Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, "Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale," (ca. 1380-1400)  (all surviving MSS are posthumous, from early 1400s; editio princeps, London: William Caxton, 1477)

Genre:  The prologue might be called a fictional autobiography, a confession, a mock sermon (Patterson) or an apologia (L., defense). Persuasive as Chaucer’s Wife’s voice may be, however, do not mistake it for true autobiography. Chaucer’s immediate source for many of the opinions and strategies described in the prologue are two characters from the Roman de la Rose (by Guillaume de Lorris, 1237, and Jean de Meun, 1275): La Vieille (the Old Woman) and Le Jealoux (the Jealous One). He also draws upon the vast literature of anti-feminist theologians to characterize the views of her husbands, especially Jankyn. [N.B.: Long before there were "feminists," there were many "anti-feminists."]

        The tale, itself, is an Arthurian romance, typified by its knight errant protagonist, its quest to answer a question, and its plot movement between court and forest. Its immediate source is a set of romances and ballads about Arthur's chief knight, Gawain, who usually is a paragon of social and ethical virtue.  Clearly, Chaucer (or the Wife--who is the author of this tale?) has a different sort of knight in mind.  It also resembles Breton lais, the short romances originating in Brittany which often featured supernatural characters and characters whose criminal behavior was corrected by unusual justice ("Eliduc," "Sir Gowther," "Bisclavret," "Launfal," etc.). Chaucer probably knew of several analogues of this tale of the knight whose mistress gives him a difficult choice, and others which involved rapist knights. But in none of the analogues is the choice between a wife foul and faithful or fair and faithless. (In the sources, she must either be fair by day and ugly by night or ugly by day and fair at night.) Also, in none of the pastourelle rapist-knight tales is the rapist punished, or even judged.  

        The closest analogues of the tale can be found in the "Gawain-centered" romances, in two of which Arthur's nephew takes up a challenge which involves the test of discovering "what women most desire" and winds up married to a lady whose unlovely appearance is transformed by Gawain's courtly correctness.  See the TEAMS online texts of "The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle," and "The Marriage of Sir Gawain."  What has happened to poor Gawain, and how has his bride changed in character?  Joe Turner (Goucher '05) did a thorough independent study of these Gawain romances and assembled a guide to their two major plot structure, the "beheading game" and "the wedding."  Click here to see it.

Characters:  a rapist knight (unnamed), Arthur’s queen (unnamed), and the "loathly lady" (unnamed) he meets on his quest.

Plot Summary:  The queen begs her husband for the favor of judging the rapist knight, and sentences him to die unless he can return in a year and a day to tell her "What thyng is it that wommen moost diseren" (l. 905, Riverside; 911, Norton). His search is futile until he sees a ring of women dancing in a circle in the forest. They vanish, and the old woman he sees in their place promises to solve his problem if he will grant her next wish. He agrees, and she tells him women want sovereignty in marriage. The answer pleases the queen, and the old woman asks the knight to marry her. He refuses because she is so ugly and old, and "thereto comen of so lough a kynde" (l. 1101, Riverside; 1107, Norton). She answers his charge that their estates are unequal with a lecture on "gentillesse" (see Chaucer’s poem of that name) and offers him the choice of having her beautiful and faithless, or ugly and faithful. Unable to decide, he yields to her wisdom in the choice and she makes herself both beautiful and faithful for him.

Interpretive issues and general research sources:

        The "Wife of Bath's Prologue" is a work of literature so compellingly realistic that many students believe she is real, that the "Wife" is the author rather than Geoffrey Chaucer.  That is an astonishing achievement for a medieval author, and also an odd one.  Medieval authors wrote for fame, not for money, since copyright and print publication were, in this case, about 100 years in the future.  To create a character capable of usurping your own fame is a rather interesting strategy.  What about the prologue creates this "realizing effect"?  Can you spot specific moments when the Wife seems to materialize in your mind?  Her tale, by contrast, is a traditional medieval romance, though in miniature, modeled on those told of Gawain and set in King Arthur's court.  Nevertheless, the Wife-as-teller has left her mark on this tale because of the issues it raises which we can find in common in her prologue.  What's on her mind?

        Students like to ask whether the Wife is a "feminist." Of course she could not know any of the modern feminist movement’s political beliefs about the equality of rights under the law, a product of John Stuart Mill’s philosophy and American Revolutionary politics, but she definitely has positions that she marks out on gender lines. She also takes great delight in demonstrating her ability to dominate her older husbands, and in recounting her successful struggle with young Jankyn, her fifth and last husband (so far!).

        The Wife of Bath has been interpreted as Chaucer's deliberate moral satire upon the human, especially female, sexual appetite. She can be read as a type of the fallen woman or, in biblical terms, Eve. For a careful discussion of this reading, see D. W. Robertson Jr.'s Preface to Chaucer (1962).  Robertson is a "patristic" critic, reading the medieval text (no matter how secular) in terms of its potential for reference to religious doctrine. Defenses of the Wife are a commonplace among Feminist critics, especially, and New Historicists, as well, who doubt the patristic critics' ability to read culture through only one cultural "lens," that of church doctrine and literary texts influenced by it. There are important advantages of both ways of reading Alison's tale, and the astute student would do well to neglect neither.

        Chaucer's "tales of Canterbury" never existed in a single, bound collection that kept the tales in one order. Rather, it appears Chaucer often performed chunks of the tales orally at court and in other locations, and that he adapted them as he wrote new tales to incorporate more and more intricate relations among tales and tellers. In the case of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, to whom and to what tale sequence is she responding when she belts out her first lines which challenge "auctority" (book-learning) with the power of "Experience" (what they call, in Hoffberger, empirical knowledge)? What has she just heard that convinces her the pilgrims are ready for an interruption, unmediated by "Our Host," that answers some kinds of questions or adjusts some kinds of imbalances about "the woe that is in marriage"?
Four major tale orders survive, each posing the Wife's "answer" against a different male teller's implicit "question":

  1. the oldest manuscript puts her after the Cook's fragment, which ends the tale of a riotous apprentice's hell-bound career with the news that he had shacked up with a London buddy whose wife pretended to keep a shop but really was a prostitute;
  2. the "a" group manuscripts have the Wife answering the lawyer's tale of "Constance," who suffers countless indignities at the hands of numerous evil mothers-in-law until finally reunited with her son and husband by divine intervention, doing nothing at all to save herself except being a demure Christian woman;
  3. the "b" and "d" group manuscripts' "Wife" answers the Clerk's tale of Patient Griselda, whose husband tests her by pretending to execute her children before restoring them too her ("just testing you, honey!") and the Merchant's tale of an old knight married to a young wife who cuckolds him with the household's young squire;
  4. and the "c" group manuscripts put the Wife in the position of answering the Squire's sad tale of Canace, daughter of an oriental king, just after she has heard the marvelous tale of a falcon who has tried to kill herself because a male falcon betrayed her.

See a pattern here? How might that "front-load" the Wife's furious and lengthy tirade about how she dominated her first three husbands, how she and her third competed in adultery, drunkenness and violence, and how her fifth (Jankyn) almost killed her before she tamed him? And how might it shape the tale she tells about King Arthur's rapist knight and the "Loathely Lady" who tames him?  For a link to a list of all the Canterbury Tale orders, click here.  You do not have to master any or all of these approaches to the tale if you are reading it in a survey like English 211, but it is an interpretive opportunity you have before you if you are reading it in a seminar on the Canterbury Tales.  So many kinds of courses, so many ways to read.

Some additional textual issues you might find useful for anchoring papers:

        The Ellesmere Manuscript (created in the 15th century, after Chaucer's death) is the most beautiful MS of the Canterbury Tales.  It currently is held in a nitrogen-filled case at the Huntington Library, San Marino California.  To see the Huntington Library's image of the first page of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, illustrated with the scribal illustrator's version of the Wife, click here.  The library has a full-size black-and-white photographic facsimile of the entire Ellesmere MS in the Rare Books Room at OVERSIZE 826.2 C49Hca, 1997.

        Chaucer's short poem, "Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton" (Riverside Chaucer 655-6), tells its addressee (Sir Peter or Sir Robert Bukton?) that Chaucer dares write "no wikkednesse" of marriage, though he may explain "The sorwe and wo that is in mariage" (6).  However, he goes on to describe marriage as a trap which no unmarried man should risk, and advises him "The Wyf of Bathe I pray yow that ye rede / Of this matere that we have on honde" (29-30). 

        Why is the wife's tale so short, when compared with other Arthurian romances?  Or should we call it some other kind of tale?  To get some idea of the length and complexity of a typical, full-sized Arthurian romance, browse the photographic facsimile images of the Old French Prose Lancelot (13th century) from Beineke Library MS 229 at Yale University.  Scroll to the bottom of the introductory matter and click on any of the folio hyperlinks (e.g., "1r" which means the first folio, right or recto side of the leaf).  Double click on any image to blow it up to readable size or to view the many beautiful images with which it is illuminated.  No surviving Chaucer manuscripts, even the Ellesmere MS, come near this standard of book production.  The brief English summaries of the MS leaves' contents give you only the shortest summary of the various travels, conversations, battles, and miscellaneous narrative scenery which such a large "interlaced" romance contains.  How many narrative "strands" does the Wife's tale contain, and what does its structure enable her to do with it?  How might it compare with the structure and content of a typical "fairy" or "folk tale," and if that is its proper genre, what does that tell us about the Wife's narrative intentions?  [HINT!!]

        The "Wife of Bath's Tale" typically is seen as a relative of a cycle of tales involving the Arthurian knight, Gawain, in which he either confronts a huge and ugly male opponent in a beheading game (e.g., "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight") or must answer a question about what women most desire and winds up facing marriage to an ugly female who becomes beautiful after the wedding ("The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle").  In none of these tales is Gawain a rapist.  That is one of several unique contributions GC makes when adapting this tale for the Wife's telling.  What does that do for our view of the Wife's view of marital relations?  How would you (or feminist critics) rate the tale's "justice" for the rape victim?  For some important historical research in the English law defining and punishing "raptus" or rape, click here.  Remember that, like marriage or identity, "rape" as a crime is something society constructs, and societies tend to construct it differently in differing times and places.  In some times and places, it is presumed not to exist, though an outside observer might declare that actions awfully like rape are occurring quite often.  What is this tale's drama of rape and marriage?

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