The Tale of the Wife of Bath
NOW IN THE OLDEN days of King Arthur,
Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,
All this wide land was land of faery.
The elf-queen, with her jolly company,
Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;(5)
This was the old opinion, as I read.
But now no man can see the elves, you know.
For now the so-great charity and prayers
Of limiters and other holy friars
That do infest each land and every stream(10)
As thick as motes are in a bright sunbeam,
Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, ladies’ bowers,
Cities and towns and castles and high towers,
Villages, barns, cowsheds and dairies—
This causes it that there are now no fairies.(15)
For where was wont to walk full many an elf,
Right there walks now the limiter himself
In both the later and early mornings,
Saying his matins and such holy things,
As he goes round his district in his gown.(20)
Women may now go safely up and down,
In every copse or under every tree;
There is no other incubus than he,
And would do them naught but dishonour.
And so befell it that this King Arthur(25)
Had at his court a lusty bachelor
Who, on a day, came riding from river;
And happened that, alone as she was born,
He saw a maiden walking through the corn,
From whom, in spite of all she did and said,(30)
Straightway by force he took her maidenhead;
For which violation was there such clamour,
And such appealing unto King Arthur,
That soon condemned was this knight to be dead
By course of law, and should have lost his head,(35)
Peradventure, such being the statute then;
But that the other ladies and the queen
So long prayed of the king to show him grace,
He granted life, at last, in the law’s place,
And gave him to the queen, as she should will,(40)
Whether she’d save him, or his blood should spill.
The queen she thanked the king with all her might,
And after this, thus spoke she to the knight,
When she’d an opportunity, one day:
“You stand yet,” said she, “in such poor a way(45)
That for your life you’ve no security.
I’ll grant you life if you can tell to me
What thing it is that women most desire.
Be wise, and keep your neck from iron dire!
And if you cannot tell it me anon,(50)
Then will I give you license to be gone
A twelvemonth and a day, to search and learn
Sufficient answer in this grave concern.
And your knight’s word I’ll have, ere forth you pace,
To yield your body to me in this place.”(55)
And so he took his leave and went his way.
He sought out every house and every place
Wherein he hoped to find that he had grace
To learn what women love the most of all;
But nowhere ever did it him befall(60)
To find, upon the question stated here,
Two persons who agreed with statement clear.
Some said that women all loved best riches,
Some said, fair fame, and some said, prettiness;
Some, rich array, some said ’twas lust abed(65)
And often to be widowed and re-wed.
Some said that our poor hearts are aye most eased
When we have been most flattered and thus pleased.
And he went near the truth, I will not lie;
A man may win us best with flattery;(70)
And with attentions and with busyness
We’re often limed, the greater and the less.
And some folk say that great delight have we
To be held constant, also trustworthy,
And on one purpose steadfastly to dwell,(75)
And not betray a thing that men may tell.
But that tale is not worth a rake’s handle,
For God knows, we women can no thing conceal.
When what the knight went for he could not find out,
That is, the thing that women love the best,(80)
Most saddened was the spirit in his breast;
But home he goes, he could no more delay.
The day was come when home he turned his way;
And on his way it chanced that he should ride
In all his care, beneath a forest’s side,(85)
And there he saw, a-dancing him before,
Full four and twenty ladies, maybe more;
Toward which dance eagerly did he turn
In hope that there some wisdom he should learn.
But truly, ere he came upon them there,(90)
The dancers vanished all, he knew not where.
No creature saw he that gave sign of life,
Save, on the greensward sitting, an old wife;
A fouler person could no man devise.
Before the knight this old wife did arise,(95)
And said: “Sir knight, hence lies no travelled way.
Tell me what thing you seek, and by your fay,
Perchance you’ll find it may the better be;
These ancient folk know many things,” said she.
“Dear mother,” said this knight assuredly(100)
“I am but dead, save I can tell, truly,
What thing it is that women most desire;
Could you inform me, I’d pay well your hire.”
“Plight me your troth here, hand in hand,” said she,
“That you will do, whatever it may be,(105)
The thing I ask if it lie in your might;
And I’ll give you your answer ere the night.”
“Have here my word,” said he. “That thing I grant.”
“Then,” said the crone, “of this I make my vaunt,
Your life is safe; and I will stand thereby,(110)
Upon my life, the queen will say as I.
Let’s see which is the proudest of them all
That wears upon her hair kerchief or caul,
Shall dare say no to that which I shall teach;
Let us go now and without longer speech.”(115)
Then whispered she a sentence in his ear,
And bade him to be glad and have no fear.
When they were come unto the court, this knight
Said he had kept his promise as was right,
And ready was his answer, as he said.(120)
Full many a noble wife, and many a maid,
And many a widow, since they are so wise,
The queen herself sitting as high justice,
Assembled were, his answer there to hear;
And then the knight was bidden to appear.(125)
Command was given for silence in the hall,
And that the knight should tell before them all
What thing all worldly women love the best.
This knight did not stand dumb, as does a beast,
But to this question presently answered(130)
With manly voice, so that the whole court heard:
“My liege lady, generally,” said he,
“Women desire to have the sovereignty
As well upon their husband as their love,
And to have mastery their man above;(135)
This thing you most desire, though me you kill
Do as you please, I am here at your will.”
In all the court there was no wife or maid
Or widow that denied the thing he said,
But all held, he was worthy to have life.(140)
And with that word up started the old wife
Whom he had seen a-sitting on the green.
“Mercy,” cried she, “my sovereign lady queen!
Before the court’s dismissed, give me my right.
’Twas I who taught the answer to this knight;(145)
For which he did plight troth to me, out there,
That the first thing I should of him require
He would do that, if it lay in his might.
Before the court, now, pray I you, sir knight,”
Said she, “that you will take me for your wife;(150)
For well you know that I have saved your life.
If this be false, say nay, upon your fay!”
This knight replied: “Alas and welaway!
That I so promised I will not protest.
But for God’s love pray make a new request,(155)
Take all my wealth and let my body go.”
“Nay then,” said she, “beshrew us if I do!
For though I may be foul and old and poor,
I will not, for all metal and all ore
That from the earth is dug or lies above,(160)
Be aught except your wife and your true love.”
“My love?” cried he, “nay, rather my damnation!
Alas! that any of my race and station
Should ever so dishonoured foully be!”
But all for naught; the end was this, that he(165)
Was so constrained he needs must go and wed,
And take his ancient wife and go to bed.
Great was the woe the knight had in his thought
When he, with her, to marriage bed was brought;
He rolled about and turned him to and fro.(170)
His old wife lay there, always smiling so,
And said: “O my dear husband, ben’cite!
Fares every knight with wife as you with me?
Is this the custom in King Arthur’s house?
Are knights of his all so fastidious?(175)
I am your own true love and, more, your wife;
And I am she who saved your very life;
And truly, since I’ve never done you wrong,
Why do you treat me so, this first night long?
You act as does a man who’s lost his wit;(180)
What is my fault? For God’s love tell me it,
And it shall be amended, if I may.”
“Amended!” cried this knight, “Alas, nay, nay!
It will not be amended ever, no!
You are so loathsome, and so old also,(185)
And therewith of so low a race were born,
It’s little wonder that I toss and turn.
Would God my heart would break within my breast!”
“Is this,” asked she, “the cause of your unrest?”
“Yes, truly,” said he, “and no wonder ’tis.”(190)
“Now, sir,” said she, “I could amend all this,
If I but would, and that within days three,
If you would bear yourself well towards me.
But since you speak of such gentility
As is descended from old wealth, till ye(195)
Claim that for that you should be gentlemen,
I hold such arrogance not worth a hen.
Find him who is most virtuous alway,
Alone or publicly, and most tries aye
To do whatever noble deeds he can,(200)
And take him for the greatest gentleman.
Christ wills we claim of Him our nobleness,
Not of our elders, for their old riches.
“And when you me reproach for poverty,
The High God, in Whom we believe, say I,(205)
In voluntary poverty lived His life.
And surely every man, or maid, or wife
May understand that Jesus, Heaven’s King,
Would not have chosen vileness of living.
Glad poverty’s an honest thing, that’s plain,(210)
Which Seneca and other clerks maintain.
Whoso will be content with poverty,
I hold him rich, though not a shirt has he.
And he that covets much is a poor wight,
For he would gain what’s all beyond his might.(215)
But he that has not, nor desires to have,
Is rich, although you hold him but a knave.”
“Now since you say that I am foul and old,
Then fear you not to be made of a cuckold;
For dirt and age, as prosperous I may be,(220)
Are mighty wardens over chastity.
Nevertheless, since I know your delight,
I’ll satisfy your wordly appetite.”
“Choose, now,” said she, “one of these two things, aye,
To have me foul and old until I die,(225)
And be to you a true and humble wife,
And never anger you in all my life;
Or else to have me young and very fair
And take your chance with those who will repair
Unto your house, and all because of me,(230)
Or in some other place, as well may be.
Now choose which you like better and reply.”
This knight considered, and did sorely sigh,
But at the last replied as you shall hear:
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,(235)
I put myself in your wise governing;
Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,
And bring most honour to you, and me also.
I care not which it be of these things two;
For if you like it, that suffices me.”(240)
“Then have I got of you the mastery,
Since I may choose and govern, in earnest?”
“Yes, truly, wife,” said he, “I hold that best.”
“Kiss me,” said she, “we’ll be no longer wroth,
For by my truth, to you I will be both;(245)
That is to say, I’ll be both good and fair.
I pray God I go mad, and so declare,
If I be not to you as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new.
And, save I be, at dawn, as fairly seen(250)
As any lady, empress, or great queen
That is between the east and the far west,
Do with my life and death as you like best.
Throw back the curtain and see how it is.”
And when the knight saw verily all this,(255)
That she so very fair was, and young too,
For joy he clasped her in his strong arms two,
His heart bathed in a bath of utter bliss;
A thousand times, all in a row, he’d kiss.
And she obeyed his wish in everything.(260)
And thus they lived unto their lives’ fair end,
In perfect joy; and Jesus to us send
Meek husbands, and young ones, fresh in bed,
And good luck to outlive them that we wed.
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives(265)
Of those who’ll not be governed by their wives;
And old and querulous niggards with their pence,
And send them soon a mortal pestilence!
The Wife ends her story with the Knight allowing his wife to make her own decision. This is an early form of our idea of the woman's right to choose, in both sex and marriage. While the Wife is remembered for her liberated relationship with men and sex, the content of her story suggests that these relationship comes from a deep desire to be in control of her own life.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Since the wife tells us at the beginning of this tale that the world has lost its supernatural magic, scholars have debated whether or not the wife actually transforms into a young and beautiful woman, or the knight simply perceives her as beautiful now that she has power in their relationship. Notice again that perspective shapes the story that we are given.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Seneca was a Roman writer and rhetorician who was born into a wealthy family. He lived through three emperors and wrote prolifically. In mentioning Seneca and Biblical traditions, the old woman is not only grounding her argument in authorities, but also demonstrating her education despite her poverty.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Remember that this is a female character constructed by a male author. The testimony of what "we women" generally think and do is still coming from a male perspective, as will the answer that the knight in the story finds to his question of what pleases women most. Thus, this story, while ostensibly containing the voice of a woman who has broken free from her husband, is ironically still confined by a male perspective.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Notice that the knight does not seem to be asking women what women love most. Much like the husband and the book that the Wife described in her prologue, the knight is looking to male authorities to know women's minds.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Grace was a main component of knightly chivalry and a trait of the noble classes. Grace in this context is the sign of God's favor in a human being. It manifested in elegance, refinement, and adhering to the strict conduct of the chivalric code. In following proper conduct, one demonstrated their salvation and close proximity to God. In showing the knight "grace" the king shows him respect. The Queen's challenge that serves as the man's punishment suggests that the knight is not a bad man, he simply needs to cultivate grace and chivalry.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
"Maidenhead" means virginity and tells us that the lusty bachelor from the king's court rapes this young woman while she walks alone in the corn. Notice that this story of the rapist bachelor is directly connected to the description of the friar that the wife just outlined. The friar can "do them naught but dishonor" and the bachelor "befell" the court of King Arthur with his actions. This is an interesting parallel that suggests a grim critique of friars.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
Here, Alison blames the disappearance of the fairies and elves that existed during King Arthur's time on the friars who walk around praying and begging for money. This is an interesting critique of the church and Christianity. Fairies and elves would have been associated with Pagan traditions, which were seen as heretical by the church. However, here, Alison seems to lament the loss of these creatures rather than denounce them as a good Christian should.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
King Arthur was a British king who defended the island from Saxon invaders in the late 5th and early 6th century. Legends of King Arthur depict him as a great man who battled beasts, men, and supernatural forces. Though his actual existence is under debate, there is no denying that his story was a powerful influence on the histories and chivalric romances of the medieval period.— Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor