Part nine: l.453 'My forthe housebonde' - l.502 'He is now in the grave'

Synopsis of l.453-502

The Wife meets her match; and the triumph of time 

The Wife introduces the account of her marriage to her fourth husband with the comment that he had a lover. At that time, she claims, she was still young and passionate and enjoyed dancing, singing and drinking. She dismisses the idea that wives should be prohibited from drinking, but admits that drinking made her feel lustful. 

When the Wife thinks about her youth, she is glad that she had a good time and made the most of it. She recognises, though, that the flower/flour of her youth has gone. Undaunted she determines to be merry and sell the ‘husks' of her life for the most advantage that she can get. 

She returns to the fact that her fourth husband had another woman. This galled her and she speaks of her determination to make him suffer for it. Out of her anger and ‘jalousye' (jealousy) she made a purgatory on earth for him. In fact she gave him such torment on earth that she thinks he must have gone straight to glory in heaven when he died. (See Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness > Judgement and purgatory)

The Wife discovered herself to be a widow on her return home from one of her trips to Jerusalem (see Religious / philosophical context > Pilgrims and pilgrimage). She declares that she buried her fourth husband without any wasted expense and bids him farewell.

Commentary on l.453-502

Chaucer introduces poignancy to the Wife's story. The drama of her battle with her husbands is suspended briefly as she remembers her youth and acknowledges that she is ageing. Memory is important to the sense of self in life and in texts. Chaucer makes the Wife reflective here which enables readers / listeners become more aware of the Wife as a person. Chaucer works with three time periods in a few lines – the time of her youth, the time when she married her fourth husband and the present. 

Magpie, photo by David Friel, available through Creative Commonsl.456 joly as a pye: Using yet another animal image, the Wife compares her ebullience to the chatter of a magpie. The magpie is also used as an image of passionate chatter in Chaucer's unflattering account of January (the elderly knight of The Merchant's Tale) in bed with his young wife, May. 

l.460 Metellius, the foule cherl, the swyn: The Wife seems genuinely outraged that a husband should kill his wife for drinking, and was (presumably) admired for doing so. According to the online Chaucer Name Dictionary Metellius' wife was fined for drinking wine. The Wife, though, claims that Metellius murdered his wife for her drinking. 

l.466 A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl: The Wife is graphic in depicting the desires drinking leads her to.

l. 472-3 it dooth myn herte boote / That I have had my world as in my tyme.: Chaucer counteracts the reader's possible censure of the Wife's drunken behaviour by helping us appreciate her obvious enjoyment of life.

l.483 seint Joce: The Wife refers to a local saint from Brittany, also known as Judocas or Josse – an indication that she is well travelled. 

l.484 I made hym of the same wode a croce: The Wife's idiom refers to the teaching of Jesus that his followers should prepared to suffer as he had (being put to death on a wooden cross), by taking up their own cross and following in his footsteps (Luke 9:23-24). In common jargon this led to the phrase that ‘everyone has a cross to bear' i.e. that suffering comes to everyone. The Wife is imposing the pain of jealousy on her fourth husband, as he has on her.

l. 485 Nat of my body, in no foul manere: Given her account thus far, the hearer needs to decide whether to believe the Wife's assertion here that she was chaste.

l.489-90 in erthe I was his purgatorie, / … I hope his soule be in glorie: The painful ‘cleansing' of souls, which the Catholic church believed happened in purgatory, was meant to be endured after the grave but the Wife is enacting it on earth. Because of this, she hopes that her fourth husband can by-pass proper purgatory and go straight to the bliss of heaven. See Religious / philosophical context > Medieval beliefs about sin and forgiveness > Judgement and purgatory.

l.495 whan I cam fro Jerusalem: This is clearly not the first pilgrimage that the Wife has been on. See Religious / philosophical context > Pilgrims and pilgrimage.

l.496 the roode beem: This is the central wooden beam (sometimes a screen) that bisected a church, dividing the ordinary people in the nave from the holy activities of the priests in the chancel, where the mass was celebrated. The rood itself was the cross or crucifix usually centrally positioned at the entrance to the chancel (on the rood beam).

l.498 the sepulcre of … daryus: Darius III was an ancient King of Persia, whose tomb was designed by the artist Appelles. Appelles is reputed to have also designed a magnificent tomb for Darius' wife, Satira. The point is clear: the Wife is not committed to costly commemoration!

Investigating l.453-502

  • Do you think that new aspects of the Wife's character are revealed in this section?
  • Read the section out aloud from line 469 ‘But, Lord, Crist! ...' to line 480.
    • Try to identify for yourself moments where the lines flow smoothly
    • Try to identify for yourself moments where you sense that a pause, a slowing down or a quietening of the voice is necessary to your reading.
    • How does The Wife's expression of her awareness of ageing affect the ideas that you may have formed so far of the Wife as ‘a verray jangleresse' (l.638, a talkative, ranting, lying woman)?
    • How does The pause and flow of the lines affect the ideas that you may have formed so far of the Wife as ‘a verray jangleresse' (l.638, a talkative, ranting, lying woman)?
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.