Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Sex

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Sex

Lines 1-34

But wel I woot expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye:
That gentil text can I wel understonde
.
(27-29)

One of the Wife's strongest supports in favor of a life filled with sex is Genesis 1:28, where God tells Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth." It's hard to deny that it's impossible to obey this commandment without having sex!

Lines 35-82

As wolde God it leveful were unto me
To be refresshed half so ofte as he!
Which yifte of God hadde he for alle his wyvis!
No man hath swich, that in this world alyve is.
God woot this noble king, as to my wit,
The firste night had many a mery fit
With ech of hem, so wel was him on lyve!

(37-43)

With her extended rumination on the pleasure Solomon must have enjoyed on his wedding nights, the Wife demonstrates one of her argumentative strategies: disarming her audience with laughter. She also demonstrates her characteristic lack of reverence for authority figures by daring to speculate about Solomon's sex life.

Lines 121-140

So that clerkes be nat with me wrothe,
I sey this, that they maked been for both –
This is to seye, for office, and for ese
of engendrure, ther we nat God displese
.
(131-134)

The clerkly argument, which the Wife is refuting, held that the genitals ought only to be used for procreating, and that it was sinful to have sex with the sole intention of taking pleasure in the deed. These clerks might therefore be unhappy with the Wife's claim that God intended the genitals for both purposes.

Telle me also, to what conclusioun
Were membres maad of generacioun
And of so parfit wys a wright y-wroght?
Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght
.
(121-124)

The argument here is that the genitals must serve some purpose. The Wife goes on to reject the idea that they are only made for urinating and distinguishing between males and females, saying her experience teaches her otherwise. Using the physical evidence apparent on the human body, as well as her own life experience, the Wife separates her argumentative strategy from the more abstract, learned type found in the books of "auctoritees," or authorities.

Why sholde men elles in hir bokes sette
That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?
Now wherwith sholde he make his payement
If he ne used his sely instrument?

(135-138)

The idea of the "marriage debt" is that husband and wife owe it to one another to have sex. The man "yelde to his wyf hire dette" when he has sex with her, thereby making the payment with his "sely instrument," or penis.

Lines 141-168

I nil envye no virginitee:
Lat hem be breed of pure whete-seed,
And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed.
And yet with barly-breed, Mark telle can,
Oure Lord Jesu refresshed many a man
.
(148-152)

The last time the Wife used the word "refresshed" was in her wish to be refreshed, or sexually fulfilled, half as often as Solomon. Her reference to Christ refreshing people with barley bread, probably an allusion to a miracle in which he fed hundreds with just a few loaves of bread, therefore takes on a different meaning. The Wife seems to be saying that Christ might also "refresh," or sexually satisfy, mankind by providing them with wives.

I wol persevere, I nam nat precious.
In wyfhode I wol use myn instrument
As frely as my Makere hath it sent.
If I be daungerous, God yeve me sorwe!
Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe
.
(154-158)

The "instrument" to which the Wife refers here is her vagina. Her claim that she will "use" it styles her as the master of her own toolkit, which contrasts with her projection that her husband shall "have," or possess it just a few lines later.

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral,
And have his tribulacioun withal
Upon his flessh, whyl that I am his wyf
.
(160-164)

By describing the sex act as tribulations upon the flesh, the Wife aligns sex with the suffering of Christ and martyrs, which was often referred to with this kind of language. The Wife seems to be suggesting that the endurance of a wife's desires can be a way of suffering for Christ. She brings up this idea again when she claims that her torment of her fourth husband probably saved him time in Purgatory.

Lines 194-229

The three men were gode, and riche, and olde;
Unnethe mighte they the statut holde
In which that they were bounden unto me.
Ye woot wel what I mene of this, pardee!
As help me God, I laughe whan I thinke
How pitously a-night I made hem swinke
.
(203-208)

Here the Wife corroborates her prior claim to use her "instrument" as freely as God sent it, describing how she had no pity on the sexual fatigue of her elderly husbands.

Lines 309-329

He is to greet a nigard that wol werne
A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne;
He shal have never the lasse light, pardee.
Have thou y-nough, thee nar nat pleyne thee
.
(333-336)

The claim that, like a flame, sexual favors can be shared without diminishing them, accords nicely with the Wife's description of herself as up for it, all the time. It also corroborates the anti-feminist stereotype of women as excessively lustful (the idea being that they'll want to have sex with multiple men, without ever getting tired of it).

Lines 330-342

By this proverbe thou shalt understonde,
Have thou y-nogh, what that thee recche or care
How merily that othere folkes fare?
For certeyn, olde dotard, by youre leve,
Ye shul have queynte right y-nough at eve
.
(334-338)

Here we have a very creative interpretation of a proverb from ancient Greek philosopher Ptolemy, which says a wise man doesn't worry about how successful others are. The Wife interprets this to mean that a husband shouldn't care if his wife is having sex with other people, as long as he's getting enough sex, or as she calls it, "queynte."

Lines 457-474

For al so siker as cold engendreth hayl,
A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl.
In wommen vinolent is no defense,
This knowen lecchours by experience
.
(471-474)

There are two ways to interpret this quote: a "likerous mouth," or mouth that enjoys drinking alcohol, might have a "likerous tayl," or enjoy sex, because the person to whom both mouth and tail belong is inclined to pleasures of the flesh. The last two lines lend themselves to a more sobering interpretation, though, one in which a likerous mouth has a likerous tail because the drunk person is unable to resist a sexual assault.

Lines 717-793

Of latter date, of wyves han he red
That somme han slayn hir housbondes in hir bed,
And lete hir lechour dighte hire al the night
Whyl that the corps lay in the floor up-right
.
(771-774)

The treachery of a wife having sex with another man in their marital bed is one familiar to us from "The Miller's Tale." The gruesome image of the husband's corpse bleeding to death on the floor is an addition made by the anti-marriage tracts from which Jankyn reads.

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