General Prologue Addition to The Canterbury Tales:
Also with us was a poor Wife, who was less prosperous than the Wife of Bath, though she carried herself well. Her clothes, while plain and colorless, were mostly clean and well-cared for. Her stockings and kerchiefs had small spots of dirt and green stains that would not come out, but this was to be expected for a wife who worked with her garden. She knew much of the ways of the earth and tended her kitchen garden well, using her knowledge to keep her family fortified against sickness and employing some of her skills to heal them of minor ailments. Her mattock and knife were well handled, sharp and bright, for she knew the customs of planting and weeding, though she had not brought those tools with her for our journey. She was a quiet woman who was easy to get along with. Of those men who preached to know the cure to all ails, she set their knowledge at the worth of one berry, for she knew the plants and herbs of the earth well, and none that she was aware of had any such power. These men only served to trick devout, honest people out of their hard-earned money. Having worked closely with the land throughout the seasons, she knew how crucial the balance of all things was. Too much rain could be deadly for a growing plant, just as too much of one humour could bode ill for a person.
The Poor Wife’s Prologue:
When the Clerk had finished his tale, the Host turned to the poor wife, Matilda, who had been quiet up until now.
“By God’s soul, good wife, I have realized you are out here without a husband! What kind of man allows his wife to be away from him for so long?”
“It is true,” she began, “that my husband was reticent for me to leave, but my dear father recently passed away and with no sons or other children, his land went to my husband, who sold it. As I have long been a devout follower of God and wished to undertake a pilgrimage to deepen my faith and connection to Him, one day I told my husband that I would be going to Canterbury. It is wrong for wives to leave their husbands without permission, but I have faith that the Lord will understand my actions. He will watch over me on our journey, so though I have no escort, I know well that I am protected.”
“Well, surely you must have a tale of merry cheer that you can share with us all,” the Host said.
“Oh sir,” she said, “I am but a humble wife, who keeps her garden and her family well. I know no tales that would befit such a company as this.”
“Nonsense! Surely you have heard of some tale from a passing storyteller or a moving sermon? Your work in gardens must provide you with knowledge of nature at the very least. Do not tell us a tale of suffering, but a tale to lift our spirits!”
The wife was reluctant, but nevertheless replied, “It is true that my work has given me much knowledge, but in truth, much of that came from my dear mother. Like many mothers, she taught me about the ways of nature and how they can be used to not only grow food and prevent illness through meals but also cure simple ailments. Bleeding a person to restore the balance of the humours is much like pruning a tree: it is necessary to ensure that healthy growth is allowed to continue, not just a corrupted twisting of their nature.”
“To this end,” she continued, “ I will tell a tale that shows what happens when women are not permitted to remain in touch with the land, their natural inclination. Staying locked away inside walls and under roofs all day is no way to live. The Clerk’s story of Griselda, who foraged by the road for her food, reminded me of myself and so I will tell another story with a dedicated and devout woman. I heard it once before from a passing traveler and will do my best to re-tell it here. I humbly entreat you all to forgive me for my simple language, for I am surely unequal to the task of telling such a noble tale as that of Yvain, the Knight of the Lion.”
The Poor Wife’s Tale:
In the days of the pious King Arthur, there was once a knight his court named Yvain, who had disobeyed the King and rode out to challenge a knight to gain valor. He used the magical fountain that affected the weather of the knight’s lands to call him forth and beat him, though through his pride he was then trapped in the kingdom with only the maid Lunette to help him. She knew him from a brief stay at King Arthur’s court many years ago and helped to arrange his happiness, marrying the brave knight to her lady, Laudine. The two were happy for a time, until King Arthur and his knights came to threaten the kingdom. Yvain fought them and revealed himself, but even though they no longer attacked through force, Gawain drew Yvain away through promises of glory in battle and by frightening him with tales of other knights who had married and lost their fighting touch.
Laudine, who had so recently lost her first husband and feared what would happen to her kingdom and its people without a protector, begged Yvain not to go, but the whispers of glory were too powerful for him to resist. To protect her new husband, Laudine gave him a ring that she herself had fashioned from the earth, wind, sun, and sky that would protect him from any harm. Yvain promised Laudine that he would be back a year and a week from the feast of St. John’s, but when the time came for him to return, he was so caught up in battles and fights to prove his honor that he forgot his promise. Lunette then rode out to meet him and express her shame that such a man would be so untrue to his sworn word before delivering her lady’s message that Yvain should no longer consider himself her husband. Distraught, Yvain wandered through the forest, half-mad, for months, eating raw meat and frightening the good folk who cared for the land. He had forsaken the Lord and so his soul was adrift, without purpose or belief. Fortunately, one day a lady and her servants saw him and took pity, healing his mind with a potion from Morgan le Fay, a powerful sorceress. Yvain then began his trials, first rescuing a lion, who became his dear friend, and later rescuing all women who were in dire straits. He became known as the Knight of the Lion, for the faithful companion at his side, and this is where our story starts.
There were two sisters whose father had recently died, and though he had left equal shares of his land to them both, the eldest sister, Loraine, wanted it all to herself. Her younger sister, Cecily, begged Loraine to be reasonable. The lands were her home as well, and she had always delighted in seeing the land bloom in the spring. When the seasons turned, she could often be found wandering the garden, talking kindly with the servants who worked the land, occasionally even helping them gather food for the kitchens. Her mother had always endeavored to show her how the lands were a reflection of the people on them. When the lands prospered, so did the people, but when the lands suffered, as in a bad harvest year, the same was also true of the people, who would then go hungry and tensions would rise.
Loraine, as the eldest sister, was more interested in learning how to maintain the household that would one day be hers. Despite their shared upbringing and teachings, Loraine would not be swayed by her sister’s heartfelt pleas. She went to King Arthur’s court and persuaded Sir Gawain to fight for her cause. When the devout Cecily arrived, King Arthur heard her story sympathetically, but had no power to change what had been done. He granted her forty days to find a knight to fight for her, advising her to seek out the Knight of the Lion. She rode for days, always just behind where that brave knight was, valiantly travelling over hill and fen. When at last she caught up, Yvain was happy to take up her cause and they began their journey back. As night began to fall, they spotted a town and decided to seek shelter there for the night.
“Begone, false knight!” the townspeople cried out from their houses as the two passed through. “Only shame and disgrace await you here!”
Yvain was perturbed by these people’s heckling but was determined to find a suitable resting place for the lady so that she need not sleep on the hard ground.
“Where might I find lodgings?” he asked the crowd, receiving only further cries of discouragement and promises of agony in response. Beginning to grow angry, he yelled at them, “You wretched low folk, why do you attack me? What have I ever done to you?”
A peasant woman nearby rebuked the knight’s harsh words, telling him, “Do not be so quick to judge that which you do not understand. The people have good reason for warning you away, and for many years we have done the same to any new visitors to warn them away from the horrors deeper inside our city. I would advise you to turn back and not return. You head towards the Castle of Infinite Misfortune, and none who enter there have ever left.”
Yvain, as a knight who had striven to protect those in need, became concerned. “Good wife, what danger is there here? I am the Knight of the Lion and am sworn to offer my assistance to all those without recourse.”
The wife did not answer, only shut her door and left Yvain, his lion, and Cecily to wander further into the city. As they walked, Cecily noticed that the gardens and earth were covered in covered in thistles, charlock, and knapweed, all sure signs of neglect and misfortune. Where were the dandelions? The growing foods? Her apprehension grew as they arrived at the castle and were rudely escorted in by a servant. On their way to their rooms, they passed a long workroom filled with at least three hundred young women, toiling away on embroidery and sewing of gold and silver thread. The room had no windows and only stone walls, not even a glimpse of sunlight peeking in to energize the women. Their hair was dripping with sweat and all around them stood fearsome looking guards, scanning the room for any hint of rebellion. Their clothes were dirty and scarcely more than rags around their bodies, which were thin and pale from lack of sunlight. One of these women glanced up as they were passing by and caught Cecily’s eyes, silently begging for help before their escort guided them onwards.
“Sir Knight, there is something dreadful occurring here,” Cecily told Yvain. “Those women are being held against their will! We must do something!”
“What is the meaning of this?” Yvain demanded of their escort, but he only continued on deeper into the castle until he reached their rooms.
“There is no use trying to escape now,” he said, shoulders hunched and head drooping. “The masters who have control of this castle never let anyone leave, and I fear you will endure great shame before your death at their hands. You should not have come. The two brothers of this castle are devils and demand a high price from any visitors. The women you saw earlier are the payment of the former king of this land, thirty every year in exchange for his life. He takes them from the far reaches of our kingdom, so that fewer people may know of his cowardice. The only way the devils can be defeated is in battle. But be warned, brave knight, for many valiant souls have fought against them and none have ever succeeded.”
Upon hearing this grave news, Cecily formed a plan with Yvain. Tomorrow, when he would be expected to fight the two devils with his lion close at hand, she would sneak down to the workshop and lead the women away. Yvain thought this was too dangerous for a noble lady, but Cecily insisted on helping the poor women in any way she could.
“I will not leave those women to the whims of chance while you fight two supernatural beings whose strength we do not know!” she exclaimed. Yvain saw that there was to be no stopping her and admitted that additional assistance would be useful.
Early the next morning, Cecily went down to the garden near the kitchen, hiding in the shadows and using only the light of the moon to see. To ensure the guards would not stop them, she would need to get them out of the way. She used her knowledge of the plants and picked some vegetables for the cook to roast, as roasting a food not only makes it warm, thus making the person eating it susceptible to drowsiness, but also dries the food out, sucking the energy out of a person. From her time working in the gardens of her home, she knew much of how the humours affected not only the bodies, but the foods people ate. Black bile was melancholic and dry, whereas yellow bile was choleric and warm. Hopefully the combination of the two humours in the vegetables and cowardly dispositions of the men would allow the women to escape. For what man guards a room full of innocent women and keeps them trapped without being a true coward?
Later in the morning, as Yvain got ready to fight, Cecily traced her way back to the workshop. As she arrived, she spotted the guards sitting down along the floor, weary and unable to focus.
“Oh, noble lady, what are you doing here?” one of the women cried out. “You should escape while you can; they never truly harm the ladies of high birth.”
“Peace, women, for I have come to assist you. My courageous companion, the Knight of the Lion, is fighting the two devils as we speak. I have ensured the guards are incapacitated so that we can escape, and you can once again be free.”
There was such a clamor of noise that Cecily hardly knew what to do. Women were crying, screaming, and falling to their knees, but there wasn’t any time. “Up, valiant damsels, up! Have you no family you wish to return to? No siblings, parents, or husbands? No houses or gardens? The month has just turned to April, and it is now the giving month. With any luck, our champion will kill the devils and this kingdom will be given freedom. In the meantime, we must hasten away.”
Her speech inspired the women to leave behind their threads of silver and gold, though many were ashamed of their dirty attire. They crept through the castle, empty due to the battle currently going on, and Cecily led them out through the smallest gate, where there was only one guard.
“What is this? Why have you women left your workshop?” he asked, eyeing the hundreds of women and moving his hand to his sword.
“We mean you no harm,” Cecily answered, “but neither can we allow you to stand in our way. Good sir, surely you recognize the evil of keeping these women trapped against their will. The Knight of the Lion is fighting even as we speak against your demonic masters. All we ask is passage through your gate, to ensure these women can reach their homes and families once more.”
The guard looked over the crowd of women with ragged clothes and bare feet, many staring at the sky as if it was a miraculous thing, others kneeling on the ground to feel the earth beneath them. “Very well. But hurry. If your knight cannot defeat the devils, they will come after you and their devilish powers give them strength beyond your imaginings.” With that, he stood aside, and Cecily guided the women to a grove of trees outside of the town, where Yvain had agreed to meet them if he won. Before the sun hit its midday mark, there was the sound of a horse galloping closer and closer. The women drew closer, afraid, but Cecily stood tall in front of them, prepared to greet whoever had come.
“My friend, I see you have succeeded in your task just as I have succeeded in mine,” Yvain said as he entered the grove. “The devils are dead, and you are all safe from their power. As I was losing ground and beginning to fear for my life, they began to falter and weaken! It was a miraculous thing and allowed me to deal the killing blows.”
Cecily realized that the devils must have been insisting on their tribute of women to strengthen their corrupted and unholy power. Once the women had left the bounds of their kingdom, the energy must have left them. Her plan had not only ensured that the women gained their freedom, but that Yvain was given an opportunity to strike. The women began weeping and crying as the realization that they would never have to return to the windowless workshop ever again.
“But what are we to do, Sir Knight?” one asked. “Our homes are far away, and our king does not care for us back.”
Yvain was troubled by this news, as he was aware that the forty-day limit King Arthur had set for Cecily to find a champion was fast approaching. There was no time to see each of the women home.
“Perhaps you could come to Camelot with us?” Cecily said. “King Arthur is the king of kings and has a fine reputation. Surely he can speak with your king and ensure you all return home safely.” Everyone thought this was a fine idea and they began their trek to Camelot. Fortunately, it was no more than a week’s walk. Though Cecily and Yvain had their horses, the three hundred women had to walk on foot throughout the day and quickly grew tired. As they walked, the women wandered into the woods or along the side of the rood to forage for nuts, wild fruits, herbs, and greens to sustain themselves and their company on the long journey. During the colder nights, the women ventured into the woods once more to find firewood and then carry what they found on their backs to their resting spot. When at last they arrived in Camelot, the court was shocked at the procession that followed Cecily.
“High King,” Cecily began, “I do not wish to impose upon your generosity, but as the Knight of the Lion and I were riding back to meet my sister’s challenge, we came upon a castle where these women were held in captivity, forced to work all day and often into the night for little pay. They were unaware of even the very month, such was their isolation from the world. While the brave knight defeated the devils and the women escaped, they are afraid their king will treat them poorly. I humbly suggested that you might be able to help them in some way, though if not, the Knight of the Lion could escort them back after fighting this challenge on my behalf.”
So moved was King Arthur by Cecily’s tale of courage and her devout kindness that he offered his help immediately, telling the women that they could stay in Camelot until he was able to ensure they would have a safe return.
The next morning began the challenge, where Yvain fought unknowingly against his dear brother in arms, Sir Gawain, as each was clad in armor that disguised them from the other. Noble Cecily attempted to persuade her sister to settle their agreement without a fight but was cruelly rejected. The court began to feel sympathy for Cecily, who had been through so much and who was receiving only scorn from her sister. As Gawain and Yvain fought, the sun travelled through the sky and slowly began to set. When they took a brief break and exchanged a few words, their identities were revealed to one another! Each insisted that the other would surely win.
And so in the end, with the spirit of chivalry and Godliness in the air, Loraine admitted to taking more than her fair share of her father’s inheritance and King Arthur commanded her to split it with her sister. In truth, as king he had no power to do so, but the teachings of Our Lord command justice and kindness to our relations, so Loraine capitulated. The good knights were never again in enmity and their bond of friendship was stronger than ever, now that Gawain knew all the noble deeds Yvain had done as the Knight of the Lion. Nevertheless, King Arthur remembered that the last time they had seen Yvain, he had been married to the Lady Laudine.
“Have you abandoned your wife and kingdom, Sir Yvain?” King Arthur questioned.
“I fear I must admit to a great failure and shame on my part, for I forgot my sworn promise to my wife and thus she rightly cast me away. I can only hope to become worthy of her once more through my acts as the Knight of the Lion.”
King Arthur thought this was a very wise position and so, with his wife, Queen Guinevere, threw an extravagant feast to celebrate the renown of such a worthy knight, who had until now been thought lost. There were pears and apples, usually saved for special occasions during the winter months, but since Yvain had brought such honor upon his name and the name of Camelot, an exception was made. The three hundred women marveled at such food, as even before they had been stolen away, they could never have dreamed of such an abundance of rich foods. Instead of the plain green peas and leeks they were used to, there was a wide variety of fresh fruits, meats, and breads.
Meanwhile, Laudine’s kingdom was beset by dangers of all kinds: harsh thunderstorms, dangerous beasts, and growing discontent. She consulted her dear friend and adviser, Lunette, who cannily said that the Knight of the Lion would be able to help, so long as Laudine was able to reunite him with his love. Thus, Laudine swore upon a very holy relic and Lunette went off to find Yvain. When she brought Yvain back to serve as the protector of the kingdom, Laudine was angry at having been tricked by one she trusted. Nevertheless, unwilling to break her sworn word, Laudine took Yvain back as a husband and as the seasons progressed, began to love him once again, for she saw that he was a different man than the one who had abandoned her before. With a Lord to rule beside her, Laudine was able to focus her energy on the natural magic of the earth, which was particularly strong in her kingdom, to ensure that her lands remained in balance with the earth. These acts stopped the unnatural weather, Yvain hunted the beasts, and the people once again loved their Lord and Lady.
Every year, both Yvain and Cecily were sent gifts of apples, pears, and cherries from the women they had rescued as a continuing sign of their gratitude and proof that the women had managed to return to their homes. Their lives had been restored to them and they continued to flourish, as did the fruits of their homes and villages.
And thus, as the months turn, the harvests turn, and all must fade away to bloom again in the next year. Yvain and Laudine lived out the rest of their lives in peace, Cecily was a generous lady to her people, and the three hundred women were happily reunited with their families and lands. But even they are lost to the past now, with God in the everlasting bliss of Heaven. May that we all live such fruitful lives and have such peaceful ends.