Involuted Mysteries: Unwrapping Meanings in Literature, Theory, and Art before 1800. The Symbolism of Numbers, and Their Associated Topoi, Part VII


Senses…Books of the Old Law…Historical Ages…

Pauline Antinomies…

The Wife of Bath…The Samaritan Woman at the Well…

Five is the number of the sensuality and the flesh, there being, of course, five senses.

You may remember the notoriously carnal and proudly polygamous Wife of Bath, who had already financially pauperized, sexually exhausted, or literally buried five husbands by the time she decided to embark, with ironic solemnity, upon the holy pilgrimage to Canterbury, in search of a sixth. The Wife’s sensuality is reflected in her penchant for interpreting Scripture literally – that is, “carnally” in Paul’s terminology –, and this makes of her an allegorical figure of the Old Law which, not coincidentally, consists of five books. During what Augustine called the aera sub lege, the “era under the Law”, the Jews not only convicted themselves of a blind literalism in their reading of Scripture, but, with the rest of mankind, they languished until the Incarnation in captivity to the world, the flesh, and the Devil.

These historical antinomies are published repeatedly by Paul in Romans and First and Second Corinthians, and, as always, in the language of poetry, myth, and Platonic ontology:

…when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members, to bring forth fruit unto death.

But now we are delivered from the law; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

For I delight in the law of God after the inward man:

But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the old law of sin and death.

For they that walk after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you.

And if Christ be in you, the body is dead; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

The whole magnificent complex of imagery deserves further consideration later, but in its simplest terms, it reduces to the old binary code of the inanimate body and living spirit that make up the Divine Animal.

The age of the Old Law, the outer law of the carnal letter, is the era in which mankind walked after the flesh; with the advent of the New Law of grace – the Old Law spiritually interpreted and written inwardly on the heart –, men are no longer carnal creatures (sarkikos), but have been transformed into wholly spiritual beings (pneumatikos), reborn, in fact, as “heavenly creatures”: gods and the “sons of God”.

Paul thus provides us with a convenient summa of the literary and artistic Code of the West down to his day. Under the rubric of the body of the Divine Animal, then, fall the following cognate Pauline terms:

Death (as in the deadly letter, and the death to the soul to which obedience to the literal Law, the world, and the flesh condemn it;

Old (the Old Law; the Old Adam – that is, the First Adam of the Fall, and also the inherited Old Man, who is carnal and thus condemned to die; and the Old Song – the Chaucerian melodye of the flesh so often sung by his aging lechers, including the Wife and the likerous January);

Outward (the Outward Law of the letter: the Law of empty legalisms, ceremonies, sacrifices, and external show, without inner piety or virtue; the outward circumcision in the flesh; the Outward Man – that is, the Old Man, who is carnal, or, as the phrase also indicates, the body itself; and the Outward Israel, which is the merely visible, historico-temporal people of God).

Corresponding to the soul of Plato’s Divine Animal:

Life (the life of the spirit as fostered by the spiritual interpretation of Scripture; and as enjoyed by the reborn soul who, with Christ on the Cross, has crucified and mortified the Old Man of the flesh, and become dead to the body and the world – the Pauline counterpart to the philosophical life described by Socrates as a rehearsal for death; and indeed, the deified life of the eternal Logos, which the New Man has “put on”, and by which he is indwelled);

New (the spiritual New Law written on the heart; the New Man, who is made entirely of spirit and no longer earthly but heavenly; the New Adam, that is, the Second Adam, who is Christ himself, the immanent Logos, and also the Christian New Man; the New Song, which is the harmony of the spheres – the New Man’s birthsong – and therefore the song sung by the angels in praise of God, and by all spiritually-minded men in contemplation of the divine invisibilia);

Inner (the Inner Law written on the heart; the inner circumcision of heart or spirit; the Inner Man, who is the spiritual New Man indwelled by the Logos; and the Inner Israel–that is, the Church as conceived as an entirely incorporeal community of souls, often figured by Christ’s Mystical Body or Augustine’s City of God).

Finally, given the associations of the number Five with the senses and the flesh, the old aera sub lege consisted, according to the famous schema of Isidore of Seville, of five historical ages: from Creation to Flood; from the Flood to Abraham; from Abraham to David; from David to the Babylonian Captivity; and from the Captivity to the Birth of Christ, which ushered in the sixth age, the new aera sub gratia.


With her deliberate blindness to the spiritual meaning of the scriptural texts she adduces, the Wife of Bath is really a literary figure of Synagoga (the appropriately blind old hag who, in medieval tradition, personified the Old Law). Thus her five husbands were meant to call to mind the five ages of the aera sub lege, investing with appropriate irony her quasi-religious quest for a sixth, over whom to exercise feminist dominion through the power of her “belle chose”.

The Wife is hardly aspiring, of course, to become the Bride of Christ, which is to say that she is conveniently deaf and blind to the meaning of the symbolic marriage between Christ and the Church as the archetype of an earthly institution that demands fidelity to one husband.

Chaucer makes this all the more amusingly meaningful by constructing the Wife as a type of another well-known allegorical figure, that of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, whom Jesus meets in the Gospel of John shortly after he has performed his miracle at Cana, where, appropriately enough, he institutes the Christian sacrament of marriage.

The parallels and contrasts between the Wife and the Samaritan Woman are instructive: both are titularly linked to the archetypal symbolism of water, the Samaritan Woman with Jacob’s Well, that is, the well of the Old Israel, and the Wife with the city of Bath, an ancient and popular spa.

Both, of course, have had five husbands, the difference being that when Christ admonishes the Samaritan Woman that a wife can legitimately have only one, she is convinced and declares him a prophet, whereas Chaucer’s Wife devotes much of her Prologue to arguing against the Christian teaching.


It might be useful to remind ourselves briefly of the conventional allegorical interpretation of the Gospel episode of the Samaritan Woman at the Well, so we can see just how the symbolism of Old and New, and of the number Five, works in medieval literary practice.

The salient details of the episode are as follows: Jesus, weary from his journey from Cana, takes his rest beside the well, where he is said to have arrived at the “sixth hour” of the day. When the Woman arrives, Jesus asks for a drink of water. The Woman expresses surprise that he should seek her company, since the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. Jesus answers cryptically that if she knew who was making this request of her, she would have rather asked of him a draught of the living water. “Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us this well?”, she scoffs. Jesus answers: “Whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”.

The Woman is converted, and entreats for the water of life; and when Jesus tells her to call her husband, she agrees with him that she has none: “For thou hast had five husbands”, as Jesus says; “and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly”.

Let me now give you a brief summary of the interpretation of the dialogue from the Glossa Ordinaria, undoubtedly the most widely read biblical commentary in the fourteenth century. According to the Glossa, the unconverted Samaritan Woman is a symbol of the Synagogue; Jesus comes at the sixth hour, which signifies the sixth age of the world. The water of Jacob’s Well represents the “pleasures of the world” and is contrasted with the “living water” or grace which Christ offers. He who drinks of Jacob’s well “shall thirst again”, since sensual pleasures only enflame the appetite.

When Jesus says, “Go, call thy husband”, he means that the Woman should call upon her spiritual understanding, the husband to which her sensuality should be obedient, but whom she has neglected. (With this, we encounter another mystery, which I shall have to take up later on – the mystic marriage between the male Reason and the female Sensuality within every human soul.) The Samaritan’s five husbands, who are not true husbands, represent the literal understanding that prevailed amongst the Jews under the Old Law during the first five ages, before the coming of Christ and the New Law; so that when Jesus says that “he whom thou now hast is not thy husband”, he means that she should turn from the carnal and feminine letter to the masculine spirit. At the same time, the five husbands represent the five physical senses, and the Samaritan is reprehended because in giving herself to five husbands she gave herself to her five senses in youth.

The relevance of this to Chaucer’s Wife has already been explained; at this point, I’d like to emphasize only that Chaucer’s literary use of this conventional biblical symbol system is entirely typical of poetry and art before 1800.