It is not possible to say at what point in his life Chaucer wrote most portions of the Canterbury Tales. Certainly the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue and Tale are generally considered to belong to his most creative years, whenever they were. Perhaps around 1390? It is also not possible to know whether he had already decided to develop the Wife¡¯s attitude to sex and the story of her marriages in this way when he briefly mentioned them in the General Prologue.
No other pilgrim is given such a developed self-narration. The nearest parallel is the Pardoner, whose Prologue also allows a pilgrim to portray a questionable way of life from a personal point of view. But the Pardoner talks only of his present ¡°professional¡± activities, while the Wife evokes some of the most private aspects of her life across the years.
Other parallels may exist between Pardoner and Wife. His Prologue and Tale offer an ¡°Anatomy of Sin¡± according to which ¡°Avarice (greed) is the root of all evil¡± but in his portrayal of the ¡°tavern sins¡± there is almost no mention of sexuality. The dominant activities are eating, drinking, and gambling. The Wife of Bath makes up for what he lacks, by speaking mainly of sex, but with a strong element of material greed breaking through. The stress that the GP lays on the Pardoner¡¯s sexual limitations and on the Wife¡¯s sexual experience might suggest that the distinction was intended by Chaucer.
The Wife of Bath is also powerfully present at certain other points in the Canterbury Tales, always as a dominating female figure. She is directly mentioned in line 1170 near the end of the Clerk¡¯s Tale. It could be suggested that the Clerk¡¯s Tale is told in part as an indirect refutation of her attitudes, just as the Clerk¡¯s portrait in the GP stands in strong contrast to hers. It has also been suggested that in the GP she recalls personifications of Rhetoric (the art of persuasive speaking) while the Clerk is a champion of Logic (the art of clear speaking). On a more immediately ¡°realistic¡± level, the Wife¡¯s fifth husband was a clerk from Oxford. He is now dead and she has presumably come on this pilgrimage in search of her sixth. The Clerk is the obvious candidate and he does not seem to welcome the prospect.
On a wider scale, the Wife of Bath is the main focus of one of the major themes of the entire Canterbury Tales ¡ª the nature of Woman. Early in the second half of the 20th century, many critics claimed to discern what they termed the ¡°marriage group¡± of tales. This term is now widely rejected. It is nonetheless certain that a very large number of tales are about the troubled and troubling relationship between women and men.
There is nothing like the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue in medieval literature. Scholars have compared it to sermons, confessions, and tracts. Yet it is none of those. Chaucer has created a text which is a strongly individualized dramatic monologue, at a time when such things did not exist. The tone, or ¡°voice¡± is quite different from the standard narratorial voice of the Tales and the Prologue especially clearly demands to be spoken aloud.
The sequence of ideas is guided by a fluid process of association that looks forward to the Shakespearean soliloquy. Although the speaking style of the Prologue is not very ¡°colloquial¡± (that is reserved for the quotations of things she claims to have said to her old husbands) we are always conscious of a very individual voice expressing a personal set of thoughts and memories with no ¡°authorial¡± intervention or interpretation. The nearest parallel in literature would be some of the works of the Greek satirist Lucian, popular in the Renaissance but probably unknown to Chaucer..
It has often been suggested that Chaucer¡¯s first inspiration for the Wife of Bath came from the portrait of La Vieille (the old woman) in Le Roman de la Rose (12932-43). This elderly whore recalls with seeming nostalgia the scandalous sexual fun and adventures she had in her younger days, in words that are closely echoed by the Wife of Bath (469-73). Here Chaucer could have found the idea of writing the words of a woman asserting in a lively manner the positive value of a life that corresponds closely to the worst models found in clerical, antifeminist works.
Both Pardoner and Wife speak their Prologues in a self-justifying manner designed to convince their hearers that they are right to live as they do. This technique was also used by Chaucer in the GP portrait of the Monk, where ¡°indirect reported speech¡± strongly advocates a way of life quite in contradiction with ideals or standard practice and the pilgrim Chaucer, quite overwhelmed, says that ¡°his opinion is good.¡±
The key term in most modern interpretations of the Wife of Bath is ¡°antifeminism.¡± The main question is to what extent she expresses a rejection of antifeminist attitudes to women and to what extent whe incarnates and justifies them. Antifeminism is the generic name given to attitudes that are systematically hostile to women. It is often a corollary of Patriarchism, which claims a privileged position for the male in society and human relations. Almost from the start, the Christian Church was deeply afraid of sexuality, even within marriage. Virginity, celibacy, and chastity were widely considered to be a more truly Christian way of life from early on. Monasticism naturally stressed the importance of such values and in the West-Euopean (Latin) Church there was always a tendency to demand that ¡°secular¡± (parish) priests should also not be married. A widow was under strong pressure not to remarry.
After the Lateran Council of 1215, deacons and priests were strictly forbidden to marry and one reason for the proliferation of texts hostile to women may have been the need to encourage clerical chastity. The universal obligation to make an annual confession before a priest also made clearer the power of sexual desire in human lives. The less specifically Christian notion known as ¡°patriarchy¡± was also always present. According to this ancient Indo-European social model, social order was only assured when power in all aspects of society belonged wholly to men Woman soon came to be seen as the greatest threat, not only to male chastity but to male authority. There were many texts which denounced the dangers women represented. The archetypal female in Christian antifeminist writing is Eve, who was considered to have tempted Adam and made him fall by her sexual charms.
La Vieille in Jean de Meun¡¯s continuation of Le Roman de la Rose is a standard antifeminist figure in a strongly antifeminist work. The Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue is also mainly composed by reference to antifeminist texts, commonplace notions, and familiar stereotypes, yet the result is quite different. It is, together with Chaucer¡¯s Tale of Melibee, the portion of the Canterbury Tales that refers to the greatest number of textual ¡°authorities.¡± The main manuscripts offer a particularly large number of Latin ¡°glosses¡± (marginal notes and comments) to the Wife¡¯s Prologue, some explicitly antifeminist.
The text of the Prologue transmitted in many manuscripts, including the Ellesmere manuscript, includes a number of lines (mostly related to the Wife¡¯s fifth husband) that are not found in some of the oldest manuscripts, including the Hengwrt manuscript (lines 575-584, 609-12, 619-26, 717-20). It seems impossible to decide if they were added by Chaucer in a revision or if they are the work of another writer. Since the text remains fully coherent without them, they seem to represent an addition to an earlier state of the text. Their style is so completely in accord with the rest that most scholars incline to think they are by Chaucer.
The first portion of the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue (1-162) is devoted to a general defense of her right to marry as often as she wishes. It opens with a statement of her overall theme ¡ª the antifeminist term ¡°wo that is in mariage¡± ¡ª and it only later becomes clear that the ¡°wo¡± in question is experienced by her husbands far more than by her. The opposition in the first line between ¡°experience¡± and ¡°authority¡± prepares for the double direction of what follows. At first she refers to the teachings of recognized authorities found in books, but later she speaks of her personal experience, culminating in the moment when she attacks her husband¡¯s book containing the texts of those authorities.
She first expresses gratitude for her five marriages, begun it would seem at the amazing age of twelve. That was the age at which marriage was legal in canon law; it might be argued that line 4 means ¡°since the time I was legally able to marry¡± rather than ¡°I was married when I was twelve.¡± She qualifies her gratitude, though, with a question in line 7 as to whether she could (legally) marry so often. The reason for her doubt is made clear from line 9: ¡°me was toold, certeyn, nat longe agoon is¡± that Christ taught she should only marry once. She does not specify who told her this, or why, but judging from the intensity of what follows, she has been troubled by it and is determined to settle the question by argument based on recognized authorities.
In actual fact, the source of this initial idea and of most of what the Wife quotes and argues against in the opening part of her Prologue is St. Jerome¡¯s tract Adversus Jovinianum (Against Jovinian). Jerome (345-420) was a very great scholar, responsible for the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, and a vehement antifeminist. A certain Jovinian (otherwise unknown) seems to have written that marriage and virginity were equally acceptable to God and in his tract, Jerome sets out the opposite opinion, using the Bible to support him in every possible way. In the course of his argument, he quotes a long section from a lost work by a Greek philosopher, Theophrastus, and this passage was sometimes copied separately. Theophrastus is mainly interested in listing the ¡°wo that is in marriage¡± for husbands with domineering wives and is the origin of most of the accusations that the Wife falsely claims her husbands made when drunk, as well as of the strategy itself.
Later in the Prologue (672-680), when the Wife enumerates the contents of her fifth husband¡¯s antifeminist anthology which he called ¡°Valerie and Theofraste,¡± we learn that it included Jerome¡¯s tract too. We may therefore assume that her Prologue starts because her physical attack on the book, then on her husband, and his subsequent (claimed) surrender of the ¡°maistrie¡± or ¡°sovereynte¡± to her, have not in fact completely succeeded in putting her mind to rest. It was her fifth husband, as he read from his book, who ¡°told¡± her that she should only marry once. Now he is (we may assume) dead and she has to find a new partner or live alone.
Critical approaches that treat the Wife as a ¡°real person¡± are less popular in today¡¯s age of intertextuality and post-modernism. The ¡°persona¡± constructed in the opening 162 lines can perhaps best be seen as a parodic opposite of Jerome. Where he was determined to affirm that virginity is the only truly Christian way, she is resolved to assert her ¡°right¡± (actually a very modern concept) to be sexually active in repeated marriages. As he uses the Bible in every possible way to support his idea, so does she, quoting mostly the same texts. Where he shudders with horror at the thought of repeated marriages (though he is obliged to admit that widows are free to remarry), she shudders with pleasure.
Indeed, the Wife speaks against Jerome¡¯s arguments almost as if she were the Jovinian against whom Jerome wrote. The main difference she introduces is her bias in favor of women. Where the theologians were writing in general terms, the Wife stresses the duty of husbands and the rights of wives.
When the Pardoner interrupts her in line 163, it is to make the unlikely claim that he had been intending to marry soon. The GP cast grave doubts on his sexual abilities (¡°a gelding or a mare¡±) and that may be why he is happy to report that the Wife has taught him to think again. The Wife replies that she has not started yet and indicates more clearly than before her pride in having been the ¡°whip¡± by which her husbands had ¡°tribulation¡± in marriage.
This serves as the starting point for the main part of her Prologue. Having established her right to marry and speak of marriage, she now begins the ¡°tale¡± of her life with her five husbands. The first three she describes as ¡°goode men, and riche, and olde¡± and she makes no distinction between them. After evoking the difficulties they had satisfying her in bed at night and keeping her happy by day, she boasts of her total control over them. Line 224 begins a new topic, stated in lines translated from the Romance of the Rose ¡ª women¡¯s skill at lying. The Wife knows from Theophrastus that women have long known the art of controlling their husbands by falsely accusing them of misdeeds. She boasts of her own skill in this art and sets out to give the pilgrims a demonstration of what she used to say to her three old husbands.
Lines 235–378 therefore form a dramatic monologue inserted within the dramatic monologue of the Prologue as a whole. In the first ten lines, the Wife pretends to be jealous and suspicious of her husband(s) in response to their suspicions of her. Lines 246-7 then serve as preface to the rest: ¡°Thou comst hoom as dronken as a mous / And prechest on thy bench, with yvel preef.¡± In the following 130 lines, she repeats ¡°Thou seist¡± over twenty times as she reels off (with hardly a pause for breath) a series of comments and proverbs hostile to women, mostly drawn from Theophrastus that she claims she accused her husbands of using against her when they came home drunk. Concluding her lengthy scolding, she joyfully informs the pilgrims, ¡°And al was fals¡± (382).
This is an even more complicated point in the Wife¡¯s narrative than readers normally perceive. ¡°Al was fals¡± has the superficial sense that the poor old husbands had said no such things. How could they? They were no experts in antifeminist literature, they too (like her) had ¡°experience¡± but no ¡°authority.¡± But there is another sense in which the reported scolding may be false. These are words that the Wife is supposed to have addressed to her first three husbands. Yet in ¡°realistic¡± terms, she cannot have had such extensive knowledge of ancient Latin authors and the Bible until she had been taught antifeminist doctrine by her fifth husband, the ¡°clerk¡± Jankyn. It is therefore possible that her brilliant display of dominating discourse owes a lot to her female skill in lying, that she could not in fact have spoken as she claims she did.
In what follows, it becomes clear that she sees marriage as a struggle for power and that she is determined to win. She cannot endure the idea of being subject; her goal is ¡°maistrie¡± far more than it is sexual pleasure. At line 452 she suddenly shifts to her fourth husband. It is very hard to sense her ¡°tone¡± when she describes their life together, in part because she interrupts the description with the long passage of nostalgia for her lost youth (469-79) translated from the Romance of the Rose. The fourth husband does not receive a fuller treatment, we feel, because he did not ¡°play her game¡± but had relations with another woman while he was married to her. She mainly stresses the pain and humilation she inflicted on him in revenge for that. She seems to be in a hurry to talk about her fifth husband, though she pauses to note that she had her fourth buried in a quite expensive location inside the church.
The Wife¡¯s evocation of her fifth husband, Jankyn, (lines 503-827) is very different from what has gone before it. As a fictional autobiography, it is unequalled. The prayers for his soul in lines 504 and 525, as she begins, and line 827, as she ends, suggest very strongly that he is dead, although she never directly says so. The affectionate tone that dominates the entire account is extremely well done, and a great challenge for the reader. Modern feminist critics stress the element of physical violence in their relationship (line 506) and claim that although the Wife demands to have the ¡°maistrie¡± in marriage, in fact she longs to be dominated and physically overpowered. It cannot be denied that there is something of this in the lines that begin the story (505-524).
The element of ¡°Lucianic¡± satire indicated ealier is especially strong here. The Wife is completely unable to see anything wrong with the story of her first encounters with Jankyn (presumably not the same man as the apprentice mentioned previously). She gaily tells how she spent Lent (a time of prayer and austerity) ¡°playing¡± while her husband was in London and describes how she directly told Jankyn that she wanted to marry him once she was a widow. She even invented (line 577-81) a symbolic dream (in which he killed her) to express her ambiguous desires. She tells her audience that it was her standard practice to have the next husband lined up before the previous one was dead. Once again, as at the beginning of the Prologue, we sense how terrified she is of the thought of not having a husband. The couplet 585-6 in which she ¡°loses the thread¡± then finds it again only remind us that she is not as young as she used to be.
That awareness, and the relative coldness of her descriptions of her fourth husband, perhaps help soften the effect of the outrageous lines that follow. First she relates the effect the sight of Jankyn¡¯s legs had on her as she followed her dead husband¡¯s bier. Then she admits that she was already forty to his twenty. She speaks of her sexual character feely and without any ¡°complex¡± before she starts the story of their marriage, which turned out in ways she had not anticipated because Jankyn, being a ¡°clerk,¡± came well-armed with a big antifeminist anthology and the clear intention of not being over-ruled.
In lines 642-785 we return to the now familiar antifeminism of Jerome and Theophrastus but with the difference that here the words being quoted are Jankyn¡¯s, not the Wife¡¯s, and they are now being used directly against her in their normal sense, furnishing support to male claims to a right of control over female desire. It is not surprising that the Wife, unwilling to accept such a claim, and not yet able to appropriate it for her own ends, resorts to violence.
The description of their fight and the ultimate settlement of their relationship leaves critics divided. On the one hand there is physical violence (wife-beating) but on the other hand the Wife seems to negate the effect of this and of her ultimate victory (which seems mainly ¡°psychological¡±) by stressing the intense mutuality of the resulting partnership. Nothing could be more modern. The main difficulty is that, after so much deception, readers cannot be sure of the truth of what the Wife is saying. Like all the other husbands, Jankyn¡¯s voice is not heard telling his side of the story.
Before the Wife can begin her ¡°Tale,¡± Chaucer inserts a brief quarrel between Friar and Summoner, looking ahead to the conflict enshrined in their tales. It is generally agreed that at first, Chaucer intended to give the Wife of Bath what is now known as the Shipman¡¯s Tale. There, in lines 11-19, the narrator speaks of the financial needs of ¡°us¡± wives. Since there is no other wife among the pilgrims, it seems reasonable to assume that this was once the start of the Wife of Bath¡¯s Tale. The story that follows is about sex, money and deceit. The present Wife of Bath¡¯s Tale relates in far deeper ways to what is said in the Prologue.
It is not certain whether Chaucer invented the story or adapted it. A very similar story is found as the tale of Florent in Gower¡¯s Confessio Amantis (i 1407-1864) but it is possible that Gower received the story from his friend Chaucer. Other parallels are probably later in date: a romance, The Weddynge of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell and a ballad, The Marriage of Sir Gawaine. The fundamental story, of a young man who is obliged to marry a ¡°loathly (ugly) lady¡± but is then given a chance of having her magically transformed into a beautiful one, feels like a folk-tale but may have been invented by Chaucer. Chaucer uses the motif within the structure of an Arthurian romance.
In any case, the Tale is very strongly marked by the concerns and desires of its narrator ¡ª probably more than any other of the Canterbury Tales. This is also one of the only tales, with the Pardoner¡¯s and the Nun¡¯s Priest¡¯s, where the specific voice of the ¡°frame¡± (pilgrim) narrator breaks through clearly (in lines 929-982, using the same ¡°we¡± as at the start of the Shipman¡¯s Tale).
None of the other versions starts with the same violence. Of course, the Knight¡¯s casual rape of a passing girl establishes clearly the theme of ¡°maistrie,¡± reflecting a world in which male desire is dominant. Yet most critics are puzzled by the lack of narratorial emotion at this point. The Wife, as narrator, shows little concern for the victim of the violence who vanishes from the tale. Critics stress that the way the Knight and other main characters are never given names helps to strengthen the theme of the ¡°battle of the sexes.¡± The same ambiguity about the seriousness of the crime is shown by the way the court women ask Arthur to show ¡°grace¡± when he wants to execute him.
The speed of the initial narrative can be explained by the narrator-Wife¡¯s eagerness to get to the riddle the Knight must seek the answer to ¡ª what it is that women most desire? This kind of riddle is familiar from folk-tales but the narrator seems not to realize how humiliating it is for a knight in a romance to set out on such a quest, instead of going out to fight. The situation is only made worse by the feeling that the narrator knows in advance what the ¡°correct¡± answer is.
In lines 925-950, the narrator-Wife summarizes and evaluates (using ¡°us¡±) a variety of possible replies, some likely and some not, culminating in the preposterous suggestion that women want to be faithful and keep the secrets men tell them. This strikes her as so amusing that she digresses to tell half the Midas story, adapted to make it his wife who betrays the secret, as an exemplum proving that women cannot keep secrets. We seem to be close to the style of the Nun¡¯s Priest here.
Returning to the tale in line 983, speed again overcomes coherence as the Knight sees 24 ladies (fairies? we are never told) dancing; they vanish and an old hag of uncertain nature is left. She offers to help and demands the familiar folk-tale ¡°rash promise¡± which the Knight gives, having nothing to lose, as he thinks. He does not learn at once what he will be required to do, unlike in the other versions. That only comes after he has given the answer to the queen and court, an answer that the readers only learn then too.
The story then advances extremely quickly, through a secret wedding with no party afterward, to line 1083 when the young knight and the ugly old wife go to bed. The comedy of the situation is hardly exploited because the wife directly challenges her husband, asking him what she has done wrong that he is not making love to her as he should. He replies that she is ugly, old, and of low class. The wife replies that she could change all of that, if only he would behave correctly (¡°bere yow unto me¡± line 1108).
In lines 1109-1206 she makes a formal rebuttal of his accusations that is most unexpected. Whereas we have sensed the Wife of Bath¡¯s presence until now, here it cannot be felt. The dignified, reasonable tone of this lecture does not address feminist issues. The first section, lines 1109-1176, is a lofty discourse on the nature of true nobility, distinguishing between noble actions and mere ¡°noble¡± birth. Lines 1177-1206 are an even loftier meditation on the positive value of poverty, quoting the example of Jesus from the Gospels as well as quoting classical writers. It is all quite disconcerting. The 6 lines 1207-12 in which she recalls that courtesy demands that young men should address all old men as ¡°Father¡± maintain the same poise.
Equally abruptly, the previous ¡°chirpy¡± tone returns with line1213 as the old wife reminds her young husband that since she is ugly and old, he will have no need to worry about being cuckolded. Then without waiting to see if he has learned anything, she offers the choice of transformations that seems to have been part of the original folk-tale, if there ever was one. In Gower¡¯s tale of Florent, the choice is a more obvious one: either ugly by day and lovely by night, or the opposite. This is also found in the other versions; it depends on the polarity of public image and private pleasure. In the Wife of Bath¡¯s version the choice is more complicated: ugly and old but surely faithful or young and lovely and no promises made. The outcome, though, is the same in all version. The knight gives the decision to the woman, surrendering the ¡°maistrie¡± to her. The other versions offer explanations for the magic that follows, but not the Wife of Bath. Instead we are reminded of her description of her fifth marriage with its claim that the two attained a perfect harmony of mutual surrender, as the wife undertakes to be both fair and faithful.
It should be said that an element of ambiguity and uncertainty remains. The transformed wife asks God to punish her with death if she is not as good and true to her husband ¡°as evere was wyf¡± (1244). Some critics like to see irony here (one theme in many of the Tales is that women cannot be good and true) but their reading is not supported by the narrator¡¯s claim a few lines later that ¡°she obeyed hym in every thyng¡± (1255).
Critics are sometimes disappointed that the Wife of Bath does not finish on such a happy note. Instead she concludes the tale, as was normal, with a prayer, only it is such a prayer as only the least admirable aspects of the Wife could offer ¡ª for wives always to have young partners, good in bed, who die first. Worse still, she adds two curses, against unsubmissive and miserly husbands. The violence of these last lines supports those who wish to read the Wife of Bath¡¯s Prologue and Tale as an antifeminist exemplum. The more the Wife resists the antifeminist teachings of the texts she quotes and attacks, the more she becomes the kind of woman the texts warn men against.