Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Geoffrey Chaucer

The following entry presents criticism on Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (circa 1386-1400). See also, Geoffrey Chaucer Criticism.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales contain, in the character Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, one of the most fully developed and discussed women in medieval literature. Bawdy, lusty, and strong willed, she refuses to allow men to control her existence and she takes measures to shape her own destiny. Although she is often viewed as an early precursor of feminist thought, some scholars argue that much of her Prologue can be viewed as anti-feminist rhetoric.

Biographical Information

Chaucer was born in the 1340s into a family of London-based vintners. He spent most of his adult life as a civil servant, serving under three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV—and much of what is known of his life is derived from various household records. In 1357 he served as a page to Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. In 1359, while serving in Edward's army in France, Chaucer was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom, and Chaucer shortly thereafter entered the king's service. By 1366 he had married Philippa Payne de Roet, a French noblewoman who had also been in the employment of the Countess of Ulster. Around this time Chaucer appears to have established a connection with John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son, who may have become Chaucer's patron; the fortunes of the two traced parallel courses over the next three decades, rising and falling in tandem. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366, on the first of a series of diplomatic missions throughout Europe. After a 1373 visit to Italy he returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London; he was given additional customs responsibilities in 1382. By 1385 he was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. Although he became a member of Parliament in 1386, that year marked the beginning of a difficult period for Chaucer. He either resigned or was removed from his post as a customs official; additionally, he was not returned to Parliament. By 1387 his wife had died. Chaucer's fortunes rose again when John of Gaunt returned from the Continent in 1389, and the young King Richard II regained control of the government from the aristocracy, which had for a time been the dominant political force in England. Chaucer was appointed a clerk of the king's works but was removed from this office in 1391. Records suggest that by 1396 Chaucer had established a close relationship with John of Gaunt's son, the Earl of Derby, who as King Henry IV later confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard and added an additional annuity in 1399. Chaucer then leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, an honor traditionally reserved for royalty. His tomb became the center of what is now known as Poet's Corner.

Plot and Major Characters

The Canterbury Tales, the work generally regarded as Chaucer's masterpiece, was probably begun around 1386. The work is organized as a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. Within this overall framework are ten parts, which appear in different order in different manuscripts. Many critics therefore believe that Chaucer never realized his final plan for the work. The work opens with the General Prologue, introducing the pilgrims with short, vivid sketches. Twenty-four tales follow, interspersed with short dramatic “links” presenting lively exchanges among the pilgrims. The tales are highly diverse in style, subject matter, and theme; they include courtly romance, allegory, sermon, fable, and sometimes a mixture of genres. The Wife of Bath's Tale is one of only three tales by women, and the only tale offering insight into the life and passions of a woman in the secular world. The Wife's Prologue is layered with double entendres and witty wordplay, providing comic relief for the pilgrims and the readers.

In The Wife of Bath's Tale Alisoun offers a story of a Knight who, while walking in a field, spies a young maiden and rapes her. The Knight is tried before King Arthur for his crime and is sentenced to death. Queen Guenevere pleads on the Knight's behalf and King Arthur allows her to mete out the Knight's punishment. The Queen gives the Knight twelve months and a day to discover what women truly want. He is required to report back to the Queen at he end of this time and provide an answer. He scours the land asking the question of each woman he meets. Women give him different opinions in return: money, clothing, sexual satisfaction, but none can offer the definitive answer. His allotted time draws to a close, and he has not found an answer to this question. As he realizes that he has failed, he comes upon an old and ugly crone and asks her the question of what women truly desire above all. She agrees to provide him with the answer in return for his pledge that he will grant her wish—a wish that will be told to him at a later time. He travels back to the castle with the crone, and delivers his answer to the Queen: “‘My lige lady, generally,’ quod he, / ‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee / As wel over his housbond as hir love, / And for to been in maistrie hym above. / This is youre mooste desir, thogh ye me kille. / Dooth as yow list; I am heer at youre wille’” (1037-42). The Queen allows the Knight to go free, but then the crone steps forward and claims the right to have the Knight fulfill his promise. The crone requires the Knight to marry her. The Knight is aghast but finally agrees. When they return to the crone's house for their wedding night, the crone discusses true gentility and charity with the Knight. He sees the error of his ways and reconciles himself to the marriage. The crone then offers him a choice: she can either remain old and ugly but an ever-faithful and obedient wife, or she can become young and beautiful but cannot promise that she will be obedient and faithful. The Knight allows the crone to decide, offering her sovereignty. Because the Knight has learned true humbleness and respect for his wife, she transforms into a beautiful young maiden and vows to be an obedient and faithful wife.

Major Themes

In the The Wife of Bath's Prologue, two themes are addressed. The first centers on marriage roles and power. Alisoun discusses her five marriages and her tactics for gaining power and financial independence through the use of her body. Her first marriage was at the age of twelve to a wealthy older man. With this husband and the next two, she was very pragmatic about the relationships. She used her body to control her husbands and to gain financial boons from them. She admitted that she had a healthy sexual appetite and alluded to the fact that she may quench those appetites outside of wedlock. Her fourth husband was young and lusty, and even kept a mistress. During this fourth marriage, Alisoun began courting Jankyn, a younger man without financial independence. After her fourth husband died (there has recently been speculation as to why this young man died and whether it was by natural causes), Alisoun broke her earlier rules of pragmatic marriage and wedded Jankyn for love. Ironically, now that the Wife was older and searching for love, Jankyn's position was parallel to that of Alison's with her first husbands—young Jankyn delighted in aggravating Alisoun and appeared to be in a position of power over her.

The second major theme in the Prologue is dissatisfaction with current religious thought. The Wife is a Christian and is undergoing a pilgrimage, but she doesn't blindly trust the religious authorities' interpretation of the Scriptures. Scholars in medieval Europe were seeking to understand the Bible more fully, and one common thought that was introduced during this time was that since the Bible depicts Jesus attending only one wedding, perhaps this is God's message that people should only marry once. Alisoun defends her right to remarry after being widowed (four times) by recounting the Biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well who was living out of wedlock with a man after being widowed four times. Jesus commanded her to marry this fifth man. Alisoun uses this parable and the examples of Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob, all of whom had multiple wives. Alisoun also believes in God's command to be fruitful and multiply. She disagrees with the Church's teaching that chastity is preferable to second marriage; she believes that by sharing her bounty, she is closer to the real teachings of the Bible. Her bawdy description of the God-given tools used in this endeavor are thinly veiled double entendres, and she is interrupted by the Pardoner before she discusses the particulars of her five marriages. Throughout these descriptions the religious theme is intertwined with the marriage theme and Alisoun's desire for autonomy. Although true autonomy for women in medieval Europe is an impossibility, she outlines her strategies for control of self and the situations around her.

In the Tale, the Wife of Bath softens her views of charity and love but continues the theme of autonomy and power. Alisoun reworks the traditional story of the “Loathly Lady” with a decidedly feminist spin, putting the hag in a position of control and demoting the Knight to a position of submissiveness. Throughout the Tale, the Knight's fate is decided by women, first by Guenevere, then by the crone. Alisoun suggests that a man's true happiness can be realized when he allows his spouse to have some level of autonomy. Although the end of the Tale realigns the positions of power to more traditional gender roles, it is by the woman's own choice finally to be an obedient wife; therefore the Tale provides a milestone for women's quest for self-definition. The rehabilitation of the Knight is surprising, given the Tale's beginning sentiment about the good nature of women in comparison to the base nature of men. Many commentators support the idea that in the Tale Alisoun is making a statement against prevailing beliefs that women are by nature base and sinful, yet men are capable of great nobility.

Critical Reception

Much of the scholarly debate concerning The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale focuses on Alisoun's role in feminist discourse. Many essayists address the misogynist views presented in The Canterbury Tales and attempt to determine whether Chaucer's use of Alisoun is meant to overthrow these views or reinforce them. Discussion on this topic is divided between those, such as H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., who see Alisoun as an early feminist striving for autonomy in an oppressive patriarchal society, and those, including Susan Crane and Catherine S. Cox, who view her as destined to fail in her search for equality, partly because she is trying to gain acceptance by emulating men instead of embracing her femininity, but mainly because she is a fictional character, written by a man. Several critics have investigated the religious dimensions of the The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. James W. Cook has analyzed Alisoun's positions in relation to the sacraments, particularly marriage. Alcuin Blamires has explored the possibility that Chaucer uses Alisoun to challenge false teachings and wrongdoing by the clergy, comparing her views to those of the Lollards, a heretical sect that held the Bible as the sole authority on God's word and questioned the moral right of the clergy. Among the numerous other approaches to The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale are David S. Reed's examination of Alisoun's comic aspects, D. W. Robertson, Jr.'s analysis of her concern with status and wealth, and Susan Signe Morrison's and Elaine Treharne's investigations into how Chaucer uses and manipulates language in these works.