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Introduction: ‘Becoming bene-straw’: The Middle-Aged Woman in the Middle Ages

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 February 2023

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Summary

In The Merchant’s Tale Januarie stipulates that his ideal bride will be no more than twenty years old, and that he especially ‘wol no woman of thritty yeer of age; / It is but bene-straw and greet forage’ (Merchant’s Tale, 1421–2). Januarie wants an heir and his dismissal of a more mature woman as an unsuitable spouse is based upon a perceived connection between a woman’s age, fecundity and sexual attraction. The Middle English Dictionary defines benestraw as ‘the refuse of broad bean plants (the stalks and empty pods)’ and ‘forage’ as dry fodder fit only for animal consumption. According to Januarie, by thirty a woman is an ‘oold wyf’ (1416) and his insulting comparison of her to ‘bene-straw’ suggests that she has become an infertile husk, a mummifying memory of her former youthful bloom, a delicacy now only to horses and cattle.

Infertility is only one facet of the insult that Januarie hurls at the older woman. Not only does she lack the sexual allure of youth but also she may turn into a shrew, as acid-tongued as the caustic lye made by mixing the ashes from burning ‘benestraw’ with water. Further, Januarie perceives the older woman to be too worldly-wise (1423) and hence intractable – so set in her ways that she cannot be moulded by her husband’s guidance as a young wife would and should be (1429– 30). The irony of Januarie’s insult is never lost on female readers since it is made by a sixty-year-old with ‘slake skyn aboute his nekke’ (1849), and whose sexual performance is ‘nat … worth a bene’ (1854) (or possibly benestraw?) to his young wife. Nor can readers easily overlook his failure to recognise the double standard at work here – he is very conscious of age withering a woman’s physical charm and allure yet believes himself impervious to the ageing process, ‘I feel me nowhere hoor but on myn heed’ (1464). Januarie’s definition of when a woman is old and his attitude towards women’s ageing, stemming as it does from his characterisation as a mal-marié senex amans of fabliau tradition, is, nonetheless, a useful starting point for an examination of women’s middle age in the Middle Ages.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2011

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