The Wife
Of Bath

Back when we were in school, I had an English teacher that insisted that we study the works of Geoffrey Chaucer in the original, occasionally memorizing entire passages.

It was a pain, because it seemed to me that Middle English was closer to French, or Anglo-Saxon, or even Urdu than Modern English. But, Dr. Quinn insisted --- so we labored through The Canterbury Tales --- the noble "Knights Tale" the bawdy "Miller's Tale," and the one that came to be my own special favorite, the prologue to "The Wife of Bath's Tale."

Oh, she was wicked. "Gat-tothed she was" (in Chaucer's time, a gap between the front teeth meant that she was extra passionate). Four husbands --- one of whom beat up on her (she was partially deaf). And a "lickerish way" (meaning she was lusty.)

When we meet her, she's one of the pilgrims on the way to visit the grave of St. Thomas of Canterbury --- the "holy, blissful martyr" murdered in his cathedral. She's obviously getting on in years: she knows that time is running out on her, for she tells us about the pain of getting old, but she does it with such spirit, and such sweet regret, jumbled with the passionate memories of her loves --- that she quite captures our hearts, in the same way as Cleopatra, or Elizabeth Taylor, or Don Marquis' Mehitabel, of "Archy and Mehitabel" fame (the sublime alley cat whose motto was toujours gai.)

Here's part of an original passage from the Wife of Bath's "Prologue," the one that the good Dr. Quinn caused me to commit to permanent memory. Below it you'll find my prose translation:

But, lord crist! whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote.
Unto this day it dooth myn herte boote
That I have had my world as in my tyme.
But age, allas! that al wole envenyme,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Lat go, farewel! the devel go therwith!
The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle;
The bren, as I best kan, now moste I selle;
But yet to be right myrie wol I fonde.
Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde.

But, dear God, when I remember being young, and having such a time, and having my world in my own way and in my own time --- it still tickles me. Even now it gives my heart such a boot.

But getting old! Oh lord! It poisons everything. It takes away your beauty, it robs you of all life's kicks.

Ah --- let it go. The hell with it. There's nothing more to say: they've robbed me of the flour. What's left --- the dregs --- let's see if I can still sell. I tell you, we'll be merry, no matter what. Now, let me tell you about Husband #4.

--- Modern English rendering by
Carlos Amantea

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