Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English in the late fourteenth century. This collection of works, filled with satire, is presented to the reader as a frame narrative, a literary technique that involves placing a story within a story. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s outer frame is a group of thirty people, including Chaucer the Pilgrim, who make a pilgrimage to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The pilgrims on this journey are a diverse group coming from every socio-economic class of English society, excluding only royalty and serfs. Before embarking on their journey, the pilgrims meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, a town outside London. As the pilgrims gather at this tavern, Chaucer introduces the inner frame of the story, the tales themselves. Harry Bailly, the Host of the pilgrims, proposes a contest, in which each pilgrim must tell two tales in each direction of the journey. Bailly proposes this contest as a source of entertainment as traveling in silence ill create boredom among the pilgrims. The prize of a free dinner, courtesy of the “losers” upon their return home to the Inn, goes to the teller of the most moral and entertaining tale. When writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer expected one hundred twenty tales in total, four for each pilgrim. However, only twenty-four were actually written, two of which are fragments. Among the pilgrims, only two females are in the group, one of whom is the Wife of Bath, a clear representation of Chaucer’s uncanny ability to match the pilgrim’s tale to its teller.
The Wife of Bath is perhaps Chaucer’s most original, unique, and developed character of all the pilgrims. She is described in the General Prologue as having gap-teeth and large hips (Chaucer 15), which are sexually appealing features and point to her sexual maturity (Rossignol 155). The concluding lines of her portrait in the General Prologue, “And knew the remedies of love’s mischances, / An art in which she knew the oldest dances” (Chaucer 15), also point to “her experienced sexuality, ‘the old dance’ being a euphemism for sexual intercourse” (Rossignol 155). Chaucer also describes her rosy facial features, noting, “Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue” (15). The narrator first pities the Wife of Bath as she is characterized as being “somewhat deaf” (15). However, she possesses social skills, such as laughing and chatting, and is skilled in wandering. Chaucer takes note of these skills, saying, “In company she liked to laugh and chat” (15). The Wife of Bath is a widow, albeit “A worthy woman from Bath city” (15). She is also proficient in weaving and making cloth. Chaucer emphasizes her skills of weaving and cloth making by alluding to the fact that her skills surpass Belgian clothmakers (Rossignol 154). “In making cloth she showed so great a bent / She bettered those of Ypres and Ghent” (15). As described in the General Prologue, the Wife of Bath wears scarlet red hose and soft, new shoes. Her fondness for ornate garments comes as no surprise as she is a very skilled weaver (Rossignol 155). She wears a ten-pound fabric, referred to as kerchief, to hide the signs of her aging as she attempts to attract a new husband.
The Wife of Bath is part of the middle class in English society. In fourteenth century England, middle class women, viewed as inferior to men, were given the purpose of running the home and the family. Women were assigned domestic duties, such as cooking and weaving. As mentioned in the General Prologue, the Wife of Bath is skilled at making cloth. Because the social and political order of feudalism was determined by land ownership, women who bore no children and inherited land after being widowed were considered on par with men in society (Power 38). Power contends, “At all stages of her life the woman, considered as a landowner, was a person of importance” (38). The Wife of Bath has numerous husbands but no children, so she enjoys each of her husbands’ possessions, as well as his land. However, “if she were widowed young and left childless she must be wooed again” (38), thus, society required the Wife of Bath to find a husband once more. With each new marriage, all her possessions and land, acquired from her previous marriages, became her new husband’s. Marriage, an important theme in the role of women in medieval society, is equally prominent in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is essentially a biography of the Wife of Bath, Alison. The Prologue reveals much about Alison’s personality and her obstacles in life, specifically concerning the subject of her many marriages. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is the longest of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales and the most unique because it is significantly longer than the tale she tells. Critics contend that “the sheer length of her Prologue and the fact that she loses her train of thought six times support the reading that Alison experiences considerable discomfort with her speaking situation” (Treharne 4). Although her prologue is lengthy and the Wife of Bath goes on many tangents, she uses her prologue to offer insight into the life and marriage of a woman in the early fourteenth century. Within the first few lines of her prologue she announces that “experience” (Chaucer 258) will be her guide to tell her story rather than authority. Because of her five marriages, the Wife of Bath is confident that she is an expert on the matter.
Throughout her prologue, the Wife of Bath tells tales of each of her former husbands and reveals how she was able to gain authority in each of her relationships. Her speech about her life quickly evolves into a defense of her many marriages as she claims people criticize her for marrying five different men. Critics contend that “the first part of the Wife’s Prologue resembles a marriage sermon in its use of Biblical quotations and interpretations to defend marriage” (Lipton 4). The Wife of Bath’s “sermon” is easily recognized with the Pardoner’s nervous interruption about his newfound fear of marriage. However, the Wife of Bath is put back on her initial train of thought and dives into her explanation of her strategies of using her body to gain power and financial independence from each of her husbands (Trudeau 2).
Of her five husbands, Alison contends that “three of them were good and two were bad” (Chaucer 263). She admits that the first three were good because they were “rich and old” (263). Alison tells her story and recalls all torments that she put each of her husbands through. She does not fail to admit to using her sexual and verbal power to make each husband submit to her. She notes in her Prologue,
“I’ll have a husband yet / Who shall be both my debtor and my slave / And bear his tribulation to the grave / Upon his flesh, as long as I’m his wife. For mine shall be the power all his life. . .” (262).
The Wife of Bath plays on a fear that is common to man: a woman controlling their marriage and their body. The Wife of Bath also recounts teasing her husbands and only giving them pleasure for the promise of money. Alison contends, “But as I had them eating from my hand / And as they’d yielded me their gold and land, / Why then take trouble to provide them pleasure / Unless to profit and amuse my leisure?” (264). The Wife of Bath keeps these three men “in a constant state of sexual exhaustion until they die” (Brosamer 9).
The Wife of Bath describes her fourth husband as a “profligate reveler” (Brosamer 9) and one who is unfaithful. He takes a mistress which makes Alison very upset, so she retaliates and shouts accusations at him, makes him jealous, and essentially tortures him until the point of his death. She says, “. . .frying him in his own grease / Of jealousy and rage; he got no peace” (Chaucer 270). She recalls how this marriage was one where she had her beauty and her youth and how in her final and fifth marriage, she marries a man, Jankyn, who is significantly younger than her.
The Wife of Bath’s final marriage goes against her previous reasons for marriage. Alison marries Jankyn for love, not for money: Alison asserts, “I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold” (274). She is pleased with the sexual element of their marriage, noting how she considers herself “a lusty one” (274), but is displeased with Jankyn’s hobby of reading a book that involves evil women. Out of frustration the Wife of Bath tears out pages in this book, thus causing her husband to grow upset and retaliate: he strikes her in the head and causes her deafness. The Wife of Bath seizes an opportunity to take control of this relationship, so she plays dead. Alison uses her manipulative skills to gain power, land, and money by playing on her husband’s guilt. She discloses to her audience, “And when I’d mastered him, and out of deadlock / Secured myself the sovereignty in wedlock. . .” (280). The Wife of Bath succeeds once again in her strategies to be the dominant partner in the relationship. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is interrupted after she tells the story of her fifth and final husband. The Friar and the Summoner begin to quarrel as they grow impatient with the length of her prologue, thus Alison begins to tell her Tale.
To fully understand the Wife of Bath’s Tale, one must take into account the experiences Alison discusses in her Prologue. Although very long and detailed, the Prologue offers insight about the Wife of Bath’s personality and the reasons and meanings behind the telling of her tale. Critics note that “the Wife of Bath softens her views of charity and love but continues the theme of autonomy and power” (Trudeau 3).
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is characterized by scholars as a Breton lais, which is a short, rhymed romance recounting a love story that includes supernatural elements in a land of enchantment (Encyclopedia Britannica 1). Her Tale tells of a knight who rapes a maiden, thus depriving the maiden of power over her own body. Consequently, his punishment, decided by the women of the court, is that he must learn what women desire most in a relationship. The knight knocks on every woman’s door and asks, “What could it be that women want most?” (283). Alison suggests that “a man’s true happiness can be realized when he allows his spouse to have some level of autonomy” (Trudeau 3). The answer to a man’s happiness is revealed in her Prologue, which is the answer to the question the knight must answer for himself in her Tale.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale “eludes interpretative truth” (Treharne 3) and reveals that a woman can only be happy in a marriage if she has some sort of control over her husband. These views of women having control and authority in marriages is a feminist ideal “that resonates loudly in Middle English literature” (4) and assists in making the Wife of Bath “stand out as one of the most memorable of all female literary characters” (4).