ENGL 330 Virtual Quarter / ENGL 330 face-to-face quarter / ENGL 512: Medieval Literature
Dr. Debora B. Schwartz
English Department, California Polytechnic State University

The Canterbury Tales IV: 
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale (WB)
[page numbers refer to NA 9th ed., 2012; for page numbers in 8th ed., 2006, click HERE]

You are responsible for the following Middle English passages: WB 1-198, 509-548, 599-614, 672-729, 794-834; WBT: 863-918, 989-1182, 1225-1270.

Don't forget to look for and NOTE references to gentilesse (gentil) and trouthe (trewe) as you read. Another key term for the Wife of Bath is maistrye, mastery, control, or domination. When used by the WB, maistrye generally refers to a woman's power to make decisions for herself within love relationships.  Look for and NOTE references to this term, as well!

The Wife of Bath's Prologue

Like the Pardoner'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.

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" 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 feminine "estate" worthy of respect. (On the three "feminine estates" of virgin, wife and widow, see Hali Meidhad study guide.) 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? (Consider e.g. the depiction of marriage in Hali Meidhad.) 

Trace the steps in her 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 named Alisoun), another "worthy wif," and her niece (WB 535-48). 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 (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? Alison explains that she met (and 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; see fuller description WB 675-87). 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? (Consider in the light of the opposition between experience and authority elsewhere in the Prologue.) What does she make Janekin ultimately do to the book? What are the symbolic implications of that act? (Note that she does not burn the book. . . he does.) As with husband four, Allison 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" (WB 824; see also WB 817-27). What does she do with 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 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. is on e-reserve (scanned from 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 Back (or Ahead -- order changes from quarter to quarter): 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, 1999-2020

Click here to review Chaucer's poems "Gentilesse" and "Truth"

Click here for Background to the Canterbury Tales

Click here for Study Questions for the General Prologue

Click here for Study Questions for the Knight's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Miller's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Franklin's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Nun's Priest's Tale

Click here for Study Questions for the Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

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