The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer/Wife of Bath

The Tale of the Wife of Bath

Here beginneth the Tale of the Wife of Bath.

"IN the old days of King Arthur, of which Britons tell wondrous tales, all this land was filled with troops of fairies. The elf-queen danced full oft with her jolly company In many a green mead. This, as I understand, was the old opinion ; I speak of many hundred years ago; for now no man can see any elves more. For now the prayers and the great charity of limiters and other holy friars that search every land and stream, as thick as motes in the sun's ray, blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, bowers, cities, boroughs, castles, high bastions, thorps, barns, dairies, stables,—this maketh that there be no fays. For where was wont to walk a fairy, there now, of afternoons and of mornings, walketh the limiter himself, and saith his matins and holy prayers as he goeth in his limit. Women may go safely back and forth, under every tree and bush; there is no other incubus but him and he will do them no dishonour.

It so befell that this King Arthur had in his house a knight, lusty and young, that on a day came riding from the river, and it happed that he saw, walking before him, a maid, alone as she was born, whom anon, despite her utmost, he bereft of her maidenhood, for which oppression there was such outcry and such complaint unto King Arthur, that this knight by course of law was condemned to die, and would peradventure have lost his head, such then was the statute, had not the queen and other ladies so long prayed the king of his grace, that he granted him instead his life, and gave him wholly to the queen, to choose at her will whether she would save or destroy him.

The queen thanketh the king with all her heart, and after when she saw her time, she spake thus to the knight: "Thou standest yet in such estate that thou hast no surety of thy life. I grant thee life, if thou canst tell me what thing women most desire. Be ware, and keep thy neck-bone from iron. And if thou canst not tell it at once, yet will I give thee leave to go for a twelve-month and a day, to seek and learn an answer sufficient unto this matter. And ere thou go, I will have surety that thou wilt yield up thy body in this place."

Woful is this knight and sigheth sorrowfully, but what! he may not do all things as he liketh, and at last he chooseth to depart and come again at the year's end with such answer as God would provide for him, and taketh his leave and wendeth forth on his way.

He seeketh every house and place where he hopeth, with heaven's favour, to learn what thing women love most, but in no region could he arrive where he might find two creatures agreeing together in this matter. Some said women love best riches, some said honour; some, mirth; some, rich raiment; some, marriage joys and to be ofttimes wed and widowed. Some said that our hearts be most content when we be flattered and pleased. I will confess, such cometh full nigh the sooth; a man shall best win us with flattery; and by attentions and petty courtesies we be snared, both more and less. And some say how we love best to be free and do even as we please, and to have no man reprove us of our vices, but say that we are wise and in no way foolish. For truly if a wight will claw us on our sore place, there is none of us that will not kick, because he telleth us the truth; essay, and he that doth shall find it so ; for be we never so vicious within, we would be held prudent and blameless. And some say that we take great delight to be thought staid and trusty with secrets, and steadfast in one purpose, and not communicative of things that men tell us ; but that tale is not worth a rake-handle ; pardee, we women can hide nothing ; witness Mydas ; will ye hear the tale?

Ovid, amongst other small things, saith that Mydas, under the long locks growing on his head, had two ass's ears, which blemish he hid, as best he could, full subtly from every man's sight, so that none other save his wife wist thereof. He loved her most and trusted her also. He prayed her that she should tell no creature of his disfigurement. She swore to him "nay," for all this world she would not commit such a sin and disgrace as to make her husband have so foul a reputation; she would not tell it for her own shame. Natheless it seemed to her that she would die if she must hold a secret so long ; it seemed her heart swelled so sore that some word must needs start from her, and sith she durst tell it to no wight, down she ran to a marsh near by; her heart burned till she came there, and as a bittern bumbleth in the mire, she laid her mouth unto the water: "Betray me not, thou water," quoth she, "with thy sound; unto thee I tell it and none other; my husband hath long ass's ears twain! Now is my heart whole ; now it is out ; to save me I might no longer keep it." Here ye may see, though we may keep a secret for a time, yet it must out, we cannot hide it.

This knight, of whom my tale is especially, when he saw that he could not come at what women love most, was full sorrowful at heart and in spirit; but home he goeth, he might not tarry. The day was come when he must turn homeward; and on his way, in all this woe, it happed that he rode under a forest-side, where he saw going upon the dance more than four and twenty ladies, toward whom he drew rein full eagerly, in the hope that he might learn some wisdom. But certain is it, that ere he reached this dance, it was vanished, he wist not where. No living creature he saw, save that on the green he saw a wife sitting; a fouler wight no man can imagine. This old wife gan rise up to meet the knight and said: "Sir Knight, here lieth no path. Tell me, by your fay, what ye seek? Peradventure it may be the better for you. We old folk know many things." "My good mother," quoth this knight truly, "I am no better than dead, unless I can say what thing women most desire. Could ye inform me, I would requite you well."

"Plight me here thy troth in my hand," quoth she, "that thou wilt do the next thing that I require of thee, if it lie in thy power, and ere night I will tell it you." "Have here my troth," quoth he, "I consent."

"Then," quoth she, "I dare pledge thy life is safe, for I will stand by it, on my life, the queen will say as I. Let see which of them that is proudest and weareth a head-kerchief, or a caul, dare say nay to that which I shall teach thee. Let us go forth without more talk." Then she whispered a sentence in his ear, and bade him be glad and have no dread.

When they were come to the court, this knight said that he had kept his day, as he had sworn, and his answer was ready. Full many a noble wife and maid, and many a widow, for they be wise, were assembled—the queen herself sitting as a judge— to hearken his answer; and soon this knight was bade to appear. Unto every wight was commanded silence, and unto the knight that he should tell in open court what thing worldly women love best. This knight stood not still as a dumb brute, but to his question straightway answered with manly voice, so that all the court heard it. "My liege lady," quoth he, "universally woman desireth to have dominion both over her husband and his love, and to have mastery over him. This is your utmost desire, though ye kill me. Do as ye list, I am here at your mercy."

In all the court there was nor maiden, nor wife, nor widow, that denied what he said, but they said he was worthy to live. At that word up started the old wife, whom the knight saw sitting on the green. "Pardon," quoth she, "my sovereign lady! Ere your court depart, do me justice. I taught this answer unto the knight, for which he plighted me his troth, that he would do the next thing I should require of him, if it lay in his power. Before the court, then, I pray thee, Sir Knight, that thou take me to wife; for well thou wottest that I have saved thee. If I speak false, say nay, on thy faith!"

This knight answered: "Alas! welaway! I wot right well that such was my promise. For God's love, choose a new request; take all my wealth, but leave my body."

"Nay then," quoth she, "beshrew us both! for though I be foul and old and poor, I would not for all the metal and gold, which is buried under earth, or lieth upon it, that I were other than thy wife and eke thy love." "My love? Nay," quoth he, "my damnation! Alas! that any of my race should ever be so foully disgraced!" But all was for naught; the end is, that he was constrained to espouse her ; and he taketh his old wife and goeth to bed.

Peradventure now some folk will say that in my negligence
The Canterbury tales of Geoffrey Chaucer - So much of Dalliance and fair Speech.jpg

So much of Dalliance and fair Speech...

I take no pains to tell you the joy and all the ordinance of the feast that day; to which I shall briefly answer. There was no joy nor feast at all; there was only heaviness and much sorrow; for he wedded her on a morning privily, and afterward hid himself all day as an owl, so woful was he that his wife looked so loathsome. Great woe had the knight in his heart when he was brought abed with his wife; he rolleth from side to side and turneth to and fro. His old wife evermore lay smiling and said, "O dear husband, ben'cite! fareth every knight thus with his wife? Is this the law of King Arthur's house? Is every knight of his so unapproachable? I am your own love and eke your wife; I am she which hath saved you; and certes never yet did I wrong unto you; why fare ye thus with me this first night? Ye fare like a man that hath lost his wit; what is my guilt? for God's love, tell me, and if I can, it shall be amended."

"Amended? Alas!" quoth this knight, "nay, nay! It will never be amended more! Thou art so loathsome and so old, and come eke of so low a birth, that little wonder it is, though I wallow and wind. Would to God my heart would burst!" "Is this," quoth she, "the cause of your restlessness?" "Yea, certainly," quoth he, "and no wonder." "Now, sir," quoth she, "ere three days' space, if I list, I could amend all this, so that ye might bear you well unto me. But sith ye speak of such gentleness as is descended from ancient wealth, wherefore ye say ye should be accounted gentle, such arrogance is not worth a hen. Look to him who, privily and openly, is alway most virtuous, and ever inclineth most to do the gentle deeds he is able, and take him for the greatest gentleman. Christ desireth that we claim from him our gentleness, not from our ancestors because of their ancient wealth. For though they may give us all their heritage, for which we claim to be of high birth, yet in no wise may they bequeath to any of us their virtuous living which made them to be called gentlemen; and Christ bade us follow them in that respect.

"Well can the wise poet of Florence, Dante, speak in this regard ; lo! in such verse is Dante's tale :

'Full seldom upward into the small branches
Riseth the worth of man ; for God desireth
That we should claim from Him our gentleness'

For of our ancestors we may claim nothing but temporal things, which men may hurt and harm. Every wight eke wot this as well as I, that if gentleness were planted by nature in a certain lineage, then would they of that line cease never, privily or openly, to do the fair offices of gentleness; they could do no discourtesy or sin.

"Take fire, and bear it into the darkest house betwixt Mount Caucasus and here, and let men shut the doors and go thence; yet will the fire blaze and burn as fair as though twenty thousand men might behold it; on my life, it will perform its natural office till it die.

"Here may ye see well how gentility is not tied down to possession, sith folk perform not their proper functions alway as doth lo! the fire after its kind. For, God wot, men may full often see a lord's son do shame and dishonour. And he that would have praise for his gentility, because he was born of a gentle house, and had ancestors virtuous and noble, and will do no gentle deeds himself, nor imitate his gentle ancestor, he is not gentle, be he a duke or a prince ; for rude, sinful deeds make a churl. For gentleness which is but the renown of thine ancestors for their high worth is a thing strange to thine own person; thy gentleness cometh to thee from God alone; true gentleness, then, cometh unto us by grace; it was in no wise bequeathed us with our birth.

"Think how noble was that Tullius Hostilius, that rose— as saith Valerius—out of poverty unto high nobility. Read Seneca and read eke Boethius; there shall ye see expressed without doubt that he is gentle who performeth gentle deeds; and therefore, dear husband, I draw to an end thus, that although mine ancestors were rude, yet may the high God, as I hope, grant me grace to live virtuously. Then shall I be gentle, when I live virtuously and eschew sin.

"And whereas ye reprove me of poverty, the high God, on whom we believe, chose of his own will to live in poverty. And certes every man, maid, or wife, may understand that Jesus, heaven's king, would not choose a vicious life. Glad poverty, sooth, is a seemly thing; this Seneca saith, and other clerks. Whosoever considereth himself paid of his own poverty, I hold him rich, though he have not a shirt. He that coveteth is a poor wight, for he would have that which is not in his power. But he that hath naught, nor coveteth to have, is rich, though ye may consider him but a hind. True poverty singeth of its own nature; Juvenal saith pleasantly of poverty: 'The poor man, when he goeth by the way, may sing and sport before the thieves.' Poverty is a gift hateful to its possessor, but as I ween, a great remover of cares ; a full great repairer eke of wisdom to him that taketh it in patience, and although it seem wretched, it is a possession no wight will calumniate. Full oft, when a man is humble, poverty maketh him to know his God and eke himself. Poverty methinketh is a glass, through which he may see his true friends. And therefore, sir, sith I vex you naught, reprove me no more of my poverty.

"Now, sir, ye reprove me because of mine old age; and certes, sir, though there were no authority thereon in any book, yet ye honourable gentles say that men should show favour unto an old wight, and of your gentleness call him father ; and I ween I shall find authorities.

"Whereas, too, ye say that I am foul and old, therefore dread not that I shall be false to thee ; for, as I live, filth and old age be great wardens of chastity. Natheless sith I know your pleasure, I shall fulfil your worldly desire. Choose now one of these two things, to have me foul and old till I die and be to you a true, humble wife and never displease you in all my days, or else to have me young and comely, and take your chances of the resort that shall be to your house, because of me, or perchance to some other place. Now choose yourself, whichever it liketh you."

This knight taketh counsel with himself and sigheth sore, and at last he saith in this manner: "My lady and my love and my dear wife, I put me in your wise governance ; choose yourself which may be most pleasure and most honour to you and eke to me ; I reck not to which of the two ; for as it liketh you it sufficeth me." "Then," quoth she, "have I got the mastery of you, sith I may choose, and govern as it liketh me?" "Yea, certes, wife," quoth he, "I deem it best." "Kiss me," quoth she, "let us be wrathful no longer, for by my word, I will be both to you, that is to say, both fair, yea, and good. I pray to God that I may die mad unless I be to you as good and faithful as ever wife was since the world was new; and unless I be to-morrow as fair to see as any lady, empress or queen that is betwixt the east and the west, do with me in life and death as it liketh you. Cast up the curtain and look how it is."

And when the knight saw verily that she was so fair and eke so young, for joy he caught her in his two arms, his heart bathed in a bath of bliss. A thousand times in succession he gan kiss her; and she obeyed him in everything, that might do him pleasure or gladness. And thus they live all their lives in perfect joy; and Jesu Christ send us husbands meek, young and lusty, and grace to outlive them that we wed. And eke I pray Jesu to shorten their days that will not be governed by their wives; and unto old and angry niggards God send soon a very pestilence.

Here endeth the Wife's Tale of Bath.