English 245 with Dr. G @ SUNY TC3   

 

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Lessons

1. Classical Britain

2. Beowulf 1

3. Beowulf 2

4. Middle Ages

5. Romance

6. Sir Gawain

7. Malory

8. Chaucer's Miller

9. Wife of Bath

10. Religious Protest

11. Biblical Drama

12. Play of Mankind

13. Early Modern Period

14. Thomas More

15. Philip Sidney

16. Print Culture

17. Walter Raleigh

18. Twelfth Night 1

19. Twelfth Night  2

20. Civil War

21. An Age of Irreverence

22. Aphra Behn

23. Reading Papers

24. Gulliver

25. Rape of the Lock

26. School for Scandal

27. New God

28. Revolution

Final Exam

 

 

 

 *** 9. The Wife of Bath ***

 

Chaucer's Mother Earth

READINGS FOR THIS LESSON

 
Vol. 1A, pages 375-403 from Longman 3rd ed.
"Chaucer: "The Wife of Bath's Prologue"
and "Wife of Bath's Tale."

ASSIGNMENTS FOR THIS LESSON

Online The Wife of Bath's Tale is available from Luminarium. Also in translation from eChaucer or the Chaucer page at Harvard.

The lesson includes both a quiz and a journal writing assignment to be submitted on the interactive course site at  SUNY Learning Network.  

Journal

Write for an hour (or more if you have time). Summarize the readings. Some other journaling ideas for today include:

How is the wfe's tale similar to and different from Marie's "Lanval" or the Pearl Poet's "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"?

How does it change the Arthurian tradition?

How are you coping with Middle English?

What do you think makes Chaucer great?
 

See General instructions on Journaling for this course. For a sample journal, see Dr. G's 2007 Brit Lit 1 Journal.

NOTES AND COMMENTARY
*These notes are adapted by Dr. G from David Damrosch, et al.,
Teaching British Literature (New York: Longman, 2003).

It might be argued that western feminism, and modern women’s rights movements in general, are carry-overs of the ancient European tradition of female power that never goes away, no matter how strongly or how long it is attacked.  In any case, medieval literature is filled with Guineveres, Morgan le Fays, Ladies of the Lake and other witches, queens and great mothers who appear to be descendants of the Mother Earth goddesses of stone age Europe. This literature extends to its strongest premodern expression in the Elizabethan period, with its “courtly love” centered on the virgin queen and her numerous male worshippers.

Medieval European romances typically present a Christian patriarchy overlaid on top of a pre-Christian matriarchal base, as in the case of Chretien or Malory. Chaucer's Wife of Bath, however, will have none of this. Dame Alison argues for female mastery from positive Christian sources including the gospel stories of the wedding at Cana (and the reproof of the Samaritan widow), Paul’s acceptance of marriage, the Genesis command to multiply, Jesus’ multiplication of loaves, and the old testament polygamists. Alison's  abusive husband Jankyn tries to rebut with anti-feminist non-Biblical sources against marriage. The marital strife of Alison and Jankyn thereby becomes a literary contest in which the male has the inferior authority. This is a subtly Protestant case that the church may not allow marriage to those in holy orders, but there is nothing scriptural in this injunction. Like Mother Earth, Alison destroys her husband’s texts and moves on.

Like an earth goddess too, the Wife argues from design that we are given sex organs, so they are to be used, but she is also the black widow, embracing marriage as the means by which to control and terminate the male. Like the lady of the lake, she takes men’s treasures and like the land she buries their bodies, only to turn to a new mate she has lined up each time before the funeral. Her husbands naturally are jealous and seek to keep what they regard as their property from her, but she makes all of them pay their “debt.” They have nothing that is not hers. 

The Wife’s Tale is set many hundreds of years back in the time of the elf queen who danced to make the earth fertile. In those happier days before the friars, if a knight committed rape, he was given over to the queen’s judgment and forced to recognize the will of women to control their lives. The knight who would acknowledge this power would be transformed by love. So, at least, claims the Wife, on the basis of her experience. Despite everything, men love her.

 

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
In her Prologue Alison addresses “wise wives,” but there aren’t any others on this pilgrimage. Only two other women are travelling to Canterbury in this party, and they are in holy orders: the Prioress and “another nonne.” So the Wife of Bath alone represents women in the secular world, in marriage, and in the emerging merchant social class.

The General Prologue portrait of the wife (lines 447-478) is one of Chaucer’s great character sketches which convey personality through a few selective tidbits of personal appearance, biography, manners, skills, and habits of thought. Her chivalric hat (as big as a shield) and sharp spurs are symbols of domineering character. Her repeated widowhood is the chief sign of her hardiness if not perpetuity. Her red face and hose suggest the Bible's "Whore of Babylon" (i.e. priestess of Ishtar, the love goddess). She is bold, direct and vain, loving the sound of her own voice, boring others with her autobiography while traveling on pilgrimages, a habit she has in common with historical women interested in religious life, like Margery Kempe (whose book we will read in lesson 10).

 

 

 

 

Left: The Wife of Bath with whip and spurs from the Ellesmere manuscript. She has aged better than other pilgrims in the manuscript.

 

The Prologue
The Wife is a talker. Her prologue is long (too long for the Friar), rambling over many episodes of her past but also including a tremendous number and variety of quotations about women and marriage. Here Chaucer demonstrates that he is learned in a way that perhaps none of his predecessors in English literature were learned. Either he maintained a great number of manuscripts, or he had a photographic memory or, most likely, he kept a commonplace book full of "sentences" (brief quotations) on a variety of subjects so that he could pull up relevant sources as he wrote. (How he would have loved computers!)  The Wife of Bath's Prologue may seem to us to be an inappropriate place in which to display all of these sources--it makes the Wife seem particularly bookish--but her battle with Jankyn over his misogynist book of wicked wives points up the cultural themes on Biblical encouragement of marriage versus clerical (but non-Biblical) attacks on sexuality.
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Jankyn the clerk has a book full of clerkly commentary against women; perhaps it is his literacy that is the problem in the marriage, from her point of view. It is the wrong kind of literacy. Alison describes her own body as a text, a document authenticated with “sainte Venus seel” on it (line 610), or a book that Jankyn can “glose” (line 515) both sexually and textually. The battle of the sexes is a battle of the books, with the wife representing the book of nature.

Modern critical assessments vary. Is Alison to be approached as a positive model of economic independence and self-determination? Or is she a kind of unhappy warning of the unavoidable costs of rebellion against social stereotypes? Responses seem to depend on the critic’s estimate of Chaucer himself, and the degree of independence from the more conservative values of the era that is attributed to him. Two of the major feminist studies are Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Politics, (1989), chapter 4, and Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, (1992), chapter 2.

 

 

 Left: Chaucer's Friar from the Ellesmere manuscript. Friars are the only incubi (i.e., fornicating devils) left in England now, says Alison.

 

The Tale
The wife's tale is splendidly adopted for her character. It is a brilliant counter-version of the great bearer of aristocratic male values, the Arthurian tradition. Alison reverses a pattern of conventions encountered in the texts in “Arthurian Romance” in our anthology. Instead of a Guinevere who manipulates law as an instrument of unjust vengeance (as in Marie deFrance’s "Lanval"), the merciful but just queen of the Wife’s Tale seeks to have punishment that fits the crime. The Wife’s Arthurian knight (“chivalrous” only in the technical sense of “mounted”) is a common rapist who does not know anything about what women want. It is his quest to find out that they don't want to be raped.

From the fairy queen to Arthur's queen to the crone who is the knight's savior, women are in charge in the Wife's Tale, and social status is not especially material. The raped girl and the crone are commoners. In the Wife's world, aristocracy is irrelevant. True “gentillesse” comes from gentle deeds.

In Alison's tale, the knight’s submission to the crone, and her miraculous transformation into a young lady both beautiful and faithful, mark the wife’s entry into a fantasy as complete as in Marie de France's "Lanval." It is a tale that has attracted other writers. Shakespeare's knowledge of the Wife of Bath is evident in Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer's Night's Dream.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although Chaucer wrote for the court, the king was the remarkable Richard II, who ran one of the few meritocracies on record in English kingship. His promotion of commoners to positions traditionally held by aristocrats (such as his promotion of Chaucer, a commoner, to ambassador) would be his undoing, as he was deposed by a baronial faction in 1399. Chaucer did not long survive Richard. There is speculation that both may have been murdered, though there is considerably more proof in Richard's case than in the poet's. For excellent reading material introducing Chaucer and his time from a contemporary perspective, see Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003).

OTHER RESOURCES & AMUSEMENTS

Reading of the Wife of Bath's Prologue (excerpt) in Middle English  from the Norton Anthology web site.

Geoffrey Chaucer Website:
http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/%7Echaucer/

Geoffrey Chaucer texts and materials are available at Luminarium.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales from Oxford University

Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Online Classical & Medieval Library


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you know of an excellent website that would wonderfully  complement this lesson, please send it to Dr. G.

Copyright 2008 by Gary Homer Gutchess