Tag Archives: “The Canterbury Tales”

“This poem was written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the ladder part of his career.”

Of course I knew what she meant: she meant “the latter part of his career,” when in fact Chaucer did write The Canterbury Tales, or as much as he managed to finish before his death. Pretty clearly, she knows the meaning of “latter”; she just doesn’t know it’s a word.

This kind of problem is not limited to student writers. All of us mis-hear words and phrases: when the mis-hearing makes a new kind of sense we can call it a mondegreen, if we’re so inclined.

Sometimes we’re mis-hearing words we actually know, but confuse because of sound. I certainly know the words “bad,” “moon,” and “rise,” but when Creedence Clearwater Revival sang it, I (and evidently a lot of other people, if Google is to be believed) heard “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” For years I wondered why someone would put directions to a lavatory into a popular song….

Sometimes the confusion arises because we hear a word that is not familiar, but it sounds sufficiently like one we know that we assume it’s the one intended: “We know he’s Jewish because his grandson had a brisk,” for example. And we blithely go on to use the word we think we heard. As long as we’re just speaking, we might get away with it; but when we have to commit it to paper, we reveal our confusion to others, if not to ourselves.

And that’s all that happened here.

For me, of course, the sentence suggests Chaucer climbing to the heights of literary celebrity or achievement. But such a “ladder” part of his career would have predated The Canterbury Tales. The Book of the Duchess was probably the first real rung, an elegy commissioned by John of Gaunt for his dead wife. And up he went, with Parlement of Foules, The Legend of Good Women, and Troilus and Criseyde, among other works. The ladder part. Top rung: The Canterbury Tales. If he had lived longer, he would have needed a taller ladder.

Chaucer prepares to climb his career ladder.
Chaucer image: the Ellesmere manuscript.


“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other…”

Since my student must have known the Wife of Bath was an Englishwoman (the course was British Literature I), he should also have known he didn’t need to specify “one after the other” about the husbands: polyandry was not practiced in England, at least as far back as we have literature or legends.

He may have meant that as soon as one husband died she was on to the next, which is true—in fact she had #5 lined up at the time of the funeral of #4. So I’m not really going to quibble over whether the “one after the other” was necessary to the sentence.

One of the most colorful and memorable characters in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife is a great combination of lustiness and propriety, passion and calculation, sincerity and mischief, romance and cynicism. She debates biblical passages with some of the clerical pilgrims, arguing eloquently—if not fully in keeping with Church doctrine—that God intended human beings to engage in sexual activity, and to do so for pleasure as well as procreation, and that therefore chastity may be admirable but isn’t appropriate for the non-perfect and is furthermore a waste of the organs of generation. She is confident that multiple marriages are acceptable with God, citing the many wives of Solomon and Abraham; but she complains that the Bible isn’t clear about exactly how many husbands a woman may have, since Jesus scolds the Samaritan woman at the well for having five husbands but doesn’t say she shouldn’t have had four. (The 5-husband question is her misreading of the biblical story, but let that go.)

At any rate, my student wasn’t going to stop his statement before providing an explanation. Here’s the whole sentence:

“The Wife of Bath has had multiple husbands, one after the other, in order to have consistent sex in life.”

Now, first of all, I can say with certainty that that “in life” is unnecessary: Chaucer makes no hint of necrophilia or heavenly copulation.

I also generally try to discourage students from writing “in order to” when a simple “to” will do, and this is one of those cases.

But the real gem in the sentence necklace is that “consistent.”

Yes, the Wife enjoys sex, and her sex drive is one of the impelling agents in those marches up the aisle. But if we look at her husbands one by one, as she invites us to do in her Prologue, we learn that the first three husbands were quite old (and rich), and in those marriages she withheld or awarded sex to get what she wanted from each: personal liberty, nice things, and the upper hand. Husbands 4 and 5 were young men, 5 the youngest. But #4 kept a mistress and could only be managed by making him believe his Wife was also sleeping around, and #5—whom she married for love—lectured her about holiness in women and then beat her. She finally tamed him by accusing him of trying to murder her for her money (ah, that money that she had married her way into…).

Tell me, is this “consistent” sex? He probably meant that she wanted nonstop access to sex and therefore had to keep a husband in her bed; but by her own report she deployed her sexuality strategically, and that would at least imply an ability to tolerate dry spells. “Consistent”  is most commonly used to mean “free from irregularity, variation, or contradiction,” and hardly applies to the quintuple Husbands of Bath.

I wish my student had been content to write “The Wife of Bath had five husbands” and then go on to comment on her general sex drive (she was, Chaucer reports, gap-toothed, a sure sign of lecherousness!) and her ability to manipulate men by way of it. He would have been more efficient, more clear, and more accurate.

Of course he would have deprived me of some delicious moments picturing a conveyor belt leading to the Wife of Bath’s bed, and on that conveyor belt five rampant gentlemen, as alike as gingerbread boys, being carried to her for her consistent pleasure.