The Wife of Bath's Tale
The Wife of Bath's Tale (Middle English: the Tale of the Wyf of Bathe) is among the best-known of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It provides insight into the role of women in the Late Middle Ages and was 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.
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The 'Prologue of the Wife of Bath's Tale' during the fourteenth century at a time when the social structure was rapidly evolving while Richard II was in reign; it was not until the late 1380s mid 1390s when Richard II's subjects started to take notice of how he was leaning toward bad counsel, causing criticism throughout his court. It was evident that changes needed to occur within the traditional hierarchy of King Richard II’s ensemble; Chaucer chose to address the change of events that he noticed through 'The Prologue of the Wife of Bath's Tale' to illustrate the imbalance of power within the male dominated society. Women were not identified by their social status, but solely by their relations with men rather than being identified by their occupations; a female was either a maiden, spouse or widow who was only capable of bearing children, cooking and other “women's work”.
The tale is 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 Eleanor Prescott Hammond and subsequently elaborated by 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.
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 after he errs in a land dispute, although, in contrast, he never stooped to despoliation or plunder, unlike the unnamed knight who deflowered the woman. By tradition, any knight or noble found guilty of such a transgression ( ), might be stripped of his name, heraldic title and rights, and possibly even executed.
Some[who?] have theorised 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.
There was a knight in King Arthur's time who raped a fair young maiden. King Arthur issues a decree that the knight must be brought to justice. When the knight is captured, he is condemned to death, but Queen Guinevere intercedes on his behalf and asks the King to allow her to pass judgment upon him. The Queen tells the knight that he will be spared his life if he can discover for her what it is that women most desire, and allots him a year and a day in which to roam wherever he pleases and return with an answer.
Everywhere the knight goes he explains his predicament to the women he meets and asks their opinion, but "No two of those he questioned answered the same." The answers range from fame and riches to play, or clothes, or sexual pleasure, or flattery, or freedom. When at last the time comes for him to return to the Court, he still lacks the answer he so desperately needs.
Outside a castle in the woods, he sees twenty-four maidens dancing and singing, but when he approaches they disappear as if by magic, and all that is left is an old woman. The Knight explains the problem to the old woman, who is wise and may know the answer, and she forces him to promise to grant any favour she might ask of him in return. With no other options left, the Knight agrees. Arriving at the court, he gives the answer that women most desire sovereignty over their husbands, which is unanimously agreed to be true by the women of the court who, accordingly, free the Knight.
The old woman then explains to the court the deal she has struck with the Knight, and publicly requests his hand in marriage. Although aghast, he realises he has no other choice and eventually agrees. On their wedding night the old woman is upset that he is repulsed by her in bed. She reminds him that her looks can be an asset—she will be a virtuous wife to him because no other men would desire her. She asks him what he would prefer—an old ugly wife who is loyal, true and humble or a beautiful young woman about whom he would always have doubts concerning her faithfulness. The Knight responds by saying that the choice is hers, an answer which pleases her greatly. Now that she has won power over him, she asks him to kiss her, promising both beauty and fidelity. The Knight turns to look at the old woman again, but now finds a young and lovely woman. They live happily into old age together.
This Prologue is by far the longest in The Canterbury Tales and is twice as long as the actual story, showing the importance of the prologue to the significance of the overall tale. In the beginning the wife expresses her views in which she believes the morals of women is not merely that they all solely desire "sovereignty", but that each individual woman should have the opportunity to make the decision. "The Wife of Bath", contradicts many of the typical customs of the time and provides an overbearing assessment in which the roles of women in society are bound to accept it quietly. Alyson knows the stories of many holy men who have had multiple wives and says: Well I know Abraham was a holy man, and Jacob as well, as far as I know, and each of them had more than two wives. And many other holy men did as well. When have you seen that in any time great God forbade marriage explicitly? Tell me, I Pray you. Through this quote, she addresses why society should not look down on her or any other female who has wed to multiple men throughout their life. Alyson's tale confronts the double standard and the social belief that feminine power does not need strict limitations, and it attempts to establish a defence of secular women's sovereignty that opposes the conventions available to her. Alyson shows that females are equal in morals to those of men who have also had more than one spouse. Double standards for men and women were common and deeply rooted in culture.
Critique of antifeminism
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 Jerome’s 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 defence 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". 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”. 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 epitomising antifeminist traditions through her very thoughts and actions, she also attacks them, in part by forcing readers to realise 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 certain aspects of her husbands in her various marriages. Cooper also notes that behaviour in marriage is a theme that emerges in the Wife of Bath's Prologue; neither Alisoun nor Jankyn conform to any obviously virtuous or harmonious ideals of marriage. Cooper observes that 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, the poem exposes the complexity of the institution of marriage and of relationships more broadly.
As Helen Cooper argues, the tension between experience and textual authority is central to the Prologue. The Wife argues for the relevance of her own marital experience. For instance, she notes that:
- Unnethe myghte they the statut holde "unnethe" = not easily
- In which that they were bounden unto me. "woot" = know
- Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee! "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) "hem" = them; "swynke" = work
Alisoun's first three husbands are depicted as subservient men who must cater to her sexual appetites. Her characterisation 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.
However it is made evident at the end of both the prologue and the tale that it is not dominance that she wishes to gain in her relation with her husband but a kind of equality or a traditional equation of wife serving her husband though in an ideal form.
In her Prologue she says: "God help me so, I was to him as kinde/ As any wyf from Denmark unto Inde,/ And also trewe, and so was he to me." In her Tale, the old woman tells her husband: "I prey to God that I mot sterven wood,/ But I to yow be also good and trewe/ As evere was wyf, sin that the world was newe."
In both cases, the wife says so to the husband after she has been given "sovereyntee". Alisoun is handed over the control of all the property along with the control of Jankin's tongue. The old woman is also given the freedom to choose which role she wished to play in the marriage. Thus what Alisoun seems to mean by "sovereyntee" in the hands of women is that if women are given mastery in marriage they do not become dominant and hegemonising, that is, the result is not replacement of patriarchy by matriarchy but equality. A wife can be truthful and loyal to her husband when she has freedom and not forced to be subservient to her husband. The relationship becomes one of perfect happiness which has never been imagined by scriptures and authoritative texts like Against Jovinianum.
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? "queynte" = a nice thing, cf. Latin quoniam, with obvious connotation of "cunt"
- Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel! "deel" = "part"; plus, the implication of transaction
- Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel; "Peter" = St. Peter; "shrewe" = curse; hence: "I curse you if you don't love it well."
- For if I wolde selle my bele chose, "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.444–449) "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.
Contrary to what others around her believed, Alisoun desired power through any various method available. Alisoun does not take men seriously. Alisoun only uses them for their money, belongings, and property; only considering them as sex objects in their own right. When the Wife of Bath states, "but well I know, surely, God expressly instructed us to increase and multiply. I can well understand that noble text" to bear fruit, not in children, but financially through marriage, land, and from inheritance when her husband's pass; Alisoun chose to interpret the meaning of the statement by clarifying that she has no interest in childbearing as a means of showing fruitfulness, but the progression of her financial stability is her ideal way of proving success.
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. 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 characterisation 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).
In an effort to assert female equality with men, Alisoun desires awareness to the fact that an equal balance of power is necessary in a functional society. Michael Wilks proposes that through the sovereignty theme, a reflection of women's integral role in governance compelled Chaucer's audience to associate Alisoun's tale with the Queenship of Ann of Bohemia. Alisoun was ahead of her time period by overlooking male authority (to an extent), making demands, conducting negotiations within her marriages and disregarding conventional female behavior.
- The English "Loathly Lady"Tales: Boundaries, Traditions, Motifs. p. 13.
- Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: the Wife of Bath and All Her Sect. p. 75.
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- On Hammond's coining of this term, see Scala, Elizabeth (2009). "The Women in Chaucer's 'Marriage Group'". Medieval Feminist Forum. 45 (1): 50–56. Scala cites Hammond, p. 256, in support, and points out that Kittredge himself, in his essay's first footnote, confesses that "The Marriage Group of the 'Canterbury Tales' has been much studied, and with good results" (Scala, p. 54).
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- The English "Loathly Lady" Tales: Boundaries, Traditions, Motifs. p. 92.
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