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A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands' Ware


Abbreviations: F: Frederick J. Furnivall; MS: Porkington MS, no. 10, fols. 56v-59v.

The alternate title of the work is "Gossips' Meeting," under which it is listed in the Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1500, vol. 5, ed. Albert E. Hartung and J. Burke Severs (New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1993), p. 1464.

1 Leve, lystynes to me. The exhortation is similar to those found in Middle English romances, though here leve signals a deferential mode of address. F takes the flourish or "curl" at the end of certain letters, i.e., d, g, m, n, to indicate a final e. Indeed, the meter requires the extra stress at the end of many couplets.

8 For to singen us amonge. This line is added presumably by F to maintain the six-line stanza.

10 ware. Translated to "merchandise," ware is a euphemism for male genitalia which effectively imposes a sexual economy on the women's discussion of private matters.

14 mett. The poet has fun here and elsewhere with puns on mett - here meaning "measurement" but also suggesting "meat." Similarly, in line 22 the sense is "measure" as she "meets" him (i.e., has sex with him).

16 ever. MS: ev. The scribal flourish that F reads as a final e, is also sometimes used as an abbreviation for er.

17 ever. MS: ev.

22 in the morowe tyde. Apparently this husband rests up before rising to his glory. See also note to line 14.

25 Howe schuld I be served with that. MS: Howe schule I be sved wt t. F has effectively filled in abbreviated syllables.

26 gray. MS: gy.
Gybbe. Gybbe is a popular name at the time for cats.

28 By Sayne Peter owte of Rome. A common expletive referring to the apostle and first vicar of Christ who was enormously popular in late medieval England.

29 lome. Usually a club or weapon, as in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (line 2309), where the Green Knight lifts his great weapon; but also a euphemism for penis.

30 mone. Of the range of meanings listed in the MED for this word, the most likely possibilities suggest sexual intercourse or preparation for participation in sexual activities. The female critique is all the more scathing when addressed to a fully aroused male.

34 Owre. The plural reference to individual husbands has the effect of stereotyping all married men. Like the so-called "royal" we, it unites the group in a collective mentality. It is used again in lines 44, 61, 84, and 94.

39 schare. This term derives from the Anglo-Saxon word scearu meaning cutting implements such as scissors or plow share but is also understood as the juncture between a man's legs. The verbal form is sometimes used for circumcision. Given the "hodles schrewe" of line 40 perhaps there is some sense of a truncated pin here.

44 fydecoke. F glosses this term as "fiddle de-dee," "nonsense," "fiddle-head," and "stupid." But the MED reads the term as a compound: fid (peg or plug) and cock (penis). See fide-cok (n).

45 skyfte. From sciftan, the Anglo-Saxon word for "shift" or "change."

58 tarse. James Orchard Halliwell, in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, From the XIV Century (London: John Russell Smith, 1847; rpt. 1860, 1872, 1924), defines this word in Latin, i.e., mentula virga, meaning "virile member" or "rod." The MED simply says "penis."

61 bradys. "Jerks off" is perhaps more colloquial than some would prefer, but it gets well at the tone of the wife's derogatory insult. The OED sheds light on the action being performed under a set of definitions for braid: 1) to make a sudden jerky movement as to brandish a spear; 2) to draw a sword or a knife; 3) to jerk, snatch, wrench, fling, etc., with a sudden effort; frequently with up, down, out. It could also be a form of breden. See MED breden v. (3).

66 troke. From the Anglo-Saxon trucian, meaning "to fail."

96 yeke. From the Anglo-Saxon geac which refers to a cuckoo, gawk, or simpleton, all of which are referents to humans. F prefers to gloss this as "cuckoo," which, when applied to a person becomes a synonym for cuckoldry, since the cuckoo lays its eggs in other birds' nests. Thus there is a veiled threat in the eighth wife's reflections. The OED cites another meaning which has particular resonance in this poem: "to push out from the nest like a cuckoo." Chaucer uses the lore of the cuckoo bird to fill out his avian hierarchy in The Parliament of Fowles. Toward the bottom of the list is "the cukkow ever unkynde" (line 358). In his use of the term "unkynde" Chaucer means "unnatural" in the sense that the cuckoo lays its eggs in the nests of other birds. Later in the same poem, the cuckoo's reputation is impugned by the merlin, a bird higher in status:
"Ye, have the glotoun fild inow his paunche,
Thanne are we wel!" seyde the merlioun;
"Thow mortherere of the heysoge on the braunche
That broughte the forth, thow reufullest glotoun!
Lyve thow soleyn, wormes corupcioun,
For no fors is of lak of thy nature!
Go, lewed be thow whil the world may dure!" (lines 610-16)
The merlin, being a noble bird (raptor), is concerned with lineage and thus feels threatened by the cuckold bird. The popular "Cuckoo Song" of the thirteenth century renders the bird an unstoppable harbinger of the summer solstice, when no one follows ordinary rules: "Sumer is icumen in / . . . murie sing cuccu! / Cuccu! Cuccu! / Wel singes thu cuccu; / Ne swik thu naver nu" (Lines 1-14).


























Leve, lystynes to me
Two wordys or thre,
And herkenes to my songe;
And I schall tell yow a tale,
Howe ten wyffys satt at the nale,
And no man hem amonge.

"Sen we have no othere songe
For to singen us amonge,
Talys lett us tell
Of owre hosbondes ware,
Wych of hem most worthy are
Today to bere the bell.

And I schall nowe begyn att myne:
I knowe the mett well and fyne,
The lenghte of a snayle,
And ever he warse is from day to day.
To grete God ever I pray
To gyve hym evyle hayle."

The secund wyffe sett her nere,
And seyd, "By the Rode, I have a ware
That is two so mene:
I mete hym in the morowe tyde,
When he was in his moste pryde,
The lenghte of thre bene.

"Howe schuld I be served with that?
I wold Gybbe, owre gray catt,
Were cord there on!
By Sayne Peter owte of Rome,
I se never a wars lome
Stondyng opon mone."

The third wyff was full woo,
And seyd that, "I have one of thoo
That noghte is at nede;
Owre syre breche, when hit is torn,
Hys pentyll pepythe owte beforn
Lyke a warbrede:

"Hit growethe all within the here:
Sychon se I never ere,
Stondyng opon schare.
Yett the schrewe is hodles,
And of all thynge goodles!
There Cryste gyve hym care!"

The fourth wyfe of the floke
Seyd, "Owre syre fydecoke
Fayn wold I skyfte:
He is longe, and he is smalle,
And yett hathe the 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 thereon!
He schold a be a womon
Had he be eere born."

The fifth wyffe was full fayn
When sche hard her felowys playn,
And up sche gan stone:
"Now ye speke of a tarse!
In all the warld is not a warse
Than hathe my hosbond.

"Owre syre bradys lyke a dere,
He pysses his tarse every yere,
Ryghte as dothe a boke:
When men speke of archery,
He mon stond faste thereby,
Or ellys hys schote woll troke."

The sixth wyffe hyghte sare;
Sche seyd: "My hosbondys ware
Is of good asyse;
He is whyte as ony mylke,
He is softe as ony sylke,
Yett sertis he may not ryse.

"I lyrke hym up with my hond,
And pray hum that he woll stond,
And yett he lythe styll.
When I se that all is noghte,
I thynke mony a thro thoughte;
Bot Cryste wote my wyll."

The seventh wyffe sat on the bynch,
And sche caste her legge on wrynch,
And bad fyll the wyne:
"By Seynt Jame 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 laveroke satt on brode
Opon two adyll eggis."

The eighth wyffe was well i-taghte,
And seyd, "Seldom am I saghte,
And so I well may:
When the froste fresys,
Owre syris tarse lesys,
And allway gose away.

When the yeke gynnys to synge,
Then the schrewe begynnys to sprynge,
Lyke a humbulbe;
He cowres upon othere two, -
I know not the warse of tho,
I schrew hem all three!"

The ninth wyffe sett hem nyghe,
And held a mett up on hyghe
The lenghte of a fote:
"Here is a pyntell of a fayre lenghte,   
But he berys a sory strenghte, -
God may do boote; -

"I bow hym, I bend hym,
I stroke hym, I wend hym;
The devell mot hym sterve!
Be he hote, be he cold,
Tho I torn hym twofold,
Yett he may not serve."

The tenth wyffe began her tale,
And seyd, "I have on of the smale,
Was wynnowed away.
Of all noghtes it is noghte:
Sertis, and hit schuld be boghte,
He is not worth a nay."

Friends, listen; (see note)

be attentive

no man among them

(see note)

Of our; merchandise; (see note)

take the prize

with mine
measurement; (see note)
worse; (see note)
(see note)
bad fortune

sat near her
Cross; member
also; inferior
measure (meet with); in the morning; (see note)
greatest glory
three beans

(see note)
(see note)
accorded (in union with) him
(see note)
worse instrument; (see note)
Standing ready; (see note)

emphatically upset
worthless is [in time of] need
sire's breeches; (see note)
member peeps out
parasitic worm (maggot)

Such a one saw; before
pubic region; (see note)
rascal; hoodless

sire's penis; (see note)
Happily; change; (see note)

drooping ailment
pitiful vitality (power to grow)

smallest (least)

undone (deprived)
should have been; woman

to rise
penis; (see note)

jerks off (breeds); deer; (see note)
discharges his semen once a year
very close
shot fall short; (see note)



lies still
angry (courageous/desirous)

bade replenish; wine

worse [husband]

hang; legs
lark; nest
addled eggs


member grows small
i.e., disappears

cuckoo begins; (see note)
cowers; other two (i.e., testicles)
curse them

sat near them
measure (piece of meat/sausage)
foot long



nothings; nothingest
Clearly; should it be for sale
would not be worth anything

A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husbands' Ware, Select Bibliography


Porkington MS, no. 10 (National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth; now called Brogynton MS II.1), fols. 56v-59v (1453-1500).


Furnivall, Frederick J., ed. Jyl of Breyntford's Testament, by Robert Copland, Bokeprynter, The Wyll of the Deuyll and His Last Testament, A Talk of Ten Wives on Their Husband's Ware, A Balade or Two by Chaucer, and Other Short Pieces. London: Printed for private circulation by Taylor & Co., 1871. Pp. 29-33. [Also contains The Meaning of Marriage.]