The Wife of Bath

An overview

Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is valued for her bawdy and irreverant attitude to life and this makes her, perhaps, the best character to introduce one to a study of The Canterbury Tales or to deepen one’s understanding. Her portrayal is in three parts: the description of her in the General Prologue; the Prologue to her own story, better referred to as her Preamble; and the Tale itself. I shall call the first one the Prologue and the second the Preamble to avoid confusion. Some critics have claimed that Chaucer intended several of the tales to form a “marriage group” to create a discussion on marriage within the work as a whole: The Wife of Bath’s, the Friar’s, the Summoner’s, the Clerk’s, the Merchant’s, the Squire’s and the Franklin’s but this does not seem to others a particularly fruitful way to consider such diverse material. In many ways the Preamble is a tale in itself: it is longer than her actual story and is the disjointed narrative of her life, mixed with reflections on whatever enters her head. Some critics have seen a disparity between this out-spoken, sometimes coarse, commonsensical discourse and the fairy tale which follows.

Yet the two are united by the theme of what women want. She makes it clear that they desire “maistrie” or mastery in the sense of dominance over men. The Preamble is notable for: its oral signals of rhetoric (frequently misused); its revelations, some deliberate, many unintentional; its feminism; its humour; and the reactions of the other pilgrims who cannot all keep quiet. There is a pervading theme of the two conflicting types of authority, books – which she resents despite being more knowledgeable than she admits – and experience of life, which the Wife has in abundance. She is likeable despite her cynicism and rough dealings with her old, rich husbands and we are aware that she truly loved Janekin with his curly gold hair and shapely legs. We may be scandalised at her justification of infidelity but she has courage and honesty and for this we admire her. The Tale itself is tamer and comparatively well organised in the telling – once she has started and not counting her diversion about “gentillesse” – but Chaucer points a mischievous finger at her unawareness that some listeners may be silently comparing her to her own description of the Loathly Lady. Chaucer seems affectionate in his portrayal of the wife, probably because she is not a hypocrite, whilst showing her garrulousness, contradictions, lack of self-control and complete failure to realise the impression she is making on her audiences: the pilgrims and any reader or listener outside the Tale. As author, he controls all this, whilst making it clear that this woman comes, as she claims, from both Venus and Mars!

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The portrait of the Wife from the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
There are two women described in the General Prologue: the Prioress and the Wife of Bath and they are at opposite ends of a spectrum of delicacy and refinement.

The Wife is strong and coarse; although a good craftswoman, a cloth-maker, she is not given her trade as her main role or title as are most of the other pilgrims which makes her more personalised (she is one of the few pilgrims to be named: Alison we learn later). Immediately she is introduced as being slightly deaf which turns out to be a metaphorical as well as a literal attribute, hinted at in Chaucer’s falsely naif comment: “and that was scathe [a pity].” She is highly competitive and will become uncharitable if any impertinent women goes to the altar ahead of her with an offering. The “coverchiefs” which she wears on her head on Sundays weigh ten pounds and are made of fine cloth: the joke here is that such gear was already out of fashion even though the Wife is clearly proud of her accessories. Her red stockings signify boldness and are tightly laced to show off her legs but her shoes are of excellent quality and new. Her face is also bold and handsome and red like her stockings. Chaucer, the narrator, plays the role of the innocent commentator who contents himself with the bland remark: “She was a worthy [excellent] woman al hir lyve” before revealing that she has had five properly married husbands. Juxtaposition is one of Chaucer’s main ironic techniques: by placing two statements side by side he creates an ironic effect, here that she believes she is excellent but others may disagree. She has had other lovers apart from husbands but the narrator, in his persona of retiring witness, tickles our curiosity by refusing to say more on the subject: “But ther-of nedeth nat to speke as nowthe.” Her love of travel (and pilgrimages were a recognised way of achieving salvation and a holiday simultaneously) is literal and metaphorical as she does know “muchel of wandrynge by the weye” and experiencing all that life has to offer.

To be gap-toothed is the mark of a traveller but also an emblem of lasciviousness and, possibly, gluttony. She rides an ambling horse (the mounts of the pilgrims are an indication of character, much as the mention of a brand of car would be today) which corresponds, by metonymy, to her casually ineffective way of narrating. Her hat is as broad as a buckler or targe [shield], a military reference following the sexual ones which marks her as from Mars as well as Venus. The fact she wears spurs adds a masculine quality but her love of talk and gossip is, perhaps, more female in Medieval eyes. Her “foot-mantel” (worn to keep the gown clean) covers large, strong hips: her appeal is that of an earthy, tough woman. An expert in remedies of love she knows all the rituals of sexuality: “the olde dance” but our apparently uncommitted author adds a “perchance” as if she had done nothing deliberately. Yet this is also a reference to Ovid’s Remedia Amoris, thus suggesting that the Wife has taken her learning from literature as well as life.
Whereas many of the pilgrims are savagely satirised for their hypocrisy, the Wife is more gently mocked and left to reveal her own shortcomings, frequently unwittingly, in her lengthy Preamble.

The Wife’s Preamble

Only the Pardoner, who makes his living out of speaking in public, has a lengthy introduction to his story, over a hundred lines, whereas the Wife’s is over 850. Her speech is characterised by its rambling nature, repetitive defensiveness and garrulous lack of control. There were, current at the times, accepted devices of rhetoric (rules of speaking or forming a written discourse) which the Wife ignores or misuses just as she abuses changes of register from the high-flown to the colloquial or obscene. Larger than life herself, she reveals all about her marriages, liaisons and attitudes, cheerily unaware that others may not be in full agreement. When the Pardoner makes his feelings clear, she answers back before carrying on in the same vein.

Her first words are: “Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world, is right enough for me.” She is claiming to have attended the university of life, disparaging written texts. This mocks the prevalent attitude that a person gains authority in the sense of respect and dignity by quoting authorities, authors from the classics or texts from the Bible. Yet, in order to justify her numerous weddings, she immediately refers to the Bible, although she fails to make good use of these exempla’ [examples] by interrupting herself with questions and then making the rather absurd claim that she did it all because God ordered people to “wexe and multiply”, adding that Christ never stated the optimum number of marriages. She always cherry-picks the texts with which she agrees: from the whole story of Solomon she mentions merely his multiple marriages. Her tone renders her material comic as she talks as if God and Christ had spoken to her directly in friendly fashion. Some authorities are named but others wasted as she calls them, vaguely, “many another holy man”. To use examples effectively they must be precise. She is particularly virulent against virginity but this is not the opposite of multiple marriages and shows her illogicality, defensiveness and personal dislike of St. Paul. We note that no-one has yet accused her of ill-doing but she pre-empts criticism and assumes that her opinion on anything is worth hearing. Her speech is full of ‘fillers’ such as “eek well”, expressions which are largely meaningless. but which keep her talking. In the first hundred lines she has proved herself energetically out-spoken but undiscriminating, mentally chaotic and obsessed with self-justification.

A blindness is apparent when she says: “Of myn estaat I nil nat make no boost” (l.98) when she has been boasting about it openly. (Note that in Chaucer’s English the two negatives, “nil” and “nat” do not cancel each other out; they merely stress what is being said.) She is more convincing when she uses homely examples:
…a lord in his houshold,
He nath nat every vessel al of gold;
Some been of tree [wood], and doon hir lord servise. (l.101)

Yet there is wry comedy here also as the implication strikes the listener that she is the wooden vessel serving God by her promiscuity. Again, unaware of the impression she is creating, she announces that she is not one who wishes to live perfectly – as if the audience had not realised. When she promises to bestow the “flour of al myn age” in the acts of marriage she manages to make it seem more of a threat than an attraction and it must be remembered that some of the other pilgrims are Church people who might be scandalised, particularly when she proceeds to a discussion about the function of the human genitalia. Chaucer ensures that we do not overlook the fact she may have pure-minded folk amongst her listeners when he has her turn to them and ask for agreement: “say ye no?” (l.123.)

She has the best of both sides in the discussion when she claims that the sexual organs are for both “purgacioun” and “engendrure.” There is imagery of debt and payment in her pronouncement on sex in marriage in a misplaced sententia [generalised statement of universal truth usually for matters of higher philosophy.] (l.129ff) Her argument swings to and fro even though no-one has interrupted and, when she induces us to consider Christ’s body as manly, one can just imagine the reaction of the Prioress. As if we did not already know she proclaims: “I nil envye no virginitee” (l.142) before coyly referring to her own genitals as “myn instrument” – although she uses more basic terms elsewhere. This is the rhetorical device of circumlocutio [saying something by roundabout means] usually employed in a higher register. Her attitudes to her husbands are revealed in lines 150ff: she will not be “daungerous” [a courtly love term where the woman is disdainful and hard to please] and her language refers to dominance and debt, causing the spouse “tribulacion.” She then makes it sound as if St. Paul has ordered her to do this in person. This has a humorous side but it shows the worst aspect of the Wife’s personality: her feminism has become mean and petty and makes us hold back our sympathies.

Perhaps it is this assumption of a direct line to the Apostles that unnerves the Pardoner, whose livelihood depends on the pious appealing to him for salvation, and he interrupts – but is quickly put back in his place. As the voice of experience, the Wife nevertheless vows to gives more than ten examples from learned writings. This threat silences the Pardoner and she resumes what she is now calling her tale, ironically, because it is, in one sense, her more important tale. Three of her husbands she defines as good, meaning that they were rich and old, liable to die and leave her money; these she drove so that they had to “swinke” [make love] until they were so distressed that they cried out “weilawey!” [alas] Yet she made sure she would have their money first. So carried away is she by her story that she seems unaware of the unpleasant side of her character that she is revealing: she is sure that the pilgrims admire her as much as she admires herself, when, in fact, they must be laughing or disgusted – or both.

Envy of the possessions of the woman next door inflames her and we see that there are two conflicts: a realistic one between an old husband and young wife and an ideological one between Medieval traditional authority and boisterous feminism. Women were blamed for much as Eve was considered responsible for bringing evil and death into the world and we do sympathise with the Wife for standing up to this denigration, but less so when once again she lapses into mere cursing: “Sire olde lecchour.” Chaucer captures the Wife’s manner of speaking while she captures the husband’s. We get a glimpse into what was considered dangerous though admirable in women at the time: shapeliness, beauty, talents, breeding, playfulness, pretty hands and slender arms but she points out that if a woman is ugly a man will believe her to sex-mad. A woman cannot win.

She is a mercenary scold who issues curses in base language: “Moote [may] thy welked [withered] nekke be to-broke” (l.277), which undermines any trust we may have developed in her arguments. She constantly wastes any progress she may have made in convincing her listeners. The homely examples throughout make her points better than the learned: here, that household goods can be tested in advance, but not wives. This, she claims, gives her licence to behave badly once married thereby, once more, throwing away her advantage. The audience has to assess the truth of who is right and who is wrong whilst she starts every paragraph with “Thou seist”, listing his criticisms and answering his claims with one of her insults rather than argument. The rhythms here pulse along unstoppably as she recalls his condemnations, some of which strike us as justified and would have struck the listening pilgrims as well-deserved also. Which of them, we ask ourselves, is the “olde barel-ful of lies!” (l.302) Yet it is not so much that the Wife lies, as that she gives a one-sided version and ignores any possible assonance between what she has admitted openly and the criticism of the husband in question. He is merely saying what she has already said, in many cases. A short piece on Janekin, the apprentice, reminds us that she is capable of true love as she paints a thumbnail of his “crispe [curly] heer, shininge as gold so fin” (l.304) and convinces us that the present husband was right to be suspicious when the young man escorted her.

Her determination to secure her marital rights and her first four husbands’ property continues even though she expects the spouse to trust her completely and even puts words into his mouth:

Wyf, go wher thee liste;
Taak youre disport, I wol nat leve no talis [permit gossip]
I knowe yow for a trewe wyf, dame Alis (l.318fff)

Apart from the absurdity of the suggestion, the narrative technique here is sophisticated: Chaucer captures the Wife’s voice as she attempts to capture the voice of her husband saying something he would never say. Her justification of adultery involves false analogy as she compares going to bed with her husband at night after a day spent with her lover to taking a light from a candle. Her claim is that the candle loses no light as the husband loses no sex but this false reasoning is something she would not accept if it were said to her. The next lines (336-361) include references to St. Timothy and to everyday examples as she claims to disparage texts and refuses to behave in accordance with them: “I wol nat wirch [act in obedience] as muchel as a gnat.” The analogy with a cat is more striking and gives us an interesting insight into the Medieval practice of singeing a cat’s skin to keep it at home, but if the cat and the Wife feel that their skins (or clothes in her cace) are “slik and gay” they will both want to show off and “goon a-caterwawed.” She is so clearly untrustworthy that she could not expect freedom as this is, in her case, linked to deception accompanied by curses and insults.

Amongst the rhetorical devices, well known to a contemporary educated audience, is the art of diversio [diversion] whereby the speaker/writer leaves the thread of discourse temporarily to include an appropriate analogy or brief and relevant reference before returning to his/her main thread. The more learned amongst the Wife’s listeners would have been amused or irritated by her misuse of this function as, in one sense, the whole Preamble is a diversion to her objective of telling a story according to the overall agreement of the pilgrims. Within it is an uncontrolled tendancy to wander off the topic, sometimes moving off the diversion itself, with chaotic side swipes at husbands and textual authorities. Even without a knowledge of this specific failing, a modern reader can see that she is frequently off the mark. Every now and then she gets a grip and returns to the story of her life with crude oral signals such as: “Now wol I speken of my fourthe housbande” but not before she has spent minutes on digressions.

From l. 371 onwards, she repeats her husband’s justifiable criticism of her as one of the tribulations she has to bear whilst proclaiming her ability to fight back: “For as an horse I koude bite and whine [whinny]”, admitting at the same time that she was the guilty one. She seems to have no awareness that she is contradicting herself, so involved is she with her narrative and her obsession with the competitiveness of life and marriage. The religious pilgrims must have been scandalised when she states that God donated to women “Deceite, weping, spinning”, thus giving backing to the Medieval anti-feminism against which she is fighting. She will not allow her husbands sex until they have made a financial bargain with her: this is one of her means of achieving “maistrie” which is her one organised purpose.

She contests every detail against the “bacon” [old flesh] to whom she is married, feeling that the natural world is cunning and embattled also. Whilst inwardly and outwardly disparaging meek men, she advises the husbands to be like Wilkin, their sheep, and complains against their grumbling although she grumbles herself. The levels of irony are complex beneath the apparent simplicity of Chaucer’s writing: she seems unconscious of her own duplicity and the ironic eye of Chaucer, listener and reader on her preposterous self-proclamations. Her references to her own sexual organs range from the crude to the euphemistic “bele chose” as we suddenly realise we have heard about three husbands only and are about to have an equally lengthy ramble about the final two.

The fourth (l. 453) was more of her equal, being adulterous also: she resents this and gives us a lively self-portait as:
yong and ful of ragerie [wantonness]
Stibourn [stubborn] and strong and joly as a pie [magpie].
How koude I daunce to an harpe smale …
She admits she drank and that wine gave her a “likerous tail” [lecherous private parts] although she has accused earlier husbands of drunkenness but the regret she demonstrates at the passing of her youth is touching and we feel that Chaucer is, perhaps, on her side after all; firstly she rejoices in the past self that has enjoyed life to the full before admitting:
But age, alls, that al wol envenime, [poison everything]
Hath me birafte [stolen from me] my beautee and my pith, [vigour]
Lat go, farewel; the devel go therwith!
The flour [flower] is goon, ther is namoore to tell. (l. 474-477)

Despite the striking pathos and realism here, it is still full of contradictions: she earlier announced that she was determined to enjoy the flower/prime of life now and she certainly has plenty more to tell. She is pragmatic but inconsistent. After this powerful digression she returns to the fourth husband although, since he died swiftly (perhaps as a result of her violent attitude: “That in his owene grece I made him frye”), what is to follow is more about Janekin, the fifth-to-be. Her meannness will not even allow a decent burial for number four.

The fifth husband, Janekin, is her true love and has the advantage in age and learning. She admits he was “the moste shrewe” [brutal] to her, proving that she did not want a sheep after all. He is good in bed and can “glose” [cajole], and yet he plays the traditional, reversed role of the distant woman in Courtly Love and is “daungerous” [hard to get]. With an air of imparting a secret truth, she proclaims a commonplace: that women want what is difficult to achieve: “Forbede us thing, and that desiren we;” again tuning in with the main question in the Tale (what do women most wish for, even thought the answer here is slightly different.) She marries him for love not money after a courtship during which she told him and her “gossib” [close friend] her husband’s secrets. Her indiscretion knows no bounds: this is not an attractive deed to confess. During Lent, a season of piety when her husband was away, she shows the opportunistic side of her nature and goes out showing off her scarlet clothes. A more appealing side is shown when she fights off nasty little creatures from attacking her best garments by wearing them constantly: life is a fight to her and she uses every chance, including religious occasions, to enjoy herself. Once again the horror of the Prioress and others hovers in the background.

At l. 562 she recaptures her narrative in the most obvious way. Of all the rhetoical devices she misuses, her more educated listeners would have noted the absence of diminutio [self-deprecation], often used with tongue in cheek, but here not at all. She uses every skill to trap him as she believes, in a charming saying of the time:
I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek

That hath but oon [one] hole for to sterte [run] to.
The mouse with two outlets is one thing but the Wife, catching one husband whilst married to another as a cold-blooded insurance policy, is another. This she has done all her life but at least she loves Janekin. Another trick is the false dream, after which she admits that she has completely lost her track:
But now, sire, lat me se, what I shal seyn?
A ha! by God, I have my tale ageyn. (l587)

There is digression on digression, the irony being that this is not even the Tale. By now the pilgrims must be exasperated, scandalised and frustrated; the modern reader can picture them grumbling to themselves rather than according her the admiration she craves and expects but which she has thrown away by boasting about her own repugnant characteristics.

At the funeral of husband number four, she plays the distressed widow but falls even more in love with Janekin becuse of his “paire/Of legges and of feet so clene [shapely] and faire” (l. 598) so that she accepts that he will have “maistrie ” over her: “… al myn herte I yaf [gave] unto his holde [keeping.]” He is twenty and she forty, thus forming a parallel with the Knight and the Loathly Lady in the Tale itself, but she notes that she always had a “coltes tooth [youthful inclinations]” along with the gap in her teeth, hardly an attractive picture! Her husbands all told her that she has the best “quoniam [whatsit]” ever and she claims that her lecherousness is from Venus but her heart from Mars: she is a lustful warrior. She has an abundance of euphemisms for her private parts, on which there is also the mark of Mars. Her appeal to God in the midst of these revelations is both comic and shocking but we admire her lack of class-consciousness: provided she is in love she does not care about money or rank.

After a month Janekin marries her and the tables are turned: she gives him her land and possessions although she repents later. He is in charge and even hits her when she tears pages from his book as these were extremely expensive at the time; this is the cause of her deafness, a badge of the one relationship in which she failed to gain “maistrie” consistently. The reason for this incident is her dislike of textual authorities, which Janekin constantly quotes but which seem out-of-date to her and contradict her desires. When she admits: “Stibourn [stubborn] I was as is a leonesse,” and a “verray jangleresse [absolute chatterbox]”, she is once more comically unaware that the members of her audience have realised this for themselves by now.