"The Wife of Bath's Tale" and its 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 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.
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, likely anticipating the hostility of her fellow pilgrims, attempts to provide justification for her numerous marriages. Alisoun states that Jesus Christ never taught the number of times people could marry. She points to how Abraham and Jacob each had more than two wives, and notes that Solomon had "many oon" (in fact he had seven hundred). Alisoun’s justification of her actions continues with her note that, while Christ is perfect, she is not; some women may be fine white bread, but she represents herself a humble barley loaf.
Alisoun then moves away from her attempts to justify her numerous nuptials and, instead, starts to describe the men that she married and her relationships with them. According to her, three were good men and two were not. The three that were good were all old and rich. Alisoun prides herself in telling the other pilgrims that she had control over them, which in some cases she achieved by lying to them. She used to tell her husbands that they said horrible things about her and women in general while in a drunken state, in order to gain the upper hand in the marital relationship. Alisoun then speaks of her fourth husband, whom she fondly remembers torturing because she felt he robbed her of her youth and beauty: it is suspiciously unclear how he died. Her fifth husband, Jankyn, is the husband that the reader is provided the most information about and whom she recounts as loving 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 marriage to 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 property (which she gave to him out of love). They live in harmony until Jankyn’s death. Thus, the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is one woman’s take on marriage based, as she says at the start, on her own “experience.”
Themes of the Prologue
It is crucial for any reader of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue to understand that it is working within the tradition of antifeminism
. 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 Alison 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 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[s] 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 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.
Proper 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 nonconformance 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.
As Helen Cooper argues, the theme of female dominance is fundamental to the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. 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 holde
- In which that they were bounden unto me.
- Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
- As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
- How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke! (III.204-208)
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, sexualized 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
- Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?
- Wy, taak it al! Lo, have it every deel!
- Peter! I shrewe yow, but ye love it weel;
- For if I wolde selle my bele chose,
- I koude walke as fressh as is a rose;
- But I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth. (III.450-455)
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).
Her tale begins with an allusion to the absence of fairies in modern day and their prevalence in King Arthur's time. She then starts in on her tale though she interrupts and is interrupted several times throughout the telling, creating several digressions. A knight in King Arthur's court rapes a woman in a corn field. By law, he is punishable by death, but the queen intercedes on his behalf, and the king turns the knight over to her for judgment. The queen punishes the knight by sending him out on a quest to find out what women really want "more than anything else," 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.
On his way back to the queen after failing to find the truth, he sees four and twenty ladies dancing. They disappear suddenly, leaving behind 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 "to have the sovereignty as well upon their husband as their love, and to have mastery their man above." The old woman cries out to him before the court that she saved him and that her reward will be that he takes her as his wife and loves her. He protests, but to no avail, and the marriage takes place the next day.
The old woman and the knight converse about the knight's happiness in their marriage bed and discuss that he is unhappy because she is ugly and low-born. She discourses upon the origins of gentility, as told by Jesus and Dante, and reflects on the origins of poverty. She says he can choose between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. He gives the choice to her to become whatever would bring the most honour and happiness to her; pleased with the mastery of her husband, she becomes fair and faithful to live with him happily until the end of their days.
- We wommen han, if that I shal nat lye,
- In this matere a queynte fantasye:
- Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,
- Therafter wol we crie al day and crave.
- Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;
- Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we fle.
Themes of the Tale
The tale utilizes the "loathly lady
" motif, the oldest examples of which are the medieval Irish sovereignty myths like that of Niall of the Nine Hostages
. Arthur's nephew Gawain
goes on a nearly identical quest to discover what women truly want in the medieval poem The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
, and the ballad "The Marriage of Sir Gawain
", a retelling of the same story. The usual formula is simply that the woman will be a hag during the day and a beautiful woman at night. Where "The Wife's Tale" differs from these stories is the initial rape and his emphasis on faithfulness and the redemptive decision of the knight. The knight's decision of faithfulness or fairness, his choice of the most honourable option, and then his eventual reward for making the right choice, displays his chivalrous
nature. Both the tale and the Wife of Bath's prologue deal with the question of who has control in relationships between men and women.
There are also theories that the Wife's tale was 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 Cecilia 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.
- Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions.” PMLA (1979), 209-22.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey (1987). “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” The Riverside Chaucer, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 105-116.
- Cooper, Helen (1996). “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Dinshaw, Carolyn (1999). “Good Vibrations: John/Eleanor, Dame Alys, the Pardoner, and Foucault.” Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press.