Introducing Middle English, With Penises

Apologies for the title. I anticipate that it will increase my number of visits from search engines.

I am currently preparing to teach a course for second-year undergraduates, focused on the literature of Chaucer, his contemporaries and his followers in the fifteenth century. I will be passing my students the link to my blog, as I anticipate that I will use it to disseminate some information that they may find useful. Equally, since the majority of my time this upcoming term will be spend preparing and teaching seminars, I thought that I’d use my blog to distribute information that is of interest to you, whether you are fellow tutors, or just interested readers.

As it has not been terribly long since I was an undergraduate (though it has just ticked over into a decade since I made that first terrifying trek to university), I am still very aware of what turns students on about medieval literature, and what repels them. This is perhaps one of my deepest, darkest, secrets as a medievalist, but I will admit it: as a first and second-year student I cared very little about Chaucer. There it is, I’ve said it. I was somewhat baffled by Middle English and was much more enticed by the gothic allure of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the exoticism of world literature, and the glee of books for children. However, some way through my third year, I made a discovery that changed my life and it was the poem I have transcribed below. This verse contained everything that my nineteen-year old mind adored: humour, relationships, satire, and a dose of good old fashioned fun. It was also tinged with misogyny that was ripe for critique. I am going to give this to my students to pique their interest in the wonderful array of medieval literature that we will study over the course of the term.

I have provided the poem in Middle English, but in essence it gives us a gaggle of ten women, who become bored and decide to compare and ridicule their husbands. In turn, they make fun of their husbands’ endowment, their sexual performance and their general inadequacy. One wife remarks that not even her cat would be satisfied with the size of her man’s penis. Another comments that her husband’s little penis pokes out, like a parasitic worm that has buried itself in the back of a cow. There is a wife who compares her man to an archer, who consistently shoots short of the mark. One woman has no problem with size, but, despite her avid attempts to excite him, she has no luck: he may not rise. These ladies are very unkind indeed. They wish evil health upon their husbands, and declare that they might as well have been women! As the poem reaches its, ahem, climax, we are subjected to the ninth’s wife’s relentless attempts to get a rise out of her husband: “I bow hym, I bend hym,I stroke hym, I wend hym”… but no luck. The tenth wife sums it up – she declares her man to be worth absolutely nothing to her. If she were to sell him, she would get absolutely zilch.

Medieval literature, at its most insulting, entertaining and satirical:

A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands’ Ware

(ed. Frederick Furnivall, from National Library of Wales, Brogyntyn 2.1)

Leve, lystynes to me,
Two wordys or thre,
And herkenes to my songe;
And I schall tell ȝow a tale,
Howe .x. wyffys satt at þe nale,
And noman hem a-monge.

“Sen we haue no othere songe,
[Forto singen vs amonge,]
Talys lett vs tell,
Off owre hosbondes ware,
Wych of hem most worthy are,
To-day to bere the bell.

And I schall nowe begyn att myne:
I knowe the mett well & fyne,
The lenȝte of a snayle,
And euer he warse is from day to day.
To grete god euer I pray
To gyve hym evyle hayle.”

The secund wyffe sett her nere,
And seyd, “by the rode, I haue a ware,
That is two so mene,
I mett hym in þe morowe tyde,
When he was in his moste pryde,
The lenȝte of .iij. bene.

“Howe schuld I be served with that?
I wold gybbe, owre gray catt,
Were cord þere on!
By sayne peter owte of rome,
I se neuer a wars lome
Stondyng opon mone.”

The .iij. wyffe was full woo,
And seyd that “I haue one of thoo
That noȝte is at nede;
Owre syre breche, when hit is torn,
Hys pentyll pepythe owte be-forn
Lyke a warbrede.

“Hit growethe all with-in þe here:
Sychon se I neuer ere,
Stondyng opon schare,
Ȝett the schrewe is hodles,
And of all thynge goodles!
There cryste gyve hym care!”

The .iiij. wyffe of the floke,
Seyd, “owre syre fydecoke,
ffayn wold I skyfte,
He is longe, and he is smalle,
And ȝett hathe þe fydefalle,
God gyve hym sory thryfte!

“The leste fyngere on my honde,
Is more than he, whan he dothe stonde:
Alasse that I am lorn!
Sory mowntyng com there-on!
He schold a be a womon
Had he be eere born.”

The .v. wyffe was full fayn,
When sche hard her felowys playn,
And vp sche gan stond:
“Now ȝe speke of a tarse,
In all þe warld is not a warse,
Than hathe my hosbond.

“Owre syre brady lyke a dere
He pysses his tarse euery ȝere,
Ryȝte as dothe a boke:
When men speke of archery,
He mon stond faste there-by,
Or ellys hys schote woll troke.”

The .vj. wyffe hyȝte sare;
Sche seyd: “my hosbondys ware,
Is of good a-syse,
He is whyte as ony mylke,
He is softe as ony sylke,
Ȝett sertis he may not ryse.

I lyrke hym vp with my hond,
And pray hym that he woll stond,
And ȝett he lythe styll.
When I se that all is noȝte,
I thynke mony a thro thoȝte;
Bot cryste wote my wyll.”

The .vij. wyffe sat on the bynch,
And sche caste her legge on wrynch,
And bad fyll the wyne:
“By seynt Iame of galys,
In englond ne in walys
Is not a wars than myne!

“Whon owre syre comys In,
And lokes after that sory pyne,
That schuld hengge bytwen his leggis,
He is lyke, by the rode,
A sory laueroke satt on brode
Opon two adyll eggis.”

The .viij. wyffe was wll I-taȝte,
And seyd, “seldom am I saȝte,
And so I well may:
When the froste fresys,
Owre syris tarse lesys,
And all-way gose a-way.

When the ȝeke gynnys to synge,
Then the schrewe begynnys to sprynge,
Lyke a humbulbe;
He cowres vp on othere two,—
I know not the warse of tho,
I schrew hem all thre!”

The .ix. wyffe sett hem nyȝe,
And held a mett vp on hyȝe
The lenȝte of a fote:
“Here is a pyntell of a fayre lenȝte,
But he berys a sory strenȝte,—
God may do boote.

“I bow hym, I bend hym,
I stroke hym, I wend hym;
The deuell mot hym sterve!
Be he hote, be he cold,
Tho I torn hym two fold,
Ȝett he may not serve.”

The .x. wyffe be-gan her tale,
And seyd, “I haue on of the smale,
Was wyndowed a-way.
Of all noȝtes it is noȝte:
Sertis, and hit schuld be boȝte,
He is not worth a nay” Amen.

Lyon, BM, Ms 5128, fol. 100r

Lyon, BM, Ms 5128, fol. 100r


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