An Analysis of Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale In reading Geoffrey Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," I found that of the Wife of Bath, including her prologue, to be the most thought-provoking. The pilgrim who narrates this tale, Alison, is a gap-toothed, partially deaf seamstress and widow who has been married five times. She claims to have great experience in the ways of the heart, having a remedy for whatever might ail it. Throughout her story, I was shocked, yet pleased to encounter details which were rather uncharacteristic of the women of Chaucer's time. It is these peculiarities of Alison's tale which I will examine, looking not only at the chivalric and religious influences of this medieval period, but also at how she would have been viewed in the context of this society and by Chaucer himself. During the period in which Chaucer wrote, there was a dual concept of chivalry, one facet being based in reality and the other existing mainly in the imagination only. On the one hand, there was the medieval notion we are most familiar with today in which the knight was the consummate righteous man, willing to sacrifice self for the worthy cause of the afflicted and weak; on the other, we have the sad truth that the human knight rarely lived up to this ideal(Patterson 170). In a work by Muriel Bowden, Associate Professor of English at Hunter College, she explains that the knights of the Middle Ages were "merely mounted soldiers, . . . notorious" for their utter cruelty(18). The tale Bath's Wife weaves exposes that Chaucer was aware of both forms of the medieval soldier. Where as his knowledge that knights were often far from perfect is evidenced in the beginning of Alison's tale where the "lusty" soldier rapes a young maiden; King Arthur, whom the ladies of the country beseech to spare the life of the guilty horse soldier, offers us the typical conception of knighthood. In addition to acknowledging this dichotomy of ideas about chivalry, Chaucer also brings into question the religious views of his time through this tale. The loquacious Alison spends a good deal of the prologue espousing her views regarding marriage and virginity, using her knowledge of the scriptures to add strength to her arguments. For instance, she argues that there is nothing wrong with her having had five husbands, pointing out that Solomon had hundreds of wives. In another debate, she argues that despite the teaching of the Church that virginity is "a greater good than the most virtuous of marriages," there is no biblical comment opposing marriage(Bowden 77). Even though these ideas may not seem so radical to today's reader, they would have been considered blasphemy to people of Chaucer's time (Howard 143). The tale itself raises another religious discussion of the time: Who should have the upper hand within a marriage? King Arthur gives the task of sentencing the nefarious knight to his wife, who proposes that his life will be spared if he can find the answer to the question: "What thing is it that wommen most desiren?" Following a fruitless search for the answer, the
knight happens upon a loathsome hag who forces the knight to marry her after she supplies the answer. After explaining that women covet power over their husbands most of all, the termagant begins her goal of obtaining just that. Here it is important to note that many of the people of England during this time would have abhorred the woman who attempted to gain sovereignty over her husband; for the Bible "definitely states that woman is to be subject to her husband"(Howard 143). Witnessing the young man in sorrow at his fate, the newlywed woman asks the knight if he would rather have her be old and faithful or young and possibly not. When he leaves the decision up to her, thus giving her authority over him, the hag is magically metamorphosed into a beautiful, young woman. Having analyzed the period of Chaucer and how it relates to the Wife of Bath's tale, an obvious question arises: How did Chaucer personally feel about this character which he created? Does he have the same contempt for this carnal dowager as the pious masses of the Middle Ages surely would have? Despite my twentieth century urge to laud Alison of Bath in her being unrepresentative of the stifling societal norms of fourteenth century England, I must admit that Chaucer was probably not very fond of the now revolutionary woman. Although I would like to think that Chaucer was a remarkably visionary man in setting forth this particular tale, there are signs which contradict this. For example, another of Chaucer's characters, the moral Clerk, offers a thorough rebuttal of the Wife's opinions. The fact that Chaucer would have used such a virtuous man to rebuke ideas which he himself championed is highly unlikely. Another detail which supports this opinion is that here we have a woman who relies heavily on scripture to support her radical stance, yet Chaucer allows her to err in her application. The mistake lies in her analogy of the loaves of bread in which she claims that it was Mark who said Jesus refreshed many men with barley bread; it was actually John who said this(Justman 125). While it may be true that my fellow students and I cheer the rather raunchy weaver, the prevailing standards of idealistic chivalry and religious misogyny of the Middle Ages kept the Wife of Bath from being heralded by most people of that same period -including her creator. Looking past my personal views which lead me to judge her by current standards, it can be said that despite her personal flaws, Alison's tale is the most original of all the pilgrims' accounts (Howard 141). Within the context of the Middle Ages, it was surely a journey beyond the realms of normalcy, possibly planting the seeds of feminism in the minds of some medieval mistresses.
Works Cited Bowden, Muriel. A Reader's Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964. Howard, Edwin J. Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Twayne Publishers, In., 1964. Justman, Stewart. "Literal and Symbolic in The Canterbury Tales."
Modern Critical Views on Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. Patterson, Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1991