An untitled paper on Chaucer's tone with respect to the Wife of Bath
in the "General Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales

Written for AP English IV
by Laura Melton
November, 1997


    At the first reading of the "General Prologue" to the Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath seems to be a fairly straightforward character.  However, the second time through, the ironies and insinuations surface and show the Wife's bold personality.  For example, she is rather opinionated.  The second line in the passage, "But she was somdel deef, and that was scathe," seems only to indicate that she is a little hard of hearing.  However, coupled with a line from the end of the passage noting that she liked to talk, this deafness could mean either that she is really deaf and talks because she cannot hear what others say to her or that she simply does not listen to what anyone else says (Nardo 126).  The next line, "Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt," is obviously the Wife's own opinion of herself and not objective at all.  This is ironic because she is from near Bath, in western England, where the weavers were not very good, so she is probably not very talented at all (Bowden 215).  She, however, does not doubt herself.  The Wife is also very practical.  In lines 469 through 473 she is described in traveling gear:

Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Y-wympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe,
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
And on hir feet a peyre of spores sharpe.
Her overskirt keeps off the dirt of travel, and the pacing horse, trained to move both feet on one side together, is comfortable on long journeys (Rowland 117).  The fact that she is wearing spurs implies that she rides sensibly astride, like most women of her class.  However, her hat is compared to a shield, and spurs were a symbol of knighthood (Serrailler 41), so with those two warlike items she resembles a knight dressed for adventure (Herman and Burke 31).  The practicality of her dress certainly shows her assertive nature.
    Part of the Wife's boldness lies in her ostentatious dress and behavior.  For example, although her dress on the pilgrimage is practical, her hat, "as brood as is a bokeler or a targe," is very exaggerated and showy.  Also, the third stanza describes her
customary dress on Sunday:  "Hir coverchiefs ful fyne were of ground; / I dorste swere they weyden ten pound / That on a Sonday weren upon hir heed."  Her ten-pound headdress is grossly overstated.  However, the point is that the cloth is finely woven, and during this time period coverchiefs were so valuable to women that they were even included in wills.  The Wife's hose are scarlet, which at that time was the most expensive of all woolens (Herman and Burke 23), tightly and neatly drawn, and her shoes are new.  The Wife is so conspicuously overdressed that her purpose in wearing this outfit is unquestionably to show off her wealth (Bowden 216).  Furthermore, she always has to be first to the offering in church:
In all the parisshe, wyf was there 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.
In medieval society the order in which people made their offerings was determined by order of precedence, so of course the proud Wife is angry about not being first (Bowden 215).  She is not one to be guilty of false modesty.  As described in the fifth stanza, the good Wife is an experienced pilgrim:
And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem.
She hadde passed many a straunge strem.
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloyne,
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloyne.
During the Middle Ages, these four sites, as well as Canterbury, were the most important religious shrines in Europe (Bowden 221).  Jerusalem, the holy city, was the original destination for pilgrimages (Barber 147), but later other local shrines arose like Rome, Italy, where there were many churches and relics; Boulogne, France, where there was a church commemorating the miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary; Compostela, Spain, said to be the burial-place of Saint James; and Cologne, site of the tomb of the Magi (Bowden 221-224).  These numerous pilgrimages suggest that she is a devout Christian, but as with her offerings in church, there is another motivation.  The Wife of Bath is far too worldly to be a truly pious pilgrim; she is an "inveterate and none too pious traveler" (Barber 150).  That she knows much of "wandrynge by the weye" shows that she dawdles and meanders, exhibiting little penitential fervor.  Also, pilgrimages were sometimes a penance for adultery, so this adds an ironic twist to the Wife's apparent virtue (Herman and Burke 23).
    Several allusions are made to the Wife's sexuality.  The last two lines of the passage state that she knows "remedies of love" and knows "of that art the olde daunce," meaning that she is an authority on male-female relationships (Hallissy 43).  The statement that she "koude muchel of wandrynge by the weye" also refers as much to her varied experiences of love as to her pilgrimages (Lucas 121).  Furthermore, her hat, likened to a shield, is a reference to a common metaphor of jousting and lovemaking (Plummer 89), and the gap between her teeth similarly signifies that she is "predestined for the office of love" (Bowden 221).  Her five marriages show that she is clearly enthusiastic about that particular institution and takes pleasure in the flesh (Lucas 106).  Moreover, the mention of her "other company in youth" is an even more blatant allusion to her sexuality (Hallissy 42).  This aspect of the Wife's character is a very prominent one.  Overall, the Wife of Bath "likes to shop, obtains what she goes after, is concerned about money, is smart, accepts herself as she is, is self-assured, [and] makes sure people notice her" (Lambdin and Lambdin 244).  Her character may have been drawn from the woman of Proverbs 7: 10-12; fourteenth-century preachers used this passage to say that women are foolish and sinful, going out, talking too much, and dressing up unseemingly.  The Wife of Bath is this type of sinful woman, but Chaucer's tone is more humorous than critical.  No attempt is made to chastise her dress and behavior; on the contrary, it is comically exaggerated.  Chaucer's audience must have found her very funny (Bowden 219).
 
 

Bibliography

Barber, Richard.  The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe.  Middlesex, England:  Penguin Books Ltd., 1984.
Bowden, Muriel.  A Reader's Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer.  New York:  Noonday Press, 1964.
Hallissy, Margaret.  A Companion to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  London:  Greenwood Press, 1995.
Herman, John P. and John J. Burke, Jr., ed.  Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry.  University, Alabama:  University of Alabama Press, 1981.
Lambdin, Laura C. and Robert T. Lambdin, ed.  Chaucer's Pilgrims:  An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.  London:  Greenwood Press, 1996.
Lucas, Angela M.  Women in the Middle Ages:  Religion, Marriage, and Letters.  Great Britain:  Harvester Press, 1983.
Nardo, Don, ed.  Readings on the Canterbury Tales.  San Diego:  Greenhaven Press, 1997.
Plummer, John F.  "The Wife of Bath's Hat as a Sexual Metaphor."  English Language Notes, 18 (1980-1981).
Rowland, Beryl.  Blind Beasts:  Chaucer's Animal World.  Great Britain:  Kent State University Press, 1971.
Serrailler, Ian.  Chaucer and his World.  New York:  Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1968.
 


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