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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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What historical events and social issues of the time are connected to Geoffrey Chaucer’s "The Wife of Bath's Tale" and "Prologue"?

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The Black Death is a backdrop for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer deals with it most directly in "The Pardoner's Tale," where the greedy and unscrupulous pardoner benefits from people's fear of the plague, but its traumatic effects also underlie the Wife of Bath's prologue and tale.

The Black Death swept through Europe in the late 1340s and killed a third to half the population. As a young child living in London, Chaucer experienced the disease directly with people dying on the streets around him.

The magnitude of the plague caused people to question authority, especially church authority. All the prayers of the Catholic Church were unable to stop the mass deaths, leading people to become increasingly cynical and wonder how effective Christianity really was. The plague also increased calls for social leveling. The loss of population allowed the lower classes that survived to become more assertive and drove up wages. The overall questioning of authority in a world that seemed turned upside down led to the Peasant's Rebellion in 1381.

The Wife of Bath's prologue, which questions the Church's assignment of second-class status to women, reflects this new tendency to push back against authority. The Wife of Bath strongly feels the Church has been wrong in giving men so much power over women. She shows the cynicism of the period in feeling justified in using her feminine wiles to fight back against what she feels is injustice against women by lying, withholding sex, and generally making her husbands' lives difficult to get her way. Her willingness to think for herself also leads her to tell a tale that subverts traditional notions of female subordination.

The Wife of Bath's materialism and desire for fine clothes, bright colors, and amusement also reflects a culture in which the maxim "eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die" was all too real a possibility.

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