The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
‘NOW WILL I tell you truth, by Saint Thomas
Of why I tore from out his book a leaf
For which he struck me so it made me deaf.
“He had a book that gladly, night and day
For his amusement he would read always.(5)
Called ‘Theophrastus’ and ‘Valeriou’,
At which book would he laugh uproarious
And every night and day ’twas his custom,
When he had leisure and took some vacation
From all his other worldly occupation,(10)
To read, within this book, of wicked wives.
He knew of them more legends and more lives
Than are of good wives written in the Bible.
For trust me well, it is impossible
That any cleric shall speak well of wives,(15)
Unless it be of saints and holy lives,
But naught for other women will they do.
By God, if women had but written stories,
As have these clerks within their oratories,
They would have written of men more wickedness(20)
Than all the race of Adam could redress.
Therefore no woman by a clerk is praised.
A clerk, when he is old and can naught do
Of Venus’ labours worth his worn-out shoe,
Then sits he down and writes, in his dotage,(25)
That women cannot keep vow of marriage!
“But now to tell you, as I started to,
Why I was beaten for a book, pardieu.
Upon a night Jenkin, who was our sire,
Read in his book, as he sat by the fire,(30)
Of Mother Eve who, by her wickedness,
First brought mankind to all his wretchedness
For which Lord Jesus Christ Himself was slain,
Who, with His heart’s blood, saved us thus again.
Lo, here plainly of woman may you find(35)
That woman was the ruin of mankind.
Then read he out how Samson lost his hairs
When sleeping, his mistress cut them with her shears;
And through this treason lost he either eye.
And nothing escaped him of the pain and woe(40)
That Socrates had with his spouses two;”
“Of Clytemnestra, for her lechery,
Who caused her husband’s death by treachery,
He read all thus with greatest zest, I vow.
“Of Livia and Lucia told he me,(45)
For both of them their husbands killed, you see,
The one for love, the other killed for hate;
Then did he tell how one Latumius
Complained unto his comrade Arrius
That in his garden grew a baleful tree(50)
Whereon, he said, his wives, and they were three,
Had hanged themselves for wretchedness and woe.
‘Dear brother,’ Arrius said, ‘and did they so?
Give me a graft of that same blessed tree
And in my garden planted it shall be!’(55)
Of wives of later date he also read,
How some had slain their husbands in their bed
And let their lovers shag them all the night
While corpses lay upon the floor upright.
And some had driven nails into the brain(60)
While husbands slept and in such wise were slain.
And some had given them poison in their drink.
He told more evil than the mind can think.
And therewithal he knew of more proverbs
Than in this world there grows of grass or herbs.(65)
‘Better,’ he said, ‘your habitation be
With lion wild or dragon foul,’ said he,
‘Than with a woman who will nag and chide.’
‘Better,’ he said, ‘on the housetop abide
Than with a brawling wife down in the house;(70)
Such are so wicked and contrarious
They hate the thing their husband loves, for aye.’
And when I saw he’d never make an end
Of reading in this cursed book at night,
Three leaves of it I snatched and tore outright(75)
Out of his book, right as he read; also
Upon the cheek I gave him such a blow
That in our fire he reeled and fell right down.
Then he got up as does a wild lion,
And with his fist he struck me on the head,(80)
And on the floor I lay as I were dead.
And when he saw how limp and still I lay,
He was afraid and would have run away,
Until at last out of my swoon I made:
‘Oh, have you slain me, you false thief?’ I said,(85)
‘And for my land have you thus murdered me?
Kiss me before I die, and let me be.’”
“He came to me and near me he knelt down,
And said: ‘O my dear sister Alison,
So help me God, I’ll never strike you more;(90)
What I have done, you are to blame therefor.
But all the same, forgiveness now I seek!’
And thereupon I hit him on the cheek,
And said: ‘Thief, so much vengeance do I wreak
Now will I die, I can no longer speak!’(95)
But at the last, and with much care and woe,
We made it up between ourselves. And so
He put the bridle reins within my hand
To have the governing of house and land;
And of his tongue and of his hand, also;(100)
And I made him burn his book, right then, oho!
And when I had thus gathered unto me
By mastery all sovereignty,
And he had said: ‘My own true wedded wife,
Do as you please the term of all your life;(105)
Keep your honor, and also my estate’—
After that day we never had debate.
God help me so, I was to him as kind
As any wife from Denmark unto Inde,
And also true, and so was he to me.(110)
I pray to God, that sits in majesty,
So bless his soul for all his mercy dear.
Now will I say my tale, if you will hear.”