Part twelve: l.585 'But now, sire' - l.626 'How poore'

Synopsis of l.585-626

In the event of widowhood, the Wife moves fast. She sees Jankin following her husband's bier and is overcome by the beauty of his young legs. At forty, she is twenty years older than Jankin, but she reminds her hearers that she has a great deal to recommend her in the marriage stakes:

  • A ‘coltes tooth' (a young appetite)
  • Proven credentials as a sexual partner
  • A pair of star signs which promise both lecherousness and ‘hardinesse', (difficult to translate, but could include the audacity to make the first move)
  • Additionally, the influence of her star sign renders her incapable of holding herself back from a ‘good felawe' (fellow). See Religious / philosophical context > Astronomy and astrology.

Commentary on l.585-626

l.585-6 lat me se, what I shal seyn? / A ha! … I have my tale ageyn: The Wife's digressive style, in which she loses her train of thought, makes her voice seem very immediate.

l.591 I was purveyed of a make / I wepte but small: For most medieval women, widowhood meant the loss of their economic security. The Wife's lack of grief over the death of her husband can be seen as callous, but could also be seen as reflecting her security in the future. She had less to be anxious about, having already provided for herself by lining up husband number five.

l.597-8 a paire / Of legges and of feet so clene and faire: For a young bride who has endured years of lecherous old men in her bed, it is perhaps understandable that Jankin's youthful good looks are appealing.

l.603 Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel: As indicated in the General Prologue portrait of the wife, appearance is a sign of character for Chaucer and his audience. (See The portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue > the significance of the Wife's appearance). Being ‘gat-tothed' (gap-toothed, having Venusteeth set wide apart) would be recognised by contemporary listeners as a sign of boldness and uncontrolled appetites.

l.604 the prente of seinte venus: Particularly pious Christians were believed to bear the marks of the wounds of Christ (known as stigmata). Venus, the ancient goddess of love and sex, hardly had the attributes of a saint, but bearing her ‘print' is a characteristic interpretation of the Wife. See Religious / philosophical context > Astronomy and astrology.

l.608, 618, 620 quoniam … / … chambre of venus … / privee place: The Wife uses euphemisms to describe her genitalia but is otherwise very direct about her sexual behaviour – contradicting her previous assertion that she was faithful to her marriage vows (l.485).

l.612 my sturdy hardynesse: In Middle English the word ‘hardinesse' ranges in meaning from courage and daring to audacity, rashness and arrogance.

l.619: Yet have I martes mark: Mars, the god of war, was associated with the colour red, so the wife may be referring to being highly coloured or flushed, or may be indicating a mole or birthmark. Chaucer shows that not only does the Wife's ‘gat-tothed' mouth bear the mark of her appetites, but another mark is also imprinted in a more private place! The Wife makes two direct references to the most intimate parts of her body. Her sexual equipment, we are assured, is the very best; and she finds it difficult to withhold it from any man who pleases her (l.617, 623). 

Investigating l.585-626: Chaucer's handling of the narrator

  • Read l.587-626, thinking about how Chaucer has handled this section.
    • How much of the passage is about the Wife's fourth husband?
    • How much is self-advertisement?
    • How much is about Jankin?
  • How do you interpret the word ‘hardinesse' in the Wife's claim to ‘sturdy hardinesse'
    • What effect does this have of your view of her?
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