Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Old Age

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Old Age

Lines 1-34

Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun
.
(24-25)

The Wife's allusion to her many years strengthens her claim to authority through experience. The more years, the more experience.

Lines 101-120

I wol bistow the flour of al myn age
In the actes and in fruit of mariage
.
(119-120)

The Wife's intention to live a lusty old age does not fit with the medieval conception of old age, which held that at this point in one's life, the time (and need) for sex had ended, at least for women.

Lines 169-193

'Telle forth youre tale, spareth for no man,
And teche us yonge men of youre praktike.'

(186-187)

The Pardoner's labeling of himself and his peers as "yonge men" emphasizes the difference in age between them and the Wife. From this perspective, the Wife's portrayal draws upon the medieval figure of the vetula, an elderly female tutor in love and go-between to younger lovers.

Lines 401-436

For winning wolde I al his lust endure,
And make me a feyned appetyt –
And yet in bacon hadde I nevere delyt
.
(422-424)

The Wife says she takes no delight in "bacon," or aged meat, meaning old men. Yet she is willing to have sex with them for money and, in fact, her first four husbands were old men.

Lines 475-486

But age, allas, that al wole envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith!
Lat go, farewel, the devel go therwith!
(480-482)

The Wife compares herself to a flower, or to bread, by saying age has taken her "pith." "Pith" can refer to either the structured center of a flower's stem, without which the flower droops and wilts, or the soft inner part of a loaf of bread. The Wife draws upon both of these meanings in the metaphors that follow (see below).

The flour is goon, there is namoore to telle,
The bren as I best kan, now most I selle
.
(480-482)

The Wife draws upon the double meaning of "flour" here as either plant or (cooking) flour. White flour was thought to be more desirable, but the Wife proposes to make the best of the bran (grain husk) that's remaining to her. This is not the first time the Wife has compared herself to bread; recall that, earlier, she calls virgins white bread and wives barley bread.

But, Lord Christ! whan that it remembreth me Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte rote.
Unto this day it dooth myn herte bote
That I have had my world as in my tyme
.
(475-479)

The Wife claims that her memories of the frolicking and "jolitee" of her youth are an effective remedy ("bote") for the heart, which makes sense given her role as defender of life's pleasures. If even the memories of these pleasures can serve one well in old age, why not enjoy them in one's youth? On the other hand, the Wife's implication that her time for pleasures is over is not compatible with her stated intention to continue her lusty lifestyle into old age.

Lines 593-632

He was, I trowe, twenty winter old,
And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth;
But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth
.
(606-608)

The Wife's claim to a "coltes tooth," or youthful appetites, refers not just to a preference for much younger sexual partners, but also a sex drive like one normally attributed to a young person, despite her advancing years.

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