Innumerable as the Starrs of Night,
Or Starrs of Morning,
Dew-drops, which the Sun
on every leaf and every flouer
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— that is all
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Impearls: In praise of the C-word - Afterword

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Earthdate 2004-02-13

In praise of the C-word – Afterword

The Wife of Bath was quite a character.  There's much more terrific stuff in her Prologue: highly recommended.  (I like the edition and translation of the Tales used in Britannica's Great Books of the Western World.  I would note that other translations from Middle English I've seen do not translate the Middle English word queynte as its modern four-letter cognate that we've been discussing, instead substituting euphemisms such as “pudendum.”)

Geoffrey Chaucer reading from Troilus and Criseyde (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) The question might be raised by some that 1) The Canterbury Tales were, after all, written by a man — Geoffrey Chaucer — and 2) how can a man have or should have anything at all to say about a woman's [insert c-word]?

I would hope that stating the issue thus would almost answer superficial aspects of the question by itself.  The c-word is unlike the n-word, say, or any ethnic word or slur sometimes used in opprobrium, in that it refers to an item of female sexual anatomy which is shared by both women and men — i.e., women's (male) lovers.  (Yes, it's also shared by women's women lovers, if any, but then it's only women!)  Just as blacks famously will use the (otherwise derogatory) n-word with each other — frequently affectionately, so it's been reported — so (I happen to know) male and female lovers oftentimes use the c-word in erotic banter and plain sexual discussions between themselves.  As a practical matter, men have (whether women like it or not — and I'd hope, generally, they like it) a great deal to say (and do) with regard to women's c-words!  Certainly, a writer can write about it.

Beyond issues of superficial nomenclature, there's the underlying question of truth in the Wife of Bath's presentation.  The Canterbury Tales, of course, is a work of fiction, as well as being by a man.  Nevertheless, there is such a thing as truth in art — even art, involving women characters, composed by men.  In this case, it is one woman's (and her five husbands') truth — coming at us from another age to boot — but still, I would judge, there is truth to read here about people.  Truth in a sense similar to what Jacob Bronowski was talking about in his slim little book The Common Sense of Science: 3

No one who stops to think about [Tolstoy's] Anna Karenina today believes that it is without morality, and that it makes no judgement on the complex actions of its heroine, her husband, and her lover.  On the contrary, we find it a deeper and more moving book than a hundred conventional novels about that triangle, because it shows so much more patient, more understanding, and more heartbreaking an insight into the forces which buffet men and women.  It is not a conventional book, it is a true book.  And we do not mean by truth some chance correspondence with the facts in a newspaper about a despairing woman who threw herself under a train.  We mean that Tolstoy understood people and events, and saw within them the interplay of personality, passion, convention, and the impact on them of the to-and-fro of outside happenings.

Thus, in my view, the Wife of Bath.

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