Part ten: l.503 'Now of my fifthe housebond' - l.542 'Had told to me'

Synopsis of l.503-542

The beauty of Jankin's legs and the brevity of widowhood

The Wife begins her account of her fifth husband, Jankin, the clerk. He beat her, however she found his advances arousing and appreciated his sexual prowess. He further excited her passion by denying her, so that she came to crave him. According to the Wife, this is typical of the way women respond.

She explains how she first met Jankin, who she married for love rather than because he was wealthy. He was an ex-Oxford scholar boarding with her close friend, Alison. She was such a confidante that the Wife would disclose all her husband's misdoings to her, from urinating up a wall to a serious offence, regardless of the embarrassment to her spouse! 

Commentary on l.503-542

l.504, 525 God lete his soule nevere come in helle! /… God his soule blesse!: Chaucer draws attention to the Wife's different attitude to her fifth husband by contrasting the afterlife envisioned for the fourth and fifth spouses. Whereas the Wife created purgatory on earth for husband number four (l.489), she wishes Jankin to avoid that altogether, immediately enjoying God's blessings in heaven. See Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness > Judgement and purgatory.

l.509 so wel koude he me glose: Previously the word ‘glose' has referred to the explanatory notes used to help someone expose the meaning of a text (on the authority of which sermons were based). Here, if indicates that Jankin ‘reads' his wife's body very effectively, exposing its true desire (for sexual fulfilment).

l.510, 512 Whan that he wolde han my bele chose, / … He koude wynne agayn my love: Jankin is using the Wife's techniques for domination against her – treating his spouse badly but winning her back in bed so that she served his purposes.

l.516 a queynte fantasye: The dominating Wife is dominated by desire. She puns on ‘queynte' as meaning odd or strange, and the way she has used the word on l.444 to suggest the Middle English ‘cunte'. Her ‘queynte fantasye' is the craving she has for sex when it is withheld or forbidden. 

l.521-3 With daunger oute we al oure chaffare; / … litel prys: Commercially aware as ever, the Wife invokes a market forces analogy. She wouldn't display all her wares immediately as scarcity pushes up value. Ironically, the Wife does not now control availability.

l.529 gossib: The wife reveals her indiscretion, exposing her husband's private acts to the ridicule of her friend. Discretion was a valued virtue in women. In other stories from The Canterbury Tales, it is shown as a most desirable quality. For example, in The Nun's Priest's Tale of the cockerel, Chauntecleer and his wife, Pertelote, Pertelote is loved and warmly regarded for being courteous, ‘discreet, and debonaire' (gracious). 

l.531-2 She knew myn herte … / Bet than oure parisshe preest: The Wife has suggested that she confides more fully in her friend than she does in the parish priest. Chaucer thus makes a connection between confession to a priest and ‘confessional' gossip with a friend. Both could well include accounts of sexual behaviour. Given that priests were encouraged to extract a full confession, the Wife seems to have done well to hold back some of her indiscretions from him! (The implication of this though is that she would not be perceived to be fully absolved of her sins.)

l.536-7 To hire, and to another worthy wyf, / And to my nece: There is humour in the fact that, having spent six lines building up the sense of intimacy that the Wife shares with Alison, in fact she is only one of a list of people in whom the Wife confides!

l.538 I wolde han toold … / … ful often: The Wife speaks from her ‘experience' which is her ‘auctoritee' (authority). Her Prologue could be described as a triumph of the tongue, of gossip and indiscretion which both mimics - and subverts - male, textual authority. Power lies in her wagging tongue as well as in her sexuality. ‘Gossib' is gendered in Chaucer's handling of the Wife's Prologue. The men do not gossip. They barely speak at all - until the fifth husband, who speaks texts.

Investigating l.503-542

  • As a way of examining the Wife's social networks and likely gossip, construct an imaginary Facebook page for the Wife and her Facebook ‘friends'.
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