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From The Canterbury Tales:
The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale
Modern english adjacent to middle english

About The Canterbury Tales:
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories in a frame story, between 1387 and 1400. It is the story of a group of thirty people who travel as pilgrims to Canterbury (England). The pilgrims, who come from all layers of society, tell stories to each other to kill time while they travel to Canterbury. He never finished his enormous project and even the completed tales were not finally revised. Scholars are uncertain about the order of the tales. As the printing press had yet to be invented when Chaucer wrote his works, The Canterbury Tales has been passed down in several handwritten manuscripts.

About The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale:
The Wife of Bath's Tale has a lengthy prologue. In the prologue, the Wife of Bath presents herself as the authority on marriage and marital life. She comments on the social and legal position of women in marriage and daily life. She claims she has her knowledge from experience, not from scriptural authority (lines 1-2). Rather than rejecting scriptural authority, it appears that she appeals to logic thus rejecting too strict interpretations of scriptural rules and commandments.

For instance, the Wife of Bath describes that she has been married five times (line 6). Why not? Jesus Christ never ruled that people should only be married once. In fact, Jesus not even made a law about virginity. On the contrary, God ordered humans to breed and multiply (line 28). No procreation without sex (unless your name is Holy Mary of course). "Go forth and multiply", it says in the Bible. The genitals are primarily made for sex, "they were nat maad for noght" (line 124). A woman can use sex for her own pleasure or for getting money out of her husband. A married woman has power over her husband (lines 164-165). The Pardoner, one of the other pilgrims on his way to Canterbury, interrupts the Wife of Bath telling her more or less that women are evil. The Wife of Bath tells him to postpone his judgement and let her continue (lines 175-179). As mentioned before, the Wife of Bath has had five husbands, three of them were good and two were bad (line 202). The three good men were rich and old (line 203) and the Wife of Bath tells she made them work all night (line 208). She continues and explains how to lie to and lecture a husband. However, a woman is no horse and cannot be tested (lines 291-296). True, in medieval society where living together unmarried was impossible. The Wife of Bath rejects austerity and frugality. She likes jewelry and costly clothing (lines 350-353). A woman can ease her husband by offering sexual pleasure (line 450-452).

The Wife of Bath tells about her fourth husband (lines 458 and further) and she claims the right to drink wine. Besides, after drinking wine, she thinks of Venus (goddess of love (and making love)). "A liquorish mouth must have a lickerish tail" (line 472). So, feed a woman wine to break her defense (line 473). Note that this advice comes from a woman. Or is this Chaucer's voice we hear? Good question. Scholars may start arguing around. Or they can do something useful, for instance offer their wife or girl a glass of wine.

Anyway, the fourth husband died while the Wife of Bath came from Jerusalem (line 501). The Wife of Bath describes how she has met her fifth husband. The fifth husband was a violent person but an excellent lover, in bed (lines 511-519). But he made love sparingly, which raises the value of making love. Lets call this the market price of sex (lines 523-529). The fifth husband was called Jenkin, a clerk from Oxford, and he was present at the funeral of the fourth husband (line 601). They were married at the end of the month (line 633). The Wife of Bath describes how she has discussed anti-feminist literature with her fifth husband and complains that women have not written stories to reply to male clerks (lines 699-702). The discussion, which is full of quotes from the Bible and classical writers, led to a fight, but after that the Wife of Bath and her (fifth) husband never argued again.

The Wife of Bath's Tale plays in the period of the reign of King Arthur. No date mentioned, after all King Arthur is a mythical person. The story begins with a knight who rapes a girl, depriving her of her virginity (lines 893-894). The knight is condemned to the penalty of death, but the queen asks the king to let her do the ruling. The queen tells the knight that if he wants his life he has to answer the question "what women want most of all" and he has one year to find the answer. The knight searches the country for the correct answer and finds the answer when time has almost run out. No spoilers here, the answer is in lines 1044-1046 of The Wife of Bath's Tale.

But the knight did not get this answer for free. He received the answer from an ugly old woman whom he promised to marry after he escaped from the death penalty. So by giving the correct answer to the question of the queen, the knight's head escapes from the chopping block, but now he faces a marriage with an ugly old woman. After the wedding, the newly weds talk to each other. The knight complains that she is not only old and ugly, but also of low class. She replies to this arrogant snobbery and says that her poverty is of no relevance to God. "Do you want me old and faithful to you or do you want me young and beautiful, in which case I will probably commit adultery?" is more or less the dilemma and the choice she gives her husband (lines 1225-1233). The knight leaves the choice to his wife (lines 1237-1238). So the knight submits himself to the authority of his ugly wife (lines 1236-1241). After kissing her, she turns into a young and beautiful woman and they live happily ever after. And the girl who has been raped by the knight? After being raped, she has left the stage with no further reference. (We leave ambiguous symbolism out here.)

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale are extremely ambiguous. Readers can find anything they like in it. The Wife of Bath can be interpreted as a feminist, or proto-feminist. She wants and pleads for autonomy, sovereignty, freedom of choice and equal rights (compared to the rights of men). Another interpretation is that of an old woman looking for a sixth husband. Without a husband, a woman is miserable. What is the use of autonomy and sovereignty if all a woman has to do is to please her husband? Interesting questions. In her prologue she describes how a woman should cheat, lie to and manipulate her husband. So maybe the Wife of Bath is no feminist but only a stereotype evil woman. Who's voice is the Wife of Bath's voice? Is it Chaucer's voice? Is it the voice of women everywhere? More interesting questions.

The reader can interpret and argue in all directions. The Wife of Bath is a proto-feminist and she is the voice of all women in the world. Every woman wants autonomy and sovereignty in the broadest sense and no woman wants to be raped. Voluntarily having sex with the person of your own free choice is much more enjoyable. And yes, women can exchange sex for money or something else. So what? Last but not least, lying, cheating and manipulating people is not reserved to women. Men can easily win the contest. No, this is exaggeration. Men and women are alike when it comes to bad behaviour. Read on in The Canterbury Tales to find more examples of bad behaviour of both sexes.

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