The Wife of Bath is the most famous, albeit the most troubling character in Chaucerian literature. As with other speakers in The Canterbury Tales, we are only given her title at the outset, the “Wife of Bath.” Later we learn her name is Alysoun, or she sometimes goes by “Aly” (recall that she shares a name with the carpenter’s wife from the “Miller’s Tale”). The “Wife of Bath’s tale” is brief, but her autobiographical prologue is substantial (more than twice as long as the tale, itself). In her prologue, she expounds on her desire for authority in marriage, a desire born from her many worldly experiences, having been married five times since the age of twelve (‘not including company in her youth’).
Prior to her personal prologue, in Chaucer’s “General Prologue,” we learn that the Wife of Bath is a “good” wife, though ‘somewhat deaf’ (in her prologue we learn this is a result of a violent fight with one of her “bad” husbands) and she is skilled in ‘cloth-making,’ surpassing even the cloth-makers of ‘Ypres and Ghent’ (both Flemish cities known for their textiles in Medieval Belgium). She is described as very charitable (first in line at the Offering but angry if another woman is at the Offering first). Her integrity is questionable: she values charity only when others notice. She carries with her a large collection of fine kerchiefs that she wears on Sundays, Chaucer guesses they weigh about ten pounds. She also wears red stockings and new shoes. She is described as having a ‘bold face.’ She is a cosmopolitan woman, having been three times to Jerusalem, across foreign seas to Rome and Boulogne, to Galicia for the compostella (the pilgrimage to St. James Cathedral), Cologne, and she knows a great deal about “wandrynge by the weye” (467). She wears a large medieval head covering, and she sits on an ambling gait horse (trotting slightly above a walk), She has wide set teeth and large hips. She knows about “remedies of love” as she is well familiar with that “old daunce” (476).
At any rate, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath defends her many marriages, citing the biblical injunction to ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ as well as Solomon’s, Abraham’s, and David’s numerous wives (contra Jesus and Paul’s preferences for chastity, virginity, and maidenhood). The Wife of Bath’s idea of perfection is diverse, global, and multi-faceted. A perfect scholar is educated in many schools of thought, and a perfect craftsman knows many different styles of his art. In the same way, she has been schooled in five different men -and she is looking for a sixth! Naturally, contemporary academia has found kinship with the Wife of Bath, a so-called “medieval feminist.” She portrays her desire as follows:
“I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
I will bestow the flower of all my age
In the actes and in fruyt of mariage.
In the acts and in fruit of marriage” (113-114)
The Wife of Bath offers a scandalous argument for why men owe their wives a debt of sexual gratification in marriage. She views marriage as an economic transaction, and she makes no attempt to seek a just and happy household. Instead, her lust is for authority. She justifies making her husband a debtor and a slave. Her desire is for “power” in marriage.
At this point, the Pardoner jumps in and expresses concern for his upcoming marriage -why would he get married only to become a slave, “By God and Saint John”? The Pardoner is no slave! She responds that soon he will be drinking from a different barrel, so to speak, when he hears her tale. ‘Please do not be annoyed,’ she says to him, because her only intent is to “amuse” (here, the Wife of Bath has disqualified herself from winning the prized meal at the Tabard Inn. Recall, that the Host called upon the travelers to both “amuse” as well as “inform” the group with their chosen tales).
The Wife of Bath proceeds with her lengthy autobiography. Three of her husbands were good (she skips over these. Goodness is not worth mentioning). Two of her husbands were bad. What is good and bad to the Wife of Bath? The three good husbands were old and rich, but they could not satisfy her sexually. She discusses various verbal tricks she had played on these old men, and the reasons why she never cared about their love, only her own personal gain. The Wife of Bath describes her soul as follows:
“In feelynge, and myn herte is Marcien.
In feeling, and my heart is influenced by Mars.
Venus me yaf my lust, my likerousnesse,
Venus me gave my lust, my amorousness,
And Mars yaf me my sturdy hardynesse;
And Mars gave me my sturdy boldness” (610-612)
The most blessed of men are not controlling whatsoever, but who free her to do as she pleases. She wants freedom for herself, but subservience from her partner. ‘One of us two must bow, doubtless’ (440).
“I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun,
I never loved in moderation,
But evere folwede myn appetit,
But always followed my appetite” (622-623)
The Wife of Bath is honest and open to the world, presenting her deepest taboo desires in the most direct form -an autobiography (recall that Plato’s Republic might be called Socrates’s autobiography).
Regarding the Wife of Bath’s two “bad” husbands: her fourth husband had a mistress, but she still remembers her romance fondly with this young man. She catches herself in a moment of nostalgia, and then recalls her many infidelities, but he died while she was on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her fifth husband (named “Jankyn”) was a poor scholar. He was the only one of her husbands whom she wed out of love, however, he was violent and he may have killed her fourth husband (the question is left open). After they are married, they torment one another -he reads aloud stories of troublesome women (Eve, Delilah, Clytemnestra) and they violently fight with one another, until they find a truce: Jankyn shares his estate with her, and she treats him kindly. Thus, the Wife of Bath concludes her personal history.
The Friar and the Summoner argue with one another just prior to the start of her tale (mediated by the Innkeeper), until the Wife of Bath asks for permission to tell her tell from the Friar.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a parody of an Arthurian romance. The story takes place ‘many hundreds of years ago’ when magical creatures, like elves, roamed the English isle. Today, she tells us, those creatures have been replaced by begging and licentious friars.
A ‘lusty bachelor’ in King Arthur’s court comes home after a day of “hawking” when he suddenly rapes a maiden (recall that the Knight’s son in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” is also called a ‘lusty bachelor’). King Arthur, a “just” king, sentences the man to death, but when the women protest, King Arthur allows the Queen to decide his fate. The Queen says she will spare his life if this man can name what women desire most of all. He is given one year to respond.
During the year, he searches high and low, but no one can provide a satisfactory answer (though the Wife of Bath admits that women are certainly susceptible to flattery). The Wife of Bath gives a brief interlude of a story from Ovid of King Midas’s wife sharing a secret about two asses ears growing under his hair, as well. The Wife of Bath suggests that women are susceptible to both vanity and gossip.
At any rate, the Wife of Bath continues: the man returns to King Arthur’s country, dismayed at not finding his answer, when suddenly he comes upon a group of twenty-four women dancing in the forest. As he approaches, they disappear and an old hag sits in their stead. She offers to teach him something if he will only swear an oath in return. So he asks her to teach him what women desire most of all, and, upon learning the secret, he returns to King Arthur’s castle. The thing women desire most of all is sovereignty and mastery over their husbands. When this answer meets approval the old hag demands the knight marry her as recompense. He is distraught because she is old and poor and lowborn, but he reluctantly marries her anyway. She offers him a choice to have her as she is -old and haggard but she will humbly support him all her life, or else have her as a young and attractive maiden but she will be unfaithful to him. The knight ultimately leaves the choice up to her, which pleases her so greatly that she gives him both: her youth and her fidelity. Thus they live in ‘perfect joy’ and the Wife of Bath closes with a curse on men who refuse to be governed by their wives.
The great irony of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is that she offers marital advice, though she clearly has failed to uphold her matrimonial oaths on numerous occasions. Another irony is that the hero of the story is a wicked man (a rapist), and that he only finds true happiness when he marries an old hag. The Wife of Bath is the polar opposite of the previous tale-teller, the Man of Law, an austere attorney who values fulfilled-oaths and honored obligations most of all.
Politically, the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” differs from the “Knight’s Tale” because it has no Theseus pulling the strings. King Arthur merely steps aside so his Queen may decide one man’s fate, and in the end a happy marriage results not from submission to a king, but rather submission to a wife. The Wife of Bath teaches that justice begins in the household.
In continuing with the recurring theme of marriage, unlike the Knight, the Wife of Bath does not want courtly love. She desires a certain type of marriage, but only one that she cannot truly have. An old woman cannot magically become young again, and a marriage cannot find true happiness if only one spouse relinquishes authority. Thus, the Pardoner’s defense at line 163 still stands. The Wife of Bath, in her Epicurean and cosmopolitan experiences, is something of a hedonist. She is well-traveled in more than ways than one, yet for all of her worldliness, she was never able to discover true happiness in love. In marriage, she views herself as a debt-collector, and if she is unsatisfied sexually, she will simply find another husband. In fact, she defines ‘perfection’ as a diverse array of experiences. Good clerks (scholars) are well-read, and good craftsman are builders of many different styles. Therefore, the perfect scholar has read everything, and the perfect craftsman can build anything. But such experience is an impossibility because each person is ensouled with a perspective and is raised within a single culture. No single person can possess such a global and encyclopedic knowledge. Similarly, in marriage no person can achieve this standard for perfection. Perhaps she realizes this problem, so the Wife of Bath longs to be like the old hag in her story -a woman who forces a young man to marry her not out of love, but rather compulsion, or obligation. The Wife of Bath believes in self-gratification, rather than love. Like Thrasymachus’s denial of justice in Plato’s Republic, the Wife of Bath lacks faith in love. When people believe in neither love nor justice in life, compulsion and tyranny reign. Hence, why the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” is merely a parody of an Arthurian legend. She has proven her own prophecy to be true: she longs for what she cannot truly have. After all, she tells the Pardoner, her only hope is to “amuse” with her story.
For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. Here one may read a Middle English text that is closer to what Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst, actually wrote than that in any other modern edition.