Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - The Incredible Wife of Bath's Tale

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Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - The Incredible 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

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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


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