The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale by Chaucer:

The question of female sexuality

 Chanchal Chauhan


Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) is considered to be the father of English poetry. He is known for his famous poetical work, The Canterbury Tales that deals with almost all aspects of his contemporary society. The mercantile capitalism had given birth to a new age, the age of Enlightenment that was developing a sense of being critical of many feudal morals. There is a tale of the Wife of Bath; it has a prologue and then the tale. Basically, this tale has a central theme, centred on the views on marriage. Some critics feel that the views as expressed in both Prologue and Tale are those of the Wife. Some feel that they are also Chaucer's. He gives the views of other pilgrims also, but none can speak so convincingly as the Wife of Bath as her views seem to be based on her extensive personal experience, and this experience is the subject of her lengthy and chaotic Prologue. The vitality of Chaucer's portrait of the Wife, and the assurance he gives her in asserting the case for wives' mastery over their husbands indicate the progressive mind-set of a woman as against the conservative male dominance over their wives and gender bias.

Let us analyse the views of the Wife of Bath. First, she argues from the scripture and her own experience that marriage (despite the bitter experiences of her married life, to which she at once refers) is not that bad as is portrayed by religious leaders, and that successive marriages for those who are widowed are perfectly in order. She counters all the arguments against marriage (such as John's account of the wedding at Cana), and shows the contradictions in the scripture on the issue. She demonstrates how Biblical teaching is far from clear at certain sections, while others give support for polygamy. The Wife ignores the fact that the latter are all in the Old Testament. She shows how St. Paul, in I Corinthians, claims only to advise his followers and expressly states that the advice is no binding commandment. Elsewhere (conveniently ignoring the distinction between Old and New Testament) the Wife cites Biblical precedents for polygamy, beginning with the obscure Lamech, continuing with Abraham and Jacob, and, reaching ridiculous proportions with Solomon, who (though the Wife does not number them) had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (I Kings 11.3). In a humorous understatement the Wife refers to "wives mo than oon". Scripture, she says, gives no fast ruling on the matter.

Under the social pressure of her times she accepts that the married state may be inferior to the perfection of chastity, but courageously challenges those who impose the rule of virginity on women but do not demand perfection in other matters, such as giving away all one's wealth (which Christ commanded the rich young ruler). She indirectly suggests that those who take holy orders and prefer to be chaste have no principled stand to disapprove of her sexuality, when they are guilty of amassing wealth. Though she accepts that marriage may be less than perfect, the Wife maintains it to be an honourable institution. She likens it to household vessels of wood (as distinct from the golden vessels representing chastity) which can be clean and serviceable to the householder.

She knows the truth that the central feature of married life is sexual intercourse: she does not express any sense of guilt, rather speaks like a liberated woman of modern times when she says that she "wol use" her "instrument/As frely as" her "makere hath it sente", and that her husband will have it "bothe eve and morwe". She claims, on the authority of her husbands, to have "the beste quoniam mighte be" and admits that she can "noght withdrawe" her "chambre of Venus from a good felawe". She enjoys herself in such boasts, and takes great delight in recounting her demands of her first three husbands. She tells the fellow pilgrims: "Unnethe mighte they the statut holde". Her delight in forcing them as often as possible to give her sexual pleasure seems to have been inversely proportional to their capacity to do it. This view also suggests her dominance over her husbands and her own control on her sexuality.  Each of these three was, clearly, both "dettour" and "thrall", and the Wife tells her fellow pilgrims that, having already possessed their wealth and riches, she did not try to "do lenger diligence/To winne hir love".

The Wife is aware that in the age of mercantile capitalism, wealth is necessary for honour and status in society. So she plans to use marriage to secure material wealth and establish her own social status: from her account we know that her first four husbands were all rich men; at the juncture when she marries the "joly clerk, Jankin" she has acquired sufficient wealth and then she no longer needs to seek further material gain from the bond of marriage. Chaucer perhaps shows that at that stage the Wife lost her charm to entice a wealthy husband. Jankin's marrying her shows how the male also adopted the same course for getting wealthy as she did in her earlier marriages, she chose old husbands she knew that they would die soon and leave behind their wealth in her possession. Now the new partner accepts an older wife. Chaucer might be suggesting that the Wife's insatiable sexual desire could have led to the end of the first three husbands. The social consciousness of his time might be suggestive of a belief that too much sexual activity might exhaust a male and he might die soon. Jankin's early death may also be seen from this same perspective.  She enjoys life fully and also prides herself on her ability to secure "tresor" and "land", and on her charm to make her husbands bring her gifts and knick-knacks from fairs.

The Wife is a woman of practical wisdom who sees marriage as a source of sexual pleasure and also of material gain. She feels happy when she sees that she is far ahead of women of her own times: her desire is always to gain more than what others do. She reveals her mind that she had become used to this practice. She gives her hearers an example of the kind of verbal assault from which her husbands suffered. She used the main weapon for this, the weapon of complaint. She finds faults with her husband for innocent actions or trivial deeds and the wretched fellow surrenders. In keeping on the offensive she secures as much freedom as possible for herself.

Her bold steps on this are at its most extreme in her complaint of the ‘fals suspicion’ her husband (the fourth, evidently) has of Jankin. She complains ‘I wol him noght, though thou were dead tomorwe’. In fact, she woos Jankin before her husband's demise. She spends his funeral (when he obliges her by dying) admiring the shapely legs of Jankin, and marries her late husband's clerk at the earliest opportunity. Other methods of her winning battles with her spouses include withholding of sexual favours (line 315: ‘That oon thou shalt forgo’) though one presumes this was not directed against the first three husbands, who would have doubtless welcomed the respite; pretending to have lovers, making her fourth husband ‘a croce of the same wood’ as he had made her in taking a mistress; using her gossip, her niece or the maid as allies, and the telling of lies. The purpose of the Wife's attempts to get the better of her husbands, and the subject of her Tale, is a desire for complete dominance – ‘sovereinetee’ or ‘maistrie’ - in the relationship. She does not see marriage as an equal and loving partnership, and she can certainly not bear to be dominated by her husband. Only one of the two can dominate:

Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees
And sith a man is moore resonable
Than womman is, ye moste been suffrable

In the Tale, the universal concurrence of the women of Arthur's court, with the Fairy Wife's answer to the question, "What do women most desire?", is produced by the Wife of Bath as evidence that this desire is not peculiar to her. The subject of the Tale also suggests that dominance of the male over female had been a convention, and the Wife of Bath breaks it and succeeds in her three marriages, while in the fourth she feels pleasure in being dominated by her younger husband.

Paradoxically, the Wife shows, by the examples of her marriage to Jankin and of the knight and his spouse in the Tale that this sovereignty of wives over husbands is not only desired by wives, but desirable for husbands too. She tells her hearers how, having worn down the highly combative Jankin, she treated him well, and was "as kinde/As any wyf from Denmark unto Inde". Thereafter, her marriage to Jankin was blissful and exemplary.

Whether Jankin, who had to burn his beloved book, would have agreed with this judgment is questionable, but there is no doubt that the marriage was improved by Jankin's acceptance of his wife's sovereignty. The knight in the Tale is more apt to learn: having been persuaded of his wife's wisdom, he allows her to choose whether she should remain ugly and faithful, or become beautiful, with the risks involved in being beautiful. His giving her the choice prompts the question: "have I gete of yow maistrie?" and he accepts that she has, with the result that she becomes beautiful, remains true to him and both live "in parfit joye" ever after.

The Wife of Bath does not suggest that her experiments can lead to similar results nowadays, Her story is, after all, set in the age of rising mercantile capitalism when fertile imagination was shaping new ideas in every sphere of life. She does, nonetheless, suggest that to give sovereignty to wives is good for both partners in a marriage. However, a woman loves a manly partner who may dominate her and only then she may enjoy life as the Wife of Bath does with her fourth husband who dominates her in the same way as she did with her earlier husbands. Chaucer reflects the new reality that manifests itself in the social behaviour of people with the era of rising capitalism.