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