By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The Wife of Bath is one of the most famous characters in all of Chaucer’s poetry, and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ remains a popular tale from The Canterbury Tales. But what can this tale tell us about medieval attitudes to women and marriage?
You can read ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in the original Middle English here before proceeding to our summary and analysis below.
‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’: plot summary
The Wife of Bath begins her tale with a long Prologue about herself, and her various marriages: she has had five husbands. She considers various people’s views of marriage but rejects all of them, drawing on her own experience to do so. The picture of her that emerges is a surprisingly spirited and independent woman for the fourteenth century: she has used her sexuality to earn money, and has clearly ‘worn the trousers’ in many of her marriages, making her husbands’ lives difficult.
She can clearly give as good as she has got where men are concerned, telling us that her fourth husband would lust after other women, but she cheated on him with a friend’s lodger. When the lecherous husband died, she married the lodger, but he beat her, calling her a wicked wife and using the authority of a conduct manual about good wifely behaviour to tell her off.
One day, when he struck her, she pretended to lie down dead, as though he had killed her, and he immediately broke down and swore to be ruled by her if she would only recover. She promptly got up and made him destroy his conduct book. Thereafter, they enjoyed the perfect marriage together.
Following this lengthy autobiographical preamble, the Wife of Bath gets around to telling her tale. It is set at the court of King Arthur. A young knight rapes a girl. Although he should be executed for his crime, the king lets the queen decide his fate. The queen gives the young man a year and a day to go and find out what it is women most desire; if he fails, he will be beheaded.
The knight leaves the court and travels around for a year, but fails to discover the answer to the queen’s question. On his way back to the court, ready to submit to his fate and accept his execution, he comes across an old hag in a forest. She tells him that she can give him the answer, but only on condition that he accepts the first request she makes of him. The desperate knight agrees, and the two of them travel back to court together.
The hag is presented before the king and queen, and answers the queen’s question: that what women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands and their lovers. The queen reveals that this is the correct answer to the question she posed to the knight, and his life is spared. But then the hag makes her request of him: that he must agree to marry her. He begs her to ask for something else, but she is having none of it. So they are married, and he must go to bed with her.
As they prepare to consummate the marriage, the hag lectures the knight on the meaning of true nobility and honour. She then gives him a choice: he can either have a wife who is ugly but faithful, or beautiful but unfaithful. He lets her make the decision, and she is transformed into a beautiful woman who will also be faithful to him: the best of both worlds. Because he has submitted to her will and let her have sovereignty over him, his reward is a wife who is both beautiful and true to him.
‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’: analysis
The Wife of Bath, when placed alongside Chaucer’s other female pilgrims and the women who feature in the other stories of The Canterbury Tales, may strike us as more iconoclastic and radical than she actually was. In truth, when Chaucer wrote ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in the late fourteenth century there was already a burgeoning body of anti-marriage literature, whose authors put forward much the same views about women and marriage as the Wife of Bath espouses.
Although some of the women in the other tales may seem meek and submissive, paragons of wifely virtue and patience, the Wife of Bath was not a complete outlier in Chaucer’s society. Rather, like his other pilgrims, she represents a certain type that was common in medieval English society, and embodies it thoroughly.
Of course, modern feminist critics can easily detect some serious problems with the plot of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’: a man violates a woman, is then spared death thanks to a woman (the queen), and is then provided with the means to clear himself of all charges thanks to another woman (the hag).
He has to give up his freedom and submit to being married to a hideous aged woman whose very touch and appearance he recoils from, but we might well respond that that serves him right, and he’s welcome to present his head beneath the executioner’s axe if he prefers. And in the end, simply by handing over his fate to the woman, he is rewarded with a beautiful and loyal wife. We can hardly view ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ as a cautionary tale against male violence towards women, when such a ‘punishment’ is promised.
However, through violating the woman, the knight essentially emasculates himself, so there is something more interesting going on in the gender power dynamics of this tale. In being caught having committed such a horrendous act, he has to submit to the king’s judgment, but the queen is instead given the power to decide his fate. He is then dependent on a woman to ‘rescue’ him and, in a sense, restore his masculinity – but only on an even footing with his wife, rather than by having the upper hand.
This is what makes ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ a startlingly modern tale for twenty-first-century readers: the Wife of Bath’s own life, and the tale she tells, both offer a vision of marriage in which men and women are given equal power rather than the husband having power over his wife.