Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1711
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 God gave her.
Essential Passage 3: The Tale of the Wife of Bath
“Choose, now,” said she, “one of these two things, aye,
To have me foul and old until I die,
And be to you a true and humble wife,
And never anger you in all my life;
Or else to have me young and very fair
And take your chance with those who will repair
Unto your house, and all because of me,
Or in some other place, as well may be.
Now choose which you like better and reply.”
This knight considered, and did sorely sigh,
But at the last replied as you shall hear:
“My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put myself in your wise governing;
Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,
And bring most honour to you, and me also.
I care not which it be of these things two;
For if you like it, that suffices me.”
“Then have I got of you the mastery,
Since I may choose and govern, in earnest?”
“Yes, truly, wife,” said he, “I hold that best.”
“Kiss me,” said she, “we’ll be no longer wroth,
For by my truth, to you I will be both;
That is to say, I’ll be both good and fair.
I pray God I go mad, and so declare,
If I be not to you as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new.
And, save I be, at dawn, as fairly seen
As any lady, empress, or great queen
That is between the east and the far west,
Do with my life and death as you like best.
The Wife of Bath tells a tale taken from the Arthurian Cycle about a knight who is punished for rape by being forced to marry an old woman. On their wedding knight, the wife tells him that he has the choice: she can either be young and beautiful, yet liable to be unfaithful because of her beauty, or she can be old and ugly, which will assure that she will be faithful. The knight does not choose, but instead tells his new wife that she may choose for herself and be in control of her own destiny. This was the answer that she was waiting for, since it is the greatest desire of all women to be in control of their own destinies. Therefore, she is magically transformed into a young and beautiful woman who will be faithful to her husband, completely devoted to the marriage in which she is now an equal partner.
Analysis of Essential Passages
The Wife of Bath can be said to be something of a proto-feminist in her views of marriage, sex, and the rights of women. While some of the company are intrigued with her philosophy, some are definitely outraged. The Parson and the Clerk believe she is heretical, going against the teachings of the Church on the role of women, especially in relation to marriage. The Pardoner, who is about to be married, decides against doing so, just in case he should find himself with a wife such as the Wife of Bath.
The Wife of Bath is a strong proponent of a woman's ability—and right—to enjoy sex. Although the Renaissance views on this were not quite as stringent as the later Victorian views, they were still of the opinion that sex is more enjoyable for the man than for the woman. The Wife of Bath disproves this, stating that she sees no reason why God would give people the organs of procreation and not expect to use them.
Yet it is not for procreation that the Wife of Bath holds such views on marriage. Although the official doctrine of the Church was that sex was primarily for reproduction and was thus to be limited within the confines of marriage, the Wife of Bath believes that marriage exists for sex, not sex for marriage. If sex is not satisfying within the marriage bed, she has had no qualms in seeking it elsewhere. With her first three husbands, who were elderly, she freely admits that they had a difficult time satisfying her.
Not only for pleasure did the Wife of Bath engage in sex, but also for control. She used accusations of infidelity on the part of her husbands to keep them under her thumb, always trying to please her. Yet she herself routinely sought pleasure elsewhere. She laments any control she has given to any of her husbands, since she has always managed to be the more dominant partner.
It is this view that is reflected in her tale concerning the knight and the loathly lady. Because the knight has demanded sex in the form of rape, his punishment is to be wedded to, and thus required to have sex with, an old and ugly woman. Yet more than the dynamics of sexual relations, it is the right to control one’s own life that is the moral of the Wife of Bath’s tale. While men crave beauty, they also demand fidelity, which is a form of control. By giving his wife control over her own destiny, the knight is assured that she will be faithful to a husband who respects her as a person, not just as a resource for sex and children.
The Wife of Bath, therefore, is an early proponent of “a woman’s right to choose,” whether in the matter of sex or marriage. Although the Wife of Bath has focused on the right to have sex with whomever and however she desires, her basic point is that she wants control of her life. Because she has not been given that, she manages to do the next best thing, which is to control her husbands. A woman is unfaithful because she is forced against her will into a loveless marriage, dependent on her husband’s whims for pleasure. If she is given the choice to give pleasure, she is also willing to give fidelity. By giving the woman what she wants, the man can thus gain what he wants: faithfulness.
Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1840
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 Friar is a local minister to the community; ostensibly, he is dedicated to helping the poor, conducting the services, and in general giving counsel to those in need. As one of the mendicant orders, the Friar has taken a vow of poverty and chastity. Both vows he has routinely broken. In the statement that he has arranged “many a marriage of young women, and at his own cost,” the implication is that he has gotten women pregnant and so is arranging a respectable marriage for them to a man who will overlook the illegitimate child for a certain price. The Friar is also open to bribery in his office of forgiveness of sins. He is willing to forgive even the most atrocious sins if the price is right. He also frequents taverns, especially the ones with pretty barmaids, and has made himself quite popular with a certain segment of the population. All in all, the Friar has given himself over to his own personal gain, whether it be money or pleasure.
Essential Passage 3: General Prologue ("The Parson")
There was a good man of religion, too,
A country parson, poor, I warrant you;
But rich he was in holy thought and work.
He was a learned man also, a clerk,
Who Christ’s own gospel truly sought to preach;
Devoutly his parishioners would he teach.
Benign he was and wondrous diligent.
Patient in adverse times and well content,
As he was oft times proven; always blithe,
He was right loath to curse to get a tithe,
But rather would he give, in case of doubt,
Unto those poor parishioners about,
Part of his income, even of his goods.
Enough with little, coloured all his moods.
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness, or in sin, or any state,
To visit to the farthest, small and great,
Going afoot, and in his hand a stave.
This fine example to his flock he gave,
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto—
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
The Parson is one of the examples of a good cleric, truly following the dictates of the Church and of the Gospel. He has taken his vows seriously. Not only will he not take bribes either to bless or curse, but what money he comes across he gives away to the poor in his parish. To those who are sick and desperate, the Parson is always present and willing to give his time. As a minister of the Gospel, he has committed himself to being a student of the Bible and its teachings. Although this was rare, even in the upper levels of the Church leadership, the Parson genuinely sets out to know and understand the Bible's implications for daily actions. Most important, he practices not only what he preaches,but he practices it before he preaches. Almost on the level of an industrialist, the Parson tests out the message he is to convey to the congregation to see how it will work in real life.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Writing more than one hundred years before Martin Luther, Geoffrey Chaucer has no qualms about pointing out the flaws in the Church as it existed during his day. While Luther took issue with some of the doctrinal stances of the Church in relation to the Bible, Chaucer relates tales that are commonly reflected in the clergy of the time. Despite the vows of service, poverty, and chastity that they took in order to achieve their positions, the clerics as presented in The Canterbury Tales for the most part ignore their obligations in order to profit from being connected to the most powerful institution in Renaissance Europe.
The Prioress represents the level to which the clerics enjoyed the pleasures of the upper classes. Having ready access to the courts and homes of the royalty and nobility, many priests and nuns took ready part in the extravagant lifestyles of the rich and famous. The power that clerics held over even the highest orders gave them a tool for gaining creature comforts. The Prioress is committed to being a Lady of the Court more than being the Bride of Christ. Her false compassion, directed at animals rather than people, epitomizes the Church’s disregard of the most desperately poor. The construction of vast cathedrals, monasteries, and convents during this period caused many people to view the Church as an oppressive regime. Such conditions set the stage for the eventual Reformation one hundred years later.
The Friar is symbolic of the yielding to the flesh that was so prevalent among the period's priests and male clerics. The vow of chastity was regularly violated as conditions arose that allowed priests opportunities to take advantage of young women (and presumably, in certain cases, young men). The Friar's “marriage arrangements” for his victims indicate his willingness not only to cause people to fall into sin but, in return for money, to absolve them of that sin. The Friar, as well as the Prioress, thus demonstrates the lust of the flesh and the pride of life that was a cancer eating the Church of the time.
It is in the poor Parson that Chaucer gives some measure of redemption for the Church. The Parson is what all members of the clergy should be. Clerics and common people alike have been called by the Church to a higher standard of living, which is what the Parson demonstrates. The Parson laments that “as gold rusts, what must iron do?” In other words, if the officers of the Church succumb to temptations of luxury and the flesh, how can they expect the people not to do so? The Parson thus lives the life that he wants his parishioners to live.
Chaucer presents different types of clerics: most of the upper orders are depicted as corrupt, while the lower levels are truly dedicated servants of the Church and the people. In a time when religion could be merely lip service, Chaucer's representations accurately reflect the Church's role in the daily lives of the people. When religions rely on outward show, such as going to a sacred shrine to be given absolution, it is little wonder that corruption would result in a massive upheaval. The hypocrisy demonstrated by several of the pilgrims on the way to Canterbury pinpoint many of the flaws that Martin Luther and John Calvin later revealed as a human corruption of a divine institution.
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