Part seven: l.308 'But tel me this' - l.378 'This know they'

Synopsis of l.308-378

The Wife subverts surveillance 

The Wife continues her attack on the husbands by accusing them of trying to restrict her liberty. A pointless activity, she claims, because a wife will not love a man who seeks to confine her. In any case, she argues, making an analogy between sexual access and lamplight, it's niggardly of her husband to refuse another man to light a candle at his lantern. He will have no less light for allowing it. 

The Wife resents the husband's objections to her braided hair, jewels and fine clothes. Modest attire is not for her. The husband's surveillance is fruitless, she claims. Even if he had the one hundred eyes of Argus, he could only keep her fidelity if she wished it. 

She returns to the husband(s)' misogyny and the claims that three things trouble the earth and that no one can endure the fourth thing – a hateful wife. One husband, she reports, asserts from experience that a wife destroys a husband as certainly as caterpillars can strip a tree.

Commentary on l.308-378

l.310 It is my good as wel as thyn, pardee!: Until the Married Women's Property Act in 1870, the possessions of a wife automatically came under the ownership of her husband. The Wife has become an increasingly wealthy woman by her advantageous marriages. See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century.

l.320 I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, dame alys: The Wife longs to hear these words from her husband(s) whilst Chaucer clearly demonstrates that she is not ‘true'.

l.324 The wise astrologien, daun ptholome: Ptolemy was a Greek philosopher, whose Almagest l. 325, was the most important work on astronomy until the Renaissance, when his earth centred system of the universe was challenged by Copernicus and Galileo.

l.323, 231-2: Of alle men yblessed … / olde dotard … / queynte right ynogh: Chaucer undercuts the Wife's elevated language quoting an ‘auctoritee' with her descent to coarse slang. 

l.340-1 with sorwe! thou most enforce thee, / … in the apostles name: The Wife is angry that her husband grounds his criticism in the ultimate ‘auctoritee', the Bible (see 1 Timothy 2:9), although she herself has previously quoted the author of this statement, St Paul.

l.346-7 After thy text … / I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat.: The Wife audaciously dismisses the authority of the Bible.

l.348, 354 I was lyk a cat … goon a-caterwawed: The extended simile conveys the the Wife's slyness, vigour and sexual drive.

Juno receiving the head of Argosl.358-9 argus with his hundred yen / 359: To be my warde-cors: According to Greek fable Argus had one hundred eyes. He was asked by Juno to spy on people who roused her jealousy. He failed because he was so enraptured by the way in which Mercury played the lyre that he fell asleep. Mercury then killed him and Juno set the eyes of Argus on the tail of the peacock.

l.366, 369 Yet prechestow … / … youre parables: These terms are associated with sermons and the authoritative teaching of priests and Jesus, which the husband is trying to assume.

l.371, 372, 373 Thou liknest … wommenes love to helle / bareyne lond / wilde fyr: Because the medieval church taught that Eve caused Adam to disobey God, allowing the advent of sin into the world, women were commonly associated with hell, as suggested by the images here. See also:

l.376 as wormes shende a tree: With this unusual image of destruction, Jankin is probably recalling the Old Testament story of Jonah, who resented God sending a ‘worm' to destroy the vine in whose shade he was sitting (Jonah 4:6-7). See Famous stories from the Bible > Jonah.

Investigating l.308-378

  • Read l.308-322 out aloud (from ‘But tel me this..' to ‘… at oure large.')
    • Mark the words in each line which seem to you to have the most emphasis (e.g. ‘body', ‘good', ‘liste', ‘large')
    • Think about how Chaucer uses the rhythm of the line to stress the words that the Wife would most want the husbands to grasp, enabling her to make her point absolutely clear!
  • How do the images in this section add liveliness and excitement to the Wife's tale? Think about:
    • The locked chest
    • The hundred eyes
    • The singed / sleek cats
    • The stripped tree.
  • Read the text carefully from l.193 ‘Now sires' to l.379 ‘This know they'
    • Try to give a voice to one of the husbands denied a voice by the Wife's control of the narrative and the conversation. Write a diary extract from a husband's point of view. (If you are stuck for a beginning, try – ‘Dame Alis, woe was the day when .…')
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.