The Wife of Baths Tale Feminism Activity by ert634


The Wife of Bath’s Feminism Activity 
Senior Honors 
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue

Like Chaucer himself, the Wife of Bath is well read. The Wife of Bath’s
defense of her five marriages and her pursuit of a sixth rests upon her ability
to acknowledge the statements made by the church fathers on marriage and
virginity and offer her own interpretation of them. Below are several
passages from the writings of St. Paul and St. Jerome, two men whose
opinions about women the Wife specifically alludes to in her Prologue. In the
space below each example, find the passage in the Wife’s Prologue
where she makes references to these ideas about marriage and
virginity and write it in the space provided. How does the Wife’s opinion
differ from that of the teachings of the church fathers? On what issues does
she agree?

1. Should people remarry?
“The turtle, the chastest of birds, always dwelling in lofty places, is a type of
the Saviour. Let us read the works of naturalists and we shall find that it is
the nature of the turtle- dove, if it lose its mate, not to take another; and we
shall understand that second marriage is repudiated even by dumb birds.” --
St. Jerome: From “On the Song of Songs” from the Treatise Against
The Wife of Bath Responds:

2. Is marriage a necessary evil?
“But I say to the Unmarried and to widows, it is good for them if they abide
even as I [unmarried]. But if they have not continency [ability to refrain from
sex], let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." -- On Marriage
and Virginity from the Treatise Against Jovinian by St. Jerome
The Wife of Bath Responds:

3. Should one marry or remain single?
“He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he
may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of
the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a
wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord,
that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married
careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.” --
Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians
The Wife of Bath Responds:

4. What if everyone were a virgin?
“But you will say: "If everybody were a virgin, what would become of the
human race"? Like shall here beget like. If everyone were a widow, or
continent in marriage, how will mortal men be propagated?... Be not afraid
that all will become virgins: virginity is a hard matter, and therefore rare,
because it is hard: "Many are called, few chosen." Many begin, few
persevere. And so the reward is great for those who have persevered.” -- On
Marriage and Virginity from the Treatise Against Jovinian by St.
The Wife of Bath Responds:

5. Who should have the most power in a marriage: the wife or the
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For
the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church:
and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto
Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands,
love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it,
that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word,
that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or
wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So
ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife
loveth himself.” -- Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians
The Wife of Bath Responds:
Summarize the Wife's argument on marriage, using the following questions
as a guide.
• How does she refute the view that marriage is less virtuous than celibacy?
• What is the basis for her claim that wives should have authority over their
     husbands in marriage?
• How does she argue against her third husband's antifeminist accusations?
• How does this compare with the tactics she uses against her fifth husband,
• How does her frank attitude and love of life add to - or detract from - the
     force of her argument?

The Wife of Bath's Tale

The "Wife of Bath's Tale," which, unexpectedly, is not one of the bawdy
stories for which Chaucer is famous but is instead an Arthurian romance
based on a plot device familiar in fairy tales like "The Frog Prince"—the
transformation of an ugly mate.

After you have read the Wife's tale, consider first what might have led
Chaucer to give her this story to tell. Know that throughout The Canterbury
Tales, Chaucer generally gives his pilgrims tales that fit their character. Thus
the Knight, who is the noblest member of the group, recites a chivalric
romance, while the Miller, who is one of the commoners, tells a bawdy tale.
In other cases, Chaucer creates a dramatic motivation for his pilgrims' choice
of tales, as when the Friar's insulting tale of a summoner prompts the
Summoner to tell an insulting tale about a friar. Answer the following
questions about the Wife of Bath's Tale:

• To what extent does the Wife's tale seem appropriate to her character as it
      has been depicted?

• Does the tale reveal new or unexpected aspects of her character? Does it
      illuminate any of the very different relationships that she has
      experienced in marriage?

• The moral of the story seems to confirm her argument in the "Prologue,"
      that wives should have authority over their husbands, but the proof of
      the moral seems to come through magic. Are we to take the story at
      face value, or is it, in the truest sense, a "fairy tale"? How does this
      reflect on the Wife's character and opinions?

• Does Chaucer in this way represent the Wife as seeing herself as the
      "loathly lady" waiting for some loving husband to unlock the beauty
      inside her?

You may notice that the hag of the story seems to sound like the Wife of
Bath when she lectures her unwilling husband on "gentilesse", the innate
worthiness attributed to those of noble birth. Explore the hag's argument at
this point: that true "gentilesse" is a quality of character, not a result of
noble birth. Answer the following questions:

• To what extent does this argument confirm the moral order of medieval
      life, which placed spiritual values above worldly ones?
• To what extent does it undermine the medieval belief in natural hierarchy,
      which saw a feudal pattern governing all things?

• Note that the hag's argument cannot change her loathly appearance. That
      occurs when her husband refuses the choice between inner truth and
      outer beauty by giving the governance in their marriage to her. In
      doing so, does he reject the concept of a natural hierarchy, which
      gives men authority over women, and place his faith instead in a
      spiritual order? Or does he "say the magic words" in the fairy tale

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