ENGL 203: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales II: 
the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
[page numbers in NA refer to 9th ed., 2012; click HERE to access study guide with pagination from the NA 8th ed., 2006 ]

In addition to reading the WHOLE TEXT in your translation, you are responsible for the following Middle English passages in the Norton Anthology: LINES (not page numbers!) 1-29, 121-40, 486-96, 531-74, 672-729, 794-834 from the Wife of Bath's Prologue (NA 282-301); also LINES (not pages!) 863-918, 989-1182, 1225-1270 from the Wife of Bath's Tale (NA 301-310).  Bring your translation and the NA (or photocopies of these pages and of the poem "Truth," NA 344-45) with you to class!

NOTE: since you are not all using the same translation, references to the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale throughout the study questions and in class discussion will be to LINE NUMBERS in the original Middle English text printed in the NA. Refer to the Middle English original while reading, and look as needed for the corresponding passages in your translation.

Contexts 1: trouthe, gentilesse and maistrye

Read the poems "Truth" (NA 344) and "Gentilesse" (click link for online text; translations are found in the Portable Chaucer, pp. 602-4 [also on e-reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn]). What is meant by each term? What sort of nobility really counts? How is it connected to "truth"? (Recall the definition of "trouthe" we discussed with regards to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Look for and note references to nobility, truth, integrity, honor, etc. as you read ("gentilesse"/"gentil" and "trouthe"/"trewe" in Middle English). Notice their thematic function in the WB's Prologue and Tale. Another key term is maistrye, mastery or domination. The WB uses maistrye to denote a woman's power to make decisions for herself in love [or erotic] relationships). Look for and note these and related terms in the WB's P&T.

Contexts 2: Romance of the Rose, Selections 2

[Readings are on Electronic Reserve in the in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn; 

Recalling that Chaucer knew the French poem well (and translated parts of it into English), consider these further selections from the poem both for their intrinsic interest (remember that the Romance of the Rose is the best-seller of the 13th and 14th centuries) and as a context for the Wife of Bath.

Passage 1 (pp. 86-8): the end of Guillaume de Lorris's poem.  Note that although the poem does NOT recount the Dreamer's successful plucking of the Rose, Guillaume probably thought his poem WAS finished (although Jean de Meun evidently did not agree!).  Guillaume claims to have written his poem in order to impress a lady who has either already become his lover or whose "fair welcoming" he still hopes to gain.  It is a courtly love poem that aims to please her so that she might be persuaded to welcome (and presumably respond to) his attentions. In this context, one would hardly expect him to include an account of the plucking of the "rose"-- after all, one of the first rules of courtly love is that one should not "kiss and tell"! 

Note also the introduction of the "Old Woman" ("La Vieille"), one of Chaucer's sources for the Wife of Bath.  (This relatively minor figure in Guillaume de Lorris's poem becomes a major character in Jean de Meun's continuation; an excerpt from her extremely long speech is included as the next passage.)  The Old Woman has been asked to guard a young man, Fair Welcoming ("Bel Accueil"), whom Jealousy has imprisoned in a tower; this allegorical character represents the lady's favorable response to the lover's courtship (i.e., Fair Welcoming being on the lover's side = the lady giving in to the lover's advances).  Note that Fair Welcoming is presented as male because the Old French term "bel accueil" is grammatically masculine.  The Old Woman is an effective guard for Fair Welcoming because of her extensive experience in love affairs in her own youth:  she can't be duped by the tricks young people resort to in order to meet in secret, in defiance of the wishes of their parents, jealous husbands, or chaperones, because due to her own youthful indiscretions, she "knew the whole of the old dance" of love (Rose p. 86, bottom).  Similarly, Chaucer says of the Wife of Bath (in the General Prologue portrait), "Of remedies of love she knew perchaunce,/ For she coude of that art the olde daunce" (GP 477-8).

Passage 2 (pp. 238-48): read this selection from the "Old Woman" ("La Vieille")'s speech in Jean de Meun's continuation, where she becomes a major character.  Read it  carefully and refer back to it while reading the WB's prologue and tale. What similarities do you find between Jean's Old Woman and Chaucer's Allison of Bath? How do they differ?  Consider e.g. their frank enjoyment of sex; their respective attitudes towards marriage and husbands; their love for a man who has mistreated them.

Passage 3 (pp. 258-9): Note Jean de Meun's claim not to be a misogynist, his pride in his status as writer, his references to prior literary tradition (translatio!), and the metaphorical descriptions of pen, stylus, and the process of writing. Elsewhere, Jean  uses similar metaphors to refer to sex (where the pen or the stylus becomes the equivalent of the man's phallus; see Electronic Reserve Rose selections 3, passage 3 [pp. 322-30] and study guide for Christine de Pizan 1). Think about the implicit connection of writing to maleness. Should women write? Is feminine literacy, clerkliness, or literary activity considered to be "natural" behavior? The Wife of Bath has a lot to say about male assumptions concerning women and about women writing -- as well as about male writing about women.

Passage 4 (pp. 276-81): Note the misogyny (prejudice against women) displayed in many passages of Jean de Meun's poem. (Such attitudes do NOT occur in the first half of the poem written by Guillaume de Lorris.) Jean de Meun was widely admired for his erudition and learning, which he attributes to his following the auctores ("authors") who were themselves highly misogynous (see translatio for a refresher on the notion of literary authority, or auctoritas). Consider Jean de Meun's claims NOT to be against women. How seriously should we take them? How might a woman reader react to them?

Passage 5 (pp. 304-9): Note Jean de Meun's insistence upon the importance of books as repositories of knowledge which teach readers how to be noble and courteous, as well as his statements about the nobility (gentilesse) of learned men and "clerks," which he seems to feel is "nobler" than the inherited "nobility" of the aristocracy.  In this regard, his position offers a variant on that offered by Chaucer in his lyric poem "Gentilesse," where he asserts that true nobility was a function of one's behavior rather than of noble birth.

LOOKING AHEAD: you will want to keep these passages in mind when we consider the writings of Christine de Pizan, an actual (rather than fictional) woman writer who was highly offended by the misogyny of literary tradition in general and of Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose in particular.

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

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 seeks to explain and justify his or her behavior.  (For another example of the genre, see the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale, NA 310-325.)

In medieval times, there was great respect for scriptural "authority" (auctoritas) -- any of the (Latin-language) auctores ("authors") 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 prechour" (WB 171). Nonetheless she seems to set greatest store on the "auctoritee" (WB 1) of her own personal experience -- the very first word of her Prologue (where it is explicitly set in opposition to scriptural "authority"). Specifically, she objects to the way in which the scriptural authorities -- most of them priests with no direct knowledge of marriage -- denigrate what she sees as an essential female "estate" worthy of respect (one of the three "feminine estates," virgin, widow and wife). Although a widow, the Wife of Bath by her very name clearly represents the "feminine Estate" of "Wife." To what extent is her Prologue (and even her Tale) a response to clerical attitudes toward marriage and virginity? 

Trace the steps in Alison of Bath's arguments for the rightness of marriage (and, specifically, of her own five marriages). How does she use 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 Janekin's "Book of wikked wives," WB 691), 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 "auctoritee"? Note Alison's relationships with other women:  her "gossib" (also called Alisoun), another "worthy wif," and her niece (WB 535-48). To what extent is their friendship based upon feminine solidarity and the "truth of experience"?

In her prologue, she describes three "good" husbands and two "bad" ones. Are these descriptions to be taken seriously? Of which of her past husbands does Alice 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 (WB 459-60, 488). How does the Wife of Bath respond? (Read carefully WB 490-94.) Does she commit adultery in turn? What does she mean when she says she "fried him in his own grease" (WB 493)? Do you see a connection with her emphasis on experience elsewhere in the Prologue? Allison explains that she met (and presumably fell in love with) her fifth husband, Janekin, while married to husband number four. What was her initial interest in him (see WB 490-94, 550-74)? What is their respective social, financial and personal status when they first meet? 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 after their marriage? 

Janekin is a "clerk at Oxenforde" (WB 533) -- a cleric trained in the scholarly traditions of (written, scriptural) "authority," including the misogynistic writings contained in the "Book of Wikkid Wives" (WB 691; for a fuller description see WB 675-87). Pay careful attention to the events involving this book. What does the Wife of Bath initially do to the book, and what are the symbolic implications of that action? Is there a connection to the opposition between experience and authority elsewhere in the Prologue? What does she ultimately make Janekin do with the book? What are the symbolic implications of that act? (Note that she doesn't do the deed . . . he does!) As with husband four, Alison seems determined to give Janekin a taste of his own medecine, making him experience what she has experienced. How does she do so? Is she successful in making Janekin recognize the value of Experience? At the end of their quarrel, Janekin gives his wife "maistrye," control over their marital relationship (WB 824; see also WB 817-27). What does she do once she has it?? Does she dominate him as we might expect, given her somewhat inflammatory statements elsewhere in the Prologue? (Read carefully WB 828-31!) At the end of their marriage, are the two spouses finally on equal footing? Note references to equality, mutuality and reciprocity throughout the Prologue . . . and in the Tale.

The Wife of Bath's Tale

In the light of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, consider Alison'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 1037-1048).  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 is it connected with the notion of "maistrye"? (Compare Chaucer's lyric poem "Gentilesse," trans. in Portable Chaucer pp. 602-3 [also on e-reserve in the Required Readings folder on PolyLearn].) To what extent is the old woman similar to Alison? Alison'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 Alison'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 DEEPER: The Franklin's Tale (a good and short read if you have time!) 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 Prologue and Tale. But in fact, 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? If you have time, compare the END of the WB's tale (esp. WB 1225-1270) and the BEGINNING of FT (esp. 57-130). Are their views of marriage really all that different?

Contents of this and linked pages Copyright Debora B. Schwartz, 1999-2019

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