The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
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“Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, were right ynogh to me”
From the beginning of her Prologue, Chaucer makes it clear that the Wife of Bath does not fit into the conventional role that society – and literature – set out for women. Her first words explicitly reject male-dominated “auctoritee”, traditionally accepted by the academic world as justification for argument, and elevating instead “experience”, something which Chaucer shows she has in adundance, and arguably the most important aspect of life not controlled by patriarchal society.
It is worth noting that the pilgrimage too is largely male – there is only the Prioresse and her “chapeleyne” to aid the Wife of Bath in representing their gender – is this a reflection of Chaucer’s sexism, or one of Chaucer’s criticisms of his society? Female roles in the Tales tend to be stereotypical: Emelye, the two-dimensional “fair maid” for whose hand Palamon and Arcite fight; the Patient Griselda an example of the virtuous wife; the deceiving Maia and Alisoun. Whilst it might seem at first sight that The Wife of Bath is herself a conventional portrait of the shrew, her character goes far beyond that cardboard figure of fun. Interesting too that the two main women in her tale, Guinevere and the hag, also go beyond their conventional roles, seizing control of the situation. Arguably, by beginning her tale with the rape of a maid by a knight, Chaucer is commenting on the position of women in his society, regarded as sex-objects. The fact that the crime is immediately punished, and judgement of the criminal given over to the female, (although not the maid herself) suggests that Chaucer is condemning this attitude, and indeed the Tale then centres on the way that the knight must learn to respect – and defer to – women in society, whether rich and beautiful (Guinevere) or ugly and poor (the hag.)
What is it that makes the Wife of Bath such a vibrant and lively character? Chaucer’s portrait of her in The General Prologue prepares us for her entrance: we learn about her occupation (weaving), her appearance, her husbands (who, again unconventionally, are here nameless and lack individuality: the Wife of Bath refuses to “dwindle into a wife”), her opinion of her social status, and, crucially, her experience – of travelling and of love - “For she koude of that art the olde daunce.” Her individuality is established partly by sexual referents – her stockings “fyn scarlet reed, / Ful streite yteyd”; her sharp spurs (hardly necessary on an “amblere”, a horse trained to walk, not gallop!), the gap in her teeth (a sign of sexual proclivity in Chaucerian physiognomy; by salient detail to fix her portrait in the eye of the reader (“on hir heed an hat / As brood as is a bokeler or a targe” – very suitable that this combative woman should have her hat described as being as wide as a shield, a tool of war!); and by the interjection of comments from Chaucer the pilgrim to personalise her – “she was somdel deef, and that was scathe”.
Indeed, it is worth noting too that the Wife of Bath’s portrait in The General Prologue is the only one to link with the character’s Prologue in the Tales. We learn why she was “a little deaf”; we learn about her five husbands in more detail, as they are part of her “experience”; we even learn about her “wandrynge by the weye”.
Unusually, it is her Prologue that has the most vivacity – fitting, of course, for a creation who is so individual. Her Prologue – a “long preamble of a tale” – is by far the longest in The Canterbury Tales; indeed, at over 800 lines it is twice as long as her Tale. Here the Wife, despite her claim that “myn entente nis but for to pleye” sets out to show that the solution to a happy marriage is to have the husband defer to the wife, a practice she herself has followed. Her amusing argument includes appeal to “auctors” such as Ptolemy and Saint Mark (despite her claim at the beginning of the Prologue!), “logical” proof that God intended us to be sexual beings (“to what conclusion / Were membres maad of generacion”?) and, of course, appeal from her own experience: “sith I twelf yeer was of age, / Thonked be God, that is eterne on lyve, / Housbondes at chirche dore I have had five”.
Indeed, some readers have found the Tale rather a disappointment after such a forthright, personal Prologue: it is a conventional tale from the court of King Arthur. How does this accord with the Prologue? First of all, it would be a mistake to dismiss the tale as derivative: Chaucer’s audience would not expect originality of story, but simply lively retelling, which is certainly what the Wife gives us, with digressions, an individual voice for the characters, and indeed her own typically individual change of the “moral” to suit her purposes. Secondly, however, I feel that the Tale works very well as an “exemplum”. Mediaeval preachers, when delivering a sermon, included an “exemplum”, a story that illustrated the moral message, in their preaching (a practice that still survives today.) It could be argued that the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is a mock sermon, arguing her “moral “ message that men should defer to women – in which case the Tale serves as a perfect example, ending of course with a humorous prayer:
“…Jesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbyde hem that we wedde;
And eek I praye Jesu shorte hir lyves
That nat wol be governed by hir wyves;
And olde and angry nygardes of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilence!”
An extensive collection of resources and links for Chaucer - and other medieval poets too - from Anniina Jokinen. You might want to turn your speakers down first...
The Chaucer Metapage: designed to encourage Chaucer studies, including those undertaken via "distance learning", at all levels of education. Established by Larry D. Benson, Edwin Duncan, and Joseph Wittig et al
A wealth of Chaucer information, including introductions to the Tales, with links - from Larry Benson of Harvard University.
An on-line edition of the Tales by Sinan Kökbugur.
Andrew Moore's site, as ever, is both accessible and informative. All you need to know is here...