Part twenty-one: l.1005 'My leve mooder' - l.1072 'And taketh his olde wyf'

Synopsis of l.1005-1072

The second contract

The Knight tells the Old Woman that he is as good as dead unless he can find the answer to the question, ‘What do women most desire?' She asks him to promise that, if she secures his life, then he will grant her the next thing that she asks of him. The Knight agrees. She whispers in his ear the answer that he needs. 

The Knight and the Old Woman arrive at court and the Knight is ready with his answer. He delivers this to the hushed assembled court, declaring that ‘Women desire sovereignty over their husbands and over their loves'. He offers to forfeit his life should this not prove to be the right answer, but not one member of the court challenges it. 

Before everyone's attention is lost, the Old Woman jumps up to claim her part of the bargain. She tells the court the circumstances under which she has given the Knight his answer. She then asks the Knight to take her as his wife. The Knight begs her to make another, different, request and offers all his worldly goods if she will leave him his body free of the contract. However, the Old Woman refuses. She insists on becoming his wife even though she admits that she is old and poor.

Commentary on l.1005-1072

l.1008 I wolde wel quite youre hire: As a richer member of society, the Knight expects to be able to pay off the Old Woman easily – his actual payment demands much more than he anticipated.

l.1009 Plight me thy trouthe: These words are present within the marriage vows, giving a hint to Chaucer's audience of what may befall the Knight (see the later sixteenth century Prayerbook, which echoed the format of the medieval Catholic services, Liturgy The solemnisation of matrimony:The vows).

l.1015 Thy lyf is sauf; for: Chaucer effectively uses caesura to highlight the release of tension for the Knight.

l.1021 a pistel in his ere: (a message in his ear). Chaucer cleverly keeps the listeners / readers in suspense about the result of the Knight's quest until he stands up in the hushed court and in his manly voice delivers the answer. (See Narrative)

l.1024 Seyde he had holde his day: The Knight declares that he has fulfilled the requirements of the contract. Modern readers sometimes wonder why in these old stories the central character keeps his word and returns to be judged. It may be because tales like this originate in oral cultures where it is very important to affirm the importance of the verbal contract. 

l.1025-37 Ful many a noble wyf … / … silence, / … quod he: Chaucer builds the tension in the twelve lines it takes from the Knight saying he has the answer to actually delivering it. 

l.1038 Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee: This echoes the theme of the Wife's own desire, as illustrated in her Prologue.

l.1039 As wel over his housbond as hir love,: In the courtly love tradition, an aristocratic lady would receive (and disdain) the attentions of a courtly lover as well as those of her husband. Whilst she was subject to her spouse, the love-sick knight would be subject to her. But the Old Woman's answer asks for power within marriage too. See Literary context > Romance and courtly love.

l.1042 Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille: The Knight confidently acquiesces to the Queen's power – but his later response to the Old Woman demonstrates that he has not yet learnt real humility.

l.1068 Allas! that any of my nacioun / Sholde evere so foule disparaged be!: the Knight is most affronted on the grounds of his pride in being socially superior. In a strictly hierarchical society, the alignment of a medieval nobleman with a peasant was considered a disgrace.

l.1072 taketh his olde wyf, and gooth to bedde: Given its narrator, it is unsurprising that the physical side of marriage is forefronted in The Tale.

Investigating l.1005-1072

  • Read the passage from l.1023 ‘Whan they …..' to line 1033 ‘What thing that …..' out aloud.
  • Explore for yourself how Chaucer slows the pace of the narrative here to create suspense before the Knight delivers his answer
    • How does repetition contribute to creating tension, and to focusing attention on the Knight?
  • Where do you see in this section a little phrase slipped in which keeps the tale related to the Wife's narrative voice?
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