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The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale - Geoffrey Chaucer,  James Winny (Editor) Since there has been such a spate of reviews on Goodreads recently, attending to texts that contain the depiction of female masochistic tendencies, I decided to go all the way and go way back to the first text we know of in English that contains this, being Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath's prologue and tale.

Both the tale and prologue depicts violence visited upon women, and in the prologue, it is initially even welcomed by the woman, for love of the man inflicting the violence; but just like Ana in 50 Shades of Grey, Alison decided eventually that she didn't like it, and decided to reform her attractive, sexy fifth husband Janken into more couth ways.

Arriving at a definite stance on how to interpret the message or the character of Chaucer's Wife of Bath, is not an easy task. The Wife of Bath is probably one of the characters that there seems to be least agreement upon, in the entirety of English literature, or such has been my own experience when reading scholarly interpretation upon scholarly interpretation, in order to try and clear my own confusion as to exactly what it is that the Wife herself is saying, and moreover, what Chaucer is generally saying with his creation of the Wife and her Tale.

I have come to the conclusion that the Wife of Bath is at the same time an expression of anti-feminism, and to a smaller extent of pro-feminism, each in different aspects and contexts.

I was taken aback, when I read the Wife's Prologue originally, by the apparent (to me) anti-feminism in this piece. It is quite easy to see the anti-feminist voice Chaucer is speaking with. In the Prologue to the tale, Chaucer seems to be mocking and satirizing a bossy, nagging wife - the kind of wife that most men dread and would find hard to handle.

Comments upon her from scholars seem varied; some praise her as the first feminist, though many feminists see past that and also see a male voice making a hateful parody of the female gender, and of wives in particular, but they also note and comment quite strongly upon the theme of violence weaved into this tale.

Chaucer does not paint a pretty picture of the Wife in her Prologue. She is shown as a liar and a cheat who does not hesitate to openly admit that she prostituted her body to her first four husbands for material gain, and used all manner of deceitful devices to achieve "mastery" over them.

From The Wife of Bath’s Prologue : (as translated)
"Deceit, weeping, and spinning, God doth give
To women kindly, while that they may live. *naturally
And thus of one thing I may vaunte me,
At th' end I had the better in each degree,
By sleight, or force, or by some manner thing"


(Just as a side note, it is interesting to note the use of the word "spinning" whereas Alisoun's occupation is that of a weaver.)

The latter quotation is just one example of the kind of self-revilement that goes on right through the Wife's own description of her relationships with her first four husbands, often extending the negative attributes of the Wife to the female gender in general.
To make matters worse, the wife openly admits that she did not love these four husbands, and often feigned lust just to gain more of an advantage over them.

The Wife as the product of a male construct is never more apparent than in her repeated mention of her own genitals. Over and over she mentions her own genitals (thereby objectifying the female as an object whose sole function is the sexual gratification of males) and how her husbands praised this part of her body. She also mentions how she could have sold it, (her vulva), but kept it for her husband instead (in the sense of a bargaining piece), which does seem to me to have strong overtones of suggesting that wives are little more than prostitutes.

What eyleth yow to grucche thus and grone?
Is it for ye wolde have my queynte allone?
Wy, taak it al! lo, have it every deel!


The playful tone of most of the passages in the prologue, in which the wife tends to contradict herself at times, suggests to me that they were written as entertainment largely for males, who in those times (The Canterbury Tales were thought to have been written around the 1380's) dominated the literate world.

This alone, would in my view be enough to establish a claim of this text being anti-feminist, albeit as a product, to a large extent, of the milieu that Chaucer found himself in.


However, one of the contexts in which I feel it is useful to view the Wife of Bath, is the phenomenon of Chaucer's criticism of the Catholic Church, that pervades the Canterbury tales.

From a historical background, the Black Death had not only opened the way for a stronger Bourgeoisie class, and for a stronger base in medieval society for property rights for women, (which was helped along by the fact that many males were absent/died during the Crusades) but it also weakened the grip of the Catholic Church, which was further weakened by the Western Schism, and which scenario set the stage for the Church Reformation which took place a bit later on in the course of history.

During the fourteenth century (Chaucer was born in 1343), the Catholic church was still very powerful, and many clergy abused their position of psychological power in order to gain temporal power, wealth, and it would seem, sexual/sensual gratification as well.

Chaucer seems to have been well aware of the various types of corruption that members of the Catholic institution was guilty of, from hypocrisy to avarice, to all sorts of clandestine sexual practices, which Chaucer hints at when describing the Friar, one of the Canterbury Pilgrims.

When, at the beginning of the Wife's tale, mention is made that:
"Wommen may go saufly up and doun.
In every bussh or under every tree
Ther is noon oother incubus but he,
(referring to "holy" friairs)
And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour", one wonders if Chaucer is referring to the kind of sexual misconduct apparently practiced by the clergy in the 1300's- 1400's that Amanda Hopkins mentions in her article: Sex, the State and the Church in the Middle Ages: An Overview.

According to a footnote in the abovementioned article, "The evidence of medieval authors, Boccaccio and Chaucer among them, suggests that celibacy was not universally practised by the clergy.

In an examination of legal records from the Paris area in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Kathryn Gravdal finds evidence of gang rape: ‘These collective rapes seem to have been youthful sprees. Patterns in the records indicate, however, that when young clerics eventually became priests and rectors, they continued to practice sexual abuse and these constituted the second largest group of rapists brought to trial in the Cerisy court. … This finding corresponds to the figures Hanawalt and Carter have established for the clergy in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century England, where clerics constituted the largest group to stand trial for rape in the secular courts. The power and prestige of their office may have led them to commit sexual abuses with a certain regularity’

The implication of the above-mentioned research, that Chaucer might have been hinting at actual rapes being perpetrated by the clergy, seems so shocking to me, that I find it understandable that the allusion to "gang-rape by the clergy" in these passages was probably never entertained by critics like Louise O. Fradenburg, who assumes that the substitution of incubi by friars is merely a demystification, and Luarie Finke, who sees in it symbolism of changes to the economic structure of the medieval world.

The sexual activity of the clergy is especially ironic in view of the strong stance the Church officially took against the expression of any sexuality, whether hetero- or homosexual.

We jest in today's modern age about conservatives who decree that sexual intercourse is only admissible when it is vaginal heterosexual intercourse between married partners, in the missionary position, in the dark, and preferable partly clothed; but absolutely no joking: - this is exactly what the Medieval Catholic Church decreed. Any deviance from the abovementioned, was punishable by having to do "penances"; even, for instance, for the 'sin' of married heterosexual intercourse with the woman on top, or intercourse with the wife facing away from the husband.

The Pardoner who is one of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, was one of the people who could gather money from the populace in order to gain pardons for such terrible crimes as, for instance, having intercourse in 'inadmissible' positions, or the even more unforgivable sin of actually enjoying it.

In view of the above and other hints throughout the rest of the Canterbury Tales, I think that a lot of what the wife says, is actually a parody of some of the negative attitudes the Catholic church held about women and marriage, and was just an additional but more subtle way in which Chaucer was criticizing the Catholicism of the day, along with his more obvious digs at the Pardoner, Summoner, Friar and Prioress who take part in the Canterbury pilgrimage.

So if one looks at it in this way, one sees tempered, to some extent, what seems at first to be a blatant anti-feminist stance by Chaucer, and one cannot help wondering if he is not perhaps showing up how extreme (and rather silly and unpractical) the antifeminism of the Church is, by parodying their stance, (via what the husband's say) and then having the Wife reply with rhetoric that she borrows either from the Bible or from common sense.

To go along with my anti-feminist impression, there is, in addition, also the aspect of male/female violence in both the Prologue and the Tale, especially male upon female violence and the apparent suggestion in the prologue, that all women are inherently masochists, and the underlying misogynism that the latter implies.

In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Alison introduces her fifth husband thus:

(I'm quoting a Librarius.com translation)
And now of my fifth husband will I tell.
510 God grant his soul may never get to Hell!
And yet he was to me most brutal, too;
My ribs yet feel as they were black and blue,
And ever shall, until my dying day.
But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
515 And therewithal he could so well impose,
What time he wanted use of my belle chose,
That though he'd beaten me on every bone,
He could re-win my love, and that full soon.
I guess I loved him best of all, for he
520 Gave of his love most sparingly to me.
We women have, if I am not to lie,
In this love matter, a quaint fantasy;
Look out a thing we may not lightly have,
And after that we'll cry all day and crave.
525 Forbid a thing, and that thing covet we;


These passages seem to suggest that Alison forgave Janken for beating her, and even liked him visiting violence upon her, or at least felt excited by it, and that the violence and his withholding love from her, made her crave his love even more. I personally agree to a large extent with Hansen about these passages; that does certainly seem to be what these specific passages are saying.

The passages describing the imaginary bloody dream that Alisoun uses to draw Jankyn's attention with, to me also has disturbing sadomasochistic violent overtones, but since these passages are included in the Ellesmere manuscript, but not the Hengwrt manuscript, and there is therefore doubt that Chaucer himself wrote the passages, I will not include these passages regarding the dream in my discussion.

This theme of violence is continued in Alison's tale, in which an Arthurian knight rapes a maiden upon first sight, despite her avid protestations.

The female condonement and acceptance of this behaviour is carried through in how the queen and female courtiers want the knight spared :
From The Wife of Bath’s Prologue :

"Paraventure, swich was the statut tho -
But that the queene and othere ladyes mo
So longe preyeden the kyng of grace,
Til he his lyf hym graunted in the place,
And yaf hym to the queene al at hir wille,"


So, once again, females are accepting of male violence.

However, the message in the Wife's Prologue soon becomes a contradictory one. At the end of the tale,
"But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
We fille acorded by us selven two.
He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
820 To han the governance of hous and lond,
And of his tonge, and of his hond also,
And made hym brenne his book anon right tho.
And whan that I hadde geten unto me
By maistrie, al the soveraynetee,
825 And that he seyde, 'Myn owene trewe wyf,
Do as thee lust the terme of al thy lif,
Keepe thyn honour, and keep eek myn estaat,' -

After that day we hadden never debaat.
God help me so, I was to hym as kinde
830 As any wif from Denmark unto Ynde,
And also trewe, and so was he to me. "


Take note, that the Wife responds positively to the fact that this man now gave her " soveraynetee". She becomes kind to him in return, just as the old woman in the Wife's tale becomes beautiful, young and obedient, the moment that he lets her choose, that he gives her "maistrie".

This is a rather confusing message if one takes into account that the Wife's first 4 husbands did not rule her in the first place, but she treated them very badly indeed. What then would be the difference between the first 4 husbands and Jankin and the Knight?

I am able to discern three differences:

1. The first four husbands did not have the wherewithall to "rule" Alison, even if they wanted to. She ruled then in any case, by: "sleighte, or force, or by som maner thing,"

2. Both Jankin and the Knight, forced dominance over women by dint of physical violence,
and
3.Both Jankin and the Knight, in the end voluntarily gave "maistrie" to their wives, and through that act, gained their wive's obedience.

The dominance aspect puzzled me at first. Why would the Wife want 'mastery' or dominance, when it would be so much better just to ask for equality?

Then I remembered that the Wife is not a real woman after all, but a "puppet" in the hands of a male, of Geoffrey Chaucer. Equality is more of a female concept while dominance is more of a male concept.

Another aspect of the theme of dominance, might also be seen in context of the kind of feudal society that Chaucer found himself in. Although the absolute power of the aristocracy was waning, monarchy was still very much the order of the day; - there was only one (secular) 'boss'(the king) in the country, and he (theoretically) had absolute power.

So perhaps part of the answer lies with the fact that from Chaucer's point of view, only one person can rule in a marriage, just as only one sovereign can rule a nation. (Nevermind the fact that one might question whether it was really the temporal sovereign or the "Spiritual" sovereign (- the Pope, or Church) that ruled). Perhaps it is the very power play between Church and State of the time that Chaucer lived in that made dominance such an important thing to have. The Greeks and Romans of antiquity might have understood how to share power, but the sharing of power is not a very familiar concept in the Europe that Chaucer lived in.

On a further point, I started to find this "give over power in order to have power" concept in the message that the Wife gives, a bit less puzzling when I read the introduction to the Nevill Coghill translation of the Canterbury tales.
From the introduction by Nevill Coghill:
"It could be debated whether love could ever have a place in marriage; the typical situation in which a 'courtly lover' found himself was to be plunged in a secret, and illicit, and even an adulterous passion for some seemingly unattainable and pedestalized lady. Before his mistress a lover was prostrate, wounded to death by her beauty, killed by her disdain, obliged to an illimitable constancy, marked out for dangerous service.

A smile from her was in theory a gracious reward for twenty years of painful adoration. All Chaucer's heroes regard love when it comes upon them as the most beautiful of absolute disasters, and agony as much desired as bemoaned, ever to be pursued, never to be betrayed. ...This was not in theory the attitude of a husband to his wife. It was for a husband to command, for a wife to obey. The changes that can be rung on these antithesis are to be seen throughout the Canterbury Tales."


This is the only kind of "maistrie", of " soveraynetee" or "government" that to me personally, would make sense in the final words of the wife, when she says:
"And eek I praye Jhesu shorte hir lyves
That noght wol be governed by hir wyves."


However, I am a female, thinking with a female mind, and whether that is what Chaucer had meant the Wife's intention to be, I do not know.

I have already demonstrated at length what I find to be the antifeminist aspects of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, namely the negative ways in which Alisoun portrays herself (a materialistic, power-hungry, nasty, nagging, cheating liar), and also in how readily females accept male-upon-female violence in the text of both the prologue and the tale of the Wife of Bath.

However, there are aspects of the Wife's Prologue and Tale that temper this ant-feminism. As I demonstrated, it is highly probable that a lot of the criticism that Alisoun and her husbands direct against women, are actually opinions expressed by the Catholic Church, who had a very strong censure against the expression of sexuality.

So to me, part of Chaucer's "pro-feminism" lies in how he seems to point out how non-sensical and unpractical many of the Church's teaching regarding sexuality, women and marriage was.

As confusing as Chaucer's point of view regarding female masochism might be for the "moral of the story", it is true, that in both the wife's prologue and in her tale, male violence is tempered, the male 'learns' not to visit violence upon women, and the females in the text do seem to rejoice in this cessation of violence.

I do not, like some feminists suggest, see the reward the knight gets at the end of the story, as being a reward for his violence. I see the reward he gets, in fact, as a reward for the cessation of violence.
Chaucer seems to encourage the code of chivalry which to me is a good thing, inasmuch as it decries violence against women.

It seems to me that here Chaucer is trying to say that males can get what they want, being "female submissiveness and obedience" rather by dint of 'gentleness and nobility' than by force and violence, which is ignoble, and likely to cause a backlash to boot.

Even though female obedience is still the desired outcome of Chaucer's patriarchal world-view, perhaps it is infinitely better to have an obedience that is obtained through courtly love and romantic ideals, or through deference or even basic respect and "gentility", than through force and violence.