E211 Fall 2010 Students' Blog

Sarah Bass on Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Prologue

Published by admin_main on Fri 03 Sep, 2010

How does the Wife of Bath oppose the patriarchal “auctoritee” (authority) of the bible and the Church fathers—what basic contrast does she make between herself and men who have written about marriage and sexuality?

1. First point: The Wife of Bath believes that it is experience, not authority (education) that should be respected in society and by her fellow travelers.

A. Lines 1-6 Allison clearly announces her experience in marriage as she is one of the oldest members of the party and she has had five different husbands. Members of the church were not allowed to marry; therefore they were least knowledgeable on the subjects of sexuality and marriage. The wife of Bath argues that because she has experienced five “schools” of husbands that she should have the authority of the subject marriage. This message is echoed in her tale as the knight seeks the answer to the question “what is it that women desire most”, however as a knight he would look to authority (men and clergy) for advice not women (experience). Therefore he does not receive the true answer till he comes to terms with the old hag, which by far has the most experience as a woman and therefore truly knows what a woman desires most. In a similar fashion, Although Allison lacks an education, it is practicality, life experience and street smarts that determine her intelligence and wisdom and so this old hag is the authority of marriage and of sexuality (174).

Experience, though noon auctoritee<br> Were in this world, is right ynogh for me <br> To speke of wo that is in mariage; <br> For, lordynges, sith I twelve yeer was of age, <br> Thonked be God that is eterne on lyve, <br>

Housbondes at chirche dore I have had fyve,—lines 1-6

B. After increasing her authority, Allison then argues that education is essentially worthless when compared to practical experience. The authorities of the church interpret the text and spin the words to support their arguments; their gloss (or interpretation) covers the text, taking away from its intended meaning (26-34). She however will tell the truth and show her audience the practical reality of life, which is that women and men were made for sex (God bade us to increase and multiply). But unfortunately her authority is undermined because although she has had many sexual relations she has born no children. Furthermore Allison too uses glossing to prove her point, revealing her hypocritical and flawed nature.

Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age <br> Upon this nombre diffinicioun. <br> Men may devyne and glosen, up and doun, <br> But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye, <br> God bad us for to wexe and multiplye; <br> That gentil text kan I wel understonde. <br> Eek wel I woot, he seyde myn housbonde <br> Sholde lete fader and mooder, and take to me. <br> But of no nombre mencion made he, <br> Of bigamye, or of octogamye; <br>

Why sholde men thanne speke of it vileynye? (Lines 26-34)

Because the bible was written in Latin, a language incomprehensible to uneducated English speakers, many clergymen could easily distort the message of the bible to their own benefit. This is a theme that reoccurs in Chaucer’s tales, where clergymen themselves often lack the ability to read Latin and so would make up tales in-order to scam others into giving donations or use pseudo-Latin phrases to give of the air of intelligence and education. The Wife of Bath dares her audience, which is comprised of many holy men, to show her the page where the bible bans multiple marriages, because one should not preach without support for their argument. Glossing is also discussed in lines 692-710:

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who? <br> By God! if wommen hadde writen stories, <br> As clerkes han withinne hire oratories, <br> They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse <br> Than al the mark of adam may redresse. <br> The children of mercurie and of venus <br> Been in hir wirkyng ful contrarius; <br> Mercurie loveth wysdam and science, <br> And venus loveth ryot and dispence. <br> And, for hire diverse disposicioun, <br> Ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun. <br> And thus, God woot, mercurie is desolat <br> In pisces, wher venus is exaltat; <br> And venus falleth ther mercurie is reysed. <br> Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed. <br> The clerk, whan he is oold, and may noght do <br> Of venus werkes worth his olde sho, <br> Thanne sit he doun, and writ in his dotage<br>

That wommen kan nat kepe hir mariage! (Lines 692-710)

If the lion painted the picture who would be the villain? A lion is ferocious in man’s eyes, but the lion would paint itself as noble/good and man as a beast. Allison concludes that if women had authority over the bible, they would tell many tales of men more wicked and evil than women are. It is all a matter of gloss, or perspective/interpretation. The bible is the gloss of mankind, a device used to keep women in their place and to paint the woman as the root of all of society’s problems. But women, like Venus, merely desire love and pleasure. The Wife of bath claims that Venus is the authority of Pisces, (a constellation of two fish bound together by rope like the yoke of marriage). No matter how old the clerk is, he will never have the experience of what it means to be a woman, and therefore he should have no authority in his opinion of marriage.

However, these examples again diminish Allison’s argument because the God of love, as described in the Knight’s tale is not merely a symbol of pleasure and goodness. It is the root of jealousy, envy, narcissism, broken hearts, lust, lies and yearning. And Mercury, the God of merchandise and trade, symbolizes that marriage is not a holy institution because it is merely a matter of property and goods-a financial agreement. This idea is described in lines (151-159) in which debt and exchange is used to describe marriage (a philosophy further supported in the Shipman’s tale).

2. After attempting to demolish the authority of the church, Allison then argues against the church’s lack of acceptance of her practices and of women in general. Making the claims that God had intended people to have sex and bear children, so love and sex should not be looked down upon(A). Furthermore she argues that it is not sinful to remarry multiple times because God allowed men like Solomon, Abraham and Jacob to have multiple wives (B). Look at lines 60-72:

A: That hye God defended mariage <br> By expres word? I pray yow, telleth me. <br> Or where comanded he virginitee? <br> I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede, <br> Th’ apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede, <br> He seyde that precept therof hadde he noon. <br> Men may conseille a womman to been oon, <br> But conseillyng is no comandement. <br> He putte it in oure owene juggement; <br> For hadde God comanded maydenhede, <br> Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede. <br> And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe, <br>

Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe? (Lines 60-72)

Men use God’s word to promote the value of female virginity, but this is not entirely what God intended. If all women were virgins then how could the human race be fruitful and multiply? And if virginity was so holy, wouldn’t God call marriage a sin? Instead he praises marriage and reproduction, sure virginity is good and pure, but not all people can be of white bread (a symbol of nobility as it was an expensive commodity).This is discussed in lines142-150. Jesus was not of noble birth, he was barley bread, and yet he was also the bread of life and of salvation. Therefore she may not be a virgin, or of white bread, but she is still valuable to society. Ironically the idea of her “instrument” being compared Jesus’s message that ‘The bread which he gave is his flesh’ is extremely scandalous to her medieval audience, as it is used to satisfy a very different hunger. Lust may be one of the seven deadly sins, but as Allison describes in lines 115-124, god has clearly created pleasure in the form of the genitals so why not celebrate his creation:

A. I nyl envye no virginitee. <br> Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed, <br> And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed; <br> And yet with barly-breed, mark telle kan, <br> Oure lord jhesu refresshed many a man. <br> In swich estaat as God hath cleped us <br> I wol persevere; I nam nat precius. <br> In wyfhod I wol use myn instrument <br>

As frely as my makere hath it sent. (lines 142-150)

A. Telle me also, to what conclusion <br> Were membres maad of generacion, <br> And of so parfit wys a wight ywroght? <br> Trusteth right wel, they were nat maad for noght. <br> Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun, <br> That they were maked for purgacioun <br> Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale <br> Were eek to knowe a femele from a male, <br> And for noon oother cause,—say ye no? <br>

The experience woot wel it is noght so. (lines 115-124)

This basically says that the church tells people that our genitalia is purely for marking our sex and for excreting urine, but in her experience this clearly is not so. (The practical truth is that they were made for procreation and pleasure)

B. To justify her multiple marriages, Allison conjures the examples of Solomon, Abraham and Jacob to show that the bible does not mention bigamy or the wrongs of marrying multiple times. But are these actually good examples? Solomon was believed to be led astray by his many wives. Abraham’s marriage too had many tribulations and complications because Sarah, his wife coveted and despised Hagar because of her ability to bear children (Sarah had the authority of the household). And finally Jacob had to labor 14 years to gain his two wives, each of which (Leah and Rachel) resented each other’s presence as Leah bore lots of sons (which made Rachel jealous)and Rachel was the favored wife, although she was younger.

3. The Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale initiate the debate about the nature of authority in marriage, which is later discussed in the “Merchant’s Tale”, the “Shipman’s Tale” and the “Franklins’ Tale”.

In her tale, the Wife of Bath claims that in marriage “{w}ommen desiren to have sovereynetee| As wel over hir housbond as hir love,| And for to been in maistrie hym above” (Chaucer 1038-1040). However, Chaucer seems to suggest that true female sovereignty can only be achieved by causing her husband constant “tribulacion” through her ability to control him through her harsh words and constant hen-pecking. But although this model for authority in marriage gives women what they desire most, it does not create a happy or true marriage. The idea that women receive power in marriage from their unsurpassed ability “swere and lyen” (lines223-228) is further seen in the Merchant’s Tale as the Goddess “Proserpyne” is said to give all women the ability to avoid their husbands rule, through the creation of a “suffisant answere {…}That, though they be in any gilt ytake, |With face boold they shulle hemself excuse,| And bere hem doun that wolden hem accuse” (Chaucer 2266-2270). (a sufficient answer, so that the guilty could easily excuse herself from accusation)

For, God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. <br> Now herkneth hou I baar me proprely, <br> Ye wise wyves, that kan understonde. <br> Thus shulde ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde; <br> For half so boldely kan ther no man <br> Swere and lyen, as a womman kan. <br> I sey nat this by wyves that been wyse, <br>

But if it be whan they hem mysavyse. (lines 223-230)

Therefore both these tales seem to suggest that although man believes he has authority because he is “blynd” by his love and jealousy (Chaucer 1598), it is actually woman who has control in the relationship because of her ability to use words to wound and deflect her husband. Nevertheless, these arguments on the nature of marriage are not Chaucer’s alone, they instead seem to be inspired by an earlier text (by Jehan le Fevre of Resson) which presented a whole series of dilemmas about marriage (in his Lamentations de Matheolus): if you marry for children, they may cost you worry and calamity; if you marry for money, you get an intolerable tyrant; if you take a lowly wife, she is sure to become the more arrogant because of her improved fortune; and as for a beautiful wife, she can’t be guarded, and besides she loses her charms all too soon and becomes ugly” (Schlauch, 18). This is philosophy which is mentioned in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (lines 251-264).

Consequently although “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” can be read as a feminist text becuase it argues that women should have authority in marriage, it is inherently sexist as its indirectly supports the church’s message that the folly of women is the reason behind the unhappiness of marriage, as their sins of lust and extravagance cause their husband’s shame and unrest. Chaucer seems to generalize all women (even Goddesses like Persephone), as the source of corruption in the, otherwise, holy institution of marriage. As seen in the end of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” (and arguably, in “The Clerk’s Tale”) when a woman “obeyed hym {her husband} in every thyng |That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng.| And thys they lyve unto hir lyves ende | In parfit joye” (Chaucer, 1255-1258)Translation:When a women obeys her husband in everything, that might be to his pleasure or liking, they will live to their lives end in unsurpassed joy.? However Allison’s husband Jankien also shows that while women may be hen-pecking shrews, husbands can be equally awful as their jealousy and anger ruin the happiness of marriage. Therefore, the prologue points to woman as the true authority in marriage, but the immorality of women and men cause marriage’s corruption.

Works Cited

Schlauch, Margaret. The Marital Dilemma in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. New York: Modern Language Association, 1946. JSTOR. Web. 11 May 2010.< http://www.jstor.org/stable/459357>.

Beidler, Peter G. ed. The Wife of Bath: Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism. NY: Bedford Books, 1996.

Chaucer, Geoffery. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Larry D. Benson. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. ___Print

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