Part eight: l.379 'Lordinges, right thus' - l.452 'Now wol I speken'

Synopsis of l.379-452

Grinding at the mill: triumph or confession?

The wife is emphatic about how she has deceived the old husbands: 

  • She claims that they made accusations against her when they were drunk. She can bring witnesses forward, her niece, and also Jankin. She reveals a new technique in her battle for dominance – physical violence, ‘ as an hors I coude byte…' (I could bite like a horse.)
  • She also reveals her technique for keeping the upper hand in the disputes. She has worked out the advantage of getting her point in first ‘…first to the mill comth first grint.' (whoever gets to the mill first, grinds first). She triumphs in dispute by pre-empting the argument
  • Her strategies for getting control of the old husbands then take on a cunning form of flattery. She accuses them of womanising when they are too ill to have the strength to achieve it. She claims that her nights out are to spy on their women. She makes the point that God has given her, as a woman, these subtle clevernesses, so that in the end she has been able to get the better of each of the husbands
  • But it's in bed that she achieves her really solid victories. She gets them to agree to what she wants before she will allow them any pleasure. In her view ‘…al is for to selle' (everything is for sale)
  • She turns the husbands' arguments against them. If they claim that it is good to have a wife in peace and that men are more reasonable than women, then they should give way to her and secure that peace
  • The ultimate humiliation for the husbands, after all the verbal grinding down, is sexual taunting when she raises the idea that she might ‘…selle my bele chose' (trade my pretty thing) and be better off for it.

Commentary on l.379-452

This section demonstrates the Wife's triumph through youth and survival. She outlives the worn-down husbands. At this point she is arguably at her most powerful and dominant.

l.381-2 thus they seyden in hir dronkenesse; / And al was fals: Having engaged her listeners with tales of the negative treatment originating from her husband(s), there is a moment of bathos when the Wife admits that actually she made it all up. Like her spouses, the ‘Lordynges' (379) have been duped.

l.395,399 Yet tikled I his herte … / … many a myrthe: The tone here is a mixture of affection and triumph.

l.400-1 For al swich wit is yeven us in oure byrthe; / Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng: The Wife is represented as conforming to misogynist stereotypes, rather than refuting them.

l.404 Atte ende I hadde the bettre in ech degree: This is perhaps the moment of the Wife's greatest triumph.

Hawk, photo by Dori, available through Creative Commonsl.411 Til he had maad his raunson unto me: The Wife trades sex for material advantage. A husband can only gain her if he has something to offer. She uses an image from hawking, and claims that no hawk will be lured by an empty hand. The Wife thereby images herself as being like a bird of prey. 

l.414 al is for to selle: The Wife describes sex in the language of commerce. There is an irony to this later when the Wife realises that she has less to offer and ‘The flour is goon…' and ‘the bren' (bran, husks) l.475 is all that remains for her to trade. There is coherence in the text through the connection with the reference to barley bread in section three l.144 and her image of ageing as losing the flour/flower of her youth l.475.

l.416-18 his lust endure, / And make me feyned appetit; / in bacon hadde I nevere delit: First married at the age of twelve, the Wife indicates that she found it difficult to receive the sexual advances of her elderly partners.

l.420-1 For thogh the pope hadde seten hem biside, / I wolde nat spare hem: As she has disregarded the Bible (l.346-7), so the Wife now rejects the highest human authority in the medieval Catholic Church – that of the Pope.

l.424 Though I right now sholde make my testament: The Wife is ‘confessional' in the sense that she confides in the listener / reader, but she is not ‘confessional' in any sense which involves being contrite!

l.430: sholde he faille of his conclusion. / … wilkyn, oure sheep!: When her husband(s) don't get their own way (or experience erectile dysfunction?), the Wife condescendingly compares them to sheep, despite their desire to appear as a ‘leon'.

l.436-7 Sith ye so preche of jobes pacience. / Suffreth alwey: The Wife makes her husband the target of his own lecturing. The Old Testament book of Job featured a character whose faith was tested under God's supervision. His patience endured for much of his suffering.

l.445 Wy, taak it al! lo, have it every deel!: given the Wife's previous depiction of her own sexual drive, it is ironic that she blames her marital strife on her husbands being sex addicts!

l.450-1 I sey yow sooth. / Swiche manere wordes hadde we: The Wife's open account of her own behaviour in this part of her prologue provides some of the strongest evidence that Chaucer is supporting, rather than challenging, negative stereotypes of women in The Wife of Bath's Prologue. (See Characterisation of the Wife of Bath)

Chaucer the poet

Look at the crisp, mainly monosyllabic lines 425-5 ‘I ne owe hem nat.', and the rhyming of ‘quit' and wit', with their short vowel sounds. These sound patterns reinforce the idea of the Wife's skill in closing down an argument to her advantage.

Investigating l.379-452

  • al was fals,' and ‘al is for to selle.' How many examples can you find in this section of:
    • The Wife's lies
    • The Wife's willingness to bargain sex to secure material advantage for herself?
  • How does Chaucer shape our attitude to the Wife in this section?
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