Part three: l.135 'But if I seye noght' - l.162 ' Al this sentence'

Synopsis of l.135-162

Desire, domination and the marriage debt 

The need to exercise a little caution briefly overcomes the Wife and she praises Christ and the saints for their virginity, but she quickly returns to her main theme of self-advertisement. The promotion of her sexual generosity in marriage soon turns though to her demand for dominance over her partner's body, and her power to extract the ‘debt' of sexual services due to her.

Commentary on l.135-162

L.135 But I seye noght that every wight is holde: The Wife now alludes to Paul's teaching about the merits of virginity, from the same chapter of Corinthians as previously 1 Corinthians 7:25-35.

l.145 Let hem be breed: The Wife distinguishes between fine wheat bread and coarse barley bread, and unsurprisingly identifies herself with the stronger tasting, more filling loaf. The feeding of the multitude

l.146 Oure lord jhesu refresshed many a man: The miracle of the loaves and the fishes, in which Jesus fed over 5000 people with the contents of one boy's packed lunch is recorded in all four of the gospels (eg John 6:5-13, Luke 9:12-17). The Wife's willingness to compare her own form of generosity with Christ's miracle must have seemed audacious.

l.151 If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe!: There is dramatic irony here. The Wife invokes a curse from God if she is ever grudging or reluctant regarding sex. But ‘daungerous' also denotes being difficult to please, and the Wife's inability to be satisfied by her later husbands certainly did lead to ‘sorwe' for her. 

l.153 paye his dette: The Wife again alludes to 1 Corinthians 7:3-6 where St Paul advocates sexual satisfaction for each partner in the marriage. The body of the wife should belong to the husband and vice versa. Although the biblical context is one of gracious generosity (the AV uses the term ‘due benevolence'), Chaucer makes the Wife misappropriate the text so that her dominance can be revealed. She stresses the control of one partner over the body of the other in marriage - her control over her husband's body!

l.156-7 tribulacion … / Upon his flesh: The Wife ironically turns Paul's words of warning (in Wyclif's translation) about the demands of marriage to her own ends.

Chaucer the poet 

Think about the effect of the consonants in lines 142-144 (from ‘I nil envye...'):

  • The ‘n' sounds reinforce the idea of negation as the Wife dismisses ‘virginitee'
  • By contrast, the forceful sounding word that you need to use your lips to express ‘barly-breed', is repeated in adjacent lines. 

Investigating l.135-162

  • List the verbs used by the Wife in this section
    • What form do they take?
    • What do they convey about her character?
  • What terms are associated with the Wife's past and potential husbands?
    • Does this passage encourage you to laugh at – or sympathise with – their situation?
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