The canterbury tales, p.100
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.100

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  710 Chaucer is probably punning on the word ‘patience’, since Latin patientia is a technical term for the female role in sexual intercourse (J. N. Adams, The Latin Sexual Vocabulary (London, 1982), pp. 189–90; see also Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, p. 126).

  771–7 This stanza is another of the borrowings in this tale from Innocent III’s De Miseria (II.19); see n. to ML 99–121.

  784 Dante asserts that an evil person ‘is dead though he appears to be alive … Someone might ask: how can he be dead yet walking around? My reply is: he is dead as a man, but he continues to live as a beast’ (Convivio IV.7, tr. Ryan, pp. 138–9; cf. Inferno XXXIII.122–47). In Trevet, Domild’s forged letters accuse Constance of being an evil spirit in the form of a woman (Originals and Analogues, p. 26).

  813–16 The constable echoes Boethius’s questioning of God’s justice at the opening of the Consolation of Philosophy:

  O thou governour, governynge alle thynges by certein ende, whi refusestow oonly to governe the werkes of men by duwe manere? Why suffrestow that slydynge Fortune turneth so grete enterchaungynges of thynges? So that anoyous peyne, that scholde duweliche punysche felons, punysscheth innocentz; and folk of wikkide maneres sitten in heie chayeres; and anoyinge folk treden, and that unrightfully, on the nekkes of holi men …

  (Boece I m.5.31–40)

  Boethius’s image of mankind ‘turmented in this see of fortune’ (54) finds concrete realization in the narrative of MLT.

  845–7 Patristic writers interpreted Simeon’s prophecy to Mary that ‘a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also’ (Luke 2:35) as referring to her grief at the Crucifixion; medieval writers suggested that, although she gave birth painlessly, the pain she suffered at the Crucifixion equalled the pangs of childbirth (K. Lochrie, Margery Kempe and the Translations of the Flesh (Philadelphia, PA, 1991), pp. 178–81).

  852 haven of refut … sterre of day: The phrase ‘haven of refut’ is also used at SN 75, and in Chaucer’s translation of Deguileville’s prayer to the Virgin (An ABC, line 14, translating ‘de salu porte’, P èlerinage de la vie humaine, ed. J. J. Stürzinger, London, n.d., line 10,907). ‘Harbour’ (portus) and ‘morning star’ (stella matutina) are traditional appellations of the Virgin; see Salzer, Sinnbilder, pp. 401, 528–31.

  921–2 In Trevet, Constance manages to throw the would be rapist overboard by a trick, rather than by main force; in Gower, she likewise tricks him but he is thrown overboard by divine agency.

  925–31 This stanza is another of the borrowings in this tale from Innocent III’s De Miseria (II.21); see n. to ML 99–121.

  934–6 Golias: The slaying of the Philistine giant Goliath by the boy David is related in 1 Samuel 17:4–51.

  939–42 The book of Judith in the Vulgate version of the Bible relates how the Assyrian captain Holofernes was decapitated by the Israelite widow Judith in order to save her people. See also Mk 2551–74 and n., and cf. Mch 1366–8.

  947 Septe: The name of a ridge of seven peaks, called ‘the seven brothers’ (Septem fratres) in former Spanish Morocco, opposite Gibraltar (‘Jubaltare’). Constance’s journey now takes her back over the course she had travelled earlier (see n. to ML 464–5), through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean and towards Rome.

  1086–92 Trevet and Gower both state that Maurice was sent as messenger to the Emperor, but since in Trevet he is explicitly said to be in his eighteenth year, the objection Chaucer makes here is groundless. Is this too an instance of Chaucer mildly teasing Gower? (cf. n. to ML 77–85).

  1088 –91 so nice … Sente: A modern reader would expect ‘that he’ before ‘sente’, but omission of the subject pronoun is more usual in ME than in modern English.

  1121–2 These lines constitute a fragile link with real historical events, since there was a Roman Emperor called Maurice in the late sixth century (ad 582–602). However, he was not the son of a Saxon king, but was born to a Roman family in Cappadocia, and his claim to the imperial succession was not based on his descent from the Emperor’s daughter, but on his marriage to Constantia, the daughter of the Emperor Tiberius Constantinus. Furthermore, neither Maurice nor his predecessor ruled from Rome, since the site of imperial government had been transferred to Constantinople (present day Istanbul) two centuries earlier. As noted above (n. to ML 134), it was only after Maurice’s death that Syria passed into Muslim hands, so that in his (and a fortiori, his mother’s) day, it would have been part of the Roman Empire and an officially Christian country.

  1126–7 Maurice’s life does not appear in the Gesta Romanorum, nor in any other identifiable ‘olde Romain gestes’, so this statement must be taken as no more than a vague gesture towards historiography in general. As R. A. Pratt pointed out (Studies in Language, Literature and Culture of the Middle Ages, ed. E. B. Atwood and A. A. Hill (Austin, TX, 1969), pp. 303–4), the running title of the last part of Trevet’s Chronicle is ‘les gestes des aposteles, emperours, et rois’; however, the section covering Maurice’s reign is mostly devoted to the history of the Church, and includes almost no account of his own activities (see, for example, London, BL, MS Arundel 56, ff. 51v–52r).

  1132–4 A marginal gloss in Hg, El and many other MSS quotes Ecclesiasticus 18:26 and Job 21:12 (with an ‘etc’ that implies inclusion of 21:13 also); both texts speak of sudden changes in human fortunes.

  1135–8 These lines are based on a passage of Innocent III’s De Miseria (I.20; see n. to ML 99–121), but the lines that precede and follow them in ML give them a haunting melancholy which is quite different from Innocent’s preacherly tone.


  1163–90 This link is not found in either El or Hg, but appears in 35 other MSS; the text here is based on Oxford, Corpus Christi College, MS 198. It is possible that it is a spurious link created by a particularly clever scribe, but its length and complexity are greater than this purely functional purpose would require, and its subject matter includes the characteristically Chaucerian theme of ‘glosinge’ (see J. Mann, PBA, 76 (1990), 203–23, and Introduction, pp. xxxv–xxxvi). A further difficulty is created by variation in the identification of the next tale teller in line 1179: 28 MSS read ‘Squier’, six read ‘Sommonour/Sompnour’ and one (late) MS reads ‘Shipman’; in each case, the appropriate tale follows. However, both the Squire and the Summoner are firmly identified as tale tellers elsewhere (see Sq 1–8 and Sum 1665–1708), and are the less likely to have been introduced here. The uncertain identification has been linked with the Man of Law’s statement that he will speak in prose (see n. to ML 96), and the indication that the teller of the Shipman’s Tale is a woman (see n. to Sh 12), and interpreted as evidence of changes in Chaucer’s assignment of tales to tellers. Since the Wife of Bath’s Prologue follows the Man of Law’s Tale in El and other manuscripts, and the robust tone of the Man of Law’s Epilogue fits the Wife of Bath’s voice, it has been suggested that she was the pilgrim originally mentioned here, and that the Shipman’s tale was originally told by the Wife and followed the Man of Law’s Tale, while Melibee was assigned to the Man of Law (see R. F. Jones, JEGP, 24 (1925), 512–47; R. A. Pratt, PMLA, 66 (1951), 1141–67; W. W. Lawrence, Speculum, 33 (1958), 56–68). Supposedly, Chaucer then gave the Man of Law the tale of Constance, reassigned Melibee to himself, gave the Wife a new Prologue and Tale, and transferred her previous tale to the Shipman. However, this does not explain why a hypothetical reading ‘Wife of Bath’ should have been erased in line 1179, since the link would still have been a perfectly good introduction to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.

  An alternative theory is that line 1179 originally read ‘Shipman’, and that the Epilogue was cancelled when Chaucer decided to move the position of the Shipman’s Tale, possibly to break up the concentration of fabliaux in the early part of CT; at an even earlier stage he might have transferred the Shipman’s Tale from the Wife of Bath to the Shipman, possibly in order to achieve a contrast between the Wife’s comic persona and the serious nature of the tale she tells.

bsp; The Epilogue is here set in italics, as most probably an authentic piece of Chaucerian writing, but one that he had discarded from CT as his plans evolved (see E. T. Donaldson, in MedievalLiterature and Folklore Studies: Essays in Honor of Francis Lee Utley, ed. J. Mandel and B. A. Rosenberg (New Brunswick, NJ, 1970), pp. 193–204, 363–7, at p. 202).

  1173 Loller: The Lollards were members of a religious movement associated with John Wyclif, whose views concerning the Eucharist, the authority of the clergy and other religious matters were condemned as heretical in 1382. See English Historical Documents, Vol. IV: 1327–1485, ed. A. R. Myers (London, 1969), pp. 844–8, and Hudson, Wycliffite Writings. Disapproval of swearing was not, however, confined to Lollards (cf. Pard 631–59); the Host is simply interpreting any direct expression of moral reproof as a sign of religious fanaticism. Since Lollards disapproved of pilgrimages, it would have been unlikely that one of their number would be found among the Canterbury pilgrims. Chaucer himself had friends at court who were Lollard sympathizers (J. A. Tuck, SAC Proceedings, 1 (1984), 149–61), and would therefore have been well acquainted with their views.

  Anti-Lollard sentiments gained the ascendancy in the last years of the fourteenth century, culminating in 1401 in the bill De haeretico comburendo, which imposed death by burning as a punishment for heresy (see A. Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History (Oxford, 1988), p. 15). Thus it is possible that the reference to Lollardy was the reason why the Epilogue was prudently omitted from some manuscripts (see preceding n.)

  1180 ‘Glosinge’ was the practice of interpreting Scripture, and was often regarded with suspicion because it allowed for the imposition of meanings which suited the interpreter’s interests. Friars, whose association with the universities made them particularly adept in textual exegesis, were often associated with specious ‘glosinge’; SumT provides an excellent example of one such friar (see Introduction, pp. xxxv–xxxvi). Again, the accusation is an unfair representation of Lollards, who preferred a literal interpretation of the biblical text.

  1183 The reference is to Matthew 13:24–30, the parable of the man who sowed tares in his enemy’s wheat field. Traditionally this parable was interpreted as a reference to the presence of heretics among the faithful; since the Latin word for ‘tares’ is lolium, it was specially appropriate to Lollards. See P. F. Braude, in No Graven Images: Studies in Art and the Hebrew Bible, ed. J. Gutmann (New York, 1971), pp. 559–99, esp. p. 560.

  1189 phislyas: A nonce word, which may be due to scribal corruption of an unrecoverable original, or may represent the (presumably) uneducated speaker’s garbled reproduction of a learned term (see R. C. Goffin, MLR, 18 (1923), 335–6, for a suggestion).


  The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is the first in a series of contributions (comprising also her tale, and the tales of the Clerk, Merchant, Squire and Franklin) traditionally known as the ‘Marriage Group’, since G. L. Kittredge argued that it initiates a debate on whether the man or the woman should have the upper hand in marriage, a debate which is satisfactorily resolved by the ‘mutual love and forbearance’ between Dorigen and Arveragus in the Franklin’s Tale; see Kittredge, MP, 9 (1912), 435–67; repr. in E. Wagenknecht, Chaucer: Essays in Criticism (Oxford, 1959). Kittredge was, however, unable to explain the intrusion of the Friar’s Tale and Summoner’s Tale into this group as anything other than a ‘comic interlude’. For an argument that the theme running through these tales is not marriage but patience, together with its opposites, ‘maistrye’, ‘ire’ and ‘glosinge’, see J. Mann, PBA, 76 (1990), 203–23; the tales of the Friar and Summoner form a natural part of the group as tales of ‘ire’ and ‘glosinge’, and also as tales which result from the ‘ire’ between the Friar and the Summoner. This view also enables links to be established between those tales and others which treat these themes outside the context of marital relations.

  The autobiographical mode of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue has a forerunner in the reminiscences of La Vieille (the Old Woman), who is set to guard Bel Acueil (Fair Welcome), representative of the lady’s good will to the Lover, in the Romance of the Rose (12731–918, tr. Horgan, pp. 197–9). Like the Wife, La Vieille knows the ‘old dance’ of love from experience (GP 476; cf. RR 3908j), and also like her, she relishes the memory of her youthful frivolity and regrets the advance of age (see n. to WB 469–75). But whereas La Vieille goes on to catalogue the treachery of men, and to instruct Bel Acueil in the arts by which they may be deluded in turn (12971–14426), the Wife cheerfully engages in direct attacks on men, whether intellectual or personal.

  The first part of the Wife’s Prologue is devoted to a vigorous discussion of the legitimacy of marrying more than once, and on the relative merits of marriage and virginity. Her invisible antagonist in this argument is St Jerome (c. 350–420), who wrote a polemical treatise refuting the view of his contemporary Jovinian that sexual abstinence was in no way superior to wedded life in the sight of God. Later in the Prologue (674–5) we are told that Jerome’s treatise formed part of the collection owned by the Wife’s fifth husband. Jerome’s Against Jovinian has been translated in its entirety by W. H. Fremantle (see Abbreviated References); excerpts from Fremantle’s translation which are particularly relevant to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue are reprinted in Miller, pp. 417–36. In the following notes, references are given to the Book and section numbers of the Latin version of Jerome’s text in PL 23, cols. 211–338, to which both translations are keyed. The Wife’s argument sometimes repeats points made by Jovinian, but sometimes appropriates Jerome’s own points and turns them against him (see nn. to WB 99–101 and 143–4). In general, her method of using biblical texts in a way that suits her interests is very similar to Jerome’s own style of interpretation (and her arguments cannot therefore be disqualified on methodological grounds), although distinguished from it by its playful and comic tone; a similar playfulness with textual ‘authorities’ characterizes the tradition of comic-satiric Latin verse known as ‘Goliardic’ poetry; see J. Mann, in Writers and their Background: Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. D. Brewer (London, 1974; repr. Cambridge, 1990), pp. 172–83.

  Jerome’s Against Jovinian also plays an important role in the second part of the Wife’s Prologue (224–450), her account of how she bullied her three old husbands. In order to press home the advantages of chastity, Jerome had quoted extensively from a ‘golden book’ (Liber aureolus) written by a pagan called Theophrastus (otherwise unknown), who vividly described the disadvantages of married life. This portion of Jerome’s treatise became a staple element in medieval anti-feminist writings (see nn. to WB 235–45 and 248–302). The Wife of Bath’s sample of the tirades she inflicted on her husbands draws heavily on this Theophrastan model and its later reflexes in medieval literature.

  In the last part of her Prologue, the Wife tells of her marriage to her fifth husband Jankin, a clerk, who tormented her by reading aloud from his ‘book of wicked wives’, a collection of antifeminist material containing, along with other items, the texts of Jerome and Theophrastus already mentioned, and Walter Map’s Dissuasio Valerii ad Rufinum (see nn. to WB 671–80). For an edition and translation of the Dissuasio, Theophrastus, and relevant passages of Jerome, together with a full discussion of the manuscript tradition in which these texts were linked, see Hanna and Lawler, Jankyn’s Book. Useful selections from the antifeminist tradition are also anthologized in SA2 II, in Miller (pp. 397–473) and in Woman Defamed and WomanDefended: An Anthology of Medieval Texts, ed. A. Blamires, with K. Pratt and C. W. Marx (Oxford, 1992).

  1–2 La Vieille likewise claims that experience, not theoretical instruction, has made her sufficiently knowledgeable about love to give lectures on the subject (RR 12771–90, tr. Horgan, p. 197). For a similar contrast between experience and authority, see Kn 3000–3001.

  4 Twelve was the legal age of consent to marriage for girls.

  6 at chirche dore: See n. to GP 460.

  7 There were no legal rest
raints on the number of times a widow could remarry in fourteenth-century England (see J. A. Brundage, in Wife and Widow in Medieval England, ed. S. Sheridan Walker (Ann Arbor, MI, 1993), pp. 17–31), and the Wife’s defensiveness on this point is therefore unnecessary. But St Jerome, like St Paul, had argued that celibacy was preferable to remarriage (Against Jov. I.14–15), and he must therefore be taken as the butt of her arguments.

  10–13 At a marriage feast in ‘Cana of Galilee’, Christ performed his first miracle by turning water into wine (John 2:1–11). Jerome develops the argument that ‘by going once to a marriage, [Christ] taught that men should marry only once’ (Against Jov. I.40).

  14–19 For Christ’s encounter with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, see John 4:5–30; the words quoted by the Wife are Christ’s response to the woman’s statement ‘I have no husband’. Jerome misquotes the exchange in using it as an argument against marrying more than once: ‘it is better to know a single husband, though he be a second or third, than to have many paramours … At all events this is so if the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel who said 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’ (Against Jov. I.14).

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