An exploration of Chaucer’s presentation of the Wife’s first three marriages, with particular reference to two sections of her Prologue
Early on in the Prologue to her Tale, the Wife of Bath establishes that while two of her five husbands were ‘badde’, her first three ‘were goode’. However, it is difficult to use that adjective to describe her relationships with them, as presented by Chaucer in two key passages, ll.235-256 and ll.357-378. In the later passage, she recounts accusations made by her husbands, while in the earlier excerpt, his accusations are balanced by her own. Both passages exemplify the discordant relationships which Chaucer presents through the Wife’s energetic monologue.
The Wife begins her Prologue by acknowledging that she knows through ‘Experience’ of the ‘wo that is in mariage’, and while she refers to the first three husbands a ‘goode’, it is significant that both the passages begin with aggressive insults addressed to them: ‘Sire old fool’ in one and ‘Sire olde kaynard’ in the other. She also uses ‘olde lecchour’ and ‘thou verray knave’, maintaining a barrage of disrespect. These terms of address set the tone and with them, Chaucer establishes the domineering character of the Wife; she has not been submissive in her marriages and she is vigorous in holding forth about them to her fellow pilgrims on the journey to Canterbury. In telling the story of her life and marriages, Chaucer gives her by far the longest Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, an indicator of her confidence.
The lack of trust in the relationships is clear when the Wife accuses her husband of wanting ‘to spyen’ on her, which is matched by her conviction that she could deceive him: ‘Yet koude I make his berd’. While anti-feminist sentiment promoted the idea that woman was the source of discord in the world, following the Biblical precedent of Eve, Chaucer’s character argues against ‘auctoritee’ and her version of her relationships suggests that discord between the sexes is much more even-handed. The husband in the given passage seems to embody such anti-feminist thinking as he ‘preches’ that ‘an hateful wyf’ is one of the ‘meschances’ which ‘troublen al this erthe’, with the verb ‘prechestow’ implying religious confirmation of his ideas. Similarly, she accuses him of likening ‘eek wommenes love to helle’ and using ‘parables’ to do so. Again the religious terminology echoes a prevailing Christian view of women and their Edenic guilt through Eve, as stated in St Paul’s letter to Timothy: ‘And it was not Adam who was deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and broke God’s law.’ The final simile of this section, ‘right as wormes shende a tree, / Right so a wyf destroyeth hire housbonde’, presents this idea in a stark manner. Rather than marriage being mutually supportive and loving, the husband accuses women of being parasitic, destroying the man presented as a noble upstanding ‘tree’. A similar blaming of all women is apparent in the earlier passage, where ‘To wedde a povre woman’ is deemed ‘a greet mischief’, but it is also ‘tormentrie’ to marry a woman who is ‘fair’, with ‘tormentrie’ suggesting racking physical or mental pain. The clear implication is that marriage causes suffering for the man, whatever the woman. Such misogyny was typical of the Middle Ages, supported by religious scholars, and certainly to a modern audience, the Wife’s spirited rejection of such ideas from her own husbands is likely to draw sympathy.
The Wife accuses her husbands of saying these things: this worm simile is introduced with ‘Thou seyest’ and elsewhere in these extracts the Wife uses ‘Thou seydest’, ‘prechestow and seyst’, ‘Thou…/ prechest’, ‘Thou seist’, ‘Thanne seistow’, ‘Thou seyst’ and ‘Thou liknest’ twice. This is a rhetorical feature of this section of the Prologue, which contains repeated examples such as ‘Thou seist’, ‘seistow’, ‘Thow seist’ and ‘Thou seist also’. In this way, Chaucer present the vigour of the Wife’s discussion of her relationships but also creates an accusatory tone, nagging away at the hearers of the Prologue as well as at the husbands. It is also true that while the audience supposedly hears what the husbands ‘seist’, it is all within the frame of the Wife’s own narration; she controls what the audience understands of the husbands.
As Chaucer has the Wife construct such a picture of argumentative relationships, the reader might link the husband’s image of woman’s love being ‘bareyne lond’ with her own apparent childlessness and agree that a relationship with her could be like dealing with ‘wilde fyr’. The earlier section of the Prologue is consistent with this, initially featuring a number of jealous complaints by the Wife, comparing her apparent poor state with her ‘neighebores wyf’ who is ‘so gay’ and ‘is honoured overall ther she gooth’. Despite congratulating herself on gaining her husbands’ ‘lond’ and ‘tresoor’ earlier in the Prologue, here she feels hard done by. Chaucer compromises any possible moral high ground, however, by the Wife’s accusation that her husband is an ‘olde lecchour’, with ‘amorous’ designs on both the neighbour and their ‘mayde’. Such is the force of her insulting language, it becomes difficult to believe her counter claim that she visits her ‘freend’ at ‘his hous’ ‘Withouten gilt’. There are mutual questions of sexual fidelity here and again they are linked to the apparent frailty of women. While women’s beauty is highly prized, it is also distrusted. As the Wife’s husband says, ‘if that she be fair…/ She may no while in chastitee abyde’. While he does acknowledge the role of ‘every holour’ who ‘wol hire have’, the fault is attributed to the woman and her beauty, supported by the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘I found that some women are worse than death and are as dangerous as traps. Their love is like a net, and their arms hold men like chains. A man who pleases God will be saved from them, but a sinner will be caught by them.’
The Wife’s relationships with her first three ‘goode’ husbands are presented with constant disagreement, distrust and accusation. When she mentions that she was fist married at ‘twelve’, we are reminded that, in accordance with Medieval practice, these first marriages would have been arranged by her family to older men. The lack of mutuality and love might therefore come as little surprise and Chaucer may be presenting a woman who we are led to admire because of her vitality within the marriages and the vigorous humour of her narration of them.