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.”