The Wife of Bath's Tale  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and prologue are among the best-known of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They give insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages and are probably of interest to Chaucer himself, for the character is one of his most developed ones, with her prologue twice as long as her tale. He also goes so far as to describe two sets of clothing for her in his General Prologue. She holds her own among the bickering pilgrims, and evidence in the manuscripts suggests that although she was first assigned a different, plainer tale—perhaps the one told by the Shipman—she received her present tale as her significance increased. She calls herself both Alyson and Alys in the prologue, but to confuse matters these are also the names of her 'gossib' (a close friend or gossip), whom she mentions several times, as well as many female characters throughout The Canterbury Tales.

The tale is not often regarded as the first of the so-called "marriage group" of tales, which includes the Clerk's, the Merchant's and the Franklin's tales. But some scholars contest this grouping, first proposed by Chaucer scholar George Lyman Kittredge, not least because the later tales of Melibee and the Nun's Priest also discuss this theme. A separation between tales that deal with moral issues and ones that deal with magical issues, as the Wife of Bath's does, is favoured by some scholars.

Contents

Prologue

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue belongs to Fragment III (Group D) of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and is essentially about marriage. The Wife of Bath, or Alisoun, establishes herself as an authority on marriage in the first three lines of her prologue. She tells the other pilgrims that she has been married five times and offers a history and justification of her numerous marriages.

Alisoun begins by observing that Abraham and Jacob each had more than one wife, noting that Solomon had "wyves mo than oon" (in fact he had seven hundred). She acknowledges that Christ is perfect, but she is not; some women may be fine white bread, but she represents herself a humble barley loaf. Alisoun then recounts the men that she married and her relationships with each of them. She describes her first three husbands as old and rich, and prides herself in describing the control she has over them. Alisoun then speaks of her fourth husband, whom she fondly remembers torturing because she felt he robbed her of her youth and beauty. Her fifth husband, Jankyn, is described in the greatest detail; she says she loved him the most out of the five, despite their tumultuous relationship. She notes how she first met him at her friend’s home while still married to her fourth husband and then ended up marrying him a month after her previous husband’s death. Alisoun describes her relationship with Jankyn in detail, noting how their relationship was characterized by his desire to control her and her unwillingness to submit. It is only after a physical confrontation, the cause of which is Alisoun’s desecration of Jankyn’s book of "wikked wyves,” that he gives up his quest to control Alisoun. This is symbolized by his returning of her control over all her property. They live in harmony until Jankyn’s death.

The prologue is unusually long, especially compared to the length of the wife's tale. This in itself is an indication of how the wife loves to talk about herself and is relishing being the centre of attention.

Tale

A knight in King Arthur's court rapes a woman in a wheat field. By law, his crime is punishable by death, but the queen intercedes on his behalf, and the king turns the knight over to her for judgement. The queen punishes the knight by sending him out on a quest to find out what women really want "more than anything else," ("What thing is it that wommen most desyren?") giving him a year and a day to discover it and having his word that he will return. If he fails to satisfy the queen with his answer, he forfeits his life. He searches, but every woman he finds says something different, from riches to flattery. A year later, on his way back to the queen after failing to find the truth, he comes upon an old hag whom he asks for help. She says she'll tell him the answer that will save him if he promises to grant her request at a time she chooses. He agrees and they go back to the court where the queen pardons him after he explains that what women want most is sovereignty over their husbands, and the Queen accepts this as the correct answer. As her reward, the old woman demands that the knight marry her. He protests, but to no avail, and the marriage takes place the next day. That night in their marriage bed, the knight confesses that he is unhappy because she is ugly and low-born. She tells the knight that he can choose between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice to her; pleased with the mastery of her husband, she becomes fair and faithful and lives with him happily until the end of their days.

The tale is an example of the "loathly lady" motif, the oldest examples of which are the medieval Irish sovereignty myths such as Niall of the Nine Hostages. In the medieval poem The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, Arthur's nephew Gawain goes on a nearly identical quest to discover what women truly want. Some have theorized that the Wife's tale may have been written to ease Chaucer's guilty conscience. It is recorded that in 1380 associates of Chaucer stood surety for an amount equal to half his yearly salary for a charge brought by Cecily Champaign for "de rapto" rape or abduction; the same view has been taken of his Legend of Good Women, which Chaucer himself describes as a penance.

Themes

Antifeminism/Sources

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue both draws from and critiques the long medieval tradition of antifeminist texts. As Helen Cooper notes, Alisoun’s “materials are part of the vast medieval stock of antifeminism”, specifically St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, which was “written to refute the proposition put forward by one Jovinianus that virginity and marriage were of equal worth”. The simple fact that Alisoun is a widow who remarries more than once suggests a relationship with antifeminist traditions. Further evidence of this can be found through Alisoun’s observation: “For hadde God commanded maydenhede, / Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede” (III 69-70). Alisoun refutes Jovinianus’ proposition concerning virginity and marriage by noting that God would have condemned marriage and procreation if He had commanded virginity. Her decision to use God as a defense of sorts for her promiscuity is significant, as it shows how the Bible is another source that Alisoun draws upon, although her interpretations of Scripture, such as Paul on marriage (III. 158-161), are tailored to suit her own purposes. Nevertheless, while Alisoun in some ways embodies antifeminist beliefs, she resists them as well. For instance, her repeated acts of remarriage are an example of how she mocks “clerical teaching concerning the remarriage of widows” (Carruthers 1979). Actually, as noted by Mary Carruthers, “a rich widow was considered to be a match equal to, or more desirable than, a match with a virgin of property” (Carruthers 1979). Alisoun illustrates this point by describing her ability to remarry four times, and also to attract a man who is much younger than she, Jankyn. Thus, while Alisoun is portrayed as epitomizing antifeminist traditions through her very thoughts and actions, she also attacks them, in part by forcing readers to realize that it is men, including the author Chaucer, who construct them in the first place.

Behaviour in Marriage

Mary Carruthers and Helen Cooper reflect on the way that Alisoun, in particular, does not behave as she should in any of her marriages. Through Alisoun’s nonconformity to the expectations of her role as a wife, the audience is shown what proper behaviour in marriage should be like. Carruthers’ essay outlines the existence of deportment books, the purpose of which was to teach young women how to be model wives. Carruthers notes how Alisoun’s behaviour in the first of her marriages “is almost everything the deportment-book writers say it should not be” (Carruthers 1979: 213). For example, she lies to her old husbands about them getting drunk and saying some regrettable things (III.380-382). Yet, Carruthers does note that the Wife does do a decent job of upholding her husbands’ public honour. Moreover, deportment books taught girls that “the husband deserves control of the wife because he controls the estate” (Carruthers 1979:214); it is clear that Alisoun is the one who controls her husbands in her various marriages. Perhaps this is because her first three husbands are so old “that for syk unnethes myghte they stonde” (III.394). Helen Cooper also notes that behaviour in marriage is a theme that emerges in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and although she does look at the character of Alisoun and notes how she did not really exhibit the behaviour expected of her, she also describes Jankyn. Cooper notes how Jankyn “cannot be taken as any principle of correct Christian marriage” (Cooper 1996:149). He, too, does not exhibit the kind of behaviour that he is supposed to within his marriage, which can perhaps be attributed to his young age and lack of experience in relationships, although he does change at the end, as does Alisoun. Thus, through Alisoun’s and Jankyn’s failure to conform to expected behaviour in marriage, readers are taught to realize what proper behaviour in marriage likely is–the opposite of Alisoun’s and Jankyn’s.

Female Dominance

As Helen Cooper argues, the theme of female dominance is fundamental to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue.she draw her material from her own experience which makes it more sound. The Wife’s dominance is highlighted in terms of sexual dominance. It is quite clear that she is the one who is the master of the bedroom based on the comments that she makes to her fellow pilgrims. For instance, she notes that:

Unnethe myghte they the statut holdeTemplate:Pad "unnethe" = not easily
In which that they were bounden unto me.Template:Pad "woot" = know
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!Template:Pad "pardee" = "by God", cf. French "par dieu"
As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! (III.204-208)Template:Pad "hem" = them; "swynke" = work

The manner in which Alisoun describes how she made her husbands labour, “swynke,” for her pleasure reminds one of the relative situations of men and lords. Alisoun’s husbands are depicted as peasants who must cater to her sex appetite. Her characterization as master, or sovereign lord, is particularly evident in the following passage:

Of tribulacion in mariage,
Of which I am expert in al myn age –
This is to seyn, myself have been the whippe. (III.179-181)

The image of the whip solidifies her role as master; she tells everyone that she is the one in charge in her household, especially in the bedroom. Alisoun appears to have an insatiable thirst for sex; the result is a satirical, sexual depiction of a woman, but also of feudal power arrangements.

Economics of Love

In her essay, “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions,” Mary Carruthers describes the relationship that existed between love and economics for both medieval men and women. Carruthers notes that it is the independence that Alisoun’s wealth provides for her that allows Alisoun to love freely (Carruthers 1979:216). This implies that autonomy is an important component in genuine love, and since autonomy can only be achieved through wealth, wealth then becomes the greatest component for true love. Love can, in essence, be bought: Chaucer makes reference to this notion when he has Alisoun tell one of her husbands:

Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone? Template:Pad"queynte" = a nice thing, cf. Latin quoniam, with obvious connotation of "cunt"
Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel! Template:Pad "deel" = "part"; plus, the implication of transaction
Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel; Template:Pad"Peter" = St. Peter; "shrewe" = curse; hence: "I curse you if you don't love it well."
For if I wolde selle my bele chose, Template:Pad"belle chose": another suggestion of female genitalia (her "lovely thing")
I koude walke as fressh as is a rose;
But I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth. (III.450-455)Template:Pad "tooth" = taste, pleasure

She appears to make reference to prostitution, whereby “love” in the form of sex is a “deal” bought and sold. Alisoun’s use of words such as “dette (debt)” (III.130) and “paiement (payment)” (III.131) also portray love in economic terms, as did the medieval Church: sex was the marriage debt women owed to the men that they married. Hence, while the point that Carruthers makes is that money is necessary for women to achieve sovereignty in marriage, a look at the text reveals that the concept of love is, among other things, an economic concept. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Jankyn gives up wealth in return for love, honour, and respect.

Sex and Lollardy

While it is quite obvious that sexuality is a dominant theme in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, it is less obvious that Alisoun’s sexual behaviour can be associated with Lollardy. Critics such as Helen Cooper and Carolyn Dinshaw point to the link between sex and Lollardy. Both describe Alisoun’s knowledge and use of Scripture in her justification of her sexual behaviour. This associates her with Lollardy. When Alisoun states that “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye” (III.28), she appears to suggest that there is nothing wrong with sexual promiscuity, because God wants humans to procreate. Alisoun’s “emphatic determination to recuperate sexual activity within a Christian context and on the authority of the Bible [on a number of occasions throughout the text] echoes one of the points made in the Lollard Twelve Conclusions of 1395" (Cooper 1996:150). The very fact that she remarries after the death of her first husband could be viewed as Chaucer’s characterization of Alisoun as a supporter of Lollardy, if not necessarily a Lollard herself, since Lollards advocated the remarriage of widows (Cooper 1996:150; Dinshaw 1999:129).




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