Part six: l.235 'Sire old kanyard' - l.307 'I wol hym noght'

Synopsis of l.235-307

The Wife takes control 

The Wife brings a catalogue of charges against her husbands, including misdemeanours that she alleges they have falsely accused her of. One charge concerns her interest in ‘oure apprentice Janekyn', who has curly shiny gold hair. The Wife colludes with others to bear false witness against the husbands. This sustained attack proves exhausting for the husbands but apparently stimulating for her. 

Commentary on l.235-307

l.235 Sire olde kaynard, is this thyn array?: The wife addresses her husband(s) and refutes their typical complaints about wives. Most of these originate with an ancient Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, and so indirectly the Wife is accusing him, thereby challenging another male ‘auctoritee'.

TheophrastusMore on Theophrastus: The Golden Book on Marriage, a well known anti-feminist work in Chaucer's time is attributed to Theophrastus, a Greek philosopher who died in 287 BC. It survives in St Jerome's Against Jovinian.

Many contemporary readers or listeners to the Wife's Prologue would recognise the points that she imputes to her husband/s as coming from The Golden Book on Marriage. These include:

  • The problems about how much women need, fine clothes etc.
  • Women's unending talk
  • The lack of real choice in selecting a wife, since she cannot be tried out first
  • A wife's need for praise and attention
  • The difficulty of guarding an unchaste woman. 

According to Theophrastus, marriage is like trying to hold a constantly besieged castle and is better not undertaken at all. There is simply no reason for a wise man to choose it. 

You can read Theophrastus' ideas in:

  • The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue, ed. Kolve V A and Olson G (2005), Norton Critical Edition, W W Norton, USA.

l.243 a freend, / Withouten gilt … his hous!: The Wife's innocent desire to visit a friend is undercut by the realisation that she is talking about a male ‘friend'.

l.247 And prechest on thy bench, with yvel preef!: The Wife paints a picture of typical misogynistic lecturing, supported by numerous examples.

l.261 Som for hir handes and hir armes smale: This was a highly desirable attribute of medieval women – and one which the robust Wife, a weaver by trade, is less likely to have possessed 

l.248-262 Thus goth al to the devel, by thy tale.: The Wife voices her frustration that whatever a woman does or however she looks, she will be in the wrong, echoing the widespread misogyny of the era. However, the Wife's own handling of the topic makes us re-assess her perspective. She claims that her husbands have been making sweeping attacks on women in general. In fact the husbands seem to be silent in the narrative. These accusations turn out to be charges that she has attributed to them when they were drunk. Thus the dominant Wife takes total control of the narrative of the marriage/s. 

l.267, 269 For as a spaynel / grey goos: The status of women is conveyed by their comparison to animals and later to household goods.

l.277 Moote thy welked nekke be tobroke!: The Wife appears to lose control of her carefully constructed diatribe, undermining its effectiveness.

l.278 droppyng houses … / And chidyng wyves maken men to flee: The Wife quotes her husband(s) quoting Jerome's version of Proverbs 27:15

l.304,307 For his crispe heer, shynynge as gold so fyn, … / I wol hym noght: Chaucer creates a comic contrast between the Wife's admiring description of Janekyn and her vehement protestation that she would never marry him.

Chaucer the poet

282-3: we wyves wol oure vices hide
Til we be fast, and thanne we wol hem shewe,
Til [wyves] be wedded …
And thanne, seistow, we wol oure vices shewe.

Chaucer draws attention to the way in which the Wife's husbands feel cheated, by:

  • repeating with variation the balanced couplets
  • juxtaposing ‘hide' and ‘shewe'
  • repeating vocabulary (‘wyves', ‘thanne', ‘vices')
  • using caesura to emphasise ‘thanne', creating a ‘before and after' effect 

l.304 And yet of oure apprentice: Notice how Chaucer slips in the impact of Janekyn of the shining gold hair very quickly in 5 lines, and the comic touch of rhyming the end of his name with ‘so fyn.'

Investigating misogyny in l.235-307

  • Chaucer constructs the Wife's speech to articulate many misogynist ideas in this section. Some of these familiar medieval stereotypes are voiced by her as the accusations she claims (falsely) that her husband(s) made.
    • Can you identify the lines where Chaucer gives the Wife points to express of her own, which suggest a negative view of women?
    • To what extent would you regard Chaucer's representation of the Wife in this section as anti-feminist?
    • Justify your attitude to the Wife in this section.
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