The Wife of Bath’s Tale: Autobiography and Arthurian Parody

The Wife of Bath is the most famous albeit the most troubling character in Chaucerian literature. As with other storytellers in The Canterbury Tales, we are initially given only her title: the “Wife of Bath.” Later we learn her name is Alysoun, and that she sometimes goes by the name “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 –for political supremacy over men– a desire which is born from her many worldly experiences and having been married five separate times beginning at 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 her deafness is the result of a violent fight with one of her “bad” husbands). She is also 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 a charitable person, often first in line at the Offering but angry if another woman beats her to the Offering first (in other words she is a vain person). Her integrity is questionable: she values charity only when others notice. She carries a large collection of fine kerchiefs she wears on Sundays, Chaucer guesses her kerchiefs weigh about ten pounds. She also wears red stockings and new shoes. She is described as having a ‘bold face,’ because she is a cosmopolitan woman, having been three times to Jerusalem, across foreign seas to Rome and Boulogne, Cologne, as well as to Galicia for the Compostela (the pilgrimage through the Pyrenees to St. James Cathedral in Spain), 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), or playful romance.

At any rate, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath defends her many marriages by 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 womanly 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 the Wife of Bath has been schooled in five different men -and she is now 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 thesis as to why men owe their wives a debt of sexual gratification in marriage. She views marriage as an economic transaction rather than a just and happy union. Instead, her lust is for authority. She justifies force and dominance over her husband, a man whom she views as both a debtor and a slave. Her true desire is for “power” in marriage.

At this point, the Pardoner jumps in and expresses concern for his pending nuptials. He is set to be married soon, and he wonders why should he get married only to become a slave, “By God and Saint John” The Pardoner is no slave! The Wife of Bath 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” (however in saying this the Wife of Bath has disqualified herself from winning the prized meal at the Tabard Inn. Recall, that the Host initially 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 three, because she is not interested in sharing the good qualities in men. Goodness is not worth mentioning). Two of her husbands were bad –what is a bad husband according to the Wife of Bath? The three good husbands were old and rich, but they could not satisfy her sexual appetite. She discusses various verbal tricks she played on these old men and the reasons why she never cared about their love. 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 rather the best of men free her to do as she pleases. She yearns for personal freedom yet complete subservience from her husband. ‘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, most taboo desires in the most direct form -an autobiography (recall that Plato’s Republic and Apology might be called Socrates’s autobiography, as well).

At any rate, 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 her fourth husband 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 she wed out of love, however he was a violent man and in fact he may have killed her fourth husband (the question is left unanswered). Once married, Alysoun and Jankyn tormented one another. He read aloud stories of troublesome women (Eve, Delilah, Clytemnestra) to badger his wife. Stories can be weaponized to affect people. The couple fought violently with one another, until finding ultimately finding a political truce –the truce is that Jankyn shares his estate with his wife, and the Wife of Bath treats him kindly. Thus, the Wife of Bath concludes her personal history before telling a tale.

There is a brief interlude in which 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 tale. She proceeds to tell a story that makes a mockery of friars: “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 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 (recall the premise in “The Green Knight”).

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 more susceptible to flattery). The Wife of Bath offers a brief interlude of a story from Ovid about King Midas’s wife who shares a secret about two asses ears which grow under his hair. Her digressions are important. The Wife of Bath suggests that women are susceptible to both vanity and gossip. She has a high opinion of herself but a low opinion of women.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath continues her tale: 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 now sits in their stead. She offers to teach the man any skill 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 -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 by placing 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 above all else.

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 ways than than one, yet for all of her worldliness, she has never managed 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 belief 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, or another instance in which the Knight is shown to be a mere caricature. 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. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

A Woman of Paris (1923) Review

A Woman of Paris (1923) Director: Charlie Chaplin


Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s other films, A Woman of Paris, is a serious, somber story that does not feature the Little Tramp character at all. Likely for this reason, A Woman of Paris was a box office failure, as many audiences were hoping to see another classic Chaplin comedy picture. Its financial failings caused great pain to Chaplin at the time. In some ways, A Woman of Paris may be considered his first feature production, as it was released through the newly formed United Artists production company, though in truth his first true feature-length film was The Kid (1921).  

The beginning of the film displays a title warning the audience that Chaplin does not actually appear in the film (though he makes a minor cameo during the train station scene). A Woman of Paris tells the story of Marie St. Clair, a woman of Paris, who plans a romantic rendezvous with her lover, Jean Millet. Upon learning of the trist, both her father and Jean’s family reject Marie. Nevertheless Jean and Marie plan to meet at the train station to elope in Paris. In actuality the film was shot in Los Angeles, CA. However, Jean’s father suddenly dies causing Jean to call Marie and cancel their escapade but no one answers.

Years later, Marie is living a lavish life in Paris as the mistress of Pierre Revel. By accident, she bumps into Jean who is now living in a flat with his mother. They rekindle their romance, but Jean’s mother does not approve of their love. Marie overhears their squabble and she runs back to Pierre. In a frenzy, Jean attacks Pierre and in the ensuing fight he mortally wounds himself. In anger, Jean’s mother goes to find Marie to kill her, but she finds her weeping over Jean’s lifeless body. Only now is she able to see Marie’s true love. The two women embrace and leave Paris together to start an orphanage in the country for children. One day they catch a ride back and pass a chauffeured coach, and inside is Pierre. A man asks him whatever happened to Marie, and he says he does not know.

The story for A Woman of Paris was loosely based on Chaplin’s romance with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, a notorious and lavish socialite of the ’20s and ’30s known for having numerous affairs in France and the United States. Upon its release, A Woman of Paris was not well received by audiences, however it has since been reappraised and has received critical acclaim for the complexity of its characters and orchestration of its plot –somewhat of a novelty at the time of its release. Mary Pickford gave notable praise for the film.

I found A Woman of Paris to be rather bland and forgettable, but certainly not a poor film. The plot and character development are both unique novelties for the time, however the film is greatly overshadowed by Chaplin’s other, grander works. If not for Chaplin’s involvement, A Woman of Paris would likely be wholly forgotten.

The Peloponnesian War, Book II: Proxy Wars and Pericles’s Funeral Oration

Book II of edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War examines the true origin of the war. The thirty year peace between Athens and Sparta ends when Thebes (allied with the Peloponnesus) attacks Plataea (allied with Athens) and the Thebans surrender. Both cities are located north of Athens in Boetia. Plataea executes its 180 captured prisoners in the country before Athenian emissaries have time to arrive and prevent the executions.

As a result of the violated treaty, Athens under Pericles prepares for war and likewise Sparta under King Archidamus also prepares for war. Sparta raises the signal to its allies, sending requests to Sicily and Persia. Thucydides notes that most young men of the day support Sparta which proclaims itself the liberator of Hellas for those who wish to escape the growing empire of Athens. King Archidamus rouses his troops by speaking of Athens’s excessively luxurious attitude and passion for conquest. He marches his army into Attica and Athens protects its city behind its walls.

The Athenians hurriedly abandon their country homes and make for “the city,” as Athens had become the central hub of several rural country towns over many years, and unified under Theseus many years prior. Archidamus proceeds with a slow pace, ravaging the countryside of Attica, hoping they will concede rather than see their property destroyed. The young men of Athens grow restless watching their property destroyed, but Pericles holds fast because he has sent a fleet of ships to (hopefully) bring destruction on the Peloponnesus. The Athenian navy raids many towns along the coast.

Pericles’s Funeral Oration Speech
In 431 BC, Pericles delivers a large public funeral and eulogy to those who had fallen early in the war at the end of the first year of the war, however he uses the eulogy to provide a glimpse into his political philosophy. He begins by lamenting praises of men, for it breeds envy and incredulity, however he ultimately submits to the customs of ancestors (though men are by nature envious). The laws of Athens are unique. They do not copy those of their neighbors and Athenians fear lawlessness. They have games and entertainment to distract from distress and are exceptionally worldly in their trade. Athenians are moderate: cultivating refinement without extravagance and intelligence without effeminacy. He calls Athens the “school of Hellas” (2.41). This is the Athens for which men nobly fought and died. This makes the fight for Athens special and superior. He praises the love of honor over the love of gain, and he concludes praising a woman’s silence so that she is never talked about by men, for good or ill. Here are some notable quotations from his most memorable speech:

“Thus choosing to die resisting, rather than to live submitting, they fled only from dishonor, but met danger face to face, and after one brief moment, while at the summit of their fortune, left behind them not their fear, but their glory” (2.42).

“For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb; and in lands far from their own, where the column of their epitaph declares it, there is enshrined in every breast a record unwritten with no monument to preserve it, except that of the heart” (2.43).

“Numberless are the chances to which, as tey know, the life of man is subject; but fortunate indeed are they who draw for their lot a death so glorious…” (2.44).

A plague/disease then descends upon Athens, a pestilence from Ethiopia and Egypt, before it comes to the Piraeus and cripples Athens in the war. Its spread causes a degree of lawlessness as men enjoy their lives lavishly before death, and the law and the gods fall to the wayside.

The Peloponnesians again invade Athens but again Pericles holds fast while they raid Attica’s silver mines. Pericles justifies his decision to the Athenians – there is only a choice between war and submission – no compromise. Athens has become a “tyranny” (2.63) and to let it go is unsafe. Athens ultimately does not follow his advice to focus on marine warfare, take no new conquests, and not leave themselves exposed to the hazards of war. Despite all of this Thucydides comments on Pericles: he could take hold of the democratic population like none other. Thucydides suggests Pericles was the strong conservative military and political leader that Athens needed, as it was insecure about its own empire. Pericles was moderate and noble during peacetime, but reckless during warfare.

Meanwhile, Sparta gets to Plataea and offers an alliance, but the Plataeans decide to remain with Athens in alliance, so the Spartans besiege the city. The proxy wars continue between Athens and the Peloponnesus.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

Genesis I-III: The Birth of Law

Today, we moderns call Genesis a book. That is, a whole and complete text. However, Biblical scholarship suggests it may, instead, be a collection and compendium of varying and sometimes contradictory mythologies of the known world, rooted in ancient Canaanite, Babylonian, Egyptian, and Akkadian traditions. Ancient writers would have known it as an “account,” a retelling of stories from ancient anonymous sources. The title of Genesis is taken from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which was borrowed from the Greek title meaning “Origins.” The Hebrew word Beresit refers to the opening words of the book, “When God began to create…” (using Robert Alter’s masterful translation of the Hebrew Bible).

The first part of Genesis concerns the Primeval History (Chapters 1-11), a tale of the origins of the world: land, vegetation, animals, and humans. Then it tells the story of the spread of the known peoples in the fabled of Babel, as the people spread from Greece to Mesopotamia and also Asia Minor. It is an account of the early people, the spread of languages, and traditions.

The second part of Genesis concerns the Patriarchal Tales (Chapters 12-50), which focuses on the rise of Israel and the promise delivered by God to Abraham in Ur (Chapter 12) against the Chaldees. It is a story of Israel’s nationhood. Importantly, the nation has cosmic origins parallel to the birth of the world, not unlike the cosmologies recounted by Hesiod in his Theogony or Socrates in Plato’s Republic.

The first parts of Genesis express the importance of birth and reproduction, beginning in the Garden of Eden with the injunction to be “fruitful and multiply” and continuing with the promise to Abraham and his offspring of a great nation spawned by his seed. The Torah, in general, is a compendium of human wisdom and learning, but also it is a recounting of God learning how to handle His new human creation.

First, God creates humans “in [his] image” in the first creation story (1:26-32), but then in Genesis II a second creation story of humans occurs. God “fashions” humans from the soil and breathes life. He places the human to the “east” where He planted a garden in Eden (a word derived from ancient Sumerian and Akkadian origins most likely meaning a “well-watered plain” or “steppe”). The rivers are listed, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates, and gold and lapiz lazuli are abundant. He places the human in the garden to “till it and watch it” (2:16-17).

However God makes one infamous command. “From every fruit of the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree knowledge, good and evil, you shall not eat, for on the day you eat from it, you are doomed to die” (2:17). He opens by explaining everything the humans are allowed to eat, except for one. He thus draws great attention to the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil. He says this just prior to creating a “sustainer” or woman for the human, so she presumably does not hear this law announced, though she later reiterates God’s first law to the serpent (3:2-3). The only difference in her account is that she adds that humans may not eat the fruit or “touch it” lest they die. Why does the woman add the element of touch to God’s prohibition? Recall that God’s first law initially only prohibited eating the fruit of the tree. Perhaps she had touched the fruit on another occasion and found that she also did not die.

God’s injunction forewarns to the humans of what will happen if they break the law. It is a threat of punishment. However, the cunning serpent (cunning is a play on the Hebrew word for naked) suggests that God is lying, and that he knows the humans will “become gods knowing good and evil” (3:6). Whereas God’s law had promised death, the serpent’s tantalizing promise is far more compelling. With the serpent, we are exposed to a fundamental truth in humans, one that befuddles God. Humans respond to positive incentives, rather than to threats of punishment. It is better, or more compelling, to dangle a carrot, than to threaten imprisonment. However, how can this be? Laws cannot all be positive incentives. The threat and the follow-through on punishments is key to the law. A person must be made to feel guilty if they break a law so as to preserve the integrity of the law. The law that threatens must follow-through on its threats if it is to remain credible, though it risks cunning people being persuaded by promises of incentives for those who break the law. Law is not neutral. It exists to enforce a a set of values.

What is it that convinces the woman to eat the forbidden fruit? The serpent promises her personal gain – from a human to a god. After the serpent plants this idea in her mind, she looks at the tree and sees that it is “good for eating” and that it is “lust to the eyes” so she takes the fruit and eats it, giving it to her man, as well. The “look” of the tree suddenly becomes the doorway to becoming godlike. For humans, laws are made to elevate humans above their base desires and instincts, but also to prevent them from gaining too much ground. Laws reflect the particular character of our being. In Eden, the woman has competing desires – one desire to follow the law of God, and another to capitulate to her desire to become a god. Recall, St. Augustine in his Confessions describing his lust for doing that which he did not want to do, like eating a shiny and tantalizing apple. In Romans, Paul also laments his need for law because he finds himself in a situation doing things against his own wishes. The law is the arbiter, the guide for the competing wills of humans. If done properly, the law will compel and persuade humans to pursue the good and just way, with a combination of prohibitions, threats, and promises.

However, as we know, God’s punishment is complicated. The serpent was correct, as admitted by God (3:22) that the humans became like gods knowing good and evil. As a result of eating the fruit, the humans suddenly realize their nakedness and they clothe themselves. When God discovers this, the man passes the buck to the woman, who blames the “beguiling” serpent. Thus god punishes them in reverse order: He orders the serpent to slither on the ground in enmity with the humans, the woman’s punishment is pain in child birth and longing for a man who will rule over her, and the man is punished with working the soil, sweating from it until he dies and returns to it one day (“from dust to dust”). We thus conclude that God introduces death to humans in Genesis by banishing the humans from Eden, because he is threatened by their potential to also eat from the tree of life, and live forever. Humans only become like gods in their moral knowledge, though they are physically barred from living forever. He establishes a “cherubim” with a fiery sword (winged beast in Near Eastern mythology). In this way, both God and the serpent were correct in their promises of what would happen if the humans ate fruit from the forbidden tree.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.