The Wife of Bath

The long prologue of Chaucer's The Wife of Bath is an amusing and timely rebuke to centuries of bigoted, anti-feminist, religious doctrine. Considering The Canterbury Tales were written between 1387 and 1410, it's a sign of our times that what the Wife of Bath has to say, still applies today in certain cases, perhaps more than ever.
She often refers to the Bible, sometimes making minor errors, but one gets the impression that Chaucer does this on purpose, to mislead the reader into believing that the Wife of Bath is a good, honest, simple and down to earth soul, who having started her five chapters of married life very young, (from the age of 12) was deprived of education. Yet the reader is gradually led to appreciate that in spite of everything, she is remarkably witty, subtle, and well read.

Here are some short excerpts from the prologue :

   Experience, though noon auctoritee
     Were in this world, is right ynough for me
     To speke of wo that is in mariage :
     For lordinges,° sith I twelf yeer was of age--      °gentlemen
     Thanked be God that is eterne on live--
     Housbondes at chirche dore° I have had five     °Church door weddings
     (If I ofte mighte han wedded be)                                   
     And all were worthy men in hir degree.

26  Men may divine° and glosen° up and down          °guess/interpret
     But wel I woot,° expres,° withouten lie,                 °know/expressly
     God bad us for to wexe° and multiplye :                °increase (Genesis 1.28)
     That gentil text can I wel understonde.

35   Lo, here the wise king daun° Salomon :                   °master
      I trowe° he ha wives many oon.*                               °believe
      As wolde God it leveful° were to me                         °permissible
      To be refresshed half so ofte as he.
      Which yifte° of God hadde he for alle his wives !   °what a gift
      No man hath swich that in this world alive is.
      God woot this noble king, as to my wit°                    °knowledge
      The firste night hadde many a merye fit°                  °bout
      With each of hem, so wel was him on live°               °so good a life he had
      Blessed be God that I have wedded five,
      Of whiche I have piked out the beste°                °taken everything of value
      Bothe of hir nether° purs and of hir cheste.°     °lower parts, purse, riches

(*Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. 1 Kings 11.3)

73   But conseiling nis° no comandement.                            °is not 
      He putte it in oure owene juggement.
      For hadde God commanded maidenhede,°                   °virginity
      Thanne hadde he dampned° wedding and the deed    °condemned
      And certes, if there were no seed ysowe,
      Virginitee, thann wherof sholde it growe?

121 Tell me also, to what conclusioun°                                °end
      Were membres maad of generacioun
      And of so parfit wis a wrighte ywrought?°       °perfectly purposely made
      Glose° whoso wol, and saye bothe up and down          °interpret
      That they were marked for purgacioun
      Of urine, and oure bothe things smale
      Was eek° to knowe a femele from a male,                      °also
      And for noon other cause-- saye ye no?
      Th' experience woot it is nought so.
      So that the clerkes be nat with me wrothe,
      I saye this, that they been maad for bothe---
      That is to sayn, for office° and for ese°                        °purgation/pleasure
      Of engendure,° ther we nat God displese.
      Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette
      That man shal yeelde° to hos wif hir dette?°              °pay/marital debt
      Now wherwith sholde he make his payment
      If he ne used his sely° instrument?                              °innocent

Of course there are many more arguments and references made by Chaucer's The Wife of Bath in her long prologue. Her natural expounding of common sense gives the clergy of Chaucer's era a complete lesson in life, and justifies her having seen out five husbands. Fittingly it seems never-ending, but eventually one reaches the tale itself, which is a beautiful story.

It's too long to add here. As it's even possible that some readers of The Wife of Bath may not have arrived at the end of her long preamble, below is an abridged retelling of it, sadly devoid of Chauceresque words and rhyming.
Basically in the prologue, the Wife of Bath teaches us the art of marriage, and gives us accounts of her life with her husbands, often fondly returning to 'Janekin', her favourite fifth husband. This even though he clouted her hard enough to cause her to be deaf in the struck ear, after she had ripped pages from the anti-feminist manuscipts (Valerie and Theofraste, and Saint Jerome's 'Reply to Jovinian', etc.) which he was wont to annoy her with by reading all the time.

The tale itself takes place in the old King Arthur days. When the land was still full of fairies, before the 'limitours' (beggar friars with allocated territories) had, according to Chaucer, scared them all away. Chaucer seems to make a parody of Sir Gawain, in order to wonderfully illustrate the opinions, the character and the timeless truth advocated and defended so well by the Wife of Bath.

One fine day a lusty knight rides out and sees before him a beautiful young maiden walking by the side of a river. He rides up to her, then quickly dismounts to try to kiss her. Offended, she does her best to fight him off, whereupon he ravishes her.

When King Arthur learns of this outrage, the knight is arrested. He would have been sentenced to death for his crime had the queen not asked king Arthur to confide his fate to her. To this the king agrees, and the queen summons the knight to come before her.
He is to answer her question. If he fails to give her the correct answer, she will have him decapitated. The question she asks is: "What is the thing that women desire most?"
As he doesn't know the answer and dares not guess, she grants him twelve months and a day to 'seeke and lerre' (search and learn).

The knight goes far and wide in his quest for the answer but all to no avail. Some say that women desire 'freedom', some say they desire 'to be rich', others say they desire 'honour', some say they desire 'pleasure and rich array'. Some even say they desire 'lust abed', and often it was also said that they mostly desire 'to be wived and wedded'.
(The Wife of Bath, then wanders off by referring to Midas from Ovid and how the reeds disclosed the secret by whispering "aures aselli" (ass's ears) before she returns to her tale).

The knight now full of lassitude and uncertainty must even so return home. As he rides he suddenly sees a throng of beautiful, young, fairy maidens dancing by the side of a forest. But when he edges his horse nearer, they just as suddenly disappear.
He gazes about and there instead, sitting on the green is an ugly old woman. The knight approaches her. She tells him that there's no way forth from there, then she asks him what he's looking for. He then decides to ask her the famous question- 'What is it that women most desire'?
The old hag reaches out for his hand then asks him to make a solemn pledge to give her whatever she later requires. Only for this will she reveal the answer. The knight agrees without hesitation.

He returns to the court and the queen calls for a great assembly to hear the knight. He is then summoned to appear before her and the court. When he is ordered to give the answer to the question, he affirms with a manly voice that generally what women most desire is sovereignty, and governance over their husbands and their love.
As no one in the court can contradict his statement, it is agreed that his life be spared. But somehow the old hag suddenly appears and presents herself : 'Thank you my sovereign lady Queene. It was I who gave the answer to this knight, for which he made a pledge to me to satisfy my requirement. Before the court then I pray thee Sir Knight that thou me take unto thy wife, for I have saved thy life'.

The poor knight has no other choice. He sadly and obediently leaves with the old hag. The wedding ceremony that takes place the following day is very quiet and discreet.
But when the time comes to join her in bed, the knight completely lacks courage. The old woman then patiently lectures him on gentlemanliness. She explains that it's not inherited with name and wealth. It's more a heavenly gift. She cites Dante in this case. She talks of poverty, explaining words to the effect that a happy vagabond is as rich as a king, but a lot freer than a king would ever be.

After having so spoken she then asks him to decide between two choices. The first choice would be to have her ugly and old as she is, knowing that until the day she dies she will always be a faithful, humble wife who will never displease him. The second choice would be to have her young and beautiful, but to have to take the chance of losing her to another man, and to have to tolerate her looseness, unfaithfulness and capriciousness.

The knight then replies, 'My lady and my love, my wife so dear, I put myself in your wise governance. Choose whatever will be most pleasant, and most honourable to you, and thus also to me.'

'I am your 'maistrye', the old woman replies. 'Kiss me, we are no longer angry, for by my faith, I will be both.' (both fair and good).
Cast up the bed curtain and see for yourself. And the knight does so and then sees that his wife is truly the most beautiful young woman he had ever set eyes on. He kisses her a thousands times. And they both live very happily, for ever after.

The ending of the original text is a bit more colourful :

1260   A thousand time arewe° he gan hire kisse,             °in a row
          And she obeyed him in every thing
          That mighte do hime plesance or liking°                 °pleasure
          And thus they live unto hir lives ende
          In parfit° joye. And Jesu Crist us sende                   °perfect
          Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fresshe abedde--
          And grace t'overbide° hem that we wedde               °outlive
          And eek I praye Jesu shorte° hir lives                       °shorten
          That nought wol be governed by hir wives,
          And olde and angry nigardes of dispence°--            °expenditure
          God sende hem soone a verray° pestilence!'            °veritable

Text and retelling © Mirino. Excerpts of verse from Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath (The Northon Anthology English Literature) with thanks. Image is of the opening page of The Wife of Bath's Prologue Tale, from the Ellesmere manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Wikipedia Commons- with many thanks. October, 2011

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