The Wife of Bath’s Prologue : Substance and Spirit
Before she tells her tale, the Wife of Bath feels obliged by her fellow travelers to defend the fact that she has been married five times, and also that, quite obviously, she has come on this pilgrimage to find husband number six!
I. The Wife of Bath Defends Her Rights to Re-Marriage and to the Enjoyment of Her Sexuality
Medieval Church law, following the teachings of St. Paul and St. Augustine, defined re-marriage as bigamy (even if a husband died!) The Church taught that the sacrament of marriage united a man and a woman for eternity.
The Wife knows her Bible well, and she can even cite the Scripture used to defend laws against remarriage. Jesus only went to one wedding, at Cana in Galilee. (Therefore, one should marry only once?) Jesus reproved the Samaritan for having had five husbands and said that the man to whom she was married was not her real husband. (By implication, only her first husband was legitimate. Any more would be bigamous. That was Jesus’ point, right?)
However, The Wife of Bath can cite Scripture in defense of re-marriage:
28 God bade us to increase and multiply;
29 That worthy text can I well understand.
30 And well I know He said, too, my husband
31 Should father leave, and mother, and cleave to me;
32 But no specific number mentioned He,
33 Whether of bigamy or octogamy;
She also mentions that wise old King Solomon had several wives, and he enjoyed them all. So did Abraham, and Jacob too!
The Wife goes on to suggest that chastity need not apply to all women, particularly to those women whose husbands have died. She argues that since she never seeks to marry more than one man at any one time, she has never committed bigamy.
44 Praise be to God that I have wedded five!
45 Welcome the sixth whenever come he shall.
46 Forsooth, I'll not keep chaste for good and all;
47 When my good husband from the world is gone,
Although the Wife never broaches the subject of divorce (that would have been beyond the pale in medieval culture), she probably would have readily embraced the idea. However, in this argument she will draw the line at redefining adultery.
The wife admits that the church advocates chastity as the model of virtue, but does that mean that everyone should remain virgin? What a ridiculous idea! She cries, “Pray you, now, tell me./ Or where commanded He virginity? (61-62) Where would we be without sown seeds? Virginity is laudable, but was it intended for all people?
No. That might have been fine for the apostle Paul, but even he admitted that God did not create all vessels in his house out of gold.
97 Let those who will be clean, body and ghost,
98 Of my condition I will make no boast.
99 For well you know, a lord in his household,
100 He has not every vessel all of gold;
101 Some are of wood and serve well all their days.
102 God calls folk unto Him in sundry ways,
103 And each one has from God a proper gift,
104 Some this, some that, as pleases Him to shift.
Wood serves important purposes as well! God has given each person a proper gift. The Wife’s gift?
Hey, that’s not so shocking! For what purpose were sex organs created? “For duty and ease in getting, / when we do not God displease.”(127-28) So, she will bear no malice to virginity, but “In wifehood I will use my instrument/ As freely as my Maker has it sent.” (149-50). And she won’t be selfish about it either. She’ll make love as often as she can. Furthermore, she even considers her husband to be in debt to her, and the only way he can pay that debt is through making love.
157 the while I am his wife.
158 I have the power during all my life
159 Over his own good body, and not he.
What point is Chaucer making by creating this outrageous character?
At the conclusion of her prologue, the Wife states:
611 For God so truly my salvation be
612 As I have never loved for policy,
613 But ever followed my own appetite,
614 Though he were short or tall, or black or white;
615 I took no heed, so that he cared for me,
616 How poor he was, nor even of what degree.
She never loved for policy, but ever followed her own appetite. Her point? How is the Wife’s willingness to follow her passion rather than her interest evidence of the HOLINESS of her LOVE?
II. The Pardoner’s Interruption:
At such blasphemy, that paragon of virtue, The Pardoner, rises in mock outrage to declare that he knew it! Women can never be trusted! Now he’ll never marry!
163 Up rose the pardoner, and that anon.
164 Now dame, said he, by God and by Saint John,
165 You are a noble preacher in this case!
166 I was about to wed a wife, alas!
167 Why should I buy this on my flesh so dear?
168 No, I would rather wed no wife this year.
What makes this line so funny?
The Wife responds that she will tell of her experience in marriage, and then he can decide for himself whether marriage should be for him.
195 I will tell truth of husbands that I've had,
196 For three of them were good and two were bad.
197 The three were good men and were rich and old.
198 Not easily could they the promise hold
199 Whereby they had been bound to cherish me.
III. The Wife Teaches Her First Three Husbands to be Happy
The Wife’s first three husbands were old and rich, and they loved her madly since she was young and beautiful. Therefore, these guys should have all lived happily ever after. Right? No! What did each of them fear?
It may seem like the Wife married these men solely because they were rich, and that’s probably true, but she does insist that her primary desire was to make her husbands happy. However, that task was not easily accomplished. It never is. But in Medieval and Renaissance Europe the task was made infinitely more difficult because, by law, women were not free. The Church taught that daughters must submit completely to the will of their fathers and after marriage, to the absolute command of their husbands. In essence, women became the possessions of their husbands. Why? How could the Church justify the subservience of women?
Ironically, this custom made husbands even more jealous! Why?
So how then could the Wife turn the tables, gain the respect of her husbands, and, thus, make them happy?
219 I governed them so well, by my own law,
220 That each of them was happy as a daw,
Here’s the secret: by forcing these men to woo her continually, by demanding ‘payment’, “Fine things from the fair” in return for her love, she taught them to have confidence in their own ability to please her. She knew that her husbands would not value her love if she did not demand repeated demonstrations of their love. Furthermore, happiness in a relationship is not possible unless the two people are equal, unless there is trust. And you can only demonstrate that trust by valuing your spouse’s freedom.
So, how did the Wife obtain her freedom and, ironically, the complete trust of her husbands?
She lied to them regularly, guiltlessly, and brazenfacedly, but not in a way you might first suppose. What do you think her intention was when she accused her husbands of infidelity?
“You like the neighbor’s wife more than you like me! Why? She’s better dressed! Therefore, you must be cheating on me.”
“Ha! I caught you whispering with our maid! You old lecher!”
A. How Husbands Typically Treat Their Wives:
She would turn the typical husband’s complaints against them:
Key Idea (326):
326 Of all men he's in wisdom the highest
327 That nothing cares who has the world in hand.
328 And by this proverb shall you understand:
329 Since you've enough, why do you reck or care
330 How merrily all other folks may fare?
331 He is too much a niggard who's so tight
332 That from his lantern he'll give none a light.
333 For he'll have never the less light, by gad;
334 Since you've enough, you need not be so sad.
Instead, men should give women the freedom to go where they wish when they wish and to spend whatever they want. Not only does the good husband trust his wife with her freedom, the wise man does not care what other men may think of him. The wise man is also not jealous of another man’s happiness. Only this man will have the confidence to earn a woman’s fidelity!
The Wife’s husbands said that she should not get dressed up in costly array because such a display of beauty would endanger her chastity. They described her as a cat who needed to have her fur singed rather than going about sleek and gay. THE FOOLS! They have to realize that none of this mistreatment could prevent her from cheating on them if she wished. Furthermore, she could delude them EASILY if she wished. The ONLY thing that prevents her from doing so is….?
Instead, the Wife of Bath teaches her husbands to trust her by using reverse psychology. She accuses them of having cheated on her!
382 O Lord, the pain I gave them and the woe,
383 All guiltless, too, by God's grief exquisite!
384 For like a stallion could I neigh and bite.
385 I could complain, though mine was all the guilt,
386 Or else, full many a time, I'd lost the tilt.
387 Whoso comes first to mill first gets meal ground;
388 I whimpered first and so did them confound.
389 They were right glad to hasten to excuse
390 Things they had never done, save in my ruse.
391 With wenches would I charge him, by this hand,
392 When, for some illness, he could hardly stand.
393 Yet tickled this the heart of him, for he
394 Deemed it was love produced such jealousy.
By accusing her husbands of infidelity (even though she knew that was not true), by nagging them mercilessly, she helped her husbands gain confidence in themselves. Her accusations about their unfaithfulness tickle them because the husbands then figure that only love could produce such jealousy.
The Wife also insists on presents, lots and lots of presents, but is she being materialistic? How, again, is she using reverse psychology?
And the outcome? The husbands surrendered to her domination; and in return, they earned happiness.
424 I brought it so about, and by my wit,
425 That they must give it up, as for the best,
426 Or otherwise we'd never have had rest.
427 For though he glared and scowled like lion mad,
428 Yet failed he of the end he wished he had.
429 Then would I say: 'Good dearie, see you keep
430 In mind how meek is Wilkin, our old sheep;
431 Come near, my spouse, come let me kiss your cheek!
They growled like lions, but were obedient as a sheep. They learned to treat her with patience, meekness and tenderness. They suffered like old Job and learned to leave their wife in peace.
IV. The Fourth Husband: The Cheater
443 My fourth husband, he was a reveller,
444 That is to say, he kept a paramour;
445 And young and full of passion then was I,
The Wife’s fourth husband was a reveller, and even though he cheated on her repeatedly, he knew how to get what he wanted from her:
454 For after wine, of Venus must I think:
455 For just as surely as cold produces hail,
456 A liquorish mouth must have a lickerish tail.
457 In women wine's no bar of impotence,
458 This know all lechers by experience.
459 But Lord Christ!
The Wife was still young and full of passion, with a weakness for wine, and her fourth controlled her…for a while.
473 But he was quit by God and by Saint Joce!
474 I made, of the same wood, a staff most gross;
475 Not with my body and in manner foul,
476 But certainly I showed so gay a soul
477 That in his own thick grease I made him fry
478 For anger and for utter jealousy.
He cheated on her, so by God, she made him believe the same thing about her (even though she never cheated on him.) If the shoe fits, wear it…. And, by God, she twisted it onto his foot!
V. Her Fifth Husband: The Wife-beater
493 And now of my fifth husband will I tell.
494 God grant his soul may never get to Hell!
495 And yet he was to me most brutal, too;
496 My ribs yet feel as they were black and blue,
497 And ever shall, until my dying day.
He beat her, and yet she loved him best. Why?
501 That though he'd beaten me on every bone,
502 He could re-win my love, and that full soon.
503 I guess I loved him best of all, for he
504 Gave of his love most sparingly to me.
505 We women have, if I am not to lie,
506 In this love matter, a quaint fantasy;
507 Look out a thing we may not lightly have,
508 And after that we'll cry all day and crave.
509 Forbid a thing, and that thing covet we.
Women love best what life denies them. The Wife was growing older, and she had found a husband twenty years younger than she was!
They met when Husband #4 had gone up to London on business, again, leaving her home alone. So what did she do? She went out with her friends and socialized! Where? At church festivals, of course, dressed in her favorite scarlet skirt:
545 Therefore I made my visits round about
546 To vigils and processions of devout,
547 To preaching too, and shrines of pilgrimage,
548 To miracle plays, and always to each marriage,
549 And wore my scarlet skirt before all wights.
While the cat was away, the mouse played, partied, and danced wherever she chose. But did she cheat on him? No; however, she did line up a new husband: hell, her mother had taught her that one! And the man she chose was her good friend Alsion’s lusty boy friend, Nicholas the scholar from Oxford. (You loved him in the Miller’s Tale!) She wooed him by telling him how he had enchanted her. She even insisted that in one of her dreams he had murdered her!
565 I made him think he had enchanted me;
566 My mother taught me all that subtlety.
567 And then I said I'd dreamed of him all night,
568 He would have slain me as I lay upright,
569 And all my bed was full of very blood;
570 But yet I hoped that he would do me good,
571 For blood betokens gold, as I was taught.
572 And all was false, I dreamed of him just- naught,
573 Save as I acted on my mother's lore,
574 As well in this thing as in many more.
575 But now, let's see, what was I going to say?
What a marvelous Chaucerian touch! The Wife interrupts herself, loses the train of her story, and then remembers that she had dreamed of Nicholas just the night before. Chaucer’s point? ACTING THE ROLE can take on a life of its own! (Shakespeare would remember this lesson well!) When we play a role in marriage, the mask can become our face.
When Husband #4 died, the Wife was remarried within a month. Yeah, Nicholas was twenty years younger than she was, and, not surprisingly, things did not go well at the outset of this marriage. The Wife completes her prologue by telling the company about the fight which left her deaf, but saved her marriage!
LEARNED husband #5 wanted to EDUCATE her about how to be a good wife! So every night he would read to her from a BIG BOOK in which was collected all the great stories about women from the Bible and from classical literature: Adam’s Eve, Samson’s Delilah, Hercules’ Deianira, Socrates’ Xanthippe, Pasiphae, Clytemnestra, etc. etc. See the pattern? They are all SEXIST!
755 Of wives of later date he also read,
756 How some had slain their husbands in their bed
757 And let their lovers shag them all the night
758 While corpses lay upon the floor upright.
759 And some had driven nails into the brain
760 While husbands slept and in such wise were slain.
761 And some had given them poison in their drink.
762 He told more evil than the mind can think.
How did the Wife’s Fifth Husband get away with torturing her so for as long as he did? HE HAD THE UPPER HAND!
515 My fifth husband, may God his spirit bless!
516 Whom I took all for love, and not riches,
Being twenty years younger than she was, being the best lover she had ever had, being the cutest man….. She took it for as long as she could stand it, and then one night she just snapped!
778 And when I saw he'd never cease, in fine,
779 His reading in this cursed book at night,
780 Three leaves of it I snatched and tore outright
781 Out of his book, as he read on; and eke
782 I with my fist so took him on the cheek
783 That in our fire he reeled and fell right down.
She started tearing up that book! (Remember that books were very rare and therefore prized possessions before the invention of the printing press.)
What is Chaucer’s point? You won’t find the Wife’s role model in classical or in sacred literature! She’s BRAND NEW! (at the very least, unseen on earth for a good three thousand years!) She is the first LIBERATED WOMAN in literature, but she must fight for her freedom! She must teach her man to respect her, or their marriage is lost!
784 Then he got up as does a wild lion,
785 And with his fist he struck me on the head,
786 And on the floor I lay as I were dead.
787 And when he saw how limp and still I lay,
788 He was afraid and would have run away,
789 Until at last, out of my swoon I made:
790 'Oh, have you slain me, you false thief?' I said,
791 'And for my land have you thus murdered me?
792 Kiss me before I die, and let me be.'
793 He came to me and near me he knelt down,
794 And said: 'O my dear sister Alison,
795 So help me God, I'll never strike you more;
796 What I have done, you are to blame therefor.
797 But all the same forgiveness now I seek!'
798 And thereupon I hit him on the cheek,
799 And said: 'Thief, so much vengeance do I wreak!
800 Now will I die; I can no longer speak!'
The fight left the Wife deaf in one ear, but she earned her freedom and her husband’s respect and thus saved their marriage.
801 But at the last, and with much care and woe,
802 We made it up between ourselves. And so
803 He put the bridle reins within my hand
804 To have the governing of house and land;
805 And of his tongue and of his hand, also;
806 And made him burn his book, right then, oho!
807 And when I had thus gathered unto me
808 Masterfully, the entire sovereignty,
809 And he had said: 'My own true wedded wife,
810 Do as you please the term of all your life,
811 Guard your own honour and keep fair my state'-
812 After that day we never had debate.
813 God help me now, I was to him as kind
814 As any wife from Denmark unto Ind,
815 And also true, and so was he to me.
And she outlived him! Well into her fifth decade of life, she is still searching for love. Husband #5 may have been the love of her life, but the Wife is out on the singles circuit once again, on a pilgrimage to find a new husband.