Written for AP English IV
by Laura Melton
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,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.
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.
In all the parisshe, wyf was there noonIn 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:
That to the offrynge bifore hire sholde goon;
And if ther dide, certeyn, so wrooth was she
That she was out of alle charitee.
And thries hadde she been at Jerusalem.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).
She hadde passed many a straunge strem.
At Rome she hadde been, and at Boloyne,
In Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloyne.
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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This page last modified February 19, 2000.