Canterbury Tales: The Tale of the Wife of Bath

Author: Geoffrey Chaucer  | Date: 1380


Now in the olden days of King Arthur,

Of whom the Britons speak with great honour,

All this wide land was land of faery.

The elf-queen, with her jolly company,

Danced oftentimes on many a green mead;

This was the old opinion, as I read.

I speak of many hundred years ago;

But now no man can see the elves, you know.

For now the so-great charity and prayers

Of limiters and other holy friars

That do infest each land and every stream

As thick as motes are in a bright sunbeam,

Blessing halls, chambers, kitchens, ladies’ bowers,

Cities and towns and castles and high towers,

Manors and barns and stables, aye and dairies-

This causes it that there are now no fairies.

For where was wont to walk full many an elf,

Right there walks now the limiter himself

In noons and afternoons and in mornings,

Saying his matins and such holy things,

As he goes round his district in his gown.

Women may now go safely up and down,

In every copse or under every tree;

There is no other incubus, than he,

And would do them nothing but dishonour.

And so befell it that this King Arthur

Had at his court a lusty bachelor

Who, on a day, came riding from river;

And happened that, alone as she was born,

He saw a maiden walking through the corn,

From whom, in spite of all she did and said,

Straightway by force he took her maidenhead;

For which violation was there such clamour,

And such appealing unto King Arthur,

That soon condemned was this knight to be dead

By course of law, and should have lost his head,

Peradventure, such being the statute then;

But that the other ladies and the queen

So long prayed of the king to show him grace,

He granted life, at last, in the law’s place,

And gave him to the queen, as she should will,

Whether she’d save him, or his blood should spill.

The queen she thanked the king with all her might,

And after this, thus spoke she to the knight,

When she’d an opportunity, one day:

"You stand yet," said she, "in such poor a way

That for your life you’ve no security.

I’ll grant you life if you can tell to me

What thing it is that women most desire.

Be wise, and keep your neck from iron dire!

And if you cannot tell it me anon,

Then will I give you license to be gone

A twelvemonth and a day, to search and learn

Sufficient answer in this grave concern.

And your knight’s word I’ll have, ere forth you pace,

To yield your body to me in this place."

Grieved was this knight, and sorrowfully he sighed;

But there! he could not do as pleased his pride.

And at the last he chose that he would wend

And come again upon the twelvemonth’s end,

With such an answer as God might purvey;

And so he took his leave and went his way.

He sought out every house and every place

Wherein he hoped to find that he had grace

To learn what women love the most of all;

But nowhere ever did it him befall

To find, upon the question stated here,

Two, persons who agreed with statement clear.

Some said that women all loved best riches,

Some said, fair fame, and some said, prettiness;

Some, rich array, some said ’twas lust abed

And often to be widowed and re-wed.

Some said that our poor hearts are aye most eased

When we have been most flattered and thus pleased

And he went near the truth, I will not lie;

A man may win us best with flattery;

And with attentions and with busyness

We’re often limed, the greater and the less.

And some say, too, that we do love the best

To be quite free to do our own behest,

And that no man reprove us for our vice,

But saying we are wise, take our advice.

For truly there is no one of us all,

If anyone shall rub us on a gall,

That will not kick because he tells the truth.

Try, and he’ll find, who does so, I say sooth.

No matter how much vice we have within,

We would be held for wise and clean of sin.

And some folk say that great delight have we

To be held constant, also trustworthy,

And on one purpose steadfastly to dwell,

And not betray a thing that men may tell.

But that tale is not worth a rake’s handle;

By God, we women can no thing conceal,

As witness Midas. Would you hear the tale?

Ovid, among some other matters small,

Said Midas had beneath his long curled hair,

Two ass’s ears that grew in secret there,

The which defect he hid, as best he might,

Full cunningly from every person’s sight,

And, save his wife, no one knew of it, no.

He loved her most, and trusted her also;

And he prayed of her that to no creature

She’d tell of his disfigurement impure.

She swore him: Nay, for all this world to win

She would do no such villainy or sin

And cause her husband have so foul a name;

Nor would she tell it for her own deep shame.

Nevertheless, she thought she would have died

Because so long the secret must she hide;

It seemed to swell so big about her heart

That some word from her mouth must surely start;

And since she dared to tell it to no man,

Down to a marsh, that lay hard by, she ran;

Till she came there her heart was all afire,

And as a bittern booms in the quagmire,

She laid her mouth low to the water down:

"Betray me not, you sounding water blown,"

Said she, "I tell it to none else but you:

Long ears like asses’ has my husband two!

Now is my heart at ease, since that is out;

I could no longer keep it, there’s no doubt."

Here may you see, though for a while we bide,

Yet out it must; no secret can we hide.

The rest of all this tale, if you would hear,

Read Ovid: in his book does it appear.

This knight my tale is chiefly told about

When what he went for he could not find out,

That is, the thing that women love the best,

Most saddened was the spirit in his breast;

But home he goes, he could no more delay.

The day was come when home he turned his way;

And on his way it chanced that he should ride

In all his care, beneath a forest’s side,

And there he saw, a-dancing him before,

Full four and twenty ladies, maybe more;

Toward which dance eagerly did he turn

In hope that there some wisdom he should learn.

But truly, ere he came upon them there,

The dancers vanished all, he knew not where.

No creature saw he that gave sign of life,

Save, on the greensward sitting, an old wife;

A fouler person could no man devise.

Before the knight this old wife did arise,

And said: "Sir knight, hence lies no travelled way.

Tell me what thing you seek, and by your fay.

Perchance you’ll find it may the better be;

These ancient folk know many things," said she.

"Dear mother," said this knight assuredly,

"I am but dead, save I can tell, truly,

What thing it is that women most desire;

Could you inform me, I’d pay well your hire."

"Plight me your troth here, hand in hand," said she,

"That you will do, whatever it may be,

The thing I ask if it lie in your might;

And I’ll give you your answer ere the night."

"Have here my word," said he. "That thing I grant."

"Then," said the crone, "of this I make my vaunt,

Your life is safe; and I will stand thereby,

Upon my life, the queen will say as I.

Let’s see which is the proudest of them all

That wears upon her hair kerchief or caul,

Shall dare say no to that which I shall teach;

Let us go now and without longer speech."

Then whispered she a sentence in his ear,

And bade him to be glad and have no fear.

When they were come unto the court, this knight

Said he had kept his promise as was right,

And ready was his answer, as he said.

Full many a noble wife, and many a maid,

And many a widow, since they are so wise,

The queen herself sitting as high justice,

Assembled were, his answer there to hear;

And then the knight was bidden to appear.

Command was given for silence in the hall,

And that the knight should tell before them all

What thing all worldly women love the best.

This knight did not stand dumb, as does a beast,

But to this question presently answered

With manly voice, so that the whole court heard:

"My liege lady, generally," said he,

"Women desire to have the sovereignty

As well upon their husband as their love,

And to have mastery their man above;

This thing you most desire, though me you kill

Do as you please, I am here at your will."

In all the court there was no wife or maid

Or widow that denied the thing he said,

But all held, he was worthy to have life.

And with that word up started the old wife

Whom he had seen a-sitting on the green.

"Mercy," cried she, "my sovereign lady queen!

Before the court’s dismissed, give me my right.

’Twas I who taught the answer to this knight;

For which he did plight troth to me, out there,

That the first thing I should of him require

He would do that, if it lay in his might.

Before the court, now, pray I you, sir knight,"

Said she, "that you will take me for your wife;

For well you know that I have saved your life.

If this be false, say nay, upon your fay!"

This knight replied: "Alas and welaway!

That I so promised I will not protest.

But for God’s love pray make a new request.

Take all my wealth and let my body go."

"Nay then," said she, "beshrew us if I do!

For though I may be foul and old and poor,

I will not, for all metal and all ore

That from the earth is dug or lies above,

Be aught except your wife and your true love."

"My love?" cried he, "nay, rather my damnation!

Alas! that any of my race and station

Should ever so dishonoured foully be!"

But all for naught; the end was this, that he

Was so constrained he needs must go and wed,

And take his ancient wife and go to bed.

Now, peradventure, would some men say here,

That, of my negligence, I take no care

To tell you of the joy and all the array

That at the wedding feast were seen that day.

Make a brief answer to this thing I shall;

I say, there was no joy or feast at all;

There was but heaviness and grievous sorrow;

For privately he wedded on the morrow,

And all day, then, he hid him like an owl;

So sad he was, his old wife looked so foul.

Great was the woe the knight had in his thought

When he, with her, to marriage bed was brought;

He rolled about and turned him to and fro.

His old wife lay there, always smiling so,

And said: "O my dear husband, ben’cite!

Fares every knight with wife as you with me?

Is this the custom in King Arthur’s house?

Are knights of his all so fastidious?

I am your own true love and, more, your wife;

And I am she who saved your very life;

And truly, since I’ve never done you wrong,

Why do you treat me so, this first night long?

You act as does a man who’s lost his wit;

What is my fault? For God’s love tell me it,

And it shall be amended, if I may."

"Amended!" cried this knight, "Alas, nay, nay!

It will not be amended ever, no!

You are so loathsome, and so old also,

And therewith of so low a race were born,

It’s little wonder that I toss and turn.

Would God my heart would break within my breast!"

"Is this," asked she, "the cause of your unrest?"

"Yes, truly," said he, "and no wonder ’tis."

"Now, sir," said she, "I could amend all this,

If I but would, and that within days three,

If you would bear yourself well towards me.

"But since you speak of such gentility

As is descended from old wealth, till ye

Claim that for that you should be gentlemen,

I hold such arrogance not worth a hen.

Find him who is most virtuous alway,

Alone or publicly, and most tries aye

To do whatever noble deeds he can,

And take him for the greatest gentleman.

Christ wills we claim from Him gentility,

Not from ancestors of landocracy.

For though they give us all their heritage,

For which we claim to be of high lineage,

Yet can they not bequeath, in anything,

To any of us, their virtuous living,

That made men say they had gentility,

And bade us follow them in like degree.

"Well does that poet wise of great Florence,

Called Dante, speak his mind in this sentence;

Somewhat like this may it translated be:

’Rarely unto the branches of the tree

Doth human worth mount up: and so ordains

He Who bestows it; to Him it pertains.’

For of our fathers may we nothing claim

But temporal things, that man may hurt and maim

"And everyone knows this as well as I,

If nobleness were implanted naturally

Within a certain lineage, down the line,

In private and in public, I opine,

The ways of gentleness they’d alway show

And never fall to vice and conduct low.

"Take fire and carry it in the darkest house

Between here and the Mount of Caucasus,

And let men shut the doors and from them turn;

Yet will the fire as fairly blaze and burn

As twenty thousand men did it behold;

Its nature and its office it will hold,

On peril of my life, until it die.

"From this you see that true gentility

Is not allied to wealth a man may own,

Since folk do not their deeds, as may be shown,

As does the fire, according to its kind.

For God knows that men may full often find

A lord’s son doing shame and villainy;

And he that prizes his gentility

In being born of some old noble house,

With ancestors both noble and virtuous,

But will himself do naught of noble deeds

Nor follow him to whose name he succeeds,

He is not gentle, be he duke or earl;

For acting churlish makes a man a churl.

Gentility is not just the renown

Of ancestors who have some greatness shown,

In which you have no portion of your own.

Your own gentility comes from God alone;

Thence comes our true nobility by grace,

It was not willed us with our rank and place

"Think how noble, as says Valerius,

Was that same Tullius Hostilius,

Who out of poverty rose to high estate.

Seneca and Boethius inculcate,

Expressly (and no doubt it thus proceeds),

That he is noble who does noble deeds;

And therefore, husband dear, I thus conclude:

Although my ancestors mayhap were rude,

Yet may the High Lord God, and so hope I,

Grant me the grace to live right virtuously.

Then I’ll be gentle when I do begin

To live in virtue and to do no sin.

"And when you me reproach for poverty,

The High God, in Whom we believe, say I,

In voluntary poverty lived His life.

And surely every man, or maid, or wife

May understand that Jesus, Heaven’s King,

Would not have chosen vileness of living.

Glad poverty’s an honest thing, that’s plain,

Which Seneca and other clerks maintain.

Whoso will be content with poverty,

I hold him rich, though not a shirt has he.

And he that covets much is a poor wight,

For he would gain what’s all beyond his might,

But he that has not, nor desires to have,

Is rich, although you hold him but a knave.

"True poverty, it sings right naturally;

Juvenal gaily says of poverty:

’The poor man, when he walks along the way,

Before the robbers he may sing and play.’

Poverty’s odious good, and, as I guess,

It is a stimulant to busyness;

A great improver, too, of sapience

In him that takes it all with due patience.

Poverty’s this, though it seem misery-

Its quality may none dispute, say I.

Poverty often, when a man is low,

Makes him his God and even himself to know.

And poverty’s an eye-glass, seems to me,

Through which a man his loyal friends may see.

Since you’ve received no injury from me,

Then why reproach me for my poverty.

"Now, sir, with age you have upbraided me;

And truly, sir, though no authority

Were in a book, you gentles of honour

Say that men should the aged show favour,

And call him father, of your gentleness;

And authors could I find for this, I guess.

"Now since you say that I am foul and old,

Then fear you not to be made a cuckold;

For dirt and age, as prosperous I may be,

Are mighty wardens over chastity.

Nevertheless, since I know your delight,

I’ll satisfy your worldly appetite.

"Choose, now," said she, "one of these two things, aye,

To have me foul and old until I die,

And be to you a true and humble wife,

And never anger you in all my life;

Or else to have me young and very fair

And take your chance with those who will repair

Unto your house, and all because of me,

Or in some other place, as well may be.

Now choose which you like better and reply."

This knight considered, and did sorely sigh,

But at the last replied as you shall hear:

"My lady and my love, and wife so dear,

I put myself in your wise governing;

Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,

And bring most honour to you, and me also.

I care not which it be of these things two;

For if you like it, that suffices me."

"Then have I got of you the mastery,

Since I may choose and govern, in earnest?"

"Yes, truly, wife," said he, "I hold that best."

"Kiss me," said she, "we’ll be no longer wroth,

For by my truth, to you I will be both;

That is to say, I’ll be both good and fair.

I pray God I go mad, and so declare,

If I be not to you as good and true

As ever wife was since the world was new.

And, save I be, at dawn, as fairly seen

As any lady, empress, or great queen

That is between the east and the far west,

Do with my life and death as you like best.

Throw back the curtain and see how it is."

And when the knight saw verily all this,

That she so very fair was, and young too,

For joy he clasped her in his strong arms two,

His heart bathed in a bath of utter bliss;

A thousand times, all in a row, he’d kiss.

And she obeyed his wish in everything

That might give pleasure to his love-liking.

And thus they lived unto their lives’ fair end,

In perfect joy; and Jesus to us send

Meek husbands, and young ones, and fresh in bed,

And good luck to outlive them that we wed.

And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives

Of those who’ll not be governed by their wives;

And old and querulous niggards with their pence,

And send them soon a mortal pestilence!

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Chicago: Geoffrey Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: The Tale of the Wife of Bath Original Sources, accessed May 27, 2024,

MLA: Chaucer, Geoffrey. Canterbury Tales: The Tale of the Wife of Bath, Original Sources. 27 May. 2024.

Harvard: Chaucer, G, Canterbury Tales: The Tale of the Wife of Bath. Original Sources, retrieved 27 May 2024, from