faithless. Finally, in the source, the revolting old lady is freed from a wicked spell by the young man’s noble behaviour, but in Chaucer’s tale, the old hag chooses to become beautiful and rewards the knight for giving her the mastery in their relationship.

The Wife sets her tale in the days of King Arthur and fairies, before friars took over, lines 857 – 881

857 In th’ olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
In the old days of King Arthur,
858 Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
of whom Britons speak with much respect,
859 Al was this land fulfild of fayerye.
this land was filled with supernatural creatures.
860 The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
861 Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
very often danced in many green fields.
862 This was the olde opinion, as I rede;
This was the old belief, as I read;
863 I speke of manye hundred yeres ago.
I’m speaking of many hundred years ago.
864 But now kan no man se none elves mo,
But now no man can see any more elves,
865 For now the grete charitee and prayeres
for now the great charity and prayers
866 Of lymytours and othere hooly freres,
of licensed beggars and other holy friars,
867 That serchen every lond and every streem,
that overrun every land and every stream,
868 As thikke as motes in the sonne-beem,
as thick as specks of dust in the sun-beam,
869 Blessynge halles, chambres, kichenes, boures,
blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, bedrooms,
870 Citees, burghes, castels, hye toures,
cities, towns, castles, high towers,
871 Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes —
villages, barns, stables, dairies —
872 This maketh that ther ben no fayeryes.
this means that there are no fairies.
873 For ther as wont to walken was an elf
For where an elf was accustomed to walk
874 Ther walketh now the lymytour hymself
there now walks the licensed begging friar himself
875 In undermeles and in morwenynges,
in late mornings and in early mornings,
876 And seyth his matyns and his hooly thynges
and says his morning prayers and his holy things
877 As he gooth in his lymytacioun.
as he goes in his assigned district.
878 Wommen may go saufly up and doun.
Women may go safely up and down.
879 In every bussh or under every tree
In every bush or under every tree
880 Ther is noon oother incubus but he,
there is no other evil spirit but he,
881 And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.
and he will not do them any harm except dishonour.

Friars in Chaucer’s day

The Wife is not alone in her feelings about friars (although she has particularly good reason to make a sideswipe at the friar on the pilgrimage, because he has just laughed at her for telling ‘a long preamble of a tale.’). Friars in Chaucer’s day got a really bad press – or, in more academic terms, there was much antifraternal material. The word friar comes from the French frere and the Latin frater (both meaning brother). Friars took and still take vows of chastity, poverty and obedience, as monks and nuns do, but instead of living in an enclosed monastery or convent, limiters, such as Chaucer’s friar and the friars that the Wife is referring to, begged for alms within a defined neighbourhood.

As regards the friars’ vow of poverty, chapter 6 of the Franciscan Rule begins: Fratres nihil sibi approprient, nec domum, nec locum, nec aliquam rem. (Brothers shall own nothing of their own, not a house, not a place, nor anything else.) However, in Chaucer’s day, many mendicant (begging) friars had become corrupt, as the Wife suggests, and as contemporary lyrics make explicit. You can see in the extracts from lyrics printed below that they had become known for their love of material goods, which was a flouting of the vow, and an act of hypocrisy and disobedience on the part of the friars. They were also notorious for having sex with the women in their neighbourhood.

Contemporary medieval verses satirising the behaviour of friars

Here is a snippet from some verses put on paper in 1475, but which were presumably known orally long before that time. They are written in what is known as Macaronic Latin or Dog Latin, where English words are mixed with Latin words, or sometimes English words are given a Latin ending. Some lines are in easily decoded code, on account of their explicit nature. They give a vivid picture of what the friars are up to, which is exactly what the Wife accused friars of doing.

Fratres Carmeli navigant in a bothe apud Eli, Carmelite Brothers sail in a boat around Ely;
Non sunt in coeli, quia gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk. 1
Omnes drencherunt, quia sterisman non habuerunt, 2

Fratres cum knyvys goth about and txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt, 3
Etcetera. The complete text is printed at the end of this section.

In a fifteenth-century macaronic carol, The Friar and the Nun “Ther was a frier of order gray,” the “wench” is a nun. It ends:

Thus the fryer lyke a prety man,  prety – cunning, crafty, skiful
Inducas, may you lead
Ofte rokkyd the nunnys quoniam  nunnys – nun’s
In temptacionibus. in temptations

1 They are not in heaven, because they are…
If you decode ‘gxddbov xxkxzt pg ifmk’ you will find they are fuccant uu(w)iuys of heli (Ely)

2 They were all drenched, because they didn’t
have a steersman.

3 Brothers with knives go about and ….. if you decode ‘txxkxzv nfookt xxzxkt’ you will find they are suuiuyt mennis uuyuis. (swiving – that is, screwing – men’s wives)

Anyone used to the Wife’s euphemisms will easily be able to work out what occupied the friar and the nun. The friar’s activities are mocked and satirised all the more because the chorus is taken from the Lord’s Prayer, ‘lead us not into temptation,’ ‘et ne nos inducas in tentationem’. But it’s the opposite: ‘inducas … in temptacionibus,’ lead us in(to) temptation. The entire text is printed at the end of the section.
From The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose, ed. Douglas Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 172.

Here is a verse from another antifraternal piece, ‘Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun’ (canon).

[The Orders of Cain (1382)]

Were I am a man that hous helde, a householder
If any woman with me dwelde,
Ther is no frer bot he were gelde unless he was castrated

Shuld com with-in my wones. should come inside my house

For may he til a woman wynne to; gain access
In priveyté, he wyl not blynne cease

Er he a childe put hir with-inne –

And perchaunce two at ones! (The sexual capacities and potency of vagabond clerics were legendary.)

Thof he loure under his hode, though he looks sad under his hood

With semblaunt quaynte and mylde, with a well-mannered appearance

If thou him trust, or dos him gode, if you trust him or do good to him

By God, thou art bygylde. deceived

And these lines from ‘Of Thes Frer Mynours’ show how rich the friars made themselves, plus some seduction thrown in for good measure.

‘Of Thes Frer Mynours’ 1382 (British Library)1

For gode mete to thair mouthe the toun is thurgh soght.2

Wyde are thair wonnynges and wonderfully wroght;  their dwellings are big and beautifully made

Murdre and horedome ful dere has it boght. murder and debauchery have paid for the houses

With an O and an I, ffor sixe pens er thai fayle, for sixpence

Sle thi fadere, and jape thi modre, and thai wyl the assoile!3

1
Thai preche all of povert, bot that love thai noght, They preach about poverty, but they themselves don’t love it
2 the town is ransacked for food for their
mouths

3 they will kill your father and seduce
your mother and then hear your confession

‘Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun’ and ‘Of Thes Frer Mynours’ are reproduced from Medieval English Political Writings, ed. James M. Dean, TEAMS/Middle English Texts
Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), by permission.

In the Prologue to his tale, another of Chaucer’s pilgrims, the Summoner – a church official, who is admittedly furious with the friar after hearing his tale, has this to say. He imagines an angel addressing Satan:
‘Shewe forth thyn ers, and lat the frere se arse
Where is the nest of freres in this place!’
And er that half a furlong wey of space, in a couple of minutes
Right so as bees out swarmen from an hyve just like bees swarming out of a hive
Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve rushed
Twenty thousand freres on a route, crowd
And thurghout helle swarmed all aboute … and swarmed all around hell
The illustration below comes from the border of a manuscript now kept in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven. It shows that the Wife is not the first woman to have attacked a friar. The woman in the illustration seems to have won, judging from his broken lance and the expression on his face.

fot24

Woman jousting against friar (and evidently winning!) A friar jousting with a woman, suggesting an opposition between women and the clerical establishment that produced antifeminist tracts. Other illuminations (in this manuscript and elsewhere) show women jousting with knights in the battle of love. From a Picard manuscript of Lancelot du Lac (ca. 1280) (Beinecke MS 229, folio 100v). (Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven.) Have a look at https://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472113216-ch1.pdf v good article https://www.press.umich.edu/pdf/0472113216-ch1.pdf

Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts http://brbl-net.library.yale.edu/pre1600ms/docs/pre1600.ms408.htm

One of King Arthur’s knights rapes a maiden, lines 882 – 888

882 And so bifel that this kyng Arthour
And so it happened that this king Arthur
883 Hadde in his hous a lusty bacheler,
had in his house a vigorous / lusty young knight,
884 That on a day cam ridynge fro ryver,
who one day came riding from hawking,
885 And happed that, allone as he was born,
and it happened that, when he was quite alone,
886 He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
he saw a maiden walking before him,
887 Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed,
and straightaway, despite all she could do,
888 By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed;
by utter force, he took away her maidenhead (raped her);

In her Tale, the Wife continues to attack men as she had in her Prologue. So, having dealt a sideswipe at friars – as an example of devout men of the church – the Wife now attacks another revered representative of male power, a knight. She has specified that he is one of King Arthur’s knights, upholders of the most exalted ideals and ‘greet honour’.

In th’ olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour…

And the knight’s first act in her Tale is to rape a maiden. This rape, incidentally, is an addition of Chaucer’s to the tale that he took from other sources and adapted.

In case you think it is only the Wife of Bath who would contemplate making an attack on a knight, try this from the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University: Beinecke MS 229, on 329r. It is from a French Arthurian romance from 1275-1300 found in this website: http://wendelkate.com/2014/01/17/jousting-with-distaffs/

fot25

and this: Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Français 95, 226r. It is also a French Arthurian romance, from 1201-1300.

fot26

An especial joy in these two images is that the woman is jousting (and winning) with her distaff. Distaffs were ‘both a woman’s tool and a symbol of her sex … spinning is a gender-role to which society relegated women,’ as Juliette Dor observes in her chapter on ‘The Wife of Bath’s Wandrynge by the Weye and Conduct Literature for Women’ in Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales edited by Wendy Harding (page 153).

The Ideals of Chivalry

fot27

Here is a knight, from Le livre de Lancelot du Lac and other Arthurian Romances, Northern France 13th century Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, MS 229, fol. 326r

To discover a description of perfect chivalry, look in Sir Thomas Malory’s book Le Morte D’Arthur, or, as he called it ‘the whole book of King Arthur and his noble Knights of the Round Table’. Malory wrote this in prison between 1450s and the late 1460s; it tells the stories of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. Malory used French prose romances and some English poems as sources for his work. He was consciously writing about the most glorious days of chivalric values at a time when, during the Hundred Years’ War and the Wars of the Roses, these values had become corrupt and eroded. William Caxton printed the Morte D’Arthur in 1485. This is Sir Ector’s eulogy on the most famous knight of them all, King Arthur’s great friend, Sir Lancelot. Sir Ector finds Sir Launcelot dead in his castle, Joyous Gard.

AND when Sir Ector heard such noise and light in the quire of Joyous
Gard, he alighted and put his horse from him, and came into the quire,
and there he saw men sing and weep. And they all knew Sir Ector, but he
knew not them. Then went Sir Bors unto Sir Ector, and told him how
there lay his brother, Sir Launcelot, dead; and then Sir Ector threw
his shield, sword, and helm from him. And when he beheld Sir Launcelot’s
visage, he fell down in a swoon. And when he waked it were hard any
tongue to tell the doleful complaints that he made for his brother.

Ah Launcelot, he said, thou were head of all Christian knights, and now
I dare say, said Sir Ector, thou Sir Launcelot, there thou liest, that
thou were never matched of earthly knight’s hand. And thou were the
courteoust knight that ever bare shield. And thou were the truest friend
to thy lover that ever bestrad horse. And thou were the truest lover of
a sinful man that ever loved woman. And thou were the kindest man that
ever struck with sword. And thou were the goodliest person that ever
came among press of knights. And thou was the meekest man and the
gentlest that ever ate in hall among ladies. And thou were the sternest
knight to thy mortal foe that ever put spear in the rest. Then there was
weeping and dolour out of measure.

Here is a short section with the original spelling.
‘Thou were the curtest knight that ever bare shelde … the truest frende to the lovar that ever bestrade hors … the trewest lover, of a sinful man, that ever loved woman … the kindest man that ever strake wyth swerde … the godelyest persone that ever cam emonge prees of knyghts … the meekest man and the jentyllest that ever ete in halle emonge ladyes … the sternest knight to thy mortal foo that ever put spere in the reeste.’

It was not only Sir Thomas Malory who yearned for the lost ideals of knighthood. He was writing in 1470, during the Wars of the Roses. However, in Chaucer’s day, an even longer-running war was in progress: the Hundred Years’ War against the French, which began in the late 1330s. It seems that, as the war ground on, there was an increasing disillusionment with chivalric values, and it seems possible that the Wife’s criticism of the knight in her tale is a reflection of this disillusion. In Chaucer’s time, Edward III instituted the House of the Round Table, probably to try to solve the political problem of the rivalry of the great lords of the land by uniting them. In the stories about King Arthur and his knights, the Round Table had become almost a symbol of chivalry. Men were originally made knights as a reward for their military service, but with the idea of the Round Table, knighthood acquired a chivalric and courtly resonance. The Round Table is largely – maybe even entirely – a literary ideal of chivalry and brotherly love. In fact, in some versions, it stands for ‘the highest aspirations of chivalry as a secular equivalent to the priesthood.’ ‘… They say that the Round Table was founded upon humility and patience.’ (from the Lancelot-Grail: The Quest for the Holy Grail)

Edward III held a Round Table Festival in 1344. It was probably part of his recruiting drive (he was in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War with France, which was having a temporary lull in 1343 and 1344). He was in the process of planning another campaign. So he held the Round Table Festival at Windsor, and announced the Order of the Round Table, promoting a chivalric, literary, somewhat romanticised notion of warfare. Edward III, like his grandfather, Edward 1, held tournaments to celebrate the end of military campaigns. Edward III’s idea of instilling an increased sense of patriotism in his knights succeeded: England went on to win a famous victory over the French at Crecy and took Calais. But Edward III’s House of the Round Table remained unfinished, and he worked on another chivalric idea, the Order of the Garter, in 1448. This was to commemorate the triumph in France. The Order of the Garter exists to this day and is one of the highest honours that the monarch can bestow on a subject.
Information taken from Edward III’s Round Table at Windsor by Julian Munby, Richard Barber and Richard Brown.

The image below is an allegory for the highest aspirations of chivalry as a secular equivalent to the priesthood.

fot28

Wikipedia Commons

The miles christianus allegory (mid 13th century), showing a knight armed with virtues and facing the vices in mortal combat. The parts of his armour are identified with Christian virtues, thus correlating essential military equipment with the religious values of chivalry: The helmet is spes futuri gaudii (hope of future bliss), the shield (here the shield of the Trinity) is fides (faith), the armour is caritas (charity), the lance is perseverantia (perseverance), the sword is verbum Dei (word of God), the banner is regni celestis desiderium (desire for the kingdom of heaven), the horse is bona voluntas (good will), the saddle is christiana religio (Christian religion), the saddlecloth is humilitas (humility), the reins are discretio (discretion), the spurs are disciplina (discipline), the stirrups are propositum boni operis (proposition of good works), and the horse’s four hooves are delectatio, consensus, bonum opus, consuetudo (delight, consent, good work and exercise).
Made by Guilelmus Peraldus, Summa de virtutibus et vitiishttp://minos1.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMINBig.ASP?size=big&IllID=39600

Detail of Harleian ms. 3244, folios 27-28, showing an allegorical knight preparing to battle the seven deadly sins with the “Scutum Fidei” diagram of the Trinity as his shield. This is part of a ca. 1255-1265 illustration to the Summa Vitiorum or “Treatise on the Vices” by William Peraldus. For detailed discussion of the manuscript, see the article “An Illustrated Fragment of Peraldus’s Summa of Vice: Harleian MS 3244″ by Michael Evans in Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 45 (1982), pp. 14-68.

Medieval knights

More information about the duties of knights can be found in Wikipedia, which provides the following information.

‘When examining medieval literature, chivalry (the knightly code) can be classified into three basic but overlapping areas:

‘Duties to women: this is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry. This would contain what is often called courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies. Most especially in this category is a general gentleness and graciousness to all women’Duties to countrymen and fellow Christians: this contains virtues such as mercy, courage, valour, fairness, protection of the weak and the poor, and in the servant-hood of the knight to his lord. This also brings with it the idea of being willing to give one’s life for another’s; whether he would be giving his life for a poor man or his lord.

‘Duties to God: this would contain being faithful to God, protecting the innocent, being faithful to the church, being the champion of good against evil, being generous and obeying God above the feudal lord.

‘Duties to women: this is probably the most familiar aspect of chivalry. This would contain what is often called courtly love, the idea that the knight is to serve a lady, and after her all other ladies. Most especially in this category is a general gentleness and graciousness to all women

‘These three areas obviously overlap quite frequently in chivalry, and are often indistinguishable.

‘There were different strands of chivalry. In warrior chivalry, a knight’s chief duty is to his lord, as exemplified by Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle. In religious chivalry, a knight’s chief duty is to protect the innocent and serve God, as exemplified by Sir Galahad or Sir Percival in the Grail legends. In courtly love chivalry, a knight’s chief duty is to his own lady, and after her, all ladies, as exemplified by Sir Lancelot in his love for Queen Guinevere.’

Such chivalry was not only a literary ideal. ‘The Life of the Black Prince’ by the Herald of Sir John Chandos, c 1385, gives a glowing account of the Black Prince, Edward III’s eldest son. He is described as having been a model of chivalry. ‘This noble Prince of whom I speak, from the day of his birth cherished no thought but loyalty, nobleness, valour, and goodness, and was endued with prowess. Of such nobleness was the Prince that he wished all the days of his life to set his whole intent on maintaining justice and right … he was so noble, bold, and valiant, so courteous and so sage, and how he loved so well the holy Church with his whole heart …’

More can be discovered from The Book of Chivalry of Geoffroi de Charny (a much-admired knight who died on the field of battle).

If you want to know more about medieval knights, their training and their ideals, there is a considerable amount of information at the end of this section.

The knight rapes the maiden, continued

886 He saugh a mayde walkynge hym biforn,
887 Of which mayde anon, maugree hir heed (or hed),
888 By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed…

So, in the Wife’s Tale, the first thing the knight does is rape the maiden. This is told briefly, suddenly and, as it seems, almost casually. Later in the Tale, the knight will be talking and so will the large number of women who enter his life. However, at this point, the ‘mayde’ is allowed no speech and neither, apparently, does the knight bother to speak to her. We are simply told, ‘maugree hir heed, / By verray force, he rafte hire maydenhed.’ It’s all action: no speech.

The description of the rape is not as casual as it may seem to us in the 21st century. Anyone who has read the stories of King Arthur’s knights knows that they were always rescuing maidens from danger, not raping them. A careful look at the derivation of the words Chaucer has chosen reveals that the knight’s action is indeed described as being a barbaric departure from the knightly code of chivalry. The Riverside Chaucer gives ‘hed’ as ‘her care’ or ‘despite all she could do’. ‘Verray’ means to the fullest extent, and ‘rafte’ means to take something by force, so when Chaucer writes ‘by verray force, he rafte…’ he is in effect giving three synonyms for the same action, thus intensifying the sense of brutality with which the knight raped the poor maiden. The repeated consonant sounds add to this: the rs in ‘verray’ are reinforced in ‘rafte’; the f in ‘force’ reappears in ‘rafte’ and these vigorous sounds add to the savagery of the rape. He did this ‘anon’, immediately, and he did it despite all she could do, ‘maugree hir heed.’ There seems perhaps an intentional similarity in the endings of the two lines: ‘maugree hir hed’ and ‘maydenhed’. Surely this underlines the knight’s brutality: he attacked her virginity despite all she could do. It seems also that the introduction of French-derived words in these two lines remind us of the knight’s supposed nobility. Since William the Conqueror had been crowned king on Christmas Day 1066, French had been the language spoken at court by the nobles and by those in power. So when such French-derived words as ‘maugree’ from malgre and ‘verray’ from ‘vrai’ and ‘force’ from the French ‘force’ for strength and power, they remind us of the extent to which the knight is violating expectations of noble conduct on his part. Presumably these words would have been understood as such a reminder by Chaucer’s audience / readers.

The knight is taken to King Arthur’s court and is put into the queen’s hands, lines 889 – 901

889 For which oppressioun was swich clamour op=violence Anglo-Norman
There was such an outcry against this violence (Fr outcry) vehement appeal
890 And swich pursute unto the kyng Arthour Fr bringing a legal proceeding
and such a demand to King Arthur for justice
891 That dampned was this knyght for to be deed, Fr condemned
that this knight was condemned to death,
892 By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed — According to legal procedure (Fr = cours)
according to legal procedure, and should have lost his head —
893 Paraventure swich was the statut tho — statut – Anglo Norman (regulation)
perhaps such was the statute / regulation then —
894 But that the queene and other ladyes mo
except that the queen and other ladies as well
895 So longe preyeden the kyng of grace prey 1
made an earnest and lengthy petition to the king for grace
896 Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place, grant Angl Norman consented
until he granted him (the knight) his life right there,
897 And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,
and gave him to the queen, all at her will,
898 To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille.2
to choose whether she would save him or put him to death.

1 Angl Norman made an earnest petition grace Angl Norman favour
2 save Angl Norman spill is Old English put to death

This section, like the preceding passage in which the knight forsook his chivalric ideals and raped the maiden, is full of Anglo-Norman derived words, words redolent of the world of the king and his court and of nobility, which were also words associated with power and with justice. It was those in power, the Anglo-Normans at court, who meted out justice (hence the large number of French derived words in our justice system today).

For which oppressioun was swich clamour
And swich pursute unto the kyng Arthour
That dampned was this knyght for to be deed,
By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed —

Evidently the rape that the knight has committed becomes public in some way. It is seen as an act of ‘oppressioun’ (Anglo-Norman word meaning violence) and immediately provokes clamour (French-derived word meaning vehement appeal) for justice. ‘Pursute’ is the French-derived word for bringing a legal proceeding, a demand for justice. The ‘cours of lawe’ demands that the knight be condemned to death (‘dampned’ comes from the French meaning condemned and ‘cours’ comes from the French meaning according to legal procedure). So the overall effect is that the full weight of courtly outrage at this violation of lawful behaviour comes down on the knight’s head. Literally, because the last line of this section reads: ‘sholde han lost his heed.’ Which is an ironic reminder of the ‘heed’ or ‘hed’ of the maiden whom he raped ‘maugree hir heed (or hed)’. That repeated word acts almost as a delayed rime riche, or as if the word ‘heed’ has come back to haunt him. And, ironically, now it’s his head that is at stake.

This part of the story is focused on power: different kinds of power. The power the knight exercised over the maid was partly physical, ‘by verray force he rafte…’. It was also partly a reflection of his priorities: evidently he did not respect a mere ‘mayde.’ He simply saw her as an object of lust: the word mayde occurs three times in as many lines, as if he was momentarily overtaken by lust. Then she is never mentioned again. He is doing what he wants: the first and third line of the three read, ‘he saugh …. he rafte.’ The line in between depicts her struggle, which he overcomes by force.

But then the knight’s physical power comes up against the power of the king and queen and the power of the law, and these are far more powerful than his physical force. There also seems to be considerable power in the general outcry that his action provokes.

889 For which oppressioun was swich clamour
890 And swich pursute unto the kyng Arthour
891 That dampned was this knyght for to be deed

We’re not told who raised the ‘clamour’ and the ‘pursute’, but both words have the intensifier ‘swich’ to stress the sense of outrage which is so strong that it reaches King Arthur and insists that the knight be sentenced to death. The alliteration of ‘dampned’ and ‘deed’ insists on the death sentence. So another power is also implied: the power of the people who were appalled by the knight’s action. Eventually, when the queen has sentenced the knight to search for the answer to an impossible question, the knight will find himself in the power of yet another person, an elderly and disgusting woman with magic powers. His casual exercise of male power has opened the lid on all sorts of other power that confronts – and easily overpowers – his.

Looking at the Wife of Bath’s Tale in contrast to Chaucer’s contemporary, Gower’s, rendering of the same story, one or two more aspects become clear. Chaucer’s version is explicitly set in the time of fairies – and later on, the knight encounters four-and-twenty fairies dancing. Also, none of Chaucer’s characters are named (and Gower’s are). This could make them more distant, because anonymous, or perhaps more representative. Instead of being Guinevere and X (or Queen Guinevere and Sir X), they are simply the queen, the knight, a mayde.

899 The queene thanketh the kyng with al hir myght,
The queen thanks the king with all her might,
900 And after this thus spak she to the knyght,
and after this she spoke thus to the knight,
901 Whan that she saugh hir tyme, upon a day:
when she saw her opportunity, one day:

There is much discussion as to whether this tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath, or whether what is at present the Shipman’s Tale was the one she should have told. However, thus far in the story, several of its qualities characterise it as being ideally suited to the Wife. She starts by setting the tale in the time of King Arthur, and immediately digresses, in characteristic fashion, to have a go at the faults of friars nowadays. When she gets herself back on track, she criticises another highly respected male profession, that of knighthood. So far so good: she is still intent on criticising men, however exalted their profession, whether knighthood or the church. Next, we see the Queen in charge of the decision as to whether the knight (a man, obviously) should live or die. All this seems typical of the Wife’s approach to life.


Read more

Read more about the knight(s) that Chaucer was writing about: information taken directly from www.crsd.org/cms/lib5/PA01000188/Centricity/Domain/…/Knights.doc

The same information can be found on: http://infoonknights.weebly.com

‘The knight was one of three types of fighting men during the middle ages: knights, foot soldiers, and archers. The medieval knight was the equivalent of the modern tank. He was covered in multiple layers of armor, and could plow through foot soldiers standing in his way. No single foot soldier or archer could stand up to any one knight. Knights were also generally the wealthiest of the three types of soldiers. This was for a good reason. It was terribly expensive to be a knight. The war horse alone could cost the equivalent of a small airplane. Armour, shields, and weapons were also very expensive. Becoming a knight was part of the feudal agreement. In return for military service, the knight received a fief (land held by the knight in return for allegiance given to his overlord). In the late middle ages, many prospective knights began to pay “shield money” to their lord so that they wouldn’t have to serve in the king’s army. The money was then used to create a professional army that was paid and supported by the king. These knights often fought more for pillaging than for army wages. When they captured a city, they were allowed to ransack it, stealing goods and valuables.

Becoming a Knight

‘There were only a few ways in which a person could become a knight. The first way was the normal course of action for the son of a noble:

‘When a boy was eight years old, he was sent to the neighboring castle where he was trained as a page. The boy was usually the son of a knight or of a member of the aristocracy. He spent most of his time strengthening his body, wrestling and riding horses. He also learned how to fight with a spear and a sword. He practised against a wooden dummy called a quintain. It was essentially a heavy sack in the form of a human, hung on a wooden pole along with a shield. The young page had to hit the shield in its center. When hit, the whole structure would spin around and around. The page had to maneuver away quickly without getting hit. The young man was also taught more civilized topics. He would be taught to read and write by a schoolmaster. He could also be taught some Latin and French.

‘At the age of fifteen or sixteen, a boy became a squire in service to a knight. His duties included dressing the knight in the morning, serving all of the knight’s meals, caring for the knight’s horse, and cleaning the knight’s armor and weapons. He followed the knight to tournaments and assisted his lord on the battlefield. A squire also prepared himself by learning how to handle a sword and lance while wearing forty pounds of armour and riding a horse. When he was about twenty, a squire could become a knight after proving himself worthy. A lord would agree to knight him in a dubbing ceremony. The night before the ceremony, the squire would dress in a white tunic and red robes. He would then fast and pray all night for the purification of his soul. The chaplain would bless the future knight’s sword and then lay it on the chapel or church’s altar. Before dawn, he took a bath to show that he was pure, and he dressed in his best clothes. When dawn came, the priest would hear the young man’s confession, a Catholic contrition rite. The squire would then eat breakfast. Soon the dubbing ceremony began. The outdoor ceremony took place in front of family, friends, and nobility. The squire knelt in front of the lord, who tapped the squire lightly on each shoulder with his sword and proclaimed him a knight. This was symbolic of what occurred in earlier times. In the earlier middle ages, the person doing the dubbing would actually hit the squire forcefully, knocking him over. After the dubbing, a great feast followed with music and dancing. A young man could also be made a knight for valour in combat after a battle or sometimes before a battle to help him gain courage.

Armour and Weapons

‘A knight was armed and armored to the teeth. He had so much armor and weapons that he depended on his squire to keep his armor and weapons clean and in good working condition. At first the armor was made of small metal rings called chain mail. A knight wore a linen shirt and a pair of pants as well as heavy woolen pads underneath the metal-ringed tunic. A suit of chain mail could have more than 200,000 rings. However, chain mail was heavy, uncomfortable, and difficult to move in. As time passed, knights covered their bodies with plates of metal. Plates covered their chests, back, arms, and legs. A bucket like helmet protected the knight’s head and had a hinged metal visor to cover his face. Suits of armor were hot, uncomfortable, and heavy to wear. A suit of armor weighed between forty and sixty pounds. Some knights even protected their horses in armor.

‘A knight also needed a shield to hold in front of himself during battle. Shields were made of either wood or metal. Knights decorated their shields with their family emblem or crest and the family motto.

‘A knight’s weapon was his sword, which weighed about thirty-two pounds. It was worn on his left side in a case fastened around his waist. A knife was worn on the knight’s right side. Knights used other weapons in combat as well. A lance was a long spear used in jousts. Metal axes, battle hammers, and maces were also used to defeat the enemy.

Tournaments:

‘Tournaments provided a means for knights to practise warfare and build their strength in times of peace. Tournaments were essentially mock battles with audiences. The audience was usually made up of “fair damsels”. This was another way in which a knight was expected to act chivalrously. The tournaments had different rules that had to be followed. They were judged by umpires who watched for dishonest play. Tournaments were usually fought between either two people or two teams. If two people fought a tournament, it was usually by jousting. The two knights would gallop across the playing field at each other. They carried long, blunt poles and shields. The objective was to knock the other person out of his saddle. Team play was conducted with fierce mock combat between two bands of fighters. They fought with wooden or blunted weapons so as to reduce the risk of getting hurt. However, this was often not the case. Many people did get hurt or die by accident.’

Here is more information on medieval knights from Wikipedia

Chivalry, or the chivalric code, is the traditional code of conduct associated with the medieval institution of knighthood. Chivalry arose from an idealized German custom. It developed first in the north of France among horse soldiers who served in Charlemagne′s heavy cavalry. It was originally conceived of as an aristocratic warrior code — the term derives from the French term chevalerie, meaning horse soldiery — involving gallantry, individual training, and service to others. Over time its meaning has been refined to emphasise more ideals such as the knightly virtues of honour, courtly love, courtesy, and less martial aspects of the tradition.

‘The Knight’s Code of Chivalry was a moral system that stated all knights should protect others who can not protect themselves, such as widows, children, and elders. All knights needed to have the strength and skills to fight wars in the Middle Ages; they not only had to be strong but they were also extremely disciplined and were expected to use their power to protect the weak and defenseless.

‘Knights vowed to be loyal, generous, and “of noble bearing”. Knights were required to tell the truth at all times and always respect the honour of women. Knights not only vowed to protect the weak but also vowed to guard the honor of all fellow knights. They always had to obey those who were placed in authority and were never allowed to refuse a challenge from an equal. Knights lived by honor and for glory. Knights were to fear God and maintain His Church. Knights always kept their faith and never turned their back on a foe. Knights despised pecuniary reward. They persevered to the end in any enterprise begun.

Medieval literature

‘From the 12th century onward chivalry came to be understood as a moral, religious and social code of knightly conduct. The particulars of the code varied, but codes would emphasize the virtues of courage, honor, and service. Chivalry also came to refer to an idealization of the life and manners of the knight at home in his castle and with his court.’

Read more

Longer extracts from medieval verse criticising friars
For the verses below, see:
Medieval Institute Publications is part of the WMU (Western Michigan University) Medieval Institute. Medieval Institute Publications,
Western Michigan University
1903 W. Michigan Avenue
Kalamazoo, MI 49008-5432
The website, a treasury of medieval literature, is:
http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/dean-medieval-english-political-writings
TEAMS Middle English Texts › Medieval English Political Writings

Some verses from ‘Of thes Frer Mynours’ (1382)

Of thes Frer Mynours me thenkes moch wonder, minorities
That waxen are thus hauteyn, that som tyme weren under. 1

Among men of Holy Chirch thai maken mochel blonder; cause great confusion
Nou He that sytes us above, make ham sone to sonder. sits; makes them soon disperse

With an O and an I, thai praysen not Seynt Poule,
Thai lyen on Seyn Fraunceys, by my fader soule.

First thai gabben on God, that all men may se, sneer at; see
When thai hangen him on hegh on a grene tre high; green tree
With leves and with blossemes that bright are of ble, colour
That was never Goddes Son, by my leuté. faith

With on O and an I, men wenen that thai wede, suppose; rage
To carpe so of clergy, thai can not thair Crede. 2

1 That have grown so proud who were once humble
2 criticise; when they don’t even know the Creed


Thai preche all of povert, bot that love thai noght,1

For gode mete to thair mouthe the toun is thurgh soght. 2

Wyde are thair wonnynges and wonderfully wroght; their dwellings are big and beautifully made
Murdre and horedome ful dere has it boght. murder and debauchery have paid for the houses

With an O and an I, ffor sixe pens er thai fayle, for sixpence
Sle thi fadere, and jape thi modre, and thai wyl the assoile! 3

1 preach; poverty
2 the town is ransacked for food for their mouths
3 they will kill your father and seduce your mother and then hear your confession

Three verses from ‘Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun’
edited by James M. Dean and originally Published in Medieval English Political Writings, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996
[The Orders of Cain (1382)] (British Library MS Cotton Cleopatra B.ii fols. 63v-65r)

James M Dean writes: The opening lines are ironic encomium. The author praises friars for the very qualities that are attacked in antifraternal literature: their alleged tepid devotion to religion (but their worship of money and food); their hypocrisy; and their avarice and self-indulgence.

Preste, ne monke, ne yit chanoun, nor canon
Ne no man of religioun,
Gyfen hem so to devocioun give themselves so [wholeheartedly] to worship

As done thes holy frers. as the holy friars do

For summe gyven ham to chyvalry devote themselves to chivalry
Somme to riote and ribaudery; debauchery and coarse joking
Bot ffrers gyven ham to grete study,

And to grete prayers.

Who-so kepes thair reule al, whoever follows their rule

Bothe in worde and dede,

I am ful siker that he shal certain

Have heven blis to mede. experience heaven’s bliss in reward


Thai dele with purses, pynnes, and knyves,
With gyrdles, gloves for wenches and wyves; belts
Bot ever bacward the husband thryves it’s not good for a husband

Ther thai are haunted till. where they are accustomed to go

For when the gode man is fro hame, away
And the frere comes to oure dame,
He spares nauther for synne ne shame neither

That he ne dos his will. until he does what he wants to do

If thai no helpe of houswyves had,

Whan husbandes are not inne,

The freres welfare were ful bad,

For thai shuld brewe ful thynne. manage poorly


Were I am a man that hous helde,
If any woman with me dwelde,
Ther is no frer bot he were gelde

Shuld com with-in my wones.

For may he til a woman wynne
In priveyté, he wyl not blynne
Er he a childe put hir with-inne –

And perchaunce two at ones! 1

Thof he loure under his hode, though he looks sad under his hood

With semblaunt quaynte and mylde, with a well-mannered appearance

If thou him trust, or dos him gode,

By God, thou art bygylde. deceived

Thai say that thai distroye synne,
And thai mayntene men moste ther-inne;
For had a man slayn al his kynne,

Go shryve him at a frere, confess

And for lesse then a payre of shone shoes
He wyl assoil him, clene and sone, absolve (forgive, free); fully
And say the synne that he has done

His saule shal never dere. soul; harm

It semes sothe that men sayne of hame true; them

In many dyvers londe,

That that caytyfe cursed Cayme wretch; Cain

First this ordre fonde. establish this order of friars

Nou se the sothe whedre it be swa, observe the truth whether
That frere Carmes come of a k,
The frer Austynes come of a,

Frer Iacobynes of i,
Of M comen the frer Menours.
Thus grounded Caym thes four ordours,
That fillen the world ful of errours

And of ypocrisy. hypocrisy

Alle wyckednes that men can tell evil

Regnes ham among; reigns among them

There shal no saule have rowme in hell, soul; room

Of frers ther is such throng. crowd

1 The sexual capacities and potency of vagabond clerics were legendary.

Notes from the TEAMS edition
purses, pynnes, and knyves. Chaucer’s pilgrim Friar carries “knyves / And pynnes, for to yeven faire wyves” (I 233-34). The coincidence of language is striking. In the present lyric friars make husbands anxious, since mendicants “haunt” (line 40) their doorsteps.
wenches and wyves. Although the chief satiric thrust of this lyric is antifraternal, much of it, starting with this line but especially lines 77-84, is also antifeminist: against philandering wives. The social picture that emerges in the poem is that idle housewives abet vagabond friars in committing fornication while “the gode man is fro hame.”
frere Carmes come of a k. The best-known section of this poem concerns the cryptogram, which spells out the name KAIM, or Cain, if arranged in the poem’s order: K (Carmelites), A (Austins or Augustinians), I (Jacobins or Dominicans), M (Minorites or Franciscans). The ideology harks back to the story of Cain’s separation from the fellowship of Adam and to the lineage from Cain, the “bad seed” (see Gen. 4). Antifraternal writers connected Cain’s exile and vagabond life in the land of Nod with the friars’ mendicant existence. For other examples of Cain in antifraternal verse, see PPC 486 and 559; JU 70; FDR 105; Scattergood, Politics, p. 238 (on Mum and the Sothsegger lines 501-04). Margaret Aston has emphasized Wyclif’s influence in the promulgation of CAIM as an explanation of fraternal origins. See “‘Caim’s Castles’: Poverty, Politics, and Disendowment,” The Church, Politics and Patronage in the Fifteenth Century, ed. Barrie Dobson (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), pp. 45-81.

The texts, annotations and commentary on ‘Preste, Ne Monke, Ne Yit Chanoun’ and ‘Of Thes Frer Mynours’ are reproduced from Medieval English Political Writings, ed. James M. Dean, TEAMS/Middle English Texts Series (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1996), by permission.

The Friar and the Nun

In the fifteenth century macaronic carol entitled The Friar and the Nun, ‘Ther was a frier of order gray’, the refrain is an inversion of a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer: without the negative in ‘lead us not into temptation’, the line ‘inducas in temptacionibus’ becomes an invitation to pleasure, and the grey monk succeeds in seducing the nun.
from Elizabeth Archibald’s section on Macaronic Poetry in (page 284) section 15 of A Companion to Medieval Poetry ed Corinne Saunders, Blackwell Publishing Ltd 2010

Ther was a frier of order gray
Inducas may you lead
which loued a Nunne meny a day
In temptacionibus in temptations

This fryer was lusty proper and yong
Inducas
he offerd the Nunne to lerne her syng
In temptacionibus

Othe re me fa the frier her tawaght
Inducas
Sol la this nunne he kyst full oft
In temptacionibus

By proper chaunt and Segnory
inducas
This Nunne he groped with flattery
in temptacionibus

The fryers first lesson was Veni ad me come to me
Inducas
& ponam tollum meum ad te may I place my …. on you
in temptacionibus

The frier sang all by bemoll
inducas
Of the Nunne he begate a cristenyd sowle he conceived a soul to be baptised
in temptacionibus

The Nunne was tawyght to syng depe
inducas
lapides expungnauerunt me the stones have conquered me
in temptacionibus

Thus the fryer lyke a prety man
inducas
Ofte rokkyd the Nunnys Quoniam
in temptacionibus
ffinis short & swete.

This carol can also be found in The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse and Prose, ed. Douglas Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 172.

Wife of Bath’s Tale lines 902-1069

Section 4: The Wife of Bath’s Tale

lines 902 – 1069

The Queen tells the knight what he must do to save his life, lines 902 – 918

Until this point in the tale, we have heard only the voice of the Wife, telling the story in the third person. Very soon, however, and very characteristically, lots of different voices enter the fray. The Prologue was full of people’s voices; in the Wife’s version of events, even St Paul seemed to be telling her personally how to behave. In the Tale, the Queen starts talking to the knight, the knight talks to the queen, a whole mass of women tell the knight what they most want, then Midas’s queen starts talking to the reeds, the old hag talks to the knight, and so on.

902 “Thou standest yet,” quod she, “in swich array
“You,” she said, ” are in such a plight / dangerous situation,
903 That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee. suretee – Old Fr security, certainty
that you have no certainty of remaining alive.
904 I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me
I will grant you your life, if you can tell me
905 What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren. old French desire
what thing it is that women most desire.
906 Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren! not at all French! weapon (axe)
Take care, and keep your neck-bone from iron (the axe)
907 And if thou kanst nat tellen it anon,
And if you can’t tell (me the answer) right now,
908 Yet wol I yeve thee leve for to gon
yet I will give you permission to go
909 A twelf-month and a day, to seche and leere
for a twelvemonth (a year) and a day, to look for and to learn
910 An answere suffisant in this mateere;
a satisfactory answer to this matter;
911 And suretee wol I han, er that thou pace,
And, before you go, I will have a promise
912 Thy body for to yelden in this place.”
that you will hand over your body here.”

The knight has no suretee of his life, but the queen demands suretee (certainty) that he will come back to his fate. This ‘suretee’ is haunting him.

What the queen has asked the knight to do is to discover, ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren’. This is, in effect, a riddle to solve, a demande d’amour. A demande d’amour was a recognised part of medieval courtly love literature, a love-problem posed, usually for discussion in courtly conversation and debate. It put the question, which lover or which kind of love a person might prefer. The writer sometimes used the question to emphasise an important theme in his text, or used it to direct the plot, as Chaucer does here.

913 Wo was this knyght, and sorwefully he siketh;
This knight was in great distress and he sighs sorrowfully;
914 But what! He may nat do al as hym liketh.
But too bad! He cannot do exactly as he pleases.
915 And at the laste he chees hym for to wende
And at last he set himself to depart
916 And come agayn, right at the yeres ende,
and come back again, exactly at the year’s end,
917 With swich answere as God wolde hym purveye;
with such an answer as God would provide him with;
918 And taketh his leve, and wendeth forth his weye.
And he takes his leave, and goes forth on his journey.

Again, the story seems ideally suited to the Wife. The king has given his queen the power to deal with the knight as she sees fit. The knight is thus in a woman’s power and finds, as is only just, given the way he has treated the young maid, that ‘He may nat do al as hym liketh’. Earlier on he did just what he liked to a young maid; now it is a woman who makes him do what he doesn’t like. With equal reason, it is the queen who metes out justice on behalf of a fellow-woman who has been unjustly treated.

A closer look at what the queen says to the knight shows us how Chaucer conveys her power.

Thou standest yet… in swich array
That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee.
I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me
What thyng is it that wommmen moost desiren.
Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren.
… Yet wol I yeve thee leve for to gon
.. to seche and leere
An answere suffisant in this mateere.
And suretee wol I han …
Thy body for to yelden …

We actually hear the queen’s words in direct speech, whereas we are only told the knight’s reaction, ‘Wo was this knyght, and sorwefully he siketh’. This, I think, gives a more dramatic sense of the queen’s power. She also refers to the knight as ‘thou’ rather than as ‘you’. ‘Thou’ is the form of address used by a superior to an inferior; the knight, if he were to speak to the queen, would use the formal and respectful form, ‘you’. The queen would, of course, have addressed the knight as ‘thou’, as he is her subject, and subservient to her. However, it does impress upon us the extent of her power. There is quite a lot of ‘I’ – ‘I grante thee lyf…’; ‘I yeve thee leve…’; ‘suretee wol I han’, which gives further weight to our impression of the queen’s power over the knight. In each case, the I or me (the queen) is spoken in relation to thou / thee (the knight), for example, ‘I grante thee lyf’, and this again illustrates her power and his lack of it. The sentence structure is quite straightforward, and is always in the active voice, again giving a dynamic feeling to the queen’s discourse.

“Thou standest yet,” quod she, “in swich array
That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee.

I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me
What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren.
Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren!
And if thou kanst nat tellen it anon,
Yet wol I yeve thee leve for to gon
A twelf-month and a day, to seche and leere
An answere suffisant in this mateere;
And suretee wol I han, er that thou pace,
Thy body for to yelden in this place.” (lines 902 – 912)

There is yet more language of power to be found in the queen’s speech. She addresses him directly, as he stands before her (he may not sit in the monarch’s presence). ‘Thou standest yet’ quod she …. as he stands before her both literally and metaphorically because he stands / has got himself into such a situation that he may lose his life. ‘That of thy lyf…’ continues the queen. She inverts the expected order of words, and instead of saying, there’s no certainty that you’ll live, she says, ‘That of thy lyf …hastow no suretee.’ She foregrounds his life, and its uncertainty. In the very next line she repeats the word ‘lyf’, putting it in her power: ‘I grante thee lyf,’ but goes on directly to say, ‘if thou kanst …’. He has to do something to save himself, and she has put herself very firmly in charge of that line. The words ‘I grante thee lyf’ come at the beginning of the line, in direct repetition of the words at the beginning of the previous line, hammering the point home. She holds his life in her power.

What will happen to the knight if he fails in ‘if thou kanst …’ is made explicit. In a brutal cinematic close-up, ‘Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren,’ he is shown the exact position on his neck bone of the exact weapon of execution. This is surely yet another technique in the queen’s armoury of power. Next, she repeats an earlier line: ‘and if thou kanst nat tellen….’ this time adding ‘nat’, she will give him permission to find out the answer to the impossible question she has set him. And again the terrifying word ‘suretee’ appears, in another inversion, to highlight its power. Instead of saying, Before you go, I want a surety, the queen says, ‘And suretee wol I han ….’, thus foregrounding the all-important word: suretee. She immediately follows this up by inverting the expected word order in the next line, too: ‘Thy body for to yelden in this place’. The knight can be left in no doubt that his body will be yielded up to the woman who has power over it.

We are told the knight’s response to the queen’s words in terms of his emotions. ‘Wo was this knyght, and sorwefully he siketh.’ The expected order of words, ‘this knight was miserable and sighed sorrowfully’ is inverted so that the emphasis falls on ‘Wo’ and ‘sorwefully.’ The intensity of his feelings is stressed also by the disruption of the iambic pentameter, bringing the weight forward onto ‘Wo’ and also by the alliteration of ‘Wo was’ followed by ‘sorwefully … siketh.’

The knight goes on a quest to find out what it is that women love most, lines 919 – 951

919 He seketh every hous and every place
He looks in every house and every place
920 Where as he hopeth for to fynde grace
where he hopes to have the luck
921 To lerne what thyng wommen loven moost,
to learn what thing women love most,
922 But he ne koude arryven in no coost
But he could not arrive in any region
923 Wher as he myghte fynde in this mateere
where he might find in this matter
924 Two creatures accordynge in-feere.
two creatures agreeing together.

Typically, the Wife’s Tale begins to fill with a cacophony of different voices. Her Prologue was full of voices (mostly her own, of course, but others made their way into the story). Now the knight, who at first paid no attention to the protestations of the ‘mayde’ he raped, is having to listen intently to everything women tell him. The amount of information is overwhelming, with its repeated ‘Somme seyde …. somme seyde …. somme …’, gathering pace as the list continues. But none of it adds up. Nobody agrees.

925 Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse,
Some said women love riches best,
926 Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolynesse,
some said to be esteemed, some said gaiety,
927 Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abedde,
some (said expensive) clothes, some said lust in bed,
928 And oftetyme to be wydwe and wedde.
and to be frequently widowed and married.
929 Somme seyde that oure hertes been moost esed
Some said that our hearts are most eased
930 Whan that we been yflatered and yplesed.
when we are flattered and pleased.
931 He gooth ful ny the sothe, I wol nat lye.
(The man who says that) goes very near the truth, I will not lie.
932 A man shal wynne us best with flaterye,
A man shall win us best with flattery,
933 And with attendance and with bisynesse
and with attentions and with solicitude
934 Been we ylymed, bothe moore and lesse.
we are caught, (like birds) every one of us.

The Wife began this tale in the third person, but it hasn’t taken long before she is enthusiastically involved in it, and slides unconsciously into the first person, ‘ Somme seyde that oure hertes been moost esed…’ and starts to insert her own opinions, ‘He gooth ful ny the sothe, I wol nat lye.’

935 And somme seyen that we loven best
And some say that we love best
936 For to be free and do right as us lest,
to be free and do just as we please,
937 And that no man repreve us of oure vice,
and that no man criticises us for our vices,
938 But seye that we be wise and no thyng nyce.
but says that we are wise and not at all silly.
939 For trewely ther is noon of us alle,
For truly there is not one of us,
940 If any wight wol clawe us on the galle,
if any one will touch / chafe us on a sore place,
941 That we nel kike, for he seith us sooth.
that we will not kick back at, because he tells us the truth.
942 Assay, and he shal fynde it that so dooth;
Try it, and whoever so does shall find it true;
943 For, be we never so vicious withinne,
For, be we never so vicious inside,
944 We wol been holden wise and clene of synne.
we want to be considered wise and clean of sin.
945 And somme seyn that greet delit han we
And some say that we have great delight
946 For to been holden stable, and eek secree,
in being considered steadfast, and also (able to keep a) secret,
947 And in o purpos stedefastly to dwelle,
and to continue faithfully dedicated to one purpose,
948 And nat biwreye thyng that men us telle.
and not reveal things that men tell us.
949 But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele.
But that fiction is not worth a rake handle (is rubbish).
950 Pardee, we wommen konne no thyng hele;
By God, we women can hide nothing;
951 Witnesse on Myda — wol ye heere the tale?
Look at the story of Midas — do you want to hear the tale?

The story of King Midas and his wife, lines 952 – 982

And characteristically, before long, the Wife is onto one of her favourite digressions. This time it’s the story about King Midas’s wife, except that she hasn’t quite got it right. In Ovid, the story is that it was King Midas’s barber who knew his secret (not surprisingly) and told the secret to the ground which in time grew reeds through which the winds blew and told the secret, “asses’ ears”. (The sibilant s’s give the sound of the breeze through the reeds.) Could Jankyn perhaps have distorted Ovid’s version and recast it in a more antifeminist mould for the Wife’s benefit, so that King Midas’s wife was the villain? The Wife invites her audience to read about it in Ovid’s writings, which suggests that she cannot read Latin herself, since she has got the story wrong.

952 Ovyde, amonges othere thynges smale,
Ovid, among other small matters,
953 Seyde Myda hadde, under his longe heres,
said that Midas had, under his long hair,
954 Growynge upon his heed two asses eres,
two ass’s ears, growing upon his head,
955 The whiche vice he hydde as he best myghte
which defect / blemish he hid as he best could
956 Ful subtilly from every mannes sighte,
very skilfully from everyone’s sight,
957 That, save his wyf, ther wiste of it namo.
so that, except for his wife, no others knew about it.
958 He loved hire moost, and trusted hire also;
He loved her most, and trusted her also;
959 He preyede hire that to no creature
He begged her that she should not tell any creature
960 She sholde tellen of his disfigure.
about his disfigurement.
961 She swoor him, “Nay”; for al this world to wynne,
She promised him, “No”; not for all the world,
962 She nolde do that vileynye or synne,
she would not do that dishonour or sin,
963 To make hir housbonde han so foul a name.
to make her husband have so foul a reputation.
964 She nolde nat telle it for hir owene shame.
She would not tell it for her own shame.
965 But nathelees, hir thoughte that she dyde
But nonetheless, she thought that she would die
966 That she so longe sholde a conseil hyde;
if she had to hide a secret so long;
967 Hir thoughte it swal so soore aboute hir herte
She thought it swelled so sorely about her heart
968 That nedely som word hire moste asterte;
that some word must escape her;
969 And sith she dorste telle it to no man,
And since she dared tell it to no man,
970 Doun to a mareys faste by she ran —
she ran down to a marsh close by —
971 Til she cam there hir herte was afyre —
until she came there her heart was afire —
972 And as a bitore bombleth in the myre,
and just as a bittern bumbles in the mud,
973 She leyde hir mouth unto the water doun:
she laid her mouth down unto the water:
974 “Biwreye me nat, thou water, with thy soun,”
“Water, don’t betray me with your sound,”
975 Quod she; “to thee I telle it and namo;
she said; “I will tell it to youand no one else;
976 Myn housbonde hath longe asses erys two!
My husband has two long ass’s ears!
977 Now is myn herte al hool; now is it oute.
Now is my heart all whole; now is it out.
978 I myghte no lenger kepe it, out of doute.”
I could no longer keep it, without doubt.”
979 Heere may ye se, thogh we a tyme abyde,
Here you may see, though we a time abide,
980 Yet out it moot; we kan no conseil hyde.
Yet out it must come; we can hide no secret.
981 The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere,
The remnant of the tale if you will hear,
982 Redeth Ovyde, and ther ye may it leere.
Read Ovid, and there you may learn it.

A translation of Ovid shows the story Ovid actually wrote.
From Ovid, translation by Dryden, Pope, Congreve, Addison, and Others, London, 1833, Vol I, pp. 280-287.
website: http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/wbt/ovid-mid.html

He, to conceal the scandal of the deed,
A purple turban folds about his head,
Veils the reproach from public view, and fears
The laughing world would spy his monstrous ears.
One trusty barber-slave, that used to dress
His master’s hair, when lengthened to excess,
The mighty secret knew, but knew alone,
And, though impatient, durst not make it known.
Restless, at last a private place be found,
Then dug a hole, and told it to the ground’
In a low whisper he revealed the case
And covered in the earth, and silent left the place.
In time, of trembling reeds a plenteous crop
From the confided furrow sprouted up,
Which, high advancing with the ripening year,
Made know the tiller, and his fruitless care;
For then the rustling blades and whispering wind
To tell the important secret both combined.

At the year’s end, the knight has still not found the answer, lines 983 – 988

983 This knyght, of which my tale is specially,
The knight that my story is about,
984 Whan that he saugh he myghte nat come therby —
when he saw he might not find out the answer–
985 This is to seye, what wommen love moost —
this is to say, what women love most —
986 Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the goost.
the spirit within his breast was extremely sorrowful.
987 But hoom he gooth; he myghte nat sojourne;
But home he goes; he could not linger
988 The day was come that homward moste he tourne.
the day had come that he must turn homeward.

This story-telling, even though it is told in the third person, ‘This knyght …’, continues to bear all the hallmarks of the Wife of Bath’s habitual speech. For a start, she has again got herself into the story, ‘of which my tale is specially.’ And then, the way she tells the tale is quite colloquial and informal. ‘Whan that he saugh he myghte nat come therby – ‘ at which point even the Wife realises that it is all clear as mud, so she adds, ‘This is to seye, what wommen love moost – ‘. By inverting the word order, she foregrounds the knight’s sorrow at not having found the answer to the question set by the Queen: ‘Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the goost.’ Repeated sibilance (s sounds) convey his sorrow as if he were sighing: ‘Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the goost.’ And she underlines the knight’s lack of choice by repeating the meaning: ‘hoom he gooth’ is synonymous with ‘he myghte nat sojourne’ and with ‘homward moste he tourne.’ Another way of underlining the knight’s lack of choice is the rhyme: ‘he myghte nat sojourne’ and ‘homward moste he tourne.’ Added to this is ‘he myghte nat’ and ‘moste he’ all stressing the constraint that he is under.

The knight meets an old woman, lines 989 – 999

989 And in his wey it happed hym to ryde,
And on his way in all this trouble he happened to ride,
990 In al this care, under a forest syde,
near the side of a forest,
991 Wher as he saugh upon a daunce go
where he saw twenty-four and more ladies dancing
992 Of ladyes foure and twenty, and yet mo;
993 Toward the whiche daunce he drow ful yerne,
He advanced very eagerly toward the dance,
994 In hope that som wysdom sholde he lerne.
in the hope that he should learn some wisdom.
995 But certeinly, er he cam fully there,
But certainly, before he got right up to them,
996 Vanysshed was this daunce, he nyste where.
the dance vanished, he knew not where.
997 No creature saugh he that bar lyf,
He saw no living creature,
998 Save on the grene he saugh sittynge a wyf —
except for a woman sitting on the grass —
999 A fouler wight ther may no man devyse.
no man could imagine an uglier creature (than she was).

Once again the knight meets a woman on her own. But this time it’s the opposite of his encounter with the mayde. Then she was young and he raped her, ignoring her protestations and efforts to defend herself; in so doing he broke the knightly code which was to rescue damsels. This time she is old and he has to ask her to speak to help him – so it is still the opposite of our expectations for a knight. She rescues him. You could interpret it, however, as being the same both times, in that he exploits what the two women have for his own interest: one sexuality, the other, knowledge.

The knight is in the power of the queen, and he is shortly to be in the power of the old hag. Between them, the queen and the old hag cover the whole range of women in social terms, from queen to peasant.

Chaucer simply tells us that you couldn’t imagine a fouler human being. However, the writer of the Marriage of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell furnishes us with every unsavoury detail. Don’t read this while you are eating.

And ther he mett with a Lady.

She was as ungoodly a creature

uncouth (ugly)

As evere man sawe, withoute mesure.

as ever a man saw beyond measure

Kyng Arthure mervaylyd securly.

marvelled transfixed

Her face was red, her nose snotyd withalle,

her face was read, her nose running with snot

Her mowithe wyde, her tethe yalowe overe alle,

mouth was wide ; teeth yellow

With bleryd eyen gretter then a balle.

with eyes bigger than a ball and full of inflamed gunge

Her mowithe was nott to lak:

was not small

Her tethe hyng overe her lyppes,

her teeth stuck out over her lips

Her chekys syde as wemens hippes.

her cheeks were as broad as women’s hips

A lute she bare upon her bak;

hump on her back

Her nek long and therto greatt;

equally thick

Her here cloteryd on an hepe;

her hair was matted in a heap

In the sholders she was a yard brode.

her shoulders were nearly a metre across

Hangyng pappys to be an hors lode,

breasts hanging like a packhorse’s load

And lyke a barelle she was made.

And to reherse the fowlnesse of that Lady,

recount

Ther is no tung may telle, securly;

surely no tongue can adequately tell (describe)

Of lothynesse inowghe she had.

her foulness

To read a modern transcript of the whole story, go to https://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/romances/wedding_rev.html

The knight and the old woman talk and she tells him the answer to the queen’s riddle, lines 1000 – 1022

1000 Agayn the knyght this olde wyf gan ryse,
As the knight’s approached this old woman got up,
1001 And seyde, “Sire knyght, heer forth ne lith no wey.
and said, “Sir knight, there’s no road leading from here.
1002 Tel me what that ye seken, by youre fey!
Tell me what you seek, by your faith!
1003 Paraventure it may the bettre be;
Perhaps it may be the better;
1004 Thise olde folk kan muchel thyng,” quod she.
Old people know many things,” she said.
1005 “My leeve mooder,” quod this knyght, “certeyn
“My dear mother,” said this knight, “certainly
1006 I nam but deed but if that I kan seyn
I am as good as dead unless I can say
1007 What thyng it is that wommen moost desire.
what it is that women most desire.
1008 Koude ye me wisse, I wolde wel quite youre hire.”
If you could teach me, I would repay you well.”

The knight’s words here show how little he understands about receiving (the old woman is about to give him the answer to the queen’s question that will save his life). He thinks he can simply pay her off, ‘I wolde wel quite youre hire.’ Hire is the reward for a service; in the knight’s view it is a commercial transaction. But women don’t really want commercial transactions (although the Wife herself makes do with them); this old woman wants a relationship. The Wife herself likes a relationship, so long as she has the upper hand in it. The knight does at least call the old woman ‘ye’ and not ‘thou’, thus according her some measure of respect.

1009 “Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand,” quod she,
“Give me your word (promise) and also your hand on it,” she said,
1010 “The nexte thyng that I requere thee,
“(that) the next thing that I ask of you,
1011 Thou shalt it do, if it lye in thy myght,
you will do, if it lies in your power,
1012 And I wol telle it yow er it be nyght.”
and I will tell you (the answer to the riddle) before nighttime.”
1013 “Have heer my trouthe,” quod the knyght, “I grante.”
“I give you my pledged word,” said the knight, “I agree.”

The knight really is not listening properly. The old woman says to him, “Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand,” quod she. And he actually says to her, ‘”Have heer my trouthe,” quod the knyght, “I grante.”‘ In his Confessio Amantis of exactly contemporary date with the Wife of Bath’s Tale, Gower writes: ‘Have hier myn hond, I schal thee wedde.’ In the marriage service, the man and woman say to each other, ‘I take thee … and ther to I plycht the my trouth’ This means, ‘I make a solemn promise.’ These vows were spoken in the vulgar tongue, that is, English, although the service was in Latin. This is taken from an excerpt from The Sarum Missal in English (1526) and I am hoping that the vows were not so different 130 years earlier. The quotation from Gower suggests that this sense was extant. However, the Chaucer expert, Peter Biedler, says that these words simply mean, Promise me. As I see it, what the old woman says to the knight and what he says to her signal strongly to the reader or listener the nature of the agreement the knight has entered into. It is not a mere commercial transaction; it is almost word for word the ritual of a marriage ceremony. We are thus prepared for the claim the old woman makes upon the knight later in the story, even if he is not.

The old woman addresses the knight as ‘thou’, suggesting that she regards him as either her inferior, or as being in her power – as indeed he is; although, at the end of her speech, she does address him as ‘yow’.

1014 “Thanne,” quod she, “I dar me wel avante
“Then,” she said, “I dare well boast
1015 Thy lyf is sauf, for I wol stonde therby;
your life is safe, for I tell you;
1016 Upon my lyf, the queene wol seye as I.
I promise on my life, the queen will say the same as I do.
1017 Lat se which is the proudeste of hem alle
Let’s see which is the proudest of them all
1018 That wereth on a coverchief or a calle
who wears a kerchief or a hairnet (ie women)
1019 That dar seye nay of that I shal thee teche.
who dares disagree with what I shall teach you.
1020 Lat us go forth withouten lenger speche.”
Let us go without talking any longer.”
1021 Tho rowned she a pistel in his ere,
Then she whispered a message in his ear,
1022 And bad hym to be glad and have no fere.
and commanded him to be glad and not be afraid.

Unlike Gower in his Tale of Florent, Chaucer keeps us in suspense. The hag tells Florent, ‘thou schalt be myn housebonde’. But in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, we are not told what the answer to the question is. The whispered nature of the answer keeps it a secret from us.

The knight returns to the court and gives the answer to the Queen’s riddle, lines 1023 – 1045

1023 Whan they be comen to the court, this knyght
When they had come to the court, this knight
1024 Seyde he had holde his day, as he hadde hight,
said he had returned on the day he had promised,
1025 And redy was his answere, as he sayde.
and he said his answer was ready.
1026 Ful many a noble wyf, and many a mayde,
Many a noble wife, and many a maid,
1027 And many a wydwe, for that they been wise,
and many a widow, because they are wise,
1028 The queene hirself sittynge as a justise,
with the queen herself sitting as a justice,
1029 Assembled been, his answere for to heere;
were assembled, to hear his answer;
1030 And afterward this knyght was bode appeere.
And afterwards this knight was commanded to appear.
1031 To every wight comanded was silence,
Everyone was commanded to be silent,
1032 And that the knyght sholde telle in audience
and the knight (was ordered) to tell in open court
1033 What thyng that worldly wommen loven best.
what thing (it is) that worldly women love best.

The knight is now in the power of even more women. Ranged in judgement over him are the queen, noble wives, maids, many widows (the Wife of Bath can’t resist adding her own rider at this point, ‘for that they been wise’). The women give the orders, he is the object of their commands: ‘was bode appeere’.

1034 This knyght ne stood nat stille as doth a best,
This knight did not stand there silently like a beast,
1035 But to his questioun anon answerde
but answered the question straightway
1036 With manly voys, that al the court it herde:
with a manly voice, so that all the court heard it:
1037 “My lige lady, generally,” quod he,
“My liege lady, without exception,” he said,
1038 “Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
“women desire to have sovereignty
1039 As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
over their husbands as well as their loves,
1040 And for to been in maistrie hym above.
and to have mastery over him.
1041 This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
(I say that) this is your greatest desire, even though you kill me.
1042 Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille.”
Do as you please; I am subject to your will.”
1043 In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde,
In all the court there was no wife, nor maid,
1044 Ne wydwe that contraried that he sayde,
nor widow that denied what he said,
1045 But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.
but they said that he was worthy to have his life.

Continuing the theme of obedience to women’s power, the knight addresses the queen as ‘My lige lady’, in other words, the monarch to whom he owes allegiance. To this day, every peer in the realm swears allegiance to the monarch during the Coronation Service. “I, (Name) Duke, or Earl, etc., of (Name)
do become your liege man of life and limb,
and of earthly worship;
and faith and truth I will bear unto you,
to live and die, against all manner of folks.
So help me God.” In feudal law, a liege man is a vassal who swears to serve and support his superior lord. A vassal is someone who holds lands from his superior on condition that he serves and supports that superior.

The queen had set the knight a demande d’amour. And the answer to the demande d’amour that the queen set the knight a year and a day ago is, of course, the very answer the Wife of Bath would have given:

“Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
1039 As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
1040 And for to been in maistrie hym above.

This is a variant on the courtly love tradition, in which the woman who was the object of the nobleman’s love had power over him. In that tradition, the man adored the lady almost as if she were a deity. In the Wife’s Tale, the woman wants power over her husband as well, which rings true. Is Chaucer mischievously sending up the courtly love rituals here and reducing them to the everyday and the domestic?

‘Sovereynetee’ can refer to superior rank but in this context it obviously refers to authority and power rather than rank. It swiftly deteriorates (as I see it) into maistrie which is dominion, control, mastery, although in fact both words derive from Old French and could therefore be seen as courtly. Peter Biedler associates sovereignty with the power of a king or queen over a nation, and mastery as control over something smaller, like a household. In the Oxford English Dictionary, maistrie is described as ‘ascendancy in battle or competition, or in a struggle of any kind; victory resulting in domination or subjugation,’ which gives the meaning of warfare that has been evident throughout the Wife’s Prologue in her determined acquisition of maistrie.

In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde,
Ne wydwe that contraried that he sayde, (lines 1043, 44)

The women sitting in judgement over the knight represent the whole spectrum of sexual experience, or experience in legal relationship with men: wives, widows and maidens. This could be seen as a demeaning description of women recognised by a patriarchal society only in regard to their standing with men, rather than their standing as individuals. And, since that is how women were seen at the end of the fourteenth century, that is how Chaucer describes them.
The old woman demands her rights, lines 1046 – 1057

However, this is not the end of the story. We were told, ‘The queene hirself (was) sittynge as a justise’ and there is another person in the story who needs justice to be meted out: the old hag. She demands that the queen ‘do me right.’

1046 And with that word up stirte the olde wyf,
And with that word up sprang the old woman,
1047 Which that the knyght saugh sittynge on the grene:
whom the knight saw sitting on the green:
1048 “Mercy,” quod she, “my sovereyn lady queene!
“Mercy,” she said, “my sovereign lady queen!
1049 Er that youre court departe, do me right.
Before your court departs, do me justice.
1050 I taughte this answere unto the knyght;
I taught this answer to the knight;
1051 For which he plighte me his trouthe there,
For which he pledged me his word there,
1052 The firste thyng that I wolde hym requere
that he would do the first thing that I would ask of him
1053 He wolde it do, if it lay in his myghte.
if it lay in his power.
1054 Bifore the court thanne preye I thee, sir knyght,”
Before the court then I pray you, sir knight,”
1055 Quod she, “that thou me take unto thy wyf,
she said, “that you take me as your wife,
1056 For wel thou woost that I have kept thy lyf.
for you know well that I have saved your life.
1057 If I seye fals, sey nay, upon thy fey!”
If what I am saying isn’t true, say `no’, upon your honour as a knight!”

Here come the words again that should have signalled to the knight what he had let himself in for when he said he would do whatever the old woman asked of him. As she tells the queen, ‘He plighte me his trouthe there.’ Daring him to live up to his knightly vows and his ‘fey’ or faith, promise, she says,

thanne preye I thee, sir knyght,”

1055 Quod she, “that thou me take unto thy wyf,
1056 For wel thou woost that I have kept thy lyf.
1057 If I seye fals, sey nay, upon thy fey!”

On the one hand, she gives him his title, ‘sir knyght.’ On the other, she uses the ‘thou’ form of ‘you’, the form that reminds the knight that he is her inferior in that he is in her power. The rhyme of ‘wyf’ and ‘lyf’ serves as a further reminder that he should do as she asks since he owes his life to her. Alliterated ws in ‘wel thou woost’ increase the pressure upon his knightly honour. There is a lot of ‘I’ / ‘me’ and ‘thee’/ ‘thy’ / ‘thou’ in these lines, underlining the service she has rendered him in his hour of need, and the fact that he is in her debt and owes her a relationship in response. Three lines end in those matters that are most important to him: ‘thy wife’, ‘thy lyf’ and, as a knight, ‘thy fey’ (faith, word, promise).

The knight would do anything rather than marry the old woman, lines 1058 – 1069

1058 This knyght answerde, “Allas and weylawey!
This knight answered, “Alas and woe is me!
1059 I woot right wel that swich was my biheste.
I know right well that such was my promise.
1060 For Goddes love, as chees a newe requeste!
For God’s love, choose a new request!
1061 Taak al my good and lat my body go.”
Take all my goods and let my body go.”

The knight’s reaction is hardly very courteous, “Allas and weylawey!” He still thinks he can pay her off: ‘Taak al my good.’

1062 “Nay, thanne,” quod she, “I shrewe us bothe two!
“No, then,” she said, “I curse both of us two!
1063 For thogh that I be foul, and oold, and poore
For though I am ugly, and old, and poor
1064 I nolde for al the metal, ne for oore
for all the metal and ore
1065 That under erthe is grave or lith above,
that is buried under the earth or lies above it,
1066 But if thy wyf I were, and eek thy love.”
I would not have anything except to be your wife, and also your love.”
1067 “My love?” quod he, “nay, my dampnacioun!
“My love?” he said, “no, my damnation!
1068 Allas, that any of my nacioun
Alas, that any member of my family
1069 Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!”
should ever be so foully degraded!”

The knight is behaving almost as badly to the old woman as he did to the mayde when he raped her. To neither of them does he show the slightest respect. She asks to be ‘thy wyf … and eek (also) thy love’ to which he replies, ‘My love … nay, my damnacioun.’ He compounds the offensiveness of this response in the way he picks up the end of her request ‘and eek thy love,’ and flings it back at her, forcefully negating it (‘nay’) by a word that is emotionally its opposite: ‘My love … nay, my damnacioun.’ The Oxford English Dictionary actually cites this line as meaning ’cause of ruin’. Interestingly, in this part of the tale, it also carries the sense of being sentenced in a judicial sense.

The immediate reason that the knight gives for this insulting response is one of disparate social status: ‘Allas, that any of my nacioun.’ Nacion means birth, and hence family from the Latin. ‘Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!’ The word disparage means marrying someone of inferior social status and the disgrace resulting from this. Both ‘nacion’ and ‘disparaged’ come from Anglo-Norman, so he seems to be underlining his aristocratic lineage with the vocabulary he chooses.

In saying that she would rather be the knight’s wife and love than be the possessor of all the riches in the world, the old woman is placing relationship above material wealth.

In Gower’s Tale of Florent there is little of this conversation between knight and old woman. The knight gets into bed with the old woman, and wrestles with his conscience. As a result, he speaks gently to the old woman, who promptly reveals that she was put under a spell and is really young and lovely, the daughter of the king of Sicily. Which, because of the knight’s acceptance of her, she is immediately able to become once again. The extended conversation in the Wife of Bath’s Tale serves to make the story far more dramatic, and to emphasise the extent to which the knight is in the wrong. The link to Gower’s Tale of Florent is http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/authors/gower/gow-flor.html

Wife of Bath’s Tale lines 1070-1264

Section 4: The Wife of Bath’s Tale

lines 1070 – 1264

The knight has to marry the old woman and go to bed with her, lines 1070 -1108

Women continue to have power over the knight. He has to marry the old woman, ‘he / Constreyned was; he nedes moste hire wedde …’. In place of the expected joy and feasting at the wedding there is nothing to celerate. The only feelings on the occasion are ‘hevynesse and muche sorwe.’ These emotions on the occasion of his marriage are swiftly followed by ‘wo was hym’ and ‘greet was the wo the kyght hadde.’

1070 But al for noght; the ende is this, that he
But it was no good; the upshot is this, he
1071 Constreyned was; he nedes moste hire wedde,
was compelled; he had to marry her,
1072 And taketh his olde wyf, and gooth to bedde.
and he takes his old wife, and goes to bed.
1073 Now wolden som men seye, paraventure,
Now would some men say, perhaps,
1074 That for my necligence I do no cure
that through negligence I make no effort
1075 To tellen yow the joye and al th’ array
to tell you about all the joy and all the rich display
1076 That at the feeste was that ilke day.
that there was at the (wedding) feast that same day.
1077 To which thyng shortly answeren I shal:
To which I shall answer briefly:
1078 I seye ther nas no joye ne feeste at al;
there was no joy nor feast at all;
1079 Ther nas but hevynesse and muche sorwe.
There was nothing but sadness and much sorrow.

Chaucer is using the rhetorical technique occupatio, when he refers to something (the joy at the wedding feast) only in order to say that he will not refer to it. Here, instead of using occupatio as an excuse to describe the wedding feast at great length while at the same time denying that he is doing so, he uses it to reinforce our sense of the knight’s misery, ‘I seye ther nas no joye ne feeste at al.’

1080 For prively he wedded hire on morwe,
(For) he married her in private in the morning,
1081 And al day after hidde hym as an owle,
and all day afterwards hid himself like an owl,
1082 So wo was hym, his wyf looked so foule.
he was so unhappy, his wife looked so ugly.
1083 Greet was the wo the knyght hadde in his thoght,
The knight’s thoughts were very miserable,
1084 Whan he was with his wyf abedde ybroght;
when he was brought to bed with his wife;
1085 He walweth and he turneth to and fro.
He tosses and turns to and fro.
1086 His olde wyf lay smylynge everemo,
All the time, his old wife lay smiling,
1087 And seyde, “O deere housbonde, benedicitee!
and said, “O dear husband, bless me!
1088 Fareth every knyght thus with his wyf as ye?
Does every knight behave with his wife as you do?
1089 Is this the lawe of kyng Arthures hous?
Is this the law of King Arthur’s court?
1090 Is every knyght of his so dangerous?
Is every knight of his so aloof / standoffish?
1091 I am youre owene love and youre wyf;
I am your own love and your wife;
1092 I am she which that saved hath youre lyf,
I am (the woman) who has saved your life,
1093 And, certes, yet ne dide I yow nevere unright;
and, certainly, I have never done you wrong yet;
1094 Why fare ye thus with me this firste nyght?
Why are you behaving like this with me on our wedding night?
1095 Ye faren lyk a man had lost his wit.
You’re act like a man who has lost his wits.
1096 What is my gilt? For Goddes love, tel it,
What is my offence? For God’s love, tell it,
1097 And it shal been amended, if I may.”
and it shall be put right, if I can.”

In contrast to the knight’s misery, the old wife is ‘smylynge.’ She asks him, teasingly, whether all King Arthur’s famously chivalrous knights behave like this on their wedding night. Then, in a most loving way, she reminds him that she is the knight’s ‘owene love … I am she which that saved hath youre lyf.’ And, taking pity on him, she adds, ‘What is my gilt? … it shal been amended, if I may.’

1098 “Amended?” quod this knyght, “Allas, nay, nay!
“Put right?” said this knight, “Alas, no, no!
1099 It wol nat been amended nevere mo.
It can’t ever be put right.

What the knight says follows the same pattern as it did earlier. He takes the last word his wife has spoken, and hotly contradicts what she has said. She says that she will put things right for him: ‘And it shal been amended, if I may.’ He takes the word ‘Amended’, questions it, and then negates it, ‘Alas, nay, nay!’ And, as if that weren’t enough, he adds: ‘It wol nat been amended (negation number two) nevere mo.’ (Negation number three).

1100 Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,
You are so repellent, and also so old,
1101 And therto comen of so lough a kynde,
and in addition, your family is so low born,
1102 That litel wonder is thogh I walwe and wynde.
that it’s little wonder that I toss and turn about.
1103 So wolde God myn herte wolde breste!”
I wish to God my heart would burst!”

The knight says he wishes his heart would burst or, in other words, that he were dead. Since the old woman, his wife, has just saved his life, this is hardly very grateful and is certainly not chivalrous.

1104 “Is this,” quod she, “the cause of youre unreste?”
“Is this,” she said, “the cause of your distress?”
1105 “Ye, certeinly,” quod he, “no wonder is.”
“Yes, certainly,” he said, “it is no wonder.”
1106 “Now, sire,” quod she, “I koude amende al this,
“Now, sir,” she said, “I could put all this right,
1107 If that me liste, er it were dayes thre,
if I pleased, before three days are past,
1108 So wel ye myghte bere yow unto me.
provided that you behave well towards me.

Rather than respond angrily to the knight’s boorish behaviour, flinging ‘Amende’ back in her face, the old woman repeats gently, ‘I koude amende al this.’ The knight may be a man in a patriarchal society, and he may be an aristocrat talking to a peasant, but he does not know better than she does! (And some people think that this tale was not originally intended for the Wife of Bath!)

Well might the old woman say, ‘So wel ye myghte bere yow unto me.’ He was polite to her when he thought she could save his life but, from the moment his life was saved, he has been offensive in the extreme towards her.

Here is the equivalent passage of Gower’s Tale of Florent. It focuses much more upon the lady’s repellent body. Chaucer focuses more upon their conversation – and as this is the Wife of Bath’s Tale, what could it be but speech?

He wolde algate his trowthe holde,

As every knyht therto is holde,

bound

What happ so evere him is befalle.

Thogh sche be the fouleste of alle,

Yit to th’onour of womanhiede

the honour

Him thoghte he scholde taken hiede;

it seemed to him

So that for pure gentilesse,

As he hire couthe best adresce,

providing for her as best he could

In ragges, as sche was totore,

since she was all tattered

He set hire on his hors tofore

he put her in front of (him)

And forth he takth his weie softe.

quietly

No wonder thogh he siketh ofte

often sighs

Bot as an oule fleth be nyhte

as an owl flies by night

Out of alle othre briddes syhte,

so that other birds don’t see it

Riht so this knyht on daies brode

in broad daylight

In clos him hield, and schop his rode

kept himself hidden did his riding

On nyhtes time, til the tyde

at night; time

That he cam there he wolde abide;

And prively withoute noise

He bringth this foule grete coise

ugly woman (coise = thigh)

To his castell in such a wise

That no man myhte hire schappe avise,

be able to see her shape (figure)

Til sche into the chambre cam:

Wher he his privé conseil nam

took

Of suche men as he most troste,

trusted

And tolde hem that he nedes moste

them

This beste wedde to his wif, / beast

For elles hadde he lost his lif.

The privé wommen were asent,

personal serving women were sent for

That scholden ben of his assent:

Hire ragges thei anon of drawe,

took off

And, as it was that time lawe,

Sche hadde bath, sche hadde reste,

And was arraied to the beste.

Bot with no craft of combes brode

could not comb through her white hair

Thei myhte hire hore lockes schode,

And sche ne wolde noght be schore

did not want to have her hair cut off

For no conseil, and thei therfore,

With such atyr as tho was used,

attire (clothes) as was the custom

Ordeinen that it was excused,

decided

And hid so crafteliche aboute,

cleverly covered

That no man myhte sen hem oute.

them (the white matted hair)

Bot when sche was fulliche arraied

dressed

And hire atyr was al assaied,

inspected

Tho was sche foulere on to se.

more vile to look at (than before)

Bot yit it may non other be:

Thei were wedded in the nyht.

So wo begon was nevere knyht

As he was thanne of mariage.

And sche began to pleie and rage, laugh

As who seith, I am wel ynowh;

Bot he therof nothing ne lowh,

For sche tok thanne chiere on honde

And clepeth him hire housebonde,

And seith, “My lord, go we to bedde, let us go

For I to that entente wedde,

That thou schalt be my worldes blisse,”

And profreth him with that to kisse,

offers to kiss him

As sche a lusti lady were.

His body myhte wel be there,

Bot as of thoght and of memoire

His herte was in purgatoire.

Bot yit for strengthe of matrimoine

He myhte make non essoine,

excuse

That he ne mot algates plie

he had to comply

To gon to bedde of compaignie.

And whan thei were abedde naked,

Withoute slep he was awaked;

lay awake

He torneth on that other side,

turned his back to her

For that he wolde hise yhen hyde

hide his eyes

Fro lokynge on that fole wyht.

from looking at this foul creature

The chambre was al full of lyht,

The courtins were of cendal thinne,

sendal (a costly fabric)

This newe bryd which lay withinne,

bride

Thogh it be noght with his acord,

consent

In armes sche beclipte hire lord,

embraced

And preide, as he was torned fro,

begged; turned away from her

He wolde him torne ageinward tho;

that he would turn himself;

“For now,” sche seith, “we ben bothe on.”

for we are one

And he lay stille as eny ston,

Bot evere in on sche spak and preide,

intently

And bad him thenke on that he seide,

what he had said

Whan that he tok hire be the hond.

married her

He herde and understod the bond,

How he was set to his penance,

And, as it were a man in trance,

He torneth him al sodeinly

And syh a lady lay him by

Of eyhtetiene wynter age,

Which was the faireste of visage

That evere in al this world he syh:

And as he wolde have take hire nyh,

Sche put hire hand and be his leve

Besoghte him that he wolde leve,

wait

And seith that for to wynne or lese

lose

He mot on of tuo thinges chese,

must choose one of two things

Wher he wol have hire such on nyht,

whether; by night

Or elles upon daies lyht, daylight

For he schal noght have bothe tuo.

And he began to sorwe tho, then

In many a wise and caste his thoght,

Bot for al that yit cowthe he noght

Devise himself which was the beste.

And sche, that wolde his hertes reste,

who wanted his peace of mind

Preith that he scholde chese algate,

chose nevertheless

Til ate laste longe and late

He seide: “O ye, my lyves hele,

my life’s salvation

Sey what you list in my querele,

say what you please; debate

I not what ansuere I schal give:

I do not know

Bot evere whil that I may live,

I wol that ye be my maistresse,

For I can noght miselve gesse

make out

Which is the beste unto my chois.

Thus grante I yow myn hole vois,

my whole voice

Ches for ous bothen, I you preie;

choose for both of us

And what as evere that ye seie,

Riht as ye wole so wol I.”

Whatever you wish for, so will I.

Text taken from: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/peck-gower-confessio-amantis-book-1

Gower goes into far more detail than Chaucer about the phyical horror facing the knight. Bathing the lady may have had some effect, but attempting to comb her hair has none at all. And she’s keen on sex, ‘And sche began to pleie and rage,’ and tells him that’s why she wanted to be married.

And seith, “My lord, go we to bedde, let us go

For I to that entente wedde,

That thou schalt be my worldes blisse,”

And profreth him with that to kisse,

offers to kiss him

As sche a lusti lady were.
Chaucer went into revolting detail in The Merchant’s Tale, when he described beautiful young May’s wedding night with her lustful, disgusting and elderly husband, but in the Wife of Bath’s Tale his focus is different. It is on reason.

Chaucer added the old wife’s lecture to his version of the story; it is not to be found in similar stories such as Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle or Gower’s Tale of Florent. Ironically it is the knight’s new wife who delivers the long, well-reasoned and well-supported speech in favour of nobility of conduct, in defence of poverty and of old age. Ironically, because women were supposed to be incapable of reason. But in the Tale, it is the knight who lusts (as women were supposed to do by their very nature) and the woman who reasons and instructs, drawing on ‘auctoritee,’ (as men were supposed to do).

At this point, feminists become unhappy, however, because the Wife of Bath, that champion of ‘experience,’ has folded on us and resorted to defeating the men at their own game, proving her (the old woman’s) well-reasoned points by reference to ‘auctoritee.’ On the other hand, she is demonstrating that it is not only men who can put together a well-reasoned argument.

The old woman explains to the knight the true meaning of ‘gentillesse’, lines 1109 – 1176

The old woman is far more courteous to the knight than he has been to her. She addresses him gently, and immediately focuses on his concerns: ‘for (because) ye speken of .’ And she addresses him with the respectful ‘ye’, not the dismissive ‘thou’ with which he had insulted her when he pointed out how loathly and low-born she was. ‘Thou art so loothly, and so oold also.’

1109 “But, for ye speken of swich gentillesse
“But, since you speak of such nobility
1110 As is descended out of old richesse,
as is descended from families with rich forebears,
1111 That therfore sholden ye be gentil men,
and that therefore you should be noble men,
1112 Swich arrogance is nat worth an hen.
such arrogance is not worth a hen.

That ‘gentillesse’ is not necessarily connected to noble birth was a well-known idea in the Middle Ages (see Chaucer’s short poem Gentilesse). Chaucer draws on Dante and the Romance of Rose in this section of the old woman’s lecture. Mark Sherman, in his ‘Chivalry’ section of Chaucer: An Oxford Guide edited by Steve Ellis OUP 2005 p 107, points out that the old woman is here contradicting ‘every presumption about lineage and rank that ‘true chivalry’ valued.’ He goes on to say that, whereas Dante wrote that ‘probitate’ (human worth), does not rise through the branches of a dynasty, Chaucer translates probitate as ‘prowesse’, which according to Kaeuper ‘was truly the demi-god in the quasi-religion of chivalry honour’ and made knights ‘the privileged practitioners of violence in their society’. He adds, ‘For the Wife of Bath as pilgrim-narrator, as for the old woman of her tale, prowess no longer resides in feats of arms. Hers is a decidedly ‘feminine’ language, dismissing essentialised class distinctions and the dominance of any man who would embrace such a philosophy. By appropriating the language of the court and chivalry – giving new meanings to gentillesse and prowesse, and a new definition of wealth – the Wife…. mounts a concerted reformist attack of chivalry and all it engenders.’

‘Chivalry’ by Mark Sherman from Chaucer: An Oxford Guide edited by Steve Ellis OUP 2005 p 107
R W Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe (OUP, 1999)

‘Swich arrogance is nat worth an hen.’ In the flow of French-derived words, ‘gentillese’, ‘richesse’, suddenly we hear the well-known voice of the Wife, tossing a ridiculous idea out of the window with a farmyard comparison – ‘nat worth an hen.’ It bursts into the lecture with a sudden increase of pace and energy.

1113 Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Look for the man who is always most virtuous,
1114 Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
in private and public, and always intends
1115 To do the gentil dedes that he kan;
to do whatever noble deeds that he can;
1116 Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.
Take him for the greatest noble man.
1117 Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,
Christ wants us to claim our nobility from him,
1118 Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.
Not from our ancestors for their inherited riches.
1119 For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,
For though they give us all their heritage,
1120 For which we clayme to been of heigh parage,
for which reason we claim to be of noble lineage,
1121 Yet may they nat biquethe for no thyng
yet they can not bequeath to any of us by any means
1122 To noon of us hir vertuous lyvyng,
their virtuous living,
1123 That made hem gentil men ycalled be,
that caused them be called noble men,
1124 And bad us folwen hem in swich degree.
and commanded us to follow them in such matters.

The ‘heigh parage’ hits home; it was partly because of such ‘disparage’ that the knight resisted the idea of marrying the old woman.

Allas, that any of my nacioun
Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!” (lines 1068, 69)

And the only ‘gentillesse’ that ‘heigh parage’ has produced in him so far is to rape a defenceless maiden, to refuse to marry the woman who has saved his life and to treat her cruelly when he is forced to marry her.

1125 “Wel kan the wise poete of Florence,
“Well can (the man) called Dante, the wise poet of Florence,
1126 That highte Dant, speken in this sentence.
speak on this matter.
1127 Lo, in swich maner rym is Dantes tale:
Look: this is what Dante writes:

What makes for true gentillesse is the theme of Book IV of Dante’s Convivio, especially the introdutory canzone and chapters within the book.

1128 `Ful selde up riseth by his branches smale
`Very seldom does man’s nobility stem from the small branches (of a family tree)
1129 Prowesse of man, for God, of his goodnesse,
for God, of his goodness,
1130 Wole that of hym we clayme oure gentillesse’;
wants us to claim our nobility from him’;
1131 For of oure eldres may we no thyng clayme
For from our ancestors we can claim nothing
1132 But temporel thyng, that man may hurte and mayme.
except temporal things, that may hurt and injure a man.
1133 “Eek every wight woot this as wel as I,
“Also every person knows this as well as I,
1134 If gentillesse were planted natureelly
if nobility were planted (given) naturally
1135 Unto a certeyn lynage doun the lyne,
unto a certain lineage down the line,
1136 Pryvee and apert thanne wolde they nevere fyne
then in private and in public they would never cease
1137 To doon of gentillesse the faire office;
to carry out the just duties of nobility;
1138 They myghte do no vileynye or vice.
They could not behave in a dishonourable or vicious way.
1139 “Taak fyr and ber it in the derkeste hous
“Take fire and carry it into the darkest house
1140 Bitwix this and the mount of Kaukasous,
Between this and the mount of Caucasus,
(This is from Boethius, who makes the contrast between fire and worldly honour.)
1141 And lat men shette the dores and go thenne;
and let men shut the doors and go away;
1142 Yet wole the fyr as faire lye and brenne
The fire will still blaze and burn as brightly
1143 As twenty thousand men myghte it biholde;
as if twenty thousand men were looking at it;
1144 His office natureel ay wol it holde,
It will carry out its natural function,
1145 Up peril of my lyf, til that it dye.
(I promise you) on peril of my life, until it dies.
1146 Heere may ye se wel how that genterye
Here may you see well that nobility
1147 Is nat annexed to possessioun,
is not automatically associated with possessions,
1148 Sith folk ne doon hir operacioun
since folk not do always behave as they should
1149 Alwey, as dooth the fyr, lo, in his kynde.
as the fire does by its very nature.

Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas, in her excellent observations on the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (p 63, 64) in the York Notes Advanced series, draws our attention to what is happening here. Throughout the Prologue, fire has been a symbol for the worst aspects of women, mostly their insatiable lust. St Isidore of Seville thought that ‘she (woman) is called ‘female’ from the Greek ‘fos’ meaning ‘burning force’ because of the intensity of her desire.’ St Jerome agreed: ‘The love of any woman … is always insatiable. If you attempt to put it out it will only burst into flame again.’ In the Prologue, amongst many other passages on the topic of women and fire, we have,

Thou liknest eek wommenes love to helle,
To bareyne lond, ther water may nat dwelle.
Thou liknest it also to wilde fyr;
The moore it brenneth, the moore it hath desir
To consume every thing tht brent wole be. (371 – 5)

But now, the old woman tells the knight, that fire is like true gentillesse, in that even if you shut the door on it and don’t look at it, it will continue to burn. It doesn’t only burn when it is on view. It burns because that is its true nature. Dr Tasioulas points out that in saying this, the old woman reclaims the image of fire, which had been so abused and distorted by the auctoritees all down the ages. In her own way, the old woman is refuting the tyranny of the auctoritees quite as effectively as the Wife did. Or, you could say, since the Wife is telling this tale, that she has scored against the auctoritees again.

1150 For, God it woot, men may wel often fynde
For, God knows, men may well often find
1151 A lordes sone do shame and vileynye;
A lord’s son behaving in a way that brings shame and dishonor;
(Yes, indeed. We have a prime example in the knight.)
1152 And he that wole han pris of his gentrye,
And he who wants praise for his noble birth,
1153 For he was boren of a gentil hous
because he was born of a noble house (family)
1154 And hadde his eldres noble and vertuous,
and had noble and virtuous ancestors,
1155 And nel hymselven do no gentil dedis
and will not himself do any noble deeds
1156 Ne folwen his gentil auncestre that deed is,
nor follow his noble ancestors who are dead,
1157 He nys nat gentil, be he duc or erl,
is not noble, even if he is a duke or an earl,
1158 For vileyns synful dedes make a cherl.
for churlish sinful deeds make a man a churl.

Now the knight with his much vaunted ‘heigh parage’ has been redefined as a ‘cherl’. The Oxford English Dictionary gives various definitions of a churl, and it is not quite clear which might be intended here. A churl, in the late 14th century, might be a serf or a bondman, which the OED points out is ‘the position to which most of the Old English ceorlas were reduced after the Norman conquest.’ (So much, then, for all the high-falutin Anglo-Norman vocabulary the knight uses to insist on his aristocratic family!) Churl can simply be used in a general way as meaning the opposite of an aristocrat, a lord or king. Or it could mean someone in the lowest rank of freemen. We still have the meaning that is explored so carefully in this lecture, the idea that churlish behaviour is the behaviour of a low born person, and that noble behaviour is the behaviour of an aristocrat. As this sermon shows, in reality you should describe a person by their actions, not by their family tree.

1159 For gentillesse nys but renomee
For nobility is nothing but the renown
1160 Of thyne auncestres, for hire heigh bountee,
of your ancestors, for their great goodness,
1161 Which is a strange thyng to thy persone.
which is something that is not naturally a part of your being.
1162 Thy gentillesse cometh fro God allone.
Your nobility comes from God alone.
1163 Thanne comth oure verray gentillesse of grace;
Then our true nobility comes from grace;
1164 It was no thyng biquethe us with oure place.
It was not at bequeathed to us with our social rank.
1165 “Thenketh hou noble, as seith Valerius,
“Think how noble,” as Valerius says,
1166 Was thilke Tullius Hostillius,
Tullius Hostillius was,
1167 That out of poverte roos to heigh noblesse.
who rose out of poverty to high nobility.
1168 Reedeth Senek, and redeth eek Boece;
Read Seneca, and also read Boethius;

She’s really got going here, in the same way that Jankyn did in his tales of ‘wykked wyves’, with her examples of Tullus Hostillius and now Seneca.

1169 Ther shul ye seen expres that it no drede is
There shall you see clearly that there is no doubt
1170 That he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis.
that a man is noble who does noble deeds.
1171 And therfore, leeve housbonde, I thus conclude:
And therefore, dear husband, I conclude:
1172 Al were it that myne auncestres were rude,
although it is so that my ancestors were of low birth,
1173 Yet may the hye God, and so hope I,
yet may high God, and so hope I,
1174 Grante me grace to lyven vertuously.
grant me grace to live virtuously.
1175 Thanne am I gentil, whan that I bigynne
I am noble, when I begin
1176 To lyven vertuously and weyve synne.
to live virtuously and abandon sin.

Not only has the old woman proved her point, she has also woven Christian belief and thinking into her argument. The knight’s efforts at speaking have only been directed to what he wants: first his life, and then not to marry the person who saved it. There is no doubt as to which of them is operating on the higher plane.

The tone in this lecture is completely different from the tone in the two other monologues, that of the Wife haranguing the three old husbands, and that of Jankyn rejoicing in his book of wikked wives. There we were subjected to the constant ‘thou seist’ of the Wife’s tirade against the old husbands. Jankyn’s interminable criticism is fuelled by a hatred of women – or else by a teasing desire to incite the Wife almost to madness. It is full of passionate anger and antitheses: ‘he spak,’ ‘quod he’, ‘a womman’, ‘an angry wyf’, ‘they haten’. It is also full of words to do with harm and pain. It moves at a considerable pace. Here is some of what the Wife said of Jankyn’s tirade.

772 He spak moore harm than herte may bithynke,
He spoke more harm than heart may imagine,
773 And therwithal he knew of mo proverbes
And concerning this he knew of more proverbs
774 Than in this world ther growen gras or herbes.
Than in this world there grow grass or herbs.
775 `Bet is,’ quod he, `thyn habitacioun
`Better is,’ he said, `thy habitation
776 Be with a leon or a foul dragoun,
Be with a lion or a foul dragon,
777 Than with a womman usynge for to chyde.
Than with a woman accustomed to scold.
778 Bet is,’ quod he, `hye in the roof abyde,
Better is,’ he said, `to stay high in the roof,
779 Than with an angry wyf doun in the hous;
Than with an angry wife down in the house;
780 They been so wikked and contrarious,
They are so wicked and contrary,
781 They haten that hir housbondes loven ay.’
They always hate what their husbands love.’

With that ringing in our ears, the tone of the old woman’s lecture sounds very different.

Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan;
Taak hym for the grettest gentil man.
Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.
For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,
For which we clayme to been of heigh parage,
Yet may they nat biquethe for no thyng
To noon of us hir vertuous lyvyng,
That made hem gentil men ycalled be,
And bad us folwen hem in swich degree. (lines 1113-1124)

Instead of the heated warfare between individuals, there is a calm overview of the actions of an anonymous and representative ‘who’. The word patterning, rather than rising to a crescendo of vituperation, helps the argument. ‘Who that is moost vertuous… /… moost entendeth … / Take hym.’ The line of reasoning moves from man to Christ and contrasts Christ’s true ‘gentillesse’ with ‘gentillesse’ based merely on family inheritance.

Crist wole we clayme of hym oure gentillesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse. (lines 1117 – 8)

The rhythm emphasises ‘hym’ (Christ) setting him in contrast to ‘hire’ (their, that is, the ancestors).

There is none of the passion between one party and the other, but a contrast that makes the explanation clearer. The limitations of what your forbears can give you are expanded in the next few lines:

For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,
For which we clayme to been of heigh parage,
Yet may they nat biquethe for no thyng
To noon of us hir vertuous lyvyng,
That made hem gentil men ycalled be,
And bad us folwen hem in swich degree. (lines 1119 – 1124)

Again, the reasoning is balanced: ‘For thogh they yeve us ….

Yet may they nat bequethe….’

‘They yeve us’ is set against ‘they nat bequethe’ with the little ‘For’ and ‘Yet’ to help us follow the idea. And what they give us, ‘hir heritage’ and ‘heigh parage’ is set against ‘hir vertuous lyvyng.’ And it is the ‘vertuous lyving’ that makes them ‘gentil men ycalled be.’

Although there are moments in this sermon that relate very directly to the knight’s appalling behaviour, none of it is addressed explicitly against him; there is no ‘you said’ or ‘you did.’ It is presented as a reasoned exploration of the nature of true nobility, as are the later sections on poverty and old age.

This sermon is also very different from the Wife’s early attack on ‘auctoritee’ at the beginning of her Prologue. Then, she confronted ‘auctoritee’ head on, and attempted to demolish the conclusions of learned interpreters such as St Jerome with arguments based on her own lived experience:

Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;

But in this sermon, the old woman looks at auctoritee and then agrees with it. Instead of disagreeing as the Wife did, ‘But wel I woot ….’, she looks at one of Dante’s sayings and concludes: ‘Eek every wight woot this as wel as I.’ Whereas the Wife’s method was to choose authorities with whom she took issue, to attack them and their ideas and replace their conclusions with conclusions drawn from her own lived experience, the old woman does the opposite. She chooses auctoritees with whom she agrees, and includes her listener, the knight, in her reasoned deductions.

“Wel kan the wise poete of Florence,
That highte Dant, speken in this sentence.

….. God, of his goodnesse,

Wole that of hym we clayme oure gentillesse’;
For of oure eldres may we no thyng clayme
But temporel thyng, that man may hurte and mayme.
“Eek every wight woot this as wel as I, lines 1125 – 33

However, in two respects the sermon is similar to the Wife’s diatribe against the old husbands and Jankyn’s harangue on wikked wyves. In all three cases, the speaker aims to get the upper hand over the listener. In all three cases, the dialogue (largely monologue) is between husband and wife.

The old woman now continues her lecture, and puts poverty under the spotlight, lines 1177 – 1206

1177 “And ther as ye of poverte me repreeve,
“And whereas you reprove me for poverty,
1178 The hye God, on whom that we bileeve,
God on high, in whom we believe,
1179 In wilful poverte chees to lyve his lyf.
chose to live his life in poverty.
1180 And certes every man, mayden, or wyf
And certainly every man, maiden, or woman
1181 May understonde that Jhesus, hevene kyng,
can understand that Jesus, heaven’s king,
1182 Ne wolde nat chese a vicious lyvyng.
would not choose a vicious form of living.
1183 Glad poverte is an honest thyng, certeyn;
Glad poverty is an honest thing, certainly;
1184 This wole Senec and othere clerkes seyn.
Seneca and other scholars say this.
1185 Whoso that halt hym payd of his poverte,
Whoever considers himself satisfied with his poverty,
1186 I holde hym riche, al hadde he nat a sherte.
I consider rich, even if he had not so much as a shirt.
1187 He that coveiteth is a povre wight,
He who covets is a poor person,
1188 For he wolde han that is nat in his myght;
for he would have that which is not in his power to have;
1189 But he that noght hath, ne coveiteth have,
But he who has nothing, nor wants to have anything,
(the Ellesmere gloss quotes Gregory the Great’s homilies on this theme)
1190 Is riche, although ye holde hym but a knave.
is rich, although you consider him but a man of low social status.
1191 Verray poverte, it syngeth proprely;
True poverty sings;
1192 Juvenal seith of poverte myrily:
Juvenal says of poverty merrily:
1193 `The povre man, whan he goth by the weye,
`The poor man, when he goes along the road,
1194 Bifore the theves he may synge and pleye.’
can sing and play in front of thieves.’
1195 Poverte is hateful good and, as I gesse,
Poverty is a hateful good and, as I guess,
1196 A ful greet bryngere out of bisynesse;
a very great remover of cares;
1197 A greet amendere eek of sapience
A great amender also of wisdom
1198 To hym that taketh it in pacience.
to him that takes it in patience.
1199 Poverte is this, although it seme alenge:
Poverty is this, although it may seem miserable:
1200 Possessioun that no wight wol chalenge.
A possession that no one will challenge.
1201 Poverte ful ofte, whan a man is lowe,
Poverty very often, when a man is low,
1202 Maketh his God and eek hymself to knowe.
makes him know his God and also himself.
1203 Poverte a spectacle is, as thynketh me,
Poverty is an eye glass, as it seems to me,
1204 Thurgh which he may his verray freendes see.
through which a man may see who his true friends are.
1205 And therfore, sire, syn that I noght yow greve,
And therefore, sir, since I do not injure you,
1206 Of my poverte namoore ye me repreve.
you (should) no longer reprove me for my poverty.

The old woman has redefined ‘gentillesse’ (nobility) and ‘poverte’. Gentillesse is not simply an aristocratic title inherited from your parents, it is a matter of what you do and how you live. Poverty is not simply lack of money, it is a way of feeling. You are poor if you envy what someone else has; you are rich if you are content, however little money you may have. Her lecture is drawn from famous ‘auctoritees’: quotations from 2 Corinthians, Seneca, Gregory, Juvenal, Revelation as the Ellesmere scribe makes clear in his gloss.

The old woman shows the knight that old age is not a drawback, lines 1207 – 1216

1207 “Now, sire, of elde ye repreve me;
“Now, sir, you reprove me because I am old;
1208 And certes, sire, thogh noon auctoritee
And certainly, sir, even if there were no authority
1209 Were in no book, ye gentils of honour
in any book, you gentlefolk of honour
1210 Seyn that men sholde an oold wight doon favour
say that men should be courteous to an old person
1211 And clepe hym fader, for youre gentillesse;
and call him father, because of your nobility;
1212 And auctours shal I fynden, as I gesse.
and authors shall I find, as I guess.
1213 “Now ther ye seye that I am foul and old,
“Now where you say that I am ugly and old,
1214 Than drede you noght to been a cokewold;
than do not fear to be a made a cuckold;
1215 For filthe and eelde, also moot I thee,
For filth and old age, I can assure you,
1216 Been grete wardeyns upon chastitee.
are great guardians of chastity.

Surely she’s teasing him here? She knows that ‘filthe and eelde’ are great guardians of chastity: he won’t go anywhere near her on their wedding night.

The old woman sets the knight another riddle, and promises to give him pleasure, lines 1217 – 1227

1217 But nathelees, syn I knowe youre delit,
But nevertheless, since I know your delight,
1218 I shal fulfille youre worldly appetit.
I shall fulfil your worldly appetite.
1219 “Chese now,” quod she, “oon of thise thynges tweye:
“Choose now,” she said, “one of these two things:
1220 To han me foul and old til that I deye,
To have me ugly and old until I die,
1221 And be to yow a trewe, humble wyf,
and be to you a true, humble wife,
1222 And nevere yow displese in al my lyf,
and never displease you in all my life,
1223 Or elles ye wol han me yong and fair,
or else you will have me young and beautiful,
1224 And take youre aventure of the repair
and take your chance with the crowd
1225 That shal be to youre hous by cause of me,
that shall be at your house because of me,
1226 Or in som oother place, may wel be.
or in some other place, as it may well be.
1227 Now chese yourselven, wheither that yow liketh.”
Now choose yourself, whichever you please.”

In the stories that this tale seems to be based on, the choice the old woman gives the knight is between being beautiful by day (so that he is proud of her as she appears in public) but foul by night (he has no private joy). Or she can be ugly by day (so that he is ashamed of her in public), but beautiful by night. The choice the old woman gives the knight is different. It is a moral one. She can be foul and faithful or beautiful and faithless. There are echoes here of the antifeminist material that the Wife put into the mouths of her old husbands:

And if that she be fair, thou verray knave,
Thou seist that every holour wol hire have (253-4)

After all, the way the knight has behaved has demonstrated his lack of respect for women (his rape, his insults to the woman who saved his life). So now he is given a choice based on his disrespectful view of women: if he has a lovely wife, obviously she won’t be faithful.

The knight humbly answers his wife’s riddle, lines 1228 – 1249

1228 This knyght avyseth hym and sore siketh,
This knight deliberates and sighs painfully,
1229 But atte laste he seyde in this manere:
but in the end he spoke like this:
1230 “My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
1231 I put me in youre wise governance;
I put myself in your wise governance;
1232 Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance
Choose yourself which may give most pleasure
1233 And moost honour to yow and me also.
and most honour to you and me also.
1234 I do no fors the wheither of the two,
I do not mind which of the two (choices),
1235 For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.”
for what pleases you, is enough for me.”
1236 “Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie,” quod she,
“Then have I got mastery over you,” she said,
1237 “Syn I may chese and governe as me lest?”
“since I may choose and govern as I please?”
1238 “Ye, certes, wyf,” quod he, “I holde it best.”
“Yes, certainly, wife,” he said, “I consider it best.”

The knight has been educated in noble behaviour by a woman who is his social inferior! He submits his ‘force’ or ‘fors’. Whereas in the beginning, he raped a maid by ‘verray force’, he now yields that same force: ‘I do no fors the wheither of the two…’ Here, I do no fors means, it doesn’t matter or, effectively, I do not mind because I’m leaving the choice to you.

The way the knight now speaks to his wife contrasts conspicuously with his previous, offhand, insulting speech. Whereas he had said to her

Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,
And therto comen of so lough a kynde, 1100,01

he now says, “My lady and my love, and wyf so deere.’ He puts her in charge both of their mutual pleasure and their honour, in other words, a way of living that is honourable. As he says this, he puts her before himself in the word order

Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance
And moost honour to yow and me also. 1232, 33

He continues to speak in this way: “For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me.” Not only the meaning of what he says, but the order of the words shows that her wishes come before his. He also addresses her using the respectful ‘you’ and not the dismissive ‘thou’ (thou art so loothly). And the words he uses to describe her guiding of their future happiness are French-derived, aristocratic words, words he now deems her worthy of receiving. He speaks of the ‘governance’, with which she will resolve what will make for the most ‘plesaunce’ and ‘honour’ in their relationship. In fact, he is at last behaving as a knight should, as a courtly lover.

Only at this point does the triumphant and rather strident voice of the narrator surface again, after the long sermon.

“Thanne have I gete of yow maistrie,” quod she,
“Syn I may chese and governe as me lest?” (lines 1236, 37)

‘Gete of yow’ sounds very much like the Wife to me, especially since we are on one of her favourite topics, ‘maistrie.’ And ‘I’ / ‘me’ have suddenly got back into the equation: ‘I gete of yow,’ and ‘I may chese and governe as me lest.’

The Wife began her Prologue by setting her own lived experience against patriarchal ‘auctoritee.’ She demolished it (depending on how convinced you are by her rhetoric) in the first 162 lines. Then she set about acquiring ‘maistrye’ over her husbands: successfully in the case of the first three old husbands; with a certain amount of success in the case of the fourth husband, and apparently with total success after her fight with Jankyn, which included a fight against the ‘auctoritee’ to which he was so attached. First she defaced the book of wikked wyves and then she insisted that he burn it. Thus she gained ‘maistrye’ over Jankyn and over his book of the writings of ‘auctoritee.’ Arguably, in the Tale, she achieves a further triumph. She puts the words of the ‘auctoritees’ into the mouth of the old woman, and uses them to demolish the knight’s objections to her low social class, her age and her poverty. The knight is thus reduced to giving his old wife the choice in what would be the best course of action. Chaucer therefore shows us that a woman (supposedly incapable of reasoned argument) can use the words of ‘auctoritee’ to prove that a man is in the wrong in objecting to low social class, age and poverty. So in every way, physical and intellectual, Chaucer shows us a woman proving herself not only the equal but the superior of the men in her life.

Mary Carruthers notes, in her article, ‘The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,’ that ‘The story of the magical hag and the rapist, though it has superficial analogies to Alisoun’s experience with Jankyn, also has crucial differences. Economic power is banished from the tale and replaced by fairy magic.’

At this point, another difference emerges between other similar tales and this one. In the other tales, the old woman had been put under a spell. In this one, she is in charge; she is able to change her appearance at will.

1239 “Kys me,” quod she, “we be no lenger wrothe,
“Kiss me,” she said, “we are no longer angry with each other,
1240 For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe —
for, I promise, I will be to you both —
1241 This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.
this is to say, yes, both beautiful and good.
1242 I prey to God that I moote sterven wood,
I pray to God that I may die insane
1243 But I to yow be also good and trewe
unless I am as good and true to you
1244 As evere was wyf, syn that the world was newe.
as ever a wife was, since the world was new.
1245 And but I be to-morn as fair to seene
And unless, tomorrow morning, I am as beautiful to look upon
1246 As any lady, emperice, or queene,
as any lady, empress, or queen,
1247 That is bitwixe the est and eke the west,
that is between the east and also the west,
1248 Dooth with my lyf and deth right as yow lest.
do with my life and death right as you please.
1249 Cast up the curtyn, looke how that it is.”
cast up the curtain, look how it is.”

There is plenty of exaggeration here to make the point that the knight has moved in a split second from misery to unbelievable happiness. His wife says

But I to yow be also good and trewe
As evere was wyf, syn that the world was newe. (lines 1243, 44)

In the following few lines, the knight is in a ‘bath of blisse’ and he kisses her ‘a thousand tyme’. So the fact that his wife is going to be as good and faithful as any wife has ever been since the world was new could be taken at face value. But there has been a great deal of antifeminism in the Prologue, based on the fact that

Of Eva first, that, for hir wikkednesse,

Was al mankinde broght to wrecchednesse,…..
That womman was the los of al mankinde.
Eve’s ‘wikkednesse’ occurred when ‘the world was newe’, so to what extent can we take the beautiful bride’s words at face value?

Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas comments here: ‘When he stops being the stereotypical man (dominating, cruel, violent), then she abandons the stereotypical choice (that a beautiful woman must be faithless).’

The knight is granted happiness (perhaps), lines 1250 – 1258

1250 And whan the knyght saugh verraily al this,
And when the knight truly saw all this,
1251 That she so fair was, and so yong therto,
that she so was beautiful, and moreover so young,
1252 For joye he hente hire in his armes two.
he clasped her in his two arms for joy.
1253 His herte bathed in a bath of blisse.
His heart was bathed in a bath of bliss.
1254 A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse,
He kissed her a thousand time in a row,
1255 And she obeyed hym in every thyng
and she obeyed him in every thing
1256 That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng.
that might do him pleasure or enjoyment.
1257 And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende
And thus they live unto their lives’ end
1258 In parfit joye;
In perfect joy;

At this point, ‘And whan the knyght saugh verraily al this ….’ the pace and excitement increases markedly to help convey the knight’s joy. The intensifiers ‘so’ in ‘so fair was, and so yong therto’ heighten the bride’s magical loveliness. From having been unmoving during the old woman’s long lecture, he suddenly springs into action:

For joye he hente hire in his armes two.
His herte bathed in a bath of blisse.
A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hire kisse…..

The verse fills with verbs describing what the knight does: ‘he hente hire’, ‘he gan hire kisse.’ (His heart stands in place of the knight in the line ‘his herte bathed in ..’ ) The last time we saw any movement from the knight it was in misery: ‘He walweth, and he turneth to and fro.’ This scene is very different. And it is all to do with mutual relationship ‘he hente hire,’ ‘he gan hire kisse’ whereas the in all the wallowing and turning he was on his own, not relating to his wife except in horror. The idea of relationship continues with ‘they’ and ‘hir’: ‘And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende …’

At this point, there is an eruption of different responses from the critics. Some think that it is wish fulfilment on the part of the Wife. If in real life she cannot recapture her lost youth and attractiveness, at least she can do so in the tale she tells. This interpretation is rather poignant. Some think that it is a typically sensual, not to say lustful, ending. After all the high-minded ideas in the lecture, the whole story was really just heading in the direction of sexual gratification. Some people are outraged that the knight, having raped a maiden and insulted the old woman who saved his life, should be rewarded with a beautiful sexy wife. Peter G Beidler, in his review of the history of the criticism on the Wife of Bath’s Tale, outlines several differing views. Susan K Hagen notes that the knight, ‘a rude, aggressive, and insensitive male character’ is given ‘his heart’s desire.’ Elaine Tuttle Hansen ‘is troubled that the old woman … rewards the rapist knight by giving him a young, lovely, and obedient woman for his marriage bed.’ But equally, he observes that Jill Mann sees Chaucer as ‘effectively condemn(ing) a knight’s rape of a young woman by insisting that the knight must submit to the authority of a woman by the end of the tale.’
The Wife of Bath edited by Peter G Beidler in the series Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism, Bedford Books, p 109

D W Robertson in A Preface to Chaucer p 381, 82 links the ending of the Tale to the section in the Prologue beginning ‘But Lord Crist! what that it remembreth me / Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee… (lines 469 ff) In that section the Wife looked back with satisfaction to the physical gratification she had experienced. Robertson points out that a spiritual renewal would have been looked for in a passage starting ‘But Lord Crist …’. He quotes Psalm 102, verse 5 to show what medieval readers / listeners would have expected to hear about renewal: ‘Who satisfieth thy desire with good things: thy youth shall be renewed like the eagle’s.’ This renewal is made possible by Christ; the Wife, however, simply looks back at her life in terms of the amount of sensual pleasure she has managed to pack into it. Similarly, the ‘parfit joye’ the knight and his beautiful young bride experience is fulfilment only in terms of ‘worldly appetit’ not in terms of the spiritual renewal a pilgrim on her way to Canterbury might have been expected to describe.

In his essay, ‘Chaucer, Gower, and What Medieval Women Want’, Peter Chiykowski points out that many critics think both Gower, in his Tale of Florent, and Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, draw from a common source, probably Celtic loathly lady tales. Chaucer took an antifeminist tale – with its caricature of a lustful old hag who wants to go to bed with a young knight – and adapted it in a way that completely changed the focus of the tale. In Gower’s version of the tale, four characters are named and they are all men; there are only two female characters and they are not named but identified by their relationship to men. One if the king’s daughter, and the other is the grandmother of the dead man. In Chaucer’s version, there are no named characters and none of the female characters are identified by their relationships to men – except the queen.

In Gower’s version, Florent kills Branchus: it is a crime of one man against another, specifically concerned with male inheritance law, as Branchus is ‘sone and heir’ to the Captain. And because Florent is cousin to the emperor, he has to be treated leniently. It’s all seen in terms of men in a man’s world. In Chaucer’s tale, the knight rapes a maiden, and the whole issue of women’s identity in a man’s world is raised. The knight is judged by the queen and the women in the court, since the crime he committed was against a woman.

Peter Chiykowski writes: ‘In Chaucer, the knight first sees the hag as “ladyes foure and twenty and yet mo” who suddenly vanish and become one person. The hag is thus defined both by her multiplicity and unity; she represents all women through the vision of her multiple selves, and the singular ideal of woman through her independence of relationships with men and her unifying ideal of sovereignty. In contrast, the first and largest part of Gower’s description is the hag’s anti-effictio, in which she is not described as a representative of femininity, but as a creature that specifically repulses men: “Her necke is short, her shulders courbe,/That might a mannés lust distourbe.” While Chaucer’s hag exercises the sovereignty principle by mastering the knight through the promise, “The nexte thing that I require thee,/Thou shalt it do if it lye in thy might,” Gower’s hag presents a choice which stresses the male character’s sovereignty. Florent knows his options. He must choose “one of the two – /Or for to take her to is wife/Or ellés for to lese his life,” and thus the decisive moment of the text is expressed as the masculine dilemma.21 It is a test of the patriarchal values of honour and obedience. In Chaucer, this scene is framed as a gender confrontation, pitting a man’s honour against a woman’s sovereignty. The knight is compelled in the way that most knights are, and must finish his quest to confirm his masculine chivalric identity, while the hag overturns his power …..

‘The reader is inevitably reminded that Tale of Florent is an exemplum written by a man for men and the sexual power dynamic is absent from the question Florent faces and the answer he gives.

‘Regardless of how its conclusion is interpreted, Chaucer’s Tale is still making a movement toward a feminist conception of matrimonial harmony. The step toward gender parity that the Tale takes was largely unprecedented given Chaucer’s source material in the anti-feminist loathly lady tales. By making use-of both masculine and feminine discourse, Chaucer informs both the knight’s as well as the reader’s understanding of medieval gender dynamics as the story progresses. Gower’s tale is not concerned with these questions of gender parity. The greater theme of the Tale of Florent, and the section of the Confessio Amantis to which it belongs, is obedience. His story is a moral exemplum which focuses as much on Floretn’s obedience to the quest as to his submission to female sovereignty. Gower edifies us while Chaucer playfully challenges our expectations.’

Peter Chiykowski Chaucer, Gower, and What Medieval Women Want, 2010
ojs.library.dal.ca/verso/article/download/538/554

Jill Mann’s conclusion is: ‘The Tale legitimises the female desire for ‘maistrie’ which the anti-feminist writers view with such fear and hostility, by making it the just response to male ‘oppressioun’. Jill Mann in Geoffrey Chaucer 1991 page 91

The Wife ends her tale with a prayer, lines 1258 – 1264

and Jhesu Crist us sende
and Jesus Christ us send

1259 Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde,
husbands (who are) meek, young, and vigorous in bed,
1260 And grace t’ overbyde hem that we wedde;
and grace to outlive them whom we wed;
1261 And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
And also I pray to Jesus to shorten the lives (of the men)
1262 That noght wol be governed by hir wyves;
that will not be governed by their wives;
1263 And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
And are old and angry misers in spending,
1264 God sende hem soone verray pestilence!
May God soon send them very plague!

Several of the pilgrims’ tales end with a very brief prayer. The Knight’s Tale ends: ‘And God save al this faire compaignye! Amen.’ The Miller’s Tale: ‘This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte!’ The Nun’s Priest:

Now goode God, if that it be thy wille,
As seith my lord, so make us alle good men
And brynge us to his heighe blisse. Amen

This all seems rather different from the prayer provided the Wife of Bath. She ends her tale with a vigorous prayer for Jesus to send women young sexy men who are meek, who die before their wives, and whose lives Jesus will shorten if they don’t submit to being governed by their wives. And, in a final blast of ill-will, she prays that God will send the plague (the Black Death, scourge of England 40 years earlier) on husbands who are old, angry and ungenerous.

How does this venomous explosion sit with the possibly blissfully happy ending of the Tale? Does it bring us smartly back to earth, and to the reality of marriage? To the unchangeable difference between a fairy tale world where women rule, and the real world where they are treated badly? Does it make D W Robertson’s point, that the Wife is thoroughly carnal and irreligious, even more forcefully, given that this is her idea of a prayer?

Read more

The introductory Canzone to Book IV of Dante’s Convivio from
http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Italian/ConvivioIV.htm#_Toc199829472
Dante 1265 – 1321 Italian philosopher, scholar, poet

The Third Canzone (English Translation)


Those sweet rhymes of love I must forsake,
Those I used to seek within my thoughts,
Not because I lose all hope
Of turning to them once again,
But because the proud disdainful manner
That my lady now bears towards me
Has closed the path
Of customary speech.
And since this time seems one of waiting,
I will set aside the sweet style,
That I used for poems of love;
And speak of worth
That makes one truly noble,
In harsh and subtle rhymes;
Refuting the false and base belief
Of those who contest that wealth
Is the source of true nobility.
And, firstly, I call upon that lord
Who lives within my lady’s eyes,
Such that of herself she is enamoured.

A certain ruler thought nobility,
For so it seemed to him,
Lay in ancestral wealth
And perfect manners;
Another, of inferior cast,
Reworked this saying,
Ignored the latter phrase,
Perhaps lacking that perfection!
Behind them came all those
Who think a man noble if his race
Has long been accustomed to great riches;
And now this false opinion
Has so endured among us,
One calls another noble
If he can simply say he is the son,
Or grandson, of some man of note,
Though he himself is nothing.
Yet he’s the worst of all, in truth,
Who, shown the road, still goes astray,
And like a dead man walks the earth!

He who says: ‘Man is living timber’,
Tells an untruth,
And, in what’s false, leaves much unsaid;
Though he may see no deeper.
The ruler of the Empire erred likewise
In his definition,
Since its first phrase is false,
And then what follows is defective;
For riches, despite what is believed,
Neither deny nor grant nobility,
For of its very nature wealth is base;
Whoever tries to draw a form
Cannot, if he cannot conceive it,
Nor can an upright tower
Be undermined by a distant river.
It’s clear that riches are imperfect,
And are base, for however great
They bring no peace, but rather care;
And so the true and upright mind
Is never troubled by losing them.

Nor will men grant the base-born worth,
Nor grant that one whose father was
Low-born could every qualify as noble;
Or so they claim;
Yet their reasoning seems self-defeating,
Inasmuch as it asserts
That time is needed for nobility,
And thus defines it so.
For, it follows from what was said,
That all are noble or forever base,
Or else that Man had no beginning.
But to this I can not consent,
Nor should they if they are Christians!
So it is clear to all sound minds
That what they say of this is idle,
And thus I say their words are false,
And dissociate myself from them;
And will now, in speaking as I think,
Of what nobility is, and of its source,
Reveal the mark of the noble man.

I say that all virtue at inception
Rises from a single source:
Virtue, I mean, that makes men happy
In every one of their actions.
As stated in the Ethics, virtue is
An elected habit,
Which resides only in the mean,
And those are the very words.
I say, nobility, by definition,
Always implies good in its subject,
As baseness always implies the bad;
And virtue, as defined,
Always manifests itself as good;
So that in themselves
The two agree, having one effect.
One then must arise from the other,
Or both from a third;
Yet if the one contains the other’s worth
And more besides, it must be the source.
What I have stated here accept as proven.

Thus, where there’s virtue there’s nobility,
But nobility is not merely virtue,
As where there is a star there is sky;
Though the converse is not true.
And in women and the young,
We perceive this noble state,
Insofar as they show modesty,
Which is itself distinct from virtue.
And just as perse derives from black,
So must virtue flow from nobility,
Or rather the set of virtues, as I said.
Let no one boast then, saying:
‘To birth I owe my nobility,’
For almost godlike are they
Who, free of vice, possess such grace;
Since God alone grants it to those spirits
Which he sees in themselves
Truly grounded: and as some know,
It is the seed of happiness infused
By God into the well-disposed soul.

And the soul this goodness adorns
Does not keep its goodness hidden,
But from the time she is wed to the body
She displays it, until the hour of death.
Obedient she is, sweet and modest
In life’s early years,
She adorns her body with beauty,
With all her parts in harmony;
In maturity, is firm and temperate,
Full of love and courteous praise,
And solely in honesty takes delight;
Then in old age she’s just,
And prudent, and praised as generous,
And is, herself, gratified
To hear and speak of others’ worth;
Finally in life’s fourth phase
She is wedded once more to God,
Contemplating the awaited end,
While blessing the years that have passed.
See how many now are deceived!

Against-the-errant-ones, my song, go forth;
And when you are
In that place where our lady is,
Do not hide your motive from her,
You may say to her with certainty:
‘I speak to you of a friend of yours.’

English History in 14th century

Section 5 Chaucer’s England

The Hundred Years’ War
The Black Death
The Peasants’ Revolt
Timeline

Chaucer writes about the age-old things that we recognise at once: the struggle between men and women; the journey through life and what it feels like to be getting older and not to be able to do the things you once did; the desire to communicate; the fun of sex; wanting to get your own way; the fairytale ending that you wish your life could have; dealing with people who insult you.

Some events in 14th century history we also recognise: wars that go on and on; sudden epidemics of terrifying, uncontrollable and highly infectious diseases; revolutions; government favouring the rich and taxing the poor. Wherever possible, I have given contemporary accounts of these events, in order to give the fourteenth century view of them rather than our retrospective opinions.

For a well-illustrated account of events in the 14th century, go to http://englishcomplit.unc.edu/chaucer/zatta/14thcent.htm
An excellent website on Chaucer’s life and background, influences and contemporaries is:
http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/index.html

The Hundred Years’ War

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of battles waged from 1337 – 1453 between England and France for control of the kingdom of France. Edward III’s claim stemmed from the fact that he was the grandson of Philip IV of France and nephew of Charles IV of France. The French Philippe VI rejected his claim. Through the wife of Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the English had acquired more land in France than the French themselves owned. However, over the course of the Hundred Years’ War, this land was whittled away, until by 1453 all the English had left was Calais.

In battle, the English longbow was particularly effective against the French, especially in the battles of Sluys (1340), Crecy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415). The arrow shot from a longbow might travel up to 315 metres, and at their fastest, archers could shoot six arrows per minute. On each occasion, the English army was far smaller than the French army that they defeated.

At the end of the Siege of Calais, 1346-7, Queen Philippa famously interceded with her husband, King Edward III, begging him to save the lives of the six burghers of Calais who were willing to die on behalf of the people of Calais. According to legend, he did so. This provides a precedent for the queen’s actions in the Wife of Bath’s Tale.

Chaucer himself became involved in the Hundred Years’ War when he accompanied the king’s second son, Lionel, Earl of Ulster, on a military campaign in France. King Edward III had to pay a ransom of £16 for Chaucer (cheaper than Richard Stury, King’s esquire, who cost £50 to ransom, but more expensive than an archer who cost only £2). Chaucer had been captured by the French when he followed Lionel, Earl of Ulster on a campaign that began in 1359 and ended with a truce in 1360. Lionel was a part of his older brother Prince Edward’s army, which landed at Calais and marched to Rheims. The English army beseiged Rheims until the January of 1360 when they advanced into Burgundy.

Read more

Here is a very long contemporary extract giving an account of King Edward III’s campaign in France, 1359-60. It is taken from Scalacronica: the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward II, as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray, and now translated by the Right Hon. Sir Herbert Maxwell, baronet. Glasgow, 1907, p. 145-60 [Widener: Br 1460.80].

(Wikipedia tells us: ‘Scalacronica (1066-1362) is a chronicle written in Anglo-Norman French by Sir Thomas Grey of Heaton near Norham in Northumberland while he was imprisoned by the Scots in Edinburgh Castle after being captured in an ambush in October 1355. The chronicle documents the history of Britain up to 1362.’)

In the same year …, 1359, the aforesaid King Edward of England, the third after the Conquest, led an expedition out of England with all the great men of his realm, his envovs having returned from the Pope, and arrived at Sandwich on his way to the war in France on the [feast of] the Nativity of our Lord. He was grievously delayed for want of ships, wherefore he could neither land [his forces] at once nor at the Place he intended. So he divided the crossing, sending the Duke of Lancaster with his retinue to Calais, to bring out of that town the Marquis de Metz with all his Germans who had gone there to support the said King [Edward]. This he did, and took the field with them, riding beyond the river Somme and attacking the town of Braye- sur-Somme, where they crossed the ditches, shoulder deep in the water, to the foot of the walls. Having suffered severely [in the attempt], they failed to take the said town, losing some of their knights in the assault, and returned towards Calais to get intelligence of the coming of the said king.

The Earl of March, who had crossed the sea six days before the said king, made a raid beyond Boulogne, burnt Étaples,, and so returned.

The King arrived at Calais on Monday next, before All Saints, where he remained eight days. He divided his army into three [columns]; one he kept with himself, another column he gave to his eldest son the Prince of Wales; the third column he intended for the Duke of Laaan into Vermandois, near which a knight, Baldwin Dawkin, master of the arblasters of France, was captured at that time, with other French knights of the Prince’s, attempting a night attack on the quarters of the Earl of Stafford, who defended himself gallantly.

About this time the Anglo-Gascon Vicomte de Benoge, who was entitled Captain of Busche, came out of his district [passing] from one English garrison to another, crossed the river Seine under safe-conduct from the King of Navarre, and so came to Creil which was then held by the English, from which town he took the Castle of Clermont in Beauvaisis. An English knight, John de Fotheringay, held this town of Creil in keeping for the King of Navarre, on sworn condition to deliver it on notice from the said king. He often received summons [to deliver it], but refused to do so failing a large sum of money which he declared that the said king owed him, which money he received from the French in discharge of the said debt and handed over the said town to them.

The said John de Fotheringay strengthened at this time another fine fortress at Pont-Saint-Maxence, on the river Oise, where he remained.

The Prince [of Wales] held his aforesaid way by Saint-Quentin and by Retieris where the enemy himself fired the town to obstruct his crossing. [But] the prince’s people forced a passage at Château-Porcien, whence he marched through Champagne to join his father’s column before Reims.

The Duke of Lancaster followed a route between the king and his son, and the three columns formed a junction before Reims, lying all around the city in hamlets for a month at Christmastide. From the column of the said prince the town of Cormicy was taken by escalade and the castle won, the keep being mined and thrown down by the people of the said prince. On the challenge of the French in Reims, Bartholomew de Burghersh, an officer of the Duke of Lancaster’s army, fought there á outrance by formal arrangement, where one Frenchman was killed and two others wounded by lance-point. From the king’s column, the Duke of Lancaster and the Earls of Richmond and March captured two fortified market towns, Orrey and Semay, on the river Aisne and the border of Lorraine.

Lords and knights of the king’s column made a raid from Reims nearly to Paris. They ambushed themselves and sent their scouts up to the gates of the city. They made an such uproar in the suburbs that those within the city had not courage to come forth.

The bands of English were scattered in sundry places, those who had remained on their own account before the coming of the king being in different bands. One band was called the Great Company, which had remained in the field throughout the year in Burgundy, in Brie, in Champagne and in Dairres, and wherever they could best find provender. This Great Company had taken the city of Chalons in Champagne by night escalade; but the people of the said city rallied in the middle of their town on the bridge of the river Marne, which runs through the city, and kept them by force out of the best quarter of the city; wherefore they [the Great Company], finding it impossible to remain, were compelled to evacuate [the place]. This company disbanded soon after the coming of the king, and sought refuge for themselves.

There were other bands of English, one of which took by escalade the town of Attigny in Champagne at the time the said king came before Reims.

The said King of England afterwards broke up from before Reims, and marched towards Chalons, where he made a treaty with the people of Bar-sur-Aube, but they broke it, so he dispossessed them of their lands.

An English knight, James de Audeley, took the fortress of Chancu in the vale of Saxsoun from the Bretons under Hugh Trebidige. The said James came from his castle of Ferte in Brie to the army of the said prince near Chalons in company with Captal de Buch, who came from Clermont.

The said king having caused the bridge over the river Marne to be repaired, and over other very great rivers also, marched to the neighbourhood of Troyes, whence the Marquis de Metz and the Count of Nidow, and other German lords who had come with the king, went off to their own country partly because of scarcity of victual and [partly] from respect for the approach of Lent. Due allowance was made to them for their expenses.

The king crossed the river Seine near Méry-sur-Seine, and held his way by Sens and Pontigny into Burgundy. His son the prince followed him, and the Duke of Lancaster also; but for want of forage for the horses his said son left the route of his father, and quartered himself at Ligny-le-Châtel, near Auxerre, where the said prince’s army suffered more from the enemy than in any other part of this expedition hitherto. Several of his knights and esquires were killed at night in their quarters, and his foraging parties taken in the fields, although the country was more deserted before them than in all the other districts, so that they scarcely saw a soldier outside the fortresses.

Five English esquires belonging to the army of the said prince, without [defensive] armour except their basnets and shields, having only one coat of mail and three archers, were in a corn mill near Regentz, a fortress held by the English not far from Auxerre. Fifty men-at-arms, the troop and pennon of the Lord of Hanget, came to attack them; but the five defeated the fifty, taking eleven prisoners; wherefore even the French of the other garrisons called this in mockery the exploit of fifty against five.

The said king remained at Golion near Montreal in Burgundy, to negociate a treaty with the duchy of Burgundy; and here Roger de Mortimer, Earl of March and marshal of the army and most in the confidence of the king, died on the 24th day of February.

Three years’ truice was taken with Burgandy, on paymentto the said King of England at three terms [the sum of] 200,000 florins moutons, the florin [being reckoned] at 4s. sterling.

The town of Flavigny in Burgundy, strong and well fortified, which had been taken by the Englishman Arlestoun, was retaken from the hands of Nichol de Dagworth, being surprised at the time the negociations for a truce had just begun.

Near this town of Flavigny, the said Dagworth in the previous season had an affair with his thirteen English against sixty-six French lances. The English had occupied a narrow street at the end of a village, having drawn carts across the road before and behind them. They sallied from their shelter at their pleasure, wounding, killing and capturing some of the French. Norman Leslie, who had come from Scotland to help the French, was taken; the others were put to flight.

At the same time William de Aldborough, captain of Honfleur in Normandy, was taken by the French in a sortie, and his people were defeated. An English knight, Thomas Fog, who was in a fortress of his in the neighbourhood, hearing of this affair, threw himself into the said Honfleur, found it displenished of provender, and rode forth with other English garrisons in the neighbourhood, foraging in the country for supplies to the said town. They came suddenly upon 250 French men-at-arms and 200 archers and arblasters, who were ambushed on the English line of march, Monsire Louis d’Harcourt and Baudric de la Huse being in command of the French. The English, numbering forty men-at-arms and one hundred archers, had the protection of a hedge. Both sides dismounted and engaged smartly. The French were defeated, their two leaders being captured, and with them several knights and esquires, and several were killed in the mellay. Louis d’Harcourt soon afterwards was released by the same English who took him, and they became Frenchmen with him.

At Fregeuil, an English fortress on the march of Beauce, a French knight who bore the name of the Chevalier Blaunche, challenged the constable of the said place to a personal encounter of two Englishmen against two Frenchmen. The encounter was arranged at a place agreed on. The Chevalier and his esquire were defeated by the two English, who were arrayed in scarlet, and were taken prisoners into the aforesaid English fortress.

About this time the English knight John de Nevill, with thirteen lances, defeated near Estampes fifty French men-atarms, of whom several were taken prisoners. Beyond the Cher, in Berry, the Gascons and English of the garrison of Aubigny met with a defeat, several of them remaining prisoners of the French.

At this time French, Norman and Picardese knights, with others of the commonalty, 3000 fighting men, made an expedition into England at the expense of the great towns of France, with a show of remaining there so as to cause the said King of England to withdraw from France, in order to relieve his own country. These Frenchmen arrived at Winchelsea on Sunday in mid Lent of the aforesaid year, remained in the said town a day and a night, set fire to it on leaving, and, in going off in their ships, they lost two ships which had taken the ground, and about 300 men [killed] by the commonalty who attacked them.

Near Paris Robert Le Scot, a knight on the English side, was taken and his people were defeated by the French, and his strengths were taken just when he had fortified them.

As the Prince of Wales, son of the said King of England, was marching through Gastinois, five knights of the country with 60 men-at-arms and one hundred others, people of the commonalty, had fortified anew a country house in front of Journelis, a fortress which the English held. The said prince suddenly surrounded these knights, bivouacking in the woods, and directed siege engines and assaults; wherefore the said knights, Monsire Jaques de Greville and Hagenay de Bouille, with the others, surrendered unconditionally to the said prince.

The said King of England, coming from Burgundy, lost two or three German knights from his army. They were killed in their quarters at night by Ivo de Vipont, a French knight, and his company.

And as the said king was marching through Beauce, near Turry, that castle chanced to be set accidentally on fire by those within it; wherefore most of them rushed out and threw themselves on the mercy of the said king. The castellan held the keep for two days and then surrendered to the said king, who caused the walls of the said castle to be razed.

In the same season thirty lances of the English garrison of Nogent-en-Brie defeated on the river Marne one hundred men-at-arms of the French garrison of Terry, and captured sixty of them.

At Christmastide preceding an English knight, James de Pipe, was surprised in the tower of Epernon which he had won from the French. He was so confident in the strength and height of the keep that he did not set a proper watch and, having caused a low window to be built up, the fortress was lost through the said window, by the wile of a French Mason who built it up dishonestly. The said James was taken in his bed, and also the knight Thomas de Beaumont, who had come to lodge the night with him as he was travelling from one district to another on safe conduct. Both of these, and their property, were under safe conduct of the Regent, the king’s son. Now the said James had not discharged his ransom. for the other time that he was captured in season before, having been taken near Graunsoures as he and the English knight Otis de Holland were travelling from the King of Navarre at Evreux, when the said Otis was wounded and died thereof. From which former captivity the said James was rescued from the hands of the enemy by his well-wishers the English, who were in garrison throughout the country. Having espied that, at a certain hour of the day, he was accustomed to go and ease himself outside the castle of Auneuyle where he was detained, they concealed themselves near at hand, found him at the place, took him away, and declared that he was rescued. Those who had captured him and in whose keeping he was a prisoner maintained that this was not a proper rescue, but contrary to his parole, inasmuch as he had assured them he would observe ward loyally without deceit, collusion or evil design. They blamed him for this and charged him with it openly, telling him that the said English had arranged this ambush against the laws of loyal chivalry [acting upon] his instigation, information, procurement, command and design. In consequence whereof they afterwards agreed upon a sum of ransom, of which he had provided and laid by much with him in the said tower.

In the same season about the feast of the Purification, an English knight, Robert Herle, who was Guardian of Brittany for the King of England, was in the field against the Welsh Bretons, near Dowle, where there was a river between him and his enemy; and when the English were descending, thinking that they might find a bridge (but this was broken, for there was a great flood in the river), an English knight, Robert de Knollys, coming on the other side [of the river] out of Brittany [leaving] his fortress on the command of the said Guardian, descried his friends, and with seven of his comrades, spurred forward rashly without the rest of his people being aware of it, judging by the descent which he saw the English making that the said Guardian had crossed the river, and so he was unhorsed and captured by the enemy. But without delay he was rescued by his people when they came up, who were furious when they perceived the mishap of their leader. They attacked with the remainder of the force, defeated the enemy and rescued their master.

This chronicle does not record all the military adventures which befel the English everywhere during this war, because of the [great] variety of them; but [it records] only the more notable ones. To relate everything would be too lengthy a business.

Be it known that, in Passion week of the same season, the said King of England marched through Beauce, where the monasteries were almost all fortified and stocked with the provender of the country, some of which were taken by assault, others were surrendered so soon as the siege-engines were in position, whereby the whole army was greatly refreshed with victual.

At this time the Captal de Buch went by permission of the said King of England to Normandy with 22 English and Gascon lances, to interview the King of Navarre to whom he was well-disposed. Near Dreux he fell in suddenly with four and twenty French men-at-arms, knights and esquires, who were lying in ambush for other English garrisons. Both sides dismounted and engaged smartly; the French were defeated, and Bèque de Villaines their leader was taken with four of his knights, the others being taken or killed.

The said King of England took up his quarters before Paris on Wednesday in Easter week in the year of grace 1360, [namely] in the villages adjacent to the suburb of Saint-Cloud, across the Seine above Paris. He remained there five days, and in departing displayed himself in order of battle before the King of France’s son, who was Regent of the country and was in the city with a strong armed force. The Prince of Wales, eldest son of the said King of England, who commanded the advanced guard, and the Duke of Lancaster with another column, marched close under the faubourgs from sunrise till midday and set them on fire. The king’s other columns kept a little further off. A French knight, Pelerin de Vadencourt, was captured at the city barriers, where his horse, being wounded by an arrow, had thrown him. [Certain] knights of the Prince’s retinue, newly dubbed that day, concealed themselves among the suburbs when the said columns marched off, and remained there till some [knights] came out of the city, then spurred forth and charged them. Richard de Baskerville the younger, an English knight, was thrown to the ground, and, springing to his feet, wounded the horses of the Frenchmen with his sword, and defended himself gallantly till he was rescued, with his horse, by his other comrades, who speedily drove back into their fortress the Frenchmen who had come out.

Then the Comte de Tankerville came out of the city demanding to treat with the Council of the said King of England, to whom reply was made that their said lord would entertain any reasonable proposal at any time.

The said king marched off, spreading fire everywhere along his route, and took up quarters near Montereau with his army round him. On Sunday the 13th of April it became necessary to make a very long march toward Beauce, by reason of want of fodder for the horses. The weather was desperately bad with rain, hail and snow, and so cold that many weakly men and horses perished in the field. They abandoned many vehicles and much baggage on account of the cold the wind and the wet which happened to be worse this season than any old memory could recall.

About this time the people of Monsire James d’Audley [namely] the garrisons of Ferté and Nogent-en-Brie, escaladed the castle of Huchi in Valois, near Sissonne, after sunrise, when the sentries had been reduced. This [place] was very well provisioned and full of gentle ladies and some men-at-arms, knights and esquires.

And eight Welsh Archers of Lord Spencer’s retinue had a pretty encounter in Beauce when the said king’s army was billeted in the villages. These archers, having charge of the millers in a corn mill outside the lines near Bonneval, were espied by the French garrisons in the neighbourhood, who came to attack them with 26 lances and 12 French Breton archers. Both sides dismounted and engaged smartly; the French were defeated, three of their men-at-arms being killed and nine made prisoners, every man on both sides being wounded nearly to death. Some of the said English had surrendered on parole to the said enemy during the mellay, but were rescued by the said Welshmen, who behaved very gallantly there.

The said King of England remained in Beauce, near Orleans, fifteen days, for a treaty of peace which the Council of France proposed to him, the Abbé of Cluny and Monsire Hugh de Genève, envoy of the Pope, being the negociators. The English of the said king’s army had encounters, some with loss and others with gain, Certain knights in the following of the Duke of Lancaster, disguising themselves as brigands or pillaging soldiers, without lances, rode in pretended disarray in order to give the enemy spirit and courage to tackle them, as several of their foragers had been taken during the preceding days. Some of whom, the knights Edmund Pierpoint and Baldwyn Malet, overdid the said counterfeit to such an extent in running risks from the French that it could not be otherwise than that they should come to grief; thus they were taken and put on parole.

Sir Brian de Stapleton and other knights of the Prince’s army and the Earl of Salisbury’s retinue, while protecting foragers, had an affair with the French near Janville, and defeated them, taking some [prisoners].

In reprisal for the raid which the French made upon Winchelsea, the admirals of the Cinque Ports and the English northern squadron landed in the isle of Dans, attacked and took the town of Lure and burnt it, and would have done more had they not been stopped by command of their lord the king on account of the truce.

People ought to know that, on the 7th day of May in the aforesaid year, a treaty of peace was made near Chartres and agreed to by the said King of England and his Council around him on the one part, and by the aforesaid Regent and Council of France and the commons on the other part, to, the following effect. All actions, claims and disputes to be extinguished and relinquished; the aforesaid covenants to be carried out, to wit, that the aforesaid King of England should have the whole Duchy of Guienne within its ancient limits, and the province of Rouerge, the countships of Ponthieu, of Guines with its appurtenances, Calais with the lordship adjacent, utterly, without hindrance, conditions, appeals, evasions, demands or any subjection to the crown of France, freely with all the crown royalties for all time; and that he should receive three millions of gold as ransom for the King of France; and that the aforesaid kings should be sworn under pain of excommunication as allies by common assent against all nations; and that the action and dispute for Brittany between Montfort and Charles de Blois should be adjudged by the discretion of the said kings; and should this not be agreeable to the said parties, [then] neither these kings nor their heirs should take any part by aid or countenance. The King of France was utterly to give up the alliance with the people of Scotland, and the King of England was to remove his hand from the people of Flanders, and the two kings were to be absolved by the Pope from their oaths under the said alliance; for the fulfilment of which covenants it was agreed that the eldest sons of the two kings — the Prince of Wales on one part and the Duke of Normandy on the other — should be sworn by the souls of their fathers and on the body of God. And the King of Navarre and twenty other personages of France, and the Duke of Lancaster and twenty others of England, were to be sworn also.

From Scalacronica; the reigns of Edward I, Edward II and Edward II, as recorded by Sir Thomas Gray, and now translated by the Right Hon. Sir Herbert Maxwell, baronet. Glasgow, 1907, p. 145-60 [Widener: Br 1460.80].
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Texts prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)

1376 Death of the Black Prince
1377 Death of Edward III therefore 10 year old Richard II comes to the throne and his uncles rule for him (hence Richard’s uncle John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace burned down in Peasants’ Revolt
there were constant struggles between the nobles and Richard II for power
1377 the Pope condemns the doctrines of John Wycliffe
1378 the Great Schism – rival popes in Avignon and Rome
1382 Heretical views of John Wycliffe officially condemned

The Black Death 1348

The plague that became known as the Black Death came to Europe from the East, possibly along the Silk Road. It broke out in the Crimea, made its way to Italy and thence to England in the late spring of 1348. It hit London in September 1348, Wales and Ireland in 1349 and Scotland by 1350. It is thought to have killed between one- third to almost a half of the population.

Some first-hand accounts.
At St Mary’s, Ashwell, Hertfordshire, an anonymous hand has carved a harrowing inscription for the year 1349:
‘Wretched, terrible, destructive year, the remnants of the people alone remain.’
St Mary’s website enables you both to see and to decode the inscriptions. You can find it at http://www.stmarysashwell.org.uk/church/history.htm

Someone else has written:
‘The plague raged to such a degree that the living were scarce able to bury the dead..’

‘…At this period the grass grew several inches high in the High St and in Broad St; it raged at first chiefly in the centre of the city.’ (Geoffrey the Baker, Chronicon Angliae)

The Welsh poet, Jeuan Gethin, who himself died of plague, paints a vivid picture of the fear the plague engendered in its victims:
‘We see death coming into our midst like black smoke, a plague which cuts off the young, a rootless phantom which has no mercy or fair countenance. Woe is me of the shilling in the arm-pit; it is seething, terrible, wherever it may come, a head that gives pain and causes a loud cry, a burden carried under the arms, a painful angry knob, a white lump. It is of the form of an apple, like the head of an onion, a small boil that spares no-one. Great is its seething, like a burning cinder, a grievous thing of an ashy colour. It is an ugly eruption that comes with unseemly haste. It is a grievous ornament that breaks out in a rash. The early ornaments of black death.’

The plague recurred in 1361, 1368, 1371, 1390, 1405. There was an outbreak of plague in London in 1603, which postponed the procession of James 1 through the city, and of course there was the outbreak of plague in 1665-66 that Samuel Pepys describes and which was only finally stopped by the Great Fire of London.
There is an excellent website on the Black Death by Dr Mike Ibeji http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/middle_ages/black_01.shtml

The writer Giovanni Boccaccio describes the plague in Florence in 1348
“The symptoms were not the same as in the East, where a gush of blood from the nose was the plain sign of inevitable death; but it began both in men and women with certain swellings in the groin or under the armpit. They grew to the size of a small apple or an egg, more or less, and were vulgarly called tumours. In a short space of time these tumours spread from the two parts named all over the body. Soon after this the symptoms changed and black or purple spots appeared on the arms or thighs or any other part of the body, sometimes a few large ones, sometimes many little ones. These spots were a certain sign of death, just as the original tumour had been and still remained.

The Chronicle of the Black Death was written at the cathedral priory of Rochester, and contains a firsthand account of events. See the British Library website, http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/medieval/rural/rurallife.html

A firsthand account of the Black Death written at the Cathedral of Rochester, 1314 – 1350, Cotton Faustina B V

‘A great mortality … destroyed more than a third of the men, women and children. As a result, there was such a shortage of servants, craftsmen, and workmen, and of agricultural workers and labourers, that a great many lords and people, although well-endowed with goods and possessions, were yet without service and attendance. Alas, this mortality devoured such a multitude of both sexes that no one could be found to carry the bodies of the dead to burial, but men and women carried the bodies of their own little ones to church on their shoulders and threw them into mass graves, from which arose such a stink that it was barely possible for anyone to go past a churchyard.

‘As remarked above, such a shortage of workers ensued that the humble turned up their noses at employment, and could scarcely be persuaded to serve the eminent unless for triple wages. Instead, because of the doles handed out at funerals, those who once had to work now began to have time for idleness, thieving and other outrages, and thus the poor and servile have been enriched and the rich impoverished. As a result, churchmen, knights and other worthies have been forced to thresh their corn, plough the land and perform every other unskilled task if they are to make their own bread.’
Text: © The British Library Board

The impact of the Black Death
Obviously, such a plague had a far-reaching impact on society. Very few people were still alive to do the work, to plough the fields, harvest the food, look after the animals. Starvation was thus an immediate problem. Of course, because there was a shortage of food, the price of food rocketed, sometimes up to four times. Because there were so few labourers, peasants could demand higher wages. To try to stop peasants from moving round the countryside in search of higher wages, the government brought in the Statute of Labourers 1351. This stated that peasants could only be paid what had been paid them in 1346, before the plague. And they had to stay in their villages with their feudal lord.

However, social mobility had begun, the peasants had more power because there were fewer of them and they were valuable workers. The Black Death was, in a sense, responsible for considerable changes in the social structure and for the emergence of the middle classes. Chaucer was one example of the new middle classes; the Wife of Bath, another.

One of the most famous consequences of the Black Death was the Peasants’ Revolt in summer 1381.

Peasants’ Revolt

The Peasants’ Revolt must have been terrifying for those caught up in it. Members of the underclass – possibly as many as 50,000 – marched on London, raided the Tower of London, killed the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King’s Treasurer and burned down the palace of one of the king’s uncles, who was ruling England until the king was old enough to do so himself.

There were good reasons for the revolt, first among them taxes and the fact that the rich (the church and the barons) were exploiting the peasants’ labour. Taxes had been raised yet again by the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, mostly in order to finance the war with France (the Hundred Years’ War). Peasants had to work for free on church land, sometimes for as many as two days per week. This meant they did not have time to grow food for themselves and their families while the church became even richer. Also, wages were fixed at pre-Black Death levels, although prices had rocketed since then.

Froissart (c 1337 – 1405) in his Chronicles gives detailed descriptions of key events in his time. Here he explains the rebels’ resentment: ‘Never was any land or realm in such great danger as England at that time. It was because of the abundance and prosperity in which the common people then lived that this rebellion broke out…The evil-disposed in these districts began to rise, saying, they were too severely oppressed;… [that their lords] treated them as beasts. This they would not longer bear, but had determined to be free, and if they laboured or did any other works for their lords, they would be paid for it.

So in June 1381, a large number of men from Kent, Essex and neighbouring counties, marched on London.

You can find some wonderful contemporary illustrations of people working on the land at the British Library website http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/medieval/rural/rurallife.html

Here are two illustrations (not from the British Library)

fot29

Reeve and serfs: men harvesting wheat with reaping hooks

fot30

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Ploughing scene from the Macclesfield Psalter, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (link with commentary on full illustration http://www.english.cam.ac.uk/medieval/zoom.php?id=642)

An excerpt from Anonimalle Chronicle (a French chronicle of 1333 – 81) is probably as close as we can get to events.

At this time, the commons had as their counselor a chaplain of evil disposition named Sir John Ball, which Sir John advised them to get rid of all the lords, and of all the archbishops and bishops, and abbots, and priors, and most of the monks and canons … and that their possessions should be distributed among the laity. For which sayings he was esteemed among the commons as a prophet — and a fit reward he later got, when he was hung, drawn, and quartered, and beheaded as a traitor.)

Jean Froissart transcribes John Ball’s speech to the rebels:

My good friends, things cannot go on well in England, nor ever will until everything shall be in common, when there shall be neither vassal nor lord, and all distinctions levelled; when the lords shall be no more masters than ourselves. .. By what right do they keep us enslaved… We are all descended from our fist parents, Adam and Eve… How ill they have used us!… They have wines, spices and fine bread, when we have only rye and the refuse of fine straw; and if we drink, it must be water. They have handsome seats and manors, when we must brave the wind and rain in our labours in the field; but it is from our labour they have the wherewith to support their pomp.. We are called serfs, and we are beaten if we do not perform our tasks. Let us go to the king, who is young, and remonstrate with him on our servitude, telling him we must have it otherwise, or that we shall find a remedy for it ourselves. Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and other places adjoining by Jean Froissart

fot31

John Ball encouraging the rebels from c 1470 ms of Froissart’s Chronicles in the British Library © The British Library Board

Extract from John Ball’s speech to the peasants

‘When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.’

Sermon at Blackheath (12 June 1381), quoted in Annals, or a General Chronicle of England

On June 14th, the young king met the rebels at Mile End. He gave the peasants all that they asked for and asked them to go home. Some did. Others returned to the city and murdered the Archbishop and Treasurer – their heads were cut off on Tower Hill by the Tower of London. Richard II spent the night in hiding in fear of his life. However, the next day he met the leaders of the revolt again, and eventually the huge army of rebels dispersed. A week later, when Richard met more rebels who wanted him to restate the concessions he had made to the peasants, this was his reply:

‘You wretches, detestable on land and sea; you who seek equality with lords are unworthy to live. Give this message to your colleagues. Rustics you were and rustics you are still: you will remain in bondage not as before but incomparably harsher. For as long as we live we will strive to suppress you, and your misery will be an example in the eyes of posterity. However, we will spare your lives if you remain faithful. Choose now which course you want to follow.’

He had reneged on everything he had told them a week before. The Archbishop’s head, which had been hung on London Bridge, was supplanted by Wat Tyler’s.

Account of the Insurrection of Walter Tyler, and of his death
at the hands of William Walworthe, the Mayor
4 Richard 11. A.D. 1381. Letter-Book H. fol. cxxxiii. (Latin.)

The text below comes from the Harvard website http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/life_of_Ch/wattyler.html

AMONG the most wondrous and hitherto unheard-of prodigies that have ever happened in the City of London, that which took place there on the Feast of Corpus Christi, the 13th day of June, in the 4th year of the reign of King Richard the Second, seems deserving to be committed to writing, that it may be not unknown to those to come. —

For on that day, while the King was holding his Council in the Tower of London, countless companies of the commoners and persons of the lowest grade from Kent and Essex suddenly approached the said city, the one body coming to the town of Southwark, and the other to the place called ” Mileende,” without Algate. By the aid also of perfidious commoners within the City, of their own condition, who rose in countless numbers there, they suddenly entered the City together, and, passing straight through it, went to the mansion of Sir John, Duke of Lancaster, called “Le Savoye,” and completely levelled the same with the ground, and burned it. From thence they turned to the Church of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, without Smethefeld, and burnt and levelled nearly all the houses there, the church excepted.

On the next morning, all the men from Kent and Essex met at the said place called ” Mileende,” together with some of the perfidious persons of the city aforesaid; whose numbers in all were past reckoning. And there the King came to them from the Tower, accompanied by many knights and esquires, and cragged forth from it Sir Simon, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of our Lord the King, and Brother Robert Hales, Prior of the said Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, the King’s Treasurter; and, together with them, Brother William Appeltone, of the Order of Friars Minors, and John Leg, Serjeant-at-arrns to the King, and also, one Richard Somenour, of the Parish of Stebenhuthe; all of whom they beheaded in the place called “Tourhillel” without the said Tower; and then carrying their heads through the City upon lances, they set them up on London Bridge, fixing them there on stakes.

Upon the same day there was also no little slaughter within the City, as well of natives as of aliens. Richard Lions, citizen and vintner of the said City, and many others, were beheaded in Chepe. In the Vintry also, there was a very great massacre of Flemings, and in one heap there were lying about forty headless bodies of persons who had been dragged forth from the churches and their houses; and hardly was there a street in the City in which there were not bodies lying of those who had been slain. Some of the houses also in the said city were pulled down, and others in the suburbs destroyed, and some too, burnt.

Such tribulation as this, greater and more horrible than could be believed by those who had not seen it, lasted down to the hour of Vespers on the following day, which was Saturday, the 15th of June; on which day God sent remedy for the same, and His own gracious aid, by the hand of the most renowned man, Sir William Walworthe, the then Mayor; who in Smethefelde, in presence of our Lord the King and those standing by him, lords, knights, esquires, and citizens on horseback, on the one side, and the whole of this infuriated rout on the other, most manfully, by himself, rushed upon the captain of the said multitude, “Walter Tylere” by name, and, as he was altercating with the King and the, nobles, first wounded him in the neck with his sword, and then hurled him from his horse, mortally pierced in the breast; and further, by favour of the divine grace, so defended himself from those who had come with him, both on foot and horseback, that he departed from thence unhurt, and rode on with our Lord the King and his people, towards a field near to the spring that is called “Whittewellebeche” in which place, while the whole of the infuriated multitude in warlike manner was making ready against our Lord the King and his people, refusing to treat of peace except on condition that they should first have the head of the said Mavor, the Mayor himself, who had gone into the City at the instance of our Lord the King, in the space of half an hour sent and led forth therefrom so great a force of citizen warriors in aid of his Lord the King, that the whole multitude of madmen was surrounded and hemmed in; and not one of them would have escaped, if our Lord the King had not commanded them to be gone.

Therefore our Lord the King returned into the City of London with the greatest of glory and honour, and the whole of this profane multitude in confusion fled forthwith for concealment, in their affright.

For this same deed our Lord the King, beneath his standard, in the said field, with his own hands decorated with the order of knighthood the said Mayor, and Sir Nicholas Brembre, and Sir John Phelipot, who had already been Mayors of the said city; as also, Sir Robert Launde.

Medieval Sourcebook: Anonimalle Chronicle: English Peasants’ Revolt 1381

A descrition from a chronicle of the time of the final meeting of King Richard II and the leader of the Revolt – Wat Tyler.

Then the King caused a proclamation to be made that all the commons of the country who were still in London should come to Smithfield, to meet him there; and so they did.

And when the King and his train had arrived there they turned into the Eastern meadow in front of St. Bartholomew’s, which is a house of canons: and the commons arrayed themselves on the west side in great battles. At this moment the Mayor of London, William Walworth, came up, and the King bade him go to the commons, and make their chieftain come to him. And when he was summoned by the Mayor, by the name of Wat Tighler of Maidstone, he came to the King with great confidence, mounted on a little horse, that the commons might see him. And he dismounted, holding in his hand a dagger which he had taken from another man, and when he had dismounted he half bent his knee, and then took the King by the hand, and shook his arm forcibly and roughly, saying to him, “Brother, be of good comfort and joyful, for you shall have, in the fortnight that is to come, praise from the commons even more than you have yet had, and we shall be good companions.” And the King said to Walter, “Why will you not go back to your own country?” But the other answered, with a great oath, that neither he nor his fellows would depart until they had got their charter such as they wished to have it, and had certain points rehearsed and added to their charter which they wished to demand. And he said in a threatening fashion that the lords of the realm would rue it bitterly if these points were not settled to their pleasure. Then the King asked him what were the points which he wished to have revised, and he should have them freely, without contradiction, written out and sealed. Thereupon the said Walter rehearsed the points which were to be demanded; and he asked that there should be no law within the realm save the law of Winchester, and that from henceforth there should be no outlawry in any process of law, and that no lord should have lordship save civilly, and that there should be equality among all people save only the King, and that the goods of Holy Church should not remain in the hands of the religious, nor of parsons and vicars, and other churchmen; but that clergy already in possession should have a sufficient sustenance from the endowments, and the rest of the goods should be divided among the people of the parish. And he demanded that there should be only one bishop in England and only one prelate, and all the lands and tenements now held by them should be confiscated, and divided among the commons, only reserving for them a reasonable sustenance. And he demanded that there should be no more villeins in England, and no serfdom or villeinage, but that all men should be free and of one condition. To this the King gave an easy answer, and said that he should have all that he could fairly grant, reserving only for himself the regality of his crown. And then he bade him go back to his home, without making further delay.

During all this time that the King was speaking, no lord or counsellor dared or wished to give answer to the commons in any place save the King himself. Presently Wat Tighler, in the presence of the King, sent for a flagon of water to rinse his mouth, because of the great heat that he was in, and when it was brought he rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the King’s face. And then he made them bring him a jug of beer, and drank a great draught, and then, in the presence of the King, climbed on his horse again. At this time a certain valet from Kent, who was among the King’s retinue, asked that the said Walter, the chief of the commons, might be pointed out to him. And when he saw him, he said aloud that he knew him for the greatest thief and robber in all Kent…. And for these words Watt tried to strike him with his dagger, and would have slain him in the King’s presence; but because he strove so to do, the Mayor of London, William Walworth, reasoned with the said Watt for his violent behaviour and despite, done in the King’s presence, and arrested him. And because he arrested him, he said Watt stabbed the Mayor with his dagger in the stomach in great wrath. But, as it pleased God, the Mayor was wearing armour and took no harm, but like a hardy and vigorous man drew his cutlass, and struck back at the said Watt, and gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. And when the commons saw him fall, and knew not how for certain it was, they began to bend their bows and to shoot, wherefore the King himself spurred his horse, and rode out to them, commanding them that they should all come to him to Clerkenwell Fields.

Meanwhile the Mayor of London rode as hastily as he could back to the City, and commanded those who were in charge of the twenty four wards to make proclamation round their wards, that every man should arm himself as quickly as he could, and come to the King in St. John’s Fields, where were the commons, to aid the King, for he was in great trouble and necessity…. And presently the aldermen came to him in a body, bringing with them their wardens, and the wards arrayed in bands, a fine company of well-armed folks in great strength. And they enveloped the commons like sheep within a pen, and after that the Mayor had set the wardens of the city on their way to the King, he returned with a company of lances to Smithfield, to make an end of the captain of the commons. And when he came to Smithfield he found not there the said captain Watt Tighler, at which he marvelled much, and asked what was become of the traitor. And it was told him that he had been carried by some of the commons to the hospital for poor folks by St. Bartholomew’s, and was put to bed in the chamber of the master of the hospital. And the Mayor went thither and found him, and had him carried out to the middle of Smithfield, in presence of his fellows, and there beheaded. And thus ended his wretched life. But the Mayor had his head set on a pole and borne before him to the King, who still abode in the Fields. And when the King saw the head he had it brought near him to abash the commons, and thanked the Mayor greatly for what he had done. And when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds. And the King benevolently granted them mercy, and most of them took to flight. But the King ordained two knights to conduct the rest of them, namely the Kentishmen, through London, and over London Bridge, without doing them harm, so that each of them could go to his own home.

***

Afterwards the King sent out his messengers into divers parts, to capture the malefactors and put them to death. And many were taken and hanged at London, and they set up many gallows around the City of London, and in other cities and boroughs of the south country. At last, as it pleased God, the King seeing that too many of his liege subjects would be undone, and too much blood split, took pity in his heart, and granted them all pardon, on condition that they should never rise again, under pain of losing life or members, and that each of them should get his charter of pardon, and pay the King as fee for his seal twenty shillings, to make him rich. And so finished this wicked war.

from Charles Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906), pp. 200-203, 205

This text is part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Paul Halsall Feb 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu

Information about John Ball can be found at: http://www.sfsu.edu/~medieval/complaintlit/jb_letters.html

Medieval Forum: Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University

John Ball

‘Little is known about John Ball, an itinerant priest, and one of the main sources of information comes from contemporary chronicles, which were generally biased in favor of those in power.  According to Knighton, Ball was “a powerful enemy of the church’s unity, a fomenter of discord between the clergy and the laity, a tireless disseminator of illicit beliefs, and a disturber of the church of Christians” (277).  While this may be bombastic, it is clear from Ball’s works that he had unorthodox views regarding the church and social equality, as expressed in the oft-quoted theme of his sermon probably preached to the rebels at Blackheath: “When Adam dug and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?” followed by the reasoning that if God had intended some men to be in bond and some to be free from the beginning, he would have appointed them.1

‘It is now commonly recognized that sermons and complaint literature have a relationship; many criticisms of society came from the pulpit.  But John Ball’s were apparently exceptionally inflammatory, as he may have been excommunicated and certainly was imprisoned.  As the rebels took Canterbury, they released Ball from prison, and disposed of the archbishop and replaced him with Ball, thus placing him in a leadership position with Wat Tyler.  His sermons are credited by historians with energizing the revolt, though few survive and little is heard of him after Blackheath

(Ball’s) reputation for rousing sermons prior to the Rising has earned him the modern epithet “fiery hedgerow priest.”  Regardless of his sources, the voice of Ball has come down to us as the voice of the Rising.

‘A number of pieces attributed to Ball, purportedly written during the Rising and transmitted orally, are preserved.

One of Ball’s pieces:

John Ball, Saint Mary’s Priest, greets well all manner of men and bids them in the name of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, to stand together bravely in truth, and help truth, and truth shall help you.

Now pride reigns as prize,
covetousness is held wise
lechery without shame,
gluttony without blame,
envy reigns with treason
and sloth is in high season.
God bring remedy, for now is time
Amen.

Events that took place during Chaucer’s lifetime

Dr K Wheeler of Carson-Newman University, Jefferson City, Tennessee, has kindly given me permission to use his Chaucer biography listing the most important events in Chaucer’s life. I have also used Harvard University’s Chaucer website which gives a comprehensive list of events.

http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/life_of_Ch/chrono.html

1304 Petrarch (Italian writer) born.

1313 Boccaccio (Italian writer) born.

1321 Death of Dante (Italian writer).

1327 Edward III crowned king. He comes to power aged 14 after a coup d’état takes place against his father, Edward II. (According to legend, Edward II was killed in a particularly gruesome manner while in prison.)

1328 Edward marries Philippa of Hainault. He is fifteen years old.

1330 Edward III’s first son born, Edward, later known as the Black Prince.

1330 John Gower born.

1330 Edward III assumes full royal authority.

1331 England at war with Scotland and Scotland’s French allies.

1337-1453 The start of the Hundred Years’ War, a conflict between France and England.

1338-1339 England unsuccessfully attempts to invade northern France (first major military expedition of the Hundred Years’ War, often considered the conflict’s beginning).

1340-1343 (?) Probable birth of Geoffrey Chaucer between 1340 and 1343.

1340 Birth of John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third surviving son. Edward III takes title, “King of France.”

1346 Battle of Crecy (English victory)

1346 Eustache Deschamps (French writer) born.

1347 Truce between England and France. Plague arrives in Italy.

1348 Black Death strikes England. The outbreak in 1348 marks the most devastating plague outbreak in recorded history for Britain, and deaths continue until 1350.

1351 Parliament passes the Statute of Laborers to keep down wages.

1353 Boccaccio writes the Decameron

1356 Battle of Poitiers (English victory)

1357 First record of Geoffrey Chaucer. He works as a page in the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster (wife of Prince Lionel, Edward III’s second son). Philippa Pan (Chaucer’s future wife) is also in the household.

1359 May (?): Chaucer attends wedding of John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster. Gaunt becomes Duke of Lancaster. November : Chaucer in French war in Prince Lionel’s company.

1360 Chaucer captured by French soldiers. King Edward III pays £16 in ransom for him.

1360 Treaty of Bretigny ends the first phase of the Hundred Years’ War.

1361 Prince Edward, The Black Prince, marries Joan of Kent. (?) (1361-1367):

1361 – 1367 Froissart, French poet and chronicle writer, serves in the Queen’s household.

1363 Death of Countess of Ulster (?). Philippa Pan, (Chaucer’s future wife) enters service of Queen Philippa of Hainault, Edward III’s wife.

1360s Langland writes Piers Plowman (A text)

1366 Chaucer and three companions travel to Spain on a diplomatic mission under safe conduct (passport).

1366 (?) Chaucer marries Philippa. (They had two sons, Thomas and Lewis.)
1367 Edward, the Black Prince, leads an expedition to Spain in aid of Pedro the Cruel, the deposed King of Castile.

For the first time, the king addresses parliament in English rather than French.

Edward III grants to Chaucer, his “valet,” an annuity of twenty marks for life.

1368 Death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster. French war intensifies. Chaucer is recorded as one of 40 esquiers in the royal household, which also included Philippa Chaucer (lady in waiting).

(1368-1369) Probable date of Chaucer’s The Book of The Duchess.

1368 Thomas Hoccleve born.

1368 – 70 Chaucer makes various trips abroad on the king’s business.

1369 Queen Philippa dies.

Hostilities resume in the Hundred Years’ War, marking the second major phase of military engagement.

1370 Edward the Black Prince sacks Limoges.

Gregory XI becomes Pope. He holds the Papal See until 1378.

John Lydgate born.

1371 Gaunt marries Princess / Infanta Constanza of Castile.

1372 Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford, bears a son to John of Gaunt. August 30: Philippa Chaucer granted an annuity of 10 pounds. December 1: Chaucer commissioned to establish an English seaport for Genoese trade. To this end for “other matters of the king’s business,” Chaucer leaves for Genoa, visits Florence. At this time, Boccaccio is in Florence and Petrarch is in Padua. Chaucer remains in Italy until the summer of the next year.

1374 Gaunt returns from French wars. He takes control of the government while Edward III shows signs of increasing senility. The Black Prince falls ill. April 23: Chaucer receives a royal grant of a pitcher of wine daily. May 10: Chaucer is grated a lease for life of a house above the city gate at Aldgate, rent-free. June 8: Chaucer made Comptroller of Wool Customs and Petty Custom in the Port of London (a lucrative and powerful position). June 13: Geoffrey and Philippa receive an annuity from Gaunt.

1375 Truce of Bruges temporarily ends hostilities between England and France.
Death of Boccaccio.

1376 Edward the Black Prince calls the Good Parliament to convene. The Good Parliament introduces many long overdue reforms of government.
Death of Edward the Black Prince at the age of 45. Chaucer on mission to Calais.
Parliament impeaches royal servants belonging to the faction of John of Gaunt, the king’s fourth son.
The Civil Dominion published by Oxford don, John Wyclif, calling for reforms in the church.

1377 Death of Edward III, accession of his grandson Richard II, still only 10 years old. Government controlled by John of Gaunt.
Poll tax levied.
The papacy returns to Rome from Avignon, where it had resided since 1309.
Pope Gregory XI condemns the doctrines of John Wyclif. The Lollard movement grows.
Chaucer goes to France and Flanders on the king’s secret business. He later participates in negotiations for the marriage of King Richard.

1378 February 17, April 30: Chaucer on missions in France concerning peace treaty and marriage of Richard. He also probably travels to Italy (Milan) on diplomatic missions. It is known that he brought back copies of Boccaccio’s two Italian poems, The Filostrato (on which Chaucer based Troilus and Criseyde) and the Teseida (on which he based The Knight’s Tale).
The Great Schism: Pope Gregory XI dies. The French-dominated College of Cardinals is intimidated by the Roman mob into choosing an Italian candidate, Pope Urban VI, as head of the church. Urban upsets the cardinals, who declare him deposed, and elect a Frenchman, Clement VII. Clement sets up papal court in Avignon, but Urban continues holding court in Rome. England, Scandinavia, Germany, and northern Italy support the Roman Pope. France, Scotland, Naples,Sicily, and the kingdoms in Spain support the French Pope. This schism will remain unreconciled until a truce in 1409 and reunion in 1417.

1380 John Wyclif, an advocate of religious reform, is ordered to stop his teaching at Oxford.

1381 The Peasants’ Revolt.

Chaucer receives a gift of twenty-two pounds from Richard II for his diplomatic service in France.
Death of Chaucer’s mother, Agnes.

1382 Richard II marries Anne of Bohemia.

John Wycliffe and his Lollard followers complete the first full English translation of the Bible–a later version follows in 1388.

(1382-1386) Chaucer writes Troilus and Criseyde.

1384 John Wyclif dies.

1385 Richard II and his uncle, John of Gaunt, undertake a fruitless military campaign in Scotland.

Eustache Deschamps sends Chaucer a poem lauding Chaucer as a “great translator, noble Geoffrey Chaucer.”

October 12: Chaucer appointed justice of the peace in Kent. Political struggle between Gaunt and his brother, Thomas of Woodstock. September: death of Joan of Kent.

1386 Justice of peace reaffirmed. Chaucer elected to parliament as Knight of the Shire for Kent.

John of Gaunt leads an expensive and unsuccessful military expedition to Spain in an effort to win the crown of Castile, which he claims by right of marriage to his second wife. He is eventually beaten in 1388.

Thomas Usk, author of The Testament of Love, praises Chaucer as a poet of love and philosophy.

Chaucer gives up his house in Aldgate and his job at the customs.

(1386-1387) Canterbury General Prologue, early tales.

1387 Last recorded payment of an annuity to Philippa Chaucer.

1388 Chaucer surrenders his royal annuities.

The Lords Appellant and Parliament impeach several of King Richard II’s favourite courtiers. These include close supporters of the king such as Thomas Usk, writer of The Testament of Love.

(1388-1390) probable date of Chaucer’s fabliaux (Miller, Reeve)

1389 Richard II assumes power as an adult at age 22. Chaucer appointed Clerk of the King’s Works (his pay rises to more than thirty pounds a year). He is responsible for construction at Westminster, the Tower of London, and several castles and manors. The job appointment coincides with Gaunt’s return from Spain.

Boniface IX becomes Pope at Rome.

1390 Chaucer commissioned to repair Saint George’s chapel, Windsor; oversees repairs on the lower Thames sewers and conduits between Woolwich and Greenwich; building of the lists for the Smithfield Tournament.

Chaucer robbed of horse, goods, and a considerable amount of money.

During the 1390s, Chaucer appointed deputy forester of the Royal Forest of North Petherton, Somerset (possibly does not begin his forestry duties until retiring from his position of Clerk of the Works).

(1390-1394) probable dates of Chaucer’s “marriage group” of tales: Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner, Merchant, Clerk, Franklin, and the Astrolabe and Equatorie.

1393 Chaucer granted a gift of ten pounds from Richard for services rendered “for good services [. . .] “in this year now present.”

1394 Richard II campaigns in Ireland. He returns to England in 1395.

Death of Queen Anne.

Chaucer granted a new annuity of £20 for life.

1395 Richard marries Isabella of France. She is seven years old. Chaucer’s son Thomas marries heiress Maud Burghersh.

1396 John of Gaunt marries longtime mistress, Katherine Swynford.

(1396-1399) Probable dates of Balades to Scogan, Bukton, probable dates of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the final version of “The Canon Yeoman’s Tale,” and “The Parson’s Tale.”

1398 Financial woes. Chaucer borrows against his annuity; action for debt against Chaucer. The King provides letters of protection from these debts.

Richard II begins policy of absolute rule.

Richard II’s final gift to Chaucer is a “tonel” of wine a year for life.

1399 Henry Bolingbroke (soon to be Henry IV) lands in Yorkshire. Richard II overthrown. Henry takes control of government and becomes king.

Death of John of Gaunt.

On his coronation day, Henry confirms and doubles Chaucer’s annuity (now forty marks). December 24: Chaucer signs a 53 lease for tenement in the garden of the Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey.
1400 Richard II, the deposed English king, is murdered in his prison at Pontefract Castle.

Owen Glyndwr proclaims himself Prince of Wales and rebels against England.

September 29: Last record of Chaucer: He signs a receipt for a tun of wine delivered to him.

1556 Chaucer’s tomb erected in Westminster Abbey, the first poet of Poets’ Corner, where other famous British poets will continue to be buried. The date on the tombstone is October 25, 1400.

Pilgrimage

Nowadays, Chaucer would probably have published his tales as a collection of short stories. However, he decided to give his collection, the Canterbury Tales, an overarching frame to link them: the idea of a group of pilgrims going from London to Canterbury and telling stories along the way in order to pass the time more agreeably. As his pilgrims are all mounted, this is obviously simply a literary conceit: in reality, the sound of so many hooves and the distance between the pilgrims who were all on horseback would have precluded any story-telling.

The pilgrims who tell their stories are drawn from all classes except for the lowest and poorest class. The knight and his son the squire are aristocrats and warriors. A large number of the pilgrims, as you would expect, are connected to the church; however, a large number of them, as you would possibly not expect, are corrupt or semi-corrupt hangers on. There are also a considerable number of pilgrims from the newly-emerging middle class (of whom Chaucer himself was one) – these include the Franklin, the merchant, the members of the guild and the Wife of Bath. There is only one representative of a poorer class, although he is independent, not tied to his lord’s land as a serf would have been. He is the ploughman.

Chaucer tells us that in April, when the weather improves and people’s spirits rise,

Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
(And palmers for to seken straunge strondes) pilgrims; shores /countries
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes; distant shrines; famous
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende, go
The holy blisful martir for to seke, blessed martyr
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke. when they were ill

In other words, Chaucer’s pilgrims are making their way from the Tabard Inn in Southwark, where they have all gathered, to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

Here is the opening to the entire work:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne is swich licour,
Of which vertus engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages

The way in which Chaucer opens the Canterbury Tales is to say that when spring arrives, ‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote….,’ then the sap rises, everywhere there is new growth, birds think of mating, and people long to go on pilgrimage. In contemporary love lyrics, you would have expected a lover to be introduced at this point. Instead, Chaucer slightly unexpectedly says people want to go on pilgrimage. In fact, however, this becomes a part of a movement from sickness to health: ‘that hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.’ It is also a part of natural regeneration and growth after winter, part of the movement from winter to spring, from death to life (see Helen Cooper p 33, 34 The Canterbury Tales: Oxford Guides to Chaucer). I think it very likely that Chaucer is suggesting the shape and purpose of the pilgrimage here: the movement from spiritual death to spiritual life, as the pilgrims journey towards Canterbury Cathedral, the image of the heavenly Jerusalem.

It’s possible that the pilgrims’ starting point, the Tabard Inn, has a part to play in this picture of the journey. It represents, perhaps, the journey from the secular and material and physical pleasures to be enjoyed at the inn, to the spiritual awareness to be found at the end of the pilgrimage at Canterbury Cathedral. A painting such as Brueghel’s ‘The Fight between Carnival and Lent’ painted two centuries later in 1599 is making a similar point. In that painting, too, there is a movement from winter to spring, as shown by the trees in the background. In his opening to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer doesn’t suggest that there’s a simple movement from sin to purity. He mischievously (Helen Cooper’s word for it) rhymes ‘pilgrimages’ with ‘So priketh hem Nature (Nature urges them) in hir corages’ (hearts, natures, desires). Already pilgrimage and desires are tangled up. Is this to suggest that, whereas a bird’s nature prompts it with a desire to mate, a man’s nature should prompt him with a desire to lead a more spiritual life, but seldom does? Impossible to tell, as always with Chaucer.

The concept of the Tabard Inn as a place of doubtful virtue is endorsed by Julitte Dor and Barbara A Hanawalt. They point out that it is somewhat surprising that, as a woman, the Wife of Bath should been in the Tabard Inn at all, particularly since she is travelling alone (another departure from prescribed behaviour for women). The Prioresse, who also should not have been at the inn, at least has a nun and some priests to accompany her. Juliette Dor writes: ‘the Tabard is an improper space for a woman, and advice literature repeatedly reviled those who visited places where people drank.’ Barbara Hanawalt says that ‘popular poetry suggested that female patrons of taverns were of easy virtue.’ Juliette Dor again: ‘The ambivalence of the venue is evidenced here by the fact that the pilgrims immediately form a merry company that enjoys strong wine and large quantities of drink.’
‘The Wife of Bath’s Wandrynge by the Weye and Conduct Literature for Women, by Juliette Dor, in Drama, Narrative and Poetry in the Canterbury Tales, edited by Wendy Harding, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, 2003, p 148. ‘Of Good and Ill Repute’: Gender and Social Control in Medieval England, by Barbara A Hanawalt, OUP, 1998, p xi.

Some of the pilgrims are already seasoned travellers. The Wife of Bath, for example, has notched up all the famous pilgrimages: Rome, Sant Iago de Compostela in Spain, and the Holy Land were the big three. She has visited shrines at Rome (the apostles Peter and Paul), Boulogne (Our Lady), Compostela (St James), and Cologne (the Three Kings).

And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem;
She hadde passed many a straunge strem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne, Boulogne
In Galice at Seint-Jame, and at Coligne. Santiago de Compostela; Cologne
She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.

The Church strongly recommended pilgrimage as a form of devotion or penance. Ideally people would go to a holy place or a saint’s shrine to strengthen their faith by seeing the very places where Jesus and the saints had lived. To touch something holy, like the relic of a saint, made your faith more real. Before setting out, a pilgrim would be blessed by the bishop and make his/her confession. On the way to the holy place or shrine, the pilgrim would pray constantly, perhaps even carrying a portable altar to help in his/her devotions. Monasteries providing bed and breakfast along the way would also give pilgrims the opportunity to attend mass before continuing on the day’s journey.

One such pilgrim was Paula, of whom Saint Jerome writes in one of his letters. She visited Bethlehem and ‘Here, when she looked upon the inn made sacred by the virgin and the stall where the ox knew his owner and the ass his master’s crib (Isaiah 1:3), . . she protested in my hearing that she could behold with the eyes of faith the infant Lord wrapped in swaddling clothes and crying in the manger, the wise men worshipping Him, the star shining overhead, the virgin mother, the attentive foster-father, the shepherds coming by night to see the word that had come to pass.’ (Jerome, Letters 108.10)

Another pilgrim, Paulinus of Nola, said: ‘No other sentiment draws men to Jerusalem then the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present… Theirs is a truly spiritual desire to see the places where Christ suffered, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven… The manger of His birth, the river of His baptism, the garden of His betrayal…the thorns of His crowning, the wood of His crucifixion, the stone of His burial: all these things recall God’s former presence on earth and demonstrate the ancient basis of our modern beliefs.’

To go on pilgrimage to somewhere as far away as Italy or Israel was a major undertaking. The intrepid pilgrim, William Wey, gives a detailed description of all the things you needed to board ship and go to Jerusalem. These included a cage of chickens, and being prepared for succumbing to the flux or, alternatively, being in need of laxatives. You can read all about it at http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/pilgrimage/wm-wey.html

People also went on pilgrimage in order to venerate the memory of the saints – ranging from internationally-known saints such as St Iago de Compostela or St Thomas Becket at Canterbury, to much more local saints such as St Frideswide in Oxford, William of Norwich and St Cuthbert in Durham, St Alban in St Albans, King Ethelbert and St Thomas of Cantilupe (13th century bishop of Hereford) at Hereford.

Some people hoped that the saint would be an intermediary with God, perhaps in effecting a miraculous cure (like those illustrated in the Miracle Windows of Trinity Chapel, at Canterbury Cathedral).

fot32

(image taken from the stained glass website, Vidimus.org , issue 03)

The miracle window above, from the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, shows Mad Henry of Fordwich. He was cured when he was taken to Thomas Becket’s shrine. In this stained glass window, he is shown being shepherded towards Becket’s shrine by two friends with sticks. The words above read AMENS ACCEDIT (‘He arrives out of his mind.’). In the next window (not shown here) he is calm and cured ‘ORAT, SANUSQ(UE) RECEIT’ (‘He prays, and departs sane’) and everyone is celebrating his recovery.
http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-miracles-at-canterbury/#sthash.LENY1pYG.dpuf
Also see http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/the-miracles-at-canterbury/

Other pilgrims visited holy sites as atonement for sin; they hoped for forgiveness, and to save their souls from Hell. Going on pilgrimage might also shorten your time in purgatory, the place of spiritual purification where the souls of the dead became ready to enter heaven and the presence of God. Some pilgrimage sites cashed in on this idea by offering hundreds of years off purgatory. Of course, you could do this sort of pilgrimage by proxy. If you were to ill to go, someone else went on your behalf. After a while, ‘professional pilgrims’ took advantage of this idea, charging no doubt an extortionate fee for so doing.

Taking this penitential motive for going on pilgrimage one step further, some criminals were forced to go as penance for their sins – in part because this efficiently removed the criminals from their community for a period of time. For example, in 1319, Roger de Bonito was sent to Rome, Santiago and Jerusalem for murdering a bishop. It must have got rid of him for quite a long time. He might have had the murder weapon hung round his neck so that, for him, his pilgrimage would have been a public humiliation.

Monks and nuns were not supposed to go on pilgrimage unless they received the permission of their superiors, though it seem they quite often went anyway.

Of course, people also went on pilgrimage as a relatively safe (although expensive) sight-seeing experience. If you were the Wife of Bath, it seems you were going partly in order to find husband number six! You could just go and have a whale of a time, as in The Tale of Beryn or the Merry Adventure of the Pardoner and Tapster at the inn at Canterbury to be found here:
http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/gp/berynpro.html

The Lollards were against the idea of pilgrimage, as you can see in the examination of Master William Thorpe on the Harvard Univesity website:
http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/pilgrimage/thorpe.html

Shrines

When you arrived at the shrine you would want to see and maybe touch a relic – an object associated with the saint. You touched a holy relic and benefited from the experience. Some relics were things like handkerchiefs, others were part of the saint’s body – a bone, for example. Westminster Abbey acquired a vase of the blood of Christ in 1244. Some of the relics were fairly disgusting: the pope’s private chapel in Rome supposedly contained the umbilical cord and the foreskin of Christ, as well as a piece of his cross and the five loaves and two fishes which fed the 5,000 (which you would have thought had been eaten by the 5,000 since there were only crumbs left afterwards). From the 13th century onwards, relics were stored and displayed in a box called a reliquary. Another sort of relic was a small flask (an ampulla) which was filled with holy water. Canterbury Cathedral produced these as souvenirs for pilgrims to take home, so in taking this you had somehow bottled some holiness from Thomas Becket.

Of course, before long, people started selling fake relics to gullible believers. Chaucer tells us about them. The Pardoner claims that

… in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer, bag; pillow case
Which that he seyde was Oure Lady veyl;
He seyde he hadde a gobet of the seyl fragment; sail
That Seint Peter hadde, what that he wente
Upon the see, til Jhesu Crist hym hente. summoned
He hadde a croys of latoun ful of stones, brass
And in a glas he hadde pigges-bones.
But with thise relikes, what that he fond
A povre person dwellynge uon lond,
Upon a day he gat hym moore money
Than that the person gat in monthes tweye. two months

Souvenirs from the shrines

There were lots of different souvenirs that you could take home: the fourteenth century version of a T shirt. If you had been to Compostela, you brought back a conch shell; from Canterbury Cathedral, you brought back a little vial of water from Thomas Becket’s tomb which could cure you of illness. There are stained glass windows, the miracle windows, at Canterbury Cathedral illustrating these cures. You could bring back pilgrim badges, too, and you might end up with several badges on your hat to boast of all the shrines you had visited.

fot33

This is a pilgrim sign of St Thomas Becket. You can see the body of Becket lying beneath his shrine. Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has an excellent website and many artefacts. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/pilg/hd_pilg.htm

Canterbury Cathedral

Our pilgrims are going to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. The original Saxon church at Canterbury was burned down in 1067, but the Normans began to rebuild it almost at once, in 1070. Only just after Becket was murdered, there was another fire at the cathedral, but in fact this provided the opportunity to build a new and spectacular backdrop for the growing cult of St Thomas. The architect the cathedral employed was William of Sens. He had been trained in France, being involved in building the Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Sens in Burgundy. It was one of the earliest Gothic buildings in the country. He also knew Notre-Dame, Paris, and other Gothic buildings in Rheims, Soissons, Arras, Cambrai, and elsewhere in North-West France, notably Notre-Dame-la-Grande at Valenciennes. He thus brought with him from France the newest and most cutting edge ideas about Gothic architecture. In fact, he fell from the scaffolding while the new Trinity Chapel was being built and the work was finished by one of his assistants. Trinity Chapel was finished somewhere between 1179 and 1184, and the stained glass windows were completed between then and 1220. They tell the stories of Becket’s miracles. Originally some of the windows also illustrated scenes from the life of Becket but most of these are now lost. It was a gothic masterpiece. Although so much was destroyed by Henry VIII, and by the Puritans, Canterbury still has some of the oldest stained glass in the world.

Another famous tomb in the cathedral is that of the Black Prince who died in 1376. His tomb was placed close to Becket’s shrine.

Thomas Becket

Thomas Becket (born about 1120) was a favourite of Henry II, and became Chancellor. In 1161, the king made Becket archbishop of Canterbury, probably hoping to increase royal authority over church affairs. However, Becket supported the independence of the church from royal authority; first he fled to Europe for safety from the king, but when he returned in 1170, he was murdered by soldiers of Henry II on 29th December 1170. He was canonised almost at once, and became the most popular English saint. His shrine at Canterbury Cathedral was a spectacular one and was visited by huge numbers of pilgrims.

Possibly because Becket was a religious leader who had defied the king and then been made a saint, Henry VIII had the shrine dismantled in 1538. Obviously, since relations between Henry and the church were exceedingly sensitive, he was not going to want a rebellious subject of a form king to be venerated. After dismantling the shrine, he set about destroying his reputation as well. A Royal Proclamation of 16 November 1538 was issued jointly by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, attributing St Thomas’ death, ‘untruly called martyrdom,’ to a riot begun by the ‘opprobrious words’ and ‘stubbornness’ of Thomas himself.  Because ‘there appeareth nothing in his life and exterior conversation whereby he should be called a saint,’ the Royal Proclamation ordered that Thomas instead was ‘rather esteemed to have been a rebel and traitor to his prince.’

‘The Proclamation concluded that ‘henceforth the said Thomas Becket shall not be esteemed, named, reputed and called a saint… and that his images and pictures throughout the whole realm shall be plucked down, and avoided out of all churches, chapels, and other places; and that from henceforth the days used to be festival in his name, shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphons, collects, and prayers in his name read, but rased and put out of all the books.’
© The British Library
You can see more at: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2011/09/erasing-becket.html#sthash.9WjKBoni.dpuf

The details of Becket’s murder are legendary, although at this distance of time, possibly inaccurate. Henry II is alleged to have said: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” but the contemporary biographer Edward Grim, writing in Latin, quotes him as saying: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?”

The monk Gervase of Canterbury and eyewitness Edward Grim tell us that the knights who murdered Becket put their weapons under a tree outside the cathedral and hid their mail armour under cloaks before entering to challenge Becket. Becket refused their demands to submit to the king’s will, so the knights collected their weapons and rushed back into the cathedral where Becket was about to attend the evening service of vespers.

fot34

This miniature from an English psalter presents a spirited account of the murder. Three of the four knights attack the archbishop, who is kneeling in prayer before the altar. One of the knights kicks Thomas to the floor, and sends his mitre flying as his sword cracks open Thomas’s head. Circa 1250. Anonymous (England) – Walters Art Museum

Edward Grim, who was wounded in the attack, describes what happened next.

‘…The wicked knight leapt suddenly upon him, cutting off the top of the crown which the unction of sacred chrism had dedicated to God. Next he received a second blow on the head, but still he stood firm and immovable. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living sacrifice, and saying in a low voice, ‘For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.’ But the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay prostrate. By this stroke, the crown of his head was separated from the head in such a way that the blood white with the brain, and the brain no less red from the blood, dyed the floor of the cathedral. The same clerk who had entered with the knights placed his foot on the neck of the holy priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to relate, scattered the brains and blood about the pavements, crying to the others, ‘Let us away, knights; this fellow will arise no more.’

As monks made Becket’s body ready to be buried, they found that he had worn a hairshirt for penance under his grand archbishop’s garments. He was canonised in February 1173, and a year later Henry II did public penance at his tomb. Fifty years after Becket’s death in 1220, his remains were moved from the tomb to a shrine in the new Trinity Chapel behind the high altar. Although the shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII, the place where the shrine stood is marked by a lighted candle.

The sheer beauty of the shrine made it worth a visit. According to one visitor:
‘The magnificence of the tomb of St. Thomas … is that which surpasses all belief. This, notwithstanding its great size, is entirely covered over with plates of pure gold; but the gold is scarcely visible from the variety of precious stones with which it is studded, such as sapphires, diamonds, rubies, balasrubies, and emeralds; and on every side that the eye turns something more beautiful than the other appears. And these beauties of nature are enhanced by human skill, for the gold is carved and engraved in beautiful designs, both large and small, and agates, jaspers, and carnelians set in relieve, some of the cameos being of such a size that I do not dare to mention it; but everything is left far behind by a ruby, not larger than a man’s thumbnail, which is set to the right of the altar. The church is rather dark, and particularly so where the shrine is placed, and when we went to see it the sun was nearly gone down, and the weather was cloudy; yet I saw that ruby as well as if I had it in my hand; they say that it was the gift of a king of France.’

(Rickert, 370) Rickert, Edith. Chaucer’s World, ed. Clair C. Olson; Martin M. Crow. Columbia University Press New York, 1948; reprint 1968.

The route from Southwark to Canterbury

Our pilgrims made their way from Southwark to Canterbury in easy stages, and Chaucer tells us some of the towns and villages they passed through. You can find Tabard Street and Pilgrimage Street SE1 in the London Borough of Southwark.

In Southwerk at the Tabard as I lay
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come in-to that hostelrye
Wel nyne and twenty in a companye,
Of sondry folk, by aventure y-falle
In felawshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde;

Then they arrive at St Thomas Watering, and Chaucer mentions Deptford and Greenwich.

And forth we riden, a litel more than pas,
Unto the watering of seint Thomas.
Lo Depeford, and it is half-wey pryme,
Lo Grenewych, ther many a shrewe is inne!

By the time the friar and the summoner are disagreeing, the pilgrims are near Sittingbourne.

‘Now elles, Frere, I bishrewe thy face,’
Quod this Somnour, ‘and I bishrewe me,
But if I telle tales two or thre
Of freres er I come to Sidingborne,
That I shal make thyn herte for to morne;
For wel I wool thy patience is goon.’

After the pilgrims have been treated to the life of Saint Cecilia, they arrive at Boughton-under-Blean.

Whan ended was the lyf of seint Cecyle,
Er we had riden fully fyve myle,
At Boghton under Blee us gan atake
A man, that clothed was in clothes blake,
And undernethe he hadde a whyt surplys.
His hakeney, that was al pomely grys,
So swatte, that it wonder was to see;
It semed he had priked myles three.

After that, they pass Bob-up-and-doun which is Harbledown.

Wite ye nat wher ther stant a litel toun
Which that y-cleped is Bob-up-and-doun,
Under the Blee, in Caunterbury weye?

And finally they arrive at Canterbury Cathedral, the end of their journey, and symbolising the heavenly Jerusalem, or heaven, that will be the end of their pilgrimage or journey through this life. This idea comes from the book of Revelation, Chapter 21: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

As the Parson says, in his prologue:

And Iesu, for his grace, wit me sende wit – intellectual ability
To shewe yow the wey, in this viage, viage -journey, pilgrimage, journey through life
Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrimage
That highte Ierusalem celestial. that is called the heavenly Jerusalem

The idea of a journey or pilgrimage being an image for the journey of life is a common one.
‘We are in the country of exile of this world; we are exiles, and always have been since the first parent of humankind broke God’s commands; and so in sin we were sent on this miserable pilgrimage and now ever after we have to look for another homeland.’ Blickling Homilies II
‘Pilgrymes are we alle.’ Piers Plowman, William Langland
Later on, John Bunyan made very explicit reference to the idea in Pilgrim’s Progress.

Different horses used for the journey

Chaucer mentions various different sorts of horses that the pilgrims were riding. A stot was a heavy plough horse – such as the Reeve rides. A jade was a retired cart horse. The knight was probably riding a hackney, the cheapest kind of riding horse. A rouncey was one better than a hackney; a bit bigger and the sort of horse that might be used for hunting. The next best was an ambler, which is what the Wife of Bath was riding. The best of all was a palfrey, which cost about three times more than a hackney. The monks is riding a brown palfrey and we are told he has more deyntee horses in his stable, so he is obviously not worried by his vow of poverty.

Arriving at the cathedral

In her article, ‘Shine Forth Upon Us in Thine Own True Glory,’ (Sacred Architecture Issue 14, 2008) Carol Anne Jones explains how their church or cathedral would have been perceived by the people who came to hear mass each Sunday. I have made notes from her article in Sacred Architecture, but you can find the original at http://www.sacredarchitecture.org/articles/shine_forth_upon_us_in_thine_own_true_glory

In the 21st century we are used to extraordinarily sophisticated visual effects. We are also used to a culture based on the written word. We need to imagine what it must have been like for people in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Because most people in the 14th century were illiterate does not mean that they were unintelligent or not very able. It simply means that books were fabulously expensive, since they all had to be copied by hand onto parchment, so most people did not own them. The currency in the 14th century was not so much the written word as the spoken word. People heard and remembered. They went to church and heard sermons and Bible stories. They did not have watches; the hours of the day were marked by the church bells whose sound travelled a long way. Towncriers in the market place passed on items of news, or advertised wares. The Canterbury Tales, after all, were written primarily to be heard, not read.

Into this aural world burst the jewel-like, rainbow-coloured glory of stained-glass windows, which Chaucer’s pilgrims would have seen when they arrived at Canterbury Cathedral. In Chaucer’s day, stained glass was still relatively new.

What made it possible for stained-glass windows to be made were the innovations in architecture. Until the 12th century, you had to have narrow, vertical Romanesque widows because of the very strong walls needed to hold up the roof of a church. Lots of load-bearing wall means hardly any window. In the 12th century, techniques developed to place the weight of the roof onto exterior load-bearing supports called flying buttresses. This meant that walls around the window spaces did not have to bear so much of the weight of the roof and therefore there could be less wall and more window space. Carol Anne Jones describes the stained-glass that filled these larger windows as ‘walls of coloured sunlight’. The windows depicted Bible stories and, at the same time through their beauty, gave glory to God. The stained glass in the windows of the cathedrals in northern France are outstanding examples of this art: Chartres, St Denis, Poitiers, Rheims and many more. The English drew on the expertise of the French craftsmen in making the stained glass for Canterbury Cathedral.

The layout of a church had significance that added to the experience of being in the building. The altar was and still is always at the east end of the church, facing Jerusalem and the direction of the rising sun, symbolising the second coming of Christ. So priest and people face east. Stories from the Old Testament were in windows on the north side of the church, because the north was associated with darkness and cold and evil. New Testament stories would be on the south side. The west side was dedicated to human history, especially the Last Judgement. The shape of the windows was also significant. For example, the wonderful rose windows that are often to be found on the west side of a church were symbolic of Christ because they seemed like a sunburst. In fact, in Canterbury Cathedral, the rose windows are on the south and north side, and are technically a kind of rose window called oculi.

Stained glass windows are sometimes known as the Poor Man’s Bible – in an age when few people could read, Bible stories were not only told aloud but pictured. The great churches and cathedrals of Europe are full of mosaics, statues in wood or stone, paintings, murals, stained glass windows all of which depict the stories and teachings in the Bible. There are wonderful examples in the mosaics of St Mark’s Venice; the sculpture and stained glass of Chartres Cathedral; the stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral; paintings in Ghent Cathedral; frescoes in the Baptistry at Padua.

To quote Carol Anne Jones, ‘Malcolm Miller, an expert on the Chartres windows, concludes his book explaining the significance of each window with a chapter on “The Heavenly Jerusalem.” Of all the sources of subject matter, Miller cites the Book of Revelation as the greatest inspiration of all:
The people of the Middle Ages knew that their cathedral-church was … a symbol within their city of the Heavenly Jerusalem … Awestruck, the pilgrim would pass, as it were, through the gates of Paradise into the heavenly city itself, with its walls opened up and set with glittering jewel-like stained-glass windows which diffuse a mystic and divine essence: light.’

A contemporary record from Lincoln Cathedral, “The Metrical Life of St Hugh”, further endorses Jones’s article. It refers to the meaning of two windows (one on the dark, north, side and the other on the light, south, side of the building):

“For north represents the devil, and south the Holy Spirit and it is in these directions that the two eyes look. The bishop faces the south in order to invite in and the dean the north in order to shun; the one takes care to be saved, the other takes care not to perish. With these Eyes the cathedral’s face is on watch for the candelabra of Heaven and the darkness of Lethe (oblivion).”

Interview with the director of the Stained Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral on the Ancestors of Christ windows in Canterbury Cathedral, 1178-80

Chaucer’s pilgrims would have seen these windows and the poor man’s bible windows when they arrived at Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. A conversation between Annelisa Stephan and the director of the Stained Glass Studio at Canterbury Cathedral, Leonie Seliger, tells more about how new this art form was eight hundred years ago.

What’s special about these windows from Canterbury Cathedral?

These were cutting-edge works of art for their time. This isn’t something stale; it’s modern art. When you see really good art—regardless of the age—if it was really modern at the time, it still has that zing, that feeling of excitement you get from art that is completely, unashamedly new. This is what these windows are.

What’s so modern about them?

The boldness. The rhythm of the brush lines. The trace lines in the drapery. There is no fussiness about this painter—he just put them on confidently, without taking time to think about it. It’s very gutsy work. I’ve often thought about this being an early incarnation of Jackson Pollock.

Lamech, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England, 1178–80. Colored glass and vitreous paint; lead came. Courtesy Dean and Chapter of Canterbury

Abstract Expressionism in the Middle Ages?

Of course they didn’t have these concepts consciously. But artists of all ages have worked in that idiom, with abstract appreciation of form and shape and rhythm and graphic impact. The shape is a figure, but it’s made good art by the confident handling of the abstract qualities.

Also, these were made at speed. It only took about ten years, if that, from start to finish to make all these figures. They certainly didn’t hang about with these—they painted them, then they were leaded up and put up. No time for being precious.

It was also a Zeitgeist of the time. Coming out of the Romanesque period into the Gothic period is a very exciting time in art.

What caused this artistic break from the past?

Canterbury Cathedral had just had a very traumatic twosome of events. First they had the murder of the archbishop in the Cathedral [Thomas Becket, in 1170] and four years later the cathedral burned—the cathedral they’d just rebuilt in the 1130s, ’40s, and ’50s, which they absolutely loved.

So this is a community in shock. But at the same time, the miracles begin to happen. And the pilgrims come pouring into Canterbury leaving money, and the Cathedral is sitting on that fund. They decide they are going to make something really positive and forward-looking out of this; to celebrate rather than go into a deep funk. I think it’s wonderful.

Tell us about the artists who made the glass.

We know that some of these glass painters—at least the masters—worked in France. This is the time when the big cathedrals are beginning to be built, with ever-bigger windows, and these people are at the top of their profession. They are in huge demand. And they would have been quite able to negotiate good terms.

The sheets of glass would have been made in France, packed in straw and into baskets, and shipped in barges across the Channel to England. Making the windows—cutting the individual pieces, painting them, firing them, and leading them—would have been done mostly on site next to the building. It’s nearly always been a different set of skills to make the glass sheets and then to make the glass windows out of those sheets.

The windows were originally installed much higher up, about 60 feet above you. (Leonie Seliger says this because the interview was conducted at an exhibition at the Getty Center.) They weren’t necessarily meant to be seen this close. So they have a monumental breadth of brushstroke, and the forms are impressive and expressive, with big gestures to be seen and read from a distance. The elongation of the figures [of the Ancestors of Christ] is partly because you’d see them with foreshortening from the ground of the church.

Give us one last tip, something else we might not know by looking.

The figures and their ornamental border panels were divorced about 200 years ago when the figures were put into another window in a different part of the church, while the panels were left. It’s a wonderful moment for us to see them back together. They are brothers and sisters getting to see each other after two centuries.

They were made for each other, the ornament and the figure. There is a common handwriting, a common design language between the two.

For a virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral

Go to
http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/visit/information/
and you can have a virtual tour of the cathedral.
Another website is http://www.paradoxplace.com/Photo%20Pages/UK/Britain_South_and_West/Canterbury_Cathedral/Canterbury.htm
Also
http://www.canterbury-cathedral.org/visit/tour/#trinity

What went on in church

What was really going on in church in Chaucer’s day?

  • Tutivillus: women gossiping in church
  • ‘Joly Jankyn’
  • The Feast of Fools
  • Marginalia
  • Gargoyles
  • Misericords

Religion permeated all aspects of life. It dictated whether you could make love to your wife during Lent, and, indeed, whether you could make love to her at all unless it was solely for the purpose of having children. People gave dates, not as we do now (for example, 9/11) but according to the church calendar. So the season of the year that the plague reached London is given as – ”The pestilence arrived in London at about the feast of All Saints [1st Nov] and daily deprived many of life. It grew so powerful that between Candlemas and Easter [2nd Feb-12th April] more than 200 corpses were buried almost every day in the new burial ground made next to Smithfield.’ What time of day it was when the pilgrims reached Deptford is described as being: ‘Lo Depeford, at it is half-wey pryme.’ (‘Prime’ was either 6 am, the time that monks sang the service of Prime, or a general reference to the time between 6 am and 9 am.)

Although the church was so powerful in the fourteenth century, it seems that some features of church life were either not so serious or else were difficult to control. These include the inveterate tendency of women to gossip when they met – and the Sunday service was a great occasion for women to meet at a time when movement was much more restricted than it is now. It seems, too, that priests and others associated with the church were not always entirely single-minded in their devotion to God, and were apt to be distracted by sexual affairs. Then there is the abundance of vitality to be found in the details of marginalia of devotional manuscripts, in the shapes of gargoyles, the carvings on misericords, and the days when misrule reigned and those who were normally subservient briefly lorded it over everybody.

Tutivillus

It seems that gossip, particularly that of women, was a great concern. They were gossiping during mass (the church service) instead of paying attention. The word ‘jangler’ (and ‘jangleresse’) described a chatterer or idle talker. It was first used in 1303 by Mannynge in his work, Handlyng Synne, and again by Langland in Piers Plowman. In the Manciple’s Tale we read that ‘a jangler is to God abhomynable.’ There are rather a lot of synonyms for this word: ‘chaterestre’ (a female chatterer); 1250; ‘blabberer’ (1375), ‘clatterer’ (1388), ‘cackler’ (1400). And those are only some of the synonyms so presumably it was something that happened rather frequently.
Preachers attacked talkative women by calling them ‘unchaste of their tongues,’ which adds another aspect to the Wife’s lack of chastity.

How the goode Wyfe taught hyr daughter (Ashmole MS 61), one of the Didactic Texts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, bears this description.
“The non-narrative works in Ashmole 61 appear in a variety of verse forms and derive from a mixed set of sources. One closely-related group of didactic texts includes How the Wise Man Taught His Son, How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter, Stans Puer ad Mensam, Dame Courtesy, and The Dietary (items 3, 4, 7, 8, and 31). All of these address the rules of polite behaviour, religious duty, and hygiene, and most are addressed (often explicitly) towards children or young adults.”

fot35

My child, when you are in church, make sure you behave in a meek and mild way, and pray using your rosary. Above everything else, don’t chatter with your relations or your friends.

Tutivillus was the devil who collected the gossip of people who were not paying attention in church. There are illustrations of him on church walls and on misericords.

A useful website for medieval illustrations of gossips and Tutivillus is:
http://www.paintedchurch.org/idlegoss.htm
Anne Marshall, compiler of the website, writes:
‘Tutivillus (or Titivillus), is a minor devil, regularly found in later Medieval literature. It is his specific job to collect together the syllables ‘dropped’ by inattentive people during Masses and other services in church. No doubt the women (they are all women, I fear) shown in these paintings, preoccupied as they are with secular talk or distracted by secular matters generally, kept Titivillus busy. The point, of course, as this 15th century poem makes clear, is that there will be the Devil to pay at the day of Doom when the gossip’s soul is weighed in the balance against such accumulated minor sins and found wanting.’
Permission kindly given by Anne and Trevor Marshall to use the website text.

St Paul had a good deal to say about widows and gossips. In his first letter to Timothy, Chapter 5, he writes:
But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives.  Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame.  Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband,  and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds.
As for younger widows, do not put them on such a list. For when their sensual desires overcome their dedication to Christ, they want to marry.  Thus they bring judgment on themselves, because they have broken their first pledge.  Besides, they get into the habit of being idle and going about from house to house. And not only do they become idlers, but also busybodies who talk nonsense, saying things they ought not to.  So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander.  Some have in fact already turned away to follow Satan.

There’s a very interesting website, readingmedievalbooks.wordpress.com , compiled by Jeanne de Montbaston, the nom de plume of a most knowledgeable medievalist.
In ‘Codpieces and Demons: The Dangers of Female Gossip’ posted on October 22, 2013, she writes:
‘The picture we have of female friendship in medieval England is pretty limited. In a culture where women were almost invariably seen, both legally and socially, in terms of their relationships to men, and where fewer women than men could write, first-hand records of female friendships are few. In a previous post, I discussed the ‘woman-only space’ of the medieval birth chamber, and I suggested that, in the eyes of many medieval writers, this was a focus of distrust and fear of what women might get up to in spaces men could not penetrate (pun intended).

‘Female friendships were strongly associated with the social customs surrounding childbirth, partly no doubt because women have always sought out other women for support at this time, and partly because the enforced ‘confinement’ of a woman after childbirth placed her in an all-female universe for forty days. Yet the intimate and supportive relationships women developed with one another were associated with a term that endures as a gendered insult. The medieval word ‘god-sib’ originally meant the person who sponsored a child at baptism. But by the late Middle Ages, ‘god-sib’ or ‘gossip’ had come to refer by default to women only. ‘Gossip’, originally denoting a close and solemn spiritual intimacy, came to mean casual, idle, feminine chit-chat.
The connotations of ‘gossip’ were shared with another medieval word: ‘jangler’, which meant a person (a woman) who talked too much and too loudly. Disapproving male writers queued up to criticise this fault. In a text written for would-be religious recluses, the author imagines how a young woman might be corrupted by gossip: ‘either an old woman or a new ‘Jangler’ and storyteller sits by the window, feeding her with tales… from which arise laughing, mocking, and unclean thoughts through day and night, so that in the end the woman is filled full of lust and desire, talebearing, slander and hatred …’ (from Aelred of Rievaulx, De institutione inclusarum)

‘Still later, there’s a brilliant story in cleric Robert Mannyng’s Handbook of Sins, on the dangers of gossip, which reuses the same stereotype of women who gossip being distracted from their religious duties. Mannyng describes how women sit in church gossiping, and explains that, unseen, a demon sits nearby, pen and parchment in his hands, compiling a damning dossier of evidence for the devil to use at judgement day.

fot36

http://www.richard-hayman.co.uk/photo_10203835 http://www.richard-hayman.co.uk/photo_10203835.html Tutivillus with two gossips, at Enville Church in Staffordshire.

‘This image shows the demon in question – he’s called Tutivillus, which trips nicely off the tongue, and he moonlights as a pub inspector, carting off dishonest ale-wives to hell. His legend left women in no doubt: to gossip was to leave oneself open to every sin in the book.

‘Worse was to come: by the fifteenth century, a third writer recopied this story, and he claimed that he knew the shameful and immodest topic of women’s gossip:
“… these women, as I dare say, /Have been busy talking of ‘husbandry’./ They gaggle like the geese and jangle like the jay./ About how their husbands are full of jealousy./ On gallants, they make it their business to spy./ Seeing their clothes ride up so high./ And their codpieces stiffly standing out.”
(Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son)
step further than the source he copied it from. Now what is horrifying about gossiping women is not merely their insatiable lust, or their sinfulness, but their bold and unwomanly appraisals of specific men’s bodies.

‘What’s amusing here (aside from the last writer’s monumental prudishness) is that the same stories – the gossiping women who talk in church, the ‘janglers’ whose chitchat stirs up unwomanly lust – are passed down from man to man. These stories are embroidered with each retelling in precisely the ‘gossipy’ manner men attribute to women’s talk.

‘The silencing aspect of this attitude to women’s conversations may explain why we have so few records of medieval women’s friendships.  It’s disturbing to see that the exact same stereotypes are thrown at women now. Women ‘gossip’; their voices are ‘shrill’ (or jangling?); their talk has no substance. The women-only space of the Bake-off Final has been subject to thousands of nasty comments. Still today, it’s possible to find men who are genuinely shocked – and disgusted – to find that women occasionally discuss men’s attractive bodies … even if those men would happily discuss women’s bodies. Even the medieval alewife, targeted by the demon Tutivillus alongside female gossips, has her parallel in the Daily-Mail-esque outcries against ‘ladette culture’ and the disgusting spectacle of women being less than demure when socializing.

The reason I wanted to write about women’s conversations with other women, and how the supportive networks that began with medieval mothering were dismissed by medieval men as ‘gossip’ because today I heard from a forum who might (I hope) not be too offended if I call them the modern ‘janglers’. The very kind people at Mumsnet have suggested they may be prepared to put this blog on their list of bloggers. Mumsnet is a huge forum, and the Guardian recently published an article about its influence on contemporary feminism.’

fot16

Mural at Little Melton Church, Norfolk

Anne Marshall’s website, http://www.paintedchurch.org , contains images of murals and commentaries on them. The image above (of two gossips) and the commentary on the mural come from her website. Copyright Anne Marshall 2001; permission kindly given to use the text.

‘Two remarkably graceful gossips sit on a rough-hewn bench. The gradual introduction of church seating starts from around the date of the painting, and benches resembling this may well have been in the church at the time. The very large spherical buttons down the centre of the bodice of the woman on the right would have been the height of fashion in rural Norfolk in the 1370s, the likely decade of the painting. Certainly the two women have been painted with considerable skill.

‘Each woman has a rosary, and the two hold these out towards each other, perhaps for mutual admiration of their workmanship (or costliness – these do not look like peasant women). The pair are certainly in a confidential huddle, heads inclined towards each other, as opposed to being piously bent over their beads. At the right hand end of the bench, traces are still visible of a devil standing on it. Tristram¹ saw the painting in the first half of the 20th century and confirms that this is what it is. He could also see traces of a larger devil standing behind the bench, and embracing the two women as in almost all the other examples of the subject in the table below. I can see nothing of this now, but there may be another small devil squatting on the left hand end of the bench. (You can just faintly see Tutivillus on the right.)’

Mike Harding posts this image of gossips (below) on flickr. It’s in Ely Cathedral and Tutivillus is craning in solicitously to hear the tittle-tattle of two ladies of the mid-fourteenth century here, his parchment in his right hoof. One of the ladies is holding her rosary and the other her missal (prayer book).

fot17

Another good website is compiled by Helen Parry http://gallimaufry.typepad.com/blog/2011/03/tutivillus.html
She has kindly given me permission to copy this from her blog on Tutivillus.

Tutivillus, the literate demon

‘Tutivillus or Titivillus is a demon associated with writing and literacy. In the Middle Ages he was painted on church walls and carved on misericords, bench ends and corbels; he trod the boards as a character in the Towneley Judicium and Mankind; he introduced errors into scribes’ work copying texts and his exploits were described in sermons, conduct books and poems. You can see him lurking beside a monk’s desk in (one picture), an expression of concentration on his face, a stealthy claw laid by the ink well (it’s a fourteenth-century image I took from here; the original source is unfortunately not given). Later he haunted printing presses, causing typesetters to make mistakes.

‘I am very fond of Tutivillus and wrote my MA dissertation about his representations in mediaeval English church art and sermon exempla. Exempla were illustrative stories drawn from folklore, the Bible, everyday life, the writer’s own imagination; they can be found in sermon collections referred to by priests, conduct books and didactic treatises. There are two about Tutivillus. The most common relates how a priest, deacon or saint sees Tutivillus perched high up in a church noting down the idle gossip of parishioners who are chattering rather than paying attention to the Mass; the people talk so much that he must stretch out his parchment with his teeth in order to fit all the words on it; in many versions the parchment breaks, Tutivillus bangs his head on the wall or pillar of the church and the priest laughs and warns the congregation, who usually repent and oblige the demon to erase what he has written.

‘In the other exemplum Tutivillus is again seen in a church by a man of God, but this time the devil is creeping through the choir with a bulging sack over his shoulder. He explains that he is gathering up all the ‘syalablys & woordys, ouerskipped and synkopyed, & verse & psalymys þe whiche þese clerkys han stolyn in þe qweere, & haue fayled in here seruyse’ (from the Alphabetum Narrationum: An Alphabet of Tales) and stuffing them into this sack. In some versions, after they die the offending monks are sent to Hell where they must carry sacks full of the words they mispronounced in saying Mass and thus stole from God.’

Here is a verse about Tutivillus.

Tutivillus, the devil of hell,

He writeth har names, sothe to tell,

He writes their names, truly to tell

Ad missam garulantes.

those gossiping at Mass

Better wer be at home for ay

Than her to serve the Devil to pay,

Sic vana famulantes.

serving empty things in this way

Thes women that sitteth the church about,

Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,

they belong to the devil’s crowd

Divina impedientes

impeding the divine service

Nut thay be still he wil hem quell

With kene crokes draw hem to hell

Ad puteum autem flentes

but indeed weeping at the well

For his love that you der boght

Hold you still and jangle noght

Sed repece deponentes

but laying aside ……

The bliss of Heven than may ye win

God bring us all to his in

‘Amen, Amen,’ dicentes

saying Amen Amen

These verses come from a 15th century anonymous poem in the Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 104 (21678), f.112b. Quoted here from RT Davies, Medieval English Lyrics, p.198, Poem 103, Faber, 1966

Versions vary – this is another.
“Tutivillus, the devil of hell,/ He writeth har names, sothe to tell,/ Ad missam garulantes./ Better wer be at home for ay/ Than her to serve the Devil to pay,/ Sic vana famulantes./ Thes women that sitteth the church about,/ Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,/ Divina impedientes/ But thai be stil, he wil ham quell,/ With kene strokes draw hem to hell,/ ad patientiaem flentes./ For his love that ou der bo th/ Hold ou stil & fangel no th,/ sordem aperte deprecantes. [Sed repece deponentes en otras versiones]/ …þe blis of heuen þan may e wyn/ god bryng vs al to his In/ Amen Amen dicentes”.

fot18

Two devils surrounding gossiping women, Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire

Here is another image of devils surrounding gossiping women, this time in the stained glass window at Stanford-on-Avon, Northamptonshire. The ladies in this window have devils on each side of them, in stereo. On the right is a monster in pale blue; on the left the upper half of a green devil and the lower half of a ruby coloured monster. Clergy in the Middle Ages had this to say about chattering in church: synners herithe no worde of God, but turnithe hem to dilectacion of synne, to which the devil temptithe hem. For the devil hissithe be mony diverse weyes in the sermon: and how? For he makith someto slepe that they her not the wordes of God: a some he makithe to chatir faste. (Owst 1926 p 175)

And here’s another defamatory verse about women chattering.

‘Go forth and let the whores cackle!
Where women are, are many words:
Let them go hopping with their hackle (finery)
Where geese sit, are many turds.

This is from a 15th cent morality play, whose writer saw speech as a waste product, like goose dung. ‘Sins of the tongue’ were a matter of considerable concern and women were thought to be particularly culpable.

‘Scolding was a highly adaptable label, flexible enough to encompass the behaviour of those who gossiped maliciously about their neighbours … Scolding was … treated by the courts as a separate offence. Between 80 and 95 percent of those prosecuted as scolds were women.’ Sandra Bardsley in Venomous Tongues.

‘Daliaunce’ with the cleric or with the priest

Another activity during church was thinking about ‘daliaunce’ with the cleric as in the lyric ‘Joly Jankyn’.

Joly Jankyn is a 15th century lyric, but since culture in Chaucer’s day was primarily spoken, not written, I’m assuming that it was around long before it was actually written down. You can find the text below.

Of her friendship with Jankyn, the man who became her fifth husband, the Wife of Bath says: ‘ trewely we hadde swich daliance, / This clerk and I.’ It seems that
Jankyn is the diminutive form of John and in Chaucer’s day the name tended to allude to the priest-clerk-lover of a woman, often called Alison. Alison is presumably a pun on Eleison (the Greek word for ‘have mercy’ in the Latin mass: Kyrie eleison – Lord have mercy). In the lyric ‘Jolly Jankin’ this pun appears in the refrain for each verse and in some versions is spelled Aleyson to make the pun clear. Although the lyric may not have been printed until 15th century it was presumably extant orally in the late14th century. If it was a popular lyric, as it seems to have been, then maybe the allusion was enough to set up the idea of Jankyn as a lover for Alison. Riverside Chaucer notes: ‘The name Janekyn is common in ME lyrics for rustic lovers, especially clerks, since it is a diminutive of Sir John, a contemptuous term for a priest.’ Even as early as the late 4th century, St Jerome, quoting from Theophrastus’ Golden Book of Marriage, mentions ‘the curled darling who manages her (a wife’s) affairs … names which are only a cloak for adultery.’ And we know that Janekyn had lovely hair.

‘Joly Jankyn’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

As I went on Yol Day

As I went on Christmas day

In owre prosessyon,

in our procession,

Knew I joly Jankyn

I knew jolly Jankin

By his mery ton,

by his merry voice.

Kyrieleyson.

Kyrie eleison

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn began the Offys

Jankin began the Service

On the Yol Day,

On Christmas Day

And yyt me thynkyt it dos me good

and yet it seems to me it does me good

So merie gan he say,

so merrily he began to say,

‘Kyrieleyson’.

‘Kyrie eleison’.

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn red the Pystyl

Jankin read the Epistle

Full fayre and full wel,

Very pleasingly and well,

And yyt me thinkyt it dos me good

And yet it seems to me it does me good

As euere haue I sel,

As I hope to gain eternal reward in heaven

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn at the Sanctus

Jankin at the Sanctus

Crakyt a merie note,

Trills a merry note

And yyt me thinkyt it dos me good –

And yet it seems to me it does me good

I payid for his cote,

I paid for his coat,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn crakit notes

Jankin trills notes

An hunderid on a knot,

A hundred at a time,

And yyt he hakkyt hem smallere

And yet he hacks them smaller

Than wortes to the pot,

Than herbs / vegetables for the pot.

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Jankyn at the Agnus

Jankin at the Agnus

Beryt the pax-brede:

Carries the pax-board:

He twynkelid but said nowt,

He winked but said nothing,

And on myn fot he trede,

And trod on my foot,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Benedicamus Domino,

Let us bless the Lord,

Cryst fro schame me schylde:

May Christ shield me from shame,

Deo gracias, therto –

Thanks be to God, as well –

Alas! I go with chylde,

Alas! I am with child,

Kyrieleyson.

‘Kyrie eleison.’

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Kyrie, so kyrie,

Jankyn syngyt merie,

Jankin sings merrily,

With Aleyson.

With Alison

Source: Richard L. Greene. The Early English Carols. Oxford 1977, pp.278-279.
Note: R.T. Davies. Medieval English Lyrics. London 1963, pp.336-337.
About the structure of the catholic mass: http://www.music.vt.edu/
On the Liturgy of the mass: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09790b.htm
Middle English Lyric 1100-1500: http://www.litencyc.com/php/stopics.php

Pax brede is the pax board, a small plate of ivory, metal, or wood, with a representation of some religious subject on the face and a projecting handle on the back, formerly used for conveying the Kiss of Peace. It was kissed by the celebrant and then by others who received it in turn.

The cleric, Jankyn, has a fine voice which the woman can hear when he is processing into church, reading the lesson from the Bible and singing a very elaborate and decorated tune for the Sanctus. The woman imagines that each time he sings the word eleison (aleyson), he is singing her name. But more seriously, both Jankyn and the woman have sinned, so to ask Lord have mercy is very appropriate.

Peter Jeffery, in his book Translating Tradition, comments ‘Our impression that this is a realistic depiction can find some support in the fact that dancing caroles in the churchyard, and ogling clerics in church, were two activities medieval women were instructed to confess. Thus we can take the setting of this carol … as a candid ‘snapshot’ of a commonplace church scene … (a) realistic layperson’s eye-view of a Mass.’

Carnival and The Feast of Fools

The literary idea of Carnival and the Carnivalesque is not in itself anything to do with church, but the idea stems from something that happened in some churches. Wikipedia tells us that ‘It is a term used in the English translations of works written by the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, which refers to a literary mode that subverts and liberates the assumptions of the dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. Bakhtin traces the origins of the carnivalesque to the concept of carnival, itself related to the Feast of Fools.’

The Feast of Fools was a medieval festival rather similar to Carnival in the days before Lent. It was held on 1st January, the Feast of the Circumcision, when the lower cathedral officials would burlesque sacred ceremonies. A Lord of the Feast was elected and called bishop, or cardinal. It appears to have been thoroughly disorderly with a Lord of Misrule, and people wearing animal masks, women’s clothes, singing obscene songs, playing dice at the altar.

It was, of course, not approved of. The records of Lincoln Cathedral contain a letter written in approximately 1236 from Robert Grosseteste, Bishop of Lincoln: To the dean and the canons of Lincoln Cathedral, forbidding there the celebration of the Feast of Fools.

‘… Since the house of God … is the house of prayer, it is sacrilegious to turn it into a house of buffoonery, scurrility, and frivolity, and to profane with diabolical inventions a place dedicated to God. And since the circumcision of our Lord Jesus Christ (this is a reference to the Feast of Fools on 1st January, the Feast of the Circumcision) was his first suffering and of no little pain, and is also the sign of the spiritual circumcision whereby the foreskins of hearts and removed and all carnal pleasures and sensual lusts cut away, it is detestable to violate the sanctity of the venerable solemnity of the Lord’s Circumcision with the sordidness of wanton pleasures.

So I command you … that you by no means permit the Feast of Fools – filled as it is with vanity and foul with wanton pleasures, an event hateful to God and beloved of devils – to take place henceforth in the Church of Lincoln on the day of the venerable solemnity of the Lord’s Circumcision.’

In 1390 The Archbishop of Canterbury visited Lincoln Cathedral. He found that ‘vicars and clerics … on circumcision day, dressed in laic clothing, are hindering the divine office … by the uproar, tricks, chattering and games, which they … name the Feasts of Fools. The archbishop forbade this, including ‘public drinkings or other insolent activities … in the church.’ (from Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris)

fot39

A 14th century miniature representing the Feast of Fools (image: Wikipedia Commons)

Related to the Feast of Fools is Carnival, a time when, to quote Wikipedia, ‘ordinary life and its rules and regulations are temporarily suspended and reversed, such that the riot of Carnival is juxtaposed with the control of the Lenten season, although the Russian writer, Mikhail Bakhtin, argues in Rabelais and His World that we should not compare modern Mardi Gras with his Medieval Carnival. He argues that the latter is a powerful creative event, whereas the former is only a spectacle.

‘In his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1929) and Rabelais and His World (1965), Bakhtin likens the carnivalesque in literature to the type of activity that often takes place in the carnivals of popular culture. In the carnival, as we have seen, social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies. Thus, fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled (fact and fantasy, heaven and hell).’

The interest of both the Feast of Fools and Carnival to anyone reading the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale is that the Wife can be seen as a carnivalesque figure. She is almost a caricature or a grotesque figure in her outrageous exaggerations: her astonishing number of husbands, the weight of her Sunday headdress, the size of her hat, ‘as brood as is a bokeler or a targe’, the brightness of her clothes, the extent of her travels. And she seems, in a carnivalesque fashion, to be trying to turn the late 14th century world upside down with her interpretation of the Bible which is completely at odds with that of the church fathers; her determination to dominate her husbands in an ultra-patriarchal society when she should have been the subservient and obedient one in the relationship; her non-stop monologue in an age that advocated that a women be modest and quiet; her instructions to wives on how to subvert their husbands’ power in an age when men wrote the conduct books dictating women’s and wives’ behaviour.

When you look at Bishop Grosseteste’s letter written in 1236 and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter written in 1390, you see the response of moral disgust to such activities and attitudes as the Wife of Bath delights in. Or you can see her as an expression of the vitality and energy of the spirit of carnival and the feast of fools the expression of ‘normally suppressed voices and energies.’

fot40

Image from the British Library, Woman beating a man with her distaff, Luttrell Psalter, 1320-1340, Add.42130, f.60 What adds to the subversive nature of this image is the fact that the woman is wielding a distaff, a ‘woman’s tool and a symbol of her sex … spinning is a gender-role to which society relegated women.’

Everything about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale seems to me suggestive of carnival, of a turning of the prescribed norm on its head. In so many respects, even in the form(s) of the Prologue and the events in the Tale, expectations are riotously subverted. Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas writes: ‘What starts off looking like a confession turns out to be a boastful account of sin; the sermon form is used not be a celibate priest but by a woman who wants to talk about sex; and the misogynist tales are turned inside out and used by a wife against her husbands. … The romance genre is turned on its head in the Wife’s tale. Knights are supposed to save fair damsels in distress. Here, the damsel is ugly, the knight is in distress and it is the damsel who must do the saving.’
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale by Dr Jacqueline Tasioulas, York Notes Advanced, York Press, 1998, p 66

Marginalia

Something that probably seems surprising to us now is the remarkably bawdy detail in the borders of devotional medieval manuscripts. It could almost be seen as another example of carnival.

The Macclesfield Psalter is one of the glories of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Produced in about 1330, it contains the 150 Psalms, and is exquisitely decorated with elaborate initial letters, painted with precious pigments and gold. However, its borders are full of what is described as ‘marginal humour’.

Dr Stella Panayotova writes ‘About the Macclesfield Psalter’ and explains more about the marginalia.

‘Particularly arresting are the images opening the Office of the Dead, the text read before a funeral, as a regular prayer for the dead, and as a constant reminder of mortal human nature. A young man is admonished of his ultimate fate – the final stroke of Death, his wife’s grief, and his only hope, a salvation from God above. However, the activities performed in the margins below are less solemn. (see illustration below)

‘The marginal humour and uninhibited fantasy are the most charming and provocative aspects of the Macclesfield Psalter. Hybrid creatures merge human and animal shapes into nightmarish visions. A fox grabs a credulous cockerell or runs away with the farmer’s wife’s duck. An ape-doctor tricks a bear-patient with a mock diagnosis. An enormous skate fish frightens a man out of his wits. Wielding a sword against a giant snail seems pointless. Rabbits joust, play organs or ride the hounds that are supposed to hunt them. A lady rejects the advances of a suitor with an eloquently projecting sword, or is poised in a choice between the courtly love of a gallant horseman and the beastly lust of a wildman.

‘The sources of these pictorial parodies, absurdities and obscenities were both verbal and visual. They range from the exempla, or anecdotes used by preachers to spice up their sermons, to religious plays, secular romances, and fabliaux that entertained courtly audiences and townsfolk alike. What was the role of, and the justification for, such images in a book for private prayer? No doubt, they beautified the manuscript and amused its reader. But their function was hardly limited to the effect of slapstick humour. Nor was it ‘marginal’, despite their position on the page. Laughter was not forbidden in the Middle Ages. It was part of every-day life, even at the heart of religious experience, as the exempla, misericords, and plays reveal. This holistic and healthy attitude to life, accommodating the saints and the sinners, and embracing the world in all its shapes and colours, springs from the pages of the Macclesfield Psalter without prejudice or false modesty. The rigid distinction between sacred and profane, high and low, serious and funny, was more foreign to medieval than to post-medieval mentality. The marginal obscenities, perfectly acceptable to the medieval patron of the Macclesfield Psalter, clearly offended the puritanical sentiments of its post-medieval owners. They defaced both horned devils and bare bottoms, equating evil with laughter. In the Middle Ages, laughter could wage war on evil. It could warn against sin through negative example, as its disturbingly realistic depiction implicated the viewer. It could reinforce moral values and social order by exposing and lampooning their violation. It could defeat boredom, distraction and sloth by keeping one alert through the long hours of public prayer or private reading. Indeed, many seemingly random grotesques in the margins of the Macclesfield Psalter draw the reader’s attention to the text of the Psalms by providing a subtle visual pun or pointing emphatically at a phrase or even a syllable. Such ‘word-images’ encouraged a close examination of the text, teased the reader-viewer, stimulated associative thinking, provided visual anchors for the memory, opened short-cuts in finding one’s way around the book, and offered incentives for repeated and continuous reading. The marginalia were – and still are – central to the experience of the Macclesfield Psalter.’

Permission to use this article was kindly given by Dr Stella Panayotova, Keeper, Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

fot41

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Image 659 from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge From the recently rediscovered Macclesfield Psalter (c.1320-30), probably from Gorleston, Norfolk, and closely related to the Gorleston Psalter. This opening marks one of the major textual divisions in the Macclesfield Psalter, the beginning of the Office of the Dead. The historiated initial ‘P’ (‘Placebo’) encloses a deathbed scene against a gold background: the dying man lies in bed under a coverlet as Death, in the form of a shrouded skeleton, stabs him in the chest with a lance. Behind, the man’s grieving widow wrings her hands. Top left, in a roundel, Christ blesses the scene. Across the bottom of the pages: a man takes a tumble from his horse, and (right) a naked figure with a prominently bared bottom leans over holding a bowl into which a naked man is urinating.

fot50

© The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Gargoyles: irreverent details on cathedrals

Another source of fun can be found on the gargoyles, a form of run-off for water coming down the roofs of churches and cathedrals; they had been used for some time but came into their own in the late Middle Ages. Gargoyles (from the Old French ‘gargouille’ meaning throat) formed a spout to direct rainwater away from the wall of a building such as a cathedral, and so to preserve the masonry and foundations. Usually the water comes out of the open mouth of the carving. They became very popular in gothic architecture, and were carved into all sorts of strange forms, such as ugly faces, animals, and imaginary creatures. Obviously they all had to have one detail in common: a gaping mouth that acted as the spout for the water.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux famously spoke out against gargoyles:

‘What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters before the eyes of the brothers as they read? What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, these strange savage lions, and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man, or these spotted tigers? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent’s head, there a fish with a quadruped’s head, then again an animal half horse, half goat… Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities, we should at least regret what we have spent on them.’

Again we have the clash between ‘the brothers as they read’ the eight services of the day, giving continual praise and worship to God, and the ‘fantastic monsters’ that should make us blush. Both are in the same building; can both be accommodated in a world view?

fot44

A gargoyle on Canterbury Cathedral © Copyright J.Hannan-Briggs and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Misericords

Monks had to sing the eight services of the day standing up. There was, however, a ledge on the underside of a hinged seat in a choir stall of a church which, when turned up, gave support to a person standing in the stall. There were elaborate, and often bawdy, carvings of scenes from secular or religious life with which medieval carvers decorated misericords. The word comes from the Latin for pity and means that the seat is a mercy seat. By the 11th century, misericords meant that monks could rest against the ledge to give the impression that they were standing when they had at least minimal support.

Some of the carvings represent scenes from the life of Christ, or from the different seasons of the year. But some are much less pious or straightforward. So you can imagine the monks spending hours singing their devotions, while their seats depicted images that were far from holy! Imagine a monk singing these verses from Psalm 122, while leaning against a seat depicting a set-to between husband and wife:

‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you prosper.   May there be peace inside your walls and safety in your palaces.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I say to Jerusalem, “Peace be with you!”’

Again, the clash between sacred and profane. Is this possible or are they mutually incompatible?

fot45

A woman beating a man with a cooking ladle; Fairford Church, Gloucestershire (15th century)

fot46

Another set-to; 15th century misericord in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

fot47

Another domestic brawl; 15th century misericord in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

fot48

A chained ape urinates into a bottle, satirising the medical profession’s obsession with diagnosing diseases from urine samples. Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

Church history in 14th century

Chaucer writes about the age-old things that we recognise at once: the struggle between men and women; the journey through life and what it feels like to be getting older and not to be able to do the things you once did; the desire to communicate; the fun of sex; wanting to get your own way; the fairytale ending that you wish your life could have; dealing with people who insult you.
Some events in 14th century history we also recognise: wars that go on and on; sudden epidemics of terrifying, uncontrollable and highly infectious diseases; revolutions; government favouring the rich and taxing the poor.

But there are aspects of life six hundred years ago that are very very different from life in the 21st century. So different, indeed, that we can hardly imagine them. Here, therefore, are some outlines of aspects of life that have changed almost beyond recognition, in particular, the effect of the church on everyone’s life.

The Church
  • The Western Schism or Papal Schism 1378 – 1418
  • Wyclif and the Lollards
  • The Seven Deadly Sins

The Church

The Western Schism or Papal Schism, 1378 – 1418

This occurred not so much because of theological disagreements but for political reasons. The head of the Roman Catholic church, the pope, had been based in Avignon, France, for some while, but the papacy had become very corrupt and had fallen into disrepute. After Pope Gregory XI died in 1378, the new pope was established in Rome. He was Pope Urban VI, and had been a respected administrator at Avignon, but as pope he proved suspicious, reformist, and prone to violent outbursts of temper. Many of the cardinals who had elected him soon regretted their decision: the majority removed themselves from Rome to Anagni, where, even though Urban was still reigning, they elected Robert of Geneva as a rival pope on September 20 of the same year. Robert took the name Pope Clement VII and re-established a papal court in Avignon.

To have rival popes was not only a church problem but posed a diplomatic crisis in Europe. Secular leaders had to choose which claimant they would recognize. France, Aragon, Castile, Cyprus, Burgundy, Savoy, Naples, and Scotland recognised the pope in Avignon. Denmark, England, Flanders, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, Poland, Sweden, and various City States in northern Italy recognised the Roman pope.

Eventually the whole divisive business was resolved in 1418, but it did the power and reputation of the church no good to have these rival factions.

John Wyclif c1330 – 1384

There are several excellent websites on Wyclif and the Lollards.

http://www.the-orb.net/textbooks/anthology/beidler/wyclif.html
Notes from Peter Beidler, from Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies.

Another excellent website for Chaucer background is
http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/index.html

http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/lollards/lollards.html
Harvard University Chaucer site is a treasure house of information and has very interesting information on the Lollards.

Another good website is
http://www.exlibris.org/nonconform/engdis/lollards.html

The notes below are taken from the Harvard University Chaucer website which cannot be too highly recommended. The texts are prepared by the Chaucer expert, and editor of The Riverside Chaucer, L D Benson, (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu). To explore the website, and notes on Lollards in particular, go to: http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/special/varia/lollards/lollards.html

‘John Wyclif (c.1330 -1384), an Oxford professor, developed a number of doctrines — that the Bible is the supreme authority, that the clergy should hold no property, that there is no basis for the doctrine of transubstantiation — which were later condemned as heretical. Among his greatest contributions to English literature was his inspiration of the translation of the Bible into Middle English, the first complete translation in the language, and a notable influence on the language itself.

‘Wyclif’s ideas, usually in their more extreme forms, were adopted by the Lollards (see below), a movement that spread rapidly after his death. In his own lifetime, he was strongly supported by his colleagues at Oxford and by powerful laymen, such as John Of Gaunt. His ideas were current among intellectual circles, at least among the so-called “Lollard knights,” several of whom were among Chaucer’s acquaintances (see The Riverside Chaucer, p. 863, n. 1173, for further explanation and bibliography).

‘Wyclif was brought to trial in 1377 (though nothing much came of it, since Wyclif was so strongly backed by powerful supporters in the courts of both John of Gaunt and the King), and he and his doctrines were formally condemned in 1382 by Pope Gregory XI, who ordered that he be arrested. But his order was never carried out. Finally in 1382 the Archbishop of Canterbury condemned him and his writings, but Wycliffe himself was undisturbed and continued to write until his death in 1384.

‘There was little public interest in rooting out heresy and King Richard regularly resisted clerical demands that he establish burning as the punishment for heresy (common on the Continent). Henry IV issued the first order for burnings — De haretico comburendo in 1401, and the hunt for heresy began in earnest a few years later. Wyclif was finally condemned 41 years after his death: his books were burned and his body was exhumed and burned, with the ashes scattered.’

To summarise the aspects of the church that Wyclif disliked:

  • Church services being performed in Latin which people could not understand.
  • Preachers who included all sorts of non-Biblical detail in their sermons, and who also accepted money as penance for sins, rather than true penance.
  • Some of the things the pope said had no authority in the Bible.
  • People were forbidden by the pope to read an English translation of the Bible.
  • The fact that the pope claimed political as well as ecclesiastical power over England.
  • The fact that the Bible text was always heavily glossed (commented upon) with interpretations taken from the church fathers, written in all four margins and sometimes in between the lines. Wyclif believed that all individuals had the right to read the Bible and interpret it themselves.

Peter Beidler, Lucy G. Moses Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA, writes about Wyclif:

‘In 1377, when Pope Gregory XI heard about this bold Englishman (John Wyclif), he sent papal bulls ordering that Wyclif be shut up in prison. Because of the support of his friends in England, Wyclif was not so imprisoned, but he was brought to trial in England in 1378. At the trial he proclaimed openly that popes have no political authority and that their spiritual authority is not as absolute as they would have the world believe. He even denied the pope’s power to exact tithes and his authority excommunicate, that is, condemn the souls of men and women to hell by denying them membership in the church.

‘Events coincident with the trial dissolved it before a legal determination could be made in the case. England’s Edward III had died not long before, and the country was ruled by a very young King Richard II. More important, Pope Gregory XI died and the papal elections soon after resulted in the appointment of two popes, one living in Rome and one in Avignon. There was such confusion and disarray surrounding these events that John Wyclif’s fate was left unresolved. Meanwhile, the Great Schism made it even more obvious to Wyclif that the whole papal system was deeply anti-Christian. These popes, for all their self-important proclamations about having been appointed and anointed by God, were merely fallible, power-seeking men. Wyclif became even more convinced that the only true authority in the Christian church was the Bible. Now excluded from Oxford, Wyclif determined to spend the rest of his years translating the Scriptures into English so that his countrymen could see and hear for themselves the real word of God.

‘Wyclif returned to his home parish in Lutterworth and began that translation. …Wyclif also challenged the whole notion that people had to pay tithes to the representatives of the church. Why, he reasoned, should poor people who could barely feed their own families be forced to pay large sums to support the expensive eating, drinking, and dressing habits of overfed and overrich prelates?

‘Wyclif’s exile at Lutterworth enabled the now-feeble theologian to complete the work for which he is most famous. There had been a couple of earlier efforts to translate parts of the Bible into English. The Venerable Bede, for example, had translated one of the gospels into Anglo-Saxon, and Alfred the Great had translated the Ten Commandments, but nothing so grand as the Wyclif Bible had ever been attempted. The only Bible that was readily available in Chaucer’s England was Jerome’s Vulgate Bible in Latin. None but clerics, however, were permitted to read it. Indeed, a thirteenth-century edict made it specifically illegal to have the Bible translated into the common tongue. Wyclif, not surprisingly, ignored that edict and set to work on his translation. Although he did not do all of the translation himself, he did supervise the work of several translators and was clearly the impetus behind the work.

‘After the Wyclif Bible was finished, copied, and distributed, the people of England could either read or have read to them the scriptures in their own language. They could, for example, read or hear the opening passage in Genesis:
‘In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynne and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg ligt, that it was good, and deuydid ligt fro derknessis; and clepide ligt, day and derknessis, nygt.’

‘…The historian Knighton, who like many Englishmen was embarrassed and annoyed with Wyclif, wrote this passage in his chronicle:
‘Wyclif, by thus translating the Bible made it the property of the masses and common to all and more open to the laity and even to women who were able to read, than formerly it had been even to the scholarly and most learned of the clergy. And so the Gospel pearl is thrown before swine and trodden underfoot, and that which used to be so dear to both clergy and laity has become a joke, and this precious gem of the clergy has been turned into the sport of the laity, so that what used to be the highest gift of the clergy and the learned members of the Church has become common to the laity.’

On the next page is a picture of the beginning of St John’s gospel in a copy of John Wyclif’s translation. It’s pocket-sized, perhaps for a wandering preacher. You can make out the text: ‘In pe begynnyng was / pe word pe word / was at god, god was / pe word.’

fot49

MS Hunter 191, University of Glasgow. Reproduced by permission of University of Glasgow Library, Special Collections The image above comes from the excellent University of Glasgow website: http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/chaucer/index.html

The Lollards

The Lollards were followers of Wyclif, at first composed of Wyclif’s supporters at Oxford and the royal court, but soon the movement spread and became a strong popular movement. It was blamed (perhaps unfairly) for some of the anticlerical aspects of the Peasant’s Revolt.’

Chaucer’s patron, John of Gaunt, was for a time the protector of Wyclif, and Chaucer refers to Wyclif’s followers, the Lollards, so he certainly knew about him. Wyclif’s teachings were considered so heretical that within 50 years of his death his bones were dug up and burned and copies of his English translation of the bible were burned.

Lollards promoted the reading of the Holy Scripture in the vernacular as the means for knowing the true Word of God. Personal faith, and Divine elections were common central issues. Lollards also promoted the equality of the sexes including women preachers. (http://www.exlibris.org/nonconform/engdis/lollards.html)

Wyclif maintained that ‘all faithful Christians, the holy people, were priests of God, and in that spiritual sense “all holy men and women members of Christ are priests”, “woman is priest”. Lollard women priests? ‘ The conclusion is indefinite,’ says Margaret Aston. ‘The Lollards, who produced some famous women preachers in their time, and promoted the religious and educational equality of the sexes, had … raised the theoretical possibility of having women priests.’
Information taken from Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion by Margaret Aston

Wyclif and social unrest

At the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, people felt strongly that Parliament was very unfair in its lenient treatment of the wealthy. The Archbishop of Canterbury turned church and parliament against Wyclif by stating (falsely) that his influence was encouraging the peasants involved in the revolt. (In fact it was John Ball who was involved in the revolt and who had simply quoted Wyclif.) However, the church and parliament were united against Wyclif and eventually brought about his removal from Oxford. His writings were deemed to be heresy. In 1415, he was declared a heretic, and it was ordered that his books be burned. The translation of scripture into English by ‘unlicensed laity’ was made a crime punishable by charges of heresy.

The Seven Deadly Sins

In the Middle Ages the church and its teachings permeated life in a way that we can hardly imagine in our much more secular society. At the end of the Canterbury Tales, we have the Parson’s Tale. In the notes to her edition of the Canterbury Tales, Jill Mann points out that the Parson’s Tale is not strictly speaking a sermon, but rather a treatise on penitence. First it discusses penitence, then it moves to confession, and then gives a detailed description of the seven deadly sins: pride, envy, wrath (anger), sloth, gluttony, lust, avarice.

Evagrius Ponticus (345-366 AD), a Christian monk and theologian, wrote of eight patterns of evil thought. It was 200 years later, in 590 AD, that Pope Gregory Ist revised these to the seven deadly sins that we now know. They are called deadly because they cut you off from God.

In his book Venus’ owne Clerk published by Rodopi, 2007, B W Lindeboom explores in great detail the seven deadly sins as evidenced in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. He refers to the Parson’s definitions of these sins, and then looks at what the Wife does. I have made the following notes from his book.

The Parson starts with Envy, which he calls ‘hardnesse of herte in wikkednesse.’ This includes backbiting, distorting the truth, gruchchyng or murmuracion (line 499) – and as the Wife herself cheerfully says ‘Atte end I hadd the bettre in ech degree … As by continueel murmur or grucchyng.’ (lines 404-6) Discord is another manifestation of envy and the wife certainly provokes discord everywhere she goes.

Anger – the Wife frequently exhibits anger. She claims that for the fourth husband, she was ‘in erthe … his purgatorie.’ And she rips pages out of Jankyn’s book and fights him. Blaming God for your faults also comes under anger, and the Wife points out that ‘Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive / To wommen.’ Swearing is another manifestation of anger and the Wife swears quite a lot.

Sloth ‘ioye (joy) of harm’ (line 678). The Wife is certainly an enjoyer of doing harm to others if it benefits her. She also neglects her spiritual details, and does no good works. She also puts off submitting to God in favour of being ‘right myrie’ (479) – the Parson says that one should not entertain ‘a fals hope, that … thynketh that he (she) shal lyve longe.’

Avarice – the Wife gets her old husbands to give her ‘hir lond and hir tresoor’. Dominating others ‘thraldom’ comes under avarice, and certainly the Wife wants to ensure that her husband is her ‘thral’.

Gluttony. The Wife evidently likes her drink, but she also frequently uses the idea of appetite to mean sexual appetite. For example,

For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure
And make me a feyned appetit. (416,7)

A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl (466)

But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth (602)
I ne loved nevere by no descrecioun,
But evere folwede myn appetit,
Al were he long, or short, or black, or white. (622 – 4)

The Wife is an obvious candidate for the deadly sin of lust, but – typically – the medieval mind subdivided lust into several sections, for all of which the Wife qualifies. There is avowtrie (adultery). Although at times in her Prologue the Wife claims that she never did anything untoward, at other times what she says overtly contradicts this. For a start,

But evere folwede myn appetit,
Al were he long, or short, or black, or white. (622 – 4)

Also all that ‘walkynge out by nyghte’. Ogling or flirting is another branch of lust, and the Wife’s appreciative gaze at Jankyn’s legs during the fourth husband’s funeral is an example of this. ‘Vileyns touchynge in wikkede manere’ and ‘foule wordes’ (giving another man the come on even though she is married) must have been part of the ‘daliaunce’ between Jankyn and the Wyf. Prostitution is another subsection of lust – the Wife makes her old husbands pay for sex with her. ‘For wynnyng wolde I al his lust endure.’ Finally ‘vileyns thoghtes that been enclosed in mannes mynde whan he gooth to slepe.’ The Wife claims to have dreamed about blood and gold, so she tells Jankyn – although she admits she made it up.

B W Lindeboom sees what he refers to as various blocks of sin in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. The first 162 lines, where the Wife refutes the biblical interpretations made by ‘auctoritee’, are an example of Inobedience (sic). In other words, it is a kind of pride in daring to challenge the church fathers and the bible. In fact, within these lines examples are to be found of Inobedience, Arrogance, Inpudence (sic), Elacioun, Inpatience (sic), Contumacie, Presumpcioun, Surquidrie, Pertinacie and Janglynge.

These sins translate thus: Inobedience is the action of, in the Parson’s words, someone ‘that disobeyeth for despit to the comandementz of God, and to his sovereyns, and to his goostly fader’ (spiritual father, ie priest) (l 392). The wife has acquired maistrie over her husbands, and her method of obtaining this maistrie is disobedient (or inobedient) to her husbands and she certainly doesn’t tell the parish priest the half of what she’s doing. She says her ‘gossip’ ‘knew myn herte, and eek my privetee, / Bet than oure parisshe preest.’ (531-2). Avauntyne is boasting and the Wife is a great one for boasting. Despit ‘desdeyn of … neighebor’ is illustrated in the way she treats her husbands. Arrogance, probably supremacy, so the all-out bid for ‘maistrye’ over the husbands illustrates this. Inpudence is refusing to be ashamed of your sins. The Wife is certainly not ashamed of what she has done: she boasts of it. Elacioun is when you ‘may neither suffre to have maister ne felawe’ – the bid for maistrye is the example here. Inpacience includes Strif (being contentious, quarrelsome, which the Wife certainly is). Contumacie describes a person who ‘thurgh his indignacioun (rebellious anger) is agayns everich auctoritee or power of hem that been his soveryns.’ That’s a pretty accurate description of the Wife.

To continue. Presumpcioun means doing something one should not or may not do – also known as surquidrie (l 403). For example, the Wife has dalliaunce with Jankyn while she is still married to the fourth husband which she certainly should not be doing. Irreverence means not giving ‘honour there as hem oghte to doon, and waiten to be reverenced.’ The Wife clearly doesn’t give honour to people, especially to her husbands. Pertinacie is ‘whan man deffendeth his folie and trusteth to muchel to his owene wit.’ (404) The Wife is guilty of pertinacie in her preaching, when she takes experience as her guide, and interprets the bible in her own way. The Wife is also an example of Veyneglories, which is ‘to have pomp and delit in … worldly estaat.’ For example, she like to make herself ‘gay / With clothyng, and with precious array.’ Janglynge – the Wife calls herself a ‘verray jangleresse’. This is when ‘a man (woman in the Wife’s case) speketh to muche beforn folk, and clappeth as a mille, and taketh no keep what he (she) seith’ (406). That describes the Wife to a tee. What the Parson counsels as a remedy for all these sins is humylitee or mekenesse, of which there is not a vestige in the Wife.
Lindeboom’s blocks of sin continue thus. The section from 195 – 222 describes how the Wife gained power over her husbands. This Lindeboom sees as an example of Avarice, but also, since the Wife’s methods involve bullying and domination, Anger. Then there is the long passage from lines 223 – 390, where she chides her husbands. This is largely an example of Anger but the chiding also shows Envy. From 391 – 450 the Wife is exploiting her husbands, Avarice. In the bedroom the Wife uses sex for gain and for maistrye, so that is Lechery and Pride (or Avarice). Then lines 453 – 626 are on the subject of Lechery (even the fourth husband’s funeral is an example of lechery!). Lines 627 – 787 show Jankyn’s anger, but illustrates the Wife’s Sloth, because she refuses to behave as a proper wife should. It is her Pride that motivates her to behave like this. Jankyn’s examples from his book of wikked wyves show women’s murderous impulses and lust, which show up the Wife’s Anger and Lust. Lindeboom notes that Gluttony is absent, but I would have thought her excessive drinking might be an illustration of gluttony.

Emily Koeppel , in Uber das Verhaltnis von Chaucers Prosaweken zu seinen Dichungen und die Echtheit der “Parons’s Tale’ Archiv 45, vol 87 (1891) pages 33 – 54, notes that the Parson’s Tale, which is the last of the Canterbury Tales and is a sermon on sin, puts the Wife’s Prologue in context. For example, the Wife tells her old husbands that they ‘chidest as a feend’, which obviously is actually what she is doing. The Parson, in his sermon, says, ‘ther is nothyng so lyk the develes child as he that ofte chideth.’ (l 630). Substitute ‘she’ for ‘he’ and you have the Wife of Bath. The Parson also says ‘somtyme grucchyng sourdeth of Envye; whan man … bereth hymn on hond thyng that is fals’ (l 505). The Wif e has always been a great one for bearing her husbands on honde: ‘Baar I … myne olde housbondes on honde … And al was fals (379-82). There are many more examples, but these two give a taste of the sort of comparisons you can make between what the Parson warns against and what the Wife does.

Lindeboom also points out that the Wife’s physical sterility – there is never any mention of children – reflects her spiritual sterility.

Lindeboom’s exhaustive exploration of the seven deadly sins as understood in Chaucer’s time and as embodied by the Wife of Bath lends emphasis to the very serious interpretation of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale given by D W Robertson in his Preface to Chaucer.

Geoffrey Chaucer Geoffrey Chaucer
Copyright © 2016 Carola Beecham. All rights reserved • Design: ImoFlow