The Wife of Bath

In the past, from Aristotle onwards, there was the common creed that God had structured all matters of life in a hierarchical way, a precise work of art where everything had their exact place. This Great Chain of Being, as it was called, in the Middle Age had developed more or less like this: God was at the top of the ladder and right under him there were the angels, which like him are entirely spirit and immutable. Human beings, who consist of both spirit and matter, were beneath them. Animals, plants, minerals followed in this order.

Of course, each group was organized according to a sub-hierarchical structure, as nothing had be left to chance. For what concerns human beings, men came first. That was an uncontroverted law of God. Hence, according to this view women were believed to be naturally inferior. Just like God is above men, men are above women, thus, it is their role and duty to tell the subordinate gender what is right or wrong and to behave accordingly. In short, this patriarchal vision of society was the consequence of the nature of things, the divine vision of the world. If women had been placed there, it’s because God believed it was right to be so.

That is why the stereotypes of women of those times were commonly two: those who conformed to these rules and those who did not. The former were pictured as innocent, chaste and submissive, while the “rebels” were considered sinners, witches, in short, a threat, as they were out man’s control, just like the “true-love” Lord Randal meets in the woods while hunting. This witch like sort of woman poisons and seduces the young man, leading him to death. God, being immaterial, had maybe underestimated, the great power of seduction and control that women might have over man, and this was his Achilles’ heel of the entire structure.

The woman sketched by Chaucer in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, known as “The Wife of Bath”, was well aware of women’s powers and had used them well, that is why she does not completely fit to the above mentioned cliché. She is a wealthy woman, who has made money through marriages, that is, she is independent, a word which is rarely applied to a woman in the 14th century. “Worthy” is the very first adjective Chaucer uses to introduce her. In fact she is a skilled cloth maker and church goer, even if  her mass attending is more a matter of ostentation than devotion. She is powerful and wants to be respected, particularly by the other – submitted – ladies who are intimidated by her behaviour. “The Wife of Bath” is also pictured as “bald”, “ entertaining”, seductive – Chaucer himself appears to feel the charm of this woman – and intelligent.

In the group she is recognized as an absolute authority about marriages and dares to speak freely about what she has learnt through her long experience – she was only twelve when she went to the altar the first time – ; she speaks before other men without needing the permission or the approbation of anybody and what she has to say is shocking for the time.

The first revelation she has to make is that marriage….sucks: “marriage is a misery and a woe”, but this torture can be softened by the clever use of women’s sexual powers to get what she calls a “sovereignty” over their husbands. In short, men can be easily manipulated. Such discovery worries “The Pardoner”, who is to be married soon and does mean to be thus treated by his future wife, but she keeps speaking to impart him a lesson – a woman to a man – in order he may learn from her words of experience how she got complete mastery over all of five husbands, thus demonstrating that women are way smarter than men.

Telling the stories of her 5 marriages and revealing her tricks and cunnings she wants to prove that though men may have all the tangible power in society, women are better at lying and deceiving than men are. Borrowing one famous line from the movie of the “Big, Fat, Greek Wedding” : a man may be the head of the household but the woman is his neck, hence she may turn him wherever she likes.

Hence, even if  “The Wife of Bath” has often been seen as sort of feminist forerunner, she actually both goes against and conforms to stereotypes: though she enjoys telling how she took power over her husbands, she also admits to marrying solely for money, as women in medieval society could gain power and money only through their husbands. But her words started to make comon belief about women’s role in society waver, instilling the most powerful poison ever: doubt.

18 thoughts on “The Wife of Bath

  1. Yes! If just women like you increase themselves. I believe somehow that, from the beginning, it had to be the other way around. But it seems that something went wrong. I really don’t know, maybe it was because, in the beginning, it did not have to be Aristoteles, but Socrates! Anyway, as I believe, and you wrote; the women have satisfied themselves with being accepted by men, even in the case of their determination. As we see, even the investor of Mohammad, the Islamic prophet, was a woman. Another wisdom from you, dear teacher. 🙏💖🤗🙏💖

  2. Very well written.

    I would have much preferred reading this rather than the original material. Although, I seem to remember the stories used to be interpreted more as relating to the political arena rather than the social arena. Or, perhaps, it was both (and possibly more).

    All I remember about the tales (a reading assignment in my advanced English literature high school class) was that I didn’t like reading them. No ninjas, no pirates, no shootouts, no car chases . . . nothing exciting at all.

    But . . . I also wonder about interpreting someone’s work using the lens of modern age (a drum I beat that largely goes unheard).

    One observation:
    sure, (then and now) the powers that be (the people we elect) purport to have an idea/vision regarding what social, political, and personal roles (meaning, how they want them to be), but surely, at an individual level, people know how things actually work. But, even now, what we know in private seldom gets expressed in public where — in agreement by one and all — we all play lip service to whatever social construct is currently in fashion. This can be seen in the extreme factions of both the political and social Left and Right, where what they speak in public is not reflected in their daily lives and actions.

    Perhaps that is what we should be fighting against . . . the fictionalized ideals about what is essentially — and because of human nature — a chaotic, highly situational, and nuanced reality. But, that goes against the stated desire for “order” . . . for others, of course; not for ourselves.

    If that’s what Jeff was going on with his writings (trying to direct society toward a new ideal or awaken them to the failings of the then-current ideal), he went about it the wrong way . . . no ninjas, no pirates, no shootouts, no car chases . . . nothing exciting at all. And obscure, to boot.

    Wait . . . one more observation: doubt works across the spectrum, both against terrible notions and against worthwhile notions, depending what one wants. The introduction of doubt on its own — without evidence/data directing it — is not conducive to progress. Often, it’s a hindrance and subject to multiple self-serving interpretations.

    . . . hmm . . . perhaps I should write a boring allegorical book about how I think the world should work . . . and then read about what I “actually meant”.

    • You remember well. Most of Chaucer’s descriptions and stories relate to political, religious topics, but in the case of “The Wife of Bath” the theme is actually social. Chaucer’s grestest craft , or better, the one I truly love, is the way he tells you one thing, meaning exactly the opposite. And yes, you should try and write this kind of stuff, but I am sure it won’t be boring,

  3. Chaucer of course took this story of the Loathly Lady from earlier Arthurian literature, part of the medley of tales concerning ‘what women want’. I once wrote a piece suggesting that this may have even earlier origins in a joke told by women for women, and that a version of this joke appeared in one of the Jewish books of Apocrypha; I must dig this essay out and republish it on my blog, and also revisit the Wife of Bath’s wonderful Tale, set in the days of King Arthur.

      • It’s in paper form from around twenty or more years ago — I’ll try and dig it out and see if I can send it to you somehow, but as I haven’t yet got round to doing an index and there are three or four decades of journals to thumb through it may not be immediately. Soon, I hope! And I may post it on my WordPress Pendragonry blog as well if I’ve got it in electronic form…

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