Tales from Chaucer, by Charles Cowden Clarke, , at sacred-texts.com
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The Wife of Bath
IN the days of the renowned King Arthur, whom Britons hold in high reverence, this land was peopled with fairies. The Elf Queen with all her merry company have danced their roundels in many a green mead. What I speak of happened many hundred years ago, but now the elves are seen no more; for the charity and godly prayings of the begging friars who go sniffing into every corner of the land, as thick as motes in the sun beams, bestowing their blessings on cities and towns, halls, chambers, and bowers, dairies and kitchens, are the cause that the fairies no longer remain; for where the elf was formerly is now the friar, steadfastly paying his visits at morning and noontide meals, not forgetting his matins and benedictions as he makes his rounds of alms-begging. Now the women can safely walk abroad, through brake and copse, and sit under every green tree; the friar is your only incubus, * and he will offer us no annoyance.
It happened that in the court of King Arthur dwelt a handsome and vigorous young bachelor knight, who, on his return one day from a hawking party of water-fowl, saw before him a young maiden, whom in a transport of wilfulness and brutality he ill-treated. The unmanliness and violence of the deed raised such a clamour, and so
keen a pursuit of the offender, that he was seized, tried, and condemned to lose his head. The queen, however, and her ladies so earnestly entreated his pardon of the king that he granted him his life, and at the same time yielded him to his queen for her to order his penance: who, turning to the ravisher, said, "Such is your condition at this time, that you are in no surety of preserving your life; yet this will I grant, upon condition that you resolve me this question, 'What is that which women most desire?' Beware! and think of your penalty. I allow you to depart for one twelvemonth and a day to prepare your answer; and before you quit this presence you shall produce full security that at the given day you will yield yourself up to our decision upon your reply."
The knight was sorely perplexed with the condition of his sentence; so after much consideration he resolved to leave the court and travel till the year's end, hoping that in the course of his adventures he might receive the help he 'required. From town to town, and house to house he went, wherever he thought to learn "what women most desire": but with all his pains he could not find two people of one mind in the matter. Some said women love wealth better than anything else; some said honour; others, mirth; others again, splendour of dress; and some even thought their greatest pleasure lay in being often widowed and wedded. They came, perhaps, nearest to the truth who said that we are best pleased when we are flattered, for one and all of us (more or less) are soonest won by flattery. Attention and assiduity are the surest lime-twigs to our hearts. Some said we must love to be free to follow our own inclinations; moreover, to be esteemed
wise and not to be reproved for our faults; for, in truth, there is not one of the sisterhood, who if she be fretted on a tender point, will not turn again, and the more sharply for feeling that she deserves the rebuke. He who may make the trial will prove the truth of what I say. Be we never so faulty within, we will be held wise and free from offence. Some folks held the opinion that we delight in being thought stedfast, firm of purpose, and close keepers of a secret; but that tale is not worth a straw; for we women can hide nothing—witness the folly of Midas’ wife—will ye hear the story?
Ovid, among other traditions, has related that Midas had growing under his long shaggy hair two ass's ears, which he concealed so cleverly that no one but his wife knew of the fact, and her he earnestly entreated to keep the secret of his disfigurement. She made oath to him that for her own sake as well as his she would not bring so great a shame upon her husband, even were it to gain the whole world. Notwithstanding all this, she was ready to expire with the pain of keeping this secret; she had such a swelling of the heart that some unlucky word she feared must necessarily slip out. Since, therefore, she dared tell it to no one, she ran down to a marsh hard by, her heart all on fire till she arrived there, and then like a bittern booming in the reeds, she laid her mouth down, and said, "Betray me not, O water—to you I tell it, and no one beside—my husband has two long ass's ears. And now is my heart at ease—the secret is out, for I could keep it no longer." Thus you may perceive that however stedfast we may remain for a time, out it must come at last; we cannot hide a secret. The remainder
of the tale, if you desire it, is to be found in Ovid.
When this knight, the hero of my story, found he was no nearer to the meaning of the riddle, he became very sorrowful, and the day having arrived when he must render up himself, he turned homeward. On his way, as he was riding by a forest-side, he perceived a company of more than twenty ladies dancing upon the grass; but as he eagerly drew near to them, hoping in his distress to gain some counsel from them, before he came up the whole bevy of dancers had vanished, and no living soul was left behind except a hideous old woman, bent double, and sitting on the green. This creature, more frightful than can be described, arose and went to meet the knight, and she said, "Sir Knight, this is no way to any place. Tell me, upon your faith, what it is you seek; it may, peradventure, be to your advantage: we old folk know, and can do much."
"Certain it is, dear mother," answered the knight, "that I shall be doomed to die unless I am able to expound, 'What it is that women most desire?' If you could instruct me I would amply repay you."
"Pledge me your truth," said she, "here in my hand, that, if it be in your power, you will perform the next act I require of you, and before night I will tell it you."
"I accept," said the knight, "and here is my truth."
"Then," said she, "I dare boast that you are safe, for upon my life the queen will say as I do. Let us see the proudest she that wears a kerchief who will dare say nay to what I shall tell you. So, without farther parley, let us go forth." She then whispered in his ear a short sentence, and bade him cheer up and cast off all fear.
When they arrived at court, the knight said he had kept his word and the day for delivering up himself, and was ready with his answer. Many noble ladies had assembled to hear the sentence, the queen sitting as judge, when the knight was commanded to appear in court, and silence being obtained, the question, "What is it that women love best?" was put to him in due form and solemnity; when, in the audience of the whole court, and in a bold, manly voice, our knight answered, "My liege lady and most royal mistress, what women desire above all things in this life is to obtain dominion over their lovers and husbands, and in all matters to sway them to their will. This is the nearest and dearest thought of your hearts. Now, therefore, do with me as you list; I am in your power." Throughout the whole court there was not a woman, whether maid, wife, or widow, that contradicted him, and farthermore, they pronounced that he had fairly obtained his pardon.
At the moment the sentence was delivered, up started the old woman whom the knight had seen sitting on the green-sward. "Mercy! my sovereign lady queen," said she, "before this court break up I entreat to have justice rendered to me. I taught the knight this answer, for which he, at the time, plighted me his truth that he would grant me the first petition I might require at his hands, if it lay in his power to grant it. Before this court then, Sir Knight, I pray you to take me for your wife: I have preserved you from certain death; if I speak falsely, upon your faith of knighthood gainsay my word."
"Alas!" answered the knight, "such indeed was my promise: but for the love of heaven, I charge you to remodel
your petition. Take all my wealth, but let me go free."
"Nay, then," said she, "may a curse alight upon both of us if I, though ugly, old, and poor, would not for all the gold above and beneath the earth rather become your wife—aye! and your love too."
"My love!" said he, "my perdition! Oh! that any of my community should be so foully brought into contempt!" All, however, was of no avail; he was compelled to wed this old woman, and take her to bed and board "for better for worse."
The joy, the display, and the feasting that was made upon the marriage of these two is soon told; for, in good sooth, there was neither joy nor feasting, but heaviness instead, and sullen sorrow. The knight was married privately the next morning, and all the day, like an owl, hid himself for vexation at the deformity of his wife. And at night he raged and grumbled at his ill-fortune, his bride, the old woman, all the while smiling by his side.
"My dear husband," said she, "does every gallant knight treat his newly-made wife in this kind and graceful manner? Is this the custom of King Arthur's court? Is every knight in his train so sparing of courtesy and tenderness? I am your own love and your wife; I saved you from destruction; and, of a truth, never wronged you: why then behave thus to me? Your conduct is like one insane. What is my crime—my offence? Tell me, and if I can I will amend it."
"Amend it!" said the knight, "no! no! you never can amend it. You are so old, so loathsome, and born of so low degree, that little should you wonder at my distress and
horror. Would to heaven my heart would break at once!" "Is this then," said she, "the cause of your uneasiness?" "Certainly, and what wonder that it is."
"Now, sir," said she, "in three days, if I chose, I could mend all this, so that you would bear yourself towards me as you ought. But since you knights speak of such high birth as is descended from ancient wealth, and presume that therefore you are gentlemen, * I tell you that such arrogance is not worth a straw. He who secretly, and in the open face of day is most virtuous, who seeks to perform all the noble deeds in his power, is the most perfect gentleman. Jesus Christ commands that we claim our gentle birth from Him who was 'meek and lowly of heart'; not from our ancestors because of their riches. For, though they leave us the whole of their inheritance, and boast of our high kindred, yet can they not bequeath to us their virtuous lives which procured them the title of gentlemen. Integrity of character seldom springs of its own accord in a man's descendants. We derive our gentle birth from the goodness of God only; from our ancestors we claim nothing but temporal benefits, which man may destroy. If gentleness of demeanour were implanted in a certain lineage, then would no one of that descent commit an act of villainy. But we know that the sons of lords will often shame their parentage. And he who demands praise of his gentility because he comes of a high family, having noble and virtuous ancestors, yet himself performs no deeds of gentleness, is no gentleman, duke or earl though he be; for deeds of villainy constitute the base-born man. Gentility is but the renown of your ancestors
on account of their signal goodness, and which is foreign to your individual self. Your gentility, like theirs, proceeds from God only. He is nobly born who performs noble deeds. Therefore, my beloved husband, I conclude that although my ancestors were rustic, yet, as I hope to live virtuously, then shall I become of gentle blood.
"And since you reprove me for my poverty, bear in mind that the Saviour of the world dwelt in wilful poverty; and the King of Heaven would not choose a vicious living. Cheerful poverty is doubtless an honest thing, and I hold him rich who considers himself repaid for his poverty in other gifts, although he have no shirt to his back; while the covetous man is really poor, for he would possess that which he cannot attain, but he who possesses nothing, yet covets nothing, is rich, although you esteem him but a knave. * The poor man may go on his way and have no dread of robbers. Poverty is a hateful good, though the redeemer from the cares of life: the improver of wisdom to him who bears it patiently. Poverty makes a man know himself and his Maker too. It is a glass in which he may discover his true friends. Reprove me, therefore, no more for my poverty.
"As for my great age—though we had no written authority for the command—you men of gentle blood have ever held that age, in man or woman, is entitled to honour.
"And, to conclude, since I am loathsome as well as old, you will be in no danger that any one will take away your wife. Now, therefore, choose one of these two things: to have me old and ugly till my death, to be to
you a true and humble wife, and never to displease you during the whole course of my life; or to have me young and beautiful, and to take your chance of the temptation that will befall me from the great resort that will throng to your house on my account."
The knight bethought him, sighed, and then said, "My dear wife, I place myself under your wise direction: choose that which shall be most pleasant to yourself, at the same time befitting my honour as well as your own."
"Then have I gained the mastery," said she, "since I may choose and govern according to my inclination!"
"Even so," said he, "I hold it best."
"Now, then," she replied, "throw aside all your anger against me, and kiss me, for by my honour I will be to you both beautiful and true. Moreover, may I be utterly condemned if I prove not as good and faithful a wife as ever this world saw; and, on the morrow, as fair to see as any lady or empress betwixt east and west. When you draw the curtains, you shall behold how surely my promise has been fulfilled."
When the knight saw the fulfilment of this marvel, that she was both young and exceedingly handsome, for joy he took her in his arms and kissed her a thousand and a thousand times. His heart was bathed in bliss; and so they lived to their lives' end, she obeying him in all things and making his pleasure her happiness.
HERE ENDS THE WIFE OF BATH'S TALE;
AND HERE BEGINS
97:* The Incubus was a fairy of a less innocent character than his brethren. He succeeded the Fauni of the heathen mythology, and, like them, was supposed to inflict that oppression which goes under the name of ephialtes, or nightmare.
103:* The reader will recollect the note at page 34, explaining the original meaning of the word gentle.
104:* The original meaning of the word knave, is a hireling or servant.