The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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] 1974
Boecius de consolacione philosophies [translator; from Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae] (prose) c. 1380s
The Equatorie of the Planetis (prose) c. 1391-92
Treatise on the Astrolabe (prose) c. 1391-92
*The Workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers works which were neuer in print before [edited by William Thynne] (poetry and prose) 1532
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 7 vols. [edited by Walter W. Skeat] (poetry and prose) 1894-97
The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by John H. Fisher] (poetry and prose) 1977; revised edition, 1989...
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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.]
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 triumph of Chaucer's mellow and humane art tells us more about the place of women in our tradition than about the words before us. True, Chaucer was civilized: he shared the enjoyment of his courtly, humanist civilization in baiting women and the middle classes. But we are middle class, even if we think the middle classes ought to be baited; and women are not to be baited really, for their place has changed. In short our idea of civilization is different from Chaucer's. So it can hardly be that those who talk of the mellowness and humanity that went into the Wife really mean they wholeheartedly enjoy Chaucer's curmudgeonly and old-fashioned humor; or if they do, they are less than frank about it. It seems much more likely that they have found...
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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 Wife of Bath's performance.2 In the course of her discussion, Professor Shapiro observed: “The perfection in virtue through … the grace of God is the larger subject of Dame Alice's Tale.…”3 And so I also think it to be.
Professor Shapiro, however, goes on to reach the ingenious conclusion that Alice, prompted by an almost “pathological insecurity,”4 takes extraordinary pains to conceal her refined sensibilities and, with them, virtues so admirable and appreciative of purity that readers must henceforward regard the Wife as “partially beatified” by religious passion and as a more “convincing Christian” than is Chaucer's Prioress.5
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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 here that she was probably thought of in Chaucer's time as a rural clothier, and that her Prologue may indicate further that she was a bondwoman. Although the social distinction between freeholders and villeins was disappearing in the later fourteenth century when social status in rural communities depended on wealth rather than on legal distinctions, and when increasing numbers of villeins were more wealthy than some of their neighboring freeholders, unfree status would have been consistent with the iconographic overtones of the Wife's character.2 I believe that Chaucer was careful about such matters and hope to demonstrate further instances of this concern. Whether the conclusion concerning status is found acceptable or...
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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 is the fiction the text offers—and the body of this essay will concentrate on the Wife herself as the speaker of her Tale. While my own prejudices, for better or for worse, will no doubt be evident from what follows, I do not claim here to define feminism or to say what women “are” or ought to do. My interest is in the Wife's feminism as it is evidenced in Chaucer's text, and I attempt to discriminate between two versions of feminism—two possible stances women may, in their own interest, adopt in the world—that the Wife seems to embody in the telling of her Tale. The first of these I call “public,” and identify with a polemical, reactive, and necessarily “illiberal” position that women may take toward the male...
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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 Bath recalls with particular pleasure her young fifth husband:
He som tyme was a clerk of Oxenford, And hadde left scole, and wente at hom to bord With my gossib, dwellynge in oure toun; God have hir soule! hir name was Alisoun.
Interpretive consensus concerning the circumstances of Jankyn's return would indicate that, having gone to Oxford for a few years, he came back to the region where he had been raised and boarded with a local lady, who was also Alisoun's dear friend and aide in idle talk and sexual exploits. The general misapprehension is reflected even by the editors of the Middle English Dictionary, who cite this particular use of the phrase at...
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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 based on antifeminist tracts, marital satire, biblical exegesis—a clerical mixture from which Alison draws life and departs like the Eve of amphibians leaving the sea while carrying its salt in her veins. It would seem beyond this creature's ken to speak of ladies' gracious mercy, of quests and fairy knowledge. Only the Wife's idealizing nostalgia for her happily-ever-after with Jankyn anticipates the generic character of her Tale.
I argue that we can better understand the disjunction between the Wife's Prologue and Tale, and the peculiar generic makeup of the tale itself, by appealing to the works' historical situation. I am not referring to the recent critical trend that analyzes Alison as if she were...
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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 Vernon Hall in the third volume of The Baker Street Journal, has failed to convince most of our unreasoning profession.1 However, the academic brief on the revelour's convenient death has grown fatter over the years, and it is now time to clear Alison's name and return her to those halcyon days when she stood accused of nothing worse than being an icon of fallen willfulness.
It would be an easy task to acquit Alison on the ground that the evidence against her is insubstantial and ambiguous. I could argue that Alison is proud of her flirtation with Jankyn because it illustrates her acquisitive “purveiance” (D 566, 570). “I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek / That hath but oon hole for to sterte to”...
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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 fifteenth century to the late twentieth, at least one fact about the elusive Wife of Bath has never been disputed: where they agree on nothing else, her numerous commentators, like Hoccleve, take the Wife “for auctrice,” as “a woman whose opinion is accepted as authoritative.”2 Controversy over the precise meaning and value of the Wife's opinion effectively ensures her authoritative status, and now perhaps more than ever before she is a figure to be reckoned with by anyone interested in the history, both factual and literary, of women. Faced with the problem of women's absence and silence in the past, recent feminist historians and literary critics turn with enthusiasm to the Wife as a rare instance of woman as agent, speaker,...
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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.]
‘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 fourteenth-century society.1 However, in view of Chaucer's ostensible reluctance to offer direct comment on such upheavals as the Peasants' Revolt, interpretations offered by critics of that persuasion frequently strain credulity: they betray a programmatic urge to recruit both local detail and larger narrative as witnesses to an ideological preoccupation ascribed a priori to the poet.
Knight's own contention (drawing on an incidental remark by Robertson) that attitudes developed in the Wife of Bath's Prologue bear some relationship to those cultivated by the heretical movement known as Lollardy, may seem at first sight an example of ideological wish-fulfilment founded on nothing more concrete than sweepingly...
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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 Tale, noting specifically that the style of the Tale is more formal and less lively than her earthy Prologue. This stylistic difference is highlighted by the evidence that in some earlier arrangements of the Canterbury Tales the Wife of Bath was originally intended to relate the tale told by the Shipman. Although the Tale's concern with sovereignty in marriage suits well the Wife's own personal preoccupations, its courtly setting and sermon-like style are a bit incongruous for her less-than-idealistic approach to life. The Irish analogues of the ‘loathly lady’ theme in The Wife of Bath's Tale have long been acknowledged but the Irish parallels of the Wife of Bath herself have not received the notice they...
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SOURCE: Cox, Catherine S. “Holy Erotica and the Virgin Word: Promiscuous Glossing in The Wife of Bath's Prologue.1” Exemplaria 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, argues in a quasi-feminist voice for the validity of her own experience and authority,2 her narrative seems ambiguously—and ambivalently—both feminist and anti-feminist.3 This sense of the narrative becomes clearer when we consider the Wife to be a textual “feminine”4 representation, one constructed within the parameters of “masculine” discourse and articulated in masculine terms,5 even as specific components of the construction may be identified as feminine. My interest in the textual feminine here corresponds not to any internal textual privileging of an écriture féminine6 but to masculine and feminine components of an epistemological metaphor of paradigmatic...
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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 her of preaching, and exhorting her to let the proper authorities, like himself, carry out an activity which is natural to them. Although he admits that she says “muche thyng right wel” (1273),1 he denies her permission to carry on:
“But, dame, heere as we ryde by the weye, Us nedeth nat to speken but of game, And lete auctoritees, on Goddes name, To prechyng and to scoles of clergye.”
The Friar's position in the established Church allows him to comment on the potentially threatening activities of a perceived female preacher. While it was a long-established custom for mothers and midwives to baptize in “cases of necessity” and for women to instruct other...
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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 deel.
There is some ambiguity in the Wife's reference to Paul's words as a “sentence,” a term which in Middle English has a number of meanings, including an opinion, a doctrine, a judgment rendered by God or by a court, a punishment imposed by a court, a statute or law, and a practice or custom (MED). Immediately following the above-quoted lines, the Pardoner responds to the Wife's remarks by exclaiming: “Now, dame, … by God and by Seint John! / Ye been a noble prechour in this cas” (164-65). Like “sentence,” the word “cas” has a variety of meanings, such as a state of affairs, an event, an action or deed, an instance or example, a civil or criminal question...
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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 and complex. For this reason, the thesis that she underwent a process of reconception and revision is attractive—not simply to critics who are inclined to believe that something cannot come out of nothing, but also to those who would like to know more about the way in which something often does do just that in the creation of great art. However, as Sidney noted (echoing Horace), art is that which conceals its own artifice; without access to the working manuscript, we can only hope to detect the poet's developmental process in the fissures where the poem does not quite hang together. Just such a fissure has been detected by some critics between the portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue and the story she tells in...
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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 biblical observation, judicial logic, physiology, anecdote, exemplum, moral polemic, topped off with a colorful froth of psychoanalytical speculation about the motives of detractors. Yet there is an underlying continuity, which is to be found in the moral or ethical dimension of the debate. This is explicitly so, of course, where a writer tries to claim particular virtues for one sex and to demonize the other sex by ascribing contrary vices, as in the case of wrangling over whether men or women are more sexually depraved. The moral preoccupation is sustained with regard to the contentious crux of the relative guilt of Adam or Eve. Gender issues remain moral issues when exempla of all sorts are invoked in defense of women or against them. The...
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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 taking a primarily sociolinguistic approach in interpreting her: drawing out interactions between language and gender, language and power that are as relevant now as they always have been in male-female relations, and in engendering and maintaining the powerful ideologies that drive both the social construction of identity and academic discourses of character and morality.
The complexity of interpreting Chaucer's Canterbury Tales arguably forms a major impetus for continuing to study the poet and his most famous work. As well as bringing to life his cast of pilgrims on their journey to Canterbury, Chaucer provides us with a multiplicity of generically and stylistically varied tales to entertain and engage us. The...
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Amsler, Mark. “The Wife of Bath and Women's Power.” Assays 4 (1987): 67-83.
Examines the issues of class standing, wealth, and self-sufficiency for women in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, using the Wife of Bath as an example.
Beidler, Peter G. “Transformations in Gower's Tale of Florent and Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale.” In Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange, edited by R. F. Yeager, pp. 100-14. Victoria, British Colombia: University of Victoria, 1991.
Studies the differences and similarities between John Gower's Tale of Florent and Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale.
Blanch, Robert J. “‘Al was this land fulfild of fayerye’: The Thematic Employment of Force, Willfulness, and Legal Conventions in Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale.” Studia Neophilologica 57, no. 1 (1985): 41-51.
Focuses on the legal consequences of rape in Chaucer's era and examines Chaucer's many references to laws and contracts in The Wife of Bath's Tale.
Cooper, Helen. “The Shape Shiftings of the Wife of Bath.” In Chaucer Traditions: Studies in Honour of Derek Brewer, edited by Ruth Morse and Barry Windeatt, pp. 168-84. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1990.
Explores the various facets of the Wife of Bath's...
(The entire section is 776 words.)