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The Wife of Bath's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What initial punishment does the king issue to the knight in "The Wife of Bath's Tale"?

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The narrative action of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” begins when one of King Arthur’s knights, who the Wife of Bath describes as a “lusty bacheler,” or a pleasure-loving knight of lower order, “rafte [the] maydenhed,” or rapes, a young girl (ll. 883, 888). According to the “cours of law,” and his kingdom’s demand for justice, King Arthur decrees that the knight will be beheaded: “And swich pursute unto the kyng Arthour / That dampned was this knyght for to be deed / By cours of lawe, and sholde han lost his heed --” (ll. 890-892). However, the queen and her ladies beg Arthur to forgive the knight. Chaucer writes:

But that the queene and other ladyes mo

So longe preyeden the kyng of grace

Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,

And yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,

To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille. (ll.894-898)

Chaucer does not describe why the queen and the other ladies intervene on the knight’s behalf; still, their intervention and prayers convince King Arthur to pardon the knight’s life. Additionally, Arthur hands the knight over to the queen to decide whether she will save his life or have him put to death.  

Arthur offers the queen a choice: “save or spille” the knight’s life. In an attempt to assert her “wille,” the queen rejects the “save or spille” binary and, instead, proposes her own solution. Addressing the knight, the queen states, “I grante thee lyf, if thou kanst tellen me / What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren” (ll. 904-905). In other words, the queen declares that she will grant the knight his life only if he can tell her what thing women most desire. She gives the knight “A twelf-month and a day” to seek and learn a satisfactory answer (ll. 909).

Near the end of the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the knight, having hitherto failed to answer the question of “what womman love moost,” decides to return home and accept his fate (ll. 985). At his lowest emotional point, with a “sorweful” heart, the knight encounters a deformed, old hag: “on the green he saw sitting a woman -- / A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” (ll. 986, 998-999). The knight asks the foul, old woman to teach him “what thyng it is that womman moost desire” (ll. 1008). In exchange for this knowledge, the knight pledges to “quite [hir] hire,” or repay her, by doing the “nexte thyng that [she] requere[s]” (ll. 1008, 1010). Having gained the knowledge of what women desire most, the knight returns to court and proclaims that “Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee” (ll. 1038). With this, the old hag demands that the knight honor his pledge and marry her. They are married but the knight is overcome with woe because “his wyf looked so foule” (ll. 1082). Noting her husband’s sorrow, the wife/hag asserts that she can “amende al this” and offers two choices: she can stay ugly and old and remain his “trewe, humble wyf” or become young and fair but surrounded by lovers (ll. 1106, 1221-1226). The knight surrenders sovereignty to his wife: “Cheseth youreself which may be moost pleasance… / For as yow liketh, it suffiseth me” (ll. 1232, 1235). Having achieved mastery over her husband, the wife transforms into a beautiful, young maiden and promises to obey “hym in every thyng” (ll. 1255).

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At the start of this tale, the knight meets a young woman and rapes her.  When King Arthur hears what the knight has done, he orders that the knight should be executed.  So the answer to your question is that the king initially orders the death penalty for the knight.

However, the queen asks King Arthur not to be so harsh.  She wants the knight to have to go out and learn about women.  She asks that he should be forced to go out and find out what women really want.  This ends up being very difficult for the knight.  Eventually, he finds a really ugly old woman.  She tells him the secret of what women want, but in return he ends up having to marry her.

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