Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University
The Canterbury Tales IV:
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (WB)
The Wife of Bath's Prologue is an example of the genre known as a literary confession (or "apology"), a first-person narrative in which a character explains his or her character and motivation. Note that despite the ordinary connotations of these terms, this literary genre implies neither guilt nor regret on the part of the speaker, who merely seeks to explain and justify his or her behavior.
In medieval times, there was great respect for scriptural "authority" (auctoritas) -- any of the (Latin-language) authors (auctores) whose works were preserved in manuscript form and taught or read within church-related institutions of learning (e.g. the Bible, the Church Fathers, and writings from ancient Greece and Rome -- see translatio). Citing a (real or imaginary) written source was a "guarantee" of the "truth" of what one was writing. Alison (or Alice), the Wife of Bath, is able to hold her own in traditional clerkly arguments -- she cites the Old Testament, the Gospels, and Saint Jerome in her Prologue, and the Pardoner calls her a "noble preacher" (WBP p. 107). Nonetheless she seems to set greatest store on the "authority" of her own personal experience-- the very first word of her Prologue (where it is explicitly set in opposition to written or scriptural "authority"). Specifically, she objects to the way in which the authors of scripture -- most of them priests with no direct knowledge or experience of marriage -- denigrate what she sees as an essential feminine "estate" worthy of respect. (On the three "feminine estates" of virgin, wife and widow, review the online reading The Medieval Estates.) Although a widow, the Wife of Bath by her very name clearly represents the feminine Estate of "Wife." Both her Prologue and her Tale offer an experience-based refutation of the literary authorities' misogynistic (anti-women) and misogamous (anti-marriage) viewpoints symbolized by her fifth husband Jenkin's Book of Wicked Wives (WBP p. 120).
Notice that Alison, like the Chaucer of the General Prologue, can be an unreliable narrator: you can't always take what she says at face value. For example, she begins her Prologue by declaring that she is going to use the authority of her personal experience (rather than the writings of scriptural "authorities") to speak of the "woe that is in all marriage" (WBP p. 103). A bit later, she asserts that her Tale will be about the "tribulation that is in marriage" (WBP p. 107). These statements strongly suggest that the Wife of Bath is against marriage as an institution. But the careful reader of her Prologue soon realizes that nothing could be further from the truth. Alison of Bath in fact adores being married; indeed, she sees "wifehood" as her vocation. With five previous marriages under her belt (so to speak!), she is a lusty widow on the prowl for a new husband: "Wecome the sixth whenever come he shall!" (WBP p. 104). Clearly, then, many of her explicit statements about marriage must be taken with a grain of salt. (The more extreme, provocative and "in your face" the statement, the less likely it is to be true.) To make sense of the Wife of Bath, a careful reader must pay close attention to whether her actions bear out her words. As you read, keep an eye out for instances when she says one thing, but does or shows us another ("talking the anti-marriage talk" without "walking the anti-marriage walk").
Trace the steps in her arguments for the rightness of marriage (and, specifically, of her own five marriages). Notice how she uses written authorities to support her own actions and world view. Based upon her own accounts and Chaucer's portrait of her in the General Prologue, what precisely is the Wife of Bath's "experience"? Given that there was a medieval tradition of extremely misogynistic writings (such as those contained in her fifth husband Jenkin's Book of Wicked Wives, WBP p. 120), how can we understand the Wife of Bath as a defender of her sex? Why would women be particularly concerned with having experience recognized as carrying its own weight and "auhority"? Note Alison's relationships with other women -- her best friend (a "gossip" also named Alison), another "worthy wife," and her niece (WBP p. 120). To what extent is their friendship based upon the "truth of experience"?
In her prologue, Alison describes three "good" husbands and two "bad" ones. Are these descriptions to be taken seriously? Of which of her past husbands does she seem fondest? What is the balance of power between husband and wife in each case? Does it change? When and why? Pay particular attention to the stories of husbands four and five. Her fourth husband is unfaithful to her (WBP pp. 114-15). How does the Wife of Bath respond? Read carefully WBP p. 115. Notice that she does not repay her husband's infidelity by committing adultery in turn -- she simply makes him think she has, so that he will experience the same pain and jealousy he has made her feel (see reference e.g. to "frying him in the same grease" on p. 115). Is there a connection between her punishment of husband number four and her emphasis on experience elsewhere in the Prologue?
Alison explains that she met (and fell in love with) her fifth husband, Jenkin, while still married to husband number four -- he is the man she flirts with in order to make number four jealous. Consider Alison's and Jenkin's respective social, financial and personal status when they first meet: she is a wealthy village woman, he a penniless university student. How do they spend their time together? How well do they get along? Are they well-matched socially? physically? intellectually? in formal education? in energy and appetite? What changes between them after their marriage?
Consider Jenkin's status as a "student at Oxford" (WBP p. 116) -- he is a cleric trained in the scholarly traditions of (written, scriptural) "authority," including the misogynistic and misogamous writings contained in the Book of Wicked Wives (WBP p. 120; its contents are described pp. 119-121). Pay careful attention to the events surrounding this book. What does the Wife of Bath initially do to the book, and what are the symbolic implications of that action? Can you connect it to the opposition between experience and authority elsewhere in the Prologue? In the end, it is Jenkin who burns the book, at Alison's request. What are the symbolic implications of that act? As with husband four, Allison seems determined to give Jenkin a taste of his own medecine, making him experience what she has experienced. How does she do so? Is she successful in making Jenkin recognize the value of Experience?
At the end of their quarrel, Jenkin gives his wife "maistrye," or the power to control their realtionship. This Middle English word is commonly translated as "mastery," "domination" or "control." In our text, we read, "I had gathered unto me/ Masterfully, the whole sovereignty" (WBP p. 123; original: "I hadde geten unto me/ By maistrie, al the soveraynetee," WBP lines 817-18). Read carefully what Alison says about their relationship after he gives her "maistrye" (bottom of p. 123). What does she do with this power once she has it?? Does she dominate Jenkin as we might expect, given her inflammatory statements elsewhere in the Prologue? Or are the two spouses finally on a more equal footing? Note references to equality, mutuality and reciprocity throughout the Prologue . . . and in the Tale. When it comes to wives dominating their husbands, Alison certainly talks the talk . . . but she does not always walk the walk.
In the light of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, consider Alice's tale of the rapist knight condemned to determine "what thing it is that wommen most desiren" (WB 911). What is the answer to this question? (See WB 1037-48). What is meant, in this context, by maistrye? Given the nature of the knight's initial crime, why is it especially fitting that he learn this particular lesson? How does what happens to the knight after his wedding fit into this theme? What does the old woman teach him about gentilesse, and how does it fit in with the theme of maistrye? (Compare to Chaucer's lyric poem "Gentilesse," online; trans. in Portable Chaucer 602-3.) To what extent is the old woman similar to Alice? Alice's tale, set "in th'olde dayes of King Arthour" (WB 863), is clearly a romance -- so its source must be a piece of vernacular rather than Latin (and church-oriented) literature. Do you see a possible relationship between Alice's choice of tale and her previous insistence on the value of experience as a rival to scriptural (Latin-language) auctoritee? (In this regard, see comments at end of Translatio.)
Looking Ahead: the Franklin's Tale has sometimes been interpreted as representing Chaucer's "real" view of an ideal marriage founded upon equality, as opposed to the "bad" sort of marriage, founded upon dominance (maistrye), found in the Wife of Bath's Tale. But is the message about marriage found in these works really contradictory? What is the role of maistrye in each? What is the balance of power between the Wife of Bath and each of her husbands? Does it change? When and why? Consider in particular her relationship with Janekin (esp. WB 819-31 -- the END of her personal history). Compare with the END of her tale (esp. WB 1225-1270) and the BEGINNING of the Franklin's Tale (esp. FT 57-130). After Janekin turns over maistrye to Alisoun, she becomes his trewe wif -- and apparently does not abuse the maistrye she has gained. What is then the relationship between trouthe and maistrye? Why might the Wife of Bath regard maistrye as a prerequisite for being a good and trewe wife? To what extent does her attitude reflect her gender? Can it help explain her emphasis on experience rather than on scriptural authority?
Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2005Return to ENGL 252 homepageReturn to Dr. Schwartz's Teaching PageReturn to Dr. Schwartz's homepage