Chaucer's Approval of the Wife of Bath

In Chaucer‘s The Canterbury Tales, The Wife of Bath is portrayed as an incredibly intelligent woman with both a comprehensive grasp of a vast array of subjects and a clear insight into the faults prevalent throughout her society While Mimi Tomei claims the implied. Chaucer clearly questions the moral character and strength of judgment of The Wife, it is obvious the implied author actually approves of The Wife and her actions because of how she is so clearly able to portray double-sided metaphors supported throughout the text by Chaucer, and how The Wife adeptly reveals the failings of society that others were too fearful to point out.

Tomei first begins by targeting the fashion in which the implied author portrays. The Wife while she is describing her many previous marriages.

Obviously, according to Tomei, there are an incredible number of signs showing The Wife as merely a promiscuous hussy, who felt no attachment to her many husbands beyond an overwhelming desire for control.

However, these are by no means a clear denouncement of The Wife by Chaucer Instead, if one looks carefully at how Chaucer structured both the prologue and actual tale of The Wife, it becomes clear that The Wife actually acted detached simply because the husbands she controlled were worthy of nothing more, The Wife states “they had me yeven hir land and hir stressor;/ Me needed nat do lenger diligence/ To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence” (204-206) Clearly, The Wife believes that as her husbands had so willingly given her all they owned, they needed no love or respect to keep their affections.

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The implied Chaucer clearly supports this view through how the rapist knight was punished in the actual tale of The Wife.

After being forced to discover what it was women desired the most, and failing to learn from men, the knight had no other option but to turn to the old hag, who was a woman. The hag then reveals to the knight that all women desired sovereignty over their husbands, and to have power over them. Thus having been given the correct answer, the knight agrees to wed the hag. Here, though, the tale becomes far more interesting. The knight grants the hag the right to choose whether she was to be pretty but unfaithful, or ugly but loyal forever. It becomes obvious at this point that The Wife’s tale acts as a metaphor for The Wife herself. The first four husbands The Wife had did not offer The Wife the chance to decide her place in their marriage. Instead, beguiled by her beauty, the husbands each give up their material possessions in an attempt to basically bribe The Wife into loving them.

Because they did not give her a say in their marriage, The Wife instead wrests control from each in turn as punishment for their presumptive attitudes However, like the tale shows. The Wife finally married a man to whom she could properly respect. Like the knight in the tale, The Wife’s fifth husband offers not his land and money, but instead the right to hold control over their marriage. Having been granted not just material possessions, but true equality in their union, both The Wife and the hag of The Wife’s tale in turn grant their husbands the proper love and respect they deserved. Thus, the implied Chaucer makes it clear that The Wife desired nothing more than a true attachment to her husband, built on trust and equality, and would form this attachment with only those men who truly deserved it. Then, Tomei argues the implied author felt The Wife was far too bold and brazen with her words.

Her elaborate and incredibly sexual metaphors offered nothing but disrespect to time— honored establishments and ancient traditions. However, the implied author clearly intended something far deeper in meaning and intricacy than mere disrespect of the Church of England. While The Wife’s metaphors may appear to be coarse and inappropriate at first glance, a closer look at both the text and the time during which The Wife lived reveals a far greater truth. “I nyle envy no virginitee./ Lat hem be breed of pured whete-seed,/ And lat us wyves hoten barly-breed. And yet with barly—breed, Mark telle kan,/ Oure Lord Jhesu refreshed many a man,” claims The Wife in her prologuet At its very simplest, the metaphor refers to Christ’s feeding of the multitude with only a few loaves of bread and some fish, and how that was equivalent to sexual satisfaction If viewed this way, The Wife appears to be uncouth and blasphemous, insulting the very Son of God himself by comparing his acts to dirty sexual acts.

There is, however, much more to this seemingly heathenous statement than offered on the surface. During the time The Wife supposedly lived, much of the clergy was either corrupt, or inept, The Wife claims that Jesus Christ was able to satisfy the people with barley bread, which can be seen as both simple, poor man’s bread, or as simple, soul-sustaining wisdom, able to keep a man spiritually full just as bread makes a man physically full. Now, since the clergy of her day clearly were unable to offer this same spiritual satisfaction , who was really qualified to scold The Wife for merely following the command of the Lord himself? For humans were commanded to “be fruitful and increase in number”.

Because virgins are unable to follow such a command, obviously sex and thus sexual satisfaction must occur to follow God’s word Not only was The Wife showing her incredible knowledge of the Bible in her metaphor, she also shows a grasp of social problems present throughout the period, and has the linguistic ability to depict this pressing religious problem in simple, easy to understand words Finally, Tomei concludes by claiming The Wife is portrayed not as an independent woman disobeying social norms, but instead as a delusional woman subject to her own personal subjugation through her attempts to beguile her husbands. This claim, too, can be refuted simply by returning to the tale The Wife presents In The Wife’s tale, King Arthur agrees to “yaf hym to the queene, al at hir wille,/ To chese wheither she wolde hym save or spille”.

Note how the king, defender of the kingdom, justice, and everything good and valuable, gave his wife authority over the justice to be given to the offending knight. The tale then goes on to describe the wants and desires of women, and not men. The entire tale centers around breaking away from social norms, and providing women with power and authority. Thus, the implied author clearly uses The Wife’s tale as a way to signal to the reader, that yes. The Wife had broken from classical authority, and that he, the author, wholeheartedly approved while there were many arguments for why the implied Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales showed approval of The Wife of Bath, there is no possible way to truly ascertain his intent.

For every point that could be made in favor of approval, two or three could easily be made in favor of disapproval, and vice versa. Furthermore, no single point was firm enough to say definitively whether it was approval or disapproval of The Wife. The way the text was interpreted, and the argument made, could form vastly different opinions from the same few lines of The Canterbury Tales, In no way are the arguments of this essay completely accurate, just as Tomei’s essay arguing for Chaucer’s disapproval of The Wife is by no means a definite reason for why. The Wife is actually only a hussy. There is no right or wrong, but rather, strong and weak ways of interpreting the work of Chaucer.

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Chaucer's Approval of the Wife of Bath. (2023, Apr 20). Retrieved from

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