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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume III. Renascence and Reformation.

V. The Progress of Social Literature in Tudor Times

§ 8. The Proude Wyves Paternoster

Another satire on women, which combined the dialogue with the street ballad, is The Proude Wyves Paternoster. The idea of giving piquancy to worldly sentiments by associating them with divine service came from France. Thus, in La Paternostre à l’userier and in La Credo à l’userier, the money-lender interweaves the Latin of the missal with worldly reflections on wealth and business. In the English tract, the scene opens at church on a feast day, and amongst the women, all in their best clothes, is one who intermingles each phrase of the Paternoster with secret prayers to gain ascendancy over her husband and to rival her neighbours’ finery. An accident leads her into conversation with another gossip, and their chatter lasts till the end of the service. But the wife has absorbed venomous counsels from her companion. She returns home, asks her husband for some money, is refused, breaks out into recriminations and leaves his presence with vague threats. The husband, in great uneasiness, goes to consult the curate, who bids him trust in God’s grace. The man returns home comforted, only to find his house rifled and his wife gone. There is here no poetic sentiment; but the dramatic humour of the conversations, the characters of the two women and especially those of the men, are admirable.

In the Middle Age domestics, anarchy often took the form of a fight for the breeches. In Germany, the city magistrates even recognised and sanctioned a duel between the partners for life. The Towneley and Chester Mysteries represented brawls between Noah and his wife. In the sixteenth century, this view of the relationship between husband and wife took the form of a Merry Jeste of a Shrewde and Curste Wyfe lapped in Morelles skin, compiled out of various sources, including The Geystes of Skoggan and two French fabliaux. This version of the domestic battle tells how a young farmer, apparently kind-hearted and honourable, marries the elder daughter of a man of substance. The bride soon shows that she intends to rule her new home, but the yeoman strips her, flogs her till she faints and sews her up in the salted hide of an old horse. In this plight she capitulates, and peace reigns in place of discord.

This view of the perversity, garrulousness and vanity of women continued long after our period to influence those who preferred satire to sentiment. It forms the basis of the Theophrastians’ conception of female character, and underlies much of the polite humour of the eighteenth century essayists.