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Wynne-Davies, Marion (ed) 1992 The Tales of the Clerk and the Wife of Bath,
Routledge, London ISBN 0-415-00134-X

Chaucer's tale of the Wife of Bath.

Chaucer's tale highlights the virtues of the male returning sovereignty and decision-making to the female and to the feminine principle. A fair young knight is accused of rape of a maiden. The outcry leads to him being given the death sentence, but the queen and her ladies intervene on his behalf and she gives him a year to find out what women really want.

When he is returning to his fate in vain, a haggard crone, offers to tell him the answer in exchange for his obeying her wish. He consents and she tells him the answer - what women want is sovereignty. He returns to the Queen who of course commends his correct answer.

Immediately the crone arrives to claim her wish - that he must marry her. He curls up in the marital bed lamenting his fate, saying she is old and haggard. She says he would be better with a haggard faithful wife than a sweet young one who will run to the nearest lover. He still protests. She then says she is a witch who can be young and beautiful if he wishes and demands he chooses which fate to befall.

At this point the young knight comes of astute age and replies to the prisoners dilemma - 'you choose'. She than grants him both wishes, sealing the abundance of feminine sovereignty.


Within two days of making this tale a theme of Renewal, the above illustration of the first edition of the Canterbury Tales appeared in NZ Herald, from a Caxton first edition of 1477, the first book to be printed in the English language. To be auctioned by Christies it is estimated to fetch £600,000.
Auspiciously, the magnifying glass is set precisely on the Wyf of Bathe (Reuters).

Here bigynneth the tale of the Wyf of Bathe
 
In th'olde dayes of the kyng Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of fairye.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignye,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opynyoun, as I rede;
I speke of many hundred yerys ago.
But now can no man se none elves mo,
For now the grete charitee and prayeres
Of lymytours and othere holy freres,
That serchen every lond and every streem,
As thikke as motes in the sonne-beem,
Blessynge halles, chambres, kichenes, boures,
Citees, burghes, castels, hye toures,
Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes -
This maketh that ther been no fairyes.
For ther as wont to walken was an elf,
Ther walketh now the lymytour hymself,
In undermelys and in morwenynges,
And seith his matyns and his holy thynges
As he gooth in his lymytacioun.
Wommen may go saufly up and down.
In every bussh or under every tree
Ther is noon mother incubus but he,
And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.
 
fulfild filled
elf-queeme fairy queen
lymytours friars
serchen haunt
motes specks ofdust
boures bedrooms
burghes boroughs
Thropes villages; bernes bams; shipnes stables
undermelys late momings; morwenynges early momings
matyns morning prayers
lymytacioun district
incubus evil spirit
 
And so bifel that this kyng Arthour
Hadde in his hous a lusty bachiler,
That on a day cam ridyng fro ryver;
And happed that, allone as he was born,
He say a mayde walkynge hym bifom,
Of which mayde anoon, maugree hir hed,
By verray force, he rate hir maydenhed;
For which oppressioun was swich clamour
And swich pursuyte unto the king Arthour,
That dampned was this knyght for to be deed,
By cours of lawe and sholde han lost his heed -
Paraventure swich was the statut tho -
But that the queene and othere ladyes mo
So longe preyden the kyng of grace,
Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,
And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,
To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spine.
[The queene thanketh the kyng with al hir myght,l
And after this thus spak she to the knyght,
Whan that she saw hir tyme, upon a day:
'Thow standest yet', quod she, 'in swich array
That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee.
I graunte thee lyf, if thow kanst tellen me
What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren-
Be war, and keepe thy nekke-boon from iren!
And if thow kanst nat tellen me anon,
Yet wol I yeve thee leve for to gon
A twelf-monthe and a day, to seche and lere
 
bachiler young knight
ridyngfto ryver hawking for waterfowl
pursuyte demand forjustice
Paraventure by chance
in the place on the spot
hym spille execute him
suretee security
iren iron
seche seek; lere learn
 
An answere suffisant in this maters;
And seuretee wol I han, er that thow pace,
Thy body for to yelden in this place.'
Wo was this knyght, and sorwefully he siketh;
But what, he may nat doon al as hym liketh.
And atte laste he chees hym for to wende,
And come agayn, right at the yeres ende,
With swich answere as God wolde hym purveys;
And taketh his leve, and wendeth forth his weye.
He seketh every hous and every place
Where as he hopeth for to fynde grace,
To lerne what thyng wommen love moost;
But he ne koude arryven in no coost
Where as he myghte fynde in this matere
Two creatures acordyng in-feere.
Somme seyden wommen loven best richesse,
Somme seyde honour, somme seydejolinesse,
Somme riche array, somme lust abedde,
And ofte tyme to be widwe and wedde.
Somme seyde that oure herte is moost esed
Whan that we been yflatered and yplesed.
He gooth ful ny the sothe, I wol nat lye.
A man shal wynne us best with flaterye;
And with attendaunce, and with bisynesse,
Been we ylymed, bothe moore and lesse.
And somme seyn that we loven best
For to be free, and do right as us lest,
 
seuretee security
yelden yield
siketh sighs
chees chose
purveye provide
coost coast
acordyng in agreement
jolinesse pleasure
ful ny very close
attendaunce attention
yiymed trapped
us lest we wish
 
And that no man repreve us of oure vice,
But seye that we be wise, and no thyng nyce.
For trewely ther is noon of us alle,
If any wight wolde clawe us on the galle,
That we nyl kike, for he seith us sooth.
Assay, and he shal fynde it that so dooth;
For, be we never so vicious withinne,
We wol be holden wise and clene of synne.
And somme seyn that greet delit han we
For to be holden stable, and eek secree,
And in o purpos stedefastly to dwelle,
And nat biwreye thyng that men us telle.
But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele.
Pardee, we wommen konne no thyng hele;
Witnesse on Mida, - wol ye heere the tale?
Ovyde, amonges othere thynges smale,
Seyde Mida hadde, under his longe herys,
Growynge upon his heed two asses erys,
The which vice he hidde, as he best myghte,
Ful sotilly from every mannes sighte,
That, save his wyf, ther wiste of it namo.
He loved hire moost, and trusted hire also;
He preyed hire that to no creature
She sholde tellen of his disfigure.
She swoor hym, 'Nay,' for al this world to wynne,
She nolde do that vileynye or syn,
To make hir housbonde han so foul a name.
She nolde nat telle it for hir owene shame.
But nathelees, hir thoughte that she dude,
 
repreve reprove
nyl kike will not kick
holden considered
secree discreet
biwreye betray
stele handle
hele keep secret
Mida Midas
Opyde Ovid
sotilly subtly
 
That she so longe sholde a conseil hyde;
Hir thoughte it swal so soore aboute hir herte
That nedely som word hir moste asterte;
And sith she dorste nat telle it to no man,
Doun to a marys faste by she ran -
Til she cam there, hir herte was a-fyre -
And as a bitore bombleth in the myre,
She leyde hir mouth unto the water down:
'Biwrey me nat, thow water, with thy sown,'
Quod she, 'to thee I telle it and namo;
Myn housbonde hath tonge asses erys two!
Now is myn herte al hool, now it is oute.
I myghte ne lenger kepe it, out of doute.'
Heere may ye see, thogh we a tyme abyde,
Yet out it moot; we kan no conseil hyde.
The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere,
Redeth Ovyde, and ther ye may it leere.
This knyght, of which my tale is specially,
Whan that he say he myghte nat come therby,
This is to seye, what wommen loven moost,
Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the goost.
But hom he gooth, he myghte nat sojome;
The day was com that homward moste he tome.
And in his wey it happed hym to ryde,
In al this care, under a forest syde,
Wher as he say upon a daunce go
Of ladyes foure and twenty, and yet mo;
Toward the whiche daunce he drow ful yeme,
 
conseil secret
swal swelled
nedely necessarily; asterte escape
marys marsh
Biwrey betray
teere leam
goost spirit
sojome remain
it happed hym he chanced
under near
yeme eagerly
 
In hope that som wisdom sholde he leme.
But certeynly, er he cam fully there,
Vanysshed was this daunce, he nyste where.
No creature say he that bar lyf,
Save on the grene he say sittynge a wyf -
A fouler wight ther may no man devyse.
Agayn the knyght this olde wyf gan ryse,
And seyde, 'Sire knyght, heer forth ne lyth no wey.
Tel me what that ye seken, by youre fey.
Paraventure it may the bettre be;
Thise olde folk konne muchel thyng', quod she.
'My leeve moder,' quod this knyght, 'certeyn
I nam but deed, but if that I kan seyn
What thyng it is that wommen moost desire.
Koude ye me wisse, I wolde wel quyte youre hyre.'
'Plight me thy trouthe here in myn hand,' quod she,
'The nexte thyng that I requere thee,
Thow shalt it do, if it lye in thy myght,
And I wol telle it yow er it be nyght.
'Have here my trouthe,' quod the knyght, 'I graunte.'
'Thanne', quod she, 'I dar me wel avaunte
Thy lyf is sauf; for I wole stonde therby,
Upon my lyf, the queene wol seye as 1.
Lat see which is the prouddeste of hem alle,
That wereth on a coverchief or a calle,
That dar seye nay of that I shal thee teche.
Lat us go forth, withouten lenger speche.'
Tho rowned she a pistel in his ere,
And bad hym to be glad, and have no fere.
Whan they be comen to the court, this knyght
 
nyste knew not
devyse imagine
Agayn towards
wisse instruct; quyte reward; hyre efforts
avaunte boast
seye as agree with
calle hair net
rowned whispered; pistel message
 
Seyde he hadde holde his day, as he had hight,
And redy was his answere, as he sayde.
Ful many a noble wyf, and many a mayde,
And many a widwe, for that they ben wise,
The queene hirself sittyng as justise,
Assembled been, this answere for to here;
And afterward this knyght was bode appere.
To every wight comanded was silence,
And that the knyght sholde telle in audience
What thyng that worldly wommen loven best.
This knyght ne stood nat stille as dooth a best,
But to his question anon answerde
With manly voys, that al the court it herde:
'My lige lady, generally,' quod he,
'Wommen desire to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbonde as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
Dooth as yow list; I am here at youre wille.'
In al the court ne was ther wyfl ne mayde,
Ne wydwe, that contraryed that he sayde,
But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.
And with that word up stirte that olde wyf,
VAiich that the knyght say sittyng on the grene:
'Mercy,' quod she, 'my sovereyn lady queene!
Er that youre court departe, do me right.
I taughte this answere unto the knyght;
For which he plighte me his trouthe there,
The firste thyng I wolde hym requere,
He wolde it do, if it laye in his myght.
Bifore the court thanne preye I thee, sire knyght,'
Quod she, 'that thow me take unto thy wyf;
For wel thow woost that I have kept thy lyf
 
hight promised
bode commanded
stille silent
wille wish
contraryed contradicted
 
If I seye fals, sey nay, upon thy fey!'
This knyght answerde, 'Allas! and weilawey!
I woot right wel that swich was my biheste.
For Goddes love, as chees a newe requeste.
Teak al my good, and lat my body go.'
'Nay, thanne,' quod she, 'I shrewe us bothe two!
For thogh that I be foul, old, and poore,
I nolde for al the metal, ne for oore,
That under erthe is grave, or lith above,
But if thy wyf I were, and eek thy love.'
'My love?'quod he, 'nay, my dampnacioun!
Allas! that any of my nacioun
Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!'
But al for noght; th'ende is this, that he
Constreyned was, he nedes moste hir wedde;
And taketh his olde wyf, and goth to bedde.
Now wolden som men seye, Paraventure,
That for my necligence I do no cure
To tellen yow the joye and al th'array
That at the feste was that ilke day.
To which thyng shortly answere I shal:
I seye ther nas no joye ne feste at al;
Ther nas but hevynesse and muche sorwe.
For prively he wedded hire on a morwe,
And al day after hidde hym as an owle,
So wo was hym, his wyf looked so foule.
Greet was the wo the knyght hadde in his thoght,
Whan he was with his wyf abedde ybroght;
He walweth and he turneth to and fro.
His olde wyf lay smylyng evere mo,
And seyde, 'O deere housbonde, benedicite!
 
biheste promise
chees choose
good property
oore ore
grave buried
nacioun family
array rich display
walweth tosses
 
Fareth every knyght thus with his wyf as ye?
Is this the lawe of kyng Arthures hous?
is every knyght of his thus daungerous?
I am youre owene love and youre wyf;
I am she which that saved hath youre lyf,
And, certes, yet ne dide I yow nevere unright;
Why fare ye thus with me this firste nyght?
Ye faren lyk a man hadde lost his wit.
What is my gilt? For Goddes love, tel it,
And it shal ben amended, if I may.'
'Amended?' quod this knyght, 'allas! nay, nay!
It wol nat ben amended nevere mo.
Thow art so loothly, and so old also,
And ther to comen of so lowe a kynde,
That litel wonder is thogh I walwe and wynde.
So wolde God myn herte wolde breste!'
'Is this', quod she, 'the cause of youre unreste?'
'Ye, certeynly,' quod he, 'no wonder is.'
'Now, sire,' quod she, 'I koude amende al this,
If that me liste, er it were dayes thre,
So wel ye myghte bere yow unto me.
But, for ye speken of swich gentillesse
As is descended out of old richesse,
That therfore sholden ye be gentil men,
Swich arrogance is nat worth an hen,
Looke who that is moost vertuous alway,
Pryvee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan;
Teak hym for the gentileste man.
Crist wol we clayme of hym oure gentilesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hir old richesse-
 
daungerous distant
loothly ugly
walwe and wynde twist and tum
unreste distress
bere yow unto behave towards
old richesse inherited wealth
Pryvee private; apert public; entendeth strives
wol wishes
 
For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,
For which we clame 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.
Wel kan the wise poete of Florence,
That highte Dant, speken in this sentence.
Lo, in swich maner rym is Dantes tale:
"Ful selde up riseth by his braunches smale
Prowesse of man, for God of his prowesse,
Wole that of hym we clayme oure gentilesse";
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 1,
If gentilesse were planted naturelly
Unto a certeyn lynage doun the lyne,
Pryvee and apert, thanne wolde they nevere fyne
To doon of gentilesse the faire office;
They myghte do no vileynye or vice.
Teak fyr, and bere it in the derkeste hous
Bitwix this and the mount of Kaukasous,
And lat men shette the dores and go thenne;
Yet wol the fyr as faire lye and brenne
As twenty thousand men myghte it biholde;
His office naturel ay wol it holde,
Up peril of my lyf, til that it dye.
Here may ye se wel how that genterye
Is nat annexed to possessioun,
Sith folk ne doon hir operacioun
 
parage lineage
Dant Dante
Wole desires
fyne end
office duties
Kaukasous Caucasus
thenne thence
lye and brenne blaze and bum
genterye gentility
 
Alwey, as dooth the fyr, lo, in his kynde.
For, God it woot, men may wel often fynde
A lordes sone do shame and vileynye;
And he that wol han prys of his gentrye,
For he was bom of a gentil hous,
And hadde hise eldres noble and vertuous,
And nyl hymselven do no gentil dedis,
Ne folwen his gentil auncestre that deed is,
He nys nat gentil, be he duc or erl;
For vileynes synful dedes maken a cherl.
For gentilesse nys but renomee
Of thyne auncestres, for hir hye bountee,
Which is a straunge thyng for thy persone.
Thy gentilesse cometh fro God allone.
Thanne comth oure verray gentilesse of grace;
It was no thyng biquethe us with oure place.
Thenketh how noble, as seith Valerius,
Was thilke Tullius Hostillius,
That oute of poverte roos to heigh noblesse.
Redeth Senek, and redeth eek Boece;
Ther shul ye seen expres that no drede is
That he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis.
And therfore, leve housbonde, I thus conclude:
Al were it that myne auncestres weren rude,
Yet may the hye God, and so hope 1,
Graunte me grace to lyven vertuously.
Thanne am I gentil, whan that I bigynne
To lyven vertuously and weyve synne.
And ther as ye of poverte me repreve,
The hye God, on whom that we bileve,
 
prys praise; gentrye nobility
nyl will not
renomee renown
a straunge thyngfor not natural to
place rank
Senek Seneca; Boece Boethius
Al were it that even if, rude humble
weyve abandon
 
In wilful poverte chees to lyve his lyf
And certes every man, mayden, or wyf,
May understonde that jesus, hevene king,
Ne wolde nat chees a vicious lyvyng.
Glad poverte is an honeste thyng, certeyn;
This wol Senek and othere clerkes seyn.
Whoso that halt hym payd of his poverte,
I holde hym riche, al hadde he nat a sherte.
He that coveiteth is a povre wight,
For he wolde han that is nat in his myght;
But he that noght hath, ne coveiteth have,
Is riche, althogh ye holde hym but a knave.
Verray poverte, it syngeth proprely;
juvenal seith of poverte myrily:
"The povre man, whan he gooth by the weye,
Biforn the theves he may synge and pleye.
Poverte is hateful good and as I gesse,
A ful greet bryngere out of bisynesse;
A greet amendere eek of sapience
To hym that taketh it in pacience.
Poverte is thyng, althogh it seme elenge,
Possessioun that no wight wol chalenge.
Poverte ful often, whan a man is lowe,
Maketh hymself and eek his God to knowe.
Poverte a spectacle is, as thynketh me,
Thurgh which he may his verray freendes se.
And therfore, sire, syn that I noght yow greve,
Of my poverte namoore ye me repreve.
Now, sire, of elde ye repreve me;
And certes, sire, thogh noon auctoritee
Were in no book, ye gentils of honour
 
wil willing
halt hym payd is satisfied
knave peasant
bryngere out encourager; bisynesse industry
amendere improver; sapience wisdom
elenge wearisome
spectacle eyeglass
gentils nobles
 
Seyn that men an old wight sholde doon favour,
And clepe hym fader, for youre gentilesse;
And auctours shal I fynden, as I gesse.
Now ther ye seye that I am foul and old,
Thanne drede yow noght to been a cokewold;
For filthe and elde, also mote I thee,
Been grete wardeyns upon chastitee.
But nathelees, syn I knowe youre delit,
I shal fulfille youre worldly appetit.
Chese now', quod she, 'oon of this thynges tweye:
To han me foul and old til that I deye,
And be to yow a trewe, humble wyf,
And nevere yow dispiese in al my lyf;
Or ellis ye wol han me yong and fair,
And take youre aventure of the repair
That shal be to youre hous by cause of me,
Or in som oother place may wel be.
Now chese yourselven, wheither that yow liketh.'
This knyght avyseth hym and soore siketh,
But atte laste he seyde in this manere:
'My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I putte me in youre wise govemaunce;
Cheseth youreself which that may be moost plesaunce,
And moost honour to yow and me also.
I do no fors the wheither of the two;
For as yow liketh it suffiseth me.'
'Thanne have I gete of yow maistrye,' quod she,
'Syn I may chese and goveme as me lest?'
'Ye, certes, wyf,' quod he, 'I holde it best.'
'Kys me,' quod she, 'we be no lenger wrothe;
For by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe,
 
auctours authorities
cokewold cuckold
mote I thee as I thrive
delit desire
aventure chance; repair return
wheither that which
siketh sighs
I do no fors I don't mind
 
This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.
I pray to God that I mote sterven wood,
But I to yow be also good and trewe
As evere was wyf, syn that the world was newe.
And but I be to-mom as fair to sene
As any lady, emperice, or queene,
That is bitwix the est and eek the west,
Do with my lyf and deth right as yow lest.
Cast up the curtyn, looke how that it is.'
And whan the knyght say verraily al this,
That she so fair was, and so yong therto,
For joye he hente hire in his armes two,
His herte bathed in a bath of blisse.
A thousand tyme a-rewe he gan hir kisse,
And she obeyed hym in every thyng
That myght do hym plesance or likyng.
And thus they lyve unto hir lyves ende
In parfit joye; and jesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meke, yonge, and fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbyde hem that we wedde;
And eek I prayejesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilence!
 
Here endeth the Wyves tale of Bathe
 
sterven wood die mad
to-mom in the morning
hente took
a-rewe in succession
overbyde outlive
nygardes misers; dispence spending