Geoffrey Chaucer
The Canterbury Tales
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale

by Ian Mackean

Among the Pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales The Wife of Bath is one of the most amusing and memorable. In her prologue she boasts of how she has had five husbands, over whom she has gained dominance, and the tale she tells, as well as the arguments she puts forward in her prologue, serve to reinforce in principle what she has achieved in practice.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

Chaucer had a remarkable gift, particularly considering the literary norms of the age in which he was writing, for creating life-like characters. When we read The Wife of Bath's Prologue we are given the impression of being spoken to by a real person. The Wife has a forceful personality with her own idiosyncrasies and prejudices, and the length of her prologue is in itself an indication of her egocentricity and love of gossip.

Her prologue is a frank autobiographical confession, with which she entertains the other pilgrims on the journey to Canterbury, the actual arguments she puts forward being secondary to the revelation of her opinions and personal experience. If we look to her narrative for clear and logical reasoning we will be disappointed; we can, however, admire the skill with which she attempts to persuade the listeners with her own individual and forceful style of argument.

The other pilgrims will be impressed by her as an entertaining orator, even if not as a philosopher, moralist, or theologian. We, and they, are also impressed by her frankness and honesty (at least, on this pilgrimage, even if not in her private life) and by the audacity and forthrightness of her character.

Her constant theme, along with that of marriage, is experience - the actual experience of living - as opposed to how any authorities might deem that we 'ought' to live.

Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right ynogh for me
To speke of wo that is in mariage (1-3)*

Some of her arguments, however, could be said to be valid as well as entertaining. The first two subjects she deals with are the right to marry more than once, and the right to have sexual relationships purely for pleasure. On these points she is arguing against the medieval Catholic church which proclaimed that one should not marry more than once, that the sexual act should be reserved only for the production of children in marriage, and that it was praiseworthy to remain a virgin. The Wife argues on the Church's own ground, that of biblical interpretation, and her arguments seem valid.

On marriage:

I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,
And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan;
And ech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also.
Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,
That hye God defended mariage
By express word? I pray yow telleth me. (55-61)

And on virginity:

Or where comanded he virginitee?
I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Th'apostel, whan he speketh of maidenhede,
He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseilling is no comandement.
He putte it in oure owene juggement. (62-8)

But, reasonable as her points may be, it is not the arguments in themselves which impress us but the fact that she is cheerfully and without guilt living what many would have called a life of sin, while confidently proclaiming that she knows more about what should and should not be done in life than one of the most powerful authorities in the land.

We may see her as living life according to her personal philosophy, or as living according to her whims then devising her philosophy as justification. Either way, she gains the admiration generally accorded to people who have the courage to make their own decisions and live according to them, rather than submissively accepting the edicts of an authority.

Many of her arguments, however, are unconvincing, and distort the truth. For instance, she refers to St. Paul to the Corinthians:

I have the power duringe al my lyf
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
Right thus the Apostel tolde it unto me; (158-60)

This is supposedly an argument to support her claim:

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral, (154-5)

The reference is not inaccurate, but it has been deliberately distorted to suit her purpose - she neglects to say that the husband has equal rights over her body. Later in her prologue she presents two incompatible arguments side by side. First:

Thou sholdest seye, 'Wyf, go wher thee liste;
Taak youre disport, I wol nat leve no talis.
I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, dame Alis'. (318-20)

Then, a few lines later:

He is to greet a nigard that wolde werne
A man to lighte a candle at his lanterne;
He shal have never the lasse light, pardee. (333-5)

Having argued that her husband should trust her to be faithful, she now argues that her husband should not resent her having casual relations with other men.

If it were not for the good-humoured audacity with which she puts forward these arguments we would dismiss them, and her, as ridiculous. She has the persuasive art of a salesman, and even uses the imagery and diction of selling when talking about her 'wares' and about her attitude to and in marriage.

Winne whoso may, for al is for to selle (414)

She makes use of several rhetorical techniques to put her points forcibly. In addition to manipulating authoritative texts, as illustrated above, she often puts forward the husband's supposed arguments against her in order to demolish them on her own terms. The points she accuses the husband of making were standard complaints against women taken from a text on marriage by the Greek philosopher Theophrastus (370-285 BC), which was a frequently-used source of material for mediaeval satires on women.

She argues, for example:

Thou seist to me it is a greet meschief
To wedde a povre womman, for costage;
And if that she be riche, of heigh parage,
Thanne seistow that it is a tormentrie
To soffre hire pride and hire malencolie. (248-52)

She also accuses him of having said all this while drunk, thus making it impossible for the husband to deny it.

Thou comest hoom as dronken as a mous,
And prechest on thy bench, with ivel preef! (246-7)

Another rhetorical technique she uses is to involve the audience in the argument, with phrases such as:

Wher can ye seye . . . (59)
. . . I pray yow, telleth me. (61)
Telle me also . . . (115)
. . . say ye no? (123)

The implication of such phrases is that if no one can disagree, she must be right.

She also wins agreement by implicitly flattering those who agree. For example:

A wys womman wol bisie hire evere in oon (209)
Ye wise wives, that kan understonde. (225)
This knoweth every womman that is wys. (524)

These asides imply that any woman who agrees with her must be wise, and thus, implicitly, any who disagree must be foolish.

Another example of her manipulative flattery is:

Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees;
And sith a man is moore resonable
Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable. (440-2)

By this argument the husband has a choice: either he submits to her, or his reason must be impaired.

The Wife's rhetorical techniques, however unscrupulous, achieve the desired results. The listeners cannot put forward immediate counter-arguments, and if we imagine her in the dramatic situation of speaking to the husband, then by the time he will have realised the fallacy of her argument and thought up a response she will have put forward half a dozen more arguments. She compensates for her lack of integrity with cunning and speed, getting her way by exasperating her opponent.

The Wife is far more than a comic caricature; she had depth, and her human sensitivity is revealed in a number of ways. If we were to think that she was unaware of her faults, and unable to examine and know herself, we would be far less impressed by her than is the case, but there is ample evidence to suggest that beneath her boisterous and bawdy exterior she is an intelligent responsible woman.

In a passage showing that she has self-knowledge, she confesses to her own deceitfulness, and claims that her manipulative methods are part of a gift from God which all women share.

For al swich wit is yeven us in oure birthe;
Deceite, weping, spinning God hath yive
To wommen kindly, whil that they may live. (400-2)

If it were not for her capacity for detachment her account would be humourless and self-condemning, but she knows what she is doing and takes responsibility for her actions. She knows that not everyone will look upon her attitudes and behaviour favourably:

But Crist, that of perfeccion is welle . . . (107)
. . .
Spak to hem that wolde live parfitly;
And lordinges, by youre leve, that am nat I. (112-3)

O Lord! the peyne I dide hem and the wo,
Ful giltelees, by Goddes sweet pine!
For as an hors I koude bite and whine.
I koude pleyne, and yit was in the gilt! (384-7)

We are reminded that she is only human and in the same mortal boat as the rest of us by the pathos of the following passage, in which she confronts the unwelcome fact of ageing with a characteristically spirited attitude:

But, Lord Crist! whan that it remembreth me
Upon my yowthe, and on my jolitee,
It tikleth me aboute myn herte roote (469-71)
. . .
But age, allas that al wole envenime,
Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith.
Lat go, farewel; the devel go therwith! (474-6)

Finally, if we still feel any tendency to condemn her, we must remember that she makes it clear that, at the time of speaking, her chief aim is to entertain:

As taketh not agrief of that I seye;
For myn entente is not but for to pleye. (191-2)

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The tale told by The Wife of Bath, although it has a more serious and moral tone than her prologue, is in many ways a continuation of her prologue, the story and the way in which it is told being dominated by her personality, attitudes, and beliefs. The most obvious connecting link between the prologue and tale is the common theme - the sovereignty of women in marriage. In her prologue The Wife describes how she has devoted much of her life to living up to her unshakeable decision:

An housbonde I wol have, I wol nat lette,
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral (154-5)

She uses her tale to extend this idea from being a personal preference, and a maxim to be followed by 'every womman that is wys' (524) to a universal truth. The knight of her tale is set the task of finding:

What thing is it that wommen moost desiren. (905)

When he gives his answer to a supreme court of women, headed by the queen, there is no disagreement at all:

Wommen desiren to have sovereinetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie him above. (1038-40)

In al the court ne was ther wyf, ne maide,
Ne widwe, that contraried that he saide, (1043-4)

The fact that the knight's life is in the hands of the queen rather than the king is in itself a sign that the tale is a product of The Wife's imagination. King Arthur has condemned the knight to death, according to the law of the land, and yet in response to the pleas of the queen and other women,

. . . yaf him to the queene, al at hir wille,
To chese wheither she wolde him save or spille (897-8)

Thus even The King of England is subject to his wife.

The Wife uses her tale as a vehicle for her own views, and often she leaves the tale altogether and resumes the self-centred theme and colloquial style of her prologue. She lists all the alternative answers the knight received to his question, the list including everything which, in her prologue, she has shown that she demands from a marriage as well as 'sovereinetee'.

Somme seyde wommen loven best richesse,
Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolinesse
Somme riche array, somme seyden lust abedde,
And oftetime to be widwe and wedde. (925-8)
. . .
And somme seyen that we loven best
For to be free, and do right as us lest, (935-6)

Her inclusion of herself with 'we', and the unusual inclusion of 'oftetime to be widwe and wedde' make it clear that this is The Wife's own interpolation, beyond the requirements of the tale.

Digressions are a characteristic of both the prologue and the tale. At one point in her prologue she says,

Now wol I speken of my fourthe housbonde (452)

She immediately launches into a digression about her youth, then about thirty lines later tries to return to her original subject:

Now wol I tellen of my fourthe housbonde (480)

She loses track of her theme again, but finally returns to it with:

But now, sire, lat me se, what I shal seyn?
A ha! by God, I have my tale ageyn. (585-6)

The same colloquial discursive style carries through to her tale. At one point The Wife abandons the tale of the knight to tell us Ovid's tale of Midas and his asses ears. This digression is in support of her statement:

Pardee, we wommen konne no thing hele (950)

(By God, we women can conceal nothing)

which is in itself a digression from the tale.

The fact that The Wife relates Ovid's tale inaccurately is also in keeping with the prologue, in which she makes a misleading reference to St. Paul's pronouncements on the mutual rights of partners in marriage. We know from the prologue that she has gained most of her 'learning' via her fifth husband, Jankin, a former Oxford clerk. In view of Jankin's enthusiasm for anti-feminist literature it is likely that he had distorted Ovid's tale in relating it to his wife, by making Midas's wife the traitor instead of his barber.

The Wife digresses from her tale after the first half dozen or so lines to air her views on another subject close to her heart, 'limitours and othere hooly freres' (866). Her grievances against the church are many. The church's solemn repressive attitude towards sex, and most other forms of enjoyment, conflict strongly with her robust hedonism. In the prologue she exclaims

Allas, allas, that evere love was sinne! (614)

The church was also responsible for the dissemination of anti-feminist literature and attitudes, and here The Wife, an arch-feminist, is in direct conflict.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wives, (688-9)

Also, in the dramatic context The Friar has just made a rude comment about the length of her prologue, and with this comment she is rebuking him.

If we turn to the character of the Loathly Lady of The Wife's tale, we find some differences between her and The Wife, and some similarities. The main characteristic they have in common is the wish to dominate their husbands. There is also a marked similarity in their tactics for achieving this goal. Both make their husbands suffer, and both use the persuasive techniques of argument. Both also draw upon authorities in support of their arguments; The Wife from The Bible, Ovid, and many others, and The Loathly Lady from Dante and Seneca.

The plight of The Wife's first three husbands, of whom she says,

As help me God, I laughe whan I thinke
How pitously a-night I made hem swinke! (201-2)

is not much better than that of the knight, who, on his wedding night,

He walweth and he turneth to and fro.
His olde wyf lay smilinge everemo, (1085-6)

Just as, in the prologue, The Wife puts up the husband's assumed complaints against her, putting him in the wrong, and knocking his arguments down one by one, so the Loathly Lady puts up the knight's objections.

Thou art so loothly, and so oold also,
And therto comen of so lough a kinde (1100-1)

She adds the fault of being poor, not even mentioned by the knight, and by pseudo-logic presents the faults as virtues. Both women succeed in gaining the submission of their partners for the same reason - the husbands are so frustrated and exasperated that they give in to get some peace. No amount of logical argument from the Loathly Lady could really allay the knight's feeling of revulsion for an ugly old woman.

The chief difference in the approach of the two wives is that whereas The Wife argues almost entirely on personal grounds, The Loathly Lady argues to a large extent on the more objective and moralistic grounds of living up to the claim of 'Nobility', the true source of which was a much discussed subject in the middle ages. On one level we can assume that Chaucer has introduced this theme for the edification of his audience, but it is also likely that The Wife has included this serious subject into her relatively light-hearted prologue and tale in order to comply with The Host's original request in The General Prologue for,

Tales of best sentence and moost solaas (800)

In her prologue The Wife demonstrates herself to be an intelligent woman, and good at dissembling. At the funeral of her fourth husband, for example, she acts the part of the grieving widow, so she would undoubtedly be able to act out the serious tone necessary for the Loathly Lady's 'Nobility' argument. Putting herself in the role of The Loathly Lady also serves The Wife's purpose of championing the cause of women, in that to subjugate a knight and prove him to be ignoble would be a greater achievement than the real life subjugation of her first three elderly, feeble, husbands, and it is achieved by a more acceptable means than her childish deceitful attack on Jankin. In this way, and in the final transformation of The Loathly Lady into a beautiful young woman, the tale can be seen as a wish-fulfilment on the part of The Wife.

Thus The Wife's tale is more than appropriate to the prologue; it is essential that we know the character of The Wife through her prologue before we can fully make sense of the tale. If we were to read the tale without having read the prologue we might ask such questions as: Why is a seemingly courtly tale starting off with rape? Why so many digressions? Why the attack on 'limitours'? Why is Arthur's court ruled by women? Especially odd would seem the sudden change of tone and strong language in the final lines:

. . . Jhesu Crist us sende
Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fressh abedde,
And grace t'overbide hem that we wedde;
And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lives
That wol nat be governed by hir wives;
And olde and angry nigards of dispence,
God sende hem soone verray pestilence! (1258-64)

But, knowing The Wife of Bath, these things come as no surprise at all.

Bibliography

* Line numbers are from these editions
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Ed. James Winny. Cambridge University Press. 1965.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Ed. James Winny. Cambridge University Press. 1965.

© Ian Mackean, April 2007
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See also: Wife of Bath Study Guide By Adrian Fox. This is a free program which you can download and run on your computer. The guide contains detailed notes with associated questions in various formats such as multi-choice, true/false/ or type the answer, plus generate quotes at random, and a series of resequencing and 'cloze' (missing word) formats.

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