Part two: l.77 'But this word' - l.134 'To purge uryne'

Synopsis of l.77-134

The Wife asserts her own values in the virginity debate 

The Wife emphasises again her idea that virginity is not to be expected from everybody and certainly not from her body. ‘Freletee' (frailty), she argues, is a term better applied to those who wish to live in chastity, than to those who marry to resolve their need for sexual intercourse. She draws an analogy between the vessels in a lord's household and people in God's service. Both serve according to their nature and their calling. 

Rich young rulerShe recognises ‘virginitee' (virginity) as a ‘greet perfeccioun' (great perfection) and likens this as a counsel of perfection to Christ's injunction to the rich young man seeking eternal life to sell everything that he has to give to the poor (Mark 10:21). In both cases she argues the address is only to those who wish to live perfectly. She recognises herself as both imperfect and generous i.e. generous in the use of the body that she offers in marriage. 

Another idea occurs to the Wife. Why were the sexual organs made, and so perfectly wrought, if only to pass urine or to differentiate between male and female? With an eye on clerical authority, she says that they were made for these functions but also for pleasure in procreation. God can't be displeased by their use in procreation, she argues, or otherwise men in their ‘bokes' (books) wouldn't claim that a man should yield his ‘dette' (conjugal rights) to his wife.

Commentary on l.77-134

l.79-94 I woot wel … : The Wife alludes to 1 Corinthians 7:1-14, 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. St Paul argues here that it is good for a man not to touch a woman, but in order to avoid fornication it is better for men and women to marry. 

l.86 Bigamye: A second marriage, after, not at the same time, as the first. (See Social / political context > Marriage in England in the fourteenth century.)

l.87-9 to touche, / his bed: The Wife makes it explicit that she is talking about sex and is familiar with the ease with which passion ignites (using the analogy of fire and tarred rope).

l.93-4 Freletee clepe I .. if .. / .. in chastitee: The Wife has the confidence to directly contradict Paul's teaching with her own opinion.

l.95-105 I graunte it wel … : The Wife preaches, using language that is biblical even whilst she challenges biblical texts. In these few lines she alludes to, or echoes, 2 Timothy 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 7:7

L.97 to be clene, body and goost: Contrary to the Bible, medieval church teaching associated sexual activity with a ‘fall' (in both body and spirit) from purity (which was exemplified by the Virgin Mary).

L.107-10 crist .. / Bad nat every wight he sholde go selle: The Wife shifts her argument to a different biblical text, which she knows a wealthy Church would themselves find uncomfortable.

L.119-123 Glose whoso wole … : The Wife is making fun of clerics who tie themselves in theological knots to ignore the sexual functions of genitalia. 

L.130 yelde to his wyf hire dette?: In 1 Corinthians 7:3-6 St Paul advocates sexual satisfaction for each partner in the marriage. The body of the wife should belong to the husband and vice versa – which the Wife depicts amusingly as a man using his ‘sely instrument'. 

Chaucer the poet

Think about the effect of the repetition of the word ‘freletee' (frailty) in l.92-3. Chaucer makes the Wife wittily pick up St Paul's solution to what he regards as a human imperfection. The Wife turns it to a word she uses to criticise a failure to achieve sexual enjoyment. The play on the word is emphasised by the recurrent rhyme sound at four line endings and resonates in ‘he' and ‘she' within lines. (See Narrative > The language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue.)

Investigating l.77-134

  • An analogy seeks to prove a point by making a comparison. If one object is similar to another in many respects, it might be supposed that it is like it in other respects as well. Analogies range from weak to strong depending on the number of relevant similarities between the objects being compared:

    • Relevant similarities strengthen an analogy

    • Relevant dissimilarities weaken it.

  • The Wife alludes to the analogy of the vessels in a great man's household, from 2 Timothy 2:20. Paul claims that in a large house there are gold and silver vessels and also vessels of wood and clay, all of which have their uses. If a man cleanses himself from the ignoble vessels of wood and clay, he will become holy and useful to the Master. The implications of the connection are not fully explored.
    The Wife makes an analogy between the different kinds of vessels in a lord's household and different kinds of human beings, chaste and unchaste. All serve God in their own way using their special gifts, she asserts.

    • How many relevant similarities are there between pots and pans and human beings?

    • How many relevant dissimilarities do you see?

    • How strong is her analogy?

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