Part eighteen: l.857 'In the' olde days' - l.898 'To chese weither'

Synopsis of l.857-898

Crime committed in the magical land 

Arthur's castleThe Wife sets the scene of her tale in the mythological days of King Arthur in a land of elf-queens and fairies, ironically commenting that this was before the time when the country was full of friars, who are encountered wherever one goes. 

One of King Arthur's young knights is out riding from the riverbank when he comes across a young girl walking alone. He rapes her. His wrongdoing attracts fierce condemnation and he is due to forfeit his life for his deed. However, the Queen and her ladies beg the King to allow the Queen to decide the Knight's fate, and Arthur grants them their wish.

Commentary on l.857-898

Genre and expectations

The opening of a text is very important. It often signifies genre, the kind of literary work to expect, e.g. comedy, satire, tragedy, thriller, romantic fiction.

More on this genre: Genre means type, class or category. Literary critics refer to specific literary genres by which they mean recognised groups of writing which show similar characteristics and conventions. Whilst the categories, characteristics and conventions are much debated, the idea of genre does guide the narrative expectations of readers.

If the Wife's tale began, ‘When Detective Geoffrey questioned the young woman about the events of the afternoon of the rape ...', we would have very different expectations about the kind of story that we were about to read than the one that Chaucer gives us. Different genres follow different conventions and set up different narrative expectations. (see Narrative

The fairy-tale opening lines of the Wife's Tale indicate that we are engaging with the medieval Romance genre. It refers to popular courtly stories in verse which dealt with legends of knights and heroes, e.g. stories about King Arthur. See Literary context > Romance and Courtly love. This opening contrasts with the abrupt conversational opening of the Wife's Prologue, but her voice and presence in the narration soon become apparent (see The language of The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale).

l.857 In th' olde dayes of the kyng arthour: The Wife's reference to the time of King Arthur sets the story back to the fifth or sixth century.

l.858 britons: The Wife is referring to folk from the Breton area of northern France where Arthurian tales and fairy tales were popular (see Narrative). 

l.866 lymytours and othere hooly freres: The Wife's anti-clericalism surfaces as she launches an attack on friars – apparently responsible for ridding the land of fairies, and guilty of lurking under bushes to dishonour maidens.

FriarMore on friars: When Saint Francis founded the order of Franciscan friars, the ideal of poverty was central to their vision. Friars swore oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience (to their religious order). They committed themselves to carrying out the spiritual life to lay people in the everyday world, through preaching and service. 

However, the complaint of reformers like John Wyclif was that the medieval church was increasingly materialistic. Friars were well known for begging for money or charging for the services they offered. So as not to encroach on another friar's ‘pitch', it was common to have a set, ‘limited' area in which they could operate.

Chaucer's portrait of the Friar in The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales reveals anti-clericalism similar to that of the Wife. The Frere (Friar), from line 208, was well acquainted with the worthy women of the town. He also gave dowries out of his own pocket to enable young women to marry; the implication being that he might have seduced them and needs to get them safely married

l.869,876 Blessynge halles … / seyth his matins: The subtext here is that the busy-ness of the friar is due to his quest for financial reward. A faithful medieval Christian would want God's blessing on his/her property. Matins is one of the monastery services which a friar would offer in other locations.Incubus

l.880 incubus: The Wife's reference to the incubus, supposedly an evil spirit which copulated with women and fathered devils with them, casts a shadow on what seems to be an idyllic land in the opening of the tale. 

l.881 doon hem but dishonour: At least the modern Friars merely dishonour women. The deep irony of the Wife about the ‘chastity' of clerics was common in the fourteenth century and also serves as a dig at the Friar who laughed at her ‘preamble' (l.829-31).

l.884 cam ridynge fro river: The Knight is riding from the riverbank, a favourite place for the courtly occupations of hunting and hawking. Despite his courtly context, he turns out to be a rapist, taking advantage of a young woman who is on foot. Any chivalric ideas we might have about the Knight crash at this point. 

l.896 al at hir wille, / To chese: Female power is an important theme of the Wife's tale. After the physical subjugation of the young girl, the Queen is given the power to decide the fate of the disgraced knight. 

The world of the tale is a world in which women are foregrounded as powerful:

  • The fairy world produces the Old Woman who holds the key to the Knight's quest and can assert power over his body
  • The Queen has power over the Knight's life
  • However, the rape victim is silent, while the man who exercises the most brutal form of ‘maistrye' over her is ultimately rewarded with a young, beautiful and obedient wife dedicated to his pleasure. (see Structure > Silences in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale)
  • Another aspect of the prevalence of female power in the story is that it disrupts the reader's expectations of a courtly tale in which women are rescued by men (knights).

Chaucer the poet

Read the line about the rape (888) and mark the words which seem to you to carry the heaviest stress in the rhythm. You will see here how Chaucer uses iambic pentameter (see Chaucer's metre: Iambic pentameter) to emphasise the words which are crucial to the power of this act, e.g. ‘force, and ‘rafte' (took), and the young woman's vulnerable virginity ‘maydenheed. (see Narrative > Language in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale)

Investigating l.857-898

  • The themes and voice of the narrator
    • What would you identify as the important themes in this opening section of the tale? List some examples from the text to support your points
    • How far do you think that the tale is appropriate to the Wife so far? List some examples from the text to support your points.


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