Tag Archives: Canterbury Tales

“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found…”

My student is writing about Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (part of The Canterbury Tales). I’ve written before about the Prologue to the Tale and what my students think of the Wife herself; the Tale itself presents one of the Arthurian legends and gives us an understanding of the Wife’s definition of “what women want.”

According to the story, a young knight more full of self than courtesy encounters a young woman in the woods and decides to have his way with her (droit de seigneur). She accuses him of rape, and he is taken before King Arthur for judgment and sentencing. The King would kill him; but Queen Guinevere and her ladies, perhaps taken by his youth or good looks (shame on them!), persuade Arthur to set him a quest instead, and so he is given a year to find the answer to the question “What do women want?” If he succeeds, he will be free to go; if he fails, he will be executed. A year of wandering and questioning everyone he comes across gives him too many answers, none definitive; the deadline looms on the day that lo and behold! he sees a ring of lovely maidens dancing in a clearing in the woods, but when he approaches them they vanish, leaving nothing but an old (and of course ugly) hag. With a sigh and a shrug he asks her the Question, and she agrees to give him The Answer on condition that on his successful appearance before the Queen he will grant her a request. At court he offers the hag’s answer: Women want maisterye. This term has been translated variously but seems to mean power over their own lives (and perhaps power over their spouses as well). Guinevere and the ladies pronounce his answer correct, and he is freed. His joy is short-lived, however: the hag’s request is that he marry her. His consent shows that he is in fact a man of some honor. But once they are married, he refuses to perform in the marriage bed; she is simply too repulsive for a handsome young man such as himself. Finally she offers him a choice: she will be faithful and a good wife in every way but as ugly as he sees her now, or she will be young and beautiful but definitely not faithful to him. We see that he has taken her wisdom to heart when he answers: “You choose.” And so of course, happily-ever-after, she makes her choice: she will be faithful and young, beautiful and skilled in the homemaking department. That, after all, is what she wants.

You, dear reader, have been so patient, awaiting the completion of my student’s statement, so here it is:

“The knight gives his wife the choice, which I found to be the heroic jester in this story.”

Was it the Days of Yore and kingly setting that suggested a jester, or was it my student’s ignorance of the word “gesture”? Heroism aside, yes, what he has done can be called a “gesture,” in the sense of “geste,” behavior, action, or comportment. The word “gesture” can apply to physical motions that convey thoughts or emotions, or actions intended as formal indications of courtesy in order to impress or persuade, and clearly “gesture,” perhaps in both these senses, is the word he meant. I hold onto the hope that he was being sincere, though, not merely making a gesture—heroic or otherwise.

I certainly hope the knight didn’t intend it as a joke, a bit of merriment, a royal entertainment, the stock-in-trade of jesters.

And I hope my student will someday learn the difference between an heroic action and a comic ploy. Otherwise, I fear his own relationships in the romance department are doomed.

“April showers have begun to embody the dry earth.”

Ah, Spring!

My student was attempting to paraphrase the opening of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. You know:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages….

Those soft showers pierce March’s drought, and bathe the underground roots in sweet liquid that engenders flowers. That, combined with sweet zephyrs breathing life into crops, the young sun half-through Aries shining down, and little birds singing, makes people want to get out and travel—in this case, travel to a holy shrine somewhere.

This is an interesting illustration used to represent the "sun in Aries" on http://midheavenastrology.com but is neither original to that site nor originally an astrological illustration. This same image appears on Soulja Boy's album, The Last Crown. Of course we cognoscenti know that the original is the anonymous 1888 engraving published by Flammarion in 1888, with color added. Colorized, it does feel like "The sun in Aries," doesn't it? And the kneeling, reaching man might just be inspired by that desire to break out of winter's cabin fever and GO somewhere! Is that a walking stick?

Has my student found a new meaning for “embody”? As far as Webster’s knows, that word means “to give a body to (a spirit); to make concrete and perceptible; to cause to become a body; to personify.” The OED offers the same definitions, but also notes a meaning in chemistry and physics: “To coalesce; to solidify.”

This last reminds me of the time when, naïve, ignorant, and enthusiastic, I decided to replace the sand in my theater’s outdoor “butt bucket” (a nice rustic wooden half-barrel used as a big ashtray). I went to Home Depot, where whatever they say you CAN’T have a really constructive conversation with a worker—unless you’re planning at least a bathroom renovation—and bought the only sand that came in bags lighter than 50 pounds. I dragged the 25-pounder into the car, and then out again at the theater, dumped the dirty old sand-and-butts mixture, and poured in my nice clean sand. After the first rain, we had a half-barrel filled with rock-solid cement. I don’t know what I bought, but April’s shoures soote certainly did solidify it. If you misunderstand the “concrete” in Webster’s  “to make concrete and perceptible,” you might also think of my sand-barrel.

Perhaps my student was thinking of “embody” in the sense of “give body to,” but “body” as heft rather than corpus: without the rain, the soil is dry (and eventually dusty); with watering, it acquires mass, weight, what a costumer might call “hand”—it gets some body to it. This is actually a pretty nice idea, although it’s a new usage and therefore isn’t likely to communicate effectively with a reader (e.g., me).

We had a fairly dry March this year, for sure, and almost no snow, so the soil is rather dry, although Spring seems to be finding enough swich licour in the ground to get going. But other years have enabled Connecticut to join Vermont in experiencing that Vermont special, Mud Season, when the melting snows mingle with early-spring rains and bathe more than roots in swich licour—when the world is, in fact, what e.e. cummings calls “mud-luscious.” If my student had wanted to describe that kind of earth, he might have availed himself of the word listed directly after “embody” in the OED:


“According to the Wife of Bath, women want…”

Another short-answer question from the same exam as yesterday’s post: According to the Wife of Bath, what do women want?

I know I posted her picture yesterday, but I can't resist showing her to you again. Again, from the Ellesmere ms. You can't see her gap-toothed smile from here.

Everyone loves her, I do believe. In her Prologue she has the guts (and the reading too, pretty much) to take on the male-centered thinkers of the Church and the wife-beaters of the general population. She knows how to work the male-dominant culture and the marriage bed to her own advantage, and she doesn’t mind saying so. The tale she tells is somewhat more ladylike than she leads us to expect, but the moral of the story is right on. Guinevere and the ladies of Camelot charge an errant (in more ways than one) knight to answer this question: What do women want? The correct answer:

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above.

Students could have written “sovereignty over their husbands,” “mastery in the marriage,” “mastery,” “sovereignty,” or “maistrye.” They also could have written “authority over themselves,” “equal power in a relationship,” “dignity,” or “the last word,” all of which are slightly off-target but still in the spirit of the thing.

Here’s one answer they really should not have written, but one student nevertheless did:

“According to the Wife of Bath, women want to go out and be shown as trophies and have sex.”

Well, the Wife is a strong advocate for women’s right to have, and enjoy, sexual relations, in and out of wedlock. As for marriage, she is a serial monogamist (five and counting), but she points out many instances of polygamous marriages in the Bible and asks why women shouldn’t be able to follow suit. Furthermore, Chaucer describes her as “gat-tothed,” or “gap-toothed,” thought to be a sign of lustiness. If my student had answered that “women want to have sex,” I really couldn’t have denied credit, although it wasn’t the answer I was looking for.

But “be shown as trophies”? The “trophy wife” in our society surely isn’t expected to think and act independently; and while she may be in it for the money, the man who acquires her certainly doesn’t expect her to let that show when they “go out”: she is supposed to be living for adoration alone. Furthermore, if “be shown as trophies and have sex” are related activities both done while “go[ing] out,” then I don’t think the proud winner of the trophy wife will be pleased, since the sentence’s implication is that the sex is part of going out and being shown, not limited to the boudoir back home.

This answer shows something, that’s for sure, and it ain’t trophies: It shows that the student never actually read the Prologue or Tale of the Wife of Bath, but only half-listened to class discussion and some time later, stewing over a question on a test, half-remembered that half and flung it down onto the page, hoping that somewhere in there was an answer I would take.

I suppose I could have given 1/4 credit for that half of a half, but in the end, I didn’t take the answer at all, except to write it down in my little book. And now you have it.

“Hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

No, this is not some new job opportunity or luxury-tour feature.

This is part three of the response to a short-answer exam question.

The question (or, more accurately, the “challenge”): Name three of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

This student’s answer: “The Wife of Bath, the Miller, and the hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

Yes, the pilgrims did gather at the Tabard Inn. Yes, Harry Bailey was the Host of the Tabard Inn. Yes, the medieval Inn was more or less the equivalent of today’s Holiday Inn (etc.).

But no, Harry did not stand behind a counter, consult bookings on a computer, hand out room keys, mention the Continental Breakfast, or provide travel brochures. He mixed with the guests, made sure they were drinking their ale, actively presided over the comings and goings, kept an eye on the cook and tapster and hostler and other staff…and owned the inn. On the pilgrimage he served as judge and moderator in the story-telling competition, and in his own establishment too he was the boss.

The Wife of Bath, from the Ellesmere ms.

No matter how many pictures the texts offer, how many sites we refer students to for background, how often (in this case) I pass around my Ellesmere Manuscript pamphlet with its centerfold of the manuscript’s illustrations of the pilgrims, the actuality and completeness of life in an earlier time never quite gets through. The Middle Ages are not the only times my students don’t seem to be able to imagine; I’ve had students wonder why Desirée, of Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Baby” (set in antebellum Louisiana), would not simply drive up North and get a secretarial job instead of drowning herself and her infant son when her husband accuses her of having Negro blood. Someone will inevitably wonder why characters insist on driving around in horse-drawn carriages instead of using their cars. This kind of dyschronicity coexists with a cartoon version of the past where, as we all know, NO women had ANY rights and ALL women felt oppressed by their husbands, NO women could read or write, and in the U.S before 1865 ALL Africans and their descendants were slaves. Lest anyone think I’m claiming that ALL my students are like this, let me hasten to say that some do have a more informed and nuanced view of the past and many are capable of imagining lives that differ from their own. But just when I begin to let myself think that one year’s students are all of this latter type, along comes another remark in a paper or on an exam or in classroom discussion that shatters my illusions yet again.

Could my “hotel receptionist” student really have imagined the pilgrims to Canterbury traveling along the road, some on foot and some on horseback, some roughly clad and some more elegantly got up, and jogging along in their midst someone like the hotel receptionist who greeted me at the Omni Shoreham last summer, an elegant and sleekly coiffed young woman in a dark-blue business suit (with short pencil skirt and very high heels, I discovered when she stepped from behind the counter to speak with a porter), speaking with warm politeness and an Indian accent?

Harry Bailey of the Tabard Inn . . . or the receptionist at the Swiss hotel in "The Bourne Identity"?