Part fourteen: l.666 'Now wol I seye' - l.710 'That women kan'

Synopsis of l.666-710

The Wife wins the battle over the book of wicked wives 

Most of Jankin's examples of bad female behaviour seem to have come from his compendium of wicked wives. In defence the Wife asks ‘who peynted the leon…' (who painted the lion)? Men have written the books and given their account of women; clerks will never give accounts of good women unless they are writing about saints, she claims. She adds that if women had written of men, they would find more wickedness than any man who ever lived could redress. 

Commentary on l.666-710

Doubting ThomasThe Wife's case against Jankin, the clerk, provides her strongest attack on misogyny in her Prologue

l.666 by seint Thomas: Thomas was one of the twelve Apostles, famous for doubting that Jesus had risen from the dead after being crucified until he saw and touched the evidence for himself.

l.671, 674 valerie and theofraste … / … seint Jerome: Jankin is referring to Walter Map's Letter of Valerius and to Theophrastus. What the Wife calls Valerie / Valerye is anti-feminist in tone and details the disadvantages of marriage. According to Theophrastus, marriage is like trying to hold a constantly besieged castle and better not undertaken at all. There is simply no reason for a wise man to choose it. 

More on Theophrastus: The Golden Book on Marriage, a well known anti-feminist work in Chaucer's time is attributed to Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher who died in 287 BC. It survives in St Jerome's Against Jovinian.

Many contemporary readers or listeners to the Wife's Prologue would recognise the points that she imputes to her husband/s as coming from The Golden Book on Marriage. These include:

  • The problems about how much women need, fine clothes etc.
  • Women's unending talk
  • The lack of real choice in selecting a wife, since she cannot be tried out first
  • A wife's need for praise and attention
  • The difficulty of guarding an unchaste woman. 

According to Theophrastus, marriage is like trying to hold a constantly besieged castle and is better not undertaken at all. There is simply no reason for a wise man to choose it. 

You can read Theophrastus' ideas in:

  • The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. Kolve V A and Olson G (2005), Norton Critical Edition, W W Norton, USA.

l.674 A cardinal: The highest rank of church authority next to the pope.

Tertullianl.676 In which book eek ther was tertulan: Tertullian (c. 620 -220) was an early Christian theologian. He regarded women as carrying the sin of Eve and as the gateway to the devil. In his book On the Apparel of Women Tertullian argued against adornment, dyed hair, splendid dress and luxury. (Access translations of Tertullian's Latin texts on

l.677-8 helowys, / … abbesse nat fer fro parys: Heloise was the pupil of Abelard (1079-1142), a theologian who lectured in Paris. They fell in love and were secretly married, but their love ended in separation and tragedy. Becoming an abbess of a priory was one of the few positions of power allowed to a female within the medieval church.

l.677 trotula: Trotula is thought to have been a female physician in Salerno, Italy in the eleventh century. Her pioneering ideas about women, health and reproduction would be sufficient for her to be included in Jankin's book of bad women.

More on Trotula: Find out about Trotula by searching women's history sites. Prepare to be surprised! is a useful site.

l.679 the parables of salomon: These are better known as the Proverbs of Solomon, an Old Testament king famous for his wisdom.

l.680 Ovides art: Is Chaucer displaying the Wife's learning, Jankin's or his own wide reading here?

l.685-7 this book of wikked wyves / … goode wyves in the bible: The vehemence of medieval anti-feminist literature is depicted as actually outweighing the authority of the Bible, which contained a mixture of male and female characters, both good and bad. See Big ideas from the Bible > Women in the Bible

l.688-90 impossible / … any clerk wol speke good of wyves, / But … hooly seintes: The Wife sums up the ‘Madonna/whore' dichotomy that arose in the medieval church's attitude to women (and was a distorted interpretation of the actual biblical text).

l.692 Who peyntede the leon: The Wife's attack on male authority is more radical than in her opening where she used authority to make her own point. Here she challenges the validity of ‘authority'. She considers that examples written and chosen by men are necessarily selective and prejudicial to women. 

The phrase relates to one of Aesop's fables in which a man shows a lion a representation of a lion being overwhelmed by a man. The lion argues that it proves nothing about the relative strength or inferiority of the lion, since the representation of the lion was not made by the lion but by a man. i.e. people represent things as they wish them to be.

l.693-5 if wommen hadde writen stories, / … writen of men moore wikkednesse: The Wife's most telling argument against the ‘auctoritee' arraigned against her is that it is partisan – an alternative feminine version would tell a very different story. According to the Wife, if women had written about men they would find more wickedness than any man who ever lived could redress. The idea of redress makes a link with The Wife of Bath's Tale, in which a knight has to perform a task to redress his wrong. 

l.697 The children of mercurie and of venus: Although the Wife rejects what she regards as male constructions of women, she launches into a definition of herself as being dominated by Venus (and previously Mars). She decodes this as giving her a temperament that is both highly sexed and ready for strife, an alarming combination! Clerks, on the other hand, she claims are dominated by the sign of Mercury the god of learning and wisdom. This difference explains for her why no clerks could ever praise a woman unless they were a saint or holy woman. The idea of a saintly woman would be familiar to her listeners who would probably hold in their minds an awareness of how far short the Wife falls of the image of an ideal woman. In this way Chaucer defuses the Wife's attack on authority.

l.707-8 The clerk, whan he is oold, and may noght do / Of venus werkes: According to the Wife's interpretation, male clerks write misogynistic texts to alleviate their own sexual impotence.

Investigating l.666-710

  • Choose any one of the ‘wicked wives' texts that Jankin preaches from and search for it on the internet
    • Identify the aspects of it that you think would be anathema to the Wife.
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