Part fifteen: l.711 'But now to purpos' - l.771 'Somme han kem'

Synopsis of l.711-771

Jankin preached to her citing a wide range of sources as authorities on wicked wives. These sources range from ancient Roman and Greek stories, references and stories from the Old Testament and from the writings of Jerome and Tertullian. The main threats posed by these women were their betrayal of their husbands, linked with rampant sexual desire and their potential to murder their spouses if they hindered this.

Commentary on l. 711-771

The range of examples indicates the extent of misogynistic teaching available in the fourteenth century to disgruntled husbands and clerics. 

Adam and Evel.715-17 Of eva … wikkednesse / … wrecchednesse, / … crist … slayn: Although the New Testament writer Paul attributes responsibility for the Fall of humankind to the first male, Adam, (see Romans 5:12) medieval scholars blamed his wife Eve for tempting him. Thus they laid the wretchedness of the entire human condition and all the sufferings of Christ at the door of a woman. 

l.717-8 crist … / That boghte us with his herte blood agayn.: Christians believe that the blood shed by Jesus when he was crucified ‘paid for' the sins of humanity and allowed people to be reconciled to God (see Romans 5:17-19).

l.721 redde he me: Jankin makes the Wife an unwilling audience of his list of bad wives. 

l.721-3, 769-70 sampson: Jankin starts and ends his diatribe with women The wife of Jael killing Siserafrom scriptureDelilah betrayed her husband Samson by cutting off his hair Judges 16:4-21 although the Bible commends the wife of Jael when she killed her husband's enemy Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his skull whilst he slept Judges 4:17-22. In between, Chaucer includes ‘evil' females from classical myths, history books and the writings of church authorities. 

l.737 clitermystra: According to Greek legend Clytemnestra was married to Agamemnon. Whilst her husband was absent in Troy she lived in adultery with Aegisthus. When Agamemnon returned they murdered him. She was later put to death by her son, Orestes.

l.733-35 phasipha, that was the queen of crete: In his Art of Love, Ovid includes the myth of Pasiphae. According to the myth Poseidon cursed Pasiphae so that she would fall in love with a bull. She mated with the bull and gave birth to the Minotaur. Chaucer probably worried about allowing bestiality to be explored in his text and so even the Wife of Bath seems to have a moment of delicacy here, dismissing the story as a ‘a grisly thing'. Chaucer doesn't allow his narrator to expound it.

l.747 Of lyvia tolde he me, and of lucye: Livia and Lucilla were both poisoners of their husbands, although the latter seems to have done it by mistake in administering a love potion. Livia was seduced by Sejanus, who encouraged her to poison her husband in A.D. 23.

Investigating l.711-771

  • In the midst of the Wife's anger and Jankin's complaint, there is still comedy and humour. Look for further examples of incidents, rhyming or situations which create comic effects, for example:
    • Socrates' dryly humorous response to receiving the contents of a chamber-pot l.733
    • The black humour of Arrrius' comment that he would like a clipping of the tree on which
    • wives hang themselves, l.763.
Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.