Study Guide

The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath's Tale Essay - Critical Essays

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer

Introduction

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Geoffrey Chaucer

The following entry presents criticism on Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (circa 1386-1400). See also, Geoffrey Chaucer Criticism.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales contain, in the character Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, one of the most fully developed and discussed women in medieval literature. Bawdy, lusty, and strong willed, she refuses to allow men to control her existence and she takes measures to shape her own destiny. Although she is often viewed as an early precursor of feminist thought, some scholars argue that much of her Prologue can be viewed as anti-feminist rhetoric.

Biographical Information

Chaucer was born in the 1340s into a family of London-based vintners. He spent most of his adult life as a civil servant, serving under three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV—and much of what is known of his life is derived from various household records. In 1357 he served as a page to Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. In 1359, while serving in Edward's army in France, Chaucer was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom, and Chaucer shortly thereafter entered the king's service. By 1366 he had married Philippa Payne de Roet, a French noblewoman who had also been in the employment of the Countess of Ulster. Around this time Chaucer appears to have established a connection with John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son, who may have become Chaucer's patron; the fortunes of the two traced parallel courses over the next three decades, rising and falling in tandem. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366, on the first of a series of diplomatic missions throughout Europe. After a 1373 visit to Italy he returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London; he was given additional customs responsibilities in 1382. By 1385 he was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. Although he became a member of Parliament in 1386, that year marked the beginning of a difficult period for Chaucer. He either resigned or was removed from his post as a customs official; additionally, he was not returned to Parliament. By 1387 his wife had died. Chaucer's fortunes rose again when John of Gaunt returned from the Continent in 1389, and the young King Richard II regained control of the government from the aristocracy, which had for a time been the dominant political force in England. Chaucer was appointed a clerk of the king's works but was removed from this office in 1391. Records suggest that by 1396 Chaucer had established a close relationship with John of Gaunt's son, the Earl of Derby, who as King Henry IV later confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard and added an additional annuity in 1399. Chaucer then leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, an honor traditionally reserved for royalty. His tomb became the center of what is now known as Poet's Corner.

Plot and Major Characters

The Canterbury Tales, the work generally regarded as Chaucer's masterpiece, was probably begun around 1386. The work is organized as a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. Within this overall framework are ten parts, which appear in different order in different manuscripts. Many critics therefore believe that Chaucer never realized his final plan for the work. The work opens with the General Prologue, introducing the pilgrims with short, vivid sketches. Twenty-four tales follow, interspersed with short dramatic “links” presenting lively exchanges among the pilgrims. The tales are highly diverse in style, subject matter, and theme; they include courtly romance, allegory, sermon, fable, and sometimes a mixture of genres. The Wife of Bath's Tale is one of only three tales by women, and the only tale offering insight into the life and passions of a woman in the secular world. The Wife's Prologue is layered with double entendres and witty wordplay, providing comic relief for the pilgrims and the readers.

In The Wife of Bath's Tale Alisoun offers a story of a Knight who, while walking in a field, spies a young maiden and rapes her. The Knight is tried before King Arthur for his crime and is sentenced to death. Queen Guenevere pleads on the Knight's behalf and King Arthur allows her to mete out the Knight's punishment. The Queen gives the Knight twelve months and a day to discover what women truly want. He is required to report back to the Queen at he end of this time and provide an answer. He scours the land asking the question of each woman he meets. Women give him different opinions in return: money, clothing, sexual satisfaction, but none can offer the definitive answer. His allotted time draws to a close, and he has not found an answer to this question. As he realizes that he has failed, he comes upon an old and ugly crone and asks her the question of what women truly desire above all. She agrees to provide him with the answer in return for his pledge that he will grant her wish—a wish that will be told to him at a later time. He travels back to the castle with the crone, and delivers his answer to the Queen: “‘My lige lady, generally,’ quod he, / ‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee / As wel over his housbond as hir love, / And for to been in maistrie hym above. / This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille. / Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille’” (1037-42). The Queen allows the Knight to go free, but then the crone steps forward and claims the right to have the Knight fulfill his promise. The crone requires the Knight to marry her. The Knight is aghast but finally agrees. When they return to the crone's house for their wedding night, the crone discusses true gentility and charity with the Knight. He sees the error of his ways and reconciles himself to the marriage. The crone then offers him a choice: she can either remain old and ugly but an ever-faithful and obedient wife, or she can become young and beautiful but cannot promise that she will be obedient and faithful. The Knight allows the crone to decide, offering her sovereignty. Because the Knight has learned true humbleness and respect for his wife, she transforms into a beautiful young maiden and vows to be an obedient and faithful wife.

Major Themes

In the The Wife of Bath's Prologue, two themes are addressed. The first centers on marriage roles and power. Alisoun discusses her five marriages and her tactics for gaining power and financial independence through the use of her body. Her first marriage was at the age of twelve to a wealthy older man. With this husband and the next two, she was very pragmatic about the relationships. She used her body to control her husbands and to gain financial boons from them. She admitted that she had a healthy sexual appetite and alluded to the fact that she may quench those appetites outside of wedlock. Her fourth husband was young and lusty, and even kept a mistress. During this fourth marriage, Alisoun began courting Jankyn, a younger man without financial independence. After her fourth husband died (there has recently been speculation as to why this young man died and whether it was by natural causes), Alisoun broke her earlier rules of pragmatic marriage and wedded Jankyn for love. Ironically, now that the Wife was older and searching for love, Jankyn's position was parallel to that of Alison's with her first husbands—young Jankyn delighted in aggravating Alisoun and appeared to be in a position of power over her.

The second major theme in the Prologue is dissatisfaction with current religious thought. The Wife is a Christian and is undergoing a pilgrimage, but she doesn't blindly trust the religious authorities' interpretation of the Scriptures. Scholars in medieval Europe were seeking to understand the Bible more fully, and one common thought that was introduced during this time was that since the Bible depicts Jesus attending only one wedding, perhaps this is God's message that people should only marry once. Alisoun defends her right to remarry after being widowed (four times) by recounting the Biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well who was living out of wedlock with a man after being widowed four times. Jesus commanded her to marry this fifth man. Alisoun uses this parable and the examples of Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob, all of whom had multiple wives. Alisoun also believes in God's command to be fruitful and multiply. She disagrees with the Church's teaching that chastity is preferable to second marriage; she believes that by sharing her bounty, she is closer to the real teachings of the Bible. Her bawdy description of the God-given tools used in this endeavor are thinly veiled double entendres, and she is interrupted by the Pardoner before she discusses the particulars of her five marriages. Throughout these descriptions the religious theme is intertwined with the marriage theme and Alisoun's desire for autonomy. Although true autonomy for women in medieval Europe is an impossibility, she outlines her strategies for control of self and the situations around her.

In the Tale, the Wife of Bath softens her views of charity and love but continues the theme of autonomy and power. Alisoun reworks the traditional story of the “Loathly Lady” with a decidedly feminist spin, putting the hag in a position of control and demoting the Knight to a position of submissiveness. Throughout the Tale, the Knight's fate is decided by women, first by Guenevere, then by the crone. Alisoun suggests that a man's true happiness can be realized when he allows his spouse to have some level of autonomy. Although the end of the Tale realigns the positions of power to more traditional gender roles, it is by the woman's own choice finally to be an obedient wife; therefore the Tale provides a milestone for women's quest for self-definition. The rehabilitation of the Knight is surprising, given the Tale's beginning sentiment about the good nature of women in comparison to the base nature of men. Many commentators support the idea that in the Tale Alisoun is making a statement against prevailing beliefs that women are by nature base and sinful, yet men are capable of great nobility.

Critical Reception

Much of the scholarly debate concerning The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale focuses on Alisoun's role in feminist discourse. Many essayists address the misogynist views presented in The Canterbury Tales and attempt to determine whether Chaucer's use of Alisoun is meant to overthrow these views or reinforce them. Discussion on this topic is divided between those, such as H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., who see Alisoun as an early feminist striving for autonomy in an oppressive patriarchal society, and those, including Susan Crane and Catherine S. Cox, who view her as destined to fail in her search for equality, partly because she is trying to gain acceptance by emulating men instead of embracing her femininity, but mainly because she is a fictional character, written by a man. Several critics have investigated the religious dimensions of the The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. James W. Cook has analyzed Alisoun's positions in relation to the sacraments, particularly marriage. Alcuin Blamires has explored the possibility that Chaucer uses Alisoun to challenge false teachings and wrongdoing by the clergy, comparing her views to those of the Lollards, a heretical sect that held the Bible as the sole authority on God's word and questioned the moral right of the clergy. Among the numerous other approaches to The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale are David S. Reed's examination of Alisoun's comic aspects, D. W. Robertson, Jr.'s analysis of her concern with status and wealth, and Susan Signe Morrison's and Elaine Treharne's investigations into how Chaucer uses and manipulates language in these works.

Principal Works

Romaunt of the Rose [translator; from Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose] c. 1360s

The Book of the Duchess c. 1368-69

The House of Fame c. 1378-81

The Parlement of Foules c. 1378-81

Troylus and Criseyde [adaptor; from Boccaccio's Il Filostrato] c. 1382-86

The Legend of Good Women c. 1386

The Canterbury Tales c. 1386-1400

Complaint of Mars; Complaint of Venus; Envoy to Bukton [printed by Julian Notary] 1499-1502

Chaucer's Lesser Poems Complete in Present-Day English [translated by James J. Donohue]...

(The entire section is 199 words.)

Criticism

David S. Reed (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Reed, David S. “Crocodilian Humor: A Discussion of Chaucer's Wife of Bath.” Chaucer Review 4, no. 2 (1970): 73-89.

[In the following essay, Reed studies the negative characterization of the Wife of Bath and notes that her character is of low moral standards and amuses through her baseness and bad taste.]

I

It is odd that many have found the Wife of Bath lifelike. If she is, it is not in a way that those who see her as a marvel of naturalistic invention would accept. In common sense human terms she is absurd and grotesque, a figment of that anti-feminist gallimaufry, the Prologue to her Tale. That many take her as a...

(The entire section is 8290 words.)

James W. Cook (essay date summer 1978)

SOURCE: Cook, James W. “‘That She Was Out of Alle Charitee’:1 Point-Counterpoint in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale.Chaucer Review 13, no. 1 (summer 1978): 51-65.

[In the following essay, Cook uses religious doctrines of sacramental law to analyze the Wife of Bath's failure to comply with the spirit of the sacrament of marriage. Because Alisoun prefers to control her spouse rather than form a true union with him, she is the opposite of the hag she describes in her Tale.]

In a provocative essay on Alice of Bath's narrative posture, Gloria K. Shapiro recently requested a more adequate treatment of the religious dimensions of the...

(The entire section is 5960 words.)

D. W. Robertson, Jr. (essay date spring 1980)

SOURCE: Robertson, D. W., Jr. “‘And for My Land thus Hastow Mordred Me?’: Land Tenure, the Cloth Industry, and the Wife of Bath.”1Chaucer Review 14, no. 4 (spring 1980): 403-20.

[In the following essay, Robertson attempts to properly define the Wife of Bath's financial and occupational positions in regards to her landholdings, class standing, education, and marriageability.]

Embedded in the Wife's Prologue are various statements concerning transfers of land and wealth that may be indicative of her legal status. She is sometimes thought of as a freeholder under the common law, or, alternatively, as a borough tenant. I should like to suggest...

(The entire section is 9010 words.)

H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Leicester, H. Marshall, Jr. “Of a Fire in the Dark: Public and Private Feminism in The Wife of Bath's Tale.Women's Studies 11, nos. 1-2 (1984): 157-78.

[In the following essay, Leicester develops a theory of the outward feminism of The Wife of Bath's Tale and the private, insecure aspects of Alisoun's psyche that are unconsciously included in her female-empowered Tale. Leicester also asserts that Alisoun's Tale represents Chaucer's growing appreciation of feminist ideas.]

The Wife of Bath's Tale is not only a text concerned with the position of women, it is a text whose speaker is a woman and a feminist—at least that...

(The entire section is 8505 words.)

Mary Carruthers (essay date March 1985)

SOURCE: Carruthers, Mary. “Clerk Jankyn At Hom to Bord / With My Gossib.English Language Notes 22, no. 3 (March 1985): 11-20.

[In the following essay, Carruthers refutes many commonly held assertions about the nature of the Wife of Bath's relationship with Jankyn. By analyzing fourteenth-century English usage, Carruthers identifies Jankyn as the relative of a close friend (one who is godparent to one of Alisoun's children), not as a stranger who merely boards in town. Through this interpretation, Carruthers argues, the Wife's change from manipulating spouse to manipulated spouse has richer irony.]

In her fond description of past jolitee, the Wife of...

(The entire section is 4785 words.)

Susan Crane (essay date January 1987)

SOURCE: Crane, Susan. “Alison's Incapacity and Poetic Instability in The Wife of Bath's Tale.PMLA 102, no. 1 (January 1987): 20-7.

[In the following essay, Crane investigates the Wife of Bath's attempts to define her autonomy, and she observes that many of Alisoun's ideas conflict with one another, and her quest for women's independence is unsustainable.]

Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale so closely illustrates the concerns of its Prologue that critics agree it can only be understood in relation to its assertive, female, marriage-minded narrator. But why does Alison's Tale resemble an Arthurian romance? Her Prologue is...

(The entire section is 6252 words.)

Susan Crane (essay date March 1988)

SOURCE: Crane, Susan. “Alison of Bath Accused of Murder: Case Dismissed.” English Language Notes 25, no. 3 (March 1988): 10-15.

[In the following essay, Crane provides a tongue-in-cheek look at the mysterious death of Alisoun's fourth husband and defends the Wife against the charge of murder.]

“Professional scholars,” said Sherlock Holmes, “like professional detectives, are not reasoning animals. If the murder in the Wife of Bath's Prologue has not been discovered before, it is because I had never read that part of the Canterbury Tales until a fortnight ago.” Holmes would not find it surprising that his case against Alison, as reported by...

(The entire section is 2624 words.)

Elaine Tuttle Hansen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. “The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam.” Women's Studies 15, no. 4 (1988): 399-416.

[In the following essay, Hansen argues against viewing The Wife of Bath's Tale and Prologue as early feminist writing, but proposes that the texts permit scholars to study the role of women in the fourteenth century and their attempts to claim a type of self-definition within the limitations of language and society.]

The wyf of Bathe take I for auctrice
þat womman han no ioie ne deyntee
þat men sholde vp-on hem putte any vice.

(Hoccleve, Dialogus cum Amico, c. 1422)1

From the early...

(The entire section is 7385 words.)

Alcuin Blamires (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Blamires, Alcuin. “The Wife of Bath and Lollardy.” Medium Aevum 58, no. 2 (1989): 224-42.

[In the following essay, Blamires probes the similar themes in the anti-authority tirade in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Lollardy, a religious movement that was often seen as anti-church and heretical.]

I

‘Re-readings’ of Chaucer conducted according to radical socio-historical principles will characteristically maintain that The Canterbury Tales represents (as Stephen Knight puts it) ‘a continuing and tense engagement with its period’, and that individual tales are ‘potent realizers’ of conflicts within late...

(The entire section is 9610 words.)

Colin A. Ireland (essay date January 1991)

SOURCE: Ireland, Colin A. “‘A Coverchief or a Calle’: The Ultimate End of the Wife of Bath's Search for Sovereignty.” Neophilologus 75, no. 1 (January 1991): 150-59.

[In the following essay, Ireland compares The Wife of Bath's Tale with an Irish story in which the country of Ireland is personified as a woman—sometimes young, beautiful, and fertile, sometimes old and worn—to symbolize the state of the nation.]

The Wife of Bath's search for sovereignty in marriage is the central theme in both her Prologue and in the Tale she tells. Modern criticism tends to maintain a clear distinction between the Wife's Prologue and her...

(The entire section is 4998 words.)

Catherine S. Cox (essay date March 1993)

SOURCE: Cox, Catherine S. “Holy Erotica and the Virgin Word: Promiscuous Glossing in The Wife of Bath's Prologue.1Exemplaria 5, no. 1 (March 1993): 207-37.

[In the following essay, Cox explores the sexual connotations of the term “glossing,” highlights the double entendres in The Wife of Bath's Prologue, and investigates the link between sexual fulfillment and control of language. Cox maintains that although the Wife of Bath seeks to fight the patriarchal system, her lack of feminine discourse forces her to use male definitions, and ultimately she is unsuccessful in self-definition.]

Although the Wife of Bath, in her Prologue,...

(The entire section is 12789 words.)

Susan Signe Morrison (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Morrison, Susan Signe. “Don't Ask, Don't Tell: The Wife of Bath and Vernacular Translations.” Exemplaria 8, no. 1 (spring 1996): 97-123.

[In the following essay, Morrison asserts that, through The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Chaucer is seeking to authenticate the use of English vernacular as a legitimate language for writing, maintaining that they “can be read as addressing the issues of the vernacular and the role female audiences play in receiving and passing on translations of authoritative texts, as well as vindicating Chaucer's authority as a vernacular author.”]

The Friar in his Prologue scolds the Wife of Bath, accusing...

(The entire section is 10855 words.)

Susanne Sara Thomas (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Thomas, Susanne Sara. “What the Man of Law Can't Say: The Buried Legal Argument of The Wife of Bath's Prologue.Chaucer Review 31, no. 3 (1997): 256-71.

[In the following essay, Thomas draws a correlation between Alisoun's adamant defense of her rights concerning her body and a mock legal case.]

In the Prologue to her Tale the Wife of Bath argues that Paul gave wives authority over their husbands. She summarizes her argument thus:

I have the power durynge al my lyf
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me,
And bad oure housbondes for to love us weel.
Al this sentence me liketh every...

(The entire section is 6809 words.)

Charles W. M. Henebry (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Henebry, Charles W. M. “Apprentice Janekyn/Clerk Jankyn: Discrete Phases in Chaucer's Developing Conception of the Wife of Bath.” Chaucer Review 32, no. 2 (1997): 146-61.

[In the following essay, Henebry further develops the theory that Chaucer rewrote and revised the Wife of Bath's character repeatedly. He contends that Chaucer changed Alisoun's views on marriage, fidelity, and autonomy throughout the writing process and eventually blended these ideas together to form a multidimensional character.]

The idea that the Wife of Bath did not spring forth fully fledged from the mind of her creator is not a new one. Her character is in conception both original...

(The entire section is 7673 words.)

Alcuin Blamires (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Blamires, Alcuin. “Refiguring the ‘Scandalous Excess’ of Medieval Woman: The Wife of Bath and Liberality.” In Gender in Debate from the Early Middle Ages to the Renaissance, edited by Thelma S. Fenster and Clare A. Lees, pp. 57-78. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

[In the following essay, Blamires contrasts the Wife of Bath to Blanche from The Book of the Duchess, studies Christine de Pizan's theories on the masculine and feminine definitions of largesse and liberality, and uncovers the stereotype common in Chaucer's time that women were miserly and selfish.]

Medieval defenses of women can seem strangely heterogeneous: Bizarre conglomerations of...

(The entire section is 9781 words.)

Elaine Treharne (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Treharne, Elaine. “The Stereotype Confirmed? Chaucer's Wife of Bath.” In Writing Gender and Genre in Medieval Literature: Approaches to Old and Middle English Texts, edited by Elaine Treharne, pp. 93-115. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002.

[In the following essay, Treharne contends that in The Wife of Bath's Prologue, Chaucer reinforces many misconceptions of women's ability to manipulate and claim language.]

‘I write woman: woman must write woman. And man, man’(1)

INTRODUCTION: METHODS OF ANALYSIS

This essay will focus on one of the most memorable English literary characters: Chaucer's Wife of Bath. I shall be...

(The entire section is 8855 words.)