Jack’s Naughty Bits: Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

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Jack's Naughty Bits

this an open challenge: I defy anyone to show me a more raucous, spirited, spicy
rant on marriage than the Wife of Bath’s monologue in the Canterbury Tales.
We’ve had over 600 years to improve on Chaucer’s triumphant creation, but it’s never been
done. Not even Shakespeare’s shrewish Kate (before her taming) can hold a candle to
Chaucer’s Alison. She’s a kind of Mae West of the Middle Ages — loud, lusty and
eminently lovable (though some might add murderous, as there are suggestions that she
killed off her husbands!).


In her celebrated Prologue, Dame Alison holds forth on how to get the
upper hand in marriage, both in and out of the sack. Her philosophy is simple: women
should have complete sovereignty over their men. And her tactics are sure-fire: “Until he
paid his ransom to me, I wouldn’t give him my nicety.” Alison’s is a manifesto of a certain
pro-sex, pro-power, pro-marriage feminism — on her terms, of course — whose wit and
enthusiasm more than make up for its sometimes dubious ethics. After reminding men that
“with an empty hand, you may no hawks lure,” she concludes with a prayer on behalf of
women for “husbands meek, young, and fresh in the bed.” There’s no better voice, in my
opinion, to kick off Nerve’s post-marital sex issue.


A final note: I modernized the passage below to remove the difficulties of Chaucer’s
medieval English, but you should definitely read it in the original, and in its entirety. The
passage below is but a taste.

* * *

From The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

translated by Jack Murnighan

Experience, even if it were no authority

In this world is right enough for me

To speak of the woe that is in marriage.

For, gentlemen, since I was twelve years of age

Thank the Lord who in Heaven does live

Husbands at church I’ve had me five . . .

God bade us to grow and multiply,

And that good teaching well know I! . . .

That wise king Solomon

He had more wives than one

Ah, would that God let me,

Be as oft refreshed as he!

But that gift of God he gave all his wives

Has no man one such that is now alive . . .

To make the perfect student, you must go to many schools,

And to make the perfect work, you must use a lot of tools,

Five husbands later, you know I am no fool!

So bring on the sixth, wherever he may be

For some keep chaste, but they sure are not me! . . .

Though my life you might well want to scold

Well you know that no household

Has every vessel made all of gold.

Some are wood, but have their place,

God loves us all in different ways . . .

So I’ll bestow the flower of my age

In the acts and fruit of marriage.

Tell me, to what other conclusion

Were members made of generation?

And so perfectly were they wrought?

It could not all have been for nought . . .

And why in all the books is it said

That the husband must pay his wife in bed?

And what should he use for the payment

If he doesn’t use his privy instrument? . . .

In wifehood I will use my instrument

As freely as the Lord it hath me sent.

If I hurt anyone, Lord give me sorrow,

My husband will have it both eve and morrow.

When I find one ready to pay the debt

I’ll marry that man, that you can bet.

He’ll be my debtor and my slave

And all his suffering he will have

Upon his flesh, while I’m his wife

I have the power for all my life . . .

I say in true, five husbands I had

And three were good, and two were bad.

The three good men were rich and old

But to the bond of marriage could hardly hold

And you know what I mean, without it told!

And help me God, I laugh when I consider,

How much I asked them to deliver! . . .

Now of my fifth husband I will tell

May God never send his soul to Hell,

And yet he was to me most severe

And made me pay a price so dear

That my ribs will feel it till my dying day.

But in our bed he was fresh and gay

And could me so truly understand

That when he wanted my belle chose at hand

Though he beat my every bone to pain

He could win my love again and again . . .

He was, in truth, but twenty years of age

And I was forty, and lust within me raged! . . .

And truly, as my husbands told me,

I had the nicest little thing that ever might be! . . .

So I followed my inclination

By virtue of my constellation

That made me never want to forgo

Giving my chamber of Venus to a good fellow.

The original Middle English version