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Because we women can keep nothing hidden… The Wife of Bath’s Tale

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims  assemble in April at an inn just outside London and agree to entertain each other on the way to Canterbury by telling stories. The Wife of Bath is a favourite amongst the many tales for her insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages, and her suggestions of sexual promiscuity. Here is an extract from the tale:

In the old days, the days of King Arthur,
He whom the Britons hold in great honour,
All of this land was full of magic then.
And with her joyous company the elf-queen
Danced many a time on many a green mead.
That was the old belief, as I have read:
I speak of many hundred years ago.
But now elves can be seen by men no more,
For now the Christian charity and prayers
Of limiters and other saintly friars
Who haunt each nook and corner, field and stream,
Thick as the motes of dust in a sunbeam,
Blessing the bedrooms, kitchens, halls, and bowers,
Cities and towns, castles and high towers,
Villages, barns, cattle-sheds and dairies,
Have seen to it that there are now no fairies.
Those places where you once would see an elf
Are places where the limiter himself
Walks in the afternoons and early mornings,
Singing his holy offices and matins,
While going on the rounds of his district.
Women may now go safely where they like:
In every bush, and under every tree,
They’ll find no other satyr there but he:
And he’ll do nothing worse than take their honour.
Now it so happened that this King Arthur
Had in his court a bold knight-bachelor
Who one day was hawking by the river,
And it so chanced, as he was riding home,
He met a maiden walking all alone,
And thereupon, though she fought long and hard,
The knight took by main force her maidenhood;
And this outrage occasioned a great stir,
So much petitioning of King Arthur,
That the knight was, in due course of law,
Condemned to death, and would have lost his head
According to the law as it then stood,
Had not the queen and many another lady
Importuned the king so long for mercy
That in the end he granted him his life
And gave him to the queen to dispose of:
Either to execute, or spare his life.
The queen gave the king thanks with all her heart,
And some time afterwards spoke to the knight
One day when she saw opportunity:
‘Your fate is in the balance still,’ said she,
‘You cannot yet be certain of your life,
But you shall live if you can answer me,
What is the thing that women most desire?
Your neck is forfeit to the axe — beware!
And if you cannot tell me here and now
I shall, however, give you leave to go
A twelvemonth and a day, to seek and find
An answer that will satisfy my mind.
And you must pledge, before you can depart,
Duly to yield yourself up in this court.’
Sad was the knight; sorrowfully he sighed;
But there! it’s not as if he’d any choice.
And so at long last he made up his mind
To go, and to come back at the year’s end,
With whatever answer heaven might provide;
And so he took his leave, and off he rode.
He visited every house, and every spot
Where he might have the luck to find out what
The thing is that we women most desire;
But could find in no country anywhere
Two people to agree with one another
Upon this subject.
Some said we love best
Riches and wealth; and others said, honour;
Some said, fine clothes; and others, happiness;
Some said it is the pleasures of the bed,
And to be often widowed, often wed.
And others said we’re happiest at heart
When complimented and well cosseted.
Which is pretty near the truth, and that’s no lie.
A man can win us best by fl attery;
And with attentiveness, assiduity,
We’re ensnared, one and all.
Some say that we
Love best to have our own way and be free,
To have no one reprove us for our follies,
But say how wise we are, how far from foolish.
If someone touches on a tender spot,
There isn’t one of us — indeed there’s not —
Who won’t kick, just for being told the truth!
Just try it, and you’ll find out soon enough.
However faulty we may be within,
We want to be thought wise, and free from sin.
And others say that we take great delight
In being thought dependable and discreet,
Able to hold steadfastly to one purpose,
Never revealing what a person tells us.
As for that notion, it’s not worth a button,
Because we women can keep nothing hidden.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s most ambitious poem, The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), the pilgrims come from all ranks of society, from the crusading Knight and burly Miller to the worldly Monk and lusty Wife of Bath. Their tales are as various as the tellers, including romance, bawdy comedy, beast fable, learned debate, parable, and Eastern adventure. In the new Oxford World Classics edition of The Canterbury Tales, David Wright’s acclaimed translation is partnered with a new critical introduction and notes by Chaucer scholar Christopher Cannon to make it the best edition for student and general reader alike.

An earlier version of this post stated that Chaucer recited The Canterbury Tales for the first time at the court of Richard II on 17 April 1397. In fact there is no record of a public recitation of The Canterbury Tales during this period. We regret the error.

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