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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

     In th'olde dayes of King Arthour,
Of which that Britons speken greet honour,
Al was this land fulfild of faierie.
The elf-queene, with hir joly compaignie,
Daunced ful ofte in many a grene mede,
This was the olde opinion, as I rede ;
I speke of manie hundred yeres ago.
But now kan no man se none elves mo,
For now the grete charitee and prayeres
Of limitours and othere hooly freres,
That serchen every lond and every streem,
As thikke as motes in the sonne-beem,
Blessinge halles, chambres, kitchenes, boures,
Citees, burghes, castles, hye toures,
Thropes, bernes, shipnes, daieries—
This maketh that ther ben no faieries.
For ther as wont to walken was an elf,
Ther walketh now the limitour himself,
In undermeles and in morweninges,
And seyth his matins and hooly thinges
As he gooth in his limitacioun
Wommen may go now saufly up and doun.
In every bussh or under every tree
Ther is noon oother incubus but he,
And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour.
     And so bifel it that this king Arthour
Hadde in his hous a lusty bacheler,
That on a day cam ridinge fro river ;
And happed that, allone as he was born,
He saugh a maide walkinge him biforn,
Of which maide anon, maugree hir heed,
By verray force, he rafte hire maidenhed ;
For which oppressioun was swich clamour
And swich pursute unto the king Arthour,
That dampned was this knight 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 ladies mo
So longe preyeden the king of grace,
Til he his lyf him graunted in the place,
And yaf him to the queene, al at hir wille,
To chese wheither she wolde him save or spille.
     The queene thanketh the king with al hir might,
And after this thus spak she to the knight,
Whan that she saugh hir time, upon a day :
‘Thou standest yet,' quod she, ‘in swich array
That of thy lyf yet hastow no suretee.
I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me
What thing is it that wommen moost desiren.
Be war, and keep thy nekke-boon from iren!
And if thou kanst nat tellen it anon,
Yet wol I yeve thee leve for to gon
A twel-month and a day, to sech and leere
An answere suffisant in this mateere ;
And suretee wol I han, er that thou pace,
Thy body for to yelden in this place.'
     Wo was this knight, and sorwefully he siketh ;
But what, he may nat do al as him liketh.
And at the laste he chees him for to wende,
And come again, right at the yeres ende,
With swich answere as God wolde him purveye ;
And taketh his leve, and wendeth forth his weye.
     He seketh every hous and every place
Where as he hopeth for to finde grace,
To lerne what thing wommen loven moost ;
But he ne koude arriven in no coost
Wher as he mighte finde in this mateere
Two creatures according in-feere.
Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse,
Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolinesse,
Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abbedde,
And oftetime to be widwe and wedde.
Somme seyde that oure hertes been moost esed
Whan that we been yflatered and yplesed.
He gooth ful ny the sothe, I wol nat lie.
A man shal winne us best with flaterie ;
And with attendance, and with bisinesse,
Been we ylimed, bothe moore and lesse.
     And somme seyen that we loven best
For to be free, and do right as us lest,
And that no man repreve us of oure vice,
But sey that we be wise, and no thing nice.
For trewely ther is noon of us alle,
If any wight wol clawe us on the galle,
That we nel kike, for he seith us sooth.
Assay, and he shal finde it that so dooth ;
For, be we never so vicious withinne,
We wol been holden wise and clene of sinne.
     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 thing that men us telle.
But that tale is nat worth a rake-stele.
Pardee, we wommen konne no thing hele ;
Witnesse on Mida,—wol ye heere the tale?
     Ovide, amonges othere thinges smale,
Seyde Mida hadde, under his longe heres,
Growinge upon his heed two asses eres,
The which vice he hidde, as he best mighte,
Ful subtilly from every mannes sighte,
That, save his wyf, ther wiste of it namo.
He loved hire moost, and trusted hire also ;
He preyede hire that to no creature
She sholde tellen of his disfigure.
     She swoor him nay, for al this world to winne,
She nolde do that vileynie or sinne,
To make hir housbonde han so foul a name.
She nolde nat telle it for hir owene shame.
But nathelees, hir thoughte that she dide,
That she so longe sholde a conseil hide ;
Hir thoughte it swal so soore aboute hir herte
That nedely some word hire moste asterte ;
And sith she dorste telle it to no man,
Doun to a mareys faste by she ran—
Til she cam there, hir herte was a-fire—
And as a bitore bombleth in the mire,
She leye hir mouth unto the water down :
‘Biwreye me nat, thou water, with thy soun,'
Quod she; ‘to thee I telle it and namo ;
Myn housbonde hath longe asses eris two !
Now is myn herte al hool, now is it oute.
I myghte no lenger kepe it, out of doute.'
Heere may ye se, thogh we a time abide,
Yet out it moot ; we kan no conseil hide.
The remenant of the tale if ye wol heere,
Redeth Ovide, and ther ye may it leere.
     This knight, of which my tale is specially,
Whan that he saugh he mighte nat come thereby—
This is to seye, what wommen love moost—
Withinne his brest ful sorweful was the goost.
But hoom he gooth, he mighte nat sojourne ;
The day was come that homward moste he tourne.
And in his wey it happed him to ride,
In al this care, under a forest side,
Wher as he saugh upon a daunce go
Of ladies foure and twenty, and yet mo ;
Toward the whiche daunce he drow ful yerne,
In hope that som wisdom sholde he lerne.
But certeinly, er he cam fully there,
Vanisshed was this daunce, he niste where.
No creature saugh he that bar lyf,
Save on the grene he saugh sittinge a wyf ;
A fouler wight ther may no man devise.
Again the knight this olde wyf gan rise,
And seyde, ‘Sire knight, heer forth ne lith no wey.
Tel me what that ye seken, by youre fey !
Paraventure it may the bettre be ;
Thise olde folk kan muchel thing,' quod she.
     ‘My leeve mooder,' quod this knight, ‘certeyn
I nam but deed, but if that I kan seyn
What thing it is that wommen moost desire.
Koude ye me wisse, I wolde wel quite youre hire.'
     ‘Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand,' quod she,
‘The nexte thing that I requere thee,
Thou shalt it do, if it lie in thy might,
And I wol telle it yow er it be night.'
     ‘Have heer my trouthe,' quod the knight, ‘I grante.'
     ‘Thanne,' quod she, ‘I dar me wel avante
Thy lyf is sauf ; for I wol stonde therby,
Upon my lyfe, the queene wol seye as I.
Lat se which is the proudest 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 him to be glad, and have no fere.
     Whan they be comen to the court, this knight
Seyde he had holde his day, as he hadde hight,
And redy was his answere, as he sayde.
Ful many a noble wyf, and many a maide,
And many a widwe, for that they been wise,
The queene hirself sittinge as a justise,
Assembled been, his answere for to heere ;
And afterward this knight was bode appeere.
     To every wight comanded was silence,
And that the knight sholde telle in audience
What thing that worldly wommen loven best.
This knight ne stood nat stille as doth a best,
But to his questioun anon answerde
With manly vois, that al the court it herde :
     ‘My lige lady, generally,' quod he,
‘Wommen desiren to have sovereinetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie him above.
This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille.
Dooth as yow list ; I am heer at youre wille.'
In al the court ne was ther wyfe, ne maide,
Ne widwe, that contraried that he saide,
But seyden he was worthy han his lyf.
And with that word up stirte the olde wyf,
Which that the knight saugh sittinge on the grene :
‘Mercy,' quod she, ‘my soverein lady queene !
Er that youre court departe, do me right.
I taughte this answere unto the knight ;
For which he plighte me his trouthe there,
The first thing that I wolde him requere,
He wolde it do, if it lay in his might.
Bifore the court thanne preye I thee, sir knight,'
Quod she, ‘that thou me take unto thy wyf ;
For wel thou woost that I have kept thy lyf.
If I seye fals, sey nay, upon thy fey !'
     This knight answerde, ‘Allas, and weilawey !
I woot right wel that swich was my biheste.
For Goddes love, as chees a newe requeste ;
Taak al my good, and lat my body go.'
     ‘Nay, thanne,' quod she, ‘I shrewe us bothe two !
For thogh that I be foul, and oold, 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 ; the ende is this, that he
Constreined was, he nedes moste hire wedde ;
And taketh his olde wyf, and gooth 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 feeste was that ilke day.
To which thing shortly answeren I shal :
I seye ther nas no joye ne feeste at al ;
Ther nas but hevinesse and muche sorwe.
For prively he wedded hire on the morwe,
And al day after hidde him as an owle,
So wo was him, his wyf looked so foule.
     Greet was the wo the knight hadde in his thoght,
Whan he was with his wyfe abedde ybroght ;
He walweth and he turneth to and fro.
His old wyf lay smilinge everemo,
And seyde, ‘O deere housbonde, benedicitee !
Fareth every knight thus with his wyf as ye?
Is this the lawe of King Arthures hous?
Is every knight of his so dangerous?
I am youre owene love and eek 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 first night?
Ye faren lyk a man had lost his wit.
What is my gilt? For Goddes love, tel me it,
And it shal been amended, if I may.'
     ‘Amended?' quod this knight, ‘allas, nay, nay !
It wol nat been amended nevere mo.
Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,
And thereto comen of so lough a kinde,
That litel wonder is thogh I walwe and winde.
So wolde God my herte wolde breste !'
     ‘Is this,' quod she, ‘the cause of youre unreste?'
     ‘ye, certeinly,' 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 mighte 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,
Privee and apert, and moost entendeth ay
To do the gentil dedes that he kan ;
Taak him for the grettest gentil man.
Crist wole we claime of him oure gentillesse,
Nat of oure eldres for hire old richesse.
For thogh they yeve us al hir heritage,
For which we claime to been of heigh parage,
Yet may they nat biquethe, for no thing,
To noon of us hir vertuous living,
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 branches smale
Prowesse of man, for God, of his goodnesse,
Wole that of him we claime oure gentillesse" ;
For oure eldres may we no thing claime
But temporel thing, that man may hurte and maime.
     Eek every wight woot this as wel as I,
If gentillesse were planted natureelly
Unto a certeyn linage doun the line,
Privee and apert, thanne wolde they nevere fine
To doon of gentillesse the faire office ;
They mighte do no vileynie or vice.
     Taak fyr, and ber it in the derkeste hous
Bitwix this and the mount of Kaukasous,
And lat men shette the doores and go thenne ;
Yet wole the fyr as faire lie and brenne
As twenty thousand men mighte it biholde ;
His office natureel ay wol it holde,
Up peril of my lyf, til that it die.
     Heere may ye se wel how that genterie
Is nat annexed to possessioun,
Sith folk ne doon hir operacioun
Alwey, as dooth the fyr, lo, in his kind.
For, Got it woot, men may wel often finde
A lordes sone do shame and vileynie ;
And he that wole han pris of his gentrie,
For he was boren of a gentil hous,
And hadde his eldres noble and vertuous,
And nel himselven do no gentil dedis,
Ne folwen his gentil auncestre that deed is,
He nis nat gentil, be he duc or erl ;
For vileyns sinful dedes make a cherl.
Thy gentillesse nis but renomee
Of thine auncestres, for hire heigh bountee,
Which is a strange thing to thy persone.
For gentillesse cometh fro God allone.
Thanne comth oure verray gentillesse of grace ;
It was no thing biquethe us with oure place.
      Thenketh hou noble, as seith Valerius,
Was thilke Tullius Hostillius,
That out of poverte roos to heigh noblesse.
Reedeth Senek, and redeth eek Boece ;
Ther shul ye seen expres that it no drede is
That he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis.
And therfore, leeve housbonde, I thus conclude :
Al were it that mine auncestres were rude,
Yet may the hye God, and so hope I,
Grante me grace to liven vertuously.
Thanne am I gentil, whan that I biginne
To liven vertuously and weive sinne.
     And ther as ye of peverte me repreeeve,
The hye God, on whom that we bileeve,
In wilful poverte chees to live his lyf.
And certes every man, maiden, or wyf,
May understonde that Jhesus, hevene king,
Ne wolde nat chese a vicious living.
Glad poverte is an honest thing, certeyn ;
This wole Senec and othere clerkes seyn.
Whoso that halt him paid of his poverte,
I holde him riche, al hadde he nat a sherte.
He that coveiteth is a povre wight,
For he wolde han that is nat in his might ;
But he that noght hath, ne coveiteth have,
Is riche, although ye holde him but a knave.
Verray poverte, it singeth proprely ;
Juvenal seith of poverte mirily :
"The povre man, whan he goth by the weye,
Bifore the theves he may singe and pley."
Poverte is hateful good and, as I gesse,
A ful greet bringere-out of bisinesse ;
A greet amendere eek of sapience
To him that taketh it in pacience.
Poverte is this, although it seme alenge,
Possessioun that no wight wol chalenge.
Poverte ful ofte, whan a man is lowe,
Maketh his God and eek himself to knowe.
Poverte a spectacle is, as thinketh me,
Thurgh which he may his verray freendes see.
And therfore, sire, sin 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
Seyn that men sholde an oold wight doon favour,
And clepe him fader, for youre gentillesse ;
And auctours shal I finden, as I gesse.
     Now ther ye seye that I am foul and old,
Than drede you noght to been a cokewold ;
For filthe and eelde, also moot I thee,
Been grete wardeyns upon chastitee.
But nathelees, sin I knowe your delit,
I shal fulfille youre worldly appetit.
     ‘Chese now,' quod she, ‘oon of thise thinges tweye
To han me foul and old til that I deye,
And be to yow a trewe, humble wyf,
And nevere yow displese in al my lyf ;
Or elles 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 some oother place, may wel be.
Now chese yourselven, wheither that yow liketh.'
     This knight aviseth him and sore siketh,
But atte laste he seyde in this manere :
‘My lady and my love, and wyf so deere,
I put me in youre wise governance ;
Cheseth youreself which may be moost plesance,
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 maistrie,' quod she,
‘Sin I may chese and governe as me lest?'
      ‘Ye, certes, wyf,' quod he, ‘I holde it best.'
     ‘Kis me,' quod she, ‘we be no lenger wrothe ;
For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe,
This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.
I prey to God that I moote sterven wood,
But I to yow be also good and trewe
As evere was wyf, sin that the world was newe.
And but I be to-morn as fair to seene
As any lady, emperice, or queene,
That is bitwixe the est and eke the west,
Dooth with my lyf and deth right as yow lest.
Cast up the curtin, looke how that it is.'
      And whan the knight saugh 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 time a-rewe he gan hire kisse,
And she obeyed him in every thing
That mighte doon his plesance or liking.
     And thus they live unto hir lives ende
In parfit joye ; and Jhesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbide hem that we wedde ;
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lives
That wol nat be governed by hir wives ;
And olde and angry nigardes of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilance !