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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Wife of Bath’s Tale Summary

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Last Updated November 9, 2022.

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

The Wife of Bath then begins her prologue, focusing especially on the realities of marriage (as she sees them) and the defense of women. The Wife starts with an apology for multiple marriages. Using plenty of scriptural evidence, she argues that God does not prohibit a woman from marrying if her husband dies, and he sets no limit on the number of times. The Wife herself has had five husbands. Virginity may be fine for some people, but it does not suit the Wife, and she appreciates that she has permission from the Apostle Paul to marry as she pleases.

The Wife continues by making the point that men and women are physically made for marriage, and when she is married, she will use her powers well. Answering the Pardoner’s interruption, the Wife goes on to say that she is an expert at marriage. She tells the company all about her husbands and the physical demands she made upon them. She also manipulated them thoroughly, putting on great airs to get them to do what she wanted.

The Wife next moves into a discussion of women in general, listing the many character traits that men claim to desire in them, like beauty, nobility, and wealth. Yet they do not judge women fairly, always saying that plain women chase after men and that wives are scolds who waste property. She notes, too, that men woo women until their wedding day, and then everything changes. Then they are often suspicious and controlling. What women really want is freedom to do as they please. The Wife scorns those who misjudge wives.

However, the Wife herself was always in control in her marriages, scolding and manipulating. Her fourth husband was a reveler who had a mistress, and the Wife tortured him well. She had already planned for her fifth husband, who was a clerk named Jankin. He was always reading from a book that maligned women until the Wife tore pages from it and hit him. He hit her in return, and she pretended to be dead. In this way, she gained full sovereignty over him for the rest of his life.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale

A knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden. The Queen and ladies beg to spare his life so long as he can come back in one year and tell the Queen what a woman wants the most. The knight searches and receives many different answers, but he is not sure which one is correct. The Wife interjects an additional story about Midas’s wife to illustrate that women cannot keep secrets.

As he travels back to the court, the knight meets an ugly old woman who says that she can tell him what women most desire if he will agree to do the next thing she asks of him. He quickly agrees, and they return to court. The woman instructs the knight to say that women want sovereignty over their husbands, and the Queen and ladies all nod in agreement.

The old woman then demands that the knight keep his promise, and she asks that he marry her. He has no choice, but he is miserable. That night, the knight’s new wife instructs him in the benefits of being ugly, old, and poor. Then she gives him a choice. She can be ugly and faithful or beautiful and unfaithful. The knight has learned his lesson and tells her to choose for herself. This is what she wants to hear, and she gives him both beauty and fidelity.

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