The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Essential Quotes by Character: The Wife of Bath

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.

Summary

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.

Summary

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...

(The entire section is 3,551 words.)