The Wife of Bath - Prologue

HideShow resource information

Chaucer's Motives

  • Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath as his mouthpiece to create a dichotomy between 'experience' (which the Wife claims to have in abundance' and 'auctoritee' (traditionally the Church wielded great authority and was almost as powerful as the government!) within his Medieval society.
  • In allowing a character, not least a woman and a bigamist, to openly criticise such an intergal part of society, it is unclear if Chaucer was condemning the anti-feminist tradition of the time or voicing a proto-feminist viewpoint.
  • The former seems more likely when we consider that the Wife justifies her entire argument for equality with extracts from the Bible, various anti-feminist writers and Jankin's book of 'wikked wyves'.
  • However, the 'maistrie' she gains in all of her marriages suggests that even if Chaucer was epitomising a lecherous and deceitful descendant of Eve, he still held her in regard as being a powerful and dominating individual.
1 of 4

The Wife, Marriage and the Church

  • The Wife is infuriated that the Church views her mulitple marriages as acts of bigamy because she did not remarry when any of her wealthy (and old) husbands were alive, but in each case waited until they had died (and gifted her all of their wealth and land).
  • The Wife viewed marraige as a predominantly economic arrangement, which is reflected in her description of sexual encounters with her various husbands:  when ready one of her husbands could"paye his dette" (153).
  • The Wife's contemptuous and satirical views of the Church could have been views also held by Chaucer, as several corrupted religious figures appear in the Canterbury Tales, and the greedy Pardoner and lusty Friar both interrupt the Wife's Prologue with their interjections: the former claims he "was aboute to wedde a wyf" (166) - despite his andogynous appearance and dubious sexuality, and the latter compains that the Wife's Prologue "is a long preamble of a tale!" (831)
  • Oddly, the description of the Wife from the General Prologue insinuates that she is a pious and devout pilgrim and churchgoer, yet this appears to be a matter of keeping up appearances as opposed to out of any religious feeling, as her criticisms suggest.
2 of 4

The Wife's Vulgarity

  • The Wife uses sexually explicit images to emphasise her:
    • confidence in herself and her assertions (regardless of her immorality)
    • lack of regard for the teachings of the Church on reticence and meekness
    • sexuality (she essentially uses her Prologue as an advertisement for any potential suitors with wealth, land and a willingness to give her 'maistrie')
  • Her ironic, and vulgar, rhetorical questions highlight flaws in the Church's teaching regarding chastity and virginity, flagging them up as outdated and poorly constructed. For instance, she asks how the Church expects to revere virginal young women "if  ther were no seed ysowe" (71). The Wife seems to relish making the clergy squirm with her overly suggestive language.
  • However, this vulgarity also undermines her argument for equality in marriage because she epitomises the anti-feminist tradition of women being lecherous, lustful, deceitful descendants of Eve.
3 of 4

Links To Other Tales

4 of 4


No comments have yet been made

Similar English Literature resources:

See all English Literature resources »See all The Canterbury Tales resources »