Romance, Satire, and Contradictions on Chaucer's Wife of Bath's Tale
Chaucer is known for being a breath of fresh air in the world of fourteenth century literature. He’s witty and humorous while tackling decidedly unfunny topics, such as rape or the corruption of religious figures. There’s a double dose of storytelling in his Canterbury Tales: both the pilgrims and the stories they tell provide entertainment for the reader.
The most important part of Canterbury Tales is that, once translated into Modern English, they are still relatable. Superficiality, lust, and greed, as well as the rest of the seven deadly sins, are interesting and easy for people to grasp at the same time. The Wife of Bath—an engrossing character on her own—tells of a knight in Arthurian times, who falls prey to lust and almost loses his life because of it, only to be given a second chance by the Queen to discover what women desire most in exchange for a pardon. It’s a romantic tale, with connections to the Wife of Bath’s character, heavy satire, and elements of the Breton Lais genre. The Wife of Bath is a character in the truest sense of the word.
Nothing about her is understated or demure. Somewhat deaf, skilled in making cloth, and constantly the center of attention, Chaucer makes sure that everything about her stands out. No one ever dared upstage her; her hose were red (a very suggestively passionate color), her garters were tight, her shoes new. Her face is also described as bold and handsome, if tinged slightly red, and she was a traveler, a wandered, accustomed to pilgrimages. Another thing she was accustomed to was marriage: she had been married five times, and found that it made her very wise on the topic of all things romantic, even if she deemed only her last marriage a success.
She was very fond of talking, and particularly so about romance. In the end of her tale, the knight marries the old hag—the knight considers it “such a torture that his wife looked foul” (l. 228)—who provided him with the answer to the Queen’s question, and learns to obey his wife, who transforms into a lovely maiden, living happily ever. It’s romantic, and it fits her perfectly in several ways. It’s possible that the Wife of Bath sees herself in the old hag, or at least wants others to see her that way. The hag, though aged, is able to transform herself into something vigorous and passionate and pleasing to her husband.
She enables her old hag, allowing her to take a bossy tone with her young husband when she commands him, “Do not rebuke my poverty again” (l. 353). In other ways, though, the tale is very contradictory. A story that essentially means to encourage women’s sovereignty over their husbands excuses a rapist; the knight is completely redeemed from his horrible act by submitting to his wife. And it is the Queen and her ladies who save the Knight from his execution, showing both the Queen’s power over the King and mystifying readers as to why she would want to save someone guilty of harming a defenseless girl. The defining characteristic of this tale, however, is romance—the Wife’s favorite thing to talk about, and, as such, her tale truly does suit her.
Chaucer also uses a heavy amount of satire in the Wife of Bath’s tale, particularly in regards to religious figures, and also to women. His great disdain for friars is obvious, and he describes most of them as rapists. The story is set during the times of King Arthur, but the Wife of Bath references her own time period, explaining the extinction of faeries because of the abundance of monks and friars. The once-feared incubi are gone, but the friars take their place. The incubi were terrifying because they were known to get their victims pregnant, but the arrival of the monks and friars marked their disappearance and so, the Wife of Bath says, “there is really no one else to hurt you, and he will do no more than take your virtue” (line 25-26).
The commentary is scathing on what is supposed to be a pure, holy group of individuals. The satire on women is far more playful, while mocking their inability to keep a secret. The Wife of Bath acknowledges this downfall humorously in her tale when she says, “Women conceal a thing? For Heaven’s sake” (l. 96)! Chaucer also pokes light fun at the knight’s situation, with the irony that a woman’s inability to keep a secret—long regarded as a tragic downfall—is the only thing that can save his life. The Wife of Bath’s tale is written in the genre of Breton Lais, known for having short, rhymed lines that recount a love story.
Defining characteristics are heavy use of mythology, the Celtic idea of faeries, lands of enchantment, and the elements. It originated in twelfth century France (it’s supposedly named after Marie de France, author of several lays and fables) and became extremely popular in the English language around the 13th century. Any Arthurian setting would fit in well with the Breton Lais genre, because of the prominence of supernatural elements during that time. The Wife of Bath’s tale starts off recounting the large population of faeries and mysterious things during the time of King Arthur. The old woman—most likely some sort of witch—transforming herself into a young maiden when it suited her is a fantasy element. Also, when he was returning, hopeless, to the castle for what he believed would be his execution; the knight comes across a circle of dancing, beautiful women.
When he approaches, the women disappear and only the old woman is left in their place. Presumably, the old woman had cast a spell to attract his attention—another fantasy element. The Wife of Bath’s tale is not very unique. The story of an old hag turning into a beautiful maiden to suit a man who has proved himself worthy is a rather well-known one. Normally, however, the moral of the story is that true beauty hides within. In her tale, though the Wife of Bath is really saying that men should listen to their wives, no matter what they look like—the other moral is just coincidence.
Chaucer, with all his satire, gives the Wife of Bath a story that is accented by her own character, and the point of her tale is very clear, as she pleads to God to, “cut short the lives/of those who won’t be governed by their wives” (l. 408).