The Wife of Bath’s Tale

In a land where faeries were removed by mendicant friars, one of King Arthur’s knights sexually assaults a young woman by the river. The people are appalled, King Arthur is appalled, yet his queen and her maidens intercede on behalf of the young knight. King Arthur leaves the knight’s fate to his wife, and she poses the option for him to go free if only he can learn the answer to the question: What thing is it that women most desire? The knight is given a year and a day to return with the answer, and here, he realizes he’s gotten himself into a serious problem.

As his quest unfolds, the knight quickly learns that no one knows what women want. Many offer all sorts of possibilities, but none of them seem to be all-fitting for all women. Nearly the entire year passes, and he realizes he must return without the answer and face his punishment. Traveling through the woods back to the castle of King Arthur, he notices faeries dancing amid the trees deep off trail. He approaches them, but they disappear.

In their place, an ugly hag appears. She tells him the road has ended, then asks him what he seeks. He tells her; and she promises an answer to the question upon the condition that he obey her. He’s thrilled and together they arrive at the castle just in time where a gathering has taken place to await his answer. “A woman wants most of all, sovereignty over the heart of her man,” he declares. No one at court contradicts him and his life is spared. The hag then appears before the court and demands that the knight marry her, by the will of her contract with the knight, for the answer she provided saved his life. The knight is thunderstruck, appalled by his rash promise to the ugly woman. He begs for mercy, but she decrees that a curse will fall on both of them if he neglects her. She even pledges her love, and though this disgusts him, he marries her by an early morning ceremony then hides the rest of the day.

 

Later that evening, he groans as they lay together. She desires to know why he’s in distress, and he blatantly tells her: that it’s because she is so impossibly old and ugly, and also because she’s of a lower class. These facts confirmed, the hag offers the possibility of an adjustment to her looks within the span of a few days, providing he be polite to her. To enact this change, she first lectures him on his grievances.

She tells him that nobility should be viewed as a characteristic, not an inherited status. This nobility does not arrive by the family line, that simply because one is born into money and prestige, one does not automatically deserve all that comes along the path. True nobility, declares the hag, is attained through the power of God and is found within. Nobility is a manner of treating others as one expects to be treated. In this way, she denounces the brash way in which the knight felt he had the right to rape the stray maiden in the forest. The hag then addresses her social standing, her lowly class. She asserts that to live poor is to live wealthy in the heart. “Elective poverty is an honest way,” are her words, and she expresses pity for the man who covets. Though the poor have to work hard, the wiser they are by the virtue that they live by. To address her old age, she makes a joke of it by suggesting that he never has to worry about her cheating on him.

Ultimately, she ends her words with a proposition: to either have her remain ugly and faithful, or to become beautiful with the chance of going sexually astray. The knight, overwhelmed by her wisdom in lecture, places the decision before her, for he figures, judging by his own lack of wisdom, that she will know what is best. By choosing this option, the knight gave entire sovereignty to the hag, and in so doing, he is rewarded as she transforms into a young woman who is both beautiful and faithful.

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The Tale of Florent

The Tale of Florent begins with the knight Florent, who is eager to prove his worth. Abroad he travels until he finds a battle to fight of which, in the process, he kills Branchus, heir to a castle ruler’s throne. In anger, Florent is taken captive by a vast army. The parents of the slain warrior are aware that Florent is the nephew of the emperor, and so they decide not to kill him in revenge; but this doesn’t mean they don’t want him dead. The cunning grandmother of Branchus offers to contrive a plan that will cause his death, by the trickery of a covenant. Surmising that he will never succeed, and decreed to die if he fails, Florent is given time to quest for the answer that eludes the entire race of men:

“What thing all women most desire…”

Florent’s uncle the emporer learns of the tale upon his return and summons wise men to take a stab at the answer, but no one seems to know. The knight figures he’s out of luck and realizes he must venture the world to learn if such an answer even exists.

One day as he approaches a forest, he spots an ugly hag lingering beneath a tree. He tries to avoid her, but she hails him, informing that she knows of his quest and that he must listen to her if he wants to live. Florent is interested but slightly disturbed by the condition that, if he wants her help, he has to marry her. At first he declines, but when he realizes the urgency of his situation at her repeated warning, he reconsiders. He figures he can marry the ugly woman and keep her hidden away, and so he decides to accept her offer. She accedes and tells him what women want:

“To be the sovereign of a man’s love…”

She promises him this is the answer and implores him to return to her after he has faced his inquisitors. Though he senses some relief, he can’t tell what is better, to die miserably with a false answer, or to be married to the ugly woman for delivering the correct answer. Florent returns to face the court where his inquisitors await. He delivers word for word what the hag said, and here the grandmother of Branchus stirs in malign astonishment, demanding to know who told him; yet nevertheless, he’s freed of his death sentence.

The reality of having to marry the old hag sets in, and Florent experiences depression. His word of honor is of the utmost importance to him, and sees no way of avoiding the match. He finds her where he met her at the tree and she appears to him as ugly as any vision of womanly ugliness could possibly be.

“And like some bulging wool-sack, she / Proffers herself, and tells him now / It’s time to keep his vow…By the bridle she seizes him…”

Florent owns up, places her on his horse, and rides off to his castle, traveling primarily by cover of night. He has to explain to his friends the reason for bringing the wretched thing to his room.

She’s bathed and the servants bring clean clothes for the hag, but they find not a single comb that will go through her knotted hair. After caking her face with make-up, he realizes she’s truthfully even uglier than before; it is at this point that he marries her. She’s as tickled as ever before the distraught knight and later that evening something even worse happens: he has to sleep with her, as she declares: “That you would be my worldly bliss.” Florent buckles down and kisses her, pretending she’s attractive, but perceives he’s nothing left to live for.

Later they lie in bed naked, and his stomach can barely handle the situation. He clings to the far end of the bed, avoiding her like vile smelling death, but she stretches her bony fingers out to him for cuddling. Their love consummated, she begins to speak, but he notices the person speaking is a voluptuous, eighteen year old girl. He wastes no time, but she instantly props up “the hand.” The beautiful young woman poses a decision for him to make, that he can have her either pretty by day, or by night, but not both. Florent cannot figure out what to do, what to decide. Thus he declares to his acknowledged, lifelong-to-be wife, that he will be happy with the decision she decides is best, that he trusts her to do the right thing by what she feels is right.

In this fashion, Florent gave his woman full sovereignty, the precise thing that women want. By allowing her the one thing that all women want, all her ugliness melts away forever, and she declares that she will remain beautiful for as long as they live. Turns out, she had been cursed by her evil step-mother who hated her, and was stuck ugly till she won love and sovereignty from a knight. They proceed to flirt and play with each other, and go on to live merrily forever, the moral of the story being:

“To teach us [men] how obedience to ladies leads to luck in love.”

Sir Thopas

Sir Thopas is a knight who frolics through the fields and forest, enjoying the scenery and listening to various birds, until he decides he wants to marry an elf-queen. He discovers the locale of just such a queen, but is stopped by a giant with three heads. Sir Thopas declares he will take the giant down, but flees as the giant fires rocks at him from a slingshot. Back in town, at the bar he asks his friends to sing in merriment and tell stories while he engages in preparation to take down the giant he has told them about. His attire is rich with varying traits of craftsmanship, and his overweight warhorse ambles along when he finally leaves. He is last seen taking a draught of water in the liking of the famous Arthurian knight, Sir Percival.

Sir Launfal

Sir Launfal is King Arthur’s steward, but on the day of the king’s marriage to Guinevere, the bride neglects Sir Launfal because she senses he doesn’t like her. That she is rumored to be promiscuous lies at the heart of this unspoken animosity. The knight is saddened by the situation and makes up a story about his father dying to leave the castle. King Arthur abides, and sends Sir Launfal off with lots of spending cash and his two nephews.

The group arrives at Caerleon where the mayor, after learning Sir Launfal does not get along with an incoming band of knights from another land, offers him a place by the orchard. Here the self-exiled knight goes into debt from excessive spending, and his two companions therefore leave him to return to King Arthur. They tell the king Sir Launfal fairs well enough, but Queen Guinevere can’t stand this news; she wants him to suffer.

Back in Caerleon, Sir Launfal grows ever more poor. Instead of attending a holy feast one day, he decides to leave on a horse, and the other men mock him as he goes. He ventures to a forest, and after being alone for a bit, he takes rest beneath a tree to escape the heat. In the close distance, he notices a group of fair maidens. They approach and address him, conveying words for their heiress, Dame Tryamour, that she wishes to speak with him. He accepts, is taken to her, only to behold her radiant beauty. She then abruptly proceeds to tell him that she loves him, like she will love no other. Of course, in light of her voluptous beauty, Sir Launfal announces undying love in return.

Tryamour offers him riches and wealth in return for his binding love. The knight is readily impressed, and after dining and bathing together, they are soon in each others arms in bed…and without sleeping much. Next morning, the nympha-god lays down the rules for preserving their match:

  1. If he ever wishes to speak with her (implying when they’re not together), then he must do so in a place of secrecy.
  2. Under no condition must he ever boast of her beauty. 

Sir Launfal returns to the city dressed as he was, impoverished and disheveled. He’s found by ten mysterious knights who lavish him with wealth. The mayor is perplexed and feels lied to, thus he questions Sir Launfal about his mysterious abscence from the holy feast. Sir Launfal, however, is miffed that the mayor only cares because of the knight’s sudden wealth. Sir Launfal then dines greatly and pays debt, where finally the lords of Caerleon announce a tournament in his honor. When the constable is taken out by Sir Launfal himself, the others of the town gang up on him, but he takes them all down. A great feast is held and he is respected greatly, and in the days following, his love Tryamour visits daily, yet only Gifre (an invisible servant assigned by Tryamour) and Sir Launfal can see her presence.

Enter Sir Valentine

The Italian knight, Sir Valentine, hears rumors of Sir Launfal, and challenges him from Italy to a duel for the name of his “lady-love’s” honor. Sir Launfal quietly laughs by the request. He accepts the challenge, Tryamour predicts his success, and he is off with Gifre to Italy. When they meet, the duel begins, and Sir Valentine giggles as he beats him around. Sir Launfal takes matters seriously, and proceeds to kill Sir Valentine. The dead knight’s compatriots are furious, yet they too, are taken down by Sir Launfal. The victor at arms, Sir Launfal heads home to England joyfully.

King Arthur learns of the duel, summons the knight, and holds a great feast for him. When they’re all dancing afterwards, Queen Guinevere eyes him, hating him, wondering of his need for love. She seeks him out and professes her love for him, and when he rejects her, she grows furious. He confesses his mystery love, proclaims her immense beauty, and Guinevere declares to punish him for making her seem less beautiful.

King Arthur grows angered by this news, and he and Guinevere decide Sir Launfal’s fate: to be hung and drawn. Sir Launfal, however, in violation of Tryamour’s Rule #2, has found that his love has disappeared and his wealth vanished; he is emptied of everything and left distraught by his loss. He is captured and brought before King Arthur, but he defends himself bodly by proclaiming that not only did Guinevere lie about him propositioning her, but that she is known for sleeping around; and he does this with the help of those who know of the rumor as well.

Sir Launfal is cleared of propositioning the Queen, but is asked to procure evidence of his lover, Tryamour. Given slightly over a year to prove this, Sir Launfal grows destitute, unable to find his love. King Arthur insists of his death, but the group is not in favor. Then comes a series of maidens toward the castle; they face the king and announce that “their lady” will arrive. Queen Guinevere suspects she may be proved utterly wrong, and pleads for King Arthur to kill Sir Launfal.

The Lady 

Out of nowhere, Tryamour arrives on a lavishly clad horse, dressed beyond lavishly herself, looking exquisitely beautiful with a lavish gold crown studded with gems on her head. She marched directly before the King and Queen, and everyone was agape, possessed by her impossible beauty. Tryamour vouches for Sir Launfal, that the Queen propositioned him, and King Arthur in turn agreed that Tryamour was more beautiful than Queen Guinevere. Tryamour finalizes these judgments by blowing into the Queen’s eyes, making her blind.

Tryamour vacates the premises and Sir Launfal understands he’s welcome to follow. Into the distance they ride and he is never heard from again.