Module 5: Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale”
After completing this module, you should be able to situate the Wife of Bath’s experience within a
range of accepted roles medieval women held in home, community, and church. You will also
examine the positions she recommends through her story and the relevance of her tale to gender
Canterbury Tales, “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “Tale” (Norton 253-81)
Middle-Age Women Exercise
Margery Kempe (who you'll meet in the next module) and the Wife of Bath are far from typical
women for their time; however, to understand how each stands apart from the assumptions and
expectations about gender most medieval readers brought with them we need to learn something
about the life of representative women, highborn and lowborn, living in the world or withdrawn from
Spend 15-20 minutes reading about Medieval Women at the interactive site hosted by McMaster
University. As you follow the travels of young Christine, you will learn about the opportunities and
barriers that women encountered in the Nunnery and the World. Take notes on anything that might
inform our reading of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”—details on work, education, marriage, or the life-
cycle of women—before proceeding to the e-Journal assignment.
Medieval Women Interactive
(If you have audio or video problems, you’ll find a Site Map of the main content with links to
Chaucer Goes to the Movies
While Dame Alison and her long, rambling tale have never made it to the silver screen, many of
the themes and questions she raises are commonplaces in Hollywood plotlines. Consider the
In Thelma & Louise (1991), director Ridley Scott begins his road picture with an act of violence
towards a woman. The immediate result of Thelma’s near-rape is the shooting of her smooth-
talking attacker, but the rest of the film follows both women in a journey of self-discovery. These
unlikely outlaws respond to the threat of violence and abuse by declaring their independence of
male authority (the Law) and seeking to educate the men they encounter about a woman’s need
Thelma’s Prologue clip
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), writer-actress Nia Vardalos explores the complicated needs
of an unmarried woman in a culture that prizes marriage above all else. As she says in the film’s
opening, “Nice sweet girls are supposed to do three things in life: marry Greek boys, make Greek
babies, and feed everyone until the day we die.” Through the rest of the film, Toula also
undergoes something of a quest as she seeks to understand what it is she truly wants from her life
and perhaps her marriage.
Toula’s Tale clip
As we prepare for our discussion of the Wife of Bath’s “Prologue” and “Tale,” begin thinking about
how Hollywood would respond to the tale’s central question: “what do women most desire.”
How did assumptions about gender affect the lives of women in the Middle Ages? Spend some
time reflecting on what you’ve learned and begin making connections with the hard-won experience
that Dame Alison describes in her prologue and tale.
Before moving on to the group discussion, open the word processing document below and
complete a short reflection on the following questions:
What opportunities or limitations did the religious life of a nunnery or convent
represent to medieval women? What specific regulations did women living in a
religious order abide by?
What opportunities or limitations governed the lives of medieval women in the larger
world? How did marriage, work, or religious piety order their lives?
What does the Wife of Bath’s “Prologue” tell us about how marriage affected these
opportunities or limitations? In what ways is it an apology or defense of her choices?
Choose 2 passages that illustrate your conclusions.
How does Chaucer’s portrait of the Wife in the “General Prologue” begin to develop
her complex character? After listening to a reading of this passage, choose 2
specific details that suggest elements of her character which are developed further in
the Wife of Bath’s “Prologue” and “Tale.” What do these details suggest about the
lives of medieval women?
To turn in this assignment, simply send me an e-mail with the subject ENGL 221 Journal 5.
Please do not send your work as an attachment; instead, simply COPY and PASTE your journal
into the text of the message. Remember to save a backup copy of this file to include later in your
After completing your e-Journal, respond to one of the following prompts in the Wife of Bath’s
Tale forum on the Group Discussion Board.
Each 2-3 paragraph post should address some element of the reading directly. Your response
should present an idea or insight from your reading and then provide at least 2 examples from the
text (briefly quoted or summarized) to illustrate or support your observation.
The Wife of Bath’s “Tale” begins with an act of violence. Discuss how the characters
from Thelma & Louise—or another recent film—have responded to violence at the
hands of men. Have these women challenged or rebelled against male dominance or
have they negotiated some truce with male authority? How does the Wife of Bath
respond to male authority in her marriage(s)? How does she respond to male
authority from the pulpit or other religious texts? Is Chaucer a feminist questioning
cultural attitudes or a misogynist enjoying anti-feminist stories?
Chaucer was hardly the first person to ask “what women want.” Discuss how
characters from My Big Fat Greek Wedding—or another recent film—have answered
this question. How do these recent responses coincide with or contradict those
represented by the Wife’s “Prologue” or “Tale”? Do passages like the one on page
274 (lines 919-950) seem personally appropriate to the Wife or stereotypical? What
is the Wife suggesting women want by the end of her tale? Is it really “sovereignty”
or is there something else?
Hollywood was engaging the Wife’s question long before Mel Gibson’s recent movie
What Women Want (2000). Discuss how 1 or 2 films we haven’t mentioned address
some other theme raised in the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue” or “Tale.” After describing
one or more specific scenes from the film(s), draw some conclusions about what it is
that women or men want out of marriage, relationships, or life today. Then show how
this answer or theme responds to at least one passage from the reading.
*In addition to your posting, you will also need to reply to the responses of the other members of
your discussion group.