The Wife of Bath #
The Wife of Bath is a comic caricature created by Chaucer with vivid details to illustrate the vast array of characters in 14 th Century England. Her flamboyant manners: large hat, riding skirt, bright scarlet hose and spurs create a larger than life character who is not restricted by conventional expectations. She is a law onto herself,living a full boisterous life with flair and ostentation - propriety be damned. She likes to be the centre of attention becoming upset if she is not the first to the offertory during Mass.
She could be the embodiment of Dolly Parton’s quip:
“You just can’t imagine how expensive it is to make me look so cheap”
or Mae West:
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”
Joan Acocella, writng in The New Yorker describes The Wife of Bath as:
Alison by name, a clothmaker—well off, well travelled, well dressed, riding a nice horse. Alison is a sort of distillation of the work’s chief novelistic qualities, its realism and its immediacy. As she speaks, you can almost feel her breath on your neck. And it’s not just medieval life she’s talking about. Her story is also a summary of much of the important literature available to people of the Middle Ages, the stories that taught them who they were. Alison is a whole syllabus of human wishes and grudges, blessings and curses—a Divine Comedy, a Metamorphoses, a Decameron, even. (She alludes to all of these sources.)
She loves men, symbolised by the gap in her teeth. As a complex enigmatic creation, she too is full of ambiguities and contradictions.
She is portrayed like a mock knight in an age of male supremacy and takes on their defiant power.
The world is populated by two kinds of women- Eve - the agent of man’s fall in Paradise, or the Virgin Mary, the virtuous and pious saint. Is she a foil to the Prioress?
Chaucer is renown for his ability to create realistic characters that spring up at us from the printed page. A great writer who breathed life into characters and stories he had stolen from other authors, mainly French and Italian. He has an ability to delicately portray the earthiness of the world and everything above and beneath it, as Eliot put it “as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen”. While depicted comically, a tragic element to her life can be discerned.
As Peter Craven puts it:
“Part of the trick with Chaucer is that the schematics of his comedy are heartless, but the movement of the human figures beats with life and is utterly lithe and sensuous in its telling”.
Wife of Bath #
A Good Wif was ther of biside Bathe,
But she was som-del deef, and that was scathe. Somewhat a pity Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt skill She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt. Flemish - Ghent In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon; go
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she
That she was out of alle charitee.
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground; texture I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite y-teyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe. Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe.
She was a worthy womman al hir lyve;
Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe;
But ther-of nedeth nat to speke as nowthe. now And thries hadde she been at Jérusalem;
She hadde passed many a straunge strem;
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloigne,
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne. Comino trail She koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye.
Gat-tothed was she, soothly for to seye.
Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Y-wympled wel, and on hir heed an hat well hooded As brood as is a bokeler or a targe; buckler or shield A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large, outer skirt And on hire feet a paire of spores sharpe. spurs In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe;
Of remedies of love she knew per chauncé,
For she koude of that art the olde daunce.
Totally shameless, The Wife is willing to let it all out. “Husbands at chirche dore she hadde fyve withouten other comapaignye in youthe”. She readily admits she is out opportunistically looking for husband number six, and she is willing to “use my instrumente”.
She also appears to be a serial Pilgrim, having traveled to Jerusalem, and the Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of St. James, is a network of pilgrims’ ways or pilgrimages leading from southern France to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain.
Perhaps this is where she picks up her serial partners.
Mary Jo Anderson writes: “Charlemange, the warrior emperor was to liberate the roadway that ran to St James’ tomb. In Galicia, James’ burial crypt had been rediscovered in 813 and a small chapel was built (by Bishop Teodomir) to protect it.
Myth or miracle, a rout now known as the Battle of Clavijo was fought in the year 844 by desperate Christians with their backs against the mountains, led by Ramiro I of Asturias.
Suddenly, there appeared a heavenly horseman, sword aloft, who slew every Muslim in his path: Santiago Matamoros. Inspired by their champion, the faithful began the reconquest of Spain.
St James became a saint and his burial place a shrine.
Summary of Wife of Bath’s Prologue to Tale #
A long rambling prologue, much longer than the actual Tale. It is a mess because her whole life is a mess. She often contradicts herself, forgets where she is, and meanders all over the place.
It appears a rationalization of her life and values, against attacks, real or imagined, from the Church.
- “Genitals relates to generation.*
She makes a case for sex being healthy, however then goes to a great length justifying her five husbands, three were “rich and all” while two were bad; the criteria resting on how they treated her. She appears to sell out her gender with a cynical view of other women.
Allusions - Classical and Biblical references: #
Despite her claim that she is not an authority. the Wife refers to a wide range of ancient and Biblical figures in her argument. This may be an indication that Chaucer is using her to express his views on the role of women and marriage. Some of the views are quite masculine.
15 Jhesus, God and man,/ Spak in repreeve of the Samaritan:
“Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” John 4: 17 - 18
28 God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” Genesis 1: 28
32 But of no nombre mencion made he,
33 Of bigamye, or of octogamye;
34 Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye?
35 Lo, heere the wise kyng, daun Salomon;
36 I trowe he hadde wyves mo than oon.
Solomon’s harem consisted of approximately 700 wives and 300 concubines.
But King Solomon loved many strange women, including the Queen of Sheba, together with the daughter of Pharaoh, women of the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites. Kings 11 (KJV)
44 Of fyve husbondes scoleiyng am I. (schooling)
45 Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal.
She embarks on a long tedious defense of her sex and sexuality in having five husbands – “practice makes perfect”.
Cain, Abraham and Jacob all had 2 wives.
71 And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe,
72 Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe?
Her argument against virginity is clever, “if procreation stopped, where would virgins come from? The Apostle Paul merely recommended virginity, he didn’t demand it.
Celibacy and virginity is a prized tenet of most religions. In his old age, King David is kept warm by a young virgin. The Church makes much of the Virgin Mary, even though she had at least 3 children.
Roman Vestal Virgins, selected from patrician families, between six and 10 years. They had to maintain their virginity while watching over the sacred flame, “considered to be pure and uncorrupted and so entrusted it to uncontaminated and undefiled bodies.“
After 30 years of service, the Vestal Virgins would be allowed to marry; considered a great privilege for any man.
Catholic Nuns originated from this practice.
The Moors in Spain demand of the Catholics, a tribute of 100 virgins a year.
Ghandi aspires to a celibate life and tests himself by sleeping with nubile virgins. Each failure demanded a new test.
Three rings of Marriage: Engagement ring, wedding ring and suffering.
The Wife claims to be an authority on relationships in marriage
172 And whan that I have toold thee forth my tale
173 Of tribulacion in mariage,
174 Of which I am expert in al myn age –
175 This is to seyn, myself have been the whippe –
Her first three husbands were weak so she could squeeze everything out of them, but husband four was a challenge as she shows some regrets for her lost youth, driving her to the extreme of having to use the whip.
She has eyed # five while # 4 is still alive and finds herself eyeing off his legs at # 4’s funeral. Being trapped by his physical attraction, he is the one who beats her – making her somewhat deaf. She has met her match.
Jenkins reads to her from a book he owns that tells stories of women’s wickedness: how Eve brought about Adam’s fall, how Delilah betrayed Samson to the Philistines, how Clytemnestra murdered Agamemnon upon his return from the Trojan War, how a certain man of ancient Rome, Latumius, told his friend Arrius that in his garden he had a tree on which all three of his wives, one by one, had hanged themselves, out of spite.
(“O dear brother,” Arrius says, “give me a shoot of that blessed tree, / And it shall be planted in my garden!”) Joan Acocella, New Yorker
She is so much in love with Jenkins, but she demands all his property, but after he gives it to her, she gives it back, and from then on it is plain sailing as they share the power in their marriage.
The secret of a good marriage is for the man and women to give each other their freedom so that their relationship is based on trust and balanced power.
811 But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
812 We fille acorded by us selven two.
813 He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
814 To han the governance of hous and lond,
815 And of his tonge, and of his hond also;
816 And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.
817 And whan that I hadde geten unto me,
818 By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,
819 And that he seyde, `Myn owene trewe wyf,
820 Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lyf;
821 Keep thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat’ –
822 After that day we hadden never debaat.
823 God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde
824 As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde,
825 And also trewe, and so was he to me.
After her husband allows her control, they live happily ever after. This is a notable watershed in the relations between men and women already initiated by other Courtly Love poets. Rather than coercive domination, men need to share their power to have real parity and mutual love. It will take many more generations for this to become the prevailing culture.
Psychological Analysis of Wife of Bath #
The whole prologue appears to be a self-justification of her sexual imperatives. She demonstrates how she has managed to dominate her husbands by trickery. She gets them to divulge their secrets by flattery and appeal to their gentility, shows them how to argue, but demolishes their conclusions and gains power over them and their property.
The basic tone is insecure, defensive, full of self-justifications.
Totally selfish she is at first aggressive and acquisitive. But with the fifth husband she has learned the secret of success in marriage.
Stop fighting and learn to trust and love.
She describes a gentleman as someone who:
“loves to work for virtuous ends, public and private.” One who most intends to do what deeds of gentleness he can.
Like most characters, Chaucer describes the characters as he saw them but then allows each to explain themselves and reveal their real selves through their actions and reactions with others.
The Wife of Bath is one of the more consistent characters as her tale does not undermine her prologue.
The Tale #
The tale concerns a knight accused of rape, whose life shall be spared if in one year he discovers what women most desire. He eventually turns to an ugly old witch who promises him the answer that will save his life if he will do the first thing she asks of him. The answer—that it is “maistrie,” or sovereignty over men, that women desire—is accepted in court, and the witch then demands that the knight marry her. In bed she asks him if he would wish her ugly yet faithful or beautiful and faithless. He insists the choice must be hers. This concession of her mastery restores her youth and beauty, and they live happily ever after.
The story is a version of the Arthurian romance The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell and is similar to one of the tales in the 14th-century Confessio amantis by John Gower. Britiannia
The irony is that researchers have found evidence that Chaucer may have been accussed of rape, himself. There is enough ambiguity to exonerate him for merely attempting to entice her to leave her employer and work for him.
Feminism and The Wife of Bath #
Feminism is a movement that challenges the Patriarchy.
This remains problematic as most scholars are divided on this issue.
The fact that one husband hits her, making her deaf, but that she hits him back is not an option for many women. Her power sharing arrangements of equality, also are exemplary, however again it is not always possible in many marriages where the power imbalance makes this impossible. She advocates the use of wit to control men.
The point is that we have an early view that this is a continuing problem for men and women. The fact that Chaucer raises it, and it is still an issue for us today suggests that literature records universal problems.