The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, the Parson's Prologue and Tale, and the Retractions

 

Key terms: antifeminist or misogynist literature; confession of a Vice; romance; flat vs. round characters; experience, auctoritee, maistrye, catechism.

 

The Middle Ages had, to put it mildly, a woman problem. Women were part of two of the three estates (those who worked and those who prayed), but yet they were also a fourth estate outside the system. They were viewed—legally, morally, and spiritually—as extensions of the men in their lives, dependent upon either a father or other kinsman as protector, or legally identical to their husbands. It was very rare for a woman to be a femme sole under the law and own property; medieval law was far more comfortable with femmes couvert, women who were “covered” by some man’s control. (In fact, in the 15th century, the average time for a London mercantile-class widow to remarry was around a month.)
 

The Church provided the underpinning for this status. It saw women as essentially duplicitous. One the one side, they were images of the Virgin Mary—the mother, nurturer, intercessor, chaste and worshipped on their pedestals. The term used by Gabriel to greet Mary in the gospels—Ave gratia plena [Hail, full of grace!] is used to summarize this position.

 

At the same time, the Church taught, women were descendents of Eva [Eve]—and thus instruments of temptation and sin. They were carnal, not spiritual; they dragged men down by the lure of their physicality. When men desired a woman spiritually, they committed a sin; thus, women were the instruments of men’s damnation.

 

Men were expected to chastise women—to keep them in their place, reduce their ability to tempt me, and above all maintain control (maistrye or sovereintee) over the women in their lives. (Wife-beating or daughter-beating was in fact legal within certain constraints, since women obviously were so intellectually weak that you couldn’t convince them to change their ways through reasoned argument. <<irony!!!>>) Letting a woman run things is an admission that men were not doing their spiritual duties. A whole genre of misogynist or antifeminist literature sprang up that told of the dangers caused by wicked women—much like the book Jankyn reads to Alys.

 

So when Chaucer comes to represent a carnal woman in the Canterbury Tales, he has a difficult choice to make: does he represent the Ave side or the Eva side? He chooses Eva, and in doing so, creates the first round character in English literature—the Wife of Bath.

 

Evidence in the unfinished Tales suggests that Chaucer originally had a more flat, stereotyped character in mind for the Wife, who probably would have told the very coarse fabliau that survives as the Shipman’s Tale. Instead, as he created her character, he seems to have fallen in love with his own creation—and the Alys he creates jumps off the page at us as a vibrant, if spiritually misguided figure.

 

From her first sentence—“Experience, though noon auctoritee is in this world, is right enough for me to speak of wo that is in marriage”—Alys announces to us that she is arguing on the devil’s side, for the evidence of physical senses (the province of the lewed) against the learned auctoritees of clerks, government, and the Church. She turns the biblical texts upside down to make her case that God intended women to use their bodies carnally—that after all, if women didn’t have sex, where would the next generation of virgins come from? She has no problem with those who choose virginity or a more spiritually “pure” life, but she argues vigorously for the fact that using her “instrument” with her husbands does not condemn her. In a series of famous metaphors—gold vs. wooden dishes, white vs. barley bread, the flour vs. the bran of a grain of wheat—she argues that who she is and what she does are perfectly defensible from a spiritual sense. Like the Pardoner, the Wife is a vice character whose prologue is a confession of her techniques and an exposure of her sins—yet unlike the Pardoner, we warm to her because of her [that is to say, Chaucer’s] good humor, her liveliness, and her considerable rhetorical skill.

 

She has had five husbands (and is seeking a sixth): three elderly rich ones, whom she nagged constantly but also satisfied sexually; a fourth “revelour” with whom she had epic sexual battles; and her fifth (and ‘true love’) Jankyn, the young clerk who marries her for her money and makes her life a living hell by beating her, reading her antifeminist literature, literally deafening her, and finally almost killing her. Only when he fears he has killed her does he relent and grant her maistrye—which she embraces by socking him in the face, then turning around and telling a tale of what would happen if women ran things.

 

Her Tale, a romance, has a lady rescuing a knight rather than a knight rescuing a lady. In an uncanny prefiguring of Freud’s famous “What do women want,” Chaucer has the Wife tell a story of a man’s search for the answer to that question. When he proves to be surly and unappreciative of the woman who gives him the answer, she lectures him on gentilesse—the true nobility of the spirit—which comes not from high-class birth but from the soul. (How deeply ironic—in a tale whose message overthrows everything a good medieval Christian should have believed—to have this sermon, which is apparently “straight,” and full of sound advice.) The knight, finally chastised, yields the sovereintee or maistrye to his wife, and in doing so gets the happy ending he wants. The Wife’s solution reinforces her Prologue and at the same time sets medieval spiritual values on their ear by arguing that women should run men’s lives, and not vice-versa. She is the ultimate rebel—and you have to love her.

 

The measure of Chaucer’s unease with what he created is seen both in the Parson’s Prologue and Tale and in his Retractions, which circulate with most copies of the Canterbury Tales. The Parson’s Tale is a translation and adaptation of a catechism—a manual teaching strict and standard Christian beliefs. In the “Remedy for the Sin of Lechery,” the Parson strictly defines a wife’s duty to her husband, a husband’s responsibilities to his wife, the limitations on sexual conduct consistent with Christian moral practice, and celebrates chastity—all in direct contrast to the Wife’s ebullient argument. If the Parson is an ideal figure, we have to assume that his version is what Chaucer and his society thought was the “right” conduct—but the popularity of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale suggests that her argument, too, had its enthusiasts.

 

When Chaucer in his Retractions (traditionally believed to be the last thing he wrote) apologies for those works that might lead people into sin (by being too morally subtle or by making sin too appealing), he is apologizing (and at the same taking pride in) works like The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. It is one of the marks of his greatness that he can reflect so many sides of a complex moral picture without forcing a decision upon us—that he, in fact, trusts us as readers to evaluate the conduct he portrays and the stories he tells and make our own judgments about them.

 

Study Questions for  "The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale"
(Source: http://merlin.capcollege.bc.ca/fahlmanreid/wife_of_bath.htm )

1. What revealing details do we learn about the Wife of Bath's own history in the first thirty lines?

2. What is the Wife opinion about virginity? How does she defend her position?

3. The Wife bases her opinions about men upon her own extensive experience. By way of defending her own actions, how does she explain the relationship between herself and her first three husbands?

4. Since the Wife does not hold as scared all the moral precepts that are part of the cultural basis of our society, how does she justify her particular view about sexual relations between men and women?

5. The Wife sees relations between men and women as adversarial. Explain how this informs her view of how those relations should be balanced.

6. What is the relationship between the Wife and her fourth husband? Is their significance to her pilgrimage and his death?

7. Describe the incident that happens between the Wife and her fifth husband, Janekin, the clerk (scholar). What are the various results of this incident?

8. The Wife fashions her prologue so that her argument culminates just before she tells her tale. What is the moral point she has been working up to?

9. What are the effects of the interruptions in the Prologue? Who are your sympathies, as a listener, with?

10. The tale, set in King Arthur's time, tells of a knight who must go and find the answer to what question? Why is he sent on this journey?

11. What are some of the possible answers he is given along the way? What is the correct answer?

12. Summarize what happens after he announces the answer.

13. What has the knight learned from the rape he committed, the quest set by the Queen's Court, and his own acquiescence to the Fairy?

14. Is there any poignancy in the argument of the old woman when the knight rejects her because she is foul and low when you consider the Wife herself?

15. Revaluate the Wife's claim "Experience, though noon auctoritee/were in this world, is right ynough for me/to speke of wo that is in mariage." After comparing the man-woman relations at the end of the prologue and the end of the Tale.

16. What similarities can you see between the tale of the Wife and " Lanval" by Marie de France? What similarities between her life and the life of Margery Kempe in the sections you have read?

17. How do you see the Wife at the tale's end? Is she a monster? An apologist for women? An early feminist?