Chaucer`s : The Wife of Bath`s Prologue and Tale

Graduate Course
Chaucer's : The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
Chaucer's England
Chaucer's Life and Works
A Comment on the General Prologue
The Portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
The Portrait of the Wife of Bath in Her Prologue and Her Tale
An Introduction to the Wife of Bath's Prologue
Textual Analysis of the Wife's Prologue
An Introduction to the Wife of Bath's Tale
Textual Analysis of the Wife's Tale
Appendix A
A Quick Look at the Sequence of Events
Appendix B
Some Important Literary Terms
Appendix C
Suggestions for further reading
Appendix D
Some Questions
Prepared by:
Dr. Neeta Gupta
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Academic Session 2012-13 (1000 copy)
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haucer is one of the earliest known great poets, who wrote in English. Though medieval
English is a little difficult to understand at a first glance, yet it does not take away much
from the delight and pleasure that Chaucer's poetry has to offer and especially so The
Canterbury Tales. To make the task a bit easier however, it would be advisable to use a good
annotated edition of the prescribed text. From The Canterbury Tales you have The Wife of Bath's
Prologue and Tale in course this year. You can use any edition listed in Appendix C of this Study
Material and if you still feel the need to read a translated version of the text, the best choice would be
Nevill Coghill's translation of The Canterbury Tales, published by Penguin Books Limited. But remember
that for your English Honours course you have to read the text in original.
This Study Material is divided into various chapters. The first two will acquaint you with Chaucer's
socio-historical background and also supply information regarding a few biographical details. The same
also includes a brief look at Chaucer's varied literary output. An analysis of the Wife's character as
portrayed in the General Prologue and as it emerges through her own Prologue and Tale forms a part of
the next two chapters. The main text i.e. The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale is analyzed next where
beginning with the Prologue an introduction to the same is followed by a detailed textual analysis. To
facilitate easy comprehension of this lengthy narrative the Prologue has been divided into three sections.
Line numbers indicate passages taken up for analysis. A brief summary is followed by a detailed
paraphrase of the lines under consideration, which in turn is followed by critical comments on those lines.
Lastly, explanatory notes are given which will help you to understand Chaucerian English as well as
various allusions that are included in the narrative. The same method of analysis is followed for the
Wife's Tale as well.
You must read the critical comments on the passages very carefully since all points regarding the
narrative techniques, the Wife's character, the intermingling of various genres, the improvisation on the
source material, the imagery etc have been covered in these comments. In addition to this textual analysis
you can make use of secondary material on Chaucer that is available in plenty. Appendix C of this Study
Material includes a list of books and articles that can prove helpful. A few essays from this list have been
made available to you as Reading Material and are being sent separately.
Apart from Appendix C there are three other Appendices in this Study Material. The first of these,
i.e. Appendix A, makes your task of remembering the sequence of events a bit easier. Appendix B
explains some of the literary terms that have been used in the course of our analysis and lastly Appendix
D contains some questions that will test your understanding of the text.
Chaucer's England
ou may take one look at Chaucer's poetry and wonder why you are expected to read it? Not
only is the English archaic and therefore almost beyond easy comprehension, but you may
even think why read a poet at all who lived and wrote almost six centuries ago? What can
we have in common with a man from the fourteenth-century? Granted that he was one of
the first great poets of the English language, but is that reason enough to worry our heads over the archaic
spellings and the difficult vocabulary, which mark Chaucer's poetry ? Poetry, which should be a pleasant
and leisurely reading, is here made laborious and difficult when accompanied by the constant activity of
reading footnotes and referring to the glossary to search for meaning. This exercise may be laborious and
tedious but it is precisely one of the very important reasons for reading Chaucer as it enables us to see
how the English language developed.
As a result of the Norman Conquest, French became the language of law and administration in
thirteenth century. English gradually lost its hold and prestige. Of course it was still the spoken language
but was less used for educational purposes. Gradually it lost even the standard spellings that had evolved
in the late Anglo-Saxon times. It came to be written more phonetically, according to the local dialects. To
this English Chaucer granted many French words and a few words of Latin and Italian too. His English
comes close to Modern English, which begins taking shape around the sixteenth century. But Chaucer
takes the credit of being one of the first earliest known and great poets to write in English instead of
French and Latin which were supposed to be the language of the literate. Chaucer's contribution to the
English language, therefore becomes one of the most important reasons for reading his poetry.
Once you do get down to reading Chaucer, and especially The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
which has been prescribed, you will realize that though not easy it is also not very difficult. As you read
on another fact that emerges is the surprising extent to which you will be able to identify with the satirical
spirit of the work. Chaucer may be writing of medieval personages, but the kind of things he criticizes, be
it human behaviour or corruption in places high and low, position of women or the increasing materialistic
attitude, they seem to be all too familiar. In fact, the strains of feminism that you will see in the Wife's
character as well as in her Prologue and Tale will amaze you because of its modern relevance. Chaucer
sure was one poet who could look very far ahead of his times to give us one of the earliest feminists. So
early in fact that feminism as a movement was many years away. This is true of the General Prologue as
well, which is a collection of pen portraits. In these portraits you will find that the atmosphere being
reflected is something close to what it is in our present century. The same kind of questioning spirit,
skepticism, loss of faith, increase in corruption, greed for material goods, desire for upward mobility, is
there in Chaucer's portraits. By now you must be curious to know more about an age which is so far back,
yet so similar to our own. Moreover, for the purpose of analyzing Chaucer's poetry, it is the next logical
step. We all know that the literature of a period reflects that particular age and if the work under
consideration is a satire, as Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is, it becomes all the more necessary for us to find
out more about the Age which is being thus exposed and satirized.
The one word that describes the Middle Ages is 'change'. It was a change from the old to the new,
from medieval to modern, from feudalism to capitalism, from town to city, from a king by Divine right to
a king who proves himself most able. There were many developments taking place; aristocracy was on the
decline, the increase in trade had given rise to capitalism, which made for greater social mobility of the
classes. Serfdom was being abolished. The spread of schooling had increased the number of literate
people, and men now being able to read the Bible on their own, had begun to question the Church. In fact
it was an age of rapid transitions, of achievements as well as disasters.
On the, political front, England's victories began at Crecy, when the English routed the French in the
Year 1346. This was followed immediately by the crushing defeat of the Scotch at Neville's Cross and the
tempo was kept up when after another ten years, on Sept. 19, 1356, the Black Prince won another brilliant,
victory over the French near Poitiers.
These were the years of amazing good fortune for England. It reigned supreme on land as well as
sea and the proud Englishman was exposed to the new feelings of nationalism and patriotism. But it was
too good to last and too difficult to maintain. The downfall began in the year 1367 when England went to
war with Spain. Though the Black Prince won the battle at Najera, yet the victory was fruitless and the
war with Spain dragged on for many years incurring heavy losses. By the year 1385, there was such a
reversal in the military situation that the threat of the French invasion made the Englishman tremble with
While on the one hand the picture of 'Merry England' is associated with Medieval England, with
happiness and prosperity all around, on the other hand it was one of the most strife-torn times in the
history of the country. Not only were there political setbacks, there were ravages of Nature too in the form
of disease and pestilence and the most dreaded of them all the Plague or the Black Death as it is
commonly referred to struck England in the year 1348. Beginning in Dorchester it spread rapidly from
one town to another, claiming innumerable lives as it went. As though the loss of lives in the first
visitation of this appalling calamity was not enough, it returned to strike three times in the course of the
century and swept with it nearly half the population of England.
At first prices fell sharply because people had forgotten to set much store by material goods. But
gradually, the pendulum swung to the other extreme and money once again recovered the purchasing
power it had in the former years. The rising prices made the gulf between the rich and the poor, even more
wide and the worst sufferers were the laborers whose wages, which had not been increased at all, were
now not enough even to help them survive. After the year of the Black Death, the labour began
demanding higher wages, and since there was shortage of hands due to the heavy loss of life in the plague,
these labourers got what they demanded. It was with a mind to curb the unreasonable demands of these
labourers, that in the year 1349, the king issued a proclamation, forbidding the payment of a higher wages
than had been given before. The next Parliament passed the famous Statute of Labourers. Though this
statute attempted to fix the wages of the laborers as well as the prices of essential commodities, yet the
cunning tradesmen thwarted the latter aim. The laborers sought for ways and means to improve their lot.
They disregarded their allegiance to their lord or manor and moved from place to place in search of better
wages. Thieving and robbing were on the increase. Discontent grew and spread fast culminating in the
famous uprising of 1381, also known as the Peasant's Revolt.
Trade unionism and the labor movements of the later years were foreshadowed in this uprising. For
three days England had a bitter taste of the fury of the discontented masses. Many people were massacred.
The poor peasants, being denied even the minimum sustenance, attacked the house of the rich in a fit of
rage. John of Gaunt's palace was raised to the ground. The king made a show of promise of granting them
pardon, but once the rebels had returned back home he revoked his orders and there followed widespread
execution of the rebels all over England. Chaucer's Ploughman in the General Prologue is indeed an ideal
and not factual portrait of a member of the labouring class.
While we see such abject poverty on the one hand, on the other there was a sudden influx of wealth
due to growing trade and commerce and also due to the plundering brought from the various wars that
England won. People apart from the aristocracy or landed gentry, were now becoming rich. The feudal
set-up was breaking up thus leading to fluidity in classes and a greater social mobility. Now it was not
necessary that a serf would remain a serf. Trade had brought with it the promise of wealth and the
corresponding rise in capitalism gave rise to new standards of living. Chaucer, too, in his General
Prologue has included various people to represent these rising merchant classes - there is the Shipman, the
Five Guildsmen, the Wife of Bath, the Manciple, the Merchant and so on. But one interesting fact about
these people is that they seem to be indulging in a lot of extravagances. As far as the Five Guildsmen are
concerned, Chaucer is careful to point out that they are dressed above their station having even their
knives tipped with silver thus drawing our attention to a very interesting development of the times.
Extravagance in the area of dress and of food had grown to disgusting limits. In fact the literature of the
times is full of humorous and satirical descriptions of the clothes people wore and the food they ate. To
control this situation the Parliament had issued an ordinance regulating the kind of clothing for all ranks in
society and also for regulating the diets of certain classes in society. Of course one need not add that the
system did not work and so we find Chaucer's Guildsmen flourishing their silver tipped knives.
Society in Chaucer's times was becoming increasingly materialistic and people did not fail to use
dishonest means. The Reeve and Manciple are just two of the many examples from Chaucer's gallery who
can illustrate this point. But dishonesty and corruption at the level of the Church had become so rampant
that frequently the satirist aimed to bark at this institution of fourteenth century England. Even Chaucer is
most critical of the ecclesiastical characters among his pilgrims, and not without reasons. The churchmen
who preached a spirit of sacrifice had become greedy and self-seeking. Those who were to be the epitome
of discipline, sharing and teaching others to have respect for authority were now themselves showing a
complete disregard and contempt of authority. The begging Friars were able to extort money even from
the needy, the wicked pardoner cheated the people by selling fraudulent relics (just as Chaucer's Pardoner
does). The Monks were harsh landlords and the parish priests were shirkers of duty. Chaucer's poor
Parson is an idealized portrait just as the Ploughman was earlier.
Apart from the rise in commerce there was a rapid growth in another direction as well. Literacy was
on the rise with a rapid spread of schooling, and it was no longer the privilege of the clerics or clergy
only. In the latter half of the fourteenth century, literate laymen were abundant in number. But the
shortage of books was keenly felt since printing was not possible. The printing press, which was in a
sense, the greatest invention of the age, was still many years away. For the time being, books were
circulated in manuscript form and copies were made by hand. It was a tedious and laborious process
where scribes were especially employed for the purpose. Often they made mistakes and if a copy was
made from a copy, these mistakes were carried further. At times a mistake even if noticed, was not
corrected because it would mean spoiling the looks of a whole page. Thus an untidy manuscript was far
more reliable than one which was absolutely clean and beautiful. This process of copying books by hand
thus led to variations in each copy, and today, if we try to reconstruct say Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, it
would mean taking about eighty manuscripts into accounts. We can understand therefore, why books were
such priceless possessions in Chaucer's England and were even bequeathed in wills. While on the subject
of Education it is worth mentioning, the two very important contributions that fourteenth century England
made in this direction. The new college system was introduced for the first time in England and the Inns
of Court for the study of law were opened where Chaucer is supposed to have studied for a few years.
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer puts before us a picture of this society in which medieval ideals
were breaking down and as Dudley French writes, "had become so old fashioned that only a few quixotic
persons any longer allowed them to interfere with their materialistic purposes." Excitement and
apprehension about the coming age, and nostalgia for the passing values are both mingled in The
Canterbury Tales to make it a true picture of fourteenth century England.
Chaucer's England
erhaps' and 'probably', are two words which would accompany any account of Chaucer's life
because there is a considerable amount of conjecture involved in filling up the gaps between
the surviving records which form the concrete evidence. One of the earliest such records,
where Chaucer's name first appears, has survived just by a matter of chance, in a couple of
papers used for binding up another book. These leaves, when discovered in 1851 after oblivion of nearly
five centuries, were found to contain scraps of accounts about various people being given ribbons and
robes worth a certain amount. The records belong to the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, wife
of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, who was the third son of King Edward III. It is here that Chaucer is
mentioned for the first time when it is noted in the accounts that 'Galfridus' (Latin for Geoffrey) Chaucer,
was given on Monday 4 April, 1357, a 'paltok' or short cloak, costing four shillings, plus a pair of red and
black breeches and a pair of shoes which cost his lady a further three shillings. Chaucer was probably a
page in the household and was being given his bright new clothes for Easter, which fell on 9 April that
year. By this time he was probably seven seventeen years old or Rear about that since his birth is
conjectured to be somewhere near 1340.
Though born and bred in London, Geoffrey Chaucer belonged to a family of wine merchants who
can be traced to the town of Ipswich. It is thought that the family was of French origin because of their
name Chaucer which in French 'Chaucier' means 'hose-makers.' They were, however, vintners having
property in and around London. Both Chaucer's father and his grandfather are known to have served the
King at various times performing the duty of collecting the King's customs.
Not much is known about the poet's grandfather Robert Chaucer, except that he was a vintner,
owned property in Ipswich, was deputy to the King's chief butler in 1308 and 1310 and married a widow
Mary, from the affluent family of the Westhales. They had a son John, born in 1313. He carried on the
family business of a vintner and inherited the entire property. It was with a desire to acquire this property
that John Chaucer's aunt i.e. Robert's sister, made an attempt to abduct him in order to marry him off to
her daughter Joan. The attempt was foiled and the abductors were sued at Law. It is in the records of this
case that we find John Chaucer being mentioned at an early age. John later married a wealthy widow, a
certain Agnes, who brought with bet more property and the family prospered further. It is probably in
their house on Thames Street, that Geoffrey Chaucer was born to them, perhaps in the year 1340.
No record survives of the poet's early years and we can only conjecture about how and when
Chaucer received the education that fitted him for his career as a courtier and a poet. The first concrete
evidence shows him to be already employed as a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster.
Chaucer's life as a page would have taught him many things. The polite manners and elaborate etiquette of
the gentlefolk would have been observed and learned by him while waiting at the table. Keeping his eyes
and ears open he probably picked up many scandalous and comic stories as well. His interest in music can
be traced back to these years, but being a literate he, while listening to the songs and romances, also read
them for himself, both in English and French. His remarkable memory for the poems of the continental
French poet Machaut, evidences in the Book of the Duchess. It was here that he was given instruction in
military training. His life as a page offered him ample opportunity to observe human behavior minutely
and probably just like the pilgrim Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, he went about his job quite
Subsequent records show Chaucer serving under three different Kings in non-poetic capacity. The
amount of tact, diplomacy and adaptability required to have equally good relations with three different
monarchs, is anybody's guess and we can form a rough estimate of the kind of person Chaucer might have
been to have succeeded in this difficult job. Records show that he accompanied King Edward on his
invasion of France; was a diplomat to the continent trying to establish peaceful relations between France
and England; went to Italy in 1372 - a journey which was to influence his literary career; was appointed
comptroller of customs in 1374, and was legal guardian to young Edmund Staplegate of Kent and to the
heir of the late John Solys. He probably even went to France to negotiate a marriage between the French
Princess and Richard II, but was not successful. Chaucer's own marriage was however, with a certain
Phillipa Roet. His marriage was another step towards a further advancement in court because Philippa was
in direct attendance to the Queen as one of her 'domicellae.' She was the daughter of Sir Payne Roet, a
knight of Hainaut and King of Arms of Guienne in the reign of Edward III.
Having served as comptroller of customs, Chaucer was appointed one of the Justices of Peace for
Kent on October 12, 1385 and in 1386 he was elected Knight of the Shire for Kent. It is around this time
that we find Chaucer engaged in hectic literary activity since the three of his greatest works have been
dated to this period of his life. Troilus and Criseyde was written between 1382 - 1385; the Legend of
Good Women probably in 1385 or 1386 and The Canterbury Tales was begun around 1387. It is quite
likely that he voluntarily resigned from his duties as a comptroller of customs to devote more time to his
writing, for records show that around this time he vacated his office as well as the house over Aldgate. He
took up residence in the country. During the latter part of the year 1387, Chaucer's wife passed away, but
the poet did not marry again. His leisure was however encroached upon once again when on July 12, 1389
he was appointed clerk of the King's works. This job though remunerative, involved a lot of personal
attention and claimed much of Chaucer's time and energy. He held the post for two years and since it
involved a great amount of risk to life, he relinquished his job on June 17, 1391. The new position he now
took up was as sub-forester of the King's park in Somersetshire.
Around this time however, Chaucer's good fortune seemed to be ebbing slowly. There are records to
prove that he borrowed small sums of money and in April 1398, a certain Isabella Buckholt sued him for a
debt of £14. But the evidence is not adequate enough to prove that in the last decade of his life Chaucer
was in serious financial difficulties. Moreover his favour at court was strong enough to have any of his
petitions granted to him. In October of the year 1398, his petition for a daily butt of wine was granted
immediately by King Richard. This was however, the last of Richard's gifts to his 'beloved esquire' for in
1399, Henry IV usurped his throne.
Chaucer received favours from this new King as well. In December 1399, Chaucer made another
change of residence to Westminster Abbey and died in this house on October 25, 1400. He was buried at
Westminster Abbey.
Chaucer began his literary career by translating Roman de la Rose, a French composition begun by
Guillaume de Lorris and completed by Jean Clopinel. By translating a French work, Chaucer was only
following the prevalent fashion but his next work which was an elegy on the death of Queen Blanche, the
wife of John of Gaunt, was his own composition. The Book of the Duchess was accompanied by three
other short poems Pity, Complaint to his Lady, and A.B.C. All these poems were modeled on French
ideals of poetry. In the next group of poems we find Chaucer branching off into narrative verse for the
first time. Life of S. Cecilia and Stories of Griselda and Constance show an increasing confidence in the
language and also certain touches of humor which were later to form an integral part of Chaucer's poetry.
Twelve Tragedies and The Complaint of Mars intervene between the writing of his second great
work i.e. Troilus and Cressida. Meanwhile he translated De Consolation Philosophiae of Boethius. Then
came The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowles, both marriage poems written with a
characteristic touch of Chaucerian irony and humour. His next ambitious attempt was The Legend of Good
Women, but the tale of Palamon and Arcite is alluded to in the prologue to the Legend and is perhaps one
of Chaucer's finest works. The Legend of Good Women was abandoned after he had written nine of the
nineteen tales planned. The idea of having a number of tales linked by some device had already taken
shape in Chaucer's mind. The Canterbury Tales though left unfinished, were a successful rendering of this
same idea. This was his last important work and its writing spread over many years. Chaucer wrote a few
other short poems apart from these - The Former Age, Fortune, Truth, Gentilesse, Lak of Stedfastness are
minor poems. Then there are the three ballads which are usually called The Complaint of Venus, the
Envoy to Scogan, the Envoy to Bukton and the Compleynt of Chaucer to his Purse which was most
certainly his last work, complete the long list of his literary achievement.
The Canterbury Tales is undoubtedly Chaucer's most well known and often read work. With the
General Prologue in part and with The Canterbury Tales on the whole, Chaucer ushered into the world of
poetry, new subjects and new methods of treatment. This was perhaps his greatest achievement because
when he began to write, the adventures and romances of the knights and ladies had begun to lose their
charm. Chaucer drew upon reality, upon people he met daily and who were familiar figures to everyone
because they were English people and not figures drawn from French, Italian or Latin literature. Not only
were the subjects new, Chaucer's method of treating them was new as well. He introduced the
conversational tone into English poetry. His easy flowing metre succeeded in removing the monotony and
complications that were there earlier in the octosyllabic couplets and long involved stanzas. Chaucer's
seven-line stanza and ten or eleven syllabled couplets were refreshing. His gentle humour and seemingly
serious but jesting manner makes Chaucer a delight to read. As a teller of tales and as a painter of pen
portraits Chaucer remains unsurpassed even today.
In this prolific poetic career Chaucer s poetical vision took shape gradually and as it grew it become
more detailed, sharp and realistic by the time he came to write The Canterbury Tales. As Nevill Coghill
He began to notice - but always with apparent good humour - the many self-contradictions
between a man's profession and his behaviour; he became aware – one might almost say
delightedly ironically aware - of certain blackguardism in humanity. Certainly there were some
blackguards ... but it would seem that for all his awareness of their wickedness he had no real
fear they would corrupt the world. They would meet their reward in due course, and he had a
fair comic idea of the kind of hell in which some of them would meet it.
This, I think, underlies the cheerfulness of Chaucer's poetical vision of the world; he does not
deny the evil in it, on the contrary he singles it out, often enough, and with acuity and relish;
but the general good health of society and the general agreement as to the purpose of life, seen
with lightest allegory as a pilgrimage, seems to have led him to think that the evils he saw
about him could be contained, as the pilgrimage moved along, without too much trouble; he
did not share the view of his great contemporary, the author of Piers Plowman, that the Day of
Anti Christ was upon them.
(From Nevill Coghill: Introduction to A Choice of Chaucer's Verse, Faber and Faber, London,
In The Canterbury Tales the readers are constantly subjected to a kind of double vision, which by
implication puts things in correct perspective. The attitude of the poet, however, continues to have a
tolerance for all human frailties, therefore the satire never even borders on the invective and the world
remains light-hearted.
Because of Chaucer's cheerfully hopeful poetical vision, coupled with frequent touches of humor
and irony, The Canterbury Tales make for an interesting and delightful reading despite laying bare the
corruption rampant in fourteenth century England and exposing the rogues who thronged its streets.
A Comment on the General Prologue
he plan of The Canterbury Tales might have been conceived earlier but was adopted around
the year 1386 and the General Prologue was probably written in the year 1387. Some of the
Tales have been dated till the year 1394 but not later than that and the work as it stands today
is still incomplete. Already while writing The Legend of Good Women we see Chaucer trying
to link up a number of stories together. But the theme of The Legend was however too monotonous for the
liking of a man whose distinctive, genius was for variety. It is not surprising therefore that the moment the
idea of a pilgrimage, lent itself to Chaucer's imagination to act as a linking device for a collection of a
variety of stories, he promptly laid aside the writing of The Legend and plunged straight ahead into The
Canterbury Tales.
The device of a pilgrimage to link up a collection of tales is part of a general tradition of frame story
or a series of tales enclosed within a narrative. The idea had been used by many writers all over the world
and perhaps the earliest example one can find is in the tales of the Panchtantra from India. There were
several such tales in circulation for example the Spanish Conde Lacanor of the Infante Juan Manuel, the
Decameron of Giovanni Boccaccio to which Chaucer's own idea of a pilgrimage is often traced and then
Italian Novelle of Giovanni Sercambi, which shows an even greater similarity to The Canterbury Tales.
There is no concrete evidence which proves that Chaucer possessed any of the above mentioned works or
used them at all for his stories. On the other hand there is no reason which prevents us from believing that
the idea might have come to him as an entirely original one. The sight of pilgrims, travelling along the
road to Canterbury, making merry as they went, often accompanied by sounds of bagpipes, must have
been a familiar sight to him. Perhaps, as he looked at these merry companies the idea might have come to
him to link together his scattered stories. As Pollard says, in this idea he also found 'a peg on which to
hang fresh ones by depicting a company of such English travellers and assigning to them such tales as
would best suit their characters and professions or raise a laugh by their incongruity.' (Alfred W. Pollard,
General Introduction to Chaucer's Prologue, Macmillan& Co. Ltd., London. 1962).
The occasion for the Tales is a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket who had been murdered
on Dec. 29. 1170, and canonized three years later and had by Chaucer's time, become almost the national
saint The shrine, to which his body was transferred in 1220, was a venerated spot and visited by pilgrims
from all walks of life. The popularity of this pilgrimage had still not waned by Chaucer's time and so we
find it becoming an apt subject for his collection of tales. A
definite point in time is chosen. The month of April to be exact and the narrative is in first person
lending credence to the idea that Chaucer himself had participated in just such a pilgrimage. To pass their
time on the way to Canterbury it is decided that each pilgrim (there are thirty in all) will tell two tales,
while going to and two while coming from the shrine at Canterbury. If everything had gone according to
plan, and if the work had been complete there would have been one hundred and twenty tales in all.
We have seen how the device of the pilgrimage to link up a collection of tales is part of a general
tradition of a frame story, or a series of tales enclosed within a narrative. But Canterbury Tales are
different than most of the classical or medieval examples we can find, because here the framework does
not remain merely a mechanical device to link the stories. In fact, it is a means of maintaining smooth
flow of action and also of keeping a certain group of people engaged quite naturally in a certain form of
entertainment. This ingenious device of the pilgrimage not only creates a happy occasion but also an
opportunity for bringing together all sorts of people from various areas of life. Though the group of thirty
pilgrims is not schematically representative of English society, yet it covers well enough the main social
classes. Only the very rich or the very poor are excluded from the group, Otherwise we have a whole
gamut of characters. There is a Knight, a Squire and a Yeoman who reflect on the changes in the feudal
set-up. The Monk, the Friar and the Prioress are used to expose the corruption in the regular order of the
Church. The five Guildsmen i.e. the haberdasher, the carpenter, the weaver, the dyer and the tapestry
maker, accompanied by their Cook and dressed in clothes above their station, flaunting their riches,
represent the growing industry and the rising middle-class of Chaucer's England. The daring Shipman
brings in the sea, which had opened immense possibilities for trade; the Physician brings in the state of
medieval medicine. The Wife of Bath who is a cloth merchant, is once again representative of the
expanding trade of the fourteenth century as well as becomes a vehicle for information on the position of
women in fourteenth century England. The portraits of the clergy (which form nearly one third of the
company) are significant for the tolerance with which Chaucer points out the foibles of the monastic
orders in describing the Monk and the Prioress. He is more severe in describing the worldliness of the
Friar and openly attacks the corrupt Summoner and the Pardoner. His ideal portraits of the Clerk of
Oxford, the Parson, the Knight and the Ploughman, perhaps reflect his own admiration of the basic ideals
of earlier medieval society, during these times of changing standards.
After a brief introduction, we meet Chaucer the pilgrim, as he lies at the Tabard inn at Southwork,
waiting to go on his pilgrimage to Canterbury the next morning. The nine and twenty, 'sondry folk' who
enter the inn at night are all discovered to be fellow pilgrims. Chaucer having spoken to all of them during
the course of a few hours decides to describe them:
But nathless, while I have tyme and space
Er that I ferther in this tale pace
Me thynketh it accordaunt to resoun
To telle you al the condicioun
Of each of hem, so it semed me.
And whiche they werne, and of What degree
And eek in what array that they were inne.
At the end of the portraits, Chaucer recalls his intention and declares that he has fulfilled it
Now have I toold you soothly, in a clause
The estaat, th'array, the number and eek the cause
Why that assembled was the company.
It is interesting to note however, that Chaucer does not keep to the rigid standards he lays down for
himself and as if realizing this, he apologizes in the end:
Also I prey you to forgive it me
Al have I not set folk in her degree
Heere in this tale, as that they should stande
My wit is short Ye may well understand.
Two things ought to be noted in the lines quoted above. First is Chaucer's admission of not having
followed any set pattern of description, and second the reason he gives for having done so-namely his wit
being too short for such a purpose. To take the latter first, even at this stage we can he careful not to take
Chaucer at his word. The picture he presents of himself, as Chaucer the pilgrim, is one of a self-effacing,
naive and gullible observer who takes things at face value and reports them as such. He seems to be a
simpleton, who approves of whatever he sees. Yet there is much lying beneath the surface of the portraits
and the mask is peeled off once we make a distinction between Chaucer the pilgrim and Chaucer the poet.
The poet Chaucer, who is a clever and shrewd observer, is responsible for the deft use of irony, the
tongue- in-cheek manner in which the pilgrims are described. For the irony to be more effective and for
the sarcasm to be more scathing, it was necessary that Chaucer create a gullible persona for himself who
could claim that his wit is short.
At the outset, Chaucer had declared his intention of describing each pilgrim according to a certain
set plan. Had he kept to this plan, the General Prologue might have been a string of drab, dull monotonous
and repetitive portraits. As it happens however. Chaucer deviates markedly and we find no two portraits
being painted in same colours. Variety becomes the guiding principle, not only in the different kinds of
people described, but also because no two characters are treated in the same way. No single method of
presentation therefore becomes dominant and we have portraits ranging from nine lines to sixty-two lines.
This group of pilgrims decides to pass the time on their long journey to Canterbury by telling tales.
Each pilgrim is required to tell two tales while going to and two while coming from Canterbury and the
best tale will earn for the teller a meal at the expense of the rest of the pilgrims. Pilgrimage and picnic thus
go hand in hand for these pilgrims. The element of 'pleye' or 'game' forms an essential part of the tales.
Had the initial plan been completed, we would have had one hundred and twenty tales in all. As the work
stands however, we are left with twenty finished stories, two unfinished ones and two interrupted ones.
Not all the pilgrims get a chance to tell their tales but even in its unfinished stage the work includes a vast
variety of the art of story telling. Nearly every type of medieval narrative is included - the romance of
chivalry, the courtly lay, the coarse realistic fabliau, the beast epic, the legend or saint's lives, the mock
sermon, the allegory and the ethical treatise. Out of these, the Wife of Bath gets to tell a story that is a
mixture of a courtly romance or a Breton Lay and a folk tale.
The Portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue to the
Canterbury Tales
n a company of thirty pilgrims there are just two more women beside the Wife of Bath. Both
these women are from the Church, the convent to be more precise. One is the Prioress who fits
the bill for a heroine of any conventional romance, being beautiful and sophisticated and the
other who is also a nun is merely mentioned and not described. The Wife of Bath or Dame
Alison, is poles apart from the delicate feminine attributes of the Prioress. Rather than being a beautiful
and sophisticated figure like the Prioress whose description would fit any courtly heroine, the Wife of
Bath is a coarse and ostentatious figure modelled more on the lines of a female figure from a fabliau. She
barges into this group of almost entirely male pilgrims, refusing to be dictated to by any conventional
standards of good moral and social behaviour and also refuses to be the custodian of any conventional
feminine virtues. Rather than being submissive and demure she is boldly assertive and flashy in her dress
and acknowledges with an effrontery her liking for the physical pleasures of life.
This female cloth maker from Bath has the misfortune of being a little bit deaf, and this is the first
observation made by the narrator. Her portrait reveals her to be a forthright woman, with a great sense of
humour, full of warmth, is friendly, though with a little want of decorum, a little lack of restraint. But on
the whole a lively and amusing character who makes an unforgettable impression on our minds. Let us see
how the poet goes about this particular sketch.
The good Wife is generally assumed to be from Bath, but Chaucer is less specific as he places her
not exactly in Bath but 'biside' or somewhere near it. She is so good at cloth making that she even
surpasses the expertise of the well-known weavers of 'Ypres' and 'Gaunt' Of course you should be careful
to note the subtle irony in this exaggerated praise. The poet is telling us that this is how the Wife values
her own skill. So forceful is her personality that she makes her presence felt:
In al the parisshe wif ne was ther noon
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn so wrooth was she,
That she was out of alle charitee
(449 - 52).
The order of precedence in making the offering at church was of considerable importance in the
Middle Ages. The Wife of Bath is therefore very particular about not being preceded in this matter, and if
any other good wife dares to go before her, it would make her so angry that she would then be out of all
charity. Once again this is a tongue in cheek remark from the poet, commenting on how the church was
treated by these people.
As befits a woman of her standing, the Wife is dressed lavishly. Her 'coverchiefs' or headcovers are
so elaborate and heavy that the narrator is sure that they weigh ten pounds. She wears these particularly on
Sundays. Her 'hosen' or stocking are of a fine scarlet red colour and always tightly drawn not lose and
hanging, and her shoes are soft and new. She has a bold look on her face and is of fair complexion with a
red tinge to it. Once again there is a qualified use of the word 'worthy' because while the poet calls her so,
he startles us in the next line by telling us about her marital and extra marital adventures. To begin with
she has had five husbands and is now on the look out for a sixth, not counting the other company she has
had in her youth. But now is not the time to recount all this, and so saying the poet switches over to other
She was a worthy woman al hir lyve,
Housebondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve,
Withouten oother compaignye in youthe
But ther-of nedeth nat to speke as mowthe,
(459 - 462).
One wonders if there can be any connection between the Wife's worthiness and the number of
husbands that she has had? Certainly the word 'worthy' in this context does not carry any moral
We are next told of her love for travelling in gay company and are given a long list of the various
places she has been to. Thrice she has visited Jerusalem and has crossed many a strange streams. She has
been to Rome, Boloigne; she has visited the great altar of St. James in Spain and has been to Cologne
probably to visit the tomb of the Magi. There is perhaps no exaggeration when Chaucer tells us that the
Wife knows a good deal about 'Wandrynge by the weye' (467). What is interesting, however, is the way
Chaucer links up the fact of the Wife being 'gat toothed' with her accounts of travelling. This particular
physical characteristic had many associations for the Middle Ages and it could be interpreted in several
ways. Such women were thought to be variously passionate, envious, rich, luxurious, bold, faithless,
deceitful, suspicious, and in addition to all this Chaucer interprets it as a sign of much travel. But the
Wife's character bears out some of the other interpretations also as we have already seen. She is rich,
successful, bold, luxurious must be passionate too, is envious and could have been suspicious of her
various husbands.
The Wife rides comfortably on an ambler i.e. an easy paced horse and is covered up to the neck with
a wimple. On her head she wears a broad hat which is amusingly likened to a buckler or a small shield.
She also wears a foot mantle or an outer skirt, around her ample hips. Her feet are clasped in a pair of
sharp spurs. The portrait ends with a general comment on her character:
In feloweships wel koude she laughe and carpe;
Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce.
For she koude of that art the olde dance.
Being thus able to laugh and sing with her companions, she must surely have proved to be an
interesting, amusing company. Being an old hand at the game of love, she is quite adept at knowing all the
various remedies for this illness, which afflicts all mankind.
You must notice that though the Wife of Bath has been to many pilgrimages, and is going to another
one on this journey Chaucer ever once gives any indication of her being pious or devout. Her love for life,
her love for physical pleasures is what is emphasized throughout.
Her deafness will be linked later to an incident in her life when she recounts how she came to losing
her hearing in one ear. At the same time her deafness has also been seen to be symbolic of a refusal to
accept the conventional interpretation of the scriptures and rather make a selective choice from them to
support her own theories about marriage and sex in her Prologue to her tale. Her own interpretations of
the scriptures run counter to those provided by the Church Fathers. The latter most surely and quite
understandably carry the stamp of the patriarchal point of view and is almost always critical and
dismissive where women are concerned.
In the Prologue to her tale the Wife emerges as a complex figure. On the one hand she is a vibrant,
fun-loving woman. At the same time the small details that hint at her enormous appetite for sex have
made some readers see her as a sex driven, frightening, carnally rapacious character. These are merely
hints and further revelations regarding this complicated figure emerge from the lengthy Prologue and her
Tale as well as through the story she tells.
The Portrait of the Wife of Bath in Her
Prologue and Her Tale
hen Chaucer introduced the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue to the Canterbury
Tales, he introduced her as a Wife rather than as a professional cloth maker. For all other
pilgrims Chaucer had begun their portraits by first mentioning their profession, so we
have "A knight ther was...' Ther was a Nunne, a Prioress. .' or 'A Monk ther was...' or
'Ther was a Doctor of Phisik...' and so on. With the Wife of Bath, however, he chooses to place an
emphasis on her status as a wife (even though at the time she is a widow) but makes her status as a cloth
maker secondary to her marital status. Of course she is a much-married women, we are told, already
married five times and now is on the lookout for a sixth husband. Is Chaucer then trying to say that
'marriage' and not cloth-making is the profession of this 'loud' woman? Maybe so, but there may be
another reason for this too. The theme of the Wife of Bath's Prologue as well as her Tale is also Marriage
and so the emphasis we find in the portrait is carried over into the Tale and thus the tale and the teller are
In a world dominated by men, we have this very successful female cloth merchant who puts to test
all conventionally held notions about women, in medieval England. Not only that, in the figure of the
Wife and in her Prologue which is devoted entirely to tracing the life of Dame Alison, we get a rare
emphasis that Chaucer has not accorded to any ordinary woman. Courtly heroines had been the subject of
a lot of literary interest and activity, with a number of Romances being written about them. But it was
revolutionary to find an ordinary middle aged, much-married woman to be the object of so much literary
interest. If at all women in general attracted the writers it was only to be written about in a manner which
condemned them all. A lot of anti-feminist literature, which took its cue from mankind's fall due to Eve's
disobedience, was written in these times. In Chaucer's portrayal of the Wife we find an ingenious use
being made of this literature. The same is picked up and put in the mouth of a woman - the Wife - who
uses it to condemn and make fun of not women - but men. The conventional idea is therefore stood on its
head in her Prologue and tale. We are given a woman whose character ironically, is formed out of
literature, which condemns women. She is depicted as embodying all the worst evils that anti-feminist
literature of the times thought women to possess. She is shown as bossy, domineering, and sexually
voracious. At the same time however we are shown another shade of her character in her fifth marriage.
She is loving and wants not just physical pleasure out of marriage but this love makes her vulnerable and
she knows that it is her money and her social status that has attracted a man twenty years her junior to her.
Unlike her other husbands Jankyn has nothing to offer except his youth and Alison pines for his love in
return of which she give him all her property. Thus two conflicting sides of her character make her a
complex figure. Bossy and manipulative on the one hand, proving the anti-feminists right and on the other
taking up cudgels in defence of women's rights and using the anti-feminist literature itself for the process.
In her Prologue the Wife emerges as an expert 'glossator' beating men at their own game in offering
interpretations of the Bible or of various religious and philosophical works. From time immemorial these
works have been interpreted by men and therefore carry all their prejudices within them. What happens if
a woman tries to interpret the same works? Quite ingeniously the Wife is able to give an entirely new and
different colouring to conventional interpretations. Hers is the woman's point of view. When she
pertinently demands to know 'Who painted the lion?' she is highlighting the fact that women have been
denied the opportunity to present their point of view. If only women had written what stories they would
tell, she exclaims! The Wife tries to rectify this omission in her glossing of the texts and in her narration
of a well-known story.
In Dame Alison's world it seems things are not as simple or clear cut as they are made out to be. The
same holds true for the tale she tells, where many reversals of conventional ideas are seen. The knight
who is normally a defender of people's rights, himself becomes a violator and a rapist here. The heroine
too is not a beautiful demure young girl but an ugly old hag. The traditional ideas about women in
medieval England are once again attacked in the tale too and are voiced by the Wife. In her we have
probably one of the earliest feminists on our hands who exposes the patriarchal world for its double
standards and its prejudices against women. How the same is achieved becomes evident from a detailed
reading of the text.
An Introduction to the Wife of Bath's Prologue
he Wife of Bath's Prologue is an endless chatter of 856 lines - twice the length of the Wife's
tale and the longest of all the Prologues in The Canterbury Tales. None of the other pilgrims
has been given so much space as the Wife, to launch such a lengthy preamble to her tale and
that too when this preamble is basically about her own life. Her Prologue therefore is closer
to the modern autobiographical mode but no such thing existed in the Middle Ages. Keeping with the
times, the Wife's Prologue is closer to the sense of the genre of confessio or the 'confession' that a person
would make to admit his/her mistakes and sins and resolve to change for the better. The Wife admits her
sins quite happily but we see no resolve for change in her Prologue. Rather we find her enjoying life the
way she wants and also defending it against conventional arguments. Thus the Wife's Prologue carries
within it the marks of yet another genre apart from the 'confession.' This is the genre of the 'debate' or the
'sermon' and just as there is a parody of the genre of 'confession' so also there is a parody of the sermon
too in the Wife's Prologue. First and foremost a sermon involves preaching and we must not forget that
preaching was taboo for women. By putting a sermon in the month of a woman Chaucer is directing his
barbs at all those custodians of social moral behaviour who singled out women and thought them unfit for
such tasks. But then Chaucer goes a step further when he shows the Wife using the paraphernalia of a
sermon such as illustrations drawn from scriptures, quotes from legends and lives of saints, supporting
arguments by Biblical teaching etc - to defend something that the Church disapproves of entirely. Thus
the sermon is stood on its head and our woman preacher convincingly turns the men's arguments against
women to her own advantage and talks of women's rights and exposes the men's prejudiced attitude. She
goes about it in a fast- paced manner, which leaves us breathless in an effort to catch up with her. She
moves swiftly from one thing to the other leaving us no time to stop and think about what she has just said
because if we stop we will miss the next thing that she is saying.
The Wife's lengthy Prologue is more about herself than about an introduction to her tale. It is an
argument in favour of marriage as well as a description of the Wife's married life with her five husbands.
While on the subject of her five husbands, Chaucer gives us various insights into medieval concepts about
love and marriage as well as exposes the hypocrisy that underlies male attitudes towards women. The
Wife uses a plethora of references from anti-feminist literature to illustrate what men think about women
and emerges as a perfect stereotype herself. But Chaucer shows the Wife using the anti-feminist literature
quite ingeniously to support her case in favour of marriage. The Wife may be a stereotype but she is very
well aware of being one and uses it to her advantage. This makes for ambiguities and complexities in her
character, which are discussed at length in the textual analysis that follows.
Marriage and Mastery are the two basic themes of the Wife's Prologue. Who should have the upper
hand in marriage — the wife or the husband? Does love figure at all in a marriage? Medieval concepts of
marriage could not see the two co-existing but in the Wife's fifth marriage the desire for love within
marriage challenges these traditional attitudes. The apparently pointless and absurdly lengthy preamble
makes its connections with the Wife's tale through the themes of marriage and mastery, which are carried
over from the Prologue into the tale. A similar desire for love within marriage is expressed in the Wife's
tale as well making further connections with her Prologue.
The 856 lines read as one long versified passage with no internal divisions in it. One can however
divide these lines into different sections depending on the emphasis placed in them. J.A. Tasioulas divides
the Prologue into three sections. Section 1 is the Wife's Defence of Marriage. Section II is the Wife's
Description of her Married Life. Section III is Jankyn and the 'Book of Wikked Wives'. Harriet
Raghunathan on the other hand divides the Prologue again into three sections but a little differently.
Section I is again the Wife's defence of marriage. Section II however is about the three old husbands and
Section HI deals with the fourth and fifth husband. Any of the above divisions can be followed or you can
make your own sections depending on your comprehension of the Wife's Prologue. The purpose is
basically to remember the sequence of this fast paced lengthy Prologue which otherwise would be a
slightly difficult task. In our analysis of the text we will keep to the division followed by J.A. Tasioulas
and so let us begin with the first section, which is the Wife's Defence of Marriage. In the following
analysis detailed paraphrase, critical comments and explanatory notes will follow a brief summary of lines
under consideration.
Textual Analysis of the Wife's Prologue
Section I - The Wife's Defence of Marriage
Lines 1-34
The Wife announces her intention to speak of the woe that is in marriage
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife announces her intention to speak of the woe that is in marriage and is going to support her
arguments by her personal experience of the marital status because as she informs the audience she has
been married five times already. The first time was when she was just twelve years old and since then she
has had five husbands at church door when every time she was widowed, she married again. The Wife is a
little doubtful whether the church would recognize her five marriages because not long ago she has been
told that since Christ attended just one wedding in Cana, it is understood to mean that one should marry
just once in life. She also cites another example from the Bible, this time of the woman from Samaria who
was married five times and to whom Christ had said that 'he whom you now have is not your husband'.
The Wife is not ready to accept this quote at face value and questions it, asking why that fifth man was not
the husband of this woman from Samaria. Never has she heard a number being fixed as to how many
husbands a woman may have. Men can 'glosen' or put interpretations on scriptures the way they want to
but one thing she knows for sure that as far as she has understood the text, i.e. the Bible, it has never fixed
any number on the number of husbands a woman may have. Quite cunningly she cites from the Bible to
support her argument and quotes the example of Noah's Flood where everyone was told 'to go forth and
'Experience' versus 'authority' form the basis of the Wife's argument in defence of marriage. When
she talks of experience 'she is referring to her personal experience of marriage whereas 'authority' means
written authority found in the Bible, the scriptures or philosophical tracts of learned men. In this short
passage the Wife has used three examples from the Bible and has obliquely referred to St. Jerome who
was a philosopher, secretary to the Pope of Damascus and who spent thirty years translating Bible from
Hebrew and Greek into Latin. He considered all human desires sinful especially sex and held the women
responsible for being the instruments of temptation that had to be resisted. He condemned women in
almost all his tracts and was entirely against remarriage. It is St. Jerome's verdict against remarriage that
makes the Wife aware that a quotation mark can be put on her marriages because the Church would
certainly not approve of them. Yet, notice that the Wife is not one to be cowed down by the authority of
the scriptures or the Church. In fact, she questions it asking to be shown where was it stated that a woman
could have only one husband and no more Her skill as an arguer is revealed at this early stage when she
makes a very clever use of the scripture quoting from Noah' flood to support her argument in favour of
marriage. The skill here lies in presenting only that part of the quotation, which would support her
argument and ignoring the rest. In addition to this she puts a very literal interpretation on the text and
ignores the metaphorical or spiritual meaning, which ought to have been assigned to the same quotation.
Thus when she says that 'God bad us for to wexe and multiply' she interprets it literally to mean that God
commanded us all to go forth and multiply. Furthermore, since the human race can multiply only by
indulging in the sexual act she stretches the interpretation further and manipulates it into meaning that
God has therefore sanctioned the unlimited enjoyment of sex too. The fact that the correct aim of marriage
was to produce children and also to prevent adultery is given a backseat in the Wife's interpretation. Also
the metaphorical meaning of the word 'Multiply' in the sense of 'spiritual increase' is not dwelt on even for
a moment. The Wife is not interested in a spiritual multiplication or increase. In fact she is not even
interested in the increase of the human race. She is merely interested in the 'act' which leads to this
increase. The purpose of marriage as far as the Wife is concerned is the legitimate enjoyment of the
physical act and from now on her Prologue will be geared towards a further defence of this act.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 1-34
The written authority of the Bible or these scriptures or the authority of the
learned men like the Church Fathers or the philosophers.
Eterne or Levye
eternally alive.
Have ywedded been
have been married.
at chirche door
marriage were performed at the door of the Church in frill view of the
"If I so oft myghte have y- "If it has been permitted to have married so often" Remarriages were looked
wedded be
down upon even though they were permitted under church laws.
social standing.
Cane of Galilee
(John 2 1) This reference is to Cana where Christ performed his first miracle
and turned six pots of water into wine at a wedding.
Herkne eek .. . nones
also listen, look, what a sharp retort indeed
Spak in repreve
Spoke in reproof.
the woman of Samaria who was married five timers. Jesus meets this woman
besides a well. He asks her to bring her husband, but she says she has none
and he argues, 'he whom you now have is not your husband' (John 4 7 -18)
How many mighte
was she allowed
Explanatory Notes
Lines 1-34
Yet herde … diffinicioun
but in all my life I have never heard anyone state exactly what the permitted
number of husbands was.
up and down
this way and that
Men may . . . down
Men can guess and interpret in every way
I woot express
I know clearly
bad us
commanded us
Marrying eight times (a term coined by St. Jerome with sarcastic intent)
in reproach.
Lines 35 - 58
The Wife continues to garner support for her argument from Biblical Sources.
Detailed Paraphrase
Quite ingeniously the Wife selects those examples from the Old Testament, which prove her point
that there was nothing wrong at all in marrying a number of times. She begins by citing the example of
King Solomon who is known to have possessed many wives and concubines. The thought uppermost in
the Wife's mind is once again linked with the physical pleasures of marriage and she wishes she could
have been referred half as often as King Solomon had been by his numerous wives. She observes that he
must have had a 'merry fit' on each of his first nights with the different wives. This vivid and graphic
description of Solomon's love life, however, damages the Wife's case instead of strengthening it because
she has managed to drag him down to her level rather than using him to rise up to his. She continues in the
same vein being thankful now that if not several hundred at least she had the chance to have five different
husbands each of whom she had picked out as the best of the lot both for their 'nether purs' and of their
'cheste'. Here she puns on the words 'purs' and 'cheste', which on the one hand can be linked to money for
both, are used for keeping valuables. On the other hand the words also indicate a man's sexual organs for
'nether purs' means lower purse which in turn means testicles and 'cheste' again means the box in which
they were kept. It is a double innuendo where there is one obvious meaning while another is implied. In a
like manner when the Wife moves on to talk of different schools making perfect scholars and varied
experience certainly making perfect workers she is openly hinting at the varied sexual experience she has
had from her five different husbands.
Having been 'schooled' by five husbands she considers herself well trained in the task of marriage
and is ready for the sixth husband whenever he may come along for she has no intention of remaining
single for long. She turns to St. Paul this time to strengthen her case. St. Paul who said that to be wedded
is not sin and it is better to be married than to burn. Thus she cares little if people speak ill of Lamech (the
first man to commit bigamy in the modern sense) and his bigamy. She then cites the example of Abraham
and Jacob both of whom are eminent figures from the Old Testament. The Wife points out that both these
men had more than one wife and from particular she moves to a generalization that likewise many a holy
man have had more than one wife.
The Wife's use of the literal approach as a narrator to strengthen her case for marriage and
remarriage continues in the above lines as she successfully quotes those examples from the Bible which
support her case. Thus Solomon, Abraham and Jacob are mentioned in a manner which is an offshoot of
the Wife's personal style. She does not talk of Biblical figures in hushed tones or with respect. She talks of
them as though she knows them like she would know any of her neighbours so the grandeur and the
seriousness attached to scriptures or holy figures is undermined and they are made to sound earthly and
prosaic. The Wife brings them down to earth - being an earthy figure herself. You must notice that while
the Wife had begun by accusing men of being expert glossators - twisting the interpretation of the Bible to
suit their own purpose - she is gradually beating them at their own game. She herself has become quite
adept at 'glosing' and twists scriptures for her own purpose. Thus, she mentions Abraham and Jacob or
quotes from St. Paul to support her case because the latter had said that 'to be wedded is no sin.'
Explanatory Notes
Lines 35 - 58
sir or lord
King Soloman who was said to have 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings
11 3).
believe / am sure
mo than oon
more than one
As wolde God
Wish to God.
lawful / permissible
which yifte
what a gift
so wel was him on live
such a good life he enjoyed
diverse scoles
different schools
parfyt clarkes
perfect scholars
practical experience
training or schooling
in al
at all
right away
th' Apostle
St. Paul
a Godde's half
by God or in God's name
Explanatory Notes
Lines 35 - 58
What rekketh me
what do I care
Seye vileinye
speak ill.
cursed Lamech, the first bigamist in the modern sense as he had two wives
simultaneously (Genesis 4 19)
Fer forth
I Can
I know
Abraham and Jacob
Old Testament figures both of whom had two wives. Abraham married
Keturah and Sarah while Jacob was married to Leah and Rachel.
Lines 59-114
The Wife continues her defence of marriage and challenges the Church's preference of virginity over
marriage. She admits that virginity may be a higher state but everybody cannot achieve it.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife begins by asking a question. Can you say in any period of history that God forbade
marriage by explicit word, she asks? Or, for that matter, where does he command virginity? She knows as
well as anybody that when St. Paul speaks of virginity he does not make a commandment of it. He has
merely advised men and women to remain 'one' i.e. single i.e. virgins. But quite cleverly the Wife pick up
the word advised and hinges her argument on it saying that 'advised' does not mean the same thing as
'commanded'. Thus she concludes that nowhere in the Bible can one find virginity being commanded. In
fact, she goes a step further to say that if virginity is so desirable then someone has to produce virgins or
else where will the supply come from? Some people will have to get married to produce children or where
will virgins come from to do homage to God? If everybody remains a virgin then very soon there will be
no human beings left on this earth. Even Paul would not command in the least a thing of which his master
did not give an order. Yet, she admits that the prize (as a dart or javelin) is set for virginity - win it
whosoever runs best.
The Wife dwells for some more time on the question of virginity vs. marriage and says that the
virgin state cannot be applied to every person. It is bestowed only there where it pleases God to do so
through his power. She knows very well that the Apostle St. Paul was himself a virgin and expressed his
wish that every man would prefer this state like him yet it is only an advice not a command. For people
like the Wife, he gave them leave to marry. So it is not a matter of reproach if she marries again when and
if her husband dies. She should not be accused of bigamy. The Wife is here referring to St. Paul's
injunction that people may marry if they cannot check their desires and remain continent. Unchecked
desires only lead to sin and it would be better for such people to marry rather than fall into a sinful life. It
would be like bringing fire and flax together - which would lead to destruction.
Virginity may be perfection, says the Wife, but then she herself does not claim to be perfect. There
may be people who can lead their lives in chastity, can keep their bodies and souls clean and pure. Of such
people, the Wife is not envious and will not boast of such condition herself. She compares herself to the
wooden dishes in a lord's house, which exist along with the golden ones. According to the Wife, the
wooden ones serve the purpose as well. In a like manner God too calls people to him in various ways and
each one is giving a proper gift as it pleases God to arrange. Once again this line is an echo of St. Paul's
words in I Corinthian. 7. 7.
The next step in the Wife's argument is continence within marriage. Virginity, she says, is perfection
and the next best thing, which is recommended in the Bible, is continence within marriage, which should
be accompanied by prayers. But having said that, the Wife argues that Christ who is the source of all
perfection told not every man to go and sell all that he possessed and follow him in his footsteps. This
command was only for those who were seeking perfection. With the permission of the present company,
the Wife wishes to say that she has no such intention of becoming perfect. She will bestow the flower of
her life i.e. the best part of her life in the acts and fruits of marriage.
In this part of the Wife's speech the polemics are centered on marriage vs. virginity. As before the
Wife's approach is quite literal and she proceeds to interpret scripture for herself as she had done before.
This time she picks on the lines and passages from the Bible as well as from St. Paul's teachings as well as
chooses some proverbs and sayings to support her case. It goes without saying that the Wife is able to use
this material to her advantage. Quite expertly, she picks on the word 'advises' or 'counsels' in that part of
St. Paul's teaching when he is making a case for virginity. But see how expertly the Wife points out that
this is just advice and not a command. The Church hierarchy placed virgins at the top followed by widows
who did not marry and lastly the married people at the bottom. God was said to love virgins the most. The
medieval Church though willing to permit sex within marriage for the purpose of generation would
however have preferred people not to marry at all. In a characteristically fast paced manner the Wife has
moved from talking about the 'woe' that is in marriage, to marriage and then to sex vs. virginity.
Ultimately she has brought us to the topic that interests her most and it has all happened so swiftly that we
have no time to stop and think how we got there. The same fast style of talking carries us along lines of
conviction in her arguments against virginity. We are impressed by her logical approach when she asks
where would virgins come from if people do not marry and then she briskly moves on to St. Paul's
virginity. Yet, you must make a note of the fact that though the Wife has taken the support of the concept
of generation of the human race, not once has she mentioned having any children herself. Not once in the
entire Prologue or in the Tale do we see her mentioning any children.
The Church sanctioned marriage for a purpose - in the Wife's argument the purpose is used as a
strong prop but never evidenced in her own life. For her the sexual act has no other meaning than being a
source of power and pleasure. She does not even mention any desire to have any offspring or to produce a
little virgin herself to strengthen her case Yet these questions remain unasked at this point for we are
carried forward by a strong onrush of the Wife's exuberance, her liveliness and her enthusiasm. Thus at
first glance the Wife generally goes unchallenged. Unlike modern readers such as ourselves, the medieval
readers would in all probability not have had the time to re-read the text in order to analyze it at leisure.
They would have simply heard it being narrated by the poet just as the rest of the pilgrims are listening to
it being narrated by the Wife herself.
The Wife makes a deft use of Biblical similes and comparisons too when she draws on the example
of virgins being compared to golden vessels and the wives with the wooden ones. In the Bible the wooden
vessels or the wives were associated with sinful lust. The way the Wife puts it however, we realize that
both would serve the purpose well and a house full of only golden dishes does seem an unlikely
possibility. In real life one can never come across such a thing. The Wife justifies the use of wooden
dishes on the ground of economy. At the same time however, she admits the superiority of virginity when
she equates it with gold and adds that this is a prize not meant for everyone. There is a lot of ambiguity in
her lines here. Is she talking of men chasing virgins or of maidens chasing the prize? She leaves this
Explanatory Notes
Lines 59-114
In any manere age
at any period in history
It is no drede
there is no doubt
Th' Apostle
St. Paul
He seyde . . . noon
he said that he had no divine authority
To be oon
to be one i.e. a maid
Thanne hadde he … dede
then by doing so he would have condemned marriage
atte leste
in the least
Yaf noon heste
gave no order or commandment
The dart. . . virginitee
the dart or javelin would be set up as a prize in a race. Likewise, virginity
is a great prize but everyone in the human race cannot win it. Only the best
can hope to win.
Cacche who so .. . lat see
'Win it who can, let's see who runs best.' (Cor. 9.24)
But this word ... his might
but this call to virginity does not apply to everyone, only to those whom
God, through His power, chooses to give it
But nathless ... as he
but nevertheless he wished that every person were just like him
Nis bu t
it is only
leve/of indulgence
permission. St. Paul gave people permission to marry if they found that a
life of chastity was too difficult for them. Marriage was instituted for the
benefit of such people who could not remain continent and would
otherwise be led into sin
so nis it. . . bigamie
so it is not a matter of reproach when I marry again if my husband dies and
I should not be accused of bigamy
For peril. . . t'assemble
it is dangerous to bring fire and flax together. In other words it is
dangerous to bring women and men together
Al and som
the long and short of it
frailty, weakness of being unable to resist sexual desires
freletee clepe I . . .
frailty I call it, unless he and she are willing to live a chaste life, together
Explanatory Notes
Lines 59-114
without indulging in sex
Though maidenhede . . .
even if virginity is considered better than a widow marrying again
It liketh them to be clene
it pleases them (the virgins) to be pure
Body and gost
body and soul
her condition as a virgin
nil nat
will not
Make no boost
make no boast
Somme been... servyse
a biblical reference from 2 Tim 2.20 'In a great house ben not oneli vessels
of gold and silver but also of tree and of erthe.'
sondry wyse
different ways
a propre yifte
a proper gift; a special talent
as Him lyketh shifte
as he pleases to distribute them
And continence … devocion and so is continence between marriage partners - a vow not to have sex for
religious reasons. Continence between marriage partners accompanied by
prayers was recommended in the Bible 1 Cor. 7.5
the source.
bade, told
such wyse
such a manner
his fort
his footsteps.
He spak to them … parfitly
he spoke only to those who wished to lead a perfect life. Christ has said
exactly this in Matt 19.21 "Jesus said unto him if thou wilt be perfect, go
and sell all that thou hast, and give it to the poor".
By youre leve
with your permission
Flour of myne age
the flower of her life i.e. the best part of her life
Fruit of marriage
in the view of the Medieval Church, children would be the fruit of
marriage. In the Wife's mind it most certainly means sexual pleasure for its
own sake, for she mentions no children anywhere
Lines 115-162
The Wife now tries to garner support from human anatomy for her argument
Detailed Summary
The Wife demands to know what after all is the purpose of the reproductive organs in the human
body. She does not agree with theologians who say that these organs were made merely for the purpose of
purgation, so that the bladder can be emptied. They were made simply to distinguish between a male and a
female member of the human species. She knows that this is not so. As long as the clerics are not angry
with her she would say that the reproductive organs were made both for office i.e. function and for ease
i.e. pleasure. She is quick to add that this pleasure is of begetting children in which we cannot displease
God. Why else would books say that a man should yield to his wife her debt? With what should he make
his payment if he does not use his blessed, foolish instrument? Thus she concludes that we can say the
instrument was made for purgation as well as procreation.
The Wife next makes a distinction between those people who use their equipment for pleasurable
purposes and those who refrain from doing so. Not every person, she says, is bound to make use of his/her
organs for the purpose of procreation. If that happens then men would stop showing concern for chastity.
She cites the example of Christ who was a virgin even though he was shaped like a man. Likewise, many
saints have lived lives of purity and chastity since the time the world began. But, says the Wife, these are
exceptions and not the norm. Virginity is a state of perfection and can be achieved only by a select few.
The Wife wishes them no harm. She acknowledges the greatness of such people but at the same time is
happy with her own lot. Drawing on a homely simile, the Wife compares virgins to pure white bread and
married people to brown barley bread. The first is preferable and undeniably a delicacy but barley bread
would feed the hungry as adequately as the white bread would. She refers to the Bible and reminds the
audience that Jesus had refreshed many a man with just such bread. Being quite happy with her wife hood,
she will continue to use her instrument as freely as her Maker had bestowed it upon her. "Let God curse
me", she says, 'if I play hard to get' Her husband will have the use of her instrument both evening and
morning whenever he wants to come to bed to pay his marriage debt. She will have a husband come what
may, who will be her debtor and her bondsman and she, not he, will have power over his body. Thus the
Apostle St. Paul had said when he bade husbands to love their wives well and therefore the Wife likes this
part of his teachings particularly well.
The Wife continues with her impressive act of an expert debater and counters the theologians word
for word and beats them at their own game. This section of her Prologue is directed particularly at some
of the observations made by St. Jerome. In a manner that matches the grand rhetoric of the Revered
philosopher, the Wife launches her attack with impressive rhetoric consisting of big words like
'conclusioun', 'generacioun', 'members' and so on. She is not one to be evasive but addresses the issue
directly with a pertinent question as to why such a perfectly wise craftsman made these sexual organs, if
not for sex? Equally directly she is willing to call a thing by its name and soon enough gives up the big
word 'members' and comes down to the realistic level to refer to a man's organ as a 'wight' or 'thing'.
It is delightful to imagine how the great philosopher Jerome would have squirmed in his seat at such
an explicit analysis regarding the purpose of sexual organs. In his writings he had suggested that these
were made only for purgation or for distinction between male and female bodies. The Wife's direct
approach, however, makes the reverend appear quite foolish. She exposes. Jerome to be a prude who
advocates the denial of delight but at the same time dissociates himself from reality. This moment in the
Prologue is particularly one of great achievement for the Wife. Though an ordinary woman she has
managed to beat the medieval theologian at his own game.
It is amazing how in the same breath she is able to argue in favour of virginity too when she says
that it is quite all right to be a virgin. But then such a state can be achieved only by a select few and is not
the norm. Ordinary folks like her are quite happy with their married state. You must notice the absolutely
ingenious manner in which the wife has made a case for non-virgins while not taking away from the
greatness attached to virginity. Simultaneously she has been able to win the confidence of the audience
too since they are ordinary mortal folks like herself and who till now have probably not found any
justification for desires traditionally condemned by the Church as sinful and unholy. In Dame Alison (the
Wife) they have found a champion for their cause and the point is reinforced when Christ, Jerome, virgins
and saints are clubbed together and referred to as 'them' while a solidarity is effected amongst the married
people (especially women) who are referred to as "us wives'. The Wife is surely an expert debater and has
proved that she can argue a point well.
Another Biblical quotation is used to strengthen the argument. This time the Wife refers to the
miracle of loaves and fishes, which she says, "Mark telle kan". Unlike modern readers, the medieval
audience would have been quick to notice that the Wife has misquoted from the Bible here. It is not St.
Marks who mentions barley loaves, it is in the Gospel of St. John. Even St Jerome has been selectively
quoted. He had said that virgins were like white wheat bread and non-virgins like barley bread. So far so
good, but he had also said that eating barley bread was only marginally better than eating cow dung. The
Wife has conveniently refrained from quoting him in full. For an audience who is aware of the entire
quote however, she has managed to equate herself with a heap of cow dung in their minds. She uses her
trick of non stop chatter to swiftly move us away to another point without allowing us time to stop and
think or ruminate on her trustworthiness when she quotes authorities. She appears to be quite learned and
well read. But is this just a pose? Is she in fact well read or has she picked up her knowledge from sources
other than books, probably heard about these matters in Church sermons? The latter would seem to be the
most likely possibility yet she can convincingly strike a pose of being well versed in 'auctoritee'.
In the Wife's enjoyment of the physical aspect of marriage and her suggestion that it is a perfectly
natural thing to enjoy sex, she has moved ahead of her times and comes closer to expressing modern
views. The whole passage affirms life and expresses delight not shame in the human body. Her choice of
example drawn from the Bible also focuses on satisfaction of an appetite. Christ's heavenly bread had
'refreshed' many a man' she says. But the line immediately links up with the earlier reference to Solomon
who had been 'refreshed' often by his numerous wives. Christ's miracle, which was a holy act and the
entirely physical act of sex, are therefore quite audaciously linked up by this single word.
The Wife's skill as a glossator is once again evident in her own interpretations on scriptures. As a
narrator she wins the confidence of the audience and also establishes a rapport with them when all
ordinary mortals stand together at one end while all saints and virgins stand clubbed together at the other.
Dame Alison has achieved the status of a spokesperson for the common people here.
The imagery used in the passage to describe the sexual act is drawn from the world of trade and
commerce. Thus the husband has to pay 'the marriage debt' to his wife, or she has the 'power' over her
husband's body.
Explanatory Notes Lines 115-162
Telle me... generacion
tell me also, for what purpose were the sexual organs made.
And of so... y-wroght
and created by such a perfectly wise craftsman.
interpret as in interpretation of the Bible. Similar to our modern word 'gloss'.
both thinges smale
sexual organs of both sexes
so that
as long as
for office and for ese
for practical function i.e. urinating and for pleasure
procreation, begetting of children
in which
Explanatory Notes Lines 115-162
The 'marriage debt' which worked both ways and required a husband to have
sex with his wife and vice versa. The wife conveniently skips over her share
of the bargain.
with what
his sely instrument
his blessed simple tool
bound, obliged
Thanne sholde... no cure
then people would show no concern for virginity and think it unimportant
nil envye
will not envy
breed of pured white seed fine white bread made from wheat
And lat...barley bread
and let us married women be called coarse barley bread.(The reference is to
St. Jerome who said that marriage is only slightly better than promiscuity. "It
is good to be fed on the purest, finest white bread but in case you are starving
then it is better to eat coarse barley bread than to eat cow dung.")
Lord Jesu . . . man
The reference is to St. John 69. The miracle refers to the time when Jesus fed
five thousand people on five loaves and two fishes. The spiritual message of
this refreshment is however ignored by the wife.
such estaat
such a condition of life
I am nat precious
I am not fussy.
grudging, reluctant, playing hard to get, not free with one's sexual favours
him liste
he pleases
I wol nat lette
I will not stop.
which shal....thral
who shall be my debtor and my slave
Upon his ... he
The reference is to St. Paul who had said: "The womman hath not power of
the bodi, but the hosebonde; and the hosebonde hath not power of his bodi
but the womman" (1 Cor 7.4)
Al this.... every deel
I like this pronouncement very well
LINES 163-192
The Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Pardoner, another member of the group of pilgrims listening to the Wife's speech, is shocked at
whatever she has said so far. He addresses her as a 'noble prechour' and says that after listening to her he
has changed his mind about marriage. He had been thinking of marrying soon but now has second
thoughts about it and would postpone his plans at least for another year. The Wife asks him to wait and
hear her out. She has not yet begun her tale. He should listen to what she has to say on the subject of
tribulations in marriage, as she will speak from personal experience. Also, she is going to further
embellish her Tale with more than ten examples and if a man is still not warned by what she has to say,
then he himself will become an example for other men. She is quoting Ptolemy here and makes a
reference to his work Almageste. The Pardoner again addresses her respectfully and asks her to continue
and 'teche us yonge men of youre praktike'. The Wife agrees to do so gladly. Before going any further,
however, she addresses the audience directly and says that they must not be annoyed or be angry with
what she has to say for she speaks in jest and her intention is only to seek some fun and get some pleasure
from life.
The interruption of the Pardoner serves as a reminder of the fact that the Wife's Prologue and Tale
are part of a larger framework. This framework is that of The Canterbury Tales where a group of pilgrims
have gathered together to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a' Becket at Canterbury. To pass
their time on the long journey, these pilgrims have decided to tell stories and the best story is going to win
the teller a free dinner at the expense of rest of the pilgrims. The Pardoner is one such pilgrim and works
for the Church, his job being to seek out such people who have sinned or made mistakes and to collect
money from them in lieu of a penance they would otherwise be required to undergo. The Pardoner and his
profession were open to corruption and the system was often misused for self- aggrandizement. The
Pardoners got rich at the expense of simple-minded people who believed that they would be forgiven their
sins if they paid some money to the Church. The Pardoner is a rogue to begin with and there are constant
hints regarding his being either a eunuch or a homosexual. Chaucer refers to him as a 'gelding or a mare'
in The General Prologue. Thus his talk of taking a wife is at best an empty boast and immediately links
up with the Wife's account of her equally impotent first three husbands who are rich but old.
The respect that the Pardoner accords the Wife is befitting for a learned lady. He calls her "dame'
and a 'noble prechour'. But prejudices against women being what they were in medieval England, the
Pardoner is probably sniggering at the Wife's pretensions here. The Wife however, is not one to be
silenced so easily and will have her say. A reversal has taken place - one of the first few of the many more
which are to follow. What we have in this situation is not the wives listening to the Church (represented
here by the Pardoner) but the Church listening to a wife. This is certainly an occurrence, which carries the
distinction of being a rarity. At this point you must make a note of the fact that Chaucer is parodying the
genre of a sermon, normally delivered by a preacher, here. The preachers were always men but here we
have a woman who is going to teach 'younge men' like the Pardoner and is going to assume the role of a
learned authority. The theme of reversal is surely at work.
Though the Wife promises to be a good preacher and illustrate her tale with 'ensamples mo than ten,'
yet at the same time she reminds us of the basic premise of the whole Canterbury Tales when she says
that her 'entente nis but for to pleye'. The tales are the outcome of a game the pilgrims are playing, so it
would be a mistake to attach too much seriousness to the Wife's talk. She herself is playing a game
through her Prologue and Tale when she projects herself as a woman with all her faults blown up to
justify the misogynist's hatred of women. Yet, through this game she succeeds in exposing the antifeminists for their unjust condemnation of women and their one sided attitude towards them.
The Wife's reference to Ptolemy is once again a reminder of the fact that she may have rejected
'auctoritee' at the outset stating that she will rely only on experience, yet, she never misses a chance to use
authority to her advantage. We also know by now that she cannot be always trusted to be correct. In this
particular instance, however, she has quoted correctly: A proverb saying 'He who will not be warned by
other men will himself become a (negative) example for themselves has been ascribed to Ptolemy.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 163-192
Up sterte... that anon
the Pardoner started up or jumped up at once
In this case
in this matter
What sholde . . . to-
why should I pay so dearly and bring such misery on myself? I had rather
not marry any wife this year
may you
wolt sippe
are willing to drink
broach, open
to ny
too near
be war
be warned
Ptolemy, an ancient mathematician and astronomer (2nd century AD)
Ptolemy's astronomical treatise
sith it may you like
since it may please you
fancy, inclination or desire
As taketh not... to pleye
do not be offended by what I have to say for my intention is only to
entertain you and have some fun
Section II - The Wife's Description Of Her Life With Her Five Husbands
LINES 193-234
The first three husbands.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife begins with an emphatic assertion that now after all she will start her tale. But then move
on to tell not the tale she is about to but her life story, particularly her married life with five husbands,
three of whom were good and two were bad. The first three were rich old men and could scarcely fulfil
their marital duties because they were almost impotent. She recalls how she used to trouble them on this
account and how many a nights she made them labour in order to satisfy her sexually. It was a piteous
sight and when they failed the Wife made them give her
their land their money and their treasure. And by my faith, she says, she took no account of it. She
cared little for the distress she caused them. She did not need to work very hard to win their love or
respect. All three of them loved her but she did not value their love at all. A wise woman would have to
work very hard and continually to get the love of her husband in case she had none. But since she also had
her husband's love as well their money and their property, then why, asks the Wife impertinently, should
she take care to please them unless it was for her own profit and pleasure. She goes back to recounting her
very personal experience of the unsuccessful nights spent with her three old husbands and talks of how
she put them to work but could never find any pleasure with them. Yet she managed to keep all of them
perfectly happy and blissful. They were always eager to please her and would bring her many gifts. They
were so happy when she spoke to them pleasantly because most of the times she would be scolding them
without mercy.
Calling the audience's attention once again, the wife asks them to listen to how properly she behaved
and says that prudent wives can take heed from what she has to say. She then goes on to prove how
women being adept at lying and cheating, can easily fool their husbands and prove them wrong even if
they were in the right. She is going to illustrate this point further in the lines that follow.
The Wife's description of her married life focuses not just on her personal life but gradually
becomes a comment on medieval marriages in general too. You must make a note of how the Wife uses
commercial terms to describe her relationship with the three rich old husbands she had whom she lumps
together as 'good' while the fourth and fifth are bad. The tables have certainly been turned here. It was the
anti-feminists, the women-haters who had clubbed all women together as bad thus denying them
individuality. The same practice is adopted here by the Wife, in the description of her first four husbands,
who are given no name, no individuality but simply classed together as 'good' or 'bad'. In the first section
of the Prologue, Chaucer had used material from the writings of St. Jerome but now he focuses his
attention on Theophrastus whose Golden Book of Marriage had many disparaging things to say about
women and marriage. Chaucer exploits his remarks and turns them upside down because he puts them in
the mouth of a woman. It is not a man who is in control here but a woman and it is she who quotes lines
from Theophrastus and succeeds in either making a mockery of them or exposing the misogynists as being
prejudiced and unnecessarily dull.
All along in this section you must pay particular attention to the fact that though Chaucer is
relying quite heavily on anti-feminist literature here, yet his intention does not seem to be a
condemnation of the Wife on the same lines. There is a serious ambiguity here since the Wife
projects herself in this section as the worst nightmare of the anti-feminists considering the fact that all
their accusations against women fit her perfectly enough. She is all that the anti-feminists say women
are. Yet, can we take things at face value here? Why do you think the Wife projects herself as the
perfect stereotype or is there an ulterior motive in doing so? Is she in fact justifying men's
condemnation of women or is she exposing their attitude as being grossly unfair? A woman here is
voicing words and opinions that were usually expressed by men. She is as contemptuous of her
husbands as the misogynists were of their women and their wives. When she makes fun of the old
men who are unable to satisfy her desires, she is at the same time exposing them as being equally
lascivious as she is sexually voracious. In fact, her appetite for sex seems to be a show put on for the
benefit of the old husbands for whom she has to feign desire. They, on their part, however lust after
her and wish to satisfy her in return for her sexual favours. So, what she is exposing here is the fact
that women are always unjustly blamed for being lustful. The truth of the matter is that men are
equally promiscuous and lust after women even in old age.
The above approach immediately links up with the imagery the Wife uses to describe her
relationships with her various husbands particularly the first three. The imagery is drawn from the world
of trade and commerce and will be used on throughout the Wife's description of her married life. She is
well aware of her physical attraction and uses her body as a commodity to win compensation from her
husbands. In her own words it is for 'my profit and myn ese' that her body is put to work. In all three
marriages she has the upper hand so the theme of dominance or 'maistrie' which is the main theme of her
Prologue as well as her tale is introduced right away.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 193-234
As evere moote … seye
I shall speak the truth or else may I never drink wine or ale.
Unnethe mighte . . . holde they could scarcely uphold their part of the marriage debt
mene of
mean by
by God
And by my fey .... stoor
'and by my faith I did not care about it.' She was totally unconcerned about
the distress she was causing her husbands.
Yevun . . . tresoor
they had given me their land and their treasure
Me needith nat . . .
I had no need trouble myself any longer to win their love or treat them with
That I ne tolde . . . hir love That I did not value their love at all.
bisye hire evere in oon
be continually busy
I hadde ... in my hond
I had them completely under my thumb.
What sholde.ese?
Why should I bother or take care to please them, unless it was for my own
profit and pleasure?
Explanatory Notes
LINES 193-234
I sette hem so a-werke
I set them to work hard at it.
songen weilawey!?
Sang 'alas'?
The bacon ... at Dunmowe 'the bacon was not fetched for them, I can tell you, that some men win, in
Essex at Dumnow.' This is a reference to the 'Dunnow Flitch' a side of bacon
awarded to married couples who had not quarreled or wished that they were
single all year.
chidde hem spitously
Scolded them mercilessly.
prudent, wise
"beren hem wrong on
to accuse, to prove someone wrong.
cow is wood
shall make him believe that the Chough (a bird some what like a raven) is
mad. The reference is to a well-known story also told in The Manciple Tale
where the wife commits adultery and the talking bird tells the husband about
it. But the wife, with the help of her maid argues and proves the bird mad. [In
these lines the Wife is exploiting to her advantage a common assumption
about women. She acknowledges that people believe women to be liars and
cheats, to be able to trick people into agreeing with them and so on. Since
this is already the general opinion so she decides to match her behaviour to it
and proceeds to do just that. She is acting exactly like the stereotype of a
shrew thus complicating our reaction to her.]
LINES 235 - 92
The Wife illustrates her modus operandi and shows how she controls her husbands. The first way is to
attack them before they attack her.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife has just addressed the audience and asked them to pay attention to how she controls her
husbands. One favorite method is that of accusations and she soon launches into a long list of them.
Addressing her husband as an old 'dotard' she asks him whether this is his idea of how she should be
dressed. She charges him of not buying her proper clothes and points out that while the neighbour's wife is
honoured wherever she goes Alison sits at home because she has no decent clothes. Her next charge is of
lechery and she asks her husband why he goes so often to the neighbour's house. Is it because he finds the
neighbour's wife fairer than his own? She takes this accusation further and asks him why he is always
whispering with the maid. She accuses him of being too jealous and unjustly suspicious of her and her
friend the 'gossib'. He gives himself all the freedom while allowing the Wife none whatsoever and if she
goes to visit the neighbour he would come and preach her a sermon.
Having given an example of how the Wife would beg her husband about various things, Alison then
switches gear to tell us about what the husbands say to their wives or about them. Henceforth the lines are
punctuated constantly with two words 'Thou sayst' rather than 'I seyde.' Beginning with relating how men
find faults with their wives, Alison lists more reasons. They would find fault with any woman, be she poor
or rich, beautiful or plain. A poor woman would mean undue expense for her husband while a rich one
from a noble family would torture her husband with her sullen temper and her melancholy. If a woman is
beautiful then it is suspected that every lecher would want to have her. Even here the fault lies with the
women for amidst so much desire she will not be able to remain chaste for long.
The Wife continues to attack her husbands in same manner and accuses them next of saying that
some people desire women for their money, some for their beautiful bodies and some for their beauty.
Then there are some who are desired either because they can sing or dance or because they have good
manners or can indulge in playful talk. Some for their slender arms and hands. Thus according to her
husband's account, men are doomed to be lured by the devil because of so many attractions he has
placed around them in the shape of women. Even a castle wall breaks down when it is continually
attacked from all sides. But even if a woman is not attractive and is quite ugly to look at, men still
find a reason to fault her. This time they say that because she is ugly she will desire every man she
sets eyes on and will leap on him like a spaniel. Using a proverb the Wife illustrates her point and
says ' there swims in the lake no goose so grey that she is willing to go without a mate, and such a
plain woman will also find some man to bargain for her. Thus she accuses her husband of saying
these various things about women. Calling him a useless fellow she relates how when he goes to bed
he says that no wise man should ever marry. At least not one who aims to reach the heaven and the
Wife's anger is evident in the way she curses this husband and says "may your withered neck be
broken by fiery thunder and lightening."
Proceeding in the same vein the Wife next accuses her husband of saying that leaking or smoking
houses and chiding wives drive men out of their own homes. "What is wrong with such an old man to
chide thus?" asks the Wife. She charges her husband next of saying that we wives hide all our vices till we
are safely married and then we begin to show our worst sides. But according to the Wife, such thoughts
can come only from a wicked man. Expressing a few more preconceptions about women the Wife relates
how these husbands compare the acquisition of a wife with the buying of an animal or a household item.
They say that before they buy oxen, asses, horses or hounds they get a chance to inspect them thoroughly.
Similarly if they go to buy a basin or spoons or stools or clothes and ornaments and the like, then too they
get a chance to inspect everything. But when it come to taking a wife they are given no chance to inspect
the goods till after marriage and only then will the wives show their true colours. Thus 'the old dotard
shrewe' angers the Wife with his comments and observations.
As mentioned before Chaucer relies heavily on anti-feminist literature in this section of the Prologue
but uses it in an ambiguous manner. The Wife appears to be the perfect stereotype and the embodiment of
all the condemnation that misogynists ever made against women. She is nagging, dominating,
complaining, deceitful and so on. But at the same time through the same anti-feminist literature
(particularly Theophrastus's Golden Book of Marriage) Chaucer succeeds in effecting a reversal of the
arguments against women and exposes the unfairness of the treatment being meted out to them by society
in general and by men in particular. When the Wife projects herself as a misogynist's worst nightmare (in
lines 235-42) she is in fact drawing upon Theophrastus's work The Golden book on Marriage. The old
philosopher's description of wives goes somewhat like this:
Married women want many things, costly dresses, gold jewels, expensive items, maidservants, and
all kinds of furniture, litters and gilded coaches. Then come prattling complaints all the night: that one
lady goes out better dressed than she; that another is looked up to by all. 'I am a poor despised nobody at
women's gatherings'. 'Why did you ogle that creature next door?' 'Why were you talking to the maid?'
'What did you bring from the market?' We are not allowed to have a single friend or companion; her
husband's friendship going elsewhere would entail his hate for her, she suspects. There may be in some
neighbouring city, the wisest of teachers, but if we have a wife we can neither leave her behind, nor take
the burden with us.
The similarities between the above extract and what the Wife says in lines 235-42 are amazing.
It is almost as though she is quite familiar with Theophrastus's argument and in all probability most
medieval women would have been familiar with anti-feminist literature. But the Wife's attitude here
is that of bold effrontery. It is almost as though she is saying that okay if this is what you expect of
me then this is what you will get. Is Chaucer criticizing and condemning women though the Wife or
is he in fact exposing the anti-feminists of being harsh and prejudiced is left ambiguous? The device
of using anti-feminist literature to advocate feminism is a complicated one. What we are left with
ultimately is a collage of pieces taken from anti-feminist tradition but a collage that is not necessarily
anti-feminist itself. We feel sympathy here for the women who are unjustly blamed and condemned
all the time and anger and resentment against the misogynists who will find fault with any women be
she rich or poor, fair or ugly. Even the imagery used to describe wives is highly offensive, degrading
and insulting. They are reduced to the level of animals first and then to the level of inanimate objects
being compared to pots, basins and stools - all things which can be tried first before they are bought.
Men wish to apply the same rules to procurement of wives also but cannot know the real nature of the
'goods' until after it is too late. Marriage as a commercial transaction is emerging to be the general
rule here and as a result women are seen as commodities.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 235 - 92
Olde kaynard
Old dotard
Is this thyn array
Is this how you would have me be dressed or is this what you are upto.
al ther
thrifty cloth
decent clothes
dost thou
God bless us.
lat thy japes be
drop your tricks
close friend or confidant
And if I... friend
If I go to meet a friend you chide me like the devil even though I am
innocent. This particular accusation has its source in Theophrastus's The
Golden book on Marriage. There is a reversal here however, because it is
the Wife who is complaining that the husband does not let her meet her
friends while in Theophrastus it was the husband who had complained.
pleye unto his hous
go to his house to amuse myself
And prechist. .. pref
and preach sermon from your seat, bad luck to you.
thou seist
thou sayst
Explanatory Notes
LINES 235 - 92
high parage
noble birth, family
savest thou
suffer or put up with
She may no whyle . . syde She who is attacked from all sides will not be able to remain chaste for long.
Shape or figure.
outher ;
gentilesse and daliaunce
gentle manners and playful nature
hire to chepe
to do business with her
Ne noon . . . withoute make There is no goose so grey in the lakes, you say, that she does not want a
mate. In other words, everyone wants a lover irrespective of how they look.
withoute make
without mate
A thing . .. helde
A thing that no man would willingly want to keep or possess.
thonder dint
Firy levene
Fiery lightning.
They welked nekke
your withered neck
to broke
broken to pieces
Explanatory Notes
dropping houses . . smoke
LINES 235 - 92
dripping houses and smoke. A biblical reference from Proverbs 27.15
which says "A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a
contentious woman are alike."
What eyleth . . . chyde
What is wrong with an old man that he would scold like this?
be fast
safely married.
wicked men
assayed at diverse stoundes tried out and tested at different times
bacins, lavours . . . bye
basins, wash bowls, before men pay for them
household stuff
But folk . . . assay
But people do not try out or test the women they intend to marry.
Old dotard shrewe
old wretched man
LINES 293 - 307
The Wife's next line of attack is to accuse the husbands of accusing her unfairly.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife points out how wrong her husbands were of accusing her of things she was not guilty of at
all. The husbands would charge her of becoming angry with them unless they flatter her all the time. They
even accuse her of being annoyed if they didn't celebrate her birthday with a lot of pomp and show or if
they did not treat her relatives, acquaintances or even her servants with respect. Their suspicion of her
interest in the clerk Jankyn is also unfounded according to the Wife because as she says she has no desire
for him even if her husband were to die tomorrow.
This short passage is also modeled on the anti-feminist tradition though it throws some light on the
Wife's individuality at the same time. That she is vain had been evident from the outset in her portrait
including in The General Prologue. She likes to boast a little and we get a taste of it here when she talks
about having servants in attendance and of her father's 'allies', all of which has a touch of grandness
attached to it. In actual fact there would be nothing grand about the Wife's relatives and she would not
even have many servants. More importantly however, this passage is an excellent example of the irony at
play in Chaucer's work. The Wife calls all her husband's suspicions baseless regarding her relationship
with Jankyn and says that she would not have him even if the husband died tomorrow. In actual fact this is
exactly what she does when her fourth husband dies. So while she is saying one thing she means a
different thing altogether.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 293 - 307
But if thou wilt
unless you will
poure alway
pour or gaze always
Explanatory Notes
LINES 293 - 307
maid servant or chambermaid
bed room
for his crispe heer
because of his curly hair
squiereth me. . .down
escorts me everywhere
I wol hym noght
I would not harm him.
LINES 308-61
The Wife points out how ineffective it is to try and curtail her freedom.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife punctuates her question with a curse when she asks her husbands why they would not give
her the keys to their treasure chests. By God she has as much right over that money as they have. You
cannot make a fool of me, she tells her husbands. They would be mad to think they can have control both
over her body and over their money at the same time. Despite this watchfulness, she says, they will have
to do without one of them. How does it help them to spy on her, she asks. If left to them they would lock
her in their chest. Instead she says they should let her go where she wishes to enjoy herself, and believe no
tales about her. Clubbing other wives with herself she next makes a generalization and says that 'we'
(same as 'us wives' used earlier in lines 225, 282), love no man who wishes to restrict our freedom and
keep track of where we go. We love to be at liberty.
Quoting once again from Ptolemy's Almageste the Wife tries to argue that her husbands should not
care where she goes or what she does so long as she is able to keep them sexually satisfied. If other men
want to light their candle at her lantern, it does not mean that her light will shine less for her husbands.
They need not complain, as they will always have enough.
If a woman dresses up to look pretty it is thought to pose a danger to her chastity, says the Wife. Her
husbands reinforce this argument with quotes from the Bible, preaching to her just like the Church fathers
would. Male domination in Church as well as at home is thus highlighted. The scriptures advise women to
dress themselves in chastity and shame and not in braided hair or precious stones or pearls or gold or rich
clothes. The Wife's husbands interpret this text for her but she considers it not worth more than an insect.
The Wife's next accusation is that her husbands have compared her to a cat. Only cats with singed
fur stay indoors while those with silken fur will always be roaming outside at will, to show off their
beautiful fur and go looking for a mate. Cursing her husbands again, the Wife says she would run out to
show off the coarse woolen cloth, which they give her to dress herself in. Spying on her is not going to
help, she next tells her husbands. Though they would pray for a hundred eyes like Argus yet she would be
able to fool them.
The emphasis in this passage falls on the Wife's desire for freedom and her protest at the men's
pretexts of keeping women restricted to home and hearth and therefore under control. Alison's husbands
of course have no chance at all in keeping her a prisoner in their house. The Wife contradicts her earlier
claims of faithfulness by implying that she has many lovers besides her wedded husband. She had said
earlier that her husband's suspicions about her relationship with Jankyn were unfounded because she was
a faithful wife and yet just a few lines later she is talking of other men lighting their candles at her lantern.
This makes for ambiguity in her character. Where at one point she manages to project herself in a good
light, at other points in the same Prologue she undermines herself. This ambiguity or inner contradiction
forms an essential feature of the Prologue. We are not sure whether we are supposed to like the Wife or
hate her, just as we are not sure whether Chaucer is presenting in her a typical anti-feminist stereotype of a
woman or exposing the unfairness behind the generation of such a stereotype.
The Wife leaves us little time to think. Her pace is swift and she jumps from quoting scripture to a
comparison with a cat and on to the classical reference to Argus to strengthen her arguments along the
way. You must have noticed that the Wife still hasn't begun the story or the Tale she is supposed to be
telling the group of pilgrims. She is so full of herself and so interested in talking about her personal life
that the launch of the actual tale keeps getting postponed while the Prologue becomes lengthier by the
One other fact that you must have noticed is the way she often classes all women together and refers
to them as 'us wyves' or 'we wyves' or just 'we.' Who do you think is she addressing here? Are there any
other wives in the company? From the General Prologue we know that, apart from Dame Alison there are
just two more women present in this group of pilgrims and these two are nuns not wives. So is the Wife
making a generalization and projecting herself as the voice that women in general had always been
denied? Is she becoming the spokeswoman for the female sex? Can this really be the case or is it merely a
projection because in actual fact, a male author Chaucer, has written both the Wife's Prologue and Tale.
She is just a character who is lending her voice for an expression of male ideas. Chaucer could not have
known what women actually thought about these issues being discussed here, for the simple reason that
there were no written records. Thus he can merely make the Wife say "By God, if women hadde written
stories..." (693) and leave it at that. Yet even if the Wife is just a voice in the Prologue, Chaucer has
managed to give her so much life, exuberance, vitality and energy that we are drawn to her irresistibly and
tend to overlook many of her faults. At the same time she manages to garner some support and sympathy
for the women too for the simple reason that in her mouth the anti-feminist carping sounds prejudiced,
unjust and unfair.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 308-361
why hydestow
Why do you hide
with sorwe
curse you
Explanatory Notes
LINES 308-361
Explanatory Notes
LINES 308-361
by God
What wenestow... dame
do you think you can treat the lady of the house like an idiot
Seint Jame
Saint James
That oon . . . thyme yen
You will lose one of them despite your watchfulness.
What helpith thee
how does it help you
Tak your disport
enjoy yourself
I wol nat. . . tales
I will not believe any tales about you.
taketh kepe or charges
takes notice or cares
At oure large
At liberty; free to do as we please.
Of all men ... In honde
The wisest man does not care who controls the world. As long as he is getting
what he wants, a wise man does not care who has more than he does.
'My pleasing thing.' Bordering on the obscene the world literally means
female genitals.
too greet
too great
grudge or refuse
Have thou y-nough . . If you have enough then you have no reason to complain.
danger to
apparaille you
dress yourselves
tressed heer
plaited hair
jewels or precious stones
Explanatory Notes
LINES 308-361
Interpretation, rubric - a guiding quote from the Bible.
Thanne wolde ... in his in Then the cat would remain happily indoors.
goon a caterwawed
go caterwauling i.e. go look for a mate
coarse woolen cloth
the hundred eyed guard of the Greek Gods
warde - cors
body guard
but me lest
unless I want it and am willing
Yet coude ... thee
yet I could deceive him and you better believe me.
LINES 362-383
The Wife continues to reveal how prejudiced men are against women and so were her husbands too.
Detailed Summary
Continuing in the earlier vein where Alison had been charging her husbands with unfairness, she
now narrates how women are thought to be the source of all trouble. According to the Wife the husbands
declare that there are basically three things that trouble the earth and it is not in the power of any human
being to endure the fourth. Cursing her husband she describes how he thinks that a wife is considered to
be one of the three misfortunes that can befall a man. In an indignant tone she demands to know whether
they cannot draw on other examples to illustrate their parables without maligning innocent wives in the
She then moves on to relate how a woman's love is compared to hell, and to barren land, where no
water would stay. A woman's love is also likened to wild fire. The more this fire burns the more it desires
things that will burn and destroy them completely. Another degrading example follows when a wife's
destruction of her husband is compared to the destruction of a tree by worms. This is well known by those
that have been bound to women in marriage.
All of the above derogatory things the husbands have said in their drunken stupor, the Wife tells them.
Addressing the audience directly she gleefully tells them that this is how she succeeded in deluding her
husbands. All that she reports they have said is false because in actual fact they have not said any of this. But
the Wife is so convincing that the husbands believe her and she calls Jankyn and her niece as witnesses.
Once again the passage is replete with anti-feminist attitudes towards women and various derogatory
and humiliating images of them. Earlier women were compared to animals and pots and pans. In this
passage there is a further degradation when they are compared to worms which strip a tree absolutely
bare. The comparison is nauseating but at the same time for a medieval audience it would have had very
serious implications. A worm would immediately conjure up the image of a serpent and the serpent in the
Bible is the next logical step from here. Just as Eve along with the serpent or the devil in the Bible was
responsible for causing Adam's destruction so also are all women in all times and ages. The image of Eve
is a favourite with anti-feminists. In fact the resentment of misogynists against women is traced back to
this initial act of Eve's disobedience that was responsible for the fall of all mankind. In the shape of Eve
all women are held equally responsible and the Bible generates the anti-woman feeling through this image
as well as through its various other scriptural passages which the Wife has been illustrating quite amply
for us all along.
In this passage the Wife's practice of deceit becomes more blatant as she openly admits to having
fooled her husbands convincingly. Yet her tone remains playful. As a skilful narrator she has been able to
achieve a double purpose. While she is continually exposing the various prejudices against women at the
same time she refuses to bow down to such a projection of them. In the end society with its prejudices is
made to look unjust and unfair. The Wife with all her faults still appeals to us because of her liveliness
and her exuberant spirit and her determination to tight the odds and emerge successful. Gradually she does
seem to be emerging as one of the earliest feminists of the age. A feminist who has paradoxically been
created by a male author.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 362-383
And that no. . . forthe
and that no man could endure the fourth thing
thou preachest
Been ther . . .
be there no other kind of comparisons.
liken or compare
But if ...tho
without an innocent wife being one of them.
Thou likenest . . . helle
(Proverbs 30.15.16). Three things are mentioned in the Bible that will never
be satisfied. Hell, the mouth of the womb, the earth that is filled with water
and the fire that never says 'It is enough.'
Wilde fyr
Greek fire. A highly inflammable mixture used in warfare particularly at sea
since it cannot be put out by water.
That brent wal be
that can be burnt
right as
just as
baar I... on honde
I firmly swore to my husbands
Explanatory Notes
And al was fals . . . niece
LINES 362-383
all was lies and yet I got Jankyn and my niece as witnesses to support my
LINES 384 - 430
In these lines the Wife relates with pride how she fooled and troubled her husbands and how she
demanded from them a price for any favours they needed from her.
Detailed Paraphrase
Dame Alice or Alison marvels at herself how effortlessly she could fool her old husbands and
prove them in the wrong even though they were innocent, 'gilteless'. She could bite and whinny like a
horse and complain vociferously even though all the time it was she who was guilty of the same
misdemeanor. Had she not complained so loudly she would have been ruined often. Attack is the best
form of defence and she believes in the proverb that says: 'who so comes first to the mill grinds first.'
Since she was always the first to complain their war was soon brought to an end as the husbands were
glad to be off quickly having been excused for a thing they had not been guilty of in the first place.
The Wife would accuse them of having mistresses at a time when they were too sick to even stand up
straight. The husbands on their part felt happy as they thought that the Wife cared for them enough to
feel jealous at the thought of any husband having a mistress. The Wife then uses the opportunity to
justify her wanderings by the night as she says it is for spying on the mistresses that the husband had
been sleeping with. Under this pretence the Wife admits to having had many good times. Women,
according to her, are well endowed with such cleverness. It is given to them at birth itself. Deceits,
weeping and spinning are God's gift to them.
And so the Wife prides herself on one thing that in the end she had the advantage over her husbands
in every manner possible, be it by trickery or force or some such thing or by continuous complaints and
grumbling. It was in bed that she gave her husbands the most miserable time. It was then she gave them a
lecture and refrained from giving them any pleasure.
She would reject all her husband's advances till he had paid his ransom and only after that would she
allow him to satisfy his foolish lust. She declares that all men can have their pick of the women for
everything is up for sale. But if their hands were empty they would not be able to lure any hawks. For
material gain she endures her husband's lust even though she gets no pleasure from it herself. She pretends
to be happy and satisfied. If they attempted to criticize her or talk to her harshly, she was not ready to take
it meekly and would pay them back word for word. She is sure that on that account she owes them no debt
for there is not a single word for which she has not replied them back in their own coin. Using her
intelligence ably, she manages to win the fight always and the husband has to give up or else there would
never have been any rest. In the end she drives the husband mad and he looks like a mad lion that would
anyway fail to get his way.
The emphasis on deceit continues in this passage and the Wife illustrates the many ways in which
she uses various wiles to fool and control her husbands. Of the three things used here by her to
characterize women, namely deceit, weeping and spinning, the Wife seems to be focusing on the first All
her accusations are baseless. Her husbands have neither insulted her in the manner she says they nave and
nor do they have any mistresses. And yet there is a lot of vividness in the way the Wife puts it all. The
reason for this, lies in the fact that most of anti-feminist literature was replete with such accusations
against women saying that they make their husband's lives miserable in this manner. Thus the Wife is well
aware of how women are condemned by misogynists and purposely projects herself as fitting the bill. Yet
there is a reversal of sorts here for the Wife is doing this knowingly and showing men how their wrong
perception of women is paradoxically empowering them against men as they manage to get their way by
using the wiles that men accuse them of As before there is a considerable amount of ambiguity in the
The Wife also reverses the traditional medieval stereotype of woman whose lot was deceit, sorrow
and hard work (deceit, weeping and spinning). Deceit has been used to an advantage by the Wife.
Weeping is nowhere in her agenda and spinning or hard labour has been turned by her into a profitable
business as she is a cloth maker.
Once again the imagery of trade and commerce is used to describe marital relations. The Wife talks
like a good businesswoman who demands a price for her wares. She lets us have a glimpse of her
emotional side briefly when she admits that she has never experienced any delight in physical relationship
with any of her three old husbands. In fact she is disgusted by them and has to feign an appetite. It is this
disgust that makes her chide them so and yet like a perfect businesswoman she knows she has to endure
this in order to gain material wealth. They are old meat "bacon" which fails to lure any hawks since they
have no taste for old meat.
The genre of the debate, which involves argument from both sides, is seen at work here when the
Wife relates how she argued with her husband 'word for word'. The whole description from lines 422-30
is the description of a debate. The Wife argues successfully with her husbands but if we stop and think for
a moment, she is in fact arguing against all misogynists and all anti-feminists who ever dared to criticize
or condemn women.
The image of the mad lion brings in the play of animal imagery once again. The husbands may look
like lions but they are mad lions - totally out of control having lost their reasoning.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 384 - 430
The peyne I dide hem
the trouble I caused them even though they were innocent
rul giltelees
completely innocent
I could... gilt :
I knew how to complain even though I was in the wrong
Whoso the first...first
Who comes first to the mill grinds first. (Modem variation would be 'first
come first served')
werre y-stint
war was brought to an end.
Of wenches... on honde
I would accuse them of having mistresses
for syk unnethes...stonde when they were so sick they could hardly stand
Explanatory Notes
LINES 384 - 430
pleased, made happy secretly
wende that... chiertee
thought that I had such great love for him
had physical relations with
excuse or pretence
good time
such wit
such cleverness
I avaunt me
I pride myself on, I boast of
the bettre in ech degree
the advantage in all respects
murmur or grouching
complaining and grumbling.
Namely abedde...
especially in bed they had a bad time
do hem no plesaunce
Give them no pleasure
suffre him do his nycetee allow him to do his foolish business i.e. satisfy his lust.
none haukes lure
no hawks lure
For winning.. .endure
I would endure his lust in order to get money from him
Yet in bacon...delyte
in bacon i.e. old meat, she had no pleasure. In other words her old husband
could awake no desire in her.
That moad me...chyde
That was the reason I chided them so often.
had seten hem beside
had sat beside them
paid back
yeve it ups
give it up
A wood leon
a mad lion
Faille of his conclusion
did not get his way
LINES 431 - 452
The Wife continues in the confessional mode relating very personal experiences and using the stock-in
trade examples from the anti feminist literature to her own advantage.
Detailed Summary
Alison has just been telling the audience of the fate of her husbands when they are in bed with her.
Their aged limbs can hardly satisfy her and consequently she finds no pleasure with them. Thus she chides
them and if they dare to criticize her she answers them word for word. This makes them mad and they
always fail to achieve their purpose. In all probabilities at this point the husband in question would have
looked quite sheepish and the Wife carries on from here saying 'sweet heart, take note, how meek our
sheep Willie looks.' She calls him near and tries to
pacify him with a kiss on the cheek. Then she preaches to him a lesson on patience. Since he is turn
preaches to her about Job's patience she exhorts him to be tolerant likewise. If on the other hand he does
not follow her advice then she will show him how pleasant it is to live with a wife in peace. One of us has
to be reasonable she says, and since a man is always more reasonable than a woman and also better able to
bear suffering with patience it is logical that he should exercise some of that patience and tolerance in his
own home. Why should he grumble and complain so much, she asks? Is it because he wants her body for
himself alone? 'By St. Peter' She says, 'I curse you but if I would choose to sell my sexual favours I would
still walk around as fresh as a rose.' She says she will keep her body for his appetite alone and when she
says this she swears by God that she is telling the truth. This passage ends with the Wife telling us that
what she has just been relating is an example of the manner of words she had with her first three husbands
but now abruptly she declares she will describe her fourth husband.
In a manner similar to the one we have witnessed till now in the Prologue the Wife continues to
exploit traditional anti-feminist stereotypes to her own advantage. Men had always projected themselves
as superior to women in everything, also in being more reasonable than they are and more patient. Women
as a direct corollary were thought to be stupid, emotional, unreasonable and impatient. The Wife exploits
this stereotype here. She says that if this is the case then allow your Wives to win. Show some reason and
patience and be tolerant and let them have their way. One cannot find any fault here with the Wife's
argument. Like an expert debater she has been able to effect a reversal and uses the men's own arguments
against them in a very logical and clever manner. The comedy in the situation runs in favour of the
feminists rather than the anti-feminists. It is the women here who seem to be having the last laugh as the
image of a man in this passage is not even that of a mad lion but that of a meek sheep. The preachers have
been silenced.
At the two ends of the argument are once again the high minded 'reason' that men are supposed to
possess and the pleasures of the 'flesh' that the Wife epitomizes. Yet, throughout the Prologue till this
point, we have seen that the men's 'reason' takes a back seat when it comes to marriage. Alison's four
husbands marry her basically for her sexual favours and nothing else. This runs completely against what
the Church Fathers preached and the Wife succeeds in exposing the hypocrisy behind the men's grand
projection of themselves as superior beings.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 431 - 452
Goode lief, taak keep
sweet heart, take note
Let me ba thy cheke
let me kiss thy cheek
Explanatory Notes
LINES 431 - 452
spyced conscience
scrupulous nature
Job's pacience
the patience of Job. In the Book of Job, Job is patient in face of all troubles that
God sends his way and endures the torments stoically. Thus he is often cited as
an example of 'patience'.
be tolerant
it is fair to hav a wyf in it is a fine thing to live with a wife in peace
bowen doutelees
bow or yield doubtless
Ye moste been suffrable you must be more able to bear suffering
Is it for ye...allone
Is it because you want my sexual favours all to yourself?
By St. Peter
bele chose
pretty thing. A euphemism for her body
I sey yow sooth
I tell you the truth
had we on honde
had we between us
LINES 453 - 480
The Wife begins to narrate her experiences with her fourth husband now.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife begins her account of her fourth husband by telling us that he was a reveller, a man who
loved to have fun and therefore, she tells us with no surprise, he had a mistress. Then she abruptly shifts
the focus to herself and recalls her youth. She was young then and full of passion and energy, stubborn
and strong and happy as a magpie. She could sing and dance having had a draught of sweet wine. At this
point too she embellishes her account with an allusion to a Roman anecdote in which Metellius punished
his wife for drinking wine. Alison is indignant and says that had she been his wife he would never have
deterred her from drinking. Having warmed up with wine it was inevitable to think of love and she
habitually quotes a proverb here 'A lecherous mouth must have a lecherous tail.' According to the Wife,
women who are drunk cannot defend themselves against lust. But then she again lapses into memories of
her youth and remembers with happiness how lively and gay she was in those bygone days. Those days
have gone now and taken her youth away with them but she has no regrets whatsoever and says 'I have
had my world as in my tyme.' She has enjoyed her time while it lasted. Age, which poisons everything has
overtaken her now and robbed her of her beauty and vigour. Nostalgically she bids farewell to her youth
and is ready to move on. The flour is gone now and there is no more to tell. All she is left with is coarse
bran, which she must sell as best as she can. And yet, she will still try and be merry and will tell the
audience now of her fourth husband.
The Wife had earlier classified her husbands into two groups - the first three were 'good' and the last
two were 'bad'. The description of good husbands has ended and with this passage we are going to enter
into her life with the bad husbands. In the above passage though she begins with the intention of telling us
about her fourth husband, she digresses after just two lines and moves on to talk about herself and her
youth. Yet the two facts which she does mention are that her fourth husband was a reveller and had
mistress. A contrast is thus set up immediately between the earlier three rich but old husbands and this
fourth who appears to be young and even has a mistress. You might recall that the three old husbands
have continually been accused of having mistresses when they actually had none. The fourth, however,
does have one and this immediately sparks off a chain of memories in the Wife's mind of her past youth.
Why do you think she recalls her youth at this point? Do you think she felt threatened by her husband's
mistress and looked for reasons and one of which could be her advancing age? Yet the Wife recalls herself
as being young at that time and her reminiscences carry a touch of nostalgia while at the same time she
accepts her loss of youth quite gracefully. She has had her fun and now she must accept the fact that she is
old. The imagery used to describe youth and old age is again drawn from the same source where she had
compared wives with barley bread as against the virgins who were like white bread (line 144-7). Once the
flour is taken from the grain only bran or chaff is left behind. This is how the Wife sees herself now The
flour i.e. youth is now gone and only old age i.e. bran is left behind which she must try and sell as best as
she can. There is something rather sad in this admission from a figure, which all along had been
boisterously lively. As before she projects herself in commercial terms as though she is some piece of
goods for sale - goods that have now lost their freshness and their charm. Yet, the Wife's attitude is not a
defeatist one. She is still able to look at the future with some optimism and is determined to try and
salvage as much enjoyment from her life as she can. This passage gives us a rare insight into a soft and
vulnerable side of the Wife's character. In a world dominated by men a woman like her can use her youth
to her advantage. Once that is gone however, she will find the going very tough. The prospects seem bleak
but the Wife's sanguine and upbeat attitude makes her overcome the nostalgia for the time being and she
moves ahead to tell us about her fourth husband.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 453 - 480
mistress, lover
passion, energy
a figure in a Roman anecdote who punished his wife for drinking.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 453 - 480
birafte his wyf her iif
robbed his wife of her life i.e. he killed her
but if
frightened, deterred
For al so
for as certainly as cold gives rise to hail so a lecherous mouth goes with a
greedy tail.
siker... likerous tail
In wommen....No defence Drunken women have no defence against lust.
remembreth me
I remember
Hath me biraft... pith
has robbed me of my beauty and my youth.
lat go
let it.
LINES 481 - 502
The Wife now describes her life with her fourth husband.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife relates how great a resentment she felt if this fourth husband enjoyed himself with any
other woman. Yet, she punished him in his coin and God and St. Judocus paid him back. She made him a
cross of the same wood, not by committing adultery herself but by being friendly to everyone and
welcoming people and succeeded in making her fourth husband so jealous that by God she proved to be
his purgatory on earth. Since he has already suffered so much on earth she hopes his soul would have
gone now straight to heaven and not to purgatory as is customary for souls to wait while their fate is
decided. Only God and he knew how bitterly she tormented him. He died, says the Wife, when she came
from Jerusalem and now lies buried under the rood beam, implying that he was buried inside the church
rather than outside. Although, she stops to add, his tomb was not very elaborate, like the tomb of Darius
which was made by Appelles. According to her it was a waste to bury him expensively. She closes her
account of the fourth husband by bidding him farewell. May his soul have rest she says, since he is now in
his grave inside the coffin.
The Wife's account of the fourth husband contrasts sharply with that of her first three rich old
husbands whom she had been able to manipulate at will and who could never really hurt her emotionally.
The tinge of sadness, which is there in the above passage, comes from the fact that this fourth husband has
succeeded in hurting the Wife by being unfaithful to her. The Wife's earlier boasts of letting people 'light
their candles at her lantern' are contradicted by her behaviour here when she admits to making the
husband jealous without committing any adultery. Can we believe her here? Is it possible that Dame Alice
would have merely made a show of being unfaithful? Is the Wife contradicting herself here or is this
really how it happened? These are some of the questions that one needs to address. The fact that she
succeeded in tormenting her fourth husband as much or more than he did her is enough to let us know
who finally had the upper hand in this relationship too. The Wife does not devote much time and space to
the fourth husband and swiftly moves on to the fifth, thus indicating that the memories of those times are
probably painful ones which she would rather forget.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 481 - 502
anger, resentment
That he of any other had If he enjoyed himself with any other women.
paid back.
Seint Joce
Saint Judocus
Of the same wode a croce A cross of the same wood.
nat of my body
not by committing adultery
I made folk swich cheere
I was friendly to everyone and welcomed everyone.
Purgatory. A place between heaven and hell where the souls spend some time
till they are pure enough to be sent to heaven.
Sho fill bitterly him wrong Shoe pinched him badly.
lyth ygrave
lies buried
Under the rood beam
inside the church though in the cheaper portion of it. So man of same status
but not too grand a stature.
elaborate, intricate
The warrior king of the Persians.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 481 - 502
Apelles a renowned craftsman who made Darius's tomb.
wast... It was only a waste to bury him expensively.
Lat him farewel... reste
May his soul rest in peace.
LINES 503-524
The Wife's account of her fifth husband.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife begins her description of the fifth husband with a blessing on her lips for him. May God
never let his soul rest in hell, she says. Having said that she proceeds to give us an account of his cruelty
to her, which she feels to this day on all her ribs and will continue to do so till the end of her life. But he
was good in bed, she says, in addition to that he could easily talk her into giving in to his wishes whenever
he desired her. So much so that though he would have beaten every bone in her body yet he could win her
love again in no time. She admits to loving him the best of all five for he was very miserly with his love
and gave it grudgingly. Such is the nature of women, says the Wife. They have a curious fancy in this
matter. We want that thing the most, which we cannot get easily. If a thing is forbidden us, she continues,
we will desire it more and if it is pressed on us we want to run away from it. The goods women have to
sell are also laid out slowly and sparingly. If there are many buyers at the market then the prices will rise.
On the other hand if goods are sold cheaply they will not be valued at all. Every woman who is wise
knows this, according to the Wife.
The fifth husband reverses the equation of marriage partners in the Wife's life so far. Till this point
in her life she has managed to have the upper hand in all her relationships with her earlier husbands. The
controls had started slipping with advancing age and we have already witnessed its effect in her fifth
husband who enjoyed the company of other women beside Dame Alison. Yet she was still able to wrench
the controls away from him by fanning his jealousy. With the fifth husband, however, we see the Wife at
the receiving end of verbal and physical abuse for the first time. The reason for this is evidently in her
attraction to and desire for the fith husband. She describes him as 'fresh and gay' in bed obviously
implying that he is young and can satisfy her physical desires - something which she had not been able to
achieve with any of her other four husbands. Yet he is aloof and not always willing to shower love on her.
This only makes her desire him more and based on this she makes a generalization about women's nature.
Forbid women something and they will desire it all the more. This is a cold reminder of the forbidden fruit
of knowledge that Eve ate and brought sorrow to this world and to mankind. Gone is the young, energetic,
domineering Alison of the earlier passages who countered all 'glosing' attempted by men and became an
expert glossator herself. In her fifth marriage she becomes tame, willing to be 'glossed'. Rather than
'glosing' herself. It is not she who talks her husbands around to her point of view but the husband who
talks her around to his. We are being given an entirely different picture of marriage here from the ones we
have witnessed earlier. Physical cruelty within marriage was a fact of medieval England and the same is
reflected in the above passage.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 503-524
al by rewe
one by one. Or one after another.
so wel coude be me glose he knew so well how to talk me round.
at once
hard to get, grudging
Wayte what thing... crave what we cannot have easily we will cry for and crave all day
Press on us fast
Pursue us closely
With daunger... chaff are
Reluctantly and slowly we lay out the goods we have to sell
Greet prees...litel prys
A number of buyers at the market make the price of goods go up. If goods are
sold cheap they will not be valued at all.
LINES 525 - 585
The Wife describes in some detail her meeting with Jankyn and her desire for him.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife once again launches her account of Jankyn with a blessing on her lips and at the outset
points out the difference there was between her earlier marriages and the fifth one. She marries her fifth
husband for love and not for riches because Jankyn was a poor scholar from Oxford and had recently left
the University and was lodging with the Wife's closest friend. Interestingly her name was also the same as
the Wife's only with a slight difference in spelling. She was Alisoun and was the Wife's confident and
knew all her private affairs better than the parish priest. To her the Wife would reveal all her secrets. Be it
about her husband pissing on the wall or doing something that may cost him his life. This friend and one
other along with the Wife's niece knew all her secrets in full. Often her husband faced a lot of
embarrassment and regretted having told her anything and blamed himself for it.
One day in the season of Lent while her fourth husband was in London, the Wife went to visit her
friend and to enjoy herself. She along with 'dame Alis' and Jankyn went into the fields. The Wife's
husband being away, she at leisure to enjoy herself and also to meet various pleasant, lively people. Lent,
which is traditionally a season for abstaining from pleasure and for doing some introspection, was used as
a holiday by the Wife and an excuse to enjoy herself more. She attended vigils and religious processions,
went to listen to the preaching of priests. She also used the season to go on pilgrimages and watched
miracle plays being performed and also attended marriages. She went dressed in her characteristically
flashy manner in her scarlet dresses that had not been spoilt one bit by moths or insects since they were so
well used.
After the above digression the Wife returns to the point where she along with her friend Alisoun and
the clerk Jankyn, had set out for the fields to have a good time. She relates how she struck up an intimate
conversation with Jankyn and in a playful manner told him that if she were widow she would marry him.
Without boasting too much she can claim to have some foresight and is careful to plan for the future in
advance regarding marriage and other things. Citing the example of a mouse she says that if one makes a
single provision for oneself then one is in as much at risk as a mouse that has just one hole to run to. If
that one hole falls through then it is all over with the mouse.
The Wife continues with her description of the day in the fields with Jankyn. She tells us how she
accused him falsely of having enchanted her. It was her mother who had taught her this trick. She even
tells him that she has been dreaming of him at night and in her dream she saw how he would have killed
her as she lay in bed on her back. The bed was full of blood and yet she salvages some good from the gory
dream and interprets seeing blood as an indication of her becoming rich. Yet this was all false, merely an
imaginary account that she relates to engage Jankyn's attention. She is still following her mother's
teachings in this as well as in many other things. Realizing that she had digressed once again the Wife
pulls herself up for it and declares she will now tell us her story.
The Wife's account of how her relationship with Jankyn began is markedly different from the earlier
relationships she had with her four husbands. This time it is she who is seeking the man out rather than the
other way round. Once again in the beginning itself she states categorically that this one man she took for
love and not for his riches for being a poor scholar he had none. A clerk in medieval England was a
student or scholar who was studying for a profession in the Church. The fact that Jankyn is a clerk
immediately creates a link between him and the various Church Fathers whom the Wife has been quoting
as 'auctoritee' and been making fun of at the same time. He would be well versed with the anti-feminist
writings of these philosophers and the same is confirmed a little later in the Prologue when he infuriates
his wife by quoting from such anti-feminist tracts in his Book of Wicked Wives. There is a noticeable shift
in the Wife's approach to the subject of marriage. She had begun by stating that she will use her
'experience' to counter 'auctoritee' in her account of various marriages. Yet she has been unable to refrain
from liberally sprinkling her account with quotes from various sources. It is only in this section that we
find very little of authority being cited. The emphasis has shifted to her personal experiences and the
embellishments now come from similes or generalizations.
Talking of generalizations, you must have noticed that the Wife's confidant has a name exactly
similar to hers with only a slight difference in spelling. Similarly, there used to be an earlier Janekin in the
employment of one of her husbands and there is once again a Jankyn here who may not be the same
person. Why is there this similarity in names? Do you think there is a purpose behind it? According to
Tasioulas, in doing so Chaucer may be dividing men and women into two camps. This is not just the life
story of Alison of Bath. It is about the battle between "Jankyns' and Alisons', between men and women.
Having given them the same names is in her Prologue or having given them no names as in her Tale,
Chaucer has universalized the struggle and lifted it from the level of the particular to the level of the
The Wife's relationship with Jankyn is marked with violence. She has already told us how she oved
him despite his beatings. Her fictitious dream is also full of violence with the image of blood soaked
sheets and her being murdered in bed. This image, however, can be interpreted differently. It can indicate
the sexual act in progress or it can indicate the Wife's wealth since blood traditionally is known to bring
wealth if seen in dreams. The Wife's desire for Jankyn is quite evident in this passage though it is still at a
nascent stage and she admits to merely planning for a future alternative in case of any adverse happening.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 525-585
Explanatory Notes
LINES 525-585
scholar, student.
som tyme
went at horn to bord
became a lodger in the house
intimate friend
private affairs.
every deel
in full, in every detail.
it so happened
In a Lent
during Lent
sondry tales
different tales
eek for to be seye...folk
also to be seen by pleasant people
What wiste...grace be
how could I know where my love was destined to be
services held on the eve of saint's days
pleyes of miracles
miracle plays, religious drama on saint's lives but very popular
scarlet gytes
red dresses
frete hem never a deel
did not eat holes into them
foresight, fixture planning
sterte to
escape to
bar him on honde
accused him
Explanatory Notes
LINES 525-585
LINES 586 - 602
The Wife describes how on her fourth husband's demise she picks Jankyn to be her fifth husband.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife recalls the time when her fourth husband had just died and his body was kept on the bier.
She says she wept continuously and put on a mournful expression on her face, as wives must for it is
customary. She even covered her head and face with a veil. But because she had already provided herself
with a replacement her grief was just little and that she can swear about.
The next morning her husband was taken to the Church being mourned by neighbours all the time;
and Jankyn was one of them. Amidst her show of grief the Wife is alert enough to notice that he had a pair
of very shapely legs and feet. She was so smitten by him that there and then itself, while her fourth
husband was being buried, she pledged Jankyn her heart. He was young, she says, just twenty years old,
while she was forty and yet, despite her age she says, she always had a colt's tooth i.e. tooth of a young
horse. In other words she always had an appetite for youthful desires.
As pointed out in the previous passage, the above section of the Prologue has a more individualistic
flavour. We see glimpses of the Wife as a person rather than a stereotype. The emphasis that was earlier
being placed on authority is given a backseat now and we hear no allusions and no references to scriptures
or philosophical tracts. The Wife's attraction for the young clerk is genuine and for the first time we find
Dame Alison desiring somebody rather than it being the other way round. Yet, a touch of insensitivity,
quite in keeping with the Wife's character as has been projected till now, is evident in the manner in which
she describes herself being on the lookout for a fifth husband while her fourth still has not been buried and
lies dead on the bier. Is it merely the unstoppable sexual energy of the Wife that prompts her to do such a
thing or is there a hint of insecurity here for a woman who is rich but alone in a world dominated by men.
Is the Wife's action a cover-up for this insecurity or is there really a deep emotional need that is waiting to
be fulfilled in her. These are same of the questions that will be answered as her Prologue progresses. For
the time being she merely tells us that though advancing in age she still had youthful appetites.
Explanatory Notes LINES 586 - 602
on here
on his bier
I wepe algate
I wept continuously
made sory chere
put on a sad expression
But for that. . . a make
But because I had already provided myself with a new mate/husband
I wepte but swal
I wept but little
borne a morowe
carried the next morning
maden sorwe
mourned him
oon of tho
one of them
so clene and faire
so shapely and attractive
I yaf unto his hold
I gave into his possession.
coltes tooth
the tooth of a young horse, which implies an appetite for youthful desires
LINES 603 - 626
The Wife relates how the various planets in ascendance at the time of her birth determined her character.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having told us that she had a colt's tooth, the Wife moves on to tell us a little more about herself and
for the time being loses her thread of narrative on Jankyn. She tells us that she was gap-toothed and for
medieval audiences this would have carried associations of a lascivious nature. The Wife then defends her
particular personality saying that stars influenced it. She was a Taurus and was born under the influence of
Venus and that accounted for her lusty nature. She was fair and rich and young and well provided for. She
takes pride in telling us that her husbands had often told her that she had the best 'quonian' in town.
Meaning thereby that she had the best sexual attributes in town. Certainly both Venus and Mars ruled her
personality. In feelings and emotion Venus governed her but her heart was Martian. Venus was
responsible for her lustful and lecherous nature whereas Mars gave her a boldness and sturdiness of
character. Her Zodiac sign was Taurus and at the time of her birth both Taurus and Mars were in the
ascendant. Alas she says, that ever people should think of love as sin. All her life she had merely been
following her basic nature, which in turn had been determined by the influence of various planets. This
was the reason she could never say 'no' to a man who desired her. Yet she carries the print of Mars on her
face as well as in another private place. For, as God is her witness, she never loved using her discretion or
her prudence. She always followed her own appetite, whether the man was short or long or black or white
she never bothered as long as he liked her. It was of no consequence that he was poor or if he had no
social standing.
The above passage is a long digression in which the Wife again tries to take refuge behind
established stereotypes in order to describe her character and also try and justify her promiscuousness to
the audience. We know very well by now that Dame Alison is fond of talking about herself and though
her Prologue follows the genre of a 'Confessio' or a confession yet it is at the same time boastful too
which makes for humour. In the above section of the Prologue the Wife is boasting about her sexual
attributes as well as her generous nature for she could not withhold her 'Chamber of Venus' from any man
who liked her and desired her. This conflicts with her earlier protestations of remaining faithful to her
husbands while making just a show of being unfaithful. The ambiguity and complexity in her character is
thus maintained and we do not know which is the correct picture really.
This passage also illustrates for us a common medieval practice of analyzing characters on the basis
of their horoscopes and physiognomy, which was also influenced in turn by the planets that governed the
horoscope. Thus, Dame Alison tells us that both Venus and Mars determined her nature since both these
planets were in ascendance at the time of her birth. Venus gave her sexually voracious nature, and Mars
gave her the boldness to go out and pursue her desires and seek a satisfaction of them. She is a Taurean
and her physical appearance matches exactly with what Taureans were supposed to look like. She is large
with a sanguine or rosy complexion and flashy in her manners and her dress. Red is a colour associated
with Mars and red is the colour, which dominates the Wife's personality beginning with her complexion
and going to her 'scarlet gytes.' The birthmark that she has or the fact that she is gap-toothed both were
indicative of a sexually bold and promiscuous personality for medieval audience and the Wife cheerfully
informs us of both.
The account reads almost as though the Wife is a perfect picture of a Taurean with all characteristics
attributed to one by medieval astrologers. Knowing the ambiguities of this complex character we can be
sure that Dame Alison is using the conventional ideas to find an excuse for what she does. It is almost as
though she is saying 'I did all this because I couldn't help it. My nature was determined from birth by the
planets, which ruled my sign!' Once again she is trying to do the same thing that she had done with
various authoritative texts of anti-feminist writings. She had managed to get her way earlier by saying that
since men are more reasonable and patient they should give in to their wives. Similarly she is saying here
that 'I am what I am because of the stars that influenced my character.' She has used the astrological
science to allow her a license for what she does. Once again she has played with authority and got what
she wanted.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 603 - 626
gat toothed
gap toothed. The fact is also mentioned in the General Prologue and
indicated a lascivious and false nature according to medieval physiognomy.
I had the prente... seel
The Wife has a birth mark which she calls an imprint of St. Venus's mark.
Notice the incongruity in attributing sainthood to Venus. Venus being the
goddess of love could never have been considered a saint.
wel bigoon
well placed, in a good situation. The Wife can say this because she has
inherited the property and wealth of her deceased husbands
A euphemism like the earlier bele chose or quente. All of these mean the
female genital organ
I am al Venerian...
In feelings and emotions I was governed by Venus while my heart was
dominated by Mars
Venus yaf me...hardinesse Venus gave me my promiscuous nature and Mars gave me obstinacy and
Taurus whose Zodiac sign is the bull, was in ascendance at the time of
Alison's birth.
a particular configuration of planets which determines a person's horoscope.
chambre of Venue
another oblique way of referring to her genitalia
Marte's Mark
mark of Mars could mean her red complexion or another birthmark
Explanatory Notes
LINES 603 - 626
For God ... savacioun
For, as God is my salvation
I ne
I never used discretion in love
loved... discrecioun
Section III - Jankyn, The Wife and The Book of Wicked Wives
Lines 627 - 65
The Wife begins her description of her life with Jankyn. She persists in her earlier behaviour, which is not
liked by her new husband.
Detailed Paraphrase
Within a month of her fourth husband's demise, Dame Alison became Jankyn's wife and was
married to him with a lot of festivity. Soon after her marriage she gave him all her property and wealth
that she had inherited from her earlier husbands but repented sorely when Jankyn would not allow her to
have her way. By God, she says, he hit her once on her ear when she tore off a page from his book. It was
that stroke which caused her to become deaf in that ear. But she was also stubborn as a lioness and a
loudmouth too with her tongue. She refused to give up her earlier ways and walked about the village as
before from house to house although her husband Jankyn had sworn that he would not tolerate such a
thing. He often preached to her, she says, on the matter of wives' obedience and quoted examples from
various sources. One example was of Simplicius Gallus who left his wife for no other reason than that he
saw her bareheaded. Another was of a Roman who left his wife because she went to midsummer revels
without his knowledge. Having cited these classical examples the Wife relates how Jankyn would then
seek out his Bible and quote a proverb from Ecclesiasticus, which strictly commanded men to forbid their
wives from roaming around. Having preached this he would then say that whosoever builds his house of
willow-branches or spurs his blind horse over fallow land and allows his wife to go seek out shrines
deserves to be hanged at the gallows. The Wife stubbornly refuses to heed his warnings and says that she
cared little for his proverbs and sayings. To her they were as worthless as a hawthorn berry. She refuses to
be checked in her behaviour and tells him that she hates to be told of her shortcomings, as would most of
the women. Jankyn would go mad at her completely on hearing this but, says the Wife, she would still not
submit to him in any case.
There is a reversal of the Wife's earlier position with her husbands and she appears to be at the
receiving end now. While in her previous marriages, it was she who had used the anti-feminist literature
against her husbands in particular and against men in general, the tables seem to have turned on her in her
fifth marriage. Jankyn being a scholar is well versed in the anti-feminist tradition and uses the classical as
well as Biblical sources to preach to the Wife about what is conventionally desirable in women. Not used
to being dictated to the Wife resists such criticism with all her might but cannot escape being constantly
subjected to a torrent of anti-feminist attacks. It is she who has to endure the 'woe' that is in marriage something which till now only her husbands had been enduring.
Her earlier admission that she married Jankyn for love and not for money is borne out in this
passage for she informs us that she gave him all her money soon after the two got married. In all
probability she has lured this young man on the strength of her money and riches rather than her looks. So
once again another reversal is taking place. While earlier she had been attracted to the rich old husbands
because of their money, now it is she who is using money as bait to attract a handsome young man twenty
years her junior. This links up with her earlier dream of a bed soaked in blood where blood indicated her
rich status. The bold, lascivious, loud-mouthed woman who was so sure of herself now seems to be
gradually falling to the mercy of a man with whom she has genuinely fallen in love. A vulnerable side to
her character is thus being revealed subtly but we have to be alert to grasp these revelations. The Wife is
good at covering up her weaknesses and as usual presents a bold front.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 627 - 665
courteous, charming, clever
with greet solempnitee
with great festivity
lond and fee
land and property
He list
He was not willing to allow me to have my way.
he smoot me ones... list
he struck me once on the ear
I rente... leef
I tore out of his book a page
That of the strook... deef
of that stroke my ear became deaf
Loud-mouthed chatterbox
although he had sworn
although he had sworn that I would not
olde Roman gestes
ancient Roman tales
that he Simplicius Gallus
that man Simplicius Gallus
and hire.lyf
and abandoned her for the period of all his life
Noght but...say
only because he saw her bare headed
That for his wyf... eke
who,because his wife went to a midsummer festivity without informing
him, also left her
Ecelesisticus 25.25. The proverb says 'Do not allow the water to flow
freely not give a wicked woman the liberty to gad abroad.'
Roule about
Gad about or roam about
Willow branches
And priketh... falwes
and spurs his blind horse across fallow land or open fields
Seken halwes
To go on pilgrimages
Explanatory Notes
Lines 627 - 665
I sette noght a hawe
I didn't consider it of any value/ as worthless as a hawthorn berry
Ne I wolde... corrected be
Nor would I allow myself to be corrected by him
wood al outrely
mad completely
I nolde. .no cas
I could not obey him at all
Lines 666-710
Jankyn's famous 'book of wicked wives' makes an appearance and the Wife expresses her anger against
the misogynists.
Detailed Paraphrase
Now, says the Wife, will she tell the audience why she tore a page out of Jankyn's book, something
for which he stuck her so hard that it made her deaf in one ear. Swearing by Saint Thomas she says she is
going to tell them the truth. Having laid the ground for her explanation, the Wife proceeds to describe a
book that Jankyn had which he would gladly read for amusement both night and day. He called it 'Valerie
and Theofraste' and would always be laughing heartily at the things he would read from this book. The
same book contained selections from the writings of Saint Jerome who was once a Roman cleric but was
later made a cardinal. This man wrote Against Jovinian and probably Jankyn's book carried extracts from
the same. Writings of Tertullian, Crisippus, Trotellam and Eloise also featured in Jankyn's book, as did
proverbs of Solomon and extracts from Ovid. All these selections from various classical and Biblical
works were bound together in one volume and it was called 'The Book of Wicked Wives' according to the
Wife's perception. It was this book which Jankyn read day and night whenever he had leisure and free
time from other worldly matters. He knew more stories and legends about wicked wives than he did about
good wives in the Bible. The Wife's perception is that it is impossible for any clerk to speak well of
women unless they are speaking of holy saints. At this point the Wife alludes to 'one of Aesop's Fables
and demands to know who painted the lion? The fable in question is about a man and a lion who comes
upon a painting in which the man is shown as killing a lion. On seeing this painting the lion merely
remarks that had a lion painted it the picture would have been different. Likewise, says the Wife, men
wrote these stories that Jankyn reads from his Book of Wicked Wives. Had women written stories they
would have exposed the men's wickedness in a similar manner. All of Adam's sex would not have been
able to redress the balance then.
Equating men and women to being children of Mercury and Venus, the Wife points out that the two
are quite opposite in their behaviour. Mercury loves wisdom and science while Venus loves riotous living
and extravagance. Because of their opposite qualities the planets are also placed in such a manner that
only one of them can be in the ascendant at one time. Thus no woman is ever praised by a clerk for he sits
down to write about them only in his old age when he is aged and worthless in the matters of love. At that
point of time he can only criticize them for not being able to remain faithful to their marriage vows.
The Wife's portrait in the General Prologue had begun with a reference to her deafness, which was
the first thing that had struck pilgrim Chaucer about her. The Wife's own reference to the same fact in her
Prologue (lines 634-636) and her return to the story about her deafness all get linked together in the above
passage when we are told in detail what actually happened to cause the condition. It was not a sudden
tantrum or a fit of anger that caused the Wife to behave irrationally and tear a page out of Jankyn's book.
It was an act of protest and anger combined -an anger that must have simmered for long while night and
day as she was subjected to immense humiliation while being made to listen to anti-feminist tracts. It was
no ordinary book that the Wife tore. It was the Book of Wicked Wives' and we suddenly come face to face
with all the anti-women writers that the Wife has been defending herself against and also using them in
her defence, till now. She seems to be losing the battle here for her protestations sound feeble compared to
the solidity of 'authority' in print. Yet she makes a valiant and very clever attempt when she points out that
these writings are prejudiced. Drawing an ingenious analogy with an Aesop's fable she demands to know
who painted the lion. As explained above, her implication is that the picture of a man killing a lion would
have been different had a lion painted it. So also, all these tracts against women are by the same token
prejudiced because men had written them. Had women also written stories they would have exposed
men's wickedness in a similar manner. The Wife's question is a crucial one because it points out one
extremely important fact relevant to her argument. In a patriarchal world where men have the controls in
their hand in every sphere of life a faithful and unprejudiced depiction of women is impossible. In
literature as well as in other art forms like the painting, only men have depicted women since it is they
who have been writing stories or painting pictures. Thus in these art forms one gets to see women solely
from the men's point of view. Had women written stories it would have been an entirely different picture
altogether. You can see how subtly and cleverly, Dame Alison has succeeded in giving us a valid reason
for such a one sided view of women in literary texts. At the same time she has also been able to expose
the fact that men are prejudiced against women.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 666-710
Saint Thomas
Thomas a Becket, to whose shrine at Canterbury the present group of pilgrims
is going. The King's men killed him inside his own cathedral in the year 1170.
he called it Valerius and Theophrastus. The first is an anti-marriage text the
full name being The Letter of Valerius to Rufus, about not marrying a wife.
The second is the name of a Greek philosopher who wrote a book against
marriage called On Marriage.
cleped... .Theofraste
Saint Jerome (341-420 AD). He wrote a treatise Against Jovinian, which is a
take off on Theophrastus's book On Marriage. He was not a cardinal but was
often depicted as one in Medieval and Renaissance paintings. He is famous
for his strict and harsh lifestyle and extremely critical views on women. He
wrote Against Jovinian because the monk Jovinian had equated marriage with
virginity and said that both are same in the eyes of God.
Tertullian. He was a Roman who converted to Christianity and thus became
one of the early Christians. He spoke in favour of Chastity and monogamy.
Crisipus, Tertula and
St. Jerome criticized Crisippus for advocating marriage. Trotula was a female
doctor and an expert on gynecology. Heloise married a cleric Abelard
secretly. He was a teacher at Paris and Heloise's family punished him by
castrating him since clerics were not allowed to marry. Later he lived his life
as a hermit while Heloise became a prioress of a convent near Paris.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 666-710
Ovyd's Art
The reference is to Ovid's book on the Art of Love.
He knew of hem...Bible
He knew more legends and life stories of wicked wives than of good women
in the Bible.
It is an impossible
it is an impossibility.
never the mo
never at all, not in any way.
Who peyntede the lion
This is a reference to one of Aesop's fables in which a man and a lion are
looking at a picture of a man killing a lion. The lion merely remarks that had
a lion painted the picture the roles would have been reversed.
withinne her oratories
within their chapels
mark of Adam
Adam's sex
make amends
Mercury. The planet which rules intellectuals and scholars.
Been in hir...contrarious
Are completely opposite of one another in their outlook.
ryot and dispence
riotous and extravagant living
And for hir...exaltacioun
And because of their opposite disposition each is at its weakest when the
other is in ascendance. Thus Mercury will be weak when Venus is powerful
and vice versa.
Kan not kepe her
Can not remain faithful in their marriage.
LINES 711-87
We are given a glimpse of the contents of Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having informed us in general of the purpose of Jankyn's book, the Wife now proceeds to recall
what he used to say to her from this book -- that same book for which she was beaten, she exclaims. She is
going to tell us how the beating came about. One night, she says, Jankyn, my lord, sat reading this book
by the fire. Obviously he was reading the book aloud for the Wife can recall what he read. First he read
about Eve, she says, who because of her wickedness brought wickedness on all mankind and for whom
Jesus Christ himself was slain when he tried to redeem us by his blood. Beginning with Eve the book
contained many examples of women who brought destruction to all mankind. Jankyn read to the Wife the
story of how Samson whose strength resided in his long hair was deprived of it when his wife cut his hair,
while he was sleeping. She then blinded him too. Then he read about Hercules, whose wife Deinaria was
the cause of his death because she made him wear a poisoned shirt. The Wife remarks that Jankyn never
forgot to read her the details of the sorrow and the woe that Socrates' two wives caused him. How
Xanthippe threw wine upon the philosopher's head but he merely sat still and wiped it off saying that
before thunder comes rain. Then Jankyn read to her about Pasiphae, the wife of king Minos of Crete, but
does not elaborate on the story. Pasiphae had copulated with a bull and had given birth to the Minotaur,
half bull and half man. The Wife comments that Jankyn out of wickedness thought the story a good one
since it illustrated well the women's perverse sexual preferences.
Clitemnestra appears next who caused her husband's death out of lechery. Jankyn read all these
stories with full attention and devotion. He then told the Wife about why Amphiarus of Greece lost his
life. The story he relates is about his wife Eriphyle who for a small gold brooch had secretly revealed to
the Greeks where her husband was hiding. In the actual legend Eriphyle had been bribed to persuade her
husband to go to war. He followed her advice and was killed. Jankyn reads about Livia next and of Lucia.
Both of them caused their husbands to die - one for love and the other for hate. Livia poisoned her
husband because she was in love with another man. Lucia wanted her husband to love her more so she
gave him a love potion but because the drink was too strong he was dead by next morning. And so in all
ways their husbands met with sorrow. Then, says the Wife, Jankyn told her how one Latumius
complained to his friend Arrius that in his garden grew such a tree on which his three wives had hanged
themselves out of bitterness. On hearing this Arrius begged for a branch of that tree so he could plant it in
his garden. (Why he would want to do so is any body's guess).
Then Jankyn read stories of some modern wives. How some had killed then husbands in their bed
and how one of them had lecherously copulated with her lover while her husband's corpse lay on the floor.
Some had driven nails in their husband's' brain while they slept and had thus killed them while some
others had poisoned their husband's drinks. Thus spoke Jankyn, the Wife tells us, of more harm than a
heart can think of and in addition he knew of more proverbs on this matter than all the grass and herbs that
grow in the world. It is better, he said to find a dwelling place with a lion or a foul dragon, than with a
woman who is in the habit of nagging. It is also better, he said, to live high up in the roof than down
below in the house with an angry wife. Wives according to him are wicked and perverse and always hate
that which their husbands like. He said that once a woman takes off her undergarments she casts all her
shame away and furthermore if a woman is fair but not chaste then it is like a gold ring in a pig's nose.
Thus railed Jankyn against wives and women and the Wife ends the account by making a sad comment.
No one, she says, could imagine how much misery and pain was there in her heart when she heard all this
anti-women propaganda.
We get a taste of the intensity of the prevailing anti-women sentiment in Chaucer's time. The stories
are endless and drawn from various sources which goes to prove that men in various countries and in
various time periods had thought about women in this derogatory manner. The gory details of wives
pushing nails into their husband's brains or betraying them to their enemies pile up one on top of the other.
We have the culmination in the murderous wife copulating with her lover while her husband's corpse lies
cold on the floor. Along with Dame Alison we as readers and probably the audience too feel that things
have gone too far. The anti-feminist stereotypes at this stage are merely serving to reveal the deeply
entrenched prejudice of men against women. Rather than drawing sympathy from us for the wronged
men, we tend to be sympathetic towards women who had to contend with such discrimination on a daily
basis. Thus when the Wife closes her account with 'Who wolde wene, or who wolde suppose / The wo
that in myn herte was, and peyne?' We are irresistibly drawn towards an understanding of what she must
have gone through and suffered. Thus in a paradoxical manner, the literature which was supposed to fan
our anger against women serves to make us understand their plight better, particularly the Wife's.
Explanatory Notes
oure syre
LINES 711-87
my lord or the head of the household.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 711-87
Eve who ate the fruit of the forbidden tree and caused man to be banished
from Paradise forever.
boghte us with his blood
redeemed us by shedding his blood
specifically, clearly
Samson, whose wife Delilah betrayed him. His strength lay in his long hair
and Delilah cut them while he slept. Then she blinded him in both his eyes
and made him a prisoner. The story is from the Bible: Judges 16.
This is a figure from a Greek legend. His wife Deinaria gave him a magic
shirt to wear thinking it would bring back his love for her. The shirt
however, was poisoned and to escape the pain Hercules burnt himself alive.
a Greek philosopher whose nagging wife Xanthippe caused many
upheavals in his married life. There is however no evidence for the story
about her pouring wine on Socrates' head.
silly, foolish
Er that thonder.a reyn
rain has to fall before thunder will stop
The Queen of Crete and wife of King Minos. She had sex with a bull and
gave birth to a Minotaur who was part bull and part man.
wickedness, maliciousness
Clytemnestra from Greek legends. She plotted with the lover Aegisthus to
kill her husband Agamemnon.
Amphiaraus. He was a Greek prophet who prophesied that a war against
Thebes would bring disaster to Greece. His wife Eriphyle was bribed with a
gold necklace to convince him to go to war. He did and was killed.
Livia poisoned her husband at the provocation of her lover.
Lucia gave her husband a love potion which was too powerful and
accidentally caused his death.
He was deed...morwe
He was dead before it was morning.
in all ways.
The name is probably used wrongly here. In Walter Map's book, Letter of
Valerius there is this story but the tree is in the garden of Pacuvius rather
than Latumius
for herte despitus
out of bitterness in their heart
Copulated with
Lay... upright
Lay on its back, face upwords
Explanatory Notes
LINES 711-87
In addition
dwelling place
Usinge for to chyde
Constantly nagging
Hye in the roof abyde
To stay high up in the roof
They haten... loven ay
They always hate that which gives their husbands pleasure
cast off her smok
Takes off her clothes
but she be chaast also
Unless she is also chaste
Lines 788-810
The famous incident occurs of the Wife tearing the book and being knocked down.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife has just stated that she was deeply pained one night by the anti-women stories Jankyn read
from his book to her. When she saw that he had no intention of ever stopping and would read from that book
all night, she suddenly rushed towards him and tore out three pages from it. At the same time she also hit
him with a fist on the cheek so he fell backwards into the fire. But he leapt up like a mad lion and with his
fist hit her on the head. She was so stunned that she lay on the floor as if she was lifeless. Seeing this he was
horrified and would have run away had she not woken up from her fainting fit. Then she calls out to him
accusing him of having killed her for her land and her money. But before she dies she requests a kiss from
him. On hearing this Jankyn came near her and knelt down beside her and said he would never have hit her
if she had not incited him so. He beseeches her to forgive him. But the Wife hit him on the cheek again
saying she had avenged herself now and does not mind if she never again speaks another word.
The source of all trouble, which is the anti-feminist literature encapsulated in The Book of Wicked
Wives, is destroyed. This can be interpreted symbolically to mean that there is really no way out of this
impasse between men and women than to destroy the stereotypes that generate the anti-women feeling.
The Wife had earlier tried to use these stereotypes in her favour very cleverly. With Jankyn, however, she
loses the advantage and is at the receiving end. The Wife had lost interest in these stereotypes when they
were used against her and petulantly destroys the book that was the root of all trouble. Violence has
marked her relationship with Jankyn and he had not been averse to hitting her before. He therefore hits her
and knocks her down when she destroys his book. The Wife's boastful nature at this stage makes her
increase the number of torn pages from one to three. All along she had been saying that she tore a 'leef' i.e.
one page from the book but here she says she plucked out three pages. It is merely a reflection on her
tendency to boast which she just cannot help. It hardly matters whether she tears one page or three,
ultimately the whole book is destroyed.
The concluding lines of the above passage indicate a tussle that is going on still in Dame Alison's
mind. She loves Jankyn despite his attitude towards her and towards women in general. She wants to
forgive him and go on loving him. Yet she wants o have the last word in the argument too for as we have
seen she is not an easy person to subdue. Thus the pretence under which she deals Jankyn the last blow
and declares herself triumphant. Again her gesture is symbolic for she is hitting not just at Jankyn but at
all misogynists who ever wrote against women. Her desire to win, to have the last word, to have the
supremacy in this relationship will later link up with the basic theme of her story in which the crucial
question 'what do women desire most' is answered with a similar desire for supremacy. Thus structurally
too the Wife's act of giving Jankyn the last blow becomes relevant in the context of her story.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 788-810
stop, cease
was reading or read
I with my...cheke
I gave him such a blow with my fist on his cheek
Upstirte as dooth a wood
leapt up like a mad lion
smote me on the heed
struck me on the head
wolde have fled his way
would have run away
Out of my swogh I breyde
Out of my swoon/faint I awoke
Sister. Not as sister in blood relation but as in belonging to the same
That I have wite
you have yourself to blame for what I did.
thus muchelam I wreke
this much I am revenged
Lines 811-827
The reconciliation between the Wife and Jankyn takes place after he agrees to give her the upper hand in
Detailed Paraphrase
The quarrel and fisticuffs had ended with Jankyn feeling a bit contrite while the Wife wants to love
him and yet gives him a final blow. At last, says the Wife, after much suffering and protestations of love,
Jankyn and she came to an agreement. Jankyn agreed to hand over the reins to her and let her have the
governance of house and property. He also agreed to burn his book. When Alison had thus acquired all the
mastery and had all the supremacy in their relationship, Jankyn had said to her that she is his own true
wife and from then on she was free to do as she wanted till the end of her life. She could keep her social
status and also the property that she had earlier given to Jankyn. After that day there were no more
quarrels between Dame Alison and her fifth husband. She was as kind to him as any wife from Denmark
to India and was also faithful and so was he to his wife. The Wife appeals to God who sits in majesty to
bless Jankyn's soul through His mercy. Ultimately Dame Alison declares she will tell her tale if the
company was ready to hear.
The above passage carries over the ideas from the preceding one and it appears that finally the Wife
could enjoy a peaceful life with her husband Jankyn. The symbolic act of burning the Book of Wicked
Wives implies the relationship is no longer prey to any stereotypical images of women. The two can begin
on a clean slate as all the anti-feminist writings are now out of the way, destroyed forever as far as they
are concerned. The picture that the Wife paints for us is a very rosy one where the fairy tale ending of
living happily ever after rings a false note in the largely realistic account. If you read the lines carefully
however, you will note that peace prevailed in Dame Alison's home only because her husband had agreed
to let her have the controls. Not only did she get the governance of the house and the property, she also
controlled Jankyn completely - his 'tonge' as well as his 'honde'. In return for this governance only had the
Wife agreed to be true and kind to him. Thus a compromise had been reached and the age-old struggle of
mastery seemed to have been resolved in favour of the woman this time. She got her way and was
prepared to be a good wife in return. Yet, knowing the Wife as she has projected herself, one wonders
whether everything is as meets the eye. The misogynists have been silenced for the time being, but has the
Wife not proved them right by behaving as she does and desiring mastery in marriage. The complexities
and ambiguities of her character refuse to go away despite the rosy picture of a peaceful and happy
marriage at the end of her Prologue.
Explanatory Notes Lines 811-827
We fille acorded... selven We fell into agreement between the two of us.
tonge and of his hond
of his tongue and of his hand
brenne his book....tho
burn his book there and then
sovereignty or supremacy
do as thee lust
do as you like
the terme of al thy lyf
the period of all your life
Keep thyn...estaat
guard your honour and also my social standing
Explanatory Notes Lines 811-827
and also trewe
and just as faithful
sit in magestee
sit in majesty
for his
through his
LINES 829 - 856
An interruption occurs in which the Friar has a few words with the Wife and the Summoner.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having heard the Wife ultimately declare her intention of beginning her story, the Friar laughed and
said that this surely is a very long preamble to a tale. When the Summoner hears the Friar exclaim thus he
swears by God's two arms and says, trust a Friar to interfere in this manner. He compares the Friar to a fly
and says that both fall into every dish and topic pointing out their nosy nature. Without knowing what a
preamble is the Summoner mistakes the word for amble and pertinently asks the Friar to go and amble or
trot or walk or sit down himself and not hinder their enjoyment in this manner. The Friar asks whether he
wants it that way and promises to tell such a tale or two about Summoners that it will have the whole
company laughing. Otherwise he shall curse the Summoners face. The Summoner launches a counter
attack and promises to teli two or three tales about Friars before they even reach Sittingbourne. His stories
will make the Friar's heart grieve for the Summoner knows well that his patience is gone. The host, being
the master of ceremonies, feels the situation going out of hand and tries to make peace between two.
Calling for peace at once, he says they should let the woman tell her tale and accuses them of behaving
like people who are drunk on ale. He then addresses the Wife as 'dame' and requests her to proceed with
telling her story. The Wife expresses readiness and sarcastically asks whether she has permission from the
worthy Friar. The Friar in turn is now ready to hear the tale and thus asks her to proceed.
The Friar's interruption is a reminder of the larger framework in which these stories are held
together. Lest we forget that we are with a group of pilgrims who are telling tales to pass the time on the
long journey from London to Canterbury, Chaucer puts these short interruptions at various points within
various tales. They come as a reminder of not just the over all framework but also the fact that what we
are witnessing is a game. Thus any seriousness or pall of gloom that might descend from time to time is
soon dispelled. At the same time, in these interruptions we are given an immediate reaction to what has
just preceded. Thus the Friar laughs at the Wife of Bath and with his laughter re-invokes all the prejudices
that the Wife has tried to destroy by burning the Book Of Wicked Wives. Being a man of Church it can be
expected of the Friar that he will be strongly anti-feminist in his attitudes. The struggle that should have
ended is thus renewed. The Summoner, another Church official surprisingly defends a woman here but the
reason lies in the fact that Summoners and Friars never see eye to eye. Also, support from a character like
the Summoner is quite worthless, as he has been depicted as a rogue himself in the General Prologue. He
corrupts his office and misuses it for personal gain. Why do you think Chaucer makes the Summoner
defend the Wife at this point? Is this a comment on the Wife or is Chaucer trying to show that the Wife
does not need any one to defend her as she is quite capable of doing so herself? The latter does seem to be
a more appropriate interpretation. The skirmish between the Friar and the Summoner does actually
materialize later in the form of a story about a Summoner from the Friar and vice versa.
The Summoner's lack of knowledge about the word 'preamble' creates humor and replaces the
somber mood with a playful one.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 829 - 856
preface or introduction
Summoner who is a church official whose job is to summon people to the
Archdeacon's court for offences which fall within the jurisdiction of the
exclaim or cry out loud
spekes tou
speak you
Of making a preamble. The Summoner confuses the word 'preamble' here
with 'amble'
lettest oure disport
spoiling our fun or hindering our enjoyment
Ye, wolstow so
So, do you want it this way?
But if
Sittingbourne. A town forty miles from London and closer to Canterbury. A
probable stopping point.
Ye fare....ale
you are behaving like people who are drunk on ale
An Introduction to the Wife of Bath's Tate
n the Wife of Bath's Prologue we have seen a number of reversals of conventional ideas, with
the Wife herself putting a big question mark on the prevalent anti-feminist stereotypes about
women. The ambiguity and complexity of her character leaves us guessing. We are not sure
whether we are meant to see her as one of the earliest feminists to make an appearance, a sincere
defender of women's rights or to see her as the epitome of all that the anti-feminists hated in women.
Nothing is what it seems. Who should have the mastery in marriage — the wife or the husband? The
Wife's Prologue has ended with an ideal picture - or so it seems - of a husband and wife living in
harmony. But we must not forget that this peace prevails only because the Wife has been given the
controls. Would the husband remain happy for long in such a situation? Is it an ending, which would
match with fairy tale endings of 'they lived happily ever after'? Can such a Utopian ending fit in with the
largely realistic framework of the Wife's Prologue? What do men really want from women? Are they
willing to pay the price of handing over the controls to their wives in exchange for peace and harmony?
These are some of the questions that the Wife's Prologue has raised.
The Wife's Tale is a take off on these ideas and even here we are given a scenario where things are
not as they should be. The defender of people's rights, the knight, becomes a violator himself and rapes a
woman. The court in which he is ultimately brought to face his sentence is comprised of women rather
than men. The heroine is not a beautiful lady but an ugly old hag and all the questions that had been raised
in the Prologue about women and about marriage are raised here too. The theme of Marriage and Mastery
continues to dominate as the crux of the problem in the Tale too lies in the question as to who should have
the controls - the husband or the wife? Here however, it is framed differently and asks 'what do women
desire most?'
In short the tale is as follows. A knight rapes a young woman, a virgin and is brought in for
punishment to King Arthur's court that imposes a death penalty on him. The Queen however asks for the
case to be brought to her court where she commutes the death sentence into a pardon provided the knight
can answer one question. The question is what is it that women really want? The knight sets out on his
quest to find the right answer and meets many women who give him stereotypical answers. Ultimately he
meets an ugly old woman who tells him that what women most desire is power over men. The knight thus
gets the right answer and his life is saved. There is a slight problem, however. In return for this answer he
has to now marry the ugly old woman as he promised. He marries her but on the wedding night he lies
disgusted in bed not even wanting to look at his wife. This prompts the old woman to give him a long
lecture on 'gentillesse' - a quality he ought to possess being a man and also a knight. The old woman offers
him a choice. She is ready to transform herself into a beautiful woman but then she cannot promise to be
faithful. If on the other hand he accepts her as she is she will always remain true. So the choice is between
an ugly and faithful wife and a beautiful but unfaithful wife. The Knight is in a quandary for he is unable
to decide. Ultimately he leaves the choice to his wife. In leaving the decision to her the knight in a way
has transferred power from him to her. The control is now in the woman's hands. She has the deciding
power to do what she wants. This makes her immensely happy as you know this is what the answer had
been to the riddle, what do women desire most? They desire power and the knight and his ugly wife have
proved that this in fact is true. The delighted wife then transforms herself into a beautiful woman and
remains a faithful wife as they both live happily ever after.
You can see for yourself how the basic themes of marriage and 'maistrie' have been carried forward
into the tale. It also invokes the traditional stereotypes of women but since the background to the tale is
the world of romance and chivalry rather than religion, some of the harshest criticism in these stereotypes
gets muted and beauty and love emerge as desirable qualities. Yet the women cannot escape these
stereotypes altogether and simply seem to exchange one set for the other. This tale is written in the genre
of a courtly romance with elements of folk tale mixed with it. Thus we have on the one hand a knight of
King Arthur's court as well as Queen Guinevere and her court of ladies. On the other hand we have the
dance of the fairies, the elves and the ugly woman who has magical powers and can transform herself into
a beauty in no time. The long speech on 'gentillesse' has qualities of a sermon. Thus the tale is modeled on
more than one genre. It also has digressions just as there were a number of them in the Wife's Prologue.
These digressions occur at three points in the tale. One is right in the beginning when the Wife attacks the
Friars briefly, the second is when Dame Alison is trying to prove the point that women are unable to keep
secrets. She illustrates this with the story of Midas. The third digression occurs in the form of a long
sermon on 'gentillesse' by the old hag.
Do these digressions have any links with the main narrative? Do they throw a light on any of the
themes under consideration? Do they link up thematically with the Wife's Prologue? Does the issue of
mastery in marriage get resolved satisfactorily by the end of the Tale or is it left ambiguous? If the woman
in the end 'obeyed him in every thing' then where does she have the mastery? Does the ending of the
Wife's Prologue and her tale have any similarities? Is it after all wishful thinking? These and many other
questions are addressed in the following analysis of the tale.
Textual Analysis of the Wife's Tale
LINES 857-81
The Wife introduces the tale and sets the scene.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife opens her tale with the first line taking us into the world of King Arthur. It was in the old
days of King Arthur she says, a time of which the British people still speak with great honour. It was a
time when this land was full of fairies and the elf-queen danced often in the green meadows along with
her friends. This is what the Wife says she has read about the old days and once again emphasizes that she
is talking of a time many hundred years ago. But now, in present times she says we can see no more elves.
All one can see now is the limiters or other holy Friars thronging and visiting every land and every stream.
In fact, there are so many of them around the place that they seem like dust specks in a sunbeam. One can
find them in blessing halls, rooms, kitchens and also bedrooms; cities, towns, castles, high towers,
villages, barns, stables, dairies, wherever an elf used to walk earlier now walks a limiter, a Friar himself.
In late mornings or mornings and saying his Matins and his holy things he goes in his area. Women can
now move around safely. In every bush and in every tree there is no demon lover present now but only the
friar who will only bring dishonour to them.
You may recall that the Wife's Prologue had ended with the Friar's interruption when he called it a
very long preamble to a tale and had laughed at the Wife. The Wife therefore launches her tale by taking
revenge on the Friar. Friars were notorious for being greedy, corrupt and of being womanizers too. The
Friar's description in the General Prologue has also highlighted these aspects of the so-called man of the
Church. There is no holiness in him except perhaps a show of it to lure simple people to him. Chaucer's
Friar is a limiter, which means that the area in which he could beg his living is marked out or limited for
him. Thus the Wife's attack is directed particularly at the limiters. In his limited area he has the capacity to
intrude into any person's life and into any place. The Wife's long list of these places may sound
exaggerated but gets the idea of the Friar's intrusiveness across quite effectively. He is equated with the
evil spirit incubus, who used to copulate with sleeping women and thus father demon children. The Friars
too dishonour women in a similar manner and Chaucer has hinted at the possibility in his portrait of the
Friar in the General Prologue.
The above passage is the first digression to occur in the tale but its relevance lies in the fact that it
introduces the theme of rape at the outset itself. This is how it links up with the tale where such an event
forms the basis for the narrative to unfold. You must make a note of the fact that defenders of faith are
betraying women here - one is a man of the Church and the other a man who defends the Church.
Since the story is set in the times of King Arthur, many hundred years ago, we get ready for an
Arthurian romance to unfold as there is talk of elves and fairies dancing on the meadow.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 857-81
Explanatory Notes
LINES 857-81
King Arthour
King Arthur, a legendary king of Britain
fulfild of fayerye
filled with fairies
read, interpret
Friars who were licensed to beg or work within a limited' area
dust specks
bed rooms
Boroughs, towns
thropes, bernes.-.dayeryes villages, barns, stables, dairies elf
for there where a fairy used to walk
Under meles and in
late mornings and mornings
demon lover, an evil spirit which copulated with sleeping women to beget
And he wel... dishonour
and he will only dishonour them
LINES 882-918
A young Knight of King Arthur's court rapes a young woman, a virgin and is sentenced to death Queen
Guinevere, however, commutes his sentence and offers him a way out if he can answer c question
correctly and save his life.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having told us that young women these days need only be afraid of Friars as they would dishonour
them anywhere, anytime, the Wife takes us back into Arthurian times. It so happened, she says, that this
King Arthur had a lusty young knight in his service. A knight who was a bachelor (this means that he was
still under training). One day he came riding from the river and as he rode alone he saw a young maiden
walking before him. Despite all she could do the knight used sheer force to rape her and thus robbed her
of her maidenhood. There was an outcry of protest from the public and people came to King Arthur,
pleading for justice. Arthur condemned the knight to be punished with death. Perhaps, says the Wife, this
was the law of the land at the time that for such an offence the man should lose his head. The Queen and
her ladies, however, begged King Arthur for mercy till he agreed to pardon him his life and handed him
over to the Queen for further action in the matter. It was left to the Queen now to save him or put him to
The Queen thanked the King profusely and then spoke to the knight one day. She pointed out to him
that his condition at the moment was such that he had no certainty or security for his life. She could grant
him his life on one condition if he was prepared to give her the correct answer to the question - 'What is it
that women desire most?' He should be careful, she says to him and protect his neck from the iron i.e. the
axe for if he cannot give the answer right away, she was willing to give him leave for twelve months to go
in search for the right answer. And certainly, she said, she would have a promise that he will give himself
up in this place at the end of the period.
The knight was wretched when he heard all this and sighed. At last he chose to set off in search for
the right answer and return at the end of the year with whatever answer God might provide him with. Thus
he took his leave and embarked on his quest.
The Wife's tale is not an original one but it is Chaucer's version of an old and very popular tale,
which had been in wide circulation in England since many years before Chaucer. The basic story is of the
ugly old lady and the riddle about what women desire most. Rest of the appendages kept changing with
different versions. For example, one version in circulation is found in John Gower's Confessio Amantis.
Here, a knight kills a man in self- defence and is set the task of finding out what women desire most. An
ugly old lady gives him the answer but on condition that he will marry her. After marriage the knight lies
disgusted in bed and turns away from his ugly wife. The old hag transforms herself into a beautiful
woman and asks the knight to choose whether he will have her beautiful by day or beautiful by night for
she cannot be both. He leaves the choice to her and thus gives her the sovereignty. This breaks the spell
that had changed her into an ugly woman and she comes back into her original beautiful form forever.
Another version of the same story is known as The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell. King
Arthur is caught hunting in a forest by a man who sets for him a test. The test is once again to discover the
answer to the question 'What women desire most?' Arthur's knight. Sir Gawain, takes up the challenge on
himself and sets out on a quest. Once again the old lady appears who is named this time as Dame Ragnell.
She is prepared to give him the answer on condition that he marries her later. In this version the ugliness
of the women is described in great detail so much so that she comes forth as highly repulsive. Sir Gawain
gives her his promise, the answer is delivered and the marriage takes place. But at night the woman
becomes beautiful and Sir Gawain is asked to choose once again whether he wants her beautiful by day or
by night. Rest of the events follow a similar pattern to Gower's version.
The change wrought in this basic story by Chaucer is that he makes his knight a rapist and does not
give him a name. He is not individualized as characters in other versions were. Thus, even though the
audience was familiar with the story yet there is an element of novelty given to it through some changes.
Why do you think Chaucer introduces an element of rape in this story and does it so casually? Well, one
reason could be because the whole of Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale are geared towards highlighting
the position of women in medieval society. Chaucer seems to be saying that in medieval England women
were regarded as worthless beings and we have already witnessed in the Wife's Prologue how they were
equated with animals or even with pots and pans. Thus, the casualness of the rape stems from the same
attitude. Yet, Chaucer also seems to be saying that such attitudes are a fairly recent phenomenon and in
King Arthur's court the offender would have been punished with a death sentence. Even so, a public
outcry is necessary before the punishment could be given. So Chaucer also seems to be stressing on the
role that ordinary folks can perform in changing these attitudes. A voice of protest, which he has given to
the Wife, is absolutely necessary before perceptions about women can change.
There is a lot of ambiguity, however, which surrounds the narrative. A woman has been wronged,
yet it is women again who make an effort to save the offender. Do you think it is ironical that this should
be the case? Well on the one hand it is ironical but on the other we must not forget that these women now
have the offender at their mercy, they have the power over his life. The situation has been reversed now. It
was the knight who had made a woman powerless when he raped her using his physical energy. The
women now make him powerless using their intellectual force. In his present plight, the emphasis is on
the 'body' that he must yield to the queen's court, if he is unable to come with the correct answer. His body
is now at the mercy of women just as he had the body of a woman at his mercy when he raped her. Thus
Chaucer has ingeniously used the rape element to. make men experience the same powerlessness as
women do in their hands. In addition he has also been able to link the narrative with his underlying
purpose of the Wife's Prologue and Tale namely to expose the position of women in medieval England.
The girl who is raped by the knight is a virgin and she is raped against her will. The Church holds
virginity as being superior to the married state. The Wife has amply illustrated this. But what can a
woman do if she loses her virginity in this forced manner. Is she to be blamed? The implied question once
again forges links between the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 882-918
a young Knight under training
as he was born
as he rode along
maugree her heed
against her will
By verray e... maydenheed
by sheer force, he robbed her of her maidenhood i.e. took away her
wrong doing, her rape
such clamour
public outcry
plea for justice
Paraventure... status tho
perhaps that was the law at that time
preyden. ..grace
begged the being for mercy
put to death
In swich array
in such a condition /trouble
hastou no suretee
you have no surety / guarantee
Be war.... nekke from iron
be careful and save your neck from the axe
To seche and leere
to search and learn
Thy body...In this place
to give yourself up at the end of the year
LINES 919 - 82
The knight sets out on his quest and comes across many different answers to his question.
Detailed Paraphrase
The knight sets out on his long journey to seek an answer to his question in every house and every
place wherever luck would take him to learn what it was that women most desired. But in no coast or
country could he find two women agreeing on any one answer to the topic. Some said women loved riches
while some said they loved honour, some loved fun and some rich clothes, while some loved to have
pleasure in bed and to be widowed and remarried many times. Some said they were much delighted when
they were flattered and pleased. The Wife interrupts her narrative to tell us that here the knight had arrived
very close to the truth and she will not lie about it. A man may win a woman best with flattery and with
attention and concern, she says. This is the way we women are caught, rich and poor alike. But going back
to the story the Wife continues how some women said they loved best to be free and to do as they wanted
and that no man should reproach them for their shortcomings. Rather they should say that the women are
wise and not at all foolish. Again the Wife punctuates her narrative with a comment saying that truly there
are no women who if rubbed on a sore spot will not kick for being told the truth about themselves. If men
try it, says the Wife, they will discover the fact to be true. Women want to be considered wise and without
any vices or faults. Then there are some women who say that the greatest pleasure they get is from being
considered steadfast, constant and able to keep secrets and not betray their men. With such women the
Wife is unable to agree. She observes that what they are saying is not worth a rake-handle for she knows
that women can hide nothing at all. She calls to mind the example of King Midas and asks the audience
whether they would like to hear the story. Unable to resist an embellishment she digresses from the main
narrative to relate the story of Midas whose wife blurted out into a marsh his secret of having two ass's
ears on his head.
This long catalogue of the various things that women desire recalls the Wife's Prologue where such
examples had been cited from various anti-feminist sources and where even the Wife's own character had
exemplified most of these desires. The stereotypes are therefore being re-invoked in this passage and an
ambiguity about the Wife's intentions resurfaces. Is she defending women here or is she condemning
them? Why should she re-invoke these stereotypes? The example about King Midas's wife is particularly
nasty but the Wife is having the last laugh here for in the actual story from Ovid's Metamorphoses it was
not Midas's wife but his barber who had let out the secret of his ass's ears. Thus the fault lies not with the
woman but a man. The complexity and ambiguity of Dame Alison's character thus continues in the Tale
too. She has very cleverly exposed men to be not above reproach in this matter so their self-righteous
attitude is hypocritical to the core. Once again she has been able to turn the tables on them. This single
reversal makes us question all other prejudiced perceptions generated about women in the predominantly
patriarchal societies. Herein lies the relevance of the Wife's digression at this point in the tale.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 919-982
whereas he...grace
wherever he hoped to find luck
he ne coud arryven in no
he could arrive at/discover no place
accordinge in -fare
agreeing together
he gooth ful my the sothe
he arrives very close to the truth
Explanatory Notes
LINES 919-982
Been we y-lymed, bothe
more and lesse
We are caught, both rich women and poor. (Like birds that are caught using
do right as us lest
to do just as we please
repre us
reproach us or criticize us
no thing nyce
not at all foolish or silly
clawe us on the galle
touch us on a sore spot
that we wil kike... sooth
that we will not hit out on being told the truth
try it
we wol been... sinne
we will be considered wise and without any shortcomings or vices
stable and eek secre
constant and also discreet
In o purpos
In one purpose
rake- Steele
rake handle
Pardee, we wommen conne In faith we women can nothing hide
no-thing hele
King Midas. A legendary King of Phyrgia who was granted one wish by
Bacchus. The King wished that all that he touched would turn to gold but
when he judged wrongly who a better musician was between Pan and
Apollo, the gods with long ass's ears punished him. Ovid tells this story in
his book Matamorphoses. In the story however, it was Midas's barber who
revealed the secret and not the queen as told by the Wife.
that save his
that apart from his wife no one else know about
she swoor him...since
She swore to him that she would not for all this world ever do such a
shameful deed
But natcheless..consel hyde But nevertheless she thought she would die if she had to keep the secret any
swal so sore
swilled so painfully
that nedely.. moste asterte
that it was necessary that some ward must burst out from her
since she dare tell it no man
mareys fastely
marshes nearby
Explanatory Notes
LINES 919-982
As a biton bombleth in the as a marsh bird bittern booms in the marsh
though we a tyme abyde
though we hold out for some time
LINES 983 -1022
The knight meets an old woman who gives him the correct answer. In return she wants him to grant her
one wish.
Detailed Paraphrase
The Wife now returns to the main narrative after her digression about King Midas and proceeds with
the tale. She relates how the knight's heart became heavy and he lost his spirits when he saw that he would
not be able to reach the right answer to the question, what women desire most. But now he turns
homeward and he must not delay for the day had come when he must return. As he rode, so careworn, he
saw at the edge of a forest, a group of more than twenty-four ladies dancing. He is drawn to that dance
eagerly in hope of learning some wisdom from them. But as he drew near the ladies varnished and all he
saw there was a woman sitting on the grass. A woman who was so ugly that no one could imagine anyone
uglier than her. On seeing the knight this woman got up and spoke to him "Sir knight' she said 'though
here lies no way. Tell me what is it you seek. Perhaps it may be better for you since old folks know a lot
more things.' The knight bared his heart to her and told her of the trouble he was in. He said he was as
good as dead if he could not find the right answer to the question what women desire most. He asks her
for advice and offers to repay her handsomely. The ugly woman asks him to give her a promise of
granting her one wish. The knight gives a promise and the old crone asserts positively that now his life is
saved, as she will stand by him. She challenges any woman to contradict her when she answers the
question and exhorts him to make haste without losing any more words. She then whispers something in
his ear and assures him to have no fear.
The element of a folk tale now intersects into the Arthurian Romance with which the Wife's tale had
begun. Suddenly we are face to face with fairies from whom the knight hopes to learn 'som wisdom.' It is
important to note that Chaucer mentions that the knight hopes to learn some wisdom from the fairies and
not just an answer to one specific question. In doing so Chaucer has once again improvised on the source
material for the tale where the 'learning' is limited to an answer to a specific question. In The Wife's Tale,
the errant knight is going to undergo a much more comprehensive process of learning. In the future course
of events he will be educated not only about what women desire most but also about more sensitive
aspects of life such as love and consideration towards people. He will learn a lot more about women and
about their relationship with men. The knight has already experienced a sense of powerlessness similar to
what he had subjected his victim to. He will now be made to re-live it when he finds himself at the mercy
of his ugly wife. Yet, at the end of it, this knight who had been too proud and callous will be made to learn
the lesson of true gentility. Thus a lesson in 'som wisdom' is going to include many things for the knight in
this tale.
The old woman who appears in the story can also be traced back to the same literary sources as the
tale. There is one opinion, however, that sees the old woman as representing the Wife of Bath in the tale.
An old woman who desires a young man just as Dame Alison desired the young Jankyn. In this context
the literary source for the character can be located in Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose. In the same work,
a character La Vielle (which literally translated means Old Woman), is an old prostitute who has like
Dame Alison, spent her life discovering ways and means to outsmart men and win an advantage over
them. There is a crucial difference in the two characters, however. La Vielle is a prostitute who wants to
have nothing to do with marriage. Dame Alison on the other hand is a staunch believer in and a strong
advocate of the institution of marriage. Her quest is for happiness in life whereas La Vielle is too bitter to
seek out anything like that. Her energies are directed only at hurting men. Their basic attitude to life also
differs therefore. Alison is optimistic about the nature and is full of life. There is a lot more to her
character than just a bundle of tricks by which to attract men and then get the better of them which is what
La Vielle is shown to have done all her life. The vulnerability and the desire for genuine love humanize
the Wife of Bath whereas La Vielle is unable to come out of the stereotype.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 983 - 1022
might nat come thereby
might not reach the right answer
might nat sojourne
might not delay
at the edge of a forest
he drow fill yerne
he was drawn very eagerly
he niste where
he knew not where
that bar lyf
that bore life or was alive
A fouler wight
An uglier person
Agayn the knight.. .ryse
the old woman began to rise to meet the knight
heerforth ne lyth no wey
go no further from here/ Through here lies no other way
by youre fey
by your faith
can muchel thing
know many things
leve mooder
dear mother
I nam... seyn
I am a dead man unless I can say
wel quyte your hyre
repay you well for your trouble
Explanatory Notes
LINES 983 - 1022
Plighte me thy trouthe
pledge me your word
require or ask of you
I grante
I agree
say with confirmation
a hair net used as a headdress
Tho rouned...ere
then she whispered a message into his ear
Lines 1023-1045
The knight reaches Queen Guinevere's court and delivers his answer.
Detailed Paraphrase
The knight and the old lady set off for the Queen's court. On reaching there the knight declares that
he has kept his promise and has come with an answer. A lot of women come to the court -many noble
wives, maids, widows - for they were thought to be wise -and the Queen herself who sat as Justice, to hear
his answer. Once ail were assembled the knight was summoned to appear. All were asked to keep silent
and the knight was commanded to state his answer. He began his short speech with manly vows. At first
he expressed his allegiance to his Queen and immediately after said that women desire to have
sovereignty over their husbands as their lovers and to be in control of them always. This is every woman's
greatest desire, said the knight though the Queen may kill him or do as she wishes with him — he was
now at her mercy.
In the whole court there was no wife nor maid nor widow who contradicted what he said. All were
of the view that he deserved to have his life back.
This passage brings us to a crucial scene in the narrative when the answer to the question is
revealed. You must have noticed that in the earlier passage the old hag had merely whispered the answer
into the knight's ear and the audience have been kept in suspense. This is an effective narrative device on
the part of Dame Alison to whip up the interest of her listeners. Most of them would be familiar with the
tale and would know the answer yet to delay it by just a few lines engages their interest in a more
effective fashion for already they have seen one improvisation in the tale in the form of a knight becoming
a rapist.
Sovereignty and Mastery are things that women desire most. This immediately links the tale with the
Wife's Prologue thematically because the Wife's account of her marriages had also ended with a
compromise being reached between Dame Alison and Jankyn only when the latter was ready to pass the
controls to her.
Explanatory Notes
Lines 1023-1045
bode appere
commanded to appear
in audience
in their hearing / presence
This knight...doth a best
This knight could not stand still like a dumb beast.
lord, one to whom allegiance is owed
mastery, control
as yow liste
as you wish
to have
LINES 1046 - 1072
The ugly old woman who had extracted a promise from the knight now wants him to grant her that one
wish. She wants the knight to marry her and make her his wife.
Detailed Paraphrase
The moment the knight's answer is accepted and his life pardoned, the ugly old woman, whom the
Knight had seen sitting in the green meadow, starts up from among the present audience and appeals to
the Queen to do the right thing by her before the court adjourns. She tells the Queen that it was she who
had taught the knight this answer and in return he had pledged to grant her one wish, if it lay within his
power. Therefore, she says, in the presence of this court, she wishes that the knight would take her for his
wife. He knows well that she has saved his life and in return she wants him to marry her now.
The knight is devastated and sighs aloud. He wishes he knew in advance about what she would ask
for. He pleads to her to choose a new request imploring her to take all his property but to leave alone his
body. On hearing this, the old woman curses him as well as herself and says she wants no material wealth
even though she be old and ugly and poor. She only wants to be his wife and also his love.
The knight is distressed even further and calls her his damnation rather than his love. His abhorrence
for the old woman is expressed as a loathing for her low birth now. Alas! He says, that anyone of his
noble birth should be so dishonoured. But all his protests are in vain and he is made to marry the woman
and take her to his bed.
The element of suspense is used here once again. Just as the answer to the riddle was withheld from
the audience until the knight gave it in the Queen's court, so also the contents of the wish that the old hag
has extracted from the knight remain suspense till he has his life back. Only at this moment are we told
what the loathsome lady wants from the knight. This was not so in the original sources where the knight
was already aware that he would have to marry the old lady in return for the correct answer. The element
of suspense and curiosity works for the audience but for the knight it turns into shock when he learns that
he has to many the detestable old lady. His powerlessness at this point gets reiterated. Just when he
thought he had his life and therefore power back in his hands, it is snatched away from him once again. It
is a dramatic moment and as before the knight, though a man is at the mercy of a woman rather than the
other way round. This reversal of the normal man and woman relationship however, indirectly illustrates
the vulnerability of women too in a world of men. It is normally the woman who is powerless but here
women have brought about a man's powerlessness in a court of women. The knight is made to experience
the helplessness that his victim must have felt.
Another important aspect of the above passage, which also links it to the Wife's Prologue, is the old
crone's desire for marriage as well as love. Dame Alison who had got all the financial and social security
from her first four marriages looks for something more in her fifth marriage. She searches for genuine
love between a husband and a wife. The old hag in the tale is expressing a similar wish. In fact there is
another similarity between the two situations. Dame Alison is past her prime and is advancing in age and
has surely lost some of her good looks though she may not be as ugly as the old lady in the tale. Like the
old lady she also desires a young man for her husband and wants to be his wife as well as his love. Love
within a marriage was not always a realistic situation in medieval marriages. Marriage was more of a
social contract rather than an emotional one and always involved the two partners in a relationship of not
equals but almost of master and subordinate where the husband usually had the mastery. This was
reversed in a situation where love was involved but not marriage. In fact the Romances depicted love as
being an extra marital activity and the lover as being his lady's servant. The Wife's tale is thus depicting a
very different kind of Romance where the possibility of love within marriage is being considered. Thus
the Romantic convention is being put to the test and satirized. By demanding love as well as marriage, the
Wife and the old hag are revolutionizing and challenging the age-old concepts of both.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1046 - 1072
up stirte
started up
do me right
do me justice
thou wost
you know
kept thy lyf
save your life
upon thy fey
upon your faith
woe is me
as chees a newe requeste
choose / make a new request
would not
That under...above
that is buried under earth or lies above
But if thy.... love
unless I was your wife and also your love
ancestral lineage of noble or high birth
dishonoured or degraded (in this case by marrying lower than one's social
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1046 - 1072
forced, compelled
LINES 1073-1108
The knight and the old lady are married privately since the knight's heart is full of sorrow.
Detailed Paraphrase
Addressing the audience directly the Wife says she cannot give a description of the wedding
festivities since there was no joy and therefore no celebration of this wedding. There was only heaviness
and sorrow so the knight married the old hag privately the next morning and hid like an owl all day after
that because he was so miserable with his ugly wife.
With approaching night his sorrow increased even more and he rolled about in bed in despair. His
ugly wife looked at him and smiled and chided him. Does every knight treat his newly wedded wife in this
manner, she asks him? Is this how King Arthur's knights behave? She is his own wedded wife, she says,
and one who had saved his life. Till now she has done him no harm so why should he behave in this
manner on his first night — like a man who is out of his mind? She demands to know where her fault lies
and if it is within her power she promises to put it right. The Knight voices his despair and hopelessness
saying that nothing can be amended now. She is so ugly and so old and of such low birth that it is little
wonder he tosses and turns and feels his heart about to burst. The loathly lady wants to know whether this
is all that is troubling him and when the Knight replies in the affirmative she says she can amend it all in
just three days as long as he behaves well towards her.
The above passage highlights the knight's despair at being saddled with an ugly, old and poor wife
who is beneath him in social status. The reasons for his revulsion which had been tacit till now, come out
into the open. There is no chivalry normally associated with knighthood. There is no gentility in his
behaviour towards his wife. There is not even gratitude at the fact that she had saved his life. There is only
despair that stems from shallow reasons. The image with which the knight's portrait had been launched
was that of a 'lusty bachelor': Sure of himself of his youth of the power in his hands. There is a complete
reversal of that image here for now he is portrayed as an owl that 'hidde him' all day. Gone is the
assurance of manhood, of status, of youth. In its place there is sheer despair.
There is a comment on the hypocrisy that had got associated with knighthood in Chaucer's time. The
Knight in the General Prologue is the picture of a perfect knight who lives up to the ideals of knighthood
- chivalry, truth and honour. A knight was supposed to be the protector of the weak and the infirm. Here
in the Wife's tale v/e have a knight who falls short of all these ideals. Therefore the old lady questions his
claim to knighthood. His objection to the old lady's low birth again exposes his hypocrisy for he had not
bothered about the low status of the young woman whom he had raped. Men's double standards are
highlighted here in more ways than one. Marriage with an old and ugly woman who has nothing to tempt
the man with should have been ideal according to anti-feminists since they had always projected woman
as a temptress. In this particular context too the hypocrisy and double standards behind men's assumptions
are exposed. They advocate one thing and practise another. If temptation is to be avoided then an ugly old
wife should be acceptable. But in the context of the tale such a woman is unacceptable simply because of
her age and her ugliness, which prevent the knight from behaving like a normal husband with her. The
implied question is what do men really want then? They secretly desire the very thing that they criticize.
The Wife is gradually pulling the mask off the faces of all men who ever condemned women to be
beautiful distractions. The real picture is very different and anti-feminist literature is thus satirized.
In the Knight's 'walweth to and fro' is implied a sexual incompetence which in turn was a test in
medieval times for a man's mental faculties too.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1073-1108
out of negligence or carelessness
I do no cure
I overlook
On morwe
in the morning
so wo was him
so sad and miserable was he
hard to get, reluctant. Especially because King Arthur's knights were known
to be eager lovers
wrong, injury
Comen of so lowe a come of such a low family
walue and winde
toss and turn
So wel ye mighte.unto so that you would behave in a good manner towards me
LINES 1109-1176
The old woman's sermon on 'gentillesse.'
Detailed Paraphrase
The old woman takes her cue from the knight's objection to her low birth and begins a speech on
gentillesse; 'gentillesse' or gentility is not descended from ancestors she says. The fact that you are rich
does not mean that therefore you should be noble too, she argues. She has a very low opinion of such
arrogance and calls it not worth a hen. A truly noble person is one who is virtuous always — in private
and in public and is always working towards being 'gentle'. Our ancestors may pass down their riches to
us and give us all their heritage on which basis we begin to call ourselves of high birth or descent, yet they
may not bequeath us anything of their virtuous living on which basis they were called 'noble' or 'gentle'.
They set an example for us to follow. Giving the instance of Dante, the Italian poet, she says that he wrote
on the theme too. He said that human worth or moral integrity rarely filters down the branches of the
family tree. God wants us to claim or inherit our nobleness from Him. From our own ancestors we can
only claim worldly things.
Continuing on the same theme she says that every person knows this well that if nobility comes
naturally then such people will never cease to practise 'gentility' privately as well as publicly and would
never be able to harm anyone or indulge in any vices. She explains this with the example of fire that burns
irrespective of whether anyone is watching it or not and will continue to burn till it dies down. Expanding
further on the idea she says that 'Gentillesse' or nobility is not linked to the amount of riches or material
wealth a man possesses. If this was the case then all rich people would be noble as well but this is not so.
Men will often come across a rich man's son stooping to shameful and villainous deeds. He that wishes to
be respected for his gentility because he was born in a rich house and had noble ancestors but refuses to
do gentle deeds himself nor follow in the footsteps of his elders, then he is not noble be he duke or earl. A
villain's sinful deeds make him a churl. Nobility is nothing but the renown of our ancestors, a recognition
of their goodness that is unconnected to our personality. Our gentility comes from God and cannot be
bequeathed us by our ancestors along with their rank.
The old hag recalls the story of Tullius Hostillus who became the third king of Rome though he was
born a herdsman. Seneca and Boethius, both philosophers express that there is no doubt that he who does
'gentil' deeds is only 'gentil'. Addressing the knight as her 'dear husband' she concludes her sermon by
arguing for herself. Although her ancestors were of low birth, she says, yet she hopes that God will grant
her grace to live virtuously. Then will she be noble when she begins to shun sin and love a virtuous life.
With incessant repetition of words like 'gentillesse', 'gentle', gentrye', 'gentil man', 'gentil house' in
this passage it is evident that the main focus here falls in the area of gentility or nobility which is often
associated with high birth. Qualities like generosity, courtesy, sensitivity, are linked to it. The knight had
listed old age, ugliness, poverty and low birth as those characteristics that repulse him from his loathsome
wife. The ugly wife in her speech singles out the comment on her low birth and focuses on it to deliver a
sermon on true gentility.
A number of orthodox ideas are being challenged in this passage. The conventional meaning of
nobility as something that is automatically descended from rich ancestors is here put to the test. In a very
logical and authoritative manner, the old woman argues that a name, status or rank does not make a
gentleman. In fact it is a consistently good moral and virtuous behaviour that is the hallmark of true
gentility. Her attack is a direct assault on the knight here who though 'gentil' in the orthodox sense of the
term has nevertheless behaved like a churl rather than a nobleman in raping a woman and has thus abused
his position. Thus the old woman convincingly argues that our elders can only bequeath their name or
their property to us but they cannot bequeath their virtuous living which has to come from within each
individual. Consequently she ingeniously locates the source of this 'gentillesse' in Christ from whom it can
flow to every individual who seeks it and strives for it. It therefore does not remain limited to a few names
or a few families only. Hence social and moral conduct and not social class become the determining
factors for 'gentility.' It is something that can be earned and not bestowed. These views expressed by the
old hag are quite revolutionary but at the same time they are entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of
Chaucer's time which was marked by social mobility. The feudal structure was breaking down and
increasing commercialization had led to a large influx of wealth, which in turn was reflected in the
upward mobility of lower social classes. Riches were not determined a birth, they could now be earned
and with wealth came a higher social status too. But nobility of 'gentillesse', which is here de-linked from
both, becomes a quality that is determined by virtuous behaviour rather than an accident of birth or
possession of material wealth.
Thus orthodox notions are being inverted here and once again we see the theme of reversals at work.
From the limited focus on men vs. women we move to a broader framework of the intrinsic worth of each
human being. It is ironical that a man of high birth should be listening to this speech on the higher values
of life from a person of low birth and that too a woman! Being a knight, he of all people should have
understood and practised true gentility. The fact that he doesn't only goes to prove the old lady's point
when she says that nobility is not determined by lineage. The class and gender bias behind the concept of
gentility are thus done away with and in the old crone's speech it becomes a quality that can be merited by
rich or poor, men and women alike.
The sermon like speech is supported by common wisdom e.g.: 'every wight woot this as wel as I'
and also by written authority e.g. the reference to Dante or Valerius and also the Bible. This speech on
'gentillesse' forms the third digression in the Wife's tale but its relevance to the theme of marriage and to
exploring relations between men and women is unquestionable. 'Gentillesse' is a quality that if practised
can improve relations in any context and any situation. Be it the context of marriage or the situation of
men and women pitted against each other in the battle of the sexes. In the context of anti-feminism also
the speech has an important relevance since Chaucer makes a woman deliver the speech rather than a man
and thus challenges the men's claim to superiority.
You might recall that in an earlier passage the knight had approached the dancing fairies in the hope
of learning some 'wisdom'. The lesson in true wisdom is imparted in the passage under consideration and
we realize that there is much more to Chaucer's version of the story than just an answer to the question
what women desire most.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1109-1176
Christ wol
Christ wants
birth or descent
Privee and apert
in private and in public
works hard or strives
heigh parage
noble lineage
Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321), an Italian poet. The reference here is from
Ful Selde...gentillesse
moral worth rarely reaches down the branches of the family tree. God, in
his goodness wants us to inherit our nobility from Him
of this world
To doon... faire office
to perform the noble duties of a truly gentle man
Annexed to possessioun
joined or linked to wealth
Sith his kinde
since people do not behave always as they should, like the fire does, which
burns because it is its nature
nel himselven do no gentil will not do noble deeds himself
For vileyns...cherls
a man who behave like a low person is in effect a low person
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1109-1176
renown, reputation
Which is.personae
which is nothing to do with you
it was
it was not bequeathed to us along with our rank or place in society'
Tuilius Hostillius
a legendary third king of Rome who was a herdsman by birth
Senek and Boece
Seneca and Boethius, both philosophers.
it no drede is
there is no doubt about it
Al were it...rude
although my ancestors were of base stock / low birth
Thanne am I... weyre sin
I am noble when I live a virtuous and sinless life.
LINES 1177 -1216
The old woman's sermon continues. This time the focus is on poverty and old age - the two other things
for which the knight had reproached her.
Detailed Paraphrase
As for your reproach to me regarding my poverty, says the old woman, Christ himself chose to live
his life in poverty. Every man or woman must understand that Jesus, being the king of Heaven, would not
choose any vicious thing. If poverty is gladly accepted, it is an honest thing certainly. She is sure that
Seneca and other religious philosophers will support her here. The old hag considers a man rich if he is
satisfied with his lot in life even though he may not have a shirt to cover his body with. According to her
this is so because he does not want that which is not in his power. On the other hand, people who always
desire something else are poor in the real sense.
Quoting from Juvenal, the old crone says that a poor man can afford to sing and dance in front of the
thieves, as poverty is a great 'remover of anxieties'. It improves wisdom and also patience. It may seem
wretched but it is a possession that no other person can lay a claim to. Poverty helps us understand God
and also ourselves and our friends. Therefore, she chides the knight, he should not reproach her for being
Commenting next on her old age, she points out that authority always says that age ought to be
respected. If the knight says that she is ugly and old, then he need never be afraid of being made a
cuckold, because ugliness and old age are the two great bodyguards of chastity.
The knight's lesson on wisdom continues, as does the theme of reversals along with it because here
we have a man being lectured to by a woman. The arguments in favour of poverty and old age once again
attack the anti-feminist assumptions. If youth, beauty and riches tempt men to women then the knight
need have no fear since the old hag possesses none of these. She is instead an old woman who is poor and
also ugly - a woman who should be an ideal according to anti-feminist standards. In addition she is a
woman who is philosophical and wise too in the bargain. Yet she repulses the knight. He loathes her just
because she is not able to tempt him with beauty and youth. So it is in fact the man who is exposed here as
desiring both these qualities in women. The hypocrisy of the misogynist's stance that depicts women as
temptresses thus stands exposed. The onus for anti-feminist assumptions certainly lies with men in the
context of the Wife's tale. Thus authority, while being used by the hag to support her arguments, is
nevertheless rejected in the broader sense.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1177-1216
Ne wolde nat... living
would not choose an immoral way of life
Glad povert
poverty gladly accepted
Whoso that... poverte
whoever is satisfied with his lot in life
covets, desires
Verry poverte...properly
true poverty is a happy state to be in and it sings by its very nature
a Roman satirist known for his sympathy for the poor
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1177-1216
Poverte is hatful good
poverty is a blessing in disguise
bringere out of bisinesses
an encouragement to work hard
amender of sapience
improver of wisdom
miserable / wretched
Maketh knowe
teaches him to understand God and himself
pair of glasses
Through which...see
through which he can see his true friends clearly
old age
men sholde an old wight men should behave respectfully towards the old
doon favour
be afraid of
cuckold, a husband on whom his wife has cheated
also most I thee
as I may prosper
LINES 1217-1235
The old woman offers a choice to the knight. She can either be ugly but faithful or else beautiful but
unfaithful The knight unable to decide leaves the choice to her.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having educated the knight on true 'gentillesse' and having found convincing explanations in favour
of old age and ugliness, the loathly lady now changes the purport of her speech. Since she knows where
his pleasure lies, she says she is ready to satisfy his desire. She commands him to choose between two
things. One is to have her ugly and old till she dies but at the same time to have her humble, obedient and
faithful. The other is to have her beautiful and young but then be ready to take the chance of having a
crowd of his wife's admirers at his house or for that matter anywhere. She asks him to choose which ever
he would prefer. The knight thinks about the two choices and sighs bitterly and at last speaks out.
Addressing her as his lady, his love and his dear wife, he says he wishes to put himself in her control and
allow her to make the choice for him. He asks her to choose whatever would be most pleasing and most
honourable for her as well as him. He doesn't mind which of the two she chooses to be. As long as she
likes her choice it is enough for him.
Chaucer deviates from his sources in the manner in which a choice is placed before the knight. In
the sources the choice was between a wife either beautiful by day or beautiful by night thus linking it
directly to a choice between public and private pleasure. The choice that is offered in the Wife's tale is
much more complicated and revives the anti-feminist debate where no woman is seen to be without fault
be she ugly or fair, young or old, rich or poor and so on. The lines immediately establish a link with the
Wife's Prologue where we had come across such misogynist observations. So it is not a choice between
different kinds of pleasures but a choice between different kinds of miseries. The woman is totally in
control here while the man has lost all his power. A complete reversal of roles has taken place indeed.
The knight's answer reveals that his wife's efforts at educating him have not been in vain. He has
modified his ideas on women and his orthodox views on things like high birth, old age, poverty and
beauty. His manner of addressing her is a complete turnaround from his earlier stance. He now calls her
'my lady' my love and wyf so deer' He has at last realized her intrinsic worth. In leaving the choice to her
he reverses the roles in a man-woman relationship once again. Earlier, when he had answered the riddle
by saying that sovereignty or 'maistrie' is what women desire most he had spoken it like a lesson that has
been memorized. In his present situation however, he speaks with an understanding that has been brought
about by his wife's teaching. A transformation has taken place and the selfish rapist has now turned into a
considerate husband who offers his wife the control. One can see how the genre of the Romance has at
last been turned completely on its head. We have here not a dashing knight saving a beautiful damsel in
distress but an ugly damsel saving a handsome knight in distress.
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1217 -1235
And take your...of me
and take your Chances of having a number of visitors who will come up to
your house because of me
may wel be
very likely
whether that yow lyketh
whichever you like
avyseth him and sore siketh thinks about it and sighs bitterly
I do no fors
I do not care
whether of the two
which of the two
For as you. suffiseth me
as long as you are happy it is enough for me
LINES 1236-64
The old woman transforms herself magically info a young, beautiful and faithful wife and the story ends
on a fairy tale note 'they lived happily ever after'.
Detailed Paraphrase
Having gained the mastery from the husband, the old woman asks him to kiss her and forget all their
quarrels. She swears by her honour that she will be both to him - that is to say, both beautiful and faithful.
She prays to God that she may die insane unless she is good and true to him as ever a wife was since the
time the world was fresh and new. And unless tomorrow she is as fair as any lady, empress or queen from
east to west, he may do with her life and death exactly as he pleases. She asks him to lift up the curtain
and take a look at her.
When the knight looks at her, in truth she has transformed herself into a lady who was beautiful and
young. He hugs her with joy in his two arms and his heart fills with perfect bliss and he begins to shower
kisses on her. Concluding her tale the Wife informs us that in turn the knight's beautiful wife obeyed her
husband in everything that might bring him pleasure or delight and they lived happily ever after till the
end of their lives in perfect joy.
Having ended the tale, the Wife barges into the line of vision once again with her cry for 'husbands
meek, yonge and freshe a bedde' that she prays God will send their way. Her prayer is for being able to
outlive these husbands and for Jesus to shorten the lives of those who do not obey their wives or are old
and miserly.
This concluding passage of the tale brings in a series of transformations and raises a number of
questions at the same time since everything from start to finish has been characterized by a lot of
ambiguity. The hateful misogynist, the selfish rapist is transformed into a considerate human being who
one hopes will work towards earning his 'gentillesse.' One stereotype has thus been broken. The other
transformation that occurs is that of the old hag who turns into a beautiful lady but not as the result of
some spell which breaks, as was the case in the original source material for the tale Here the power is in
the woman's own hands, to be used when she wants to. Thus when the knight's transformation has taken
place the loathly lady decides to transform herself too and break yet another stereotype - that of a beautiful
but unfaithful wife. She chooses to be beautiful and faithful as well thus proving the misogynists wrong.
At this point too the tale makes a connection with the Wife's Prologue where a similar rejection of
stereotypes had been expressed in the symbolic destruction of Jankyn's Book of Wicked Wives.
Both at the end of the Prologue as well at the end of the Tale we are given an idyllic picture of
harmony that will last for ever. Yet, as there were disturbing hints in the Prologue so also we find a few
disturbing notes in the fairy tale ending of the story. The knight gives the controls to his wife but she
chooses to obey him in everything - so who in fact has the upper hand here? Why not end the tale with
something more radical? If the woman ultimately has to obey her husband then why the long struggle?
But all is not what meets the eye. The Wife has promised to be good and true as ever there was a wife
when the world was fresh and new. We all know that the reference here is to Eve and with that reference
comes an implication of disobedience rather than obedience. The promise of the beautiful wife can thus be
interpreted in an inverted manner.
The tale does not conclude with a 'happy ever after' image. Instead it is immediately linked to the
teller for we have Dame Alison calling out for fresh victims and praying to out live the husbands. Her
appeal to send pestilence to rich old and miserly husbands evokes the image of her first three husbands
and we are back where we started. The blissful picture of marital harmony is thus more of wishful
thinking than a reality. The age-old struggle for dominance in the battle of the sexes is resumed and
Dame Alison's romantic tale concludes on a comical note where husbands are 'meeke, young and fresh
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1236 - 1264
have I gete of you maistrye
then have I won of you the upper hand
Explanatory Notes
LINES 1236 - 1264
as me lest
as I please
I met sterven wood
I may die insane
to sene
to behold
as yow lest
as you please
Cast up
lift up
in truth
a rewe
in succession
pleasance or lyking
pleasure or delight
fresshe a bedde
lively in bed, frill of sexual vigour
to. outlive
Cut short
nigards of dispone
verray pestilance
a veritable plague
Appendix A
Quick Look at the Sequence of Events
The Wife of Bath's Prologue
Lines 1-34
The Wife announces her intention to speak of the woe that is in marriage
Lines 35- 58
She continues to garner support for her argument from Biblical
Lines 59-114
The Wife argues further in her defence of marriage and challenges the Church's preference of
virginity over marriage. She admits that virginity may be a higher state but everybody cannot
achieve it.
Lines 115-162
She now tries to garner support from human anatomy for her argument
Lines 163 - 192
The Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath.
Lines 193-234
The Wife describes her married life with the first three husbands
Lines 235 - 292
She illustrates her modus operandi and shows how she controls her husbands. The first way is to
attack them before they attack her.
Lines 293 - 307
The Wife's next line of assault is to accuse the husbands of accusing her unfairly.
Lines 308 - 361
She points out how ineffective it is to try and curtail her freedom.
Lines 362 - 383
The Wife continues to reveal how prejudiced men are against women and so were her husbands
Lines 384 - 430
In these lines the Wife relates with pride how she fooled and troubled her husbands and how she
demanded from them a price for any favours they needed from her.
Lines 431 - 452
She continues in the confessional mode relating very personal experiences and using the stock-in
trade examples from the anti feminist literature to her own advantage.
Lines 453 - 502
The Wife begins to narrate her experiences with her fourth husband now.
Lines 503 - 524
In these lines the Wife gives an account of her life with her fifth husband.
Lines 525 - 585
She describes in some detail her meeting with Jankyn and her desire for him.
Lines 586 - 602
The Wife next recounts how on her fourth husband's demise she picks Jankyn to be her fifth
Lines 603 - 626
In these lines the Wife relates how her character was determined at birth. This was so because of
the effect of the various planets in ascendance at the time.
Lines 627 - 665
The Wife begins her description of her life with Jankyn. She persists in her earlier behaviour,
which is not liked by her new husband.
Lines 666 -710
Jankyn's famous 'book of wikked wives' makes an appearance and the Wife expresses her anger
against the misogynists.
Lines 711-787
We are given a glimpse of the contents of Jankyn's 'Book of Wikked Wives.'
Lines 788-810
The famous incident occurs of the Wife tearing the book and being knocked down.
Lines 811-827
The reconciliation between the Wife and Jankyn takes place after he agrees to give her the upper
hand in marriage.
Lines 829 - 856
An interruption occurs in which the Friar has a few words with the Wife and the Summoner.
The Wife of Bath's Tale
Lines 857 -881
The Wife introduces the tale and sets the scene.
Lines 882 - 918
A young Knight of King Arthur's court rapes a young woman, a virgin and is sentenced to death.
Queen Guinevere, however, commutes his sentence and offers him a way out if he can answer a
question correctly and save his life.
Lines 918 - 982
The knight sets out on his quest and comes across many different answers to his question.
Lines 983 - 1022
The knight meets an old woman who gives him the correct answer. In return she wants him to
grant her one wish.
Lines 1023-1045
The knight reaches Queen Guinevere's court and delivers his answer.
Lines 1046 - 1072
The ugly old woman who had extracted a promise from the knight now wants him to grant her
that one wish. She wants the knight to marry her and make her his wife.
Lines 1073-1108
The knight and the old lady are married privately since the knight's heart is full of sorrow.
Lines 1109-1176
The old woman delivers a sermon on 'gentillesse.' In these lines she focuses on beauty for the lack
of which the knight feels repulsed by her.
Lines 1177-1216
The old woman's sermon continues. This time the focus is on poverty and old age - the two other
things for which the knight had reproached her.
Lines 1217 - 1235
The old woman offers a choice to the knight. She can either be ugly but faithful or else beautiful
but unfaithful. The knight is unable to decide and leaves the choice to her.
Lines 1236-1256
The old woman transforms herself magically into a young, beautiful and faithful wife and the
story ends on a fairy tale note 'they lived happily ever after'
Lines 1257-1264
As she ends the tale the Wife barges on to the scene again calling for husbands meek and young.
Appendix B
Some Important Literary Terms
Irony: something, which has one obvious meaning and another, implied one. In other words saying
something and meaning something else.
Satire: literature that lays bare the wickedness and follies of our lives and makes human beings
appear ridiculous.
Genre: French term for a kind, a literary type or class. The major classical genres were epic,
tragedy, lyric, comedy and satire to which would now be added novel and short story.
Romance: Romances were works of fiction, or non-historical. It was an adventure tale either of
chivalry or of love. In medieval romances there were three main cycles: (a) the matter of Britain, which
included Arthurian matter derived from Breton lays; (b) the matter of Rome, which included stories of
Alexander, The Trojan Wars and Thebes; (c) the matter of France, most of which was about Charlemagne
and his Knights.
Romances could be didactic but were principally a form of entertainment. They were usually
concerned with characters (and thus with events) who live in courtly world and are somewhat remote from
the every day. Romances thus include elements of fantasy, improbability, extravagance and naïveté. It
also suggests elements of love, adventure, the marvelous and the mythic. For the most part the term is
used rather loosely to describe a narrative of heroic or spectacular achievements, of chivalry, of gallant
love, of daring deeds.
Fabliau: A short narrative in verse, which tended to be coarsely humorous and satirical. They
adopted a caustic attitude towards women, which may have been a reaction against their eulogisation in
the tradition and cult of courtly love.
Breton lay: 'lais' or 'lays' are short romantic narratives mostly in verse form and meant to be sung.
They were stories of romance believed to have been based on Celtic legends. The term 'Breton lay' was
applied to fourteenth century English poems with a 'Breton' setting where the narrative is drawn from
Arthurian and other Celtic legends. 'Breton' refers to Brittany, which was a Celtic pan of France
Anti Feminist Literature Medieval literature, which criticizes women.
Simile: a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, in such a way as to clarify and
enhance an image. The comparison is explicit as opposed to metaphor where the comparison is implicit
and is recognizable by the use of words 'like' or 'as'.
Metaphor A figure of speech in which one thing is described in terms of another. A comparison is
usually implicit. A simple example would be to draw a comparison between a lion and a brave man where
bravery is the attribute that both of them share. If the same has to be expressed metaphorically we would
say 'He is a lion' whereas if we want to use a simile to bring out the comparison we would say that 'He is
as brave as a lion'. In the first use the comparison is implicit while in the second it is explicit.
Allegory: The term derives from Greek allegoria, 'speaking otherwise'. As a rule an allegory is a
story in verse or prose with a double meaning, a primary or surface meaning; and a secondary or underthe-surface meaning. It is a story therefore that can be read; understood and interpreted at two levels (and
in some cases three or four levels).
Appendix C
Suggestions for Further Reading
The Text
Coghill, N (trans). The Canterbury Tales London Penguin Books Ltd.. 1951.
Skeat. W.W., ed. Chaucer: The Complete Works London Clarenden Press. 1912, rpt 1967.
Robinson. F. N. ed. The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2 nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957.
Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chancer. 3 rd ed 1987, rpt Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Winney, James ed. The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press,
Beidler, Peter G. ed., The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Boston. New York: Bedford Books, St
Martins Press, 1996.
Kolve, V. A. and Glending Olson ed.. The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue.
New York, London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1989.
Background To Chaucer
Aers, David. Chaucer Brighton. Harvester Press, 1986.
Brewer, D.S. Chaucer in His Time. London: Longman, 1973.
Brewer, D.S. (ed). Writers in their Background: Geoffrey Chaucer. London.Bell, 1974.
Coulton, G.C. Chaucer and his England. London: Methuen, 1908.
French, R. Dudley. A Chaucer Handbook. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1927.
Robertson, D.W. A Preface to Chaucer. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1962.
Secondary Reading
Brown, Peter and Andrew Butcher. The Age of Saturn: Literature and History in the Canterbury
Tales. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1991.
Carruthers. Man. "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of the Lion." PMLA, 94, (1979): 209-22.
Cooper. Helen The Structure of the Canterbury Tales. London: Duckworth, 1983.
Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1989.
Knapp, Peggy. Chaucer and the Social Context London: Routledge, 1990.
Oberembt, Kenneth. "Chaucer's Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath." Chaucer Review 10 (1976): 287302.
Palomo, Dolores. "The Fate of the Wife of Bath's 'Bad Husbands.' "Chaucer Review 10 (1975). 31122.
Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: Allen and Unwin, 1985.
Wagenknecht, Edward. Chaucer: Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford: Galaxy, 1959.
Wurtele, D. J. "Chaucer's Wife of Bath and the Problem of the fifth husband." Chaucer Review
23(1988): 117-28.
A Note of Caution
In addition to the books and articles mentioned above you will find more than ample material
available on Chaucer in various libraries. The list seems endless but remember that you are not required to
read each and every book available on Chaucer. You can use your discretion and make your own selection
of secondary material.
Appendix D
Some Questions
Give an estimate of the Wife of Bath's character as it is revealed in the course of her Prologue.
What do you learn about the position of women in fourteenth century England from the Wife of
Bath's Prologue?
Bring out the complexities and ambiguities in the Wife's character through an analysis of her
Prologue and her Tale.
The Wife of Bath is a feminist created out of Anti-feminist literature. Do you agree? Support your
answer with illustrations from the text.
It has been observed that the theme of reversals is at work in the Wife's tale. Do you agree with
the statement? Illustrate your answer.
What do you learn about the concepts of love and marriage in the course of the Wife's Prologue
and Tale?
Has Chaucer succeeded in individualizing the Wife of Bath or does she remain a stereotype till
the end? Discuss.
Is the Wife's tale a parody of the courtly romance tradition? Discuss.