Essential Passages by Character: The Wife of Bath
Essential Passage 1: General Prologue ("The Wife of Bath")
There was a housewife come from Bath, or near,
Who—sad to say—was deaf in either ear.
At making cloth she had so great a bent
She bettered those of Ypres and even of Ghent.
Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground;
I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound
Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head.
Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red,
Close gartered, and her shoes were soft and new.
Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue.
She’d been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth;
But thereof there’s no need to speak, in truth.
Three times she’d journeyed to Jerusalem;
And many a foreign stream she’d had to stem;
At Rome she’d been, and she’d been in Boulogne,
In Spain at Santiago, and at Cologne.
She could tell much of wandering by the way:
Gap-toothed was she, it is no lie to say.
Upon an ambler easily she sat,
Well wimpled, aye, and over all a hat
As broad as is a buckler or a targe,
A rug was tucked around her buttocks large,
And on her feet a pair of spurs quite sharp.
In company well could she laugh and carp.
The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she’d learned the old, old dance.
The Wife of Bath, one of the most famous characters in English literature, is described as being “respectable” all her life. This is said in irony, as she has been married five times, is on her way to find a sixth husband, and has had many lovers both inside and outside of marriage. She is adept at the art of weaving, not out of industry, but out of her love of fine clothing (presumably in order to catch the eye of the opposite sex). She is always eager to relate her encounters with people she has met while visiting Europe's many shrines. Her physical appearance is described as having the favored traits of the day: a large behind (which betokened being well-fed and thus wealthy) and a gap between her front teeth (which was considered attractive and a sure sign of a highly advanced sexual appetite). All in all, she is accepted as something of an expert on love, or at least on sex.
Essential Passage 2: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue
Virginity is a high and perfect course,
And continence is holy. But the source
Of all perfection, Jesus, never bade
Each one of us to go sell all he had
And give it to the poor; he did not say
That all should follow him in this one way.
He spoke to those who would live perfectly,
And by your leave, lords, that is not for me!
The flower of my best years I find it suits
To spend on the acts of marriage and its fruits.
In her long prologue, the Wife of Bath relates the stories of her five husbands. The first three men had been old but wealthy, allowing her to live in her current style. Before she begins to relate her life experiences, she spends time justifying her frequent marriages. While she understands that many people believe that the Bible urges people to marry only once (if they marry at all), she does not believe this command applies to her. She recounts the many Bible characters who had more than one wife and yet were considered righteous. She also tells that there are many commands of Christ that were meant for one specific person (such as the command to the Rich Young Ruler to sell all he had and give it to the poor), but she does not believe that the injunctions concerning monogamy apply to the general populace. While this may be the preferred way, leading to perfection, the Wife of Bath states that perfection is not for her. She is going to spend her life using the “talents” that...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)
Essential Passages by Theme: Corruption of the Church
Essential Passage 1: General Prologue ("The Prioress")
There was also a nun, a prioress,
Who, in her smiling, modest was and coy;
Her greatest oath was but “By Saint Eloy!”
And she was known as Madam Eglantine.
Full well she sang the services divine
Intoning through her nose, becomingly;
And fair she spoke her French, and fluently.
At table she had been well taught withal,
And never from her lips let morsels fall,
Nor dipped her fingers deep in sauce, but ate
With so much care the food upon her plate
That never driblet fell upon her breast.
In courtesy she had delight and zest.
Her upper lip was always wiped so clean
That in her cup was no iota seen
Of grease, when she had drunk her draught of wine.
And certainly she was of great disport
And full pleasant, and amiable of port
And went to many pains to put on cheer
Of court, and very dignified appear,
And to be thought worthy of reverence.
But, to say something of her moral sense,
She was so charitable and piteous
That she would weep if she but saw a mouse
Caught in a trap, though it were dead or bled.
She had some little dogs, too, that she fed
On roasted flesh, or milk and fine white bread.
But sore she’d weep if one of them were dead,
Or if men smote it with a rod to smart:
For pity ruled her, and her tender heart.
Full properly her wimple pleated was.
Her nose was straight, her eyes as grey as glass,
Her mouth full small, and also soft and red;
But certainly she had a fair forehead;
It was almost a full span broad, I own,
For, truth to tell, she was not undergrown.
Full stylish was her cloak, I was aware.
Of coral small about her arm she’d bear
A string of beads, gauded all round with green;
And from there hung a brooch of golden sheen
On which there was first written a crowned “A,”
And under, Amor Vincit Omnia.
The Prioress, as the head of a convent, is a depiction of one of the officers of the Church who has neglected her vows of service. From the description provided by Chaucer, one can see that she is quite the lady, exhibiting the most impeccable manners. While that is not a sin, it is obvious that her love of the finer things in life goes against her vows of poverty and self-denial. She loves her food (as is evident that she is "not undergrown"), as well as the company in which it is served. She also observes courtly manners of behavior, hoping to be seen as one who is of a noble station, despite her commitment to the service of the Church and the parishioners. Her compassion is directed toward little creatures (she cries over a mouse caught in a trap), but she does not seem to cast an eye on the poor and hungry whom she has taken a vow to aid. Her vow of poverty has also been cast aside, particularly as she procures for herself the trappings of her order. Her rosary, for example, is made of the finest beads and gold.
Essential Passage 2: General Prologue ("The Friar")
A friar there was, a wanton and a merry,
A limiter, a very worthy man.
In all the Orders Four is none that can
Equal his friendliness and fair language.
He had arranged full many a marriage
Of young women, and this at his own cost.
Unto his order he was a noble post.
Well liked by all and intimate was he
With franklins everywhere in his country,
And with the worthy women of the town.
For very sweetly did he hear confession
And pleasant also was his absolution.
He was an easy man to give penance
When knowing he should gain a good pittance;
For to a begging friar, money given
Is sign that any man has been well shriven.
For if one gave (he dared to boast of this),
He took the man’s repentance not amiss.
For many a man there is so hard of heart
He cannot weep however pains may smart.
Therefore, instead of weeping and of prayer,
Men ought to give some silver to the poor freres.
(The entire section is 1840 words.)