Transgression in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

Student Milly explores Chaucer’s presentation of transgression in The Wife of Bath, referring to two key passages.

In two passages, ll. 886-912 from the Tale and ll. 788-816 from the Prologue, Chaucer highlights the gender dynamics and gender politics that are present in his portrayal of transgression. These gender dynamics develop into the motivations behind transgression – a rebellion against authority is seen in the Prologue passage whereas the passage from the Tale highlights a thoughtless crime. Yet, despite the differing motivations, Chaucer highlights the presence of violence involved in transgression as well as the differing consequences of going against authority.

To begin with, it is important to note the gender politics inherent in Chaucer’s presentation of transgression. Indeed, while he presents the Wife to transgress in a manner which challenges patriarchal institutional control over women, the rape the knight commits becomes an issue surrounding gender dynamics as the Queen is presented as taking command of his life. Chaucer highlights that the king

‘…yaf him to the queene, al at hir wille,

To chese wheither she wolde save him or spille’.

The rhyming couplet found here creates a sense of finality and severity, particularly prominent considering that the knight’s life is involved. Chaucer highlights the inversion of power dynamics from the knight’s transgression, raping a woman, to the consequences of this violation, his life was placed into the hands of women. Indeed, the use of the word ‘al’, which is mirrored as the ‘queene and othere ladies’ begged the king to hand over the knight’s punishment to them, demonstrates how Chaucer presents gendered issues in transgression – the hyperbolic use of ‘al’ as well as the inclusion of multiple women protesting against the knight’s actions demonstrates that this is an instance of women exerting female power due to a male transgression.

However, the issue is made more complicated considering that Arthur ‘yaf’ the power over to the women and that the women had to ‘So longe preyeden’ the king in order to right this transgression. Thus, despite the initial display of female power in retaliation to male transgression, Chaucer thus highlights that women are thus still at the mercy of male power, the inclusion of ‘So longe’ highlights not only the male camaraderie present, but also the amount of effort that numerous women had to put in in order to gain power. Hence, Chaucer highlights that transgression is often a gendered issue, demonstrating that a male transgression and crime against women causes female protest, something which is mirrored in the passage from the Prologue.

Indeed, Chaucer demonstrates the gendered issues at present in relation to Jankyn’s transgression, where he hits the Wife, as the typical gender roles in marriage are reversed and Jankyn ‘yaf me al the bridel in myn hond’. The repeated use of the ’hond’ motif throughout the Prologue highlights who has the power in the relationship. Initially, Jankyn had the advantage seeing that the Wife was in Jankyn’s ‘hond’ yet Chaucer’s use of the motif here demonstrates how the situation has changed. The use of the word ‘bridel’ creates connotations of control in marriage, yet it is not the man who has it. Indeed, this creates a gendered issue in the aftermath of transgression seeing that women were viewed as property and domestic slaves in the aftermath of marriage. The Wife’s usurpation of this ideal would have shocked contemporary readers, adding to her presentation of the stereotypical over-assertive woman, arguably allowing Chaucer to criticise power in the hands of women. She subverts traditional gender roles which become restored at the end of the Tale and thus highlight how transgression involves gender dynamics and roles.

Furthermore, the motivations behind the transgression can be seen to differ between the two passages. The Wife, in the Prologue, is ultimately protesting against voices of authority that suppress her and all women – resulting in her transgression against Jankyn and his book. She describes his book as ‘cursed’, going out to rip three pages out and ‘took him on the cheke’. The action of her hitting him on the cheek is significant – Chaucer highlights that she attacks where Jankyn’s misogyny has been stemming from – his mouth. The vivacity of the Wife’s transgression, which is conveyed through the vitality of verbs such as ‘plight’ as well as the fact that she committed this crime ‘right as he radde’ (demonstrating this was not a passive but an active rebellion against authority), allows Chaucer aptly to display the motivations behind her transgression – the Wife is protesting against the patriarchal institutions such as the Church and male literature that presented women in a derogatory light. Anti-feminists might note that this is apparently embodied by St Paul’s statement that ‘the wife has not the power to her own body, but the husband’, though Paul does add in his First Letter to the Corinthians, ‘likewise also the wife unto the husband.’

Through the vivid and consistent descriptions of Jankyn’s anti-feminist stories in the previous passage, Chaucer is able to garner sympathy for the Wife, despite her stereotypical presentation, and the fact that the poem is written from a female perspective heightens the transgression as a rebellion against authority. An audience is able to sympathise with the Wife and admire her bravery, ultimately resulting in her transgression being seen as admirable. This differs markedly from the motivations behind the assault the knight commits. Indeed, the only line Chaucer uses to describe it is the simple ‘By verray force, he rafte hire maidenhed’. The brevity and lack of build-up contribute to the impression of the violence of the crime and reflect that this transgression cannot be justified, contrasting significantly to the Wife’s transgression. Indeed, this crudeness and lack of motivation behind this act is heightened when considering Arthurian values. The Arthurian court placed emphasis on chivalry and grace, something often mirrored in the quests members of his court went on. The fact that a knight, meant to uphold the values and order of the kingdom, would commit such an assault highlights the senseless nature of the transgression which allows Chaucer to not only create greater sympathy for the Wife’s transgression and women in general but create a striking contrast between the motivations behind the different transgressions in the two passages.

Regardless of the differing motivations behind the transgressions, Chaucer is able to highlight the inevitable presence of violence. Chaucer highlights the violence inherent in transgression through the lack of build-up to the rape which creates shock and repulsion in a reader – the knight’s transgression is thus depicted as a thoughtless, violent crime. Moreover, the inclusion of ‘verray’ and ‘rafte’ convey the severity and viciousness of the transgression, such passionate and evocative words allow Chaucer to do this effectively. In addition to this, the fact that the maiden still had her ‘maidenhed’ intact serves to further and heighten the shock and violence of the transgression. A contemporary audience would have understood that the girl was still “pure” and probably youthful – creating a stark contrast to the violation committed against her and thus aptly demonstrating the violence inherent in transgression. Indeed, this is arguably aptly seen in I Corinthians 7:28 which says ‘if a virgin marry, she hath not sinned’. This inextricably links sex to sinning, particularly prominent seeing that the maiden raped was almost certainly not married. A contemporary audience familiar with the teachings of the Bible would have understood the consequences of the knight’s actions immediately, accentuating the violence of his actions.

This is mirrored, although arguably to a less extreme extent, in the Prologue passage, as both the Wife and Jankyn use violence against each other in their transgressions. The vivacity and violence of Jankyn’s action is conveyed through the use of the word ‘stirte’, highlighting the ferocity with which he hits the Wife. Chaucer accentuates this through the devastating reaction that the Wife has to his punch: she ‘lay as (she) were deed’ due to its force. Hence, due to the Wife’s reaction to Jankyn’s violent transgression against her, Chaucer is able to highlight how violence is inherent in transgression.

However, the Wife’s depiction of this fight must be considered with regards to her role as the storyteller. Indeed, a reader is able to see throughout the text that Chaucer highlights that she is manipulative and prone to melodrama, and thus the extent of Jankyn’s violence might not be so extreme. Regardless, this violence is mirrored by the Wife as she ‘hitte him on the cheke’, not only creating violence but also making a political act since that this is the instrument with which he spouts his anti-feminist agenda. Although less attention is paid to the violence of the Wife and her transgression in terms of physical violence, the reference to her hitting him being brief and arguably brushed over, the ferocity with which she commits her original transgression is clear. Chaucer highlights that she ‘plight’ three pages out of Jankyn’s book ‘right as he radde’, demonstrating that the Wife’s crime is indeed meant to antagonise her husband – it is an active action of rebellion and violence against him and anti-feminist literature. Thus, Chaucer is able to highlight that no matter the motivations behind transgression, violence is inherent in the action committed.

Finally, it is also important to consider the differing consequences of the transgressions Chaucer presented – while Jankyn is given no choice in regards to the outcome of his transgression, the Tale‘s passage shows that the knight has a chance to redeem himself. Indeed, the knight’s life hangs on the ‘if’ that the queen presents to him. Chaucer’s manipulation of the typical Arthurian fairy tale presents differing portrayals of transgressions and makes the consequences all the more poignant. The repetition of the word ‘lyf’ in this passage highlights what is at stake for the knight, yet it also reminds a reader that he has a chance to gain his ‘lyf’ back. Unlike Jankyn, he is given a chance to redeem himself despite his transgression arguably being far worse.

The consequences Jankyn faces for his transgression make a stark contrast . He gave ‘the governance of hous and lond, / And of his tonge, and of his hond also’ to the Wife and the significance of this cannot be understated. Although the Wife says they worked together (‘selven two’) to come to this agreement, a reader might take this with a pinch of salt, considering the Wife’s narrative control. The subtleties of Chaucer’s presentation of the consequences of transgression are that Jankyn has forcibly had his freedom stripped away – the ‘tonge’ with which he talked of anti-feminist ideals is removed as well as the ‘hond’ that he used to strike the Wife. The legal language of ‘governance’ highlight the Wife’s complete control over Jankyn, something which contrasts to the consequences of the knight’s transgression.

Although the knight’s life is in the hands of the Queen, he is ultimately given a chance to right his wrongs, repairing the subversion of the patriarchal institutions that the Wife instilled at the end of the Prologue. Moreover, the reactions to the consequences of the transgressions are strikingly different: the knight is full of ‘Wo’ while Jankyn and the Wife appear to live in harmony for the first time in the Prologue (‘We fille accorded by us selven two’). Hence, Chaucer highlights that the knight is distraught by the consequences of his transgression; the use of the word ‘Wo’ draws back to the Wife’s initial ideas of ‘Wo’ and ‘sorwe’ in marriage, heightening the knight’s distress at the consequences of his actions.

By contrast, Jankyn seems perfectly content with the result of his transgression as the Wife goes unpunished for her revolt against authority and the patriarchal institutions. The fact that Chaucer presents the aftermath of this transgression as the only instance of harmony in marriage heightens the significance of his presentation of Jankyn as being content with the aftermath of his transgression, despite the lack of control and freedom he now has over his own life. Thus, a reader is able to see that Chaucer highlights differing responses to transgression from the perpetrators as well as those who mete out justice. While the Knight is distraught, despite having the chance to save himself, Jankyn appears content to have his freedom stripped away – although a reader must bear in mind the narrative control the Wife has over this presentation.

Overall, Chaucer presents transgression as inherently rooted in gender politics and dynamics as well as involving violence. This arguably serves to portray the extent of ferocity with which Chaucer challenges the patriarchal institutions in his text, perhaps following Wycliffe’s teachings against the Church’s control of women and the Bible through the character of the Wife, and the threat of this revolution against the established order. Yet, there are significant differences involving the motivations behind the transgressions presented – the Wife’s transgression is a rebellion against authority, while the knight’s, however, is a thoughtless and callous crime – as well as the differing reactions and consequences to this.


Read a sample essay on the Wife’s relationship with her first three husbands, focusing on two key passages.