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The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe. - Geoffrey Chaucer, Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5) 
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous manuscripts by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols. Vol. 5.
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The Tale of the Wyf of Bathe.
For a discussion of the source of this Tale, see vol. iii. p. 447.
A very similar story occurs in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, bk. i. (p. 89, Pauli’s edition), where the hero of the story is named Florent, and is said to have been a grandson of the Roman Emperor Claudius.
It also occurs in the Book of Ballymote, an Irish MS. of the fourteenth century. The Irish text was printed, together with a translation by Dr. Whitley Stokes, in The Academy, Apr. 23, 1892, p. 399. Dr. Stokes claims for the Tale a Celtic origin. See also The Academy, Apr. 30, 1892.
Chaucer’s Tale has been modernised by Dryden. This later version contains many spirited lines, but lacks the grace of the original. It is interesting as a commentary, and is worth comparison.
This Tale has been well edited, with notes, in Mätzner’s Altenglische Sprachproben, i. 338.
857. The author of the spurious Pilgrim’s Tale, which, it is said, William Thynne wished to insert in his edition of Chaucer, has plagiarised from the opening lines of the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the coolest manner. I quote some of his lines, for comparison, from Thynne’s Animadversions, &c., ed. Furnivall, Appendix I., p. 79, ll. 85–98:—
For a general discussion of the legends about King Arthur, see the essay in vol. i. (p. 401) of the Percy Folio MS., ed. Hales and Furnivall. In Malory’s Morte Arthure we have an example of a fairy in Arthur’s sister, Morgan le Fay, who was ‘put to scole in a nonnery; and ther she lerned so moche that she was a grete clerke of nygromancye’; bk. i. cap. 2.
860.elf-queen, Proserpine, according to Chaucer; see E. 2229; also B. 754, 1978, and the notes.
861. Hence the ‘fairy-rings,’ as Dryden tells us:—
On the subject of Fairies, see Keightley’s Fairy Mythology, and similar works. Tyrwhitt notes that few old authors tell us so much about them as Gervase of Tilbury.
866.limitours, limiters; see A. 209, and the note; D. 1711; P. Plowman, B. v. 138, C. xxiii. 346; Massingberd, Eng. Reformation, p. 110.
868. The number of mendicant friars in England, during the latter half of the fourteenth century, was indeed large. In Wyclif’s Works, ed. Arnold, iii. 400, we read that ‘now ben mony thousand of freris in Englond’; and, at p. 511, that they were, ‘as who seith, withoute noumbre.’ In P. Plowman, C. xxiii. 269, Conscience accuses the friars of waxing ‘oute of numbre,’ and reminds them that ‘Hevene haveth evene numbre, and helle is withoute numbre.’
869. The occurrence here of three consecutive lines (869–871) in which the first foot is deficient, consisting only of a single accented syllable, is worth notice. The way in which Tyrwhitt ‘amends’ these lines is most surprising. He inserts and five times, and his first line defies scansion, though I suppose he made hall’s a monosyllable, and kichen-es trisyllabic, whereas it plainly has but two syllables. Here is his result.
Note that he actually seems to have read dairies and faeries as riming dissyllabic words! In which case the last of these four lines would have but four accents! But the rime merely concerns the two final syllables of those quadrisyllabic words. The riming of the two former syllables is unessential, and for the purpose of rime, accidental and otiose.
MS. Pt. admits and before boures; and MS. Hl. admits and before toures and dairies (which does not alter the character of the lines). With these exceptions, all the seven MSS. omit all the five and’s inserted by Tyrwhitt; and, in fact, they are all of them superfluous.
For the benefit of those who are but little acquainted with this peculiarity of Middle English metre, I cite four consecutive lines of a similar character from Lydgate’s Siege of Thebes, ll. 1239–1242:—
There are plenty more of the same kind in the same poem; e. g. 1068, 1081, 1082, 1089, 1103, 1107, 1116, 1120, 1122, 1123, 1140, 1141, 1151, &c., &c., all printed in Specimens of English from 1394–1579, ed. Skeat, pp. 28–34. For similar lines in Hoccleve, see the same, p. 16, st. 604, l. 6; st. 605, l. 2; p. 20, st. 622, l. 2; p. 21, st. 624, l. 4.
871.Thropes=thorpes, villages; see E. 199.
shipnes, stables, or cow-houses; see A. 2000. ‘Shippen, Shuppen, a cow-house’; E. D. S. Gloss. B. I. ‘Shippen, an ox-house’; id. B. 6. ‘Shuppen, a cow-house’; id. B. 7; ‘Shippen, a cow-house’; id. B. 15.
875.undermeles, for undern-meles, undern-times. For the time of undern, see note to E. 260. Meel (pl. meles) is the A. S. mǣl, a time. The time referred to, in this particular instance, seems to be the middle of the afternoon; or simply ‘afternoons,’ as opposed to ‘mornings.’ For this sense, cf. ‘Undermele, Postmeridies,’ in the Prompt. Parv. Nares, s. v. under-meal, gives other instances; but he fails to realise the changeable sense of the word; and is quite wrong in saying (s. v. undertime) that the last-named word is unconnected with undern. He also wrongly dissociates undern from arndern and orndern.
876. ‘All religious persons were bound, if possible, to recite the divine office . . at the proper hour, in the choir; but secular priests, not living in common, and friars, being by their rule obliged to walk about within their limitation, to beg their maintenance, were allowed to say it privately, . . as they walked.’—Bell. Cf. B. 1281.
880.incubus. Milton (P. R. ii. 152) speaks of Belial as being, after Asmodai, ‘the fleshliest incubus.’ Mr. Jerram’s note on the line says: ‘Some of the ejected angels were believed not to have fallen into hell, but to have remained in the middle of the region of air (P. R. ii. 117), where in various shapes they tempt men to sin. It was said that they hoped to counteract the effects of Christ’s coming by engendering with some virgin a semi-demon, who should be a power of evil. In this way Merlin, and even Luther, were reported to have been begotten.’ See the Romance of Merlin, ed. Wheatley, ch. i. pp. 9, 10; and the poem of Merlin in the Percy Folio MS.
881. Tyrwhitt and others adopt the reading no dishonour, as in the old black-letter editions; and MS. Cm. has the reading non. At first sight, this looks right, but a little reflection will incline us rather to adopt the reading of nearly all the MSS., as given in the present text. For to say that the friar was an incubus, and yet did women no dishonour, is contradictory. The meaning is, possibly, that the friar brought upon women dishonour, and nothing more; whereas the incubus never failed to cause conception. Lounsbury (Studies in Chaucer, i. 257) adopts the reading here given, but interprets it thus:—‘The dishonour of a woman is, in the eyes of the Wife of Bath, to be reckoned not as a crime, but as a peccadillo.’ (See the whole passage.) The subject will hardly bear further discussion; but it is impossible to ignore the repeated charges of immorality brought against the friars by Wyclif and others. Wyclif says—‘thei slen wommen that withstonden hem in this synne’; Works, ed. Matthew, p. 6.
884.fro river, i. e. he was returning from hawking at the river-side. See B. 1927, and the note.
887.maugree hir heed, lit. ‘in spite of her head,’ i. e. in spite of all she could do, without her consent. Cf. A. 1169, 2618; also I. 974, where we find:—‘if the womman, maugree hir heed, hath been afforced.’ Mätzner remarks that, in some cases, we find a part of the head referred to, instead of the whole head. Hence the expressions: maugre his nose, Rob. of Gloucester, 2090 (p. 94, ed. Hearne); maugree thyne yen, Ch. C. T., D. 315; maugree hir eyen two, id., A. 1796; maugree my chekes, Allit. Poems, ed. Morris, C. 54; m. here chekis, P. Plowman, B. iv. 50; &c.
909.lere, learn; as in B. 181, 630, C. 325, 578, &c. But the right sense is ‘teach.’ See l. 921.
twelf-month, &c. ‘There seems to have been some mysterious importance attached to this particular time of grace,’ &c.—Bell. I think not. The solution is simply, that it takes an extra day to make the date agree. If we fix any date, as Nov. 21, 1890, the space of a year afterwards only brings us to Nov. 20, 1891; if we want to keep to the same day of the month, we must make the space include ‘a year and a day.’ This is what any one would naturally do; and that is all. Cf. A. 1850, and the note. ‘Year and Day, is a time that determines a right in many cases; . . . So is the Year and Day given in case of Appeal, in case of Descent after Entry or Claim,’ &c.; Cowell, Intrepreter of Words and Terms. See l. 916 below; and cf. Eight days, i. e. a week, in the New Eng. Dictionary.
922.cost, coast, i. e. region; as in 1 Sam. v. 6; Matt. viii. 34, &c.
924. The scansion is—Two cré-a-túr-es áccordínge in-fére.
925. Cf. Gower, Conf. Amant. i. 92:—
929–30. Cf. Rom. de la Rose, 9977–94. For y-plesed, Tyrwhitt and Wright read y-preised, contrary to the seven best MSS.; which gives an imperfect rime. preysed rimes with reysed (D. 706).
940.galle, sore place. ‘Galle, soore yn man or beeste’; Prompt. Parv. ‘Let the galled jade wince’; Hamlet, iii. 2. 253.
clawe means ‘to scratch’; and to clawe upon the galle is to scratch or rub a sore. This may be taken in two ways; hence the difficulty about the reading in l. 941, where E. Cm. have kike, i.e. kick, whilst Hn. Hl. have like, and Cp. Pt. Ln. have loke or he seith us soth. The last of these three variations gives no sense, and is certainly wrong; but either of the other readings will serve. I take them in order.
(1) kike, kick. Here the sense is:—‘if any one scratch us on a sore place (and so hurt us), we shall kick, because he tells us the truth (too plainly).’ This goes well with the context, as it answers to the repreve us of our vyce in l. 937.
(2) like, like (it), be pleased. Here the sense is:—‘if any one stroke us on a sore place (and so soothe the itching), we shall be pleased, because he tells us the truth (or what we think to be the truth).’ But I feel inclined to reject this reading, because it gives so forced a sense to the words—for he seith us sooth. There is, however, no difficulty about the use of claw in the sense of ‘to rub lightly, so as to soothe irritation’; for which see examples in the New English Dictionary. It is particularly used in the phrase to claw one’s back, i. e. to soothe, flatter; but the word galle suggests a place where friction would rather hurt than soothe.
I leave it to the reader to settle this nice question.
949.rake-stele, the handle of a rake. The word stele is still in use provincially. ‘Stale, any stick, or handle, such as the stick of a mop or a fork’; South Warwickshire; E. D. S. Gl. C. 6. ‘Stale [stae·ul], s. handle; as, mop-stale, pick-stale, broom-stale’; Elworthy’s West Somerset Words. And see Steal in Ray’s Glossary; Stele in Nares; Steale in Halliwell; &c. Cf. A. 3785; P. Plowman, C. xxii. 279. Golding translates Ovid’s hastile (Metam. vii. 676) by ‘Iaueling-steale.’ The e is ‘open’; cf. A. S. stela; hence the rime with hele (A. S. helan) is perfect.
950. ‘Car fame ne puet riens celer’; Rom. de la Rose, 19420. See also the same, 16549–70.
952.Ovyde; see Metamorph. xi. 174–193. But Chaucer seems to have purposely altered the story, since Ovid attributes the betrayal of the secret to Midas’ barber, not his wife; and again, Ovid says that the barber dug a hole, and whispered it into the pit. Chaucer’s version is an improved one. Cf. Troil. iii. 1389.
961. Cf. Rom. de la Rose, 16724–32.
968. Dryden is plainer, and less polite:—‘But she must burst or blab.’ Cf. Rom. de la Rose, 16568–9.
972.bitore, bittern; bumbleth, makes a bellowing noise, which is also expressed by bumping or booming. Note that MS. Cm. has bumbith. Owing to the loud booming note of the male bittern, it is called in A. S. rāre-dumle or rāre-dumbla, from rārian, to roar; see Wright’s Glossaries. In provincial English, it is called a butter-bump, or a bumble; or, from its frequenting moist places, a bog-bumper, a bogdrum, or a bull o’ the bog; see Swainson’s Provincial Names of British Birds, E. D. S., p. 146. It was formerly thought that the cry was produced by the bird plunging its bill into mud and then blowing, as in the present passage; others thought that it put its bill into a reed, a view taken by Dryden, as he here has the line:—‘And, as a bittern bumps within a reed.’ Sir T. Browne, in his Vulgar Errors, bk. iii. c. 27, controverts these notions, and attributes the note to the conformation of the bird’s organs of voice. ‘The same contradiction of the common notion is given, from personal experience, by the Rev. S. Fovargue, in his New Catalogue of Vulgar Errors, pp. 19–21’; note to Sir T. Browne, ed. S. Wilkin. The same editor further refers us to papers by Dr. Latham and Mr. Yarrell in the Linnaean Transactions, vols. iv, xv, and xvi. See Prof. Newton’s Dict. of Birds.
981. There is not much ‘remnant’ of the tale; Ovid adds that some reeds grew out of the pit, which, when breathed upon by the South wind, uttered the words which had been buried.
992. This reminds us of Chaucer’s own vision of Alcestis and her nineteen attendant ladies in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women.
997. Cf. Gower, Conf. Amantis, i. 93:—
Also, in the Marriage of Sir Gawaine, st. 15:—
1004.can, know; but the form is singular, to agree with folk. Cf. the proverb—‘older and wiser’—in Hazlitt’s Collection; and see A. 2448.
1018.wereth on, wears upon (her), has on; cf. l. 559 above.
calle, caul; a close-fitting netted cap or head-dress, often richly ornamented; see Fairholt, Costume in England, s. v. Caul.
1021.pistell, (1) an epistle, as in E. 1154; hence (2), a short lesson, as here.
1024.holde his day, kept his time, come back at the specified time. hight, promised.
1028. ‘Queen Guenever is here represented sitting as judge in a Court of Love, similar to those in fashion in later ages. . . Fontenelle (in the third volume of his works, Paris, 1742) has given a description of one of the fantastic suits tried in these courts . . . The best source of information on these strange follies is a book entitled Erotica, seu Amatoria, Andreæ Capellarii Regis, &c., written about 1170, and published at Dorpmund in 1610.’—Bell.
1038. Cf. Gower, Conf. Amantis, i. 96:—
So also in the Marriage of Sir Gawaine, st. 28:—
1069. The scansion is—‘Shold’ ev’r | so foul | e dis | pará | ged be.’
1074. It is curious to note how Chaucer seems to have felt that romance-writers were constrained to describe feasts, a duty which he usually evades. Cf. A. 2197, B. 419, 1120, E. 1710, F. 278. In fact, the original business of the minstrel was to praise his lord’s bounty, especially on grand occasions.
1081. So in Gower’s Conf. Amantis, i. 100:—
This line, for a wonder, is unaltered by Dryden in his paraphrase.
1085.walweth, rolls from side to side, turns about restlessly; cf.
Leg. Good Wom. 1166; Troil. i. 699; Rom. Rose, 2562.
1088.Fareth, pronounced as Far’th; cf. tak’th in 1072.
1090.dangerous, distant, unapproachable; see D. 151.
1109.Gentilesse. See my notes (in vol. i. 431, 553) on R. R. 2190, and Gentilesse. Compare Boethius, bk. iii. pr. 6 and met. 6; Roman de la Rose, ed. Méon, 6603–6616, and 18807–19096; and see B. 2831.
1114. Cf. privee n’apert in l. 1136; ‘in private and in public.’
1117.wol we, desires that we; see 1130 below.
1121. Cf. Balade of Gentilesse, ll. 16, 17.
1128. Cf. Dante, Purgat. vii. 121:—
Cary’s translation is:—
Marsh notes that similar sentiments occur in the Canzone prefixed to the fourth Trattato in Dante’s Convito.
1135. The general sense is—‘if gentle conduct were naturally implanted in a particular family, none of that family could ever behave badly.’ Cf. ll. 1150, 1151.
1140. Chaucer’s tr. of Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 7. 43, mentions ‘the mountaigne that highte Caucasus.’ This is probably where he got the name from. Cf. Shakespeare’s ‘frosty Caucasus’; Rich. II. i. 3. 295. The whole passage is imitated from another place in Boethius, where Chaucer’s translation has:—‘Certes, yif that honour of poeple were a natural yift to dignitees, it ne mighte never cesen . . . to don his office, right as fyr in every contree ne stinteth nat to eschaufen and to ben hoot’; bk. iii. pr. 4. 44–8. In l. 1139, Dryden merely alters in to to.
1142.lye, i. e. blaze. ‘Hevene y-leyed wose syth,’ whoever sees heaven in a blaze; Relig. Antiq. i. 266. The sb. lye, a flame, occurs in P. Pl. C. xx. 172. Cf. A. S. lȳg, līg, flame.
1146–56. Much altered and expanded in Dryden.
1158. Cf. Rom. of the Rose, 2181:—
1165. ‘Incunabula Tulli Hostilii agreste tugurium cepit: ejusdem adolescentia in pecore pascendo fuit occupata: validior aetas imperium Romanum rexit, et duplicavit: senectus excellentissimis ornamentis decorata in altissimo majestatis fastigio fulsit.’—Valerius Maximus, lib. iii. c. 4 (De Humili Loco Natis). Cf. Livy, i. 22; Dionysius Halicarnasseus, iii; Ælian, xiv. 36.
1168.Senek, Seneca. Boece, Boethius; see note to 1109.
1184. Ll. 1183–1190 are imitated from the following; ‘Honesta, inquit [Epicurus], res est laeta paupertas. Illa uero non est paupertas, si laeta est. Cui enim cum paupertate bene conuenit, diues est. Non qui parum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pauper est.’—Seneca, Epist. ii. § 4. This passage is quoted by John of Salisbury, Policraticus, l. vii. c. 13.
Othere clerkes also includes Epicurus, whose sentiments Seneca here expresses; see Diogenes Laertius, x. 11. MS. E. here quotes the words ‘honesta res est laeta paupertas’ in the margin, and refers to ‘Seneca, in epistola.’ It also has:—‘Pauper est qui eget, eo quod non habet; sed qui non habet, nec appetit habere, ille diues est; de quo intelligitur id Apocalypsis tertio [Rev. iii. 17]—dicis quia diues sum.’ With l. 1187 cf. Rom. de la Rose, 18766:—‘Et convoitise fait povrece.’
1191. All the editions adopt the reading is sinne, as in all the MSS. except E. and Cm. (the two best); see footnote, p. 354. But surely this is nonsense, and exactly contradicts l. 1183.
1192. In the margin of MS. E. are quoted two lines from Juvenal, Sat. x. 21, 22:—‘Cantabit uacuus coram latrone uiator; Et nocte ad lumen trepidabit arundinis umbram.’ The latter of these lines should come first, and the usual readings are motae (not nocte), lunam, and trepidabis. However, it is only the other (and favourite) line that is here alluded to. The same line is quoted in Piers Plowman, B. xiv. 305; and is alluded to in Chaucer’s tr. of Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 5. 129–130. In Wyclif’s Works, ed. Arnold, ii. 364, is the remark:—‘For it is said comounli, that a wey-goer, whan he is voide, singith sure bi the theef.’
1195. In the margin of E. is written:—‘Secundus philosophus: Paupertas est odibile bonum, sanitatis mater, curarum remocio, sapientie reparatrix, possessio sine calumpnia.’ This is the very passage quoted, even more fully, in Piers Plowman, B. xiv. 275 (C. xvii. 117). Tyrwhitt’s note is—‘In this commendation of Poverty, our author seems plainly to have had in view the following passage of a fabulous conference between the emperor Adrian and Secundus the philosopher, reported by Vincent of Beauvais, Speculum Historiale, lib. x. cap. 71. “Quid est paupertas? Odibile bonum, sanitatis mater, remotio curarum, sapientie repertrix, negotium sine damno, possessio absque calumnia, sine sollicitudine felicitas.” What Vincent has there published seems to have been extracted from a larger collection of Gnomae under the name of Secundus, which are still extant in Greek and Latin. See Fabricius, Bib. Gr., l. vi. c. x, and MS. Harl. 399.’ Thus l. 1195 is a translation of Paupertas est odibile bonum, so that the proposal by Dr. Morris (Aldine edition of Chaucer, vol. i. p. vi) to adopt the reading hatel from MSS. Cp. Pt. Ln. instead of hateful, is founded on a mistake. The expression is contradictory, but it is so intentionally. ‘Poverty is a gift which its possessors hate’ is, of course, the meaning. Dryden well explains it:—
1196. This translates ‘remotio curarum.’
1197. This translates ‘sapientie reparatrix,’ not ‘repertrix.’
1199.elenge, miserable, hard to bear. Elenge is also spelt alenge, alinge, alange; see Alange in the New English Dictionary, though the proper form is rather alenge. It is a derivative of the intensive A. S. prefix ǣ and lenge, a secondary form of lang, long; so that A. S. ǣlenge meant protracted, tedious, wearisome, as in Alfred’s tr. of Boethius, xxxix. 4. But it was confused with the M. E. elend, strange, foreign, and so acquired the sense of ‘strange’ as well as ‘trying’ or ‘miserable.’ See Elynge in the Gl. to P. Plowman, and the note to P. Pl. C. i. 204; also Mätzner’s note to the Land of Cokayne, l. 15.
1200. This line translates ‘possessio absque calumnia.’ The E. challenge is, in fact, derived from calumnia, through Old French.
1202. Understand him: ‘maketh (him) know his God and himself’; see Dryden’s paraphrase. Against this line, in the margin of MS. E., is written:—‘Unde et Crates ille Thebanus, proiecto in mari non paruo auri pondere, Abite (inquit) pessime male cupiditates! Ego uos mergam, ne ipse mergar a uobis.’ Probably Chaucer once intended to introduce this story into the text. It relates, apparently, to Crates of Thebes, the Cynic philosopher, who flourished about 320.
1203.spectacle, i. e. an optic glass, a kind of telescope. In the modern sense, the word was used in the plural, as at present. From Lydgate’s London Lickpenny, st. 7, we learn that ‘spectacles to reede’ was, in his time, one of the cries of London. Cf. prospectyves, i.e. perspective glasses, in F. 234. Chaucer is here thinking of a passage in Le Roman de la Rose, where the E. version (l. 5551) has:—
This, again, is from Boethius, bk. ii. pr. 8. 22–33. Compare Chaucer’s poem on Fortune, ll. 9, 32, 34, and my notes upon these lines; vol. i. pp. 383, 544.
1208. See note to l. 1276 below; and cf. D. 1.
1210. Compare C. 743, and the note.
1215. For also, Tyrwhitt reads also so, against all authority, as he admits. The text is right as it stands. Eld-e is dissyllabic, the final e being preserved by the cæsura; and also means no more than ‘so.’ I suspect this is quoted from some French proverb. Dryden alters ‘filth’ to ‘ugliness.’
1224.repair, great resort, viz. of visitors.
1234. ‘I care not which of the two it shall be.’ Cf. Gower, Conf. Amantis, i. 103:—
1260.toverbyde, to over-bide, to outlive. Tyrwhitt substitutes to overlive, from the black-letter editions. Gra-ce is dissyllabic.
1261.shorte, shorten; see D. 365.