Wyf of Bathe -
Attack on Women & Married Life?

Written by Yeo Siew Lian, 2A01B, August 1996.

Consider the view that the Wife of Bath's Prologue could be read as merely an attack on women and married life.

In view of the fact that the Wife of Bath herself does seem to behave in the manner women are accused of behaving by the anti-feminist writers, it is not impossible that the Wife of Bath's Prologue could be considered a vehicle for the anti-feminist message tick!under the guise of a seeming "feminist" exterior, since her confession is frequently self-incriminatingtick! (e.g. her treatment of her husbands, her tendency to "swere and lyen"tick!) and demonstrates the truth of the claims made by the anti-feminists even while she is disparaging them and making them look bad -- as in her claim tick!that anti-feminist writers (specifically the "clerks", i.e. learned scholars) are revenging themselves on women because of their own sexual impotence that prevents them from enjoying "Venus werkes", which is rather acute psychological analysis on her part, and extremely persuasive, until one remembers that the clerks are right about her at least, if not about other "wives".tick!

Her arguments in favour of marriage, though demonstrating a hearty common sense, are also suspect -- while it is true that marriage peoples the earth and replenishes existing stocks of "virginitee", her own marriages do not seem to have produced any offspringtick!, and while it may be "bet [...] to be wedded than to brinne", her marriages, despite her claim that "in wyfhod I wol use myn instrument", do not seem to have prevented her from "goon a-caterwaw[ing]" and by inference engaging in fornication ("I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun / But evere folwede myn appetit, / Al were he short, or long, or blak, or whit")tick! [good], which is after all what marriage was, according to her, supposed to prevent.

Moreover, from the account she gives of her marriages, it becomes increasingly obvious that marriage (with her, at least) is not quite so beneficial as one might think -- the only benefit the husbands get, in exchange for their "purgatorie", is that of her "bele chose" (which, it must be pointed out, they -- with the possible exception of Jankin, who satisfied her better than "bacon" -- have to share with other "good felawes"tick!), but it is worth observing that she never speaks of the sexual act as giving the male partner pleasure (except with regard to "daun Salomon" -- but she identifies with him rather than his wives: "As wolde God it were leveful unto me / To be refresshed half so ofte as he!")tick! -- on the contrary, she speaks of the husband's "dette" to his wife, of "How pitously a-night I made hem swinke!" and of "his tribulacion withal / Upon his flessh".tick!

Also, while she claims Biblical support for her views on marriage, the support that she cites is conveniently edited to suit her purposes (for example, Solomon did have 700 wives and 300 concubines -- but his appetites led to his turning away from Godtick!; and the marital relationship specified in the Bible is a reciprocal one rather than the one-sided one she speaks of, tilted in favour of the wife -- she conveniently ignores that while the "Apostel [...] / [...] bad oure housbondes for to love us weel", he also exhorts women to love their husbands)tick!, and she elsewhere ignores the Bible when it proves difficult to "glose" in her favour (as in her dismissal of its injunction tick! to dress "in habit maad with chastitee and shame"). Moreover, her behaviour is a demonstration of all the anti-feminist accusations that she (falsely) claims her husband/s of levelling at her (the ultimate irony, since she is proving the truth of these very accusations at the very time when she is making them up)tick!. She does dress gaily (cf. her stockings "of fyn scarlet reed") -- and probably for the same reasons that she goes "walkinge out by nighte", it is doubtful that she "abides" in "chastitee", she is devious and deceitful (making up the accusations in order to pre-empt any on the part of the husband/s)tick!, she is self-willed ("we wol ben at oure large"), and she is arguably like "bareyne lond" and "wilde fyr" (she has no children, and has "consumed" five husbands).tick!

However, to see the Wife of Bath's Prologue as being merely an anti-feminist/anti-marriage vehicle would be to ignore the frequent ambiguity that is displayed in the Prologue as the Wife charms tick! her way through her shameless and yet strangely winning confession (it should be noted that she is earlier described as having been "a worthy [Marker's Note] womman al hir live" in the General Prologue, despite her five "housbondes" and the knowledge that the narrator has of her "oother compaignye in youth", though he refrains from elaborating in his good-natured discretion); and it would have to be done at the cost of ignoring the extraordinary vigour tick! that Chaucer endows the Wife of Bath with; for while the text may seem to implicitly argue against women and marriage, it should nevertheless be noted that the Wife of Bath is not altogether as unattractive as might be the case had Chaucer intended to create a portrait in the manner of La Vieille in the Roman de la Rose.tick! tick! [good]

It is admittedly true that the Wife of Bath's opinions about women are suspiciously tick! similiar tick! to those of the anti-feminists. She claims that "half so boldely kan ther no other man / Swere and lyen, as a womman kan", and that for women, "Greet prees at market maketh deere ware, / And to greet cheep is holde at litel prys"; her own behaviour also follows the exact pattern as predicted by "Theofraste". However, the difference is that she takes pride tick!in her faults (e.g. "Deceite, weping, spinning God hath yive / To wommen kindely"tick!; and wives who are able to deceive their husbands ("Bere him on honde that the cow is wood") are, by her definition, "wys wives"tick!) and that her audacity is subversively tick!attractive, not least because of her cheerful energy tick!("jolitee") and conspiratorial tone tick!(e.g. her addressing of them as "Lordinges" tick!and her frankness with regard to her sexuality tick!)-- she cleverly presents herself in such a manner that her audience (pilgrims or readers) is manipulated into laughing with tick!her, whether at her outwitting her husbands or at her skill in obtaining "maistrie", and thus less inclined to pass moral judgement; her admitting to these faults is in itself already quite agreeable, not least in contrast to the hypocrisy of, for example, the Pardoner, who takes a high moral tone while attempting to fleece the pilgrims into buying bogus relics tick!tick! [good]. Also, her appeal to common sense and to "experience" as opposed to "auctoritee" (reinforced by the homely imagery -- e.g. that of the "breed of pure whete-seed" and "barly-breed" and her comparison of herself to "an hors" that "koude bite and whine" -- and her projected image as a simple ("sely"), practical, straightforward "wyf")tick!, while perhaps not always tenable when one looks closer, is nevertheless extremely congenial; and her claims are not all irrational -- as in her question as to the function of the "thinges smale" in the world of the "clerks" who advocate "virginitee" -- a question to which "auctoritee" has simply no answer.

As such, the Wife of Bath's Prologue is not "merely an attack on women and married life". It would be all to easy to let the Wife contradict her own arguments against the anti-feminists; but part of the extraordinary attractiveness of the Wife is that she does not try to hide her allegedly "feminine" faults, but good-humouredly tick!, even brazenly, confesses to them, and what is more, proceeds to be proud of them, thus pre-empting the anti-feminist faction -- rather as she pre-empts her husbands' accusations by being the first to level accusations. Also, the vigour of her discourse is such that her arguments sound convincing, and only fall apart (when they do) upon closer scrutiny -- hence the subversiveness of the text. Moreover, though the usual folk stereotypical anti-feminism is shown to be justified in at least her case, the absurdity of the more virulent breed of anti-feminism is made clear by Jankin's book tick!of "wikked wives", an erudite, if rather motley, collection of what are mostly homicidally-inclined females tick!(Clytemnestra, Livilla etc.) that he seems to regard, or at least claim to regard, as the norm tick!. As a result, the Wife of Bath's Prologue should not be dismissed simply as "merely an attack on women and married life"; there is much more ambiguity involved, and it would be inadvisable to ignore the fact that it is primarily a brilliant character-study of an individual rather than a didactical anti-feminist treatise in disguise.tick!

A. Well argued and aptly illustrated.

Marker's Note:  prominent (Chaucer makes a word like "worthy" or "good", as in "good felawe", rich with double meaning).

Related Essays

* Attack on Women & Married Life (E-Ching's),
* Anticlimax of the Tale

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