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An analysis of chaucers the wife of baths tale

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


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


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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