An Analysis of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales": 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
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 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.
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,
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