The Wife of Bath's Tale from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
Introduction to The Wife of Bath
An in depth look at one of the most controversial characters in world literature, Alison, the Wife of Bath. She is a complex person, both outspoken and sensitive, highly sexual and most definitely anti-establishment. Is she the first ever feminist? Some argue yes. Why did Geoffrey Chaucer give her such a prominent place in his Canterbury Tales?
The Wife of Bath's tale was written around the year 1386, in what's known as Middle English, by Geoffrey Chaucer. The prologue and tale amount to approximately 1270 lines and they are part of a collected group of stories known as The Canterbury Tales, the first ever book to include dialect, or non standard English.
What makes this wife special is the fact that she is the only ordinary female in a group of male pilgrims and nuns who are on a pilgrimage that begins at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, London and ends in Canterbury in the county of Kent.
I say ordinary female. That's not quite true. The Wife of Bath, aka Alison, is anything but ordinary! At a time when the majority of women were second class citizens, expected to accept the dominance of men with a passive humility, she simply oozes with rebel passion and self belief.
She wants equality with men, especially within marriage, and isn't afraid to say so! The issues she raises are still relevant today - the role of women in society, social injustice and the sexual tensions between male and female.
That's why her story is still so interesting. I hope you get to know the good lady well but be prepared for some controversial gossip and one or two shocking revelations!
In the Prologue we hear all about Alison's opinions, personal history and experiences. Chaucer chose to write them in heroic couplets so we can easily follow her train of thought even if she is a pretty complicated woman!
She talks directly about religion, relationships with men, marriage and sex. Her language is colourful and at times explicit:
Tell me to what conclusion or in aid
Of what were generative organs made?
It follows they were fashioned at creation
Both to purge urine and for propagation.
As you can see, she has a way with words. She is very upfront about her femininity and has, in relations with men, used it to good effect throughout her adult life.
In medieval times women were supposed to remain as virgins until they were married and if marriage wasn't for them when young, it was off to the nearest nunnery. At least that was the norm. A woman who became 'an old maid' or committed adultery was held in low esteem.
Alison, the Wife of Bath, is a strangely modern woman who knows her place yet is willing to fight tooth and nail for equal rights in marriage. Extraordinary.
Five Husbands In Total
In the Prologue Alison tells the other pilgrims about her married life.
'I'll tell the truth. Those husbands that I had,
Three of them were good and two were bad.'
The three were rich and old, the other two younger but much more of a challenge. Over the years, from the tender age of 12, she managed to gain wealth and lands from the older husbands whilst at the same time making sure they never got the upper hand.
'A knowing wife if she is worth her salt
Can always prove her husband is at fault.'
She tells the group just exactly how she handled these first three husbands, wearing them down over time, even 'assuming fictitious appetite' to maintain her grip.
Alison had a great time by the sounds of it, keeping her older men under control, especially in bed:
'So help me God, I have to laugh outright
Remembering how I made them work at night.'
Husband Number 4
Her fourth husband was a younger man and as it turns out a bit of a womaniser.
'He was a reveller, was number four;
That is to say he kept a paramour.'
A paramour is a lover. Despite Alison's youth and zest for life at this time she became jealous:
'I told you how it filled my heart with spite
To see another woman his delight,'
We don't get to know the details, and there is no evidence, but husband number four dies whilst she is away on a pilgrimage. Did she murder him for his love affairs and outrages? She certainly got her own back, taking revenge by flirting with other men...
.'..frying him in his own grease
Of jealousy and rage; he got no peace.'
Poor man. He went to his grave somewhat twisted by the antics of his young wife, who readily admits:
'And God and he alone can say how grim,
How many were the ways I tortured him.'
And that's not all. Find out more about the Wife of Bath's true character when husband number five comes along.
Husband Number 5
Husband number five is given a name, Jankyn (Johnny), and there's more written about him than any of the other husbands in the Prologue. But before we hear about his relationship with Alison we have to tie up a few loose ends on husband number four.
I'll let Alison explain:
'When my fourth husband lay upon his bier
I wept all day and looked as drear as drear,
As widows must, for it is quite in place,
And with a handkerchief I hid my face.
To church they bore my husband on the morrow
With all the neighbours round him venting sorrow,
And one of them of course was handsome Johnny.
So help me God, I thought he looked so bonny
Behind the coffin! Heavens, what a pair
Of legs he had! Such feet, so clean and fair!
I gave my whole heart up, for him to hold.
He was, I think, some twenty winters old,
And I was forty then, to tell the truth.
But still, I always had a coltish tooth.'
This scene has to be one of the first written examples of true black humour. Here is a widow burying her recently deceased husband yet who can't keep her eyes off a younger man, weighing him up in similar manner to an older man ogling a young woman! Only this time the shoe is on the other foot. Alison is after her next 'catch'.
It's incredible to think that Chaucer may have observed something similar happening at a funeral he attended in real life! Or did he simply make the whole scene up, fresh from his vivid imagination? Either way, for me, this is sheer gripping drama.
Johnny becomes her husband, ' The one I took for love and not for wealth', but soon things begin to turn sour. He's a wife beater - medieval men could legally abuse their wives - and a mysoginist at heart.
He keeps a book that's full of stories about wives who would not do as they were told:
'Of wives of later date he also read,
How some had killed their husbands when in bed,
Then night-long with their lechers played the whore,
While the poor corpse lay fresh upon the floor.'
Why Marry A Wife Beater?
So far we've discovered that Alison, despite her cleverness and forward thinking, is a woman of impulse and strong sexuality. It seems she fell for Johnny straightaway - a love at first sight situation - even before husband number four was buried!
And the reason she stayed with Johnny becomes apparent later on in the Prologue. He still beats her yes:
'But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
So coaxing, so persuasive...Heaven knows
Whenever he wanted it - my belle chose -
Though he had beaten me in every bone
He still could wheedle me to love, I own.'
One trait that does anger her however is his tendency to denigrate women by reading historical examples of their bad behaviour out of his book. Her patience finally runs out when he reads from the Book of Genesis and mentions the evil doings of Eve.
'Aye, there's the text where you expressly find
That woman brought the loss of all mankind.'
Alison tears three pages from his book which results in him half knocking her out with a violent blow to the head. Johnny is overcome with remorse when he realises what he's done. It seems he has real affection for Alison. They make up, sort of. She hits him back and eventually gets him to burn the book.
' And when I'd mastered him, and out of deadlock
Secured myself the sovereignty in wedlock,'
They lived happily ever after, in perfect bliss, having come to this rare and sincere agreement.
Three Important Points
1. Against The Establishment
Throughout the Prologue and the Tale Alison expresses her views on the church, on sexuality and the state of marriage. She feels a need to dominate her men and she's willing to use whatever it takes to establish control. Her prowess in bed is frequently mentioned in this regard, there being several words used for the female genitals (quoniam, belle chose, chamber of Venus and so on).
Her experience in marriage and of men is crucially important to her. She argues against the church clerics and celibate monks and their dry rhetorical writings. What experiences have they of real life and raw emotion? According to Alison, none.
'Experience, though noon auctoritee
Were in this world, is right enough for me
To speke of wo that is in marriage.'
(If there were no authority on earth
Except experience, mine, for what it's worth,
And that's enough for me, all goes to show
That marriage is a misery and a woe;)
Many see the Wife of Bath as someone who stands up for women. She a strong voice and wants equality for females in marriage. Numerous times she calls the system unfair and vows to fight her way out on her terms only.
Basically what she wants is a level playing field, for the man to acknowledge the woman as an equal and not treat her as a second class citizen.
'Wommen desire to have sovereintee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrye him above.'
(A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover,
And master him; he must not be above her.)
Alison is an exceptional woman no doubt. She's had five husbands and done very well out of these marital experiences - she's now independent and confident. But with regard to personal freedom and womanhood we're not quite sure where she stands. She seems happy yet only because of the cycle of marriage. There's something contradictory about The Wife of Bath - she needs a man in her bed yet is constantly having a go at men, criticising the literature they produce and despising male dominance.
The bottom line is, she wants control over own body, mind and soul and is not afraid to state her case.
'Thanne have I gete of you maistrye," quod she,
Sin I may chese and governe as me lest?'
(And have I won the mastery?' said she,
Since I'm to choose and rule as i think fit?'
In Chaucer's time astrology played a big part in many people's lives. The Wife of Bath is a Taurean, ruled over by Venus, and has Mars in Taurus (the actual text gives her ascendant in Taurus, with Mars therein). This is how she describes herself astrologically:
'For Venus sent me feeling from the stars
And my heart's boldness came to me from Mars.
Venus gave me desire and lecherousness
And Mars my hardihood, or so I guess.'
What Was The Wife of Bath Like?
Chaucer informs us in The Prologue:
'Bold was her face, handsome, and red in hue.'
She's also a bit deaf but loves to laugh and talk - perhaps a little too much, too loudly - and her hips were large. In addition she is gap toothed.
Alison, we are told, made her own clothes. Her hose is scarlet red and she has on a flowing mantle down to her soft new shoes. She's not wealthy but the picture is of a smart worthy woman who could hold her own in most company.
Animated Version of Wife of Bath's Tale
A Modern Take on Alison's Personality
Modern day studies suggest that The Wife of Bath's personality could fall into one or more of the following categories:
- insecure, confused manipulator of men
- alcoholic sociopath (possibly capable of murder)
- frigid schizophrenic (drifting from relationship to relationship)
- bipolar sufferer
I'm not sure if I agree with this modern day need to psychologically pigeonhole all literary characters. Alison to me is simply an exceptional character who loves to have fun, has a strong, independent streak and who finds it difficult to suppress her physical impulses! I'm happy to leave it at that.
The quotes opposite are in Middle English with modern translations in brackets.
Inner Beauty versus Physical
In the tale the knight is disgusted to find himself in bed with an old woman, part of the agreement he made to save his own life. But when he's persuaded to kiss the crone she turns into a beautiful young wife, suggesting that beauty is not only skin deep. Looks are not everything!
The Wife of Bath's Tale
The actual tale told by Alison is a rehash of an ancient form of story based on the 'loathly lady' pattern. This usually involves a knight or hero having to undergo a test to win the hand of a lady or to please an authority figure. The hero is often helped by a magical ugly old woman (loathly lady).
In Chaucer's version, set back in legendary King Arthur's time, all the characters are involved - knight, King and Queen and old woman. What's so compelling about The Wife of Bath's story is the seriousness of the knight's crime - he rapes a young woman.
This devilish act causes an uproar.
'This act of violence made such a stir,
So much petitioning to the king for her,'
The King, interestingly, wants to execute the knight but before he can, in steps the Queen, who then sets the knight a task which he must complete within a year and a day, or lose his head.
The task? To find out 'What is the thing that women most desire?'
He sets off across the land, asking here, there and everywhere until he eventually meets an old crone who just happens to have the right answer! But there's a catch - he's got to agree to do the very next thing she asks of him. He of course agrees.
Off he rides back to the Queen, with the old woman, happy to have the answer at last. When the Queen asks him what it is that women want most he replies:
'A woman wants the self-same sovereignty
Over her husband as over her lover,
And master him; he must not be above her.'
He saves his life. The old woman however jumps up and claims that she was the one who told him the answer and that he must now agree to marry and love her. Or else!
After much groaning and moaning from the depressed knight - especially on their wedding night - the ugly old crone magically turns into a young beautiful woman when he reluctantly kisses her.
They too turned out to be the perfect match.
'His heart went bathing in a bath of blisses
And melted in a hundred thousand kisses,
And she responded in fullest measure
With all that could delight or give him pleasure.'
Some Useful Points For Students To Think About
- Use of a Frame Narrative - in which a larger story is the framework for a series of smaller stories. What advantage does this have?
- Compare and Contrast - find statements that contradict, or dovetail, or reflect tradition and history.
- Treatment of Love and Marriage - how were women expected to behave within marriage. The roles of men and women. The role of the church.
- The Comic - use of wit and comedy.
- The Motif of the Journey - elements from fairytale, myth use to convey moral message.
Bath is an English town about 100 miles west of London. It's in the county of Somerset.
The Tabard Inn in Southwark, a borough in south-east London, was renamed the Talbot Inn in the 1800s but has since been demolished.
Canterbury, in Kent, has a famous cathedral and attracts many visitors and pilgrims.
© Original article
Analysis and commentary for both students and interested readers. All the quotes are taken from Penguin Classics The Canterbury Tales translated by Nevill Coghill, 2003. Middle English quotes from Norton Anthology 2005.
© 2014 Andrew Spacey
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