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‘So wel koude he me glose’: The Wife of Bath and the Eroticism of Touch

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 September 2012

Sue Niebrzydowski
Affiliation:
University of Wales, Bangor
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Summary

NO DISCUSSION of eroticism in late medieval literature would be complete without consideration of the Wife of Bath, who readily embraces the subject of sex. Her comparison of sex with her first three husbands with that with her fifth, Jankyn, in which she identifies a difference not just in the quantity but in the quality, is especially memorable. Although he demanded payment of the marital debt less frequently than his predecessors, Jankyn is the one of whom the Wife of Bath admits, ‘I loved hym best’. Her discussion of her sex life reverberates in a culture in which the pursuit of eros or passionate, sensual love was disapproved of by the Church. This essay explores what the Wife of Bath reveals about the importance of eroticism within the marriage bed, and examines the definition of its most satisfying expression suggested in her fond memory of how Jankyn ‘so wel koude … me glose’ (Prologue to The Wife of Bath's Tale, 509).

According to the Church, sex, lawful only within marriage, was not simply a matter of anywhere, anytime. If when one had it was important, why one had it was crucial, and pleasure was not an approved motivation. To have intercourse to procreate and/or pay the marital debt was sinless; to have coitus to avoid sexual incontinence was a venial sin while it was a mortal sin to have sex for pleasure.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2007

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