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The Tale of the Basin


Abbreviations: CT: Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales; MED: Middle English Dictionary; MS: manuscript; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; NCE: The New Catholic Encyclopedia; Whiting: Whiting, Proverbs, Sentences, and Pro­verbial Phrases.

16 Of husbandry cowth he noght. This is true in multiple senses of the term husbandry: management of his household, farming his father’s lands, and (punningly) being a respected spouse.

21Hit is an olde seid saw, I swere be Seynt Tyve: The “olde seid saw” is first cited from c. 1470 (see Speake, Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs): “For he that cast hym for to thryve, he must ask offe his wiffe leve.” See also Whiting M155 (“A Man may not wive and thrive all in a year”) as a variant.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia lists three St. Ives, one (1253–1303) born in Brittany, the patron saint of lawyers (see “Ivo Hélory, St.,” NCE); another (c. 1040–1116) an important canonist and bishop of Chartres (see “Ivo of Chartres, St.,” NCE); and a third from the sixth or seventh century who purportedly left his home in Persia to act as a missionary in Britain (see “Ivo, St.,” NCE). In addition, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints mentions an early Irish missionary, also called Ia of Cornwall (supposedly fifth or sixth century), after whom the Cornish town of St. Ives is named (See “Ives, St.,” Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, p. 201). Ia/Ives was a woman, so perhaps that is a reason (beyond convenience of rhyme) for her invocation in this context.

30 The sole citation for Whiting C106: “To teach one how the Cat sneezes (i.e., put in one’s place, bully).”

60 A drawght ther is drawen amysse. Under “draught” 3e, “drauen a draught,” MED gives the meaning “to play a trick, or engage in a deceitful or sinful activity.” The metaphor is from the game of chess: “a chess move is made improperly.”

76 be Saynt Albon. St. Alban was the first British martyr, killed at what is now called St. Alban’s in Hertfordshire, where a Benedictine abbey was built to commemorate him. His legend is the subject of Lydgate’s poem St. Alban and St. Amphibalus (1439).

77 Hit is a preest men callis Sir John. Sir was a conventional courtesy title for a priest; John was an equally conventional name for one, particularly a lecherous one. Since the early thirteenth century, priests had been required to be celibate.

79 Of felawes he berys the bell. That is, like a bellwether among sheep, he is a leader among good fellows.

81 gytryns. The gittern was an ancestor of the modern guitar.

126 Prively at a posturne yate as stille as any ston. A postern gate is a side or back entrance, smaller and less conspicuous than the main public gate. The phrase “as still as a stone” can mean both “as motionless as a stone” and, as it does here, “as quietly as a stone.” See Whiting S772 for many other examples of the phrase.

174 Matins in a parish church were the early morning service, before the Mass.

188 The carter fro the halle dure erth can he throw. The cart driver (carter) is not only responsible for carrying away material in his cart; here he is clearly responsible for arriving very early in the morning and shoveling it into the cart from where the servants have dumped it outside the door. I suspect that “earth” here is a euphemism for various organics (rushes from the hall floor, perhaps; food refuse; but most importantly body waste) and that like the carter in Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (CT VII[B2]3016–62) his job is to collect, very early in the morning, the last day’s waste, and to take it out of town for fertilizer. Compare the quotation in MED carter, 1.(a) (1460) “All carterys and carmen that usyth to drawe dung out of the towne.”

191 He wende hit hade bene folys of the fayre (he told hit in his saw). “He believed they were performing fools (that’s what he said).” Compare OED fair n.1., citation 1764 “Has he not. . . made himself the fool of the fair?”

208 Be cockis swete wounde. A euphemistic swearing by the wounds of Christ, with cock standing in for God as modern gosh does. In medieval Christian theology all three members of the Trinity are equally God, so Christ can be referred to as God just as God the Father can. It is not until 1618 that OED cites the word cock used with the meaning “penis” (see cock n.1, sense 20), but the often anthol­ogized early fifteenth-century lyric “I have a gentil cok” from London, British Library MS Sloane 2393 plays upon the reader’s dawning recognition that the cock in question is not avian. The lyric may mark the early stages of the use of the term for the penis. Given that medieval poets liked to pick oaths with particular significance, cock may well be a pun here, with the sense “penis” playing into the following line in which the philandering priest is threatened with loss of his “harnesse.” We see the same punning combination of euphemistic oath and earthy context in Ophelia’s lament on sexual treachery in Act 4, scene 5 of Hamlet:
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame. (lines 59–60)
On the more solemn aspect of the reference, the Five Wounds of Christ were the object of contemplation and veneration in the Middle Ages. They were the wounds in hands and feet inflicted by nails during the Crucifixion, and a lance wound in the side.

222 Mary for hir joyes fyfe. The Five Joys of the Virgin Mary were the Annunciation (of the coming birth of Christ), the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension (of Christ to heaven), and the Assumption (of Mary herself into heaven).


Copy-Text: Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.5.48, fols. 58r–61v.
Abbreviation: MS: manuscript, here referring to the copy-text

title No title in MS.
1 MS reads: Off talys and trifulles many man tellys, in very large letters and underlined, like line 75.

18 The line is missing, with no gap in MS. Some such line as “And did as she hym tolde” is called for.

25 A line is missing to complete the stanza; no gap is in MS.

30 Sche taught hym ever among how the katte did snese: the word katte is inserted above the line.

47 MS reads: Fourty pounde of or fyfty loke of hym thou fech. Emendation for sense.

73 The word me is inserted above the line.

75 MS reads: The person seyde thou me telle, in very large letters and underlined, like line 1.

103 MS reads: Loke thou where the basyn fette. Emendation for sense.

121 After line 120, line 124 appears by mistake but is canceled with a line drawn through it: Hastely she made. The verse appears in its proper position as well.

141 MS reads: Leuer then a C pounde he wolde.

168 The word sone is inserted above the line.

179 MS reads: Anon as Sir John can se he began to call. Emendation for sense.

187 MS reads: Alas why what shall I doo.

209 MS reads: Thou shalle lese thine harnesse or a C pounde.

222 MS reads: Mary for y hir joyes fyfe. Emendation for sense.

224ff. Finitur in very large letters, like lines 1 and 75.














































Of talys and trifulles many man tellys;
Summe byn trew and sum byn ellis.
A man may dryfe forth the day that long tyme dwellis
With harpyng and pipyng and other mery spellis,
With gle and with gamme.
Of a person ye mowe here
(In case that hit soth were),
And of his brother that was hym dere
And lovyd well samme.

The ton was his fadirs eyre of hows and of lande,
The tother was a person as I undurstande.
A riche man wex he and a gode husbande,
And knowen for a gode clerke thoro Goddis sande,
And wyse was holde.
The tother hade littul thoght;
Of husbandry cowth he noght,
But alle his wyves will he wroght,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A febull husbande was he on as many ar on lyve:
Alle his wyves biddyng he did it full ryve.
Hit is an olde seid saw, I swere be Seynt Tyve,
Hit shalbe at the wyves will if the husbond thryve,
Bothe within and withowte.
A wyfe that has an yvell tach,
Therof the husbond shalle have a smache,
But yif he loke well abowte.

Of that yong gentilman was a gret disese:
Aftur a yere or two his wyfe he myght not pleese;
Mycull of his lande lay to the preestis ese.
Sche taught hym ever among how the katte did snese,
Right at hir owne wille.
He that hade bene a lorde
Was nouther at bedde ne at borde,
Ne durst onys speke a worde
When she bade be stille.

Litull of husbondry the godeman con thynke,
And his wyfe lovyd well gode mete and gode drynke.
She wolde nouther therfore swete ne swynke,
But when the baly was full, lye down and wynke,
And rest hir nedur ende.
Soo long this life thei ladde
That spende was that thei hadde.
The wife hir husbonde badde
Belyfe forth to wende,

“To the person thi brodur that is so rich a wrech,
And pray hym of thi sorow sumdel he wolde slech.
Fourty pounde or fyfty loke of hym thou fech.
So that thou hit bryng litull will I rech
Never for to white.”
To his brother forth he went,
And mycull money to hym he lent,
And also sone hit was spent:
Thereof they hade but lyte.

Micull money of his brother he fette;
For alle that he broght he ferd never the bette.
This person wex wery and thought he wolde hym lette:
“And he fare long thus he fallis in my dette,
And yet he may not the.
Betwene hym and his wife, iwysse,
A drawght ther is drawen amysse.
I will wete, soo have I blisse,
How that hit myght be.”

Yet on a day afterwarde to the person he yede
To borow moné, and he ne myght spede.
“Brother,” quod the person, “thou takis litull hede
How thou fallis in my dett — therof is all my drede —
And yet thou may not the.
Perdy, thou was my fadurs eyre
Of howse and lande that was so feyre,
And ever thou lyves in dispayre.
What devell! How may this be?”

“I ne wot how it faris, but ever I am behynde.
For to liffe manly hit come me be kynde.
I shall truly sey what I thynke in my mynde.”
The person seyde, “Thou me telle.”
“Brother,” he seid, “be Saynt Albon,
Hit is a preest men callis Sir John.
Sich a felow know I non:
Of felawes he berys the bell.

“Hym gode and curtesse I fynde evermoo.
He harpys and gytryns, and synges wel thertoo;
He wrestels and lepis, and castis the ston also.”
“Brother,” quod the person, “belife home thou goo,
So as I thee say.
Yif thou myght with any gynne
The vessell owt of the chambur wynne,
The same that thei make watur in,
And bryng hit me, I thee pray.”

“Brother,” he seid blithly, “thi wil shalbe wroght,
It is a rownde basyn, I have hit in my thoght.”
“As prively as thou may, that hit be hidur brought,
Hye thee fast on thi way. Loke thou tary noght,
And come agayne anone.”
Hamwarde con he ride;
Ther no longur wolde he byde.
And then his wife began to chyde
Because he come so sone.

He hent up the basyn and forth can he fare.
Till he came to his brother wolde he not spare.
The person toke the basyn and to his chaumbur it bare,
And a privé experiment sone he wroght thare,
And to his brother he seyde ful blithe,
“Loke thou where thou the basyn fette,
And in that place thou hit sett,
And than,” he seid, “withowtyn lette,
Come agayne right swythe.”

He toke the basyn and forth went.
When his wife hym saw hir browes she uphent.
“Why hase thi brother so sone thee home sent?
Hit myght never be for gode, I know it verament,
That thou comes home so swythe.”
“Nay,” he seid, “my swetyng,
I moste take a litull thyng,
And to my brother I mot hit bryng,
For sum it shall make blithe.”

Into his chaumbur prively went he that tyde
And sett downe the basyn be the bedde side;
He toke his leve at his wyfe and forth can he ride.
She was glad that he went and bade hym not abyde.
Hir hert began to glade.
She anon right thoo
Slew a capon or twoo,
And other gode mete thertoo
Hastely she made.

When alle thyng was redy, she sent aftur Sir John
Prively at a posturne yate as stille as any ston.
They eten and dronken as thei were wonte to done
Till that thaym list to bedde for to gon,
Softly and stille.
Within a litull while Sir John con wake,
And nedis watur he most make.
He wist wher he shulde the basyn take
Right at his owne wille.

He toke the basyn to make watur in.
He myght not get his hondis awey all this worde to wyn.
His handis fro the basyn myght he not twyn.
“Alas,” seid Sir John, “how shall I now begynne?
Here is sum wych crafte.”
Faste the basyn con he holde,
And alle his body tremeld for colde.
Lever then a hundred pounde he wolde
That hit were fro hym rafte.

Right as a chapmon shulde sell his ware
The basyn in the chaumbeur betwix his hondis he bare.
The wife was agrevyd he stode so long thare
And askid why so; hit was a nyce fare
So stille ther to stande.
“What, woman!” he seid, “In gode fay,
Thou must helpe, gif thou may,
That this basyn were awey:
Hit will not fro my honde.”

Upstert the godewyfe — for nothyng wolde she lette —
And bothe hir hondis on the basyn she sette.
Thus sone were thai bothe fast, and he never the bette.
Hit was a myssefelisshippe a man to have imette,
Be day or be nyght.
They began clepe and crye
To a wenche that lay thaim bye,
That she shulde come on hye
To helpe yif she myght.

Upstert the wench er she was halfe waked
And ran to hir maistrys all baly-naked.
“Alas,” seid hir maistrys, “who hase this sorow maked?
Helpe this basyn wer away that oure sorow were slakyd.
Here is a sory chaunce.”
To the basyn this wench she raste
For to helpe hade she caste.
Thus were they sone alle thre fast.
Hyt was a nyce daunce.

Ther thei daunsyd al the nyght till the son con ryse.
The clerke rang the daybell as hit was his guise.
He knew his maisturs councell and his uprise.
He thoght he was to long to sey his sirvyse,
His matyns be the morow.
Softly and stille thidur he yede.
When he come thidur he toke gode hede
How that his maystur was in grett drede
And brought in gret sorow.

Anon as he Sir John can se he began to call.
Be that worde thei come down into the hall.
“Why goo ye soo?” quod the clerke. “Hit is shame for you alle.
Why goo ye so nakyd? Foule mot yow falle.
The basyn shalle yow froo.”
To the basyn he made a brayde,
And bothe his hondis theron he leyde.
The furst worde that the clerke seyde:
“Alas, what shall I doo?”

The carter fro the halle dure erth can he throw,
With a shevell in his honde, to make it clene, I trowe.
When he saw thaym go rounde upon a row
He wende hit hade bene folys of the fayre (he told hit in his saw).
He seid he wolde assay, iwysse.
Unneth he durst go in for fere.
All save the clerke nakyd were.
When he saw the wench go there
Hym thoght hit went amysse.

The wench was his speciall that hoppid on the rowte.
“Lette go the basyn er thou shalle have a clowte!”
He hit the wench with a shevell above on the towte.
The shevyll sticked then fast withowte any dowte,
And he hengett on the ende.
The carter, with a sory chaunce,
Among thaim alle he led the dawnce.
In Englonde, Scotland, ne in Fraunce
A man shulde non sich fynde.

The godeman and the person come in that stounde.
Alle that fayre feliship dawnsyng thei founde.
The godeman seid to Sir John, “Be cockis swete wounde,
Thou shalle lese thine harnesse or a hundred pounde.
Truly thou shalle not chese.”
Sir John seid, “In gode fay,
Helpe this basyn were awey
And that moné will I pay
Er I this harnes lese.”

The person charmyd the basyn that it fell thaim fro;
Every man then hastely on thaire wey can goo.
The preest went out of contré for shame he hade thoo,
And then thai levyd thaire lewtnesse and did no more soo,
But wex wyse and ware.
Thus the godeman and his wyfe
Levyd togedur withowt stryfe.
Mary for hir joyes fyfe
Shelde us alle fro care.

false stories; (t-note)
are; otherwise
spend; lingers
fun and games
parson; will
Supposing it were true

And [they] loved each other well

The one; heir; residence
The other; parson
grew; manager
through; grace
(see note)
household management he knew nothing
wife’s desire; did

feeble; one; in life
old proverb; by; (see note)

bad habit
touch of It; (t-note)
Unless he is wary

cause of distress

Much; served to pamper the priest
(see note); (t-note)

[one] neither; nor at table
dared once

about; man of the house thought
sweat or labor
belly; nap

gone (spent)


part; lessen
see that; fetch; (t-note)

just as

got on (fared); better
If he behaves
still he can not prosper

The game is being misplayed; (see note)
find out, as I hope for happiness

Again; went
money; succeed

By gosh

What the devil

in arrears
generously; comes to me by nature; (t-note)

by; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)

plays gittern; in addition; (see note)
is a shot-putter



grabbed; out he went
slack off

Make sure; (t-note)





it will make somebody happy


then; (t-note)

side entrance (gate) very quietly; (see note)
they desired


Whenever he wanted

world to gain

Rather; (t-note)

peddler; merchandise

silly behavior

if you can

will not [move]

Up jumped; delay

stuck; better
bizarre group; [for] anyone; met

shout; call
in a hurry

mistress; buck-naked

Help [that]; would be lessened
painful mischance

secrets; getting up [time]
too delayed
matins in the morning; (see note)

During; calling

May evil befall you



door; (see note)

(see note)
Scarcely; dared

It seemed to him

girlfriend; rabble

with bad luck

(see note)
equipment; (t-note)
you have no choice

Help [that]


left; bad behavior

(t-note); (see note)

The end; (t-note)

Go To Jack and His Stepdame: Introduction