The Wife of Bath is one of the most surprising and thought provoking pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales. Although Chaucer is the writer of her prologue and tale, it is appropriate to talk about the Wife of Bath as her own person and to view Chaucer as a medium. It is unclear whether Chaucer agreed with her views on women, yet he allowed this type of character a tale, giving rarely heard characters a voice. In a deeply patriarchal society, she advocates for women’s sovereignty in marriage. The most admirable aspect of her case is the cool method of reason she employs. The subordination of women in this period was largely due to certain parts of scripture. The Wife of Bath cleverly turns these writings on their heads, reinterpreting the words with precision and cleverness. She also plays upon the medieval stereotypes of women: their inability to reason, their incapability to keep a secret, in order to strengthen her argument. Instead of introducing new ideas, which would likely have immediately put her readers and listeners on the defensive, she utilizes the very societal views that have subordinated women to her advantage. The Wife of Bath chooses unlikely but nevertheless exceedingly effective sources in order to defend her own choices and advocate for the sovereignty of women in marriage. Despite her evident intelligence, The Wife of Bath seems to have committed a great folly by only seeking physical sources of pleasure and maintaining her outer beauty. She has failed to upkeep her soul by following simply the letter rather than the spirit of religious law. In several ways, The Wife of Bath asserts herself in medieval literature as an unprecedented advocate for women’s rights. However, she is also a deeply sinful character whose noble views are developed through selfish motives.
The Wife of Bath has had five legal husbands. She has waited for each to die and has promptly remarried. Though this certainly is not advisable behavior, the church allows it. She refers to the story of Jesus reprimanding the Samaritan woman for having five husbands, “Thou hast had…five husbands, and he whom now thou hast is not thy husband.” (219) The Wife of Bath denounces this text on the ground that it is confusing, “But what He meant by it I cannot say. All I ask is, why wasn’t the fifth man the lawful spouse of the Samaritan?” She raises another question in order to distract from the criticism of which she is also guilty. She then notes that there is no place in scripture that gives a number limit on spouses, “All my born days, I’ve never heard as yet of any given number or limit.” (219) She feels that it is unjust for others to frown on her numerous marriages because she has technically broken no law. “He named no figure, neither two nor eight—why should fold talk of it as a disgrace?” (220) She uses this uncertainty to her advantage by addressing a concrete and more easily interpreted piece of scripture, God’s demand in genesis, to “be fruitful, and multiply.” (Genesis 1:22) She claims Genesis is “A noble text, and one I understand!” (219)
The Wife of Bath cleverly points out the hypocrisy of people judging her marriages by referring to King Solomon who had countless wives. She also mentions Abraham and Jacob, two men who are very revered in the church who both had more than two wives. The Wife of Bath feels she is completely entitled to her five marriage, “Blessed be to God that I have married five~ Here’s to the sixth, whenever he turns up.” (220) She feels no shame because, as she points out, she is in good company. Because God did not expressly forbid multiple marriages, The Wife of Bath sees no problem in them. “Now can you tell me where, in any age, Almighty God explicitly forbade all marrying and giving in marriage? Answer me that!” (220) By omission The Wife of Bath claims there is implicit permission to marry as many husbands as she can, to follow his clear advice in Genesis, and to ignore the vague passage about the Samaritan woman.
Though certainly a woman is allowed to remarry after the death of her husband, the motives for remarriage seem less than holy. She does not view marriage as a sacramental binding of souls through God, but as an exchange of wealth, most commonly land or property for sex. Her first three husbands, who she claims were “good,” were old and wealthy. “The three good ones were very rich and old; but barely able, all the same, to hold to the terms of our covenant and contract.” (224) The Wife of Bath was not in love with any of these men, but used them as a means to accumulate wealth. “And I can tell you it meant nothing to me. They’d given me their land and property.” (224) It is therefore not the number of marriages, but the insincere nature of these unions that make her a sinner.
The cruel treatment of her first three husbands was appalling. She refers to her marriages as “covenant and contract” (224) implying that her marriage is both a covenant and a business deal. This dualistic nature insults the institution of marriage. Her older husbands married her because she was young and beautiful. She married them because they had money. The exchange of money and property for sex defines the “contract” of her marriages. Once married to her husbands, she was immediately owner of their property. Her side of the “contract” was not always upheld. She would manipulate her husbands, denying sex and only giving it for personal gain. “And they’d made over to me al their land, what point was there in taking pains to please, except for my advantage, or my ease?” (224) This manipulation of her husbands undermines the validity of her marriages. They become business transactions rather than a covenant between a loving couple and God.
The Wife of Bath’s fifth marriage differs from the first three due to her motives and the ensuing power struggle between her and her husband. Unlike her previous marriages, she is older than her husband. Her motives are for the first time love instead of money,” My fifth husband—may god bless his soul! Whom I took on for love, not for gold.” (232) In her old age, she plays a similar role as her first three husbands. Her husband, young and handsome, presumably married The Wife of Bath for her money. After he had gained her land and property he did not hesitate to restrict her behavior, “To him I gave all land and property, everything that I had inherited. But, later, I was very sorry for it—He wouldn’t let me do a thing I wanted!” (235) He even beat her horribly, “Though he’d beaten me on every bone, how quickly he could win my love again.” (232)
The reader may think that The Wife of Bath has gotten what she deserved, as she became like her previous husbands that she mistreated; however she does reverse her circumstances with this seeming impossible husband. Her husband frequently read an antifeminist text. When The Wife of Bath tears three pages out of this book her husband goes berserk, “And up he jumped just like a raging lion, and punched me with his fist upon the head till I fell on the floor and lay for dead.” (239) Instead of allowing her husband to gain sovereignty with his physical strength, she cleverly manipulates the situation to her advantage. By acting as though this beating will kill her, she fills her husband with fear and regret. After this episode, her husband grants her the power in her marriage, “He gave the reins to me, and to my hand not only management of house and land, but of his tongue, and also of his fist.” (239) Once she was granted power, she argues that peace ensued in her marriage. “From that day on we had no more debate.” By showing the results of this marriage, she shows that having women in power produces a natural equality.
In the medieval era it was considered proper and holy for widows to remain virgins. This is clearly not the course The Wife of Bath chose. While she acknowledges that virginity is indeed the holier vocation, “I’ve no hard feeling if Maidenhood be set above remarriage. Purity in body and in heart may please some.” (221) She does not apologize for not practicing this lifestyle, but argues that there is a place for remarriage in society, even if it is the less revered. She uses Christ as a model for men, showing that if women should all be virgins, like Mary, so should all men sell all of their belongings and give that money to the poor. Christ did not bid all men to do this, nor did he demand all women to remain virgins. “But Christ, of perfection the spring and well, did not bid everyone to go and sell all that he had, and give it to the poor, And thus to follow in his tracks.” (221) She knows that her way of life is not the holiest, however she argues that it is not a condemned life either. “I’ve no objection to virginity. Let them be loaves of purest sifted wheat, and let us wives called mere barley-bread, and yet as St. Mark tells us, when our Savior fed the multitude it was with barley bread.” (222) Wives, though they are not as holy as virgins, still play an essential role in God’s kingdom, the producers of new life. Somewhat ironically, there is no mention in The Wife of Bath’s tale of any children. It is impossible to tell certainly whether any of her five unions produced children, however the fact that she does not reveal that she was a mother in this argument suggests that she had no children.
The Wife of Bath also uses physiological evidence of human sexual organs as an argument that God intended for these organs to be used. “And tell me also, what was the intention in creating organs of generation, when man was made in so perfect a fashion? They were not made for nothing you can bet!” (222) She refuses to accept the assertion that these organs were created solely for urination and gender distinctions. “They were fashioned for both purposes, that’s to say, for a necessary function as much as for enjoyment in procreation wherein we do not displease God in heaven.” (222) She does quickly amend this statement by saying that just because one has sexual organs, they are not obliged to use them for procreation. “But I’m not saying everyone who’s got the kind of tackle I am talking of is bound to go and use it sexually. For then who’d bother about chastity? Christ was a virgin, though formed like a man, like many another saint since time began.” (222) Her acknowledgement that virginity is a holier calling than being a wife allows her to argue for the necessity of wives without appearing pompous and self-important.
The Wife of Bath cleverly uses existing stereotypes about women in medieval culture to argue for female sovereignty in marriage. In the medieval era, women were seen as incapable of reason. Ironically, with her very astute reasoning skills, The Wife of Bath allows this usually restricting view to provide wives with power. “One of us has got to knuckle under, And since man is a more rational a creature than woman is, it’s you who must forbear.” (230) She flatters men, claiming that they have superior reasoning skills, and uses sycophancy to sway her audience. By claiming men are more reasonable, she makes them think they should be willing to exercise patience with their unreasonable wives. If they deny this claim, they deny that they are reasonable. She cleverly traps men into granting their wives power with their own ego.
The actual Tale that The Wife of Bath tells is also an argument for the sovereignty of women in marriage. She tells the story of a knight who rapes a woman and is subsequently sentenced to death. In order to avoid this sentence he must discover “the thing that women most desire.” (241) He searches in vain for this piece of information until he comes upon an old hag who gives him the correct answer on the condition that he will do anything that she asks him after his life has been spared. He tells the court the thing women desire, “Women desire to have dominion over their husbands and their lovers too; they want to have mastery over them.” (245) His life is spared. The knight is quite pleased until the old hag demands that he marry her immediately. Because he gave his word to do whatever she wished, he marries her secretly. When she sees his displeasure with her age and appearance, she gives him a choice, “To have me old and ugly till I die, and to be to you a true and faithful wife, and never to displease you all my life; or else to have me beautiful and young. And take your chances with a crowd of men all flocking to the house because of me.” (249-250) The knight sees the wisdom of this woman and gives her the right to make the choice, “Choose either of the two; what pleases you is good enough for me.” (250) When the knight gives the old woman sovereignty in their marriage, she becomes both beautiful and faithful.
Possibly subconsciously, this hag could stand for the person The Wife of Bath wishes she could be and dreads to become. The hag is ugly and old, characteristics The Wife of Bath realizes she is developing. And yet, the hag is unselfish and wise, understanding virtue, while The Wife of Bath certainly does not. The fact that the Wife of Bath is on a pilgrimage, combined with the inclusion of a character like the hag in her tale suggests that she does want to repent for her sinful life. Indeed, she says in one of the few sincere lines of her prologue, “Alas, alas, that ever love was sin!” (234) Even though she feels some regret for her previous actions, she has no intent upon changing her method of living. She is now searching for a sixth husband to support her, even though she realizes her way of life is not holy. Though the Wife of Bath is an unprecedented advocate for medieval women’s rights, her moral flaws cannot be ignored. Her motives for speaking for women are not for the greater good of society, but to improve the ease and acceptability of her own life. The Wife of Bath is a literary character to be admired and revered in terms of her views and rhetorical skill. However, her lack of virtue undermines the reader’s respect for both her as a character, and the intelligent things that she has to say.