two-faced woman with one half having dark hair and older features and the other half having blonde hair and younger features

The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Last Updated October 11, 2023.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century collection, The Canterbury Tales, explores English society through a number of now-iconic stories, themost well-known of which is perhaps “The Wife of Bath's Tale.” Set against the backdrop of medieval England, the story explores contemporary notions of gender and power, as well as the institution of marriage.

At the heart of the tale is the Wife of Bath herself, a vivacious and assertive character who vehemently defends her atypical views on marriage. She firmly believes that women should have an equal say—if not the upper hand—in relationships and marriage, which was a radical notion in the patriarchal society of her time. Her story serves as both a reflection of her own beliefs and as a means to convey her argument for female dominance within marriage.

In the prologue to her tale, the Wife of Bath says that she has had five husbands. All of them were worthy husbands in their own way, but some were better than others:

Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve 

If I so ofte myghte have ywedded bee

And alle were worthy men in hir degree.

Of husbands at church door have I had five;

For men so many times have married me;

And all were worthy men in their degree.

She goes on to object to the notion that virginity is the highest virtue for a woman, arguing that if women never gave birth, there would never be any virgins. She continues, explaining that she should make use of the abilities God bestowed upon her and emphasizing that celibacy is not one of those gifts. Then, she compares herself to King Solomon, who had many wives, and declares that it is her God-given gift to have power over her husbands.

The Pardoner interrupts to object to this. He is worried that if he marries, his wife could have power over him. The Wife of Bath tells him to wait before he makes such a decision, as she has not yet told her story. She then describes her various husbands: Two were bad, but three were good. The good ones were wealthy and old, and she enjoyed controlling them through lies and withholding sex. For this reason, they treated her like royalty. Those she considers bad were difficult to control; they fought and were unfaithful to her.

At the urging of the Friar, the Wife of Bath finally begins her tale. Set in the legendary court of King Arthur, her tale describes how a knight was sentenced to death for raping a young maiden. The queen intervenes and offers to spare the knight’s life if he can learn what women truly desire within the next year.

After a year of failing to find the answer, the knight is about to return to face his punishment. However, along the way, he encounters a group of women dancing around a fire and decides he might as well ask them the question about what women really want. When he approaches them, however, all but the ugliest woman disappears.

But certeinly, er he cam fully there,

Vanysshed was this daunce, he nyste where.

No creature saugh he that bar lyf,

Save on the grene he saugh sittynge a wyf –

A fouler wight ther may no man devyse. 

But truly, before he came upon them there,

The dancers vanished all, he knew not where.

No creature saw he that gave sign of life,

Except, on the greensward sitting, an old wife;

A fouler person could no man devise.

When he puts his question to the old woman, she tells him that she will give him the answer if he promises to do whatever she desires. The knight agrees, so the two travel to court together. There, the knight explains that women want the same sovereignty over their husbands that they have over their lovers. Moreover, they want power over them in the way that husbands usually have over their wives.

Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie hym above. 

Women desire to have the sovereignty

As well upon their husband as their love,

And to have mastery their man above;

This proves to be the correct answer, and the knight’s life is spared. Since she saved his life, the old woman demands that he marry her. The knight, having earlier promised to do as she demanded of him, reluctantly agrees.

Later, in their bedroom, the old woman asks the knight why he looks so sad. He admits that he is embarrassed to have such an unattractive wife. Surprisingly, his words do not upset her. Instead, she offers him a choice: She can become beautiful but unfaithful, or she can stay ugly and be a faithful wife. The choice is his. However, after thinking it over, he tells her to choose whatever she thinks is best, saying: "For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me" (“For if you like it, that suffices me”).

In other words, he says that whatever she is happy with is good enough for him. Because he allows her to be in charge and choose for herself, she becomes both beautiful and faithful. The knight instantly falls in love with her, and they live happily ever after.

The Wife of Bath finishes her tale with a short prayer for God to send young, meek, husbands with vigorous sexual appetites and to “shorte hir lyves” (“cut short the lives”) of all those men who refuse to abide by their wife’s desires. 

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